March 8, 2009 at 11:46 pm | Posted in Special Guests | 23 Comments
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I’d like to welcome Writer’s Digest Book’s author George Singleton to Annette’s Paper Trail. George is new to the blogosphere, but brave enough to jump in with both feet! He is just gaining momentum on the blog tour for his latest book. Today, George offers his sage advice about staying current with literary trends.

peptalksIn 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.

Read Contemporary, Literary Work If You Plan to Publish Contemporary, Literary Work

By George Singleton

I teach at a school wherein prospective students must send in a portfolio of ten or so pages of their own work, either poetry or fiction. They write an essay, also. Their high school counselors send in transcripts and letters of recommendation. Then, the students show up in February or March for an interview, plus a workshop where they’re given prompts, just to make sure that, indeed, they didn’t pay off someone to write a portfolio, et cetera.

In the interview, my chairperson Scott Gould and I always start with the same question: “Tell us what you’ve been reading.”

There are three camps, at least. There are the students who say, “I love that woman who wrote the Twilight series, and I love Stephen King, and I love Anne Rice.”

“Do you read any contemporary poetry?” we’ll ask. I don’t know why.

“Edgar Allen Poe!” will be the answer.

It’s not like we weren’t warned earlier, what with the vampires, zombies, cutters, slashers, unpronounceable character names, lack of rising action, ghosts, et cetera.

The members of the second group say things like, “I love Shakespeare. I love everything there is by Shakespeare. Shakespeare, Cotton Mather, Hawthorne, the Brontës,” and so on. They’ll name off every writer they’ve had to read in a regular high school English class.

“What about poets?”

What else: “Emily Dickinson!”

And then there are the students—who normally have high grade point averages—who say, “Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, Jill McCorkle, William Gay, Tom Franklin, Dale Ray Phillips, Wendy Brenner, Best American Shorts Stories, New Stories from the South, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Thomas Pynchon, Madison Smartt Bell, Michael Parker, Jennifer Egan, Barry Hannah, Clyde Edgerton, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Stevie Almond, Cary Holladay, Moira Crone…”

We’ve not gone wrong with these students yet. Now, it’s important to know the writers of the canon—especially if you plan on being a contestant on Jeopardy!—but if one wishes to be published at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it might be helpful to know what kind of writing is being published in magazines, journals, and by the publishing houses.

Scott likes to say, “If you go get knee surgery, do you want a doctor who pores over medical journals from a hundred years ago, or one who keeps up with the latest medical technology and procedures?” There’s no better way to say it. If you wish to be published these days, shouldn’t you know trends, countertrends, audience needs, and the like? The only way I know how to fully get a grip on these things is to subscribe to a literary magazine or ten, plus the slicks, plus keep up with something like the New York Times Book Review.

Now, I understand that people are going to say to me, “Hey, that Twilight woman and Anne Rice and Nicholas Sparks make a whole lot more money than literary writers.”

My answer to that is always, “In America, we buy and consume a lot more bologna than we do filet mignon, but that doesn’t mean it’s better for us.”


Readers: Where do you weigh in? Mainstream or literary fiction? Would you rather leave your signature in tomes of timeless literature? Or have a million dollars worth of bologna in the bank?


george-singleton-lgGeorge Singleton is the author of four collections of shorts 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.

George lives in Dacusville, South Carolina with his clay-artist wife Glenda, 11 dogs, and a cat.

Visit his website at www.georgesingleton.com. And pick up a copy of Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds today!


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  1. […] to her wonderful book, which I would not have read otherwise! Then, last week I surfed over to Annette Fix’s blog, and was floored by the wisdom of George Singleton. Although WOW had nudged me about his blog tour, I passed as I understood his book “Pep […]

  2. Wow. I don’t know HOW I missed this blog post, but, George, by the end of the post I was at your feet. I completely agree with you. I already wanted to read your book, as I saw you on other WOW-sponsored tours–but now, just wow.

    I was one of that third group- I was reading Merwin in 94/95, voraciously, and was so lucky to get on the good side of a public school ibrarian who steered me in the “right” direction. Come to think of it though, I also read the YA of the day (something about a Pearl in the Soul of the World or whatnot). But the operative word is “ALSO.” I simply read EVERYTHING.

