Blog Tour: Author, George Singleton


singleton_george

As Irish luck would have it, today Writers Inspired is hosting author, George Singleton,  when on St. Paddy’s Day, anything can happen, especially from this man who is filled with wit and wisdom.

George Singleton‘s the author of four collections of short stories and two novels: These People Are Us (2001), The Half-Mammals of Dixie (2002), Why Dogs Chase Cars (2004), Novel (2005), Drowning in Gruel (2006), and Work Shirts for Madmen (2007).  He has published one book of advice: Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds (2008).  His stories have appeared in magazines such at The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Book, Zoetrope, Glimmer Train, Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Southern Review, Ninth Letter, and North American Review, among others.  He’s had work anthologized in nine editions of New Stories from the South, plus Writers Harvest 2, A Dixie Christmas, They Write Among Us, 20 Over 40, Must Be This Tall to Ride, Love Is a Four-Letter Word, and Behind the Short Story: from First to Final Draft.    His nonfiction has appeared in the Oxford American, Best Food Writing 2005, Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and Paste.

Singleton lives in Dacusville, South Carolina. peptalkswarningsscreeds-742251

In Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers acclaimed Southern story writer and novelist George Singleton serves up everything you ever need to know to become a real writer (meaning one who actually writes), in bite-sized aphorisms. It’s Nietzsche’s Beyond Good & Evil meets Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It’s cough syrup that tastes like chocolate cake. In other words, don’t expect to get better unless you get a good dose of it, maybe two.

Accompanied by more than fifty original full-color illustrations by novelist Daniel Wallace, these laugh-out-loud funny, candid, and surprisingly useful lessons will help you find your own writerly balance so you can continue to move forward.

Published by Writers Digest Books., $17.99
Publication Date: October 22, 2008
Non-Fiction, Writer’s Advice, Hardcover
ISBN# 9781582975658

shamrocks

So, lads and lassies, pull up a stool, grab a stein and ask away. George will respond to your questions and comments on novel writing, short story collections and especially, his newest book PepTalks, Warnings, & Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers. One lucky winner will be chosen to receive a free copy of George’s latest book! (You must post before midnight on March 17 to win and have a US mailing address.)

Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell

MJC: In your fiction writing, do you work from an idea and just go with it, or do you use outlines? How does either method lend to your creative freedom and to your revision time?

GS: If I’m in between stories–if I finish up a story and mail it off on a Tuesday, and sit down to start another on Wednesday morning–I usually think, “Two characters, uncomfortable situation.”  Woman runs into her brother-in-law at the free clinic.  Boy is forced to take something to Show and Tell that he knows is a made-up story by his father.  Teenager is buying condoms at the local drugstore, and his girlfriend’s mother gets in line behind him.  And then I go with it.  More often than not I’ll have a first sentence roaming around in my skull, or a title.  I don’t work from outlines, because–just like in high school when a teacher said I needed an outline, so I wrote one out after writing the essay–it doesn’t seem fun, and takes away some spontaneity, and I wouldn’t stick to it in the first place.

Now, in the past, I have written stories where I kind of thought I saw the ending first, and worked toward it.  But that’s rare for me.  And of course there’s no right answer, but I would think that if someone writes a hundred stories and five novels using an outline and has had no luck publishing, she might want to ditch that approach.

MJC: You’ve been published is a wide variety of publications, from The Georgia Review to Playboy. I’m curious about your writing and marketing approach: do you write a short story and look for the appropriate market, or do you research what is needed and write to fit that need?  Do you feel that one approach is more limiting than the other?

GS: Good question.  When I started writing short stories about eight years into writing three unpublishable novels, I didn’t have a clue how to send them off.  No one taught me, and by this point I had a goofball MFA.  (I have a funny feeling my professors said, “Don’t tell George how to send off manuscripts–he’ll get rejected and go on a two decade drunk…)

Anyway, I wrote a story and sent it off to The New Yorker.  While that sat up there for a couple years, I wrote another story and sent it to Esquire.  While that sat up there for a year I wrote another story and sent it to The Atlantic Monthly, and I got a rejection within about 24 hours.  On and on.  The thing I did correctly, I think, was that I didn’t wait around to hear from one magazine before I sent to another.  Finally, Playboy, the Georgia Review, the Quarterly, and so on, started sending personal rejections with “Please send more.”

Well I sent more, by goodness.  And I finally wore those editors down.

Now, I do study up on magazines and journals.  And I understand that my fiction isn’t going to be a lot of people’s idea of a good time.  That’s all right.  Every editor should know his or her target audience, and what they want.  No sweat.  There are plenty of other journals out there.

