Monday, October 8, 2012

My First Time: George Singleton

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is George Singleton, one of the funniest writers north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  His newest collection of short stories, Stray Decorum, has just been released by Dzanc Books.  Singleton’s other story collections are These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars, and Drowning in Gruel; his two novels are Novel and Work Shirts for Madmen. Most recently he has published a guide for writers titled—in wry Singletonian fashion—Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom And Cautionary Advice For Writers.  His stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Zoetrope, Shenandoah, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, North American Review, Epoch, and New England Review, among others.  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, and has been a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina and UNC-Wilmington.  A 2009 Guggenheim Fellow, he lives in Pickens County, South Carolina, with the clay artist Glenda Guion and a number of stray dogs and one cat.

My First Stet

At some point in 2006 my great copyeditor at Harcourt, David Hough, called to say, “My mom’s sick back in Minnesota, and I need to go back there.  I’ve hired out another copyeditor to look over Work Shirts for Madmen.”

Of course I said, “Yes.  No problem.  Good God, buddy, go take care of your mom.”

David said, “Listen, this woman who’s going to copyedit--she’s old, and from New York.  When I get back, we’ll look over her suggestions.”

“Get going, man, get going,” I said.

David Hough sounded like Harvey Fierstein over the telephone, as if he gargled with roofing nails.  In the previous two books he put up with my characters saying things like “I ain’t got no money,” for he knew what they meant.  He put up with “y’all” and “fuckin A” and “Hey, buddy, you got a case quarter I can borry?” even though neither of us knew the meaning or origins of “fuckin A” or “case quarter.”  David pretty much called and said, “You meant that to be ‘possum’ on page 227, instead of ‘opossum,’ right?”

I don’t know if any of those slick editing systems with all the margin queries and whatnot had been invented in 2006, but the subcontracted copyeditor for Work Shirts for Madmen sent me back a hard copy of the manuscript.  She must’ve spent fifty bucks in red pencils.  I went through writing “Stet...Stet...Stet” oh, on average, twenty times per page.

Evidently I have a tendency--or my characters have a tendency in first-person narration--to say things like “I only want to hit the couch and take a nap,” or “I only want for my wife to quit starting projects that require my assistance,” or “I drink moonshine only in Kentucky.”

The copyeditor woman changed the first one of these sentences to “I want only to hit the couch...” and “I want only for my wife” and “I drink moonshine in Kentucky only.”

On the third one of these changes she found it necessary to point out in the margins, “Do you people in the South not know this grammar rule?”

Stet.  Stet.  Stet.

On the fourth instance of her changes I wrote in the margin, “I want only to kill you.”

I sent the manuscript back to David and, when he returned from Minnesota he called me up and said something like, “I had a feeling that wasn’t going to work out all that well.  Don’t worry, I’ve gone back and made sure we have your original voice.”

In the Acknowledgements for that particular novel I had thanked my editor/publisher, agent, David Hough, and so on.  I had put in there, too, “I want only to thank...” whatever the Old School grammarian woman’s name was.  Someone took that part out, though, when the book finally got published.

I have nothing else to do in Dacusville, South Carolina except be mean and think up tricks, so I started a slew of stories wherein the main character’s name was Stet.  What the hell.  I thought it would be funny to have “Stet” all over the text, and then--should I ever get another subcontracted copyeditor--I could also write “Stet” all over the margins.  I wrote something like thirty-five of these stories, sometimes when Stet Looper was narrating, sometimes when he miraculously appeared as a minor character.  Wait--it’s probably supposed to be “...sometimes when he appeared miraculously as a minor character.”

Anyway, the original collection of Stray Decorum was something like 450 pages.  It got cut in half, wisely, by my agent.  After Stray Decorum, the other section of Stet stories will come out in 2014.  It’s called No Cover Available--and I have a story about that, which has to do with New York publishers wanting to put confederate flags on my covers, or flamingos that don’t live in South Carolina, and so on.

Anyway, that’s the reason for the Stet stories.  I only wish I knew that woman’s name, so I could thank her.  Kind of.


  1. Yeesh. I hate hearing about shit like this. I make my living as a copy editor for fiction writers, and while I don't know everything (just 97% of it), I know not to stomp all over a writer's voice. Next time David wants to subcontract out a copy-edit, give him my name. (Seriously, the words "New York" should have been an epic red flag.)

  2. Also, tell Writer's Digest Books that "Pep Talks ...." should be available on Kindle. I'd like to buy it.

  3. Now, George, you know your voice could use some gussyin' up. Poor Mrs. Only was trying to prevent you from embarrassing not only yourself but the entire South.