Sunday, September 30, 2007


Ask the Book Doctor

About Book Contracts and Slipstream
By Bobbie Christmas

Q: I know there are lots of books on this subject, but I was wondering if you could streamline it for me. When you are signing a book contract, especially as a first-time author, what are the germane things you should be on the lookout for?

A: Your best course is to run the contract by an entertainment attorney, but if you wish to bypass that step, here is a little layperson’s guidance.

Be careful what rights you are signing over and at what price. Only you can decide which rights you are willing to sell and for how much, but be sure not to sign all your rights away without knowing what you are doing. Some authors may warn you not to allow the publisher the right of first refusal on your next book or books, but others will say such a clause means only that the publisher must be willing to match an offer you may get elsewhere. The decision is personal.

Also be sure that the contract includes in writing what the publisher is going to do for you and by what date.

In the end, authors must decide which issues are worth fighting for. Authors and publishers should agree to a contract that gives the author some of the things he or she wants and gives the publisher some of the things it wants, without making anyone a fool or an enemy.

If the contract is with a subsidy or vanity press, the issues will be different. Be sure you know exactly what you are getting for your money and by what date the finished product will be produced.

Q: My writers association has a markets section in its newsletter that listed a market called The Edge that is looking for a type of work called “slipstream.” I have never heard of this. Do you know what it is?

A: By golly, I was stymied myself. I looked around on the Web and found the following information on the Wikipedia site, one of my favorite resources:

“Slipstream is a term for a style of fiction that pushes conventional genre boundaries and doesn't sit comfortably within the confines of either science fiction/fantasy, or mainstream literary fiction.

“The term slipstream in reference to literature was coined by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in an article originally published in SF Eye #5, July 1989. He says in part: ‘This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange.’ Slipstream fiction has been referred to as ‘the fiction of strangeness’ and falls into the gap between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction.”

Bobbie Christmas is the owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her Web site at, or e-mail her at Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her Web site and clicking on “Free Newsletter.”

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Ask the Book Doctor: About Avoiding Fraud and Finding Your Voice

Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Avoiding Fraud and Finding Your Voice

Q: I just read a news report that Laura Alpert, who writes under the name of JT LeRoy, has been found guilty of fraud. She called her book a novel, and she’s guilty of fraud? What do you think about that? Isn’t a novel fiction? Why must the author even be known?

A: An author’s real name doesn’t have to be known, but in this case Alpert was found to be a fraud, not because of her novel, but because of her attempts to pass it off as truth. She was not indicted for writing a book she sold as an autobiographical novel based on the life of male prostitute JT LeRoy, even though the implication was that it was true, but slightly fictionalized, and that fact turned out to be untrue.

Instead, she royally messed up when she sold the rights to a production company that planned to make a movie based on LeRoy's life (not necessarily based on her novel). The movie, then, was not planned as fiction, but as a documentary of a true life. In addition, she definitely committed fraud when she had friends dress up and pose as LeRoy at book signings and had them lie to journalists about having had sex at truck stops. The author herself even posed as a troubled teen when she called a psychiatrist, possibly another publicity stunt. All those efforts to legitimize something that was not true were, I’m sure, what convinced a jury that Alpert wasn’t simply the author of a novel; she was defrauding the public by implying that the novel was based on a true story, and she didn’t sell the novel to the production company; she sold them the rights to make a movie on LeRoy’s life, with the implication that it was real.

The moral of the story is that the truth may set you free, but a lie can get you thrown in jail, fined, or both.

Q: I have often heard people speak about the writer's voice. What exactly is it, and how can I find my own?

A: Voice applies to two potential ways of writing. You can use your own voice when you write a book or article, or you can narrate through a character’s voice, and the two voices often are quite different.

As far as finding your own voice, a quick answer came from a client of mine recently. When he talks, he has a quick sense of humor and uplifting spirit. He said to me, “I spent ten years looking for a voice, and then I discovered it was mine.”

Entire books have been written on voice, but in truth my client summed up the subject of author’s voice nicely. If you have a naturally pleasant way of conversing and you use correct grammar, all you have to do is let that style of speaking pour into your writing, and you’ll find your voice has been there all along. To hear voice at work in the writing of others, read anything by William Price Fox, Bill Bryson, or Pat Conroy.

To get an idea of how voice is used when a story is told through the voice of a character rather than in the voice of the author, read Catcher in the Rye or Sophie’s Choice.

