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.
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
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