Sunday, March 29, 2009

George Singleton on How Voice Matters in Fiction

(Photo from George Singleton's website)

Today's forecast for St. Peters, MO: Mostly cloudy, high 61 degrees, chance of thunderstorms for this evening. Thunderstorms beat the thundersnow we woke up to early Sunday morning.

I am pleased and honored to have acclaimed author George Singleton as my guest blogger today. Singleton is visiting Donna's Book Pub as his last stop on his WOW! Women on Writing Blog tour. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls Singleton: "[The] unchallenged king of the comic Southern short story."

Recently I finished reading one of his laugh-out-loud story collections, Why Dogs Chase Cars. One afternoon while waiting for my grandchildren in the carpool van, I read it with the windows down. I was laughing so hard I kept getting strange looks from other moms and grandmoms picking up their kids after school. If you get a chance, check this book out. It is side-splitting funny and will definitely put a smile on your face. Also, check out his latest non-fiction book from Writers Digest, Pep Talks, Warnings and Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers. I can't wait to read my copy and see what George has to say.

Singleton's publishing credentials read like a short story writer's dream resume. His short stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Playboy, Zoetrope, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, North American Review, Fiction International, Epoch,, New England Review, Carolina Quarterly, Greensboro Review, Arkansas Review, American Literary Review, and so on.

His stories have been anthologized in eight issues of New Stories from the South, and also in 20 Over 40, Surreal South, Writers Harvest 2, They Write Among Us, and Behind the Short Story. His non-fiction has appeared in Bark and Oxford American, and has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2005, Dog is My Co-Pilot, and Howl. He has published four collections of stories: These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars, Drowning in Gruel; and two novels: Novel and Work Shirts for Madmen.

George was born in Anaheim, California and lived there until he was seven. He grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina. He graduated from Furman University in 1980 with a degree in philosophy, and from UNC-Greensboro with an MFA in creative writing. Singleton has taught English and fiction writing at Francis Marion College, the Fine Arts Center of Greenville County, and the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. He has been a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina and UNC-Wilmington, and has given readings and taught classes at a number of universities and secondary schools. His papers are reposited at the Jackson Library at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He lives in Pickens County, South Carolina, with the clay artist Glenda Guion and their eleven dogs and one cat.

What an impressive list of credentials! Also impressive is what George has to say in the following essay.


Once upon a time I had a great, great copyeditor named David Hough. From what I understand David got let go when Harcourt got bought out by Houghton-Mifflin. I’m sure he’s landed on his feet, for he is the best copyeditor of all time, as far as I’m concerned.

Backtracking somewhat, when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, all of the MFA students were required to take a class taught by Jim “Lester” Clark called Contemporary Publishing and Editing, wherein we learned the ins and outs of editing, proofreading, understanding the Chicago Manual of Style, and so on. Maybe two or three meetings into the course I understood, without a doubt, that I would never, ever, ever want to work in the publishing industry. There’s a reason why “editor” and “endoscopy” are close together in the dictionary, as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, my last novel was ready to be fact-checked and proofed by good David. But his mother got sick up in Minnesota, or North Dakota, or one of those places that a southern boy will never understand. He called me up and, in his Tom Waits-like voice, said, “I’m going to have to subcontract your novel out to another copyeditor. You’ll be in good hands.”

I said that I understood, for I did: There’s enough to worry about when one’s mother is sick in the South, much less a state that doesn’t know the term “Springtime.”

A couple of weeks later I got the proof pages of my novel in the mail. I looked over it. Already I knew that I might have some problems with colloquialisms--that was nothing new. In the past I had had to explain that we call liquor stores “red dot stores” around here, because of the gigantic red dots painted on the sides of the establishments. I’ve had to explain how we catch possums and raccoons live, pen them up, feed them corn for a week to clean out their systems, then slaughter them later for the wonderful roasts that they offer up. I’ve had to explain how sometimes grown men call each other “Cuz,” or “Bo,” and that not everyone down here says “Bubba.”

I readied myself.

The subcontracted copyeditor, as it ended up, was an eighty year-old woman who used to work in publishing up in New York. So she knew the rules of grammar.

The first time I wrote something like, “I only wanted to get out of the AA meeting and go home to my wife,” she used a transposition sign so that it read “I wanted only to get out of the AA meeting…”

She used that same procedure when I wrote something like, “I only cared about getting my name cleared of the situation.” She changed it to “I cared only about getting my name cleared.”

Understand that there’s a term called “stet,” which means “let it stand.” I wrote “Stet” in the margins both of these times. People don’t say things like, “I cherished only the freshest Beaujolais” around here.

On the third occasion--and I know this sounds like a joke, where everything comes in threes--she changed “I only thought about my future” into “I thought only about my future.”

And she wrote, “Do you people not know the rules of grammar down there?”
Uh-oh. I didn’t write “stet” in the margins. I wrote, “I want only to kill you, right now.”

