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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14 Comments

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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Mathius

Every Author Must Finalize Their Own Story. Even Though The Wealthy Can Pay Someone Like A Ghostwriter To Do So, The Book Is Completed Before It Is Edited. This Way It’s Your Book, With Your Ideas, Then You Get Advise. You Are Not Looking For A Coauthor.

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Roddy Louther

Great advice beautifully illustrated!

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Judy Hamilton

First time writer who has lived around the globe. Of course I have a story inside me and want to pen a book to my friends and especially to my Grandgirls and guy

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Susi

Beautifully framed advice, William Boggess. Happy is the author who gets to work with such a wise, supportive editor!

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Mike

Pen to paper is the easiest part of writing. Writers get caught up mid-stream with all kinds of diversions, possible changes, and the need for immediate alterations before the story is half written. If that ever happened to you, welcome to the club of, “I lack confidence in myself.” Think of it this way: I know I can run a marathon but will I be the winner? It would be more fitting if you challenge yourself to finish the run. I have written five complete manuscripts in 12 years and have yet to win the marathon, but at least I completed the races.

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Ram

How sad it is you actually replied that to her!! She’s asking for help to finish the book and all you can say to her is to finish the book to get help?! What’s the sense in that? I hope she gets to read this: at this stage, what you need is a WRITING COACH, not an editor. A coach can help you get past the block you are experiencing and polish your ideas. There are plenty freelance coaches to work with, so do a bit of research and find one to suit your needs. Or maybe even join a local writing class and casually clarify your questions with the teacher.
In reality, you don’t even need to hire someone, but to study the craft a bit more. Maybe the issue is with your premise. Maybe it’s story structure(beats, 3 act structure, story grid etc) Maybe you need to check on genre specifics to see what your story needs. I recommend this book “Inmediate Fiction” by J. Clever. You will find lots of relevant advice there, including this: the end is on the beginning. If you don’t know how to end your story, it’s because you are not clear on its beginning.

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John

Very true Ram, very true!

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Will Gilmore

I have the same problem Ms. Partial has, however, my memoir is structured into Parts, I – IV covering the dynamics of a single major theme over a chronological period of nearly 70 years. I have a draft completed for all the parts (approx. 30,000 words each). Each reads like a short story. Would you suggest having an editor look at the parts as I complete a final self-edit or, once again, would it be better to wait until all 4 parts are finished? I’ve worked on this project, on and off, for near ten years. Thanks

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Savannah

Hi Will, as an editor and a book coach, here’s my two cents—you have at least three options. One, finish all four parts and find an editor to work with. Two, write a summary or outline of the fourth part and send that with the three finished parts. Three, work with a book coach who can meet you wherever you’re at in the process and give you guidance and feedback on your draft (how to make it stronger, and how to finish). I would also recommend checking out The Story Grid (website, book, and podcast) as they have some great resources for self editing. By the way, congrats on sticking with your story for 10 years! That’s dedication! Best of luck in finishing your memoir. You can do it!

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Beth Farmer

Good advise, entertainingly written.

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Andrea

Ignore the hump and start writing again just after it.
Around about then you will know why you have a hump.
It’s probably because you have a chunk of missing backstory. Or a cardboard character, or one of those other impediments to a richer story.
When you look back at the hump, and it’s regained its proper size, then you can see how to flatten it.
(In case Ms Partial is reading this page…)

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Ben Shipe

Writing the novel I found out was the easy part. Successfully marketing the book is the tough part. Due to modern technology (ebooks and PODs), there are thousands of new books available each week. While a professionally produced cover and formatting helps it’s still an uphill slog to sell a lot of books.
Read the statistics on what percentage of authors are killing it and how many have just sold to their friends and family before flatlining.
Finish the book it’s a great accomplishment. Write the book you know you want to produce and don’t over think it.

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Savannah

As a book coach, I work with many writers who have partial drafts. I meet the writer wherever they are in the process and help them get to “the end.” Not only that, but I use the writer’s WIP as a learning tool, teaching them how to become a better writer as they finish their draft. Point being—there IS help available for writers who need help starting or finishing a draft. Yes, only YOU can tell a story that is uniquely you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (or can’t) get help if you feel like you need it!

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