Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


A tribute to beta readers

tux-161439_1280Since the release of Freefall: A Divine Comedy, I’ve been asked numerous times at readings what inspires me during the process of writing a long narrative. How do I keep going in the face of years of revisions? This questioning caused me to review the notebook I kept during the writing of this novel, something I create with each book I write. The notes end up being almost as long as the work itself, allowing me to have conversations with myself about the project—what’s working and what isn’t.

I was surprised to discover that the seeds for Freefall were planted back in September 2000. I wrote a short story that featured what would become one of the characters and showed it to M., my husband, a 19thand 20thCentury American lit professor and my first and best reader. He thought the story could be the start of a novel based loosely on myself and three women I’d been close to in our late teens. On 9/6/00, I wrote: “I’m not sure that I want to spend much more time on it.  I’ve been trying to finish the short story so I could get on with my next novel. Is there a way I could incorporate this story into the next novel?”

I went ahead and wrote an opening to the novel and showed M. what I’d written. He was engaged and amused.  I wrote in my journal, “M.’s response gives me permission to continue, to dive in.  As he says, you don’t know what you’re going to discover when you start writing.  It’s true.”

Later in my notes, I commented that there’s a mystery for me, too, in writing this book.  Whatever Tillie (the main character) has repressed, the three other women can help her recover.  “That’s the question I’m asking too.  I’ll find it out along with the reader since I have no idea what it is.  And that’s one of the kicks in writing a novel.”

My notes also show the negatives that writers face during the process of constructing a story. I had times when I wasn’t able to make any progress and felt extremely critical of what I’d written. But when I reread the material, I realized it was “interesting and evocative and trying to get to something important. I’m judging it too soon and shutting myself down.” For those of you who are writers, this encounter with the inner critic will not be a surprise.

But most significant for me, and I think for most writers, was having my husband’s support, a critic whose views I could trust. In 2001, when I had completed a draft of Freefall: A Divine Comedy and was ready to send it out, I first asked M. to read it. He said, “It’s lively and funny but also serious. There’s a lot of wisdom in the narrative, yet it has the potential of being a richer, more serious book.  Push it farther.”

And I did dig in, spending several years exploring the characters more thoroughly, giving it the attention and depth it deserved. But without my first and best beta reader, I’m not sure Freefall would have found its place in the publishing world. I hope all of my fellow writers have such readers to turn to!







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