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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ask the Book Doctor about Sentences that Deserve Restructuring

Q: I'm writing a short story, and I need help with a sentence. Are any of the following versions I wrote okay?

1. That resulted in a fall in which she fractured her pelvis.

2. That resulted in a fall in which her pelvis was fractured.

3. That resulted in a fall that fractured her pelvis.

Here is the sentence that comes before the other sentence, in case you need to see that one too: She hesitantly took the pills, but they made her very dizzy.
A: I'm glad you sent the prior sentence, because my answer will not be as straightforward as you may have hoped. The word "that," when used as a pronoun, should refer to a noun, rather than a concept, so all the examples are incorrect. The full statement would be more understandable if the preceding sentence were linked with one of the example sentences, but the result would be awkward, such as this compound sentence: She hesitantly took the pills, but they made her very dizzy, which resulted in a fall in which she fractured her pelvis. Okay, obviously that sentence is not only cumbersome, but it also contains two uses of "which," and repetition is not recommended in creative writing. Obviously it's time to look for a more creative approach, but before we do so, let me point out that example number two, "her pelvis was fractured," is passive, and strong writers avoid using passive voice.  

Instead of trying to find the right words for the same sentence structure, recast the entire statement in a clearer, more creative way. Consider, for example, the following rewrite:

She hesitantly took the pills, but she grew dizzy, fell, and fractured her pelvis.

The rewrite uses active voice and is clear, direct, and tight. You may think of an even better way to recast the two sentences, but they definitely need restructuring.

Q: Understanding that a pronoun refers to the noun before the pronoun, I want the pronoun "their" to refer to "doctor," not "specialist," in the following sentence:

Has your doctor suggested you see the specialist who comes into their office? 

I tried rewording the sentence, but I run into the same issue. Any suggestions?

A: One problem is that "their" is a plural pronoun, whereas "doctor" and "specialist" are both singular nouns, so my response will not have "their" in it. I would also break it into two sentences. Here's how I would reword the passage for clarity:

Sometimes specialists come into a second doctor's office to see the second doctor's patients. Has your doctor suggested you see such a specialist?

Q: Is there a question mark after the following sentence? "If you did, will you let me know, because I will be waiting to hear from you."

A: Because the sentence is both a statement and a question, it is a good sentence to recast, rather than attempt to fix with punctuation. Recast it to something like this, and there's no problem: "If you did, please let me know, because I will be waiting to hear from you." Here's another alternative: "If you did, will you let me know? I'll be waiting to hear from you."

Q: If I wanted to use the plural of "yes" in a book title, how should it look? "Yeses" looks likes a foreign word. HELP!

A: Your question about the plural of "yes" is a prime example of a time when it's better to rewrite the sentence than to use odd words. Instead of this sentence: "All the yeses added up to one hundred," consider this one: "The yes votes added up to one hundred." Recast the book title and see if "yes" can stand alone without making it plural.

Q: Where do you stand on split infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions?

A: Editors have relaxed their stand on those issues, because the “rules” were leftovers from Latin and do not always apply to English. As a source, I point to Winston Churchill. Supposedly an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it with a preposition, and the prime minister scribbled the following note in reply: “That is the sort of editing up with which I will not put.”

I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that strong writers recast awkward sentences to avoid split infinitives or ending sentences with a preposition. Doing so almost always improves the writing style.

To read more questions and answers, order the book Ask the Book Doctor: How to Beat the Competition and Sell Your Writing at

 Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Caveat Emptor!

Caveat emptor! Buyer beware! Oh, I know, writers are sellers, not buyers, but we also do buy services to help us get published or to help us market our books. Whether we are buyers are sellers, though, we must perform our due diligence.
Recently I received the following e-mail from a member of The Writers Network:

You once mentioned in your newsletter that Tell-Tale Publishing was looking for novels of historical fiction. My third book is called 'Mate!, a contraction of Checkmate!, what chess players say when an opponent's king is toppled, thus ending the game. It's a story about how the assassination of Lincoln is tied to Stonewall Jackson's untimely demise from (supposedly) friendly fire.
In any event, I sent the manuscript off to Tell-Tale Publishing, and it was accepted back in 2010. Its CEO, Elizabeth Fortin, sent me an advance of $25 and handed the book over to an editor. After two years of silence, I wrote to her and suggested she forget it. I returned the advance.
I am writing to you because I think this is something you should know and should not hype companies like Tell-Tale Publishing. My first novel, The Better Angels, was publishd in 2000. It was a delightful experience.