    I have you on my Blackberry for 2015 when my eldest is in 8th grade- I want to send her to this camp!

  3. George,

    You’ve been such a great sport about stepping out of your comfort zone to engage my readers. Thanks so much for stopping by!

    I just received your book in the mail today and I’m looking forward to curling up with it tonight!

    Best wishes for a wildly successful blog tour!

  4. Jillian,

    In high school and college, I wrote campus lifestyle columns that were the source of my comparison to E.B. I read her syndicated column all the time, so I was quite flattered. The part I liked best was watching students turn to my page first when they received the latest edition of the school paper. The part I liked second best was ruffling enough feathers to have both students and teachers writing letters to the editor about my columns. Of course, I was also co-editor of the paper… 😉

    Ah…the nostalgia of the days as a big fish in a little pond. LOL

    Now, I’m just waiting for someone to throw me a life preserver in this rough publishing sea!

  5. I loved George Singleton’s description of interviewing high school students on their muses. It’s funny, I think most adults would have answered those questions the same way. I look forward to reading Mr. Singleton’s book.

    I just finished a book by Erma Bombeck, and if someone compared my writing to hers I would be ecstatic!

  6. George, you make such a wonderful point with your boxing analogy. I agree completely! I read a quote somewhere from an agent who said: “If you want to be on-track to become a bestselling author, you have to write a book a year.” I can’t imagine those bestselling authors are spending time doing ANYTHING other than just writing.

    If I were independently wealthy, I might not need to don the hats of the pr person, online marketer, et al. But on a shoestring budget—there aren’t any other options. Sad reality. Especially with the agents and publishing houses expecting an author to show up with an established platform. It sounds like you spent 20 years building yours the old-school way.

    The trends and technology may change in publishing, but I guess we all have dues to pay. That being said—I’d still rather be writing.

    I just wish I could find a way to do it all… Not out of desire, out of necessity.

    BTW, laughed at your Jung at heart humor. I often like to ask myself—W.W.J.D.—What Would Jung Do? 😉

  7. Hey Heiddi–

    Pencil me in for an appointment, soon, please. Demons, demons, and demons abound. But I’m Jung at heart, yuk yuk yuk.

  8. Hey Annette–

    For that last question, gee whiz, I think it’s way too time consuming having to promote one’s own work. Publicists publicize. Marketers market. Writers do the writing. I fully understand, kind of, that this is a different day and age. But this blogging daily thing has me so braindead I barely want to write fiction.

    Let’s say you’re a great boxer. You train all the time. You run in the morning, lift weights, whatever it is that a good boxer must do. You spar in the afternoons. Then you fight against your opponent and win.

    What would it be like if you had to write the next day’s column about the fight for the newspapers, and spend the next six months telling everyone about your last fight, and trying to plan your next fight, get the arena, sell tickets, and so on? It would be tough.

    I’m killing this analogy, I know. Sorry. But it seems to me more important about staying in shape, and working your way up winning matches, and then you will only become a better boxer and sooner or later someone will come along to do your PR, marketing, news coverage, and so on.

    So I guess I’m saying that–just for me, I’m only speaking for me–it’s better to spend more time writing.

    Then again, it took me eight years of writing three bad novels before I started writing short stories, then a dozen years of selling or placing stories before someone asked to publish a collection. 1980 to 2000 were mostly bleak years. Then all hell broke loose. For me–again, only speaking for myself–I doubt that I’d do it differently.


  9. Hey Cathy–

    Yeah, I should mention that I wrote all that, per usual, as a gigantic generalization. These are high school kids–not college–who get into the program, et cetera. I’d say that all of the ones who read contemporary writers have read the canon additionally, of course. And I would’ve probably detested Flannery O’Connor at age 16. Hell, I thought it was a man the first time I heard her name.

