This spring, I sent the vomit draft of my memoir to what I will call a “Book Doctor.” A trained specialist who came highly recommended. I wanted only the best for my book—at that point, an unedited compilation of two years of writing during my MFA, plus another year of essays written during a postgraduate mentorship.
I emailed the doctor in May, asking if she would take on a new patient. I felt there was something deeply wrong with the manuscript, I explained, but didn’t know what.
“Send me everything,” she said. “Partially written scenes, chapter ideas, older essays. Anything you think will help me analyze the challenge you’re facing.”
I felt completely vulnerable sending 72,000 unedited words to an editor with a stellar reputation. I was known for my diarrhea of the keyboard, sentences that never seemed to end.
And although I was happy with the book’s structure—each chapter a month of the year seen through the lens of my gardens on our fifth-generation family farm, grieving my father’s death and looking for signs of him throughout the seasons— I’d realized around the “January” chapter I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was trying to say.
“I’ll get back to you in six to eight weeks with a diagnosis,” the editor said. “In the meantime, keep working.”
Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.
So I dug into essays I wanted to submit but hadn’t had time, and began reading Dinty Moore’s The Story Cure.
About four weeks in, I emailed her. “Do you think it’s any good at all?”
How critical was the condition?
“There’s a lot of great material. I’ll be getting back to you soon.”
There was a pulse!
Four weeks later, I received a ten-page editorial letter, an eleven-page list of all the pertinent scenes in the book with locations and characters present, a word cloud picking up repeated words, and my full manuscript with over 200 comments. It was a lot to digest and the doctor suggested I let it absorb until we spoke in person.
I felt immediately relieved. My gut was right. I had lost the thread of the story, and the writing—good as it sometimes was—wasn’t strong enough to sustain an entire book. The doctor said some parts felt more like essays: many distinct repeating threads, but no single powerful throughline.
The doctor included a prescription:
“Read the editorial letter, and note places where you strongly agree or strongly disagree. Think about the story questions, and free-write about what story you want to tell. Keep that story in mind as you dive into structure. Using the list, cut the physical manuscript into scenes. You may find smaller scenes and flashbacks within scenes, and separate those out, too. Put everything in strict chronological order. Read through, and every time something duplicates something else, mark it. In each pile of duplicates, decide what makes the best telling of that incident. Retype the manuscript in chronological order using the sentences you are keeping and weaving in the material saved from stuff you’re ditching.”
Once those steps were completed, she recommended retyping the pages again, fixing technical issues along the way, then once more cutting it up and laying the pieces out on a table to figure out where I wanted to start. After moving things around until I found the right order of events—chronological or not—retype it yet again, fixing more technical issues as I typed, and so on.
So much for a simple dose of Pepto-Bismol for my diarrhea sentences.
After we spoke, I decided the plan would salvage enough material from the original manuscript to write the story I had really wanted to tell before my father passed away during my first semester of grad school: the one of how my husband and I, mid-life city dwellers, came to own our wonderful, 18th-century falling-down family farm where I spent my first twelve years—a deal Dad made possible for us in 1995.
If I hadn’t listened to my gut, I would still be reworking those first pages, getting more frustrated, maybe even letting them die a slow death. Exposing my writing warts and scabs wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. It was nothing the doctor hadn’t seen before—and, it turned out, nothing I couldn’t cure.
Author note: The “Book Doctor,” Allison K. Williams, is the Developmental Editor at The Unkind Editor, and can be reached by email at Allison@idowords.net.
Ryder Ziebarth received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016. She is the founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series of writing workshops. Her work has appeared in N Magazine, The New York Times, Brevity, Tiferet, and Assay, among other publications. Ryder works for the Nantucket Book Festival, in Nantucket, Ma., and is a former associate editor for Tiferet. She lives on Cedar Ridge Farm in rural New Jersey. @cedaridgewriter5
Leslie Knowlton says
This is wonderful! Thanks for letting us see the process.
Irene Hoge Smith says
Just came across this and loved it! Book doctoring at it’s best. You show, too, that the patient has to be ready to take advice. In my own experience, I’d really done all I could on my own and was ready to trust another expert. I love the very specific instructions this editor had. The writer has to trust the editor, and the editor has to earn that trust.