--Bob Mills

I wrote back to Bob and said I can't and don't perform due diligence on every lead I put in my newsletter. I get many leads from, for example, and it supposedly checks out its sources, but who knows? At the bottom of every one of my newsletters, I have the following warning: "With the exception of Zebra Communications, information in this newsletter is not to be construed as an endorsement. Be sure to research all information and study every stipulation before you accept assignments, spend money, or sell your work."
It's always the writer's job to check out sources, publishers, agents, editors, and others, but even after thoroughly checking these things, stuff sometimes happens to disappoint us. About ten years ago, for example, a respectable publisher in California bought two books from people I knew in Georgia. One author had a rewarding experience, won many prestigious awards with her book, and sold many copies. The other author had complaint after complaint about the publisher. His book never won anything, and sales were slow. He finally demanded and received his rights back. I might note that I read both books, and the first author's book was considerably better than the second author's book. In my opinion, author number two was fortunate to find a publisher at all, but obviously the publisher originally had faith in the book. How odd, though, that two authors had completely differing experiences with the same publisher!
In our world, it's always essential that we investigate the people who make us offers on our books, and then we have to be patient, compliant, helpful, and kind. In the end, we have to be a little lucky, too.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Astrology: Can It Affect Writing?

One of my clients sent his manuscript last month and insisted that I return the edited version before Mercury went retrograde February 23. Thankfully for him, I knew what he was talking about, and I believed it enough to comply with his request.

 For the astrology newbies, I'll do the best to explain as best I understand it. Astrologers say that the planet Mercury is retrograde after it reaches a pinnacle and then appears to be going backward in the sky. It's an illusion to the eye; however, the results, astrologers say, are far from an illusion. Things related to communication and transportation, they say, go wonky when Mercury is retrograde. Because writers deal with communication, perhaps we should pay attention.

When I first heard of the concept twenty years ago, I laughed. What a silly notion! My education began when a friend chastised me for installing a new sound system in my car during Mercury retrograde. She said I would have a double whammy, considering that Mercury retrograde affects both communication (radio/stereo) and transportation (car). I shrugged and said I didn't believe in that silly stuff. The next thing I knew, one of my brand-new speakers blew, and before I could have the speaker repaired, the radio stopped working altogether. Humbled, I waited until Mercury went direct, returned to the audio shop, had an all-new system installed, and it's still working today, twenty years later, in a car that is twenty-three years old. 

After the car radio incident, I paid more attention to Mercury retrogrades. Have you ever mailed a letter that never arrived? Failed to receive an e-mail someone said he sent you? Worse, have you ever shipped off a query letter, proposal, or manuscript and never heard from the recipient? These sorts of things happen during Mercury retrograde. To be sure, they also happen at other times of the year, but the one thing I follow to the letter is that I never submit work during Mercury retrograde. I believe it is more likely to get lost or rejected during that period.  

Mercury goes retrograde several times a year, and writers especially would do well to be aware that our writing could be affected. It's a great time to produce, to write from the heart, but not a good time to communicate information to someone else. We must be more meticulous about communication during that time. 

Here's what The Old Farmer's Almanac (and who can argue with that authority, I ask with a smile) says on the subject:

"Sometimes planets appear to be traveling backward through the zodiac; this is an illusion. We can this illusion retrograde motion.

"Mercury's retrograde periods can cause our plans to go awry; however, this is an excellent time to reflect on the past. Intuition is high during these periods, and coincidences can be extraordinary."

If you'd like to be more aware of Mercury retrograde and see how (and if) it affects your communications and transportation, Mercury will be retrograde during the following dates:

February 23 - March 17

June 26 - July 20

October 21 - November 10

By the way, I did not heed my own warning and recently queried an agent during Mercury retrograde. So far I have received only an automated message saying she received the query, and if I don't hear from her in the next two weeks, she's not interested. We'll see what happens.
Once you become familiar with Mercury retrograde, or if you are already familiar with it, send me an e-mail relating your retrograde experiences related to writing.