    Thinking back–I’ve been involved with the SC Governor’s School for the Arts for something like 15 years–I can’t think of any prospective student who had only read, say, Shakespeare, or King, or Rice (and nothing else) geting into the program. There have always been too many prospective students, from all over this poor poor state, who’ve read and read and read. Now, we have a kind of minor league, summer program, wherein 8th graders have read mostly YA stuff. And then we kind of groom them with more complex, advanced fiction, and then in a couple years they apply to the residential program. They win all those Scholastic Writing Awards–one year we had two portfolio winners, and only five are given out nationwide. Then they go to Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Chapel Hill, Kenyon, Smith, Bard, Vassar, Swarthmore, Sarah Lawrence, and so on. One’s at the U of SoCal film school.

    Wait: I’M NOT SAYING THAT YA FICTION IS NOT COMPLEX OR ADVANCED. Believe me, I’m not. Some of my best friends are YA writers, as they say. Brad Barkley, for example.

    I’m just calling them like I see them, Cathy.

  10. Hi Annette & George. George I’d like to congratulate you on your new book. I like your point about how writing should be the most important thing. I would like to be known as the best Latina writer of the 21st century. I know I don’t do it for the money, that’s what my day job as a therapist is for. But, I would love to publish something that makes a difference in the lives of others. Something that teaches about what people can do to affect change. Thanks for visiting Annette’s Paper trail. Take care. Heiddi

  11. Okay, George, I’m all for high school students reading contemporary, literary fiction, but here’s the thing: how many 17 year old kids reading Flannery O’Connor or someone new and exciting like Junot Diaz really bring enough experience to appreciate or understand these voices? I mean, college professors teach entire courses on Flannery O’Connor…and I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have appreciated Junot Diaz when I was 16 or 17. (Heck, I’m not sure I even understand him, now). So, maybe some of these kids reading Poe or loving Shakespeare will come to appreciate literary fiction when guided, if given the chance. Which is my long way of asking, do those kids get into your college’s program? And if so, how do they end up doing?

  12. George,

    Great points! 🙂 Writers write. No matter whether it’s mainstream or literary, millionaire or pauper.

    I’d love to hear your analogy about the doghouse to understand your last comment better. Does it mean you feel blogging takes away from writing time?

    It’s sometimes so hard to know where to focus one’s attentions. Writing new material? Or promoting the published material we have?

  13. No “talk to the hand” intended, I swear. I just don’t think that talking about what’s “mainstream” and what’s “literary” and wondering about how much money one makes off of writing is all that important. I don’t view it as a spectator sport, or a competition. The aesthetician R.G. Collingwood once said something like this: If someone comes up to a true artist and says, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. You’re the best,” then the artist should say, “Okay.” And if a person comes up and says to her, “You’re the worst thing I’ve ever seen in the world of art,” the artist should say, “Okay.” No matter what, the true artist will continue. The dogs may bark but the caravan rolls on, you know.

    My entire book is about writing, writing, writing, and–oddly–not getting caught up in spending a lot of time worrying about who’s getting published where, and for how much of an advance.

    I think I also make an analogy to spending too much time in a doghouse, and how that works for a “bloghouse” too.


  14. I’ll vote for being remembered for fantastic, unique literary insight — ’cause we’re dreamin’ here, right? In actuality, it’d be a thrill to be read. Just read. By anyone. Anyone at all…
    Great insights, George!

  15. George,

    Well, I guess that’s the conversational equivalent of “talk to the hand.” 😉

    In improv, participating players say, “Yes, and…” It works well with conversations, too. Especially in the blogosphere where the sharing and exchange of ideas and opinions are welcomed.

    Think of it like a virtual dinner party. 🙂

  16. I guess I’d be considered a “bologna” girl. I’ve only recently sold my first book/ articles. I think I’ll definitely need to keep my “day job” as a hygienist! So, obviously, the reason I write isn’t for the big bucks (although that would be nice :)), but I get a little antsy if too much time goes by and I haven’t written anything. I guess I’ve got stories in me that need to be told!

    Good luck with your book and tour!


  17. Hey Annette–

    Please go write some fiction now. NOW!

  18. George,

    I guess it must be a case of “They’ll know it when they see it.” when it comes to handing out the laurels of literary fiction. Alice Munro and J.K. Rowling are poles apart in this regard. One will surely end up in college anthologies of great literary authors, one will not.

