Last night the five of us ate dinner at my parents’ house, and both my parents commented again, as they have several times since Home is a Roof was published, at how different the book is from the manuscript they read early on.
“How many edits did you go through?” my dad asked.
Over the several years it has taken this book to be first lived, then journaled, shaped into a manuscript, and finally find its winding way through the process of finding an agent and a publisher, the edits are so numerous I could not put a number on them.
But Dad was insistent, so I finally said, “Somewhere between twenty and fifty edits.”
The conversation forced me to remember some of the revisions along this journey to publication. There were the edits that I did a day or two after initial piecing together a chapter. The Thesaurus function on my computer was my friend during those days. There were middle-of-the-night edits, when sentences that refused to be formed during the day suddenly broke through, and I walked through our dark apartment in search of pen and paper to write the words down before they vanished. Chris would wake up and find scraps of paper in the kitchen on top of the fridge with phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs written on them in somnolent, illegible handwriting.
Then there were full manuscript edits. There was the edit I did while reading the entire manuscript out loud. And the edit I did after reading Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Or the edit I did after reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Or the edit I did after reading Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style. There was the revision I did after letting the manuscript lay fallow for three months. There was the time I took my pin drive down Ying Sheng Road, printed off all 400 pages of manuscript, and carried it home so I could edit using a red pen on white pages with black print, and find things that eluded me when I stared at a blurry computer screen. There was the edit I did as I read the manuscript to my kids during evening story time. And the revision I did in the Bellingham library one summer while they attended a local vacation Bible school. There were edits to remove words that I relied on too much, such as “actually” or “but” or “virtually,” or to get rid of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs. There was the revision I did in Beijing after two rounds of passes by major publishers, when I felt I finally had put my finger on what was missing from the narrative arc.
It was the revisions that forced me to dig deep.
There were some chapters that emerged fully formed, and hardly required any editing at all. The last chapter, “Relationships” was like this. I wrote that in a somewhat smoky Internet café in Tai’an a few days after those events transpired, and it materialized nearly fully formed.
But then there was the first chapter, “Gate”, which is unrecognizable from my early efforts, and emerged as I struggled through the query process to articulate exactly what this book was truly about. I remember going on a long run through polluted Tai’an, and the exact moment of my long uphill trek home when that germinating seed finally burst through my subconscious.
Most descriptions of my husband Chris and our relationship came about through revisions. I had pages and pages filled with aspects of Chinese culture that I found fascinating, or interactions with my children I found frustrating. But I had no such source material for my relationship with Chris; I considered that aspect of my life rather normal and everyday, even mundane, not worth writing about. But my early readers, including my parents and my agent, felt something was missing. I’m now quite proud of how Chris emerged on the page. I think I captured the essence of his personality. My husband says the manuscript finally sold when it had “more Chris.”
At the end of each edit, I really thought I was finished. I had no idea of the revisions yet to come. But now as I’m finally holding the finished product in my hand, I know it has been cured through time, and I hope it is subtle and savory as a result.