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.