Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Giving Birth to a Novel and to Myself

FreefallThe publishing date for Freefall: A Divine Comedy draws nearer (1/1/19), and a few days ago, my advanced review copies (ARCs) arrived after the drafts went through several final editings. Since the novel had already gone through numerous versions, the editing at the end was light, mainly copy-editing problems.

But the road to this moment has been a long one. When I reviewed my notes for Freefall (I keep a working journal for each novel I write), I was amazed to discover I began it in September of 2000. I was inspired by a visit I had made to see an old friend from the late 1950s at one of her homes in Whistler, B.C.. Another old friend from that time had joined us, a woman I later tried to write a short story about. My husband,  who has a Ph.D in 19th & 20th Century American Lit, as well as being a Joyce scholar, read a draft of that piece and was intrigued, but he thought it could be a novel.

At that time, I hadn’t written a novel, so I didn’t have much confidence to try this genre. I also wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that much time investigating characters based on friends from my late teens. We had called ourselves then the “Big Four” and had moved to Toronto together, where we lived for two years. As my notes indicate, “I’m back and forth about whether I really want to write about the Big Four or if I should be tackling something else. I’m afraid it won’t be interesting enough, that it’s been done. What can I bring to it that’s new?”

A few weeks later, I showed my husband the opening pages of what later became Freefall. He was fully engaged and amused by their contents. His positive response gave me permission to continue—to dive in.  As he pointed out, “You don’t know what you’re going to discover when you start writing.” It’s true.

In the process of writing these early novels—Fling! and Freefall—I discovered how stories and characters unfold for me. In each case, the characters’ characteristics and personalities slowly revealed themselves. In the process of writing, these things happen. I learned day to day what I needed to know in order to proceed, uncovering bit by bit how my narratives unfold. They show themselves to me as I go, ideas/images coming at the right time. Each day, I feel the unconscious feeds me the things I need at that moment to work with. Even books or articles I’m reading contribute to these unearthings. It’s amazing how they fit.

In the process of writing, I also realized that there’s a mystery for me, the author, in writing my novels, not just for the readers.  Whatever Tillie, Freefall’s main character, has repressed that her female friends can help her uncover during there reunion also is a question that I’m asking. Since I have no idea what the answer is, I’ll find out along with the reader. And that’s a kick!

Of course, I go through periods of self-doubt, as I noted on 12/10/00: “I haven’t been able to make any progress with this novel in the past week. I feel it’s silly, not a very good story.  But I just went through all that I’ve written so far, and it is a good story.  It’s interesting and evocative and trying to say something important, I think.  I’m judging it too soon and shutting myself down.”

This summary offers only a taste of what I went through in the many years it takes to produce a full-length narrative. In 2001, I thought I’d finished Freefall. My notes from April of that year say, “I seem to have finished Freefall. It’s a strange feeling, after being so absorbed with these characters during the past year and a half or so to draw it all to a close. Of course, there’s still more work to do on it, but I think I’ve completed my vision, as close as I can, and am ready to move on.  I’m crying a little, but I don’t feel deep sadness.  It’s more a release, knowing that I’ve given birth to something beautiful and profound and that represents a deep place within me.”

However, after I printed out the “finished” draft and gave it to my husband, he pointed out that it had the potential of being a richer, more serious book.  He thought I should push it farther. And there I was ready to send it out as it was to agents! Wrong.  I then moved into the rewrite stage. I said to myself, “I need to dig in and explore these characters more thoroughly.” Of course, it went through more than one rewrite. I’ve lost count of how many revisions it took to bring the work to its final form. But every moment was worth the effort when I now hold in my hands this novel that almost was stillborn!



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