As it ended up, David’s mother recovered. He returned to work. He called me up after getting the proofs and said, “I had a feeling there might be a problem, but I didn’t want to tell you.” He said that he kept all of my stets.

So. I relate all of this to only say that one must be patient with copyeditors, who’re doing their jobs, and who know way more than any of us the correct rules of grammar, et cetera. And I’d like to add that, with fiction, voice matters.

There you have it--some of George's indispensable wisdom and cautionary advice for writers about the value of a good copy editor and the importance of voice in fiction.

If you have any questions or comments for George, please feel free to post them here and check back for his answers.


  1. The following question was sent to me via e-mail from Bev Brannon.
    "I'm writing a short, short story for Boys Quest. The magazine wants stories no more than 500 words. Out of my 750 word story, I've been able to pare down 150 words: eliminating adjectives, adverbs and combining sentences. I even knocked off the first 10 sentences to get to 650. What would George recommend for knocking out more words so the story will fit the magazines requirements, yet not loose the content? Where else can I look for unwanted, unnecessary words?" Thanks, Bev Brannan

  2. Hello to George. I'm loving your book, Pep Talks, Warnings and Screeds. Bite-sized fun, indeed.

    I'm an English teacher, and I was wondering what bit of writing advice your students most ignore and if you have any stratgies for changing their minds.

    Tricia Grissom

  3. In English? Of what sort? For I had a similiar experience, one in which a person from the upper mid-west carefully 'corrected' out voice, and honestly thought it an improvement. Not surprising, I suppose, given that an ear for regional voice is learned. My two questions are these -- first, what is your sense of the market for regional fiction? Growing? Or not? Second, are there some authors you suggest? And preferably not writers who seem to disdain their heritage or lack affection for the characters. Books like Kinfolks, or I am One of You Forever, or Welding with Children, or One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash? Thanks

  4. Enjoyed reading your commentary.

    Question #1: I have several advanced college degrees and I've read a lot of books about writing, but I've never taken a creative writing course. I've had my "creative non-fiction" criqued by two college Eng professors and am now having stuff critiqued by Donna's critique group. The assessments are generally positive. But I've noticed in the credits and bios of published short stories that most published writers have graduated from writing programs. So here's my question: In your opinion, how important are writing courses for the amateur writer to get up to speed for publishing his or her work? I've thought about taking a writing course at a local college, but I've read the stuff written by those teachers and I find it doesn't meet the standards I set for my own work.

    Question #2: How many revisions do you typically run through? Honest to God, I must go through thirty revisions--easily--and I can still read the most recent revision and find things I think should be changed. Then I take the thing to my critique group and they find dozens of legit suggestions and corrections...for which I'm most thankful. I've written only a few things I can read without coming up with another several edits. I was at a reading given by Tim O'Brien a few years ago. He's my favorite Vietnam War author. He was reading from a hardbound copy of one of his novels. I noticed he was making corrections on almost every page as he read. "Thank you Jesus," I whispered."

  5. Hi Donna!

    I get strange looks from people all the time. Not necessarily when I'm reading funny stories out loud. Anyway, I'm definitely checking out "Why Dogs Chase Cars." 'Cause I'd really like to know the answer to that eternal mystery.

    And hey to George! I only wanted to say thanks for an entertaining and very informative blog tour. And that I wrote a short story once about this elderly gentleman who had "the Altimer's" and an editor wrote that I shouldn't use a spelling like that because readers wouldn't understand (I kinda thought the whole bit about the man wandering around and his daughters having to keep an eye on Daddy would be a tip-off...)

    Oh, and I kept "the Altimer's" in, too.

  6. George...I love your story about the copy editor. I'm going to order your books today...because Donna won't loan me hers, she knows what a book klepto I am.

    An agent told me when I first started writing that I had a good voice, but I needed to learn the craft. I was such a novice that I didn’t get it. Now I do, but do you think voice is something you have naturally, or is it something you can learn?


  7. Hi George,

    I totally agree with you about voice. When I read a book from somewhere other than the Mid-West (where I live), I enjoy hearing a different "voice" than mine. Also, when I write, my distinctive voice comes out whether I like it or not. The way that editor changed your wording, it made it sound not as convincing or natural.

    I've enjoyed your tour!


  8. Hey Bev--

    I'd have to look at the piece, but I imagine that you have to make some choices about what's really necessary--I mean, it's all going to be necessary. You might want to cull an anecdote/example or two. Killing the adverbs will help. I'd be willing to bet that once you get it down to 500 words--which is mighty short--you won't be happy with the piece as a whole.

  9. Hey Tricia--

    In the beginning, usually, there's one student who thinks he can write science fiction or fantasy. I tell these students that they need to know science, for one, and the history of mythology for the other. Then when their stories come out without conflict, character development, et cetera, I ask that they write what they know about--rebellion, love and hate, innocence and experience--or what they don't know that they actually do know.