Now, I do get frustrated.  Sometimes I think, Hasn’t the New Yorker published enough eastern Indian writers this year?  How many eastern Indians are subscribing to the New Yorker?  Where are the southern writers in this magazine?  Maybe the editors up there haven’t heard, but the American South kind of has a rich tradition of writers.

But that’s their choice, and it’s okay.  The house of fiction has many windows, as Henry James said.  I move onward.

MJC: How was writing Pep Talks (non-fiction) different from writing your short stories and novels?

GS:  Pep Talks was fun to write, and came to me in odd chunks.  I wrote down everything that I thought I knew, and it came to about three single-spaced pages.  I thought, I’ve been teaching this long and that’s all I have?  Good grief.  And then I got bombarded with anecdotes and aphorisms.  I kind of wrote that book at all hours of the day and night, whereas in fiction it’s pretty much from four-thirty or five in the morning until I have to go teach.

MJC: As a creative writing teacher, myself (middle school students), I’m always trying to find that balance of teaching skill and optimism while making these young writers aware of the competition and rejection they will face.  How do you balance the Pep Talks, Warnings and Screeds in your own classrooms? And what message (s) do you hope writers and teachers will take away from this book?

GS: I don’t know of anyone who talks about it–or thinks about it–but half of getting the students writing hard and taking criticism well, I think, is getting them to have a feeling of not wanting to disappoint their instructor and classmates.  Also, they can’t get caught up in petty jealousies.  When one of my students wins a national award, or gets published, everyone (at least outwardly) shows a Way to Go attitude.  In a way, if the piece has been through peer critique, then everyone in the room had success.  This might be in the Land of Optimistic No Ego, but it seems to happen more often than not.

What I want writing readers to get out of my books is this: If one writes pretty much daily, she will not get worse.  She will only get better as the years go by.  If I ran distance for a couple years, then took a few years off, then started back up, I won’t be at the same point I was at the end of the first two years.  If I run continually, even thorugh bad days of tendonitis, I will get better.  Same with writing.

MJC: You’ve written short fiction, novels, essays (Why Obama posted on Largehearted boy.com in 2008) and now a nonfiction book. Do you have any plans for screenplays, poetry or songwriting?  What are you working on now?

GS: I think one of those signs of the apocalypse has to do with my writing poetry.  Frogs and snakes falling out of the sky, and George Singleton writing poetry.  That ain’t going to happen.  I got in trouble in an interview one time for saying I’d never go back to writing novels, so maybe I shouldn’t say I’d never do screenplays or songwriting, but Las Vegas oddsmakers might give such a chance something like a million to one.

Right now I’m about a hundred pages into a novel called Side Notes for a New Grudge, about a third-rate comedian named Grudge Wright.  And I pretty much have a collection of linked stories about a guy named Stet Looper (who’s getting a low residency MA in Southern Culture Studies from a made-up college called Ole Miss-Taylor) ready–24 have been published–but with this economy, I’m going to wait it out.  Plus, last I heard, my fiction publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) isn’t acquiring new books.  Imagine that.  “Hey, I have a hotdog stand, but I’m not going to buy any buns or weiners for a while…”)

George’s Upcoming events:

Reading at Clemson University’s Literary Festival, April 2, time TBA

Reading at  Editors conference at UNC-Greensboro, April 23, 7 PM, with Claudia Emerson

Teaching/Reading at writers@work conference, Park city Utah, June 22-26

Learn more about George Singleton: www.georgesingleton.com




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26 Comments

Filed under Advice, books, contests, Fiction, Give Aways, Inspiration, Non Fiction

26 responses to “Blog Tour: Author, George Singleton

  1. Thanks for an interesting interview. I love the idea you shared about picking two characters in an uncomfortable situation. I’m also encouraged by the fact that you don’t use an outline when drafting your fiction. How helpful has your MFA been in establishing yourself as a writer? When do you think it’s a good idea for a writer to enroll (e.g., when they’re brand-spanking new or when they’re more ‘seasoned’)? As an aside, your hot dog stand analogy is going to keep me chuckling all day!

  2. George Singleton

    Hey Liz S.–

    I started an MFA program at George Mason University one year after graduating college. Bad idea. First off, I thought that everyone in the class was 100 years old. They weren’t, of course. I was 23. I lasted a semester, then worked construction, et cetera, for the next three years while writing.

    So. I think it’s better to keep writing, get some job experience, and then return to school. But of course that doesn’t mean that’s perfect for everyone. For me–I eventually went to UNC-Greensoboro, where they expect you to write hard for two years–it was perfect. Right now I think that there are too many MFA programs, and they’ve become somewhat of a cottage industry. I also think they’re promising way too much: jobs, publications, et cetera. There’s also a certain cut-throat feel to the places which I don’t like whatsoever.

