At least one of us is always yammering on about the old days when they were enrolled in Barry Hannah's writing class at the University of Mississippi, never failing to mention how they once got back a short story submission with a note that simply read: "Nice writing, but why do I care about these people?"
Ouch. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? And this former Hannah student admits that it was one of the best pieces of writing advice the master ever delivered. Tough love is essential when learning the writer's trade. The path to successful publication, most writers will tell you, is paved with rejection, disappointment and abject humiliation, and at the end, most often, is a general lack of recognition and a measly paycheck.
For beginning writers who are cool with that, we highly recommend Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds, a collaboration between two of our favorite writers, George Singleton (above left, signing a book for our German friend Olaf) and Daniel Wallace (below left, outside the store). Singleton (Work Shirts for Madmen) is probably a dream teacher for the creative writing students at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, where he's taught for years. He invents strange analogies and funny aphorisms for his students to help them avoid the common pitfalls of writing. They suggested he collect them in a book, and thus we have this useful writing guide, which entertains and advises more than instructs.
For instance, Singleton likens good storytelling to poking a fire ant hill with a stick and explains why its useful to have a glass eye at your writing desk. One golden piece of advice: "Next time, pee at the Texaco," or in other words, don't be lulled by comfort. Stepping out of your routine will often lead to exciting discoveries and storytelling breakthroughs. And for the writer ready to publish, Singleton points you through the sticky business of publishing with amusing tricks and detours. It may sound silly, but this is extremely practical advice from a writer who will admit that he's made nearly every mistake there is to make in writing and publishing.
Fellow author Daniel Wallace (Big Fish, Mister Sebastian and the Negro Magician), a comedian in his own right, illustrated the text, and his jagged style is the perfect compliment to Singleton's edgy text. (You can see some of Daniel's illustrations at his blog.)
This is the perfect gift for any aspiring writer, or anyone who is fascinated by the craft of writing and building stories. These are two of the most entertaining gentlemen you'll meet in the business, and they were generous enough to sit down and give us their own off-the-cuff writerly advice, as follows....
Turnrow Book Co.: What's the most colorful piece of writing advice you've ever received, and from whom?
George Singleton: Comedy is serious. Lee Zacharias, in a workshop. That's not exactly colorful, but it's the best advice I've had, more than likely.
Daniel Wallace: Colorful? I don't know. Probably from my dad. He advised me to write more like James Clavell.
TBC: Aspiring writers are often concerned with the habits and conditions
employed by other, more successful writers. So, in the interest of serving that
need, how is your writing station set up? What do you see right there in front
of you this
Singleton: This is going to be ugly. I'm a pack rat. Within arm's reach on this desk
is some kind of native American chopping tool, a tiny voodoo coffin from New
Orleans, two jugs of Ronsonol lighter fluid, the mouthpiece from a tuba, three
snakeskins, three bird skulls, one rat skull, a blowfish, a micrometer, a Case
knife, seven rubber change purses, a dictionary, three ashtrays, some dice from
Circus Circus, a dollar chip from the Golden Nugget, a grappling hook, a royalty
check for two bucks which I can't figure out seeing as if I sold just one book
the check should be $2.39, a Duncan yo-yo, a pin that reads "Live well, laugh
often, and never vote republican," a lit smoker's candle, a pack of Picayune
cigarettes, Gumby, some binoculars, a variety of carved snakes, rats, rabbits,
etcetera bought in San Francisco, the penis bone of a raccoon (I'm not lying
here), a compass, four pair of broken eyeglasses, a tiki carved from lava with
Coco Joe on the bottom, this computer...
Wallace: I write in a tiny room in my house, where the folks who lived here before us had a crib, with a baby in it I presume. I write on a computer everyday from 8:30 to 1, except for those days I don't. I used to write more. I think I'm getting a little tired of myself.
TBC: The advent of the internet has opened up a world of distractions to writers. Is this a dangerous diversion and how do you cope with it?
Singleton: I'll get back to you on that. I'm in the middle of a game of Scrabble.... Seriously, I tend to play Free Cell or Solitaire more often than I would like to admit. But I'm pretty good at staying focused. The worst thing is looking something up for a story — say the price of indigo in 1790 — then deciding it's absolutely necessary to know how Rit Dye is made, or whatever.
TBC: What is the worst trend you see in contemporary literature?
Wallace: How much of it there is.
Singleton: Hell, if I knew what the trends were in the first place maybe I'd be getting published more often. I'm not a big supporter of Fan Fiction. I think that sometimes "telling the story" gets lost on useless experimentation (like I might've done in the novel Novel, for that matter).
TBC: Daniel, many people may not realize you're an artist as well as a writer. Do you draw or write more?
Wallace: I write more because writing takes longer and is much harder. I hope to reverse this however over time and within thirty to forty years intend to make a living doodling on napkins.
TBC: George, casual readers may not know that you're an amazingly prolific writer. How many stories do you turn out per month?
Singleton: Two. It's been that way forever. I average right at 26 stories a year, and have done so for twenty years. So that's something like 5 million stories, if my math's right. I've published 120 or thereabouts. I wouldn't make it out of the minor leagues with that batting average.
TBC: What are you working on now?
Wallace: A novel. Sigh.
Singleton: I'm still writing stories about this guy named Stet Looper who's working on a low-residency master's degree in Southern Culture Studies at a made up satellite campus called Ole Miss-Taylor. I think my next book might be Stories/Linked stories/Novella. I've written 38 and 21 have come out, or are about to appear. Gee, maybe that book's getting a little long.
TBC: Since this is a blog, do you care to share any trenchant political insights about this election season?
Singleton: Ha ha ha ha ha. You ain't tricking this dog a second time. For all of you who've spent some time in jail— and you know who you are — don't let anyone tell you that you can't vote, or that you'll get arrested at the polling place, and so on. So please vote. It might be a slack turnout in South Carolina seeing as we have no gasoline at the pumps, and haven't for ten days. What's up with that? I have to go now. I have to truckjack a tanker.