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Shinn column: Edgerton gives good advice

By Susan Shinn
sshinn@salisburypost.com
CONCORD ó It’s overwhelming to have a whole weekend of activities based on one book.
Clyde Edgerton, a favorite North Carolina author, was in Concord last weekend to talk about his book “Walking Across Egypt” as part of the “One Book, One Community” project.
Events sponsored by the Cabarrus Public Library included a showing of the movie, “Walking Across Egypt” and a performance of the play, written by Salisbury’s Reid Leonard.
Last Friday, Edgerton appeared at a writing workshop on the South Campus of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Edgerton grew up near Durham and teaches creative writing at UNC-Wilmington. This fall, he’ll be on tour, promoting his ninth novel, “The Bible Salesman.”
Edgerton is an accomplished writer and musician. His band Rank Strangers performed Saturday evening.
But at the workshop, the focus was squarely on writing.
“I want to talk about the tools that helped me as a writer,” said Edgerton, wearing his trademark khakis and blue button-down oxford shirt. “I want to give all the hints I possibly can.”
Since Edgerton writes mainstream fiction, that’s where his expertise lies.
He gave a definition of fiction, he said, that was disarmingly simple.
“It’s a made-up story about made-up characters.”
Writing fiction, Edgerton said, is a combination of experience, observation and imagination.
Any scene in a book can be based in one of these three areas, or in any combination thereof.
When he gets writer’s block, Edgerton asks himself a question: What if?
Then he’ll make a long list of ideas based on the answers he comes up with.
Edgerton works a lot on intuition, he said. When he was writing “Raney,” his first novel, he’d sit in Hardee’s and listen to conversations that took place in surrounding booths. One day, he heard someone talking about getting a fish hook caught in their nose.
He jotted that down, and those few words later became the basis of a scene in “Raney.”
Edgerton uses notepads to jot down words or phrases, which he then transfers to a journal.
In this way, he can “absorb, watch, choose and pick” during the novel writing process.
Edgerton acknowledged that instructors all teach writing differently. Some advocate setting a complete outline.
“I work better by not working through the entire plot,” Edgerton said. “There’s a certain degree of uncertainty. That’s part of the game.”
There are certainties, Edgerton said, in the fields of science, math, religion.
“But in art, in a novel, there’s an element of uncertainty which can be wise and create tension and suspense,” he said.
The conflict between two characters, Edgerton said, is fascinating to him. “If your
fiction has no suspense or tension, it will die.”
Edgerton advocates using details. He told a story about a blind man who was feeding a Fig Newton to a dog.
“If you can give a detail, the whole scene will light up for that reader,” he said.
Edgerton also suggested to start writing and go as fast as you can.
“Get a crappy first draft,” he said.
That’s followed by multiple revisions and drafts.
Editing, Edgerton said, takes a special knack. “Be careful who you listen to. Never follow any advice that doesn’t make good sense to you.”
The computer, he said, is fabulous for fiction writers as far as ease of editing and organizing.
Edgerton goes through his manuscripts, looking for “logs,” details that weigh down passages and are not needed.
He also writes out chapters in a checkerboard style, scenes written in shorthand, that can be moved around.
He writes in longhand sometimes, with pencil, or with the typewriter.
He was asked how he found time to write when he’s teaching. Edgerton and his wife have young children.
“If you’re obsessed, if you have to do it, you find time,” he said. “It has to be rewarding somehow.
“You go to bed and you’ll be with your characters the next day.”
Edgerton loves Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, and noted that O’Connor wrote for two hours a day, facing a blank wall.
“Things come,” he said. “One day, it might come and you’re not there.”
He also noted that if you write a half-page a day, in two years, you’ll have 365 pages ó a novel.

Due to audience demand, the Old Courthouse Theatre has added a third weekend of performances of “Walking Across Egypt.” Additional dates will be 8 p.m. Oct 10-11 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 12. Call the box office at 704-788-2405 for reservations.

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