Dear Track Changes: Do I Have to Finish my Manuscript to Work with an Editor?

Dear Track Changes,

I’ve been working on the same half of a novel off and on for five years. Even worse, it’s the first half. I have a story I want to tell, but I just can’t over the hump to getting the opening of the novel where I want it so that I can even begin to think about how I’ll end it. At this point, I’m willing to admit I need help. Even though I think the idea is marketable, I understand that I’ll never be able to get an agent to work with me until I have a full draft, so I decided I would look into working with a freelance editor. Now I’m starting to find that they want a full manuscript too! What gives? Doesn’t it make sense to start trying to make my book better as early in the process as possible?

Thanks,
Ms. Partial

 

Dear Ms. Partial,

Let me give you an imaginary window into my work that repeats itself time and again. I’m editing a chapter, let’s say it’s part of a bodice-ripping romance (I don’t actually work on those very often, but work with me). Between lusty trysts, the main character is poaching an egg. The narration really goes in hard on that egg: we hear about the gathering bubbles in the pot, the sharp smell of the vinegar as it splashes into the water, the swish of the spoon as it makes a vortex to pour the egg into, the undulations of the white as they turn from slippery clear into a perfect translucence. Alarm bells are going off in my head. I’m writing writing nec? over and over again in the margins. I’m wondering if the author just craves recognition that they know how to poach an egg. I’m realizing I don’t know how to poach an egg, and I guess it’s ok to learn, but I don’t even like poached eggs. Finally, I just bite the bullet and cut the paragraphs. Get ‘em out. Move on.

But then, in the next chapter there is a scene with the main character’s lover where every element of poaching that egg comes back as a part of their elaborate lovemaking. It sounds gross, but it’s gorgeous on the page! I can’t believe it. I’m so touched. Maybe I do like poached eggs. Tail between my legs, I page back to the other section and delete my comments. I put the paragraphs back. I’m ashamed I ever doubted that egg scene.

If I hadn’t had that next chapter, I never would have known how poaching those eggs was going to pay off. That’s how it always goes when I have worked on partials—I make a suggestion, the author says “oh, but I’m planning on doing this in the next chapter,” and I say, “Oh, I see, that sounds fair.” Even if it doesn’t sound fair, who am I to judge writing that I haven’t read? If that author had said “oh, I can’t cut the egg poaching, it’s important to a sex scene I have planned in the next chapter,” I would have probably said “nah, that sounds gross,” the scene wouldn’t have been written, and the book would be worse for it.

To put it a more metaphysical way: no one in the world can write your book except for you. If I were working with you chapter to chapter, letting you know what I thought at every moment, the finished product wouldn’t be the same book that you would write on your own. Whatever your personal egg scene is, chances are it’s not something I would ever come up with. And if you have my voice in your ear the whole time, maybe you’ll never come up with it either. I know you’re arguing that working with an editor along the way would make the book better, but at this part of the process, I don’t think you need to worry so much about better.

Even if you know it’s not exactly how you want it, get it down on paper or into Microsoft Word. Then you can start worrying about making it better. And that part, I can help with!

Love,
Track changes

Ask Track Changes is written by our editor William Boggess, who doesn’t actually condone egg-based double entendre.

 

Send your question to Track Changes by emailing tc@nybookeditors.com.

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One Comment

George Pizzo

I once read from your site – – just write it. The original problem – half a book, can’t get over the hump. The writer knows where it’s going. Is the writer trying to edit and write it at the same time? Would outlining help him/her see where the story goes? My own writing I get the story down then edit for better words to paint an artistic picture but I just get it down. But I have never attempted a novel length story.

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