Narrative voice is vital in contemporary literature. I often hear agents say they are looking for a fresh voice, which is another way of saying they are tired of reading manuscripts that are derivative of whatever is selling at the time. Don’t try to be another John Grisham, Stephen King, or Dean Koontz. Be yourself, and you’ll have a fresh voice.

The best way to find your own voice is to relax and write as if you were writing to your best friend. On the second or third draft you’ll want to address what we call “schoolgirl writing” by substituting dashes, exclamation marks, and parentheses with correct punctuation, but otherwise, you’ll find that you’re writing in your authentic voice. In your authentic voice you won’t stretch for words you wouldn’t say in conversation, and you won’t push to write long metaphors and similes that detract from your message. Relax; your voice is already with you!

Do you have a question for Bobbie Christmas, book doctor? For a personal response, E-mail Bobbie Christmas at

Bobbie Christmas is the owner of Zebra Communications, a literary services firm providing manuscript editing services to individuals and publishing houses since 1992. Contact her at 770-924-0528, visit her Web site at, or e-mail her at the address above. Be sure to sign up for the free Writers Network News by visiting her Web site and clicking on “Free Newsletter.”

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Friday, March 09, 2007


Ask The Book Doctor, Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Categorizing Manuscripts, Handling Pet Names and Terms of Endearment, Recommended Manuscript Lengths, and Hiring Practices!

By Bobbie Christmas, author of Write in Style, the triple-award-winning textbook on creative writing.

Q: I am writing a book proposal. How do I categorize my book beyond nonfiction? It is a family saga with issues related to custody, mental illness, individual challenges faced by two young boys and others, and the failure of social services agencies.

A: You are correct in thinking that your proposal will have to clearly define the label on the bookstore shelf where the book should be displayed. My first thoughts are to say that it falls under biography, relationships, and/or psychology, but to be sure, visit a bookstore, find other biographical books on relationships that deal with mental health issues, and see how those books are categorized. I think psychology may be the winner, because it's also a popular category, but to be sure, do your homework by visiting a store.

Q: How and when should one capitalize pet names used in dialogue? Not Fluffy or Rover-type pet names, but things like: dear, honey, sweetie, dear lady, kind sir, baby, babe, etc.

A: According to The Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition, which applies to book-length fiction and nonfiction, pet names are always lowercased. It gives this example: "Sorry, sweetheart."

This guideline goes against traditional wisdom, which says that if a term of endearment or pet name replaces a name, it should be capitalized.

Q: The length of my story is 162,000 words. If I trim the word count to 120,000 words, would that be of acceptable length for potential publication?

A: I always recommend staying between 50,000 to 100,000 words for a first novel, so 120,000 is pushing the envelope, but it may be okay if the novel warrants it. Literary Agent Susan Graham (About Words Agency) says that 120,000 is the maximum, but it's better if it's less, especially for first-time authors.

She continues: "What I always tell the author is this: Cut, edit, and shape the novel until it's in the best shape it can be in, and it almost always works out to be the right length. If it's still too long, get some advice on big things that can be cut to make it work, but sometimes it isn't possible. In fact, I prefer for authors to forget the word-length issue while editing and instead, focus on making it the best they can."

Q: I want to become a writer. What are some common hiring practices?

A: Because of the many ways writers can be employed, this question is too broad for a simple answer. I can answer only regarding the hiring I have done in my career. Back in the 1970s I was the news editor of a weekly newspaper, and many wannabe writers applied for work there. At first I interviewed each one, studied their portfolios, and spent a great deal of time with them. If I thought they had potential, I assigned a sample article.

To my dismay, most folks never turned in the assignment. I started a new technique. When people said they wanted to write for my paper, I did not waste any of my time; I simply assigned an article. I used the same subject ten or twelve times before someone would finally return with an article on deadline. Those were the people I hired. Perhaps the other folks needed someone standing over them cracking the whip and checking the clock. I needed people who could work independently and fulfill my needs.

Later I managed the communications department of a large construction firm, where my writers were expected to come to work each day and not be independent contractors. When I hired corporate communicators, I requested an interview and looked over their portfolios, no matter where they had been published. I looked for writers who could not only take an assignment and fulfill it, but they also had to project the right corporate image and fit in well with the rest of our team.

Hiring practices and requirements vary depending upon the company and whether you are expected to be in an office, in the field, or working from home. Find other writers doing the type of writing you would like to do and ask them how they got their jobs. Most will gladly tell you.


Do you have a question for the book doctor? For a personal response, ask Bobbie Christmas, a professional book editor. E-mail Bobbie Christmas at

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