I Heart Indies

Sunday, September 1, 2013

George Singleton: If I'd Known Then What I Know Now

Each month a published author will hold forth on the above topic.

This month, it's George Singleton, whose work I first read in Half Mammals of Dixie.  He has published seven other books, including his latest, Stray Decorum, and a craft book to end all craft books, Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers.  His fiction has the sublime knack of hitting that pinpoint intersection of madness, heartbreak, goofiness, and poetry. Sometimes writers you admire on the page, are a let-down in person.  Not so, George.  Talking to him is exhilarating, hilarious, and a little scary.  Just like reading him.  He teaches at the Governors School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina.  They are fortunate children.  They are probably also a little shell-shocked.  Here's George.

So I spent the years 1979 until 1986 writing novels.  Big bad fat novels.  The first one ran 450 pages.  The next--which I used for an MFA thesis--hit 250 pages, and then I wrote another while still at UNC-Greensboro that ended up 300 pages.  I need to mention that somewhere along the line I had a professor or two tell me that it would take 1000 pages of writing before I was ready.  Being the smart-ass punk malcontent that I was--and still am--I thought, “Fool--it ain’t going to take me 1000 pages before I’m ready.”

            450 + 250 + 300 = 1000.

So I started writing short stories in 1986.  Boom!  The first one I wrote got accepted at Sou’wester.  Within twelve months I had stories come out in the Crescent Review, the Georgia Review, the Quarterly, Fiction International, and so on.  Hot damn, I thought.  This is so much easier spending a couple weeks to a month on a short story, sending it off, and getting it published in nine months, when compared to grinding on a bad novel for a year or three, then knowing that the thing was so bad that I had no other choice but to shelve it.  Plus, I didn’t actually know how to send out a novel.  No one told me how to write a query letter.  No one told me the importance of agents.

Here comes agent Nat Sobel, grand reader of places like the Crescent Review,  the Georgia Review, the Quarterly, and Fiction International.  He’d noticed my name, he asked if I had a collection, he asked if I had a novel.  I said, of course, “No, I’ve written three big bad fat novels, but I don’t think they’re publishable.”

He wrote back--this was 1988 or thereabouts, pre-email--“Write another novel.”  I did.  He hired a Lear jet to send it back to me on the same day.  He wrote, rightly, “This one is no good.  Write another.”

I have this terrible genetic condition wherein I don’t like people telling me what to do.  It’s bad.  If I were to be thrown into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and someone said, “Swim, swim, swim!” I’d choose to dive deep and dig, or flap my arms trying to fly, et cetera.

Anyway, after “Write another,” I chose to write short stories only.  And I did so for the next dozen or so years.

Now.  I don’t know how many agents and editors since this time have said to me, “Write a novel.”  I’ve published two.  They’ve sold a grand total of about pi copies.  Meanwhile, I’ve published five collections of stories that have sold okay.  It doesn’t seem to matter.  A few years ago, after the Kindle fiasco, I had a story collection that got sent around to a number of big NYC Houses.  Most of the editors responded with “Okay.  If he promises to write a novel...”

WTF?--as the kids might say today.  WTGDF?

In keeping with Man’s rules of What I Wish I Knew Then, let me say this: I wish that I’d’ve known that some people in publishing might not know when disposable diapers sell better than the cloth variety.  Would I have never ventured off into the Land of Short Stories?  Would I have settled on a less-hair-tearing vocation, something like Day Trading?  Would I have ever come to realize that it’s better to plain write, and not worry about what wet finger publishers raise into the air, looking for wind direction?

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