  10. For David Lee Kirkland--

    I have no clue about the market for regional fiction. A good story's a good story, I figure, and will be published. For the second question--are you saying that I Am One of You Forever, One Foot in Eden, et al show disdain for heritage? I have a feeling you mean "Do you know any writers like Chappell, Rash, Gautreaux..." I'd go with them, certainly. Have you read William Gay, or Brad Watson, or Tom Franklin? Bobbie Ann Mason, Jill McCorkle. For western and comic, I'd go with Tim Sandlin. For western and not comic, Ivan Doig. Try Michael Parker's novel If You Want Me to Stay--what a voice there.

  11. To Anonymous--

    It's up to you about another degree or classes. It sounds to me like you're schooled out. I'm firmly of the belief that reading contemporary stuff causes some kind of osmosis--not in a plagiaristic way--that will seep into one's writing voice. But how do you know if you're reading good contemporary stuff?--You might be stuck with the crap Singleton writes. I'd read these literary magazines: Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Southern Review, Mid-American Review, Paris Review, Epoch, Oxford American. Go look in the back of, say, New Stories from the South, and see from what the editor's culling.

    Now, if you're still not getting published, you might want to change your mind and try out a class or two.

  12. For Louella--

    Cool name, first off. Anyone named Louella is going to have Voice with a capital V.

    I think that voice is acquired once the writer feels comfortable shedding grammar rules, and so on. It's all about idiom. I was scared to write about South Carolina and my place of training when I was 21-27, because I thought, "Who cares about such a dull place?" So I wrote about France, for I'd been there all of four months. When I realized that the old guy sitting on the bench in town said things wiser than Sartre, things started looking up for me, writing-wise.

    Now, I'm against dialect interference, for the most part. That style mostly died around 1930. But there's still a difference between, "That's a stupid man," and "He was dumber than a bag of razor strops." Idiom.

  13. Hey to Cathy C. Hall and Thanks to Ruth. I'll be leaving here (work) in a minute, but'll be back to a computer in an hour.

  14. Hi George,

    We truly are receiving a gift from you today. I'm learning so much from the questions and answers posted here. Thank you for your time and thoughtful answers, and thanks to everyone who has posted comments and questions. I hope to read even more questions and answers as the day progresses!

    As my good friend Louella likes to say when we book speakers for our Saturday Writers writing group, "We're going to work him harder than a government mule." But I hope you're not working too hard on my blog here!

    Speaking of Louella, who does indees have a Voice with a capital V, I especially enjoyed reading what you wrote to her about being comfortable shedding grammar rules. Unlearning or relearning is so much harder than learning. It's taken me years to feel comfortable beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjuction. But I keep trying.
    Here are my questions:
    What is the worst writing advice anyone has ever given you?
    What is the best writing advice anyone has ever given you?

    Donna Volkenannt

  15. Hey Donna--

    The best and the worse may have been the very same, specific to me: "Don't write any more poetry, George. Concentrate on the fiction." That was from Fred Chappell. He wasn't being mean--I didn't have the skill, patience, or intelligence to write poetry, evidently. My heart wasn't in it. Actually, I only think of this as good advice.

    Worst, by far: Back in about 1998 an agent contacted me. I sent him a collection of stories--the first collection that ended up getting published, without an agent. He went through a bunch of first person narratives and cut out the taglines. It looked like this:

    I went into the store and looked at the cashier. "What's on special today?"
    "Nothing. Wild rice, but nothing else."
    "It sure is hot in here."
    "Yes, our air conditioner is broken."
    "That's bad."
    "Tell me about it."

    What in the world? Who talks like that? Who goes around, in real life, and says, "You won't believe what happened to me today--I went into the store and walked in. 'What's up?' 'Nothing.' 'What's on special?' 'Wild rice.' And then I walked out of the store."

    I rewrote the stories, sent them back to the agent, questioned his abilities, then never heard from him again. A few years later I heard that he was no longer an agent, and that maybe he'd suffered from some psychological setbacks.

    Now, I realize that too many "I said"s can get on the reader's nerves, but still...

  16. Anyone with 11 dogs already has the perfect credentials for me. I'll be picking up your book on my next guilty trip to the book store!


  17. Here's an e-mail comment from Kathleen Kaiser:
    You're a great Hostess for George Singleton. He's very interesting and funny.

  18. Thanks everyone. And, yes, don't forget Herb the cat, who acts like one of the dogs.

  19. George,
    I am sold. Your essay was funny--and I can just picture Donna waiting to pick up her kids and laughing out loud. We need more VOICE and HUMOR in this world. Thanks!

  20. Hi Everyone,
    A HUGE thank you to George for sharing his time and words of wisdom with us. Margo is so right that we need more voice and humor in this world. And thanks to everyone who visited, commented, questioned, or e-mailed.
    Take care, and take time to write!
    Donna Volkenannt


Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V - Interviews with Lonnie Whitaker and Dr. Barri Bumgarner

Here is the second installment of interviews with contributors who have stories in Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V , from Ozark Writers, I...