    I think it’s an interesting topic to examine. There are great literary writers whose stories I loved reading in college, and I wanted so much to write like they did.

    My one attempt to write literary nonfiction (true short stories) for entrance into UCI’s MFA program was shot down so painfully (the program chair called my writing “comically preposterous”) that it almost caused me to never write again.

    But, instead of letting my muse curl up and die, I decided that wasn’t the path or type of writing I was supposed to pursue. When I allowed my voice to be what it is, I found that I write in a light “chick-lit” tone—that’s just me. It’s mainstream/commercial. In high school and college, I was often called a young Erma Bombeck. Even Erma would never make it into a literature anthology, but she was read and loved by millions of readers for her entertaining look at the human condition.

    So, if the definition for literary fiction is writing that entertains and teaches about the human condition, then dear Erma certainly won her literary wings.

    I guess that’s where my confusion lies. My question is: Who decides what is “literary” and what isn’t? Not that I expect you have an answer. It’s more of a rhetorical question. 😉 I imagine it’s much like the debate within the art community about what is fine art.

  19. I’m way out of my league here. I really don’t know the official definitions of “mainstream.” Is it something that can be made into a movie easily? Probably not. Old Country for Old Men, for example. Does it mean selling 100,000 copies? Maybe. I think of Koontz, Clancy, Grisham, et al, as “mainstream.” So basically, to Annette’s questions, I have no clue. I don’t think there are easy answers. Does non-mainstream last a long time–Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et cetera? Probably. But was Mark Twain mainstream in his day? Yes.

    To Jodi–

    Damn right. Actually, whenever I have to go do conferences (you can imagine how I’m thrilled with those things) is when I’m in need of paying light bills, car repairs, and the like.

  20. George-

    I guess you wouldn’t know what to do with me–I write for money(not big money but enough to pay the electric bill). To myself I call it my ‘hack’ writing. But there’s also that novel that I’m writing because if I don’t I might explode. I’m sure it won’t make enough to pay the electric bill(if it ever gets published). Do you do any “pay the electric bill” writing? Or is that what your teaching is?

  21. No worries. You won’t get beaten with a holier-than-thou stick while you’re here. 😉 I’m just really curious about finding the answers to a couple questions I’ve had for a long time. And since I have a literary guy held captive in my blog comment clutches, I’ll ask you to enlighten me. =) You touched on it, but maybe I’m too dense to “get” it.

    I’ll form my first question differently. Why do you think mainstream fiction makes money and literary fiction doesn’t?

    I didn’t mean writing with only the intent to make money; there are plenty of “infopreneurs” on the internet who fit that model perfectly and are successfully hawking their get-rich-quick wares.

    I’m speaking about writers—storytellers—who have a story to tell. Writers who study the craft. Writers who write because they couldn’t *not* write. Yet, their voices and writing styles are considered mainstream. Writers who couldn’t write what would be considered literary fiction if their creative lives depended on it.

    Where it gets muddy for me is defining literary fiction. What would you say are the elements or components of literary fiction that separate it from mainstream fiction (or memoir) if they both entertain AND teach readers about the human condition?

  22. I know that this will sound holier-than-thou, but writing for the sake of making money only kind of puts a person in the same category as all of these CEOs that are in trouble now. If we’re on this planet in order to further humankind, I’m not so sure that rolling around in a million dollars of mainstream money helps out all that much. It’s a gigantic generalization, though. There’s writing that’s mostly entertainment-based (comics, romance, westerns) and writing that’s mostly knowledge-based (how-to books, cookbooks, encyclopedias). Literary fiction, I think, should both entertain, and teach readers something about the human heart/condition, et cetera. It’s a wide gray area, of course. For instance, I think that Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons are “literary fiction.”

  23. Welcome, George!

    I must say, if I actually had the choice, it would be difficult for me to choose between leaving a literary legacy or rolling around in a million dollars of mainstream money. 😉 But it doesn’t seem that writers can have both… Why do you think that is?

    And I know it’s important to consume the filet mignon of past and present literary greats, but what is a writer to do if her voice is deli-aisle bologna?

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