A Revision Story

The revisions for Soul Enchilada were similar to ones I’ve done on novels in the past. Every novelist who has written a book that didn’t sell knows the feeling of changing a novel in response to an encouraging but “not quite” rejection. The same is true of working from critiques by your crit group. The difference between this revision and others was the reality that the words in the manuscript are the words that will be in a book with my name on it in a few months. I’ve been writing to make a sale, not necessarily to make a book. The difference in intent made the difference in the mindset I had for this revision.

The notes arrived from Amazing Editor V. on March 4th via the iconic brown truck. AEV’s editorial letter was brief. She addressed some global issues that she’d marked on the pages of the ms. She also included pages of questions that AE M. and AE S. had. There were dozens of questions, all of them excellent, all of them scary.

Pass #1:
The styles of the editors was obvious from looking at the questions. One editor asked broader questions. The other made very specific suggestions about plot, sub-text, and world-building. Both styles were interesting and both were intimidating. I held their ideas in mind as I worked through the line edits, which honestly, were light. At the time, I thought it was because the text didn’t need so much work. Soon, I realized how foolish that first thought was. The edits were light in some places because those places, which I began to call ‘soft spots,’ needed to be cut or completely recast.

Pass #2:
I concentrated on the line edits. I highlighted all of the copy edits, as well as the comments by AEV. Any page without comments got checked off. I put small sticky notes the pages that needed work.

Pass #3:
On this pass I decided to respond to the copy edits. I had been awhile since I looked at the text, and I needed to get back into the flow of the narrative beyond reading it. When I was able to satisfactorily fix any small problems, I checked off the pages and removed the sticky note tab.

Pass #4:
By now, there were about fifty pages needing work. Some of the fixes were simple. Rearrange a paragraph for clarity. Delete a troublesome passage and knit the scene back together. Check page off. Pull stick tab. Move on.

Pass #5:
The remaining sticky-tabbed pages needed serious work, so I decided it was time to respond to the questions from AEM and AES. As with AEV line edits, some of the questions were easily addressed. A change in a sentence here, a deletion of extraneous information there, and I could cross them out.

Pass #6:
But not all of the questions were easily answered, so I decided to rewrite passages in order to integrate the information more seamlessly or more obvious, depending what was needed. At the end of this pass, about 90% of the questions were answered.

Passes #7a, 7b, and 8:
What remained of AEM and AES’s questions weren’t really questions. They were things such as “Can we see more of X’s job?” The only answer that doesn’t require a lot of work is, no, you can’t, which would be an incredibly stupid response. This pass took the longest time, several days, because I had to write three new scenes to show X’s job. The scenes then had to be woven into the narrative and then edited for voice. Crating these scenes answer all but two of the questions. I didn’t answer them because they moot: I’d deleted the offending passages to make room for the new scenes.

Pass #9:
I returned to AEV’s notes and global concerns. She had identified several soft spots in the text where the action slowed or characters misbehaved. I cleaned those out and ended up rewriting a whole chapter.

Pass #10:
AEV noted that the second part of the novel had less sensory texture than the first. I had stripped some of the texture out in early drafts because the males who read the novel complained that the action slowed too much at the climax. I put those sight, sound, and smell details back in. To add more, I went to the local supermercado to do some research on tastes and smell. I walked out with pages of notes, bags of dried spearmint and hibiscus flowers, a colatino (coconut milk and pulp), and a lot of blank stares. I was also inspired by the great memories of my critique partners, Linda and Jules.

Pass #11:
Copy-editing and shaping. I reordered chapters and combined others.

Pass #12:
Copy-editing while letting the computer read the text aloud. It was very effective until Microsoft Sam’s droning voice put me to sleep. Also made notes on dangling or contradictory plot points.

Pass #13:
Fact-checking and plot details pass. I inserted 34 plot points I’d overlooked.

Pass #14:
A final copy-edit and polishing. Half-way through, I began to fear that I was cleaning up my first person-narrator’s rough edges too much and decided to finish with a light copyedit.

Pass #15:
I passed the manuscript on to AEV via email. I was sorry to see my little manuscript go.

Before I received any notes, I told AEV that I loved to revise. After this process, I understand better why. Writing a first draft creates a sense of euphoria for me. I get a sustained rush learning about new characters, exploring new settings, and thinking of really bad puns that never get past the third edits. Well, some do. But the creation of a first draft has a dark side. While I’m drafting, I wonder if the germ of a story can sustain itself for 300 pages. Can the main character become and remain someone I admire and like? Will I be able to find a fresh way of saying things? Can I increase tension and stakes? Will I ever stop overusing metaphors? A deep revision like this one uncorks the feelings of euphoria that were bottled up after the first draft. I wake up ready to dig into the text. I go to bed with possibilities swarming in my mind. I wake up five hours later ready to go again. But because I know someone likes the story, because I know for certain it will sustain 300 pages, and because I adore the main character and love having her around, the experience is more delightful.

And then, like a great sugar high, it comes to an end.

So Soul Enchilada is back with its editors. The gears turn at the desks of the book makers, while the writer starts the neglected laundry, speaks to the attention-starved children, cleans the grungy bathroom, and goes in search of a bowl of praline pecan ice cream and a really big spoon.

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PS. Here are some photos of the process. I blurred the text to keep evil spammers from indexing the drafts.

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AEV’s note on the manuscript. The comment about needing for setting turned this page into four pages.

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After Pass # 9. This is a combination of my notes over AEV’s notes. There are four colors of ink on the page. I think I worked on this sequence five times before it felt right.

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Brainstorming for Pass #10. I started with a long list of possible details. A half dozen made it to the text.. Only three survived copyediting.

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This is the fiesta scene after the Microsoft Sam reading. Because it was the last scene I revised, it required more shaping.

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This is the second page of the revised fiesta scene. I put many details back into the text here and added many sensory details. I took some of them out on the last pass because I felt the action slowing.

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After the last pass: This is the current state of the manuscript. You can’t read it well, but I think the page only has one line from the version AEV returned.

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None of this was in the version AEV returned.

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This photo shows how I often revert to my comic book past to block out the physical movement of a scene. I followed this badly drawn spread by writing the scene in screenplay format. I added the dialogue, scene texture, and interior monologue afterwards. This is not the way I normally draft, unless I’m having trouble visualizing a scene. I know, you are totally in awe of my mad drawing skillz.

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