    Back to experience: I had a buddy at UNC-G who had gone to college, worked in a library during that time, then come to MFA-land. One semester in he said, “I don’t have anything else to write about.” He took some time off, went to Alaska, flirted with a woman, got beaten up by the woman’s jealous boyfriend, and returned to Greensboro with a black eye. But he said, “Well, I got something to write about now.”

    That seems to be about the perfect MFA arc…

    • George, great backstory on the MFA experience, espcially your buddy’s POV. I guess as writers we need to experience life!

      I have another question I didn’t ask already: Do you think publishing your novels after your short story collections was an easier route, or are they two different animals? As an aspiring novelist, should I focus on getting some short fiction out there first or would you suggest I hunker down on finishing my novel?

  3. George Singleton

    Hunker, hunker, hunker, MJ. I’ve done everything backwards–got mad at an agent early on, decided I didn’t want an agent telling me to write a novel, wrote short stories for a good thirteen years, didn’t repond to agents when they wrote to me, “Hey, have you ever thought about writing a novel?” after reading my stories in The Atlantic and Playboy and Harper’s. In retrospect–wait, in retrospect, I have some dignity because I didn’t do what an agent wanted me to do for his or her sake–maybe I should’ve written more novels. But I did what I wanted to do. If you want to write novels, do it. If I want to be an electrician even though everyone keeps saying, “You should be a plumber, there’s more money in plumbing,” then I can either do what I like and feel good about it, or jump to plumbing even though my heart might not be in it 100%.

    Now–I do believe that having a story published in a great lit journal or major slick magazine up in NYC will certainly get you noticed. It might be good to have a novel on the shelf, waiting.

    Does this make sense?

    • Perfect sense. You use the best analogies. Thank you so much! Guess I just needed to hear it, though I’m always preaching this to my kids – “do what makes you happy and what makes you come alive” (though for a 5yr old and 10 yr old Rockband on Wii is about the only thing that makes them come alive these days!)
      I did just rec’v my first acceptance on a piece of short fiction due out March 31 in coloredchalk.com. Small, new press, but it’s a start! NY, here I come!

  4. bookluvr

    Hi George,
    Do you think you will ever write a memoir? You have an interesting perception on relationships and the world.

  5. George Singleton

    Hey Bookluvr–

    No way. Most of my fiction is thinly-disguised autobiography anyway, so it would be repetitive. I should know by now to never say “Never,” but I’m pretty sure I can say, “Probably not.” In between looking at these comments I went to the recycling center with my dog–it’s my spring break–and then we drove to this nearby embankment covered in kudzu where the groundhogs live. Not too exciting, in terms of memoir.

  6. This is a fun discussion. I’m curious if you just started pitching to the big magazines or if you went for smaller publications first? Thanks for the reminder that we need to do what we love – forget being the electrician!

  7. George Singleton

    I started right off sending to the New Yorker/Harper’s/Atlantic/Esquire. Then I went down the ladder–not so much in reputation, but in payment. I still kind of do it that way, unless an editor asks for something, which doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will take it. So my first real short story came out in Sou’wester. And then came a slew of regional lit mags like The Crescent Review, Chattahoochee Review, and so on. Then the Georgia Review–which is up there in my top five lit journals, easily–and one called The Quarterly, and Fiction International, et cetera. So it was Send to the Top, Publish Near the Bottom, Work Back Toward the Top. Of course, I imagine, I was becoming a better writer all the while, which made it easier, over the years, to get acceptances.

  8. George Singleton

    Are you kidding me? I get a rejection a day. Maybe not a day, but really often. Like always, I send the story out elsewhere, and fast. If I let it sit too long I will, sure enough, start to think, “That story indeed sucks.” And then I won’t ever send it out. Now, if a story gets rejected about 10 or 15 times I might go ahead and say, “Oops, bad story.”

    I do think that these days–now I’m going to sound like the old man that I am–rejection might be difficult for some writers because of a couple of things. First, there are a million more outlets for stories thanks to the internet. Second–and this is probably for people under 35 or thereabouts–something happened along the way where “everyone’s a winner!” Like in tee-ball and whatnot. Everyone gets a trophy, or a t-shirt for entering a 5K race, and so on. I taught at a college for a while that didn’t give Fs: kids got NR for No Credit. Give me a break.

    So, for anyone having a hard time with rejection slips, bathe in salt water daily for a while. Get the skin tough.

    And back to the question: Maybe I’m a masochist. I kind of like getting rejections. I live way out in the middle of nowhere, so getting any kind of mail is kind of a cause for celebration.

    • Ha-ha! No, I agree with the generation thing. If everyone is “great” than “great” really isn’t that good. And when you put it in those terms, I guess rejection would be tougher on those who “always win!”
      No offense, but it’s comforting to know even an established author gets rejected too.

