It’s been a good couple weeks on the fiction front.

First, though, a confession:  I haven’t written in months – written written, that is.  My work has taken a backseat to wedding planning, helping organize two major moves (fiancé in; nephew out), teaching.  Posting to this blog, as well as to “Good Letters,” helps me from feeling like a writer fake.

But still.  Turning out 700 relatively coherent words in an hour or two isn’t the same as immersing myself in a world of my own creation.  In Rincon.

That’s the name of the fictionalized town in my novel.  It’s as real to me as the noises outside my window as I type these words.  I know the feel of its air on an Indian summer evening, the turns of its meandering streets, the bumps along the road where pine-tree roots have buckled the pavement.  When my agent passed on representing this novel, saying it was “too quiet,” I sent the manuscript to a writer friend in New York.  What do you think? I asked.  Should I scrap it and start a new one? Or is there something here I can do, something I can’t yet see because I’m so close to the material?

Yes, Michael said, there is.  You’ve got the stories reversed.  Your main story is all in the past; your subplot is the one with the narrative drive, the urgency.  Switch them, he said, and I saw with sudden clarity what I used to see when I pushed the depth-of-field button on my thirty-year-old SLR camera:  What had been blurry background leapt into crisp definition.  Michael’s suggestion made complete and total sense.

That was almost a year ago.

So, two weeks ago when my turn came up in writers’ group, I decided to send the first twenty pages of the novel.  After all, I didn’t have anything new.  So I made some quick changes along the lines of what Michael had helped me to see, and I sent it off.  Then I spent a week teaching in UC Berkeley Extension’s Fiction Writing Intensive.

I hadn’t taught a fiction workshop for a few years, and while initially anxious that I’d be off my game, I felt energized, articulate, alive.  The students helped, of course – eager and engaged, they brought in good work and made smart observations.  And the guest speakers who talked each afternoon on craft and process – Laurie Ann Doyle, Ryan Sloan, Jane Staw, Cody Gates – had me whipping out my pen to jot down notes, complete with exclamation points, for my own work.  I was reminded, once again, of the power of community, of the validation and permission and intoxicating possibility that comes out of fifteen writers sitting around a table, wholly present in talking about the arrangement of words on a page.

I felt bleary-eyed and bone-tired by Friday afternoon, and adrenalized.  Fiction felt alive for me again, not just as a teacher but as a writer.  So it felt a little strange to wake up Monday and not have to be downtown, Peet’s in hand, at 9:30, ready to start discussing conflict or methods of characterization.  I missed it.

On Tuesday, my writing group met.  I was beginning to regret having sent the hastily updated pages.  I’d shown so many versions of the novel over the years; was I going to get anything new from showing it once again?

Yes.  My readers – who don’t miss a trick – found plenty to question and critique.  Too much past-perfect slowed down the narrative.  A lot of names to keep track of.  Just where was this Rincon place, anyway?  But, underlying those comments, I heard in their voices energy and interest.  I left knowing not only that Michael was right in his suggestion of “flipping” the narrative emphasis – but that I could and wanted to make the changes.

Yes, it’s been a good few weeks.

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