The Southern Women's Writers' Conference happens every other year in Rome, Georgia, on the campus of Berry College, the largest college campus in the United States, with over 26,000 acres of Eden-like hills, fields, forests, and North Georgia mountains. Herds of deer roam through the rolling lawns surrounding the castle-like buildings Henry Ford donated. If you are lucky enough to be there at the end of September during the full moon, you can see the deer wandering about in the moon mist as you watch a wavy orange moon wink at you in the reflecting pool.
After two days of readings by the likes of Maya Angelou, Kay Gibbons, and Minrose Gwin, I was fully primed for Jill McCorkle's fiction workshop on Saturday morning. We all arrived around 8 just as the coffee was ready and left around 12 to scurry over to the dining hall to eat a lunch prepared from the recipes of Vertamae Grosvenor, who entertained us with stories of how she came to be a food writer, wearing her signature long cotton dress, straw hat, and of course a working apron. In other words, we worked hard for almost four hours, but the time went by so quickly we all hated for it to be over, many of us chatting after Grosvenor's presentation and on the quad afterwards at the book signing.
Most of McCorkle's comments were specific advice for the stories that had been submitted and chosen to be in the workshop, but some of her general comments about writing are worth passing on to the beginning writer.
About writing short fiction, she said:
"Writing short fiction and novels are as different as writing poetry and novels."
She continued about short fiction: "A story is a juggling act, not
just standing in a room, throwing one ball up in the air over and over. There are many stories happening in a short story. The trick is to keep the side stories in proportion."
About panarama vs.scene in all lengths of fiction: "I know you are told to render information into scenes rather than 'telling', and generally you should, but a scene should be reserved for what's important. If everythingturns into scene, there's just one, long extended note."
About dialogue: "Don't let it drive the plot."
Order in novels: "The order is everything. The old way where people used to actually cut out with scissors pieces of their pages and fit them together is probably superior to making corrections on a word processor. The old hard copies--you made the corrections on the page and could go back and look at your earlier drafts more easily since they weren't so effortlessly, instantly replaced. Sometimes you need to go back and re-use an earlier version, and if you're using a computer, often you've lost the original way you'd written it."
About the use of outlines when writing a novel: "Start with a vague destination in mind, like leaving from the East Coast on a road trip to the West Coast. You know where you're headed, but you may not read the entire road map before you leave. You have to mentally travel the road to see what you'll learn. You don't really know what you're gonna find at the Day's Inn until you actually stop there for the night."
And, finally, about overall organization in a novel: "You need a 'clothesline'. Something to hang the chapters on, the smaller stories, some organizing structure that holds the chapters together, that moves the reader forward....."
Jill McCorkle and Kay Gibbons both have rich North Carolina accents and aren't a bit shy about using them.