  9. Raven

    Hi George
    Great interview. Thank you. I’m hoping you can help me here-
    I have pieces of a novel and a lot of time on my hands but just can’t seem to get started; get lost in reading books about writing or doing research. The whole story is there, but still in my head. Any tips on keeping to a writing schedule, getting started, keeping going?
    I thought I’d just ask- if you are single? Nothing like a handsome man who is also a writer.
    Thanks.

  10. George Singleton

    Hey Raven–

    The check’s in the mail for that comment.

    This is what I despise about beginning a novel: First off, I’ll think I have a ton of it in my head. Then it takes forever to get to about page 30. By page 50, most of what was in my head has had to change.

    What I’ve tried to talk myself into is just making sure that I get one page written per day. That’s it. If it takes an hour, fine. If it takes four hours, okay. Now, most days I write more than a page. Today I did 1300+ words. Yesterday was 1200 on the nose, oddly. What I don’t want to do is say, “A page equals about 300 words. I did 2500 words in two days, so therefore I don’t have to write again until next Monday and I’ll still be averaging a page a day.” Those six days without writing will cause nothing but rust, and disinterest. Tomorrow if I only write my 300 words, then great.

    A page a day, for anyone with math anxiety, comes to 365 pages. That’s a nice-sized novel. So–and I understand that this is way easier said than done–Raven, sit down on one day (April 1 sounds good to me) and write one or two pages. Get up a little earlier, if possible. Go write in the backseat of a car if it’s too noisy in your home. Keep a memo book around all day for those ideas that’ll hit about what you might want to do next in the novel.

    Again, easier said than done, but it adds up quickly. For the first few months it’s like running up a mountain, but at the crest things start going so quickly that you have to be careful not to lose your balance from getting rubber-legs.

  11. Hi George and Mary Jo,
    Thanks for the great interview! I appreciate a good laugh in the afternoon. George, my question is this: how many pieces of writing do you typically have in process at one time? I start to feel a little schizophrenic at times when I’ve got a couple of article ideas, a query going, an essay going, and a fiction story mulling around in my mind…you get the picture. Thanks again!

  12. George Singleton

    Stephanie–

    I’m not smart enough to have more than one thing going on at a time, writing wise. I don’t write non-fiction very often, so that helps. Sometimes I’m stuck rewriting a piece while writing whatever I’m working on at the time. I might be working on one story and taking notes for the next, but that’s about it. You’re right–the schizophrenic tendencies is too much, at least for me.

    For David–

    Hey David. I’ll give you the answer right after you tell me that your mom and her friends all bought my book…

    Right now, here’s what I do: I either write a group of stories that all take place in the same area, and have the characters show up from one story to the next, or I have a central character tell all the stories in a “linked novel” kind of way. It’s easier to sell that kind of book to publishers, by the way.

    I kind of have a collection of stories ready–maybe I need one more story in it–called No Cover Available. In the first half of the collection, a guy named Stet Looper tells a dozen stories, and in the next dozen he shows up as a minor character. I kind of make up these games so as not to bore myself.

    If your five year old sibling has any questions, let me know.

  13. Oh, snap, I just saw this, so glad I came by! Thank you for the great interview, lots of good stuff to chew on fo’ sho!
    George, did you seek any mentors early on? And who inspires you now?
    And, most importantly, will you celebrate St. Paddy’s with a pint tonight?

    Thanks!

  14. George Singleton

    To Sam–It took a long time, but now I do just fine. Great credit, somehow, though I guess I couldn’t get a loan if I wanted one, due to evil bankers.

    To Luci–

    No mentors early on. I didn’t even know why I started trying to write. This was in college, about sophomore year. To be honest, I was embarrassed–still am, most days–to say that I wanted to be a writer. But I modeled work from unknown mentors afar–Barthelme, Pynchon, Irving, Beckett, Ionesco, John Barth, Tom McGuane’s early novels. Modeling after someone else’s work ain’t plagiarism, done right. It’s kind of like how every new car is modeled on the previous year’s, the previous year’s, ad infinitum. The writer gets to add her own gizmos and dials and gadgets on the dashboard.

  15. George Singleton

    To Luci, again–

    No drinking for me these days. Many many many many many years of it, though. I don’t really remember from 1980-2004. It’s kind of in a novel called Work Shirts for Madmen. Kind of. Mostly.

    • George,

      Thank you so much for spending the day with us. You graciously gave your time, humor and thorough answers to us writers trying to find a break! We would love you to visit again when you’ve completed your next collection of shorts.

  16. Thanks for posting these useful information. Keep them coming

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