Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s debut Fruit of the Drunken Tree comes out today. It is a beautiful, polished, and vital novel about two girls who grow up in Colombia during the time of Pablo Escobar. We are honored to be able to share this essay from Ingrid Rojas Contreras about how she edited her first novel by literally using scissors and tape. Check out the essay, and then go grab the debut from this talented author.
“For me, it took printing out the work, and using actual scissors and tape in order to be able to restructure the material. . . . when I first printed my novel out, I felt the weight in my hands. I felt the light strain on my bicep, the girth of the manuscript clenched between my fingers. I felt that if it was tangible then I could understand it.”
At some point when editing a novel, a very particular problem emerges from reading the same words for months, and then years—you arrive to a point where you can no longer parse out what was ever good about what you’ve written, let alone identify passages that need to be improved. It’s like living in a building with a noisy heater, which at some point your brain edits out. You lose the ability to really hear what you’ve written.
There were many times throughout the writing of my first novel that while I was trying to edit the work as a whole and see it critically, instead I’d become lulled by the familiar and predictable order of the strings of words, and then I’d get lost in the most minute insecurities.
In my case, I questioned my commas. I spent all my time exchanging them for periods, restructuring words so they could expand around shiny EM dashes, trying on the flair of parentheses, breaking up sentences, inserting semi-colons. Then, defeated and exhausted after a meaningless hour spent pecking at my work, I’d go back to the original comma.
On good days, I was able to work on what I was supposed to be doing: editing for the sake of the order of information. I constantly asked myself—how do I ground the reader, keep the tension up, develop the characters, set up the scene, and run an underground of themes? On my computer, at first, I was thankful for the endless combinations. The bulk of my writing day was reduced to the office work of pressing Control X for cutting and Control V pasting. This, as you can guess, was not working either. There were too many options, and all of them seemed arbitrary and meaningless.
For me, it took printing out the work, and using actual scissors and tape in order to be able to restructure the material. I knew that on my the computer my novel was 2.3 mb—a nebulous number! and as airy as the world of the internet itself. But when I first printed my novel out, I felt the weight in my hands. I felt the light strain on my bicep, the girth of the manuscript clenched between my fingers. I felt that if it was tangible then I could understand it.
With the manuscript before me, with scissors and tape, the editing finally became about the large strokes. The infinite possibilities of where a paragraph could go were still endless—don’t get me wrong, that didn’t change—but now if I wanted to see a possibility, it required actual effort.
If I wanted to move a paragraph, I would have to physically cut it out. I would have to cut the page where it was to go as well and then physically insert the paragraph between the pages and tape it down. If I made a mistake or changed my mind, I would have to spend the next minutes carefully peeling off the tape and changing the paragraph to a new location. Printing the work physically, allowed me to see the work anew.