Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Q & A workshop


Q. A literary agent I found wants to charge me a fee for “office expenses.” Should I trust him?

A. In a word, no. A fee is a fee is a fee, no matter what euphemisms try to hide it. The fact is, real literary agencies, particularly those that belong to the AAR (the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.), do not charge fees of any kind for anything, because they make money selling books to publishing houses, and office expenses are part of the cost of doing business. All business expenses should be absorbed by the agent’s 15 percent commission income. Agencies that make few sales have to nick the writer for expense money because their commissions aren’t enough to keep them afloat. Even worse, some of these fly-by-nighters have never sold a book. They make a living from the fees they collect from unsuspecting writers. Steer clear of any agency that asks you for money.


Q. At times in my book I have used four-letter words. Is this going to hurt the book or in some way eliminate it from certain locations on the shelf?

A. First, you’ll have to go with your gut reaction. Does this language offend you? Would you be ashamed to have your mother read it? You don’t have to be concerned about censorship by bookstores. They don’t have a back room with a sign on the door reading “Books With Dirty Words.” I don’t think you need to worry about this issue, even if your mother doesn’t like certain words. Most readers today aren’t offended by much of anything. Unless your text is peppered with those formerly forbidden words like the speech of some comedians these days, I don’t think anybody will even blink.


Q. What gives a novel what I guess you could call "energy"?

A. Plot and story drive the short story; character drives the novel; dialogue drives the play; and character and plot drive the film. Can a novel also be “dialogue-driven” or dialogue heavy? Yes, of course, if it works for that story and that set of characters. A novel can be written any number of ways. You could, for instance, write the whole thing in the second person if you want to, although finding an audience will no doubt be difficult. Or you could write a novel as a series of letters exchanged by two or more people (the epistolary novel). All such decisions must be made by the novelist—with one eye always on the marketplace.


Q. How much dialogue do I need?

A. Many writers have asked me this question. Some people recommend fifty percent; others say about thirty percent. That can be misleading, however. The amount of dialogue a writer uses will vary, of course, from story to story and from scene to scene. In practice, the writer will adjust the percentages according to the demands of his story; thus, the ratio of dialogue to narrative will depend a great deal on the writer’s level of experience and instincts, as well as the needs of the story.


I would never suggest that you try hitting a ratio of 50/50 or 60/40 or 70/30. That’s too artificial and restricted for the novel form, which tends to be fluid, not concrete. Dialogue has a number of important jobs to do, including its principle functions of advancing the plot and expressing character. The writer will switch to dialogue when the story demands it, when it calls for it to enhance what is going on. Some scenes will call for less talk and more action; others will call for just the opposite. When two or more people come in contact, they will usually speak—always within the context of the story and according to the nature of your fictional people. Some people are blabbermouths; others are taciturn. Most are somewhere in between.


Tip: Keep in mind that your characters, generally speaking, should be under- instead of over-articulate, struggling to express themselves adequately, as most of us do. Also beware of idle dialogue that serves no real purpose and contains no conflict and tension. If somebody has nothing of importance or interest to say, then don’t let him say it. Furthermore, sometimes you should use summary dialogue, which is dialogue offered through narration, with the content of the dialogue summarized. This is what you do when one character has to tell another character things that the reader already knows.


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