And now for someone completely different at What Not to Do Wednesday: acclaimed Southern writer,George Singleton.
George has a new book making a writing splash, Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds, that’s full of his writing What To Do’s. So, really, he could have just slapped a “Not” in front of his witty wisdom and passed it along here. But George is a classy guy, so he came up with something completely different for the Hall of Fame. Read and learn, grasshopper.
George Singleton’s What Not To Do
So I’ve been thinking about this topic for a week. Don’t eat jelly sandwiches directly above your keyboard. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t threaten editors. If you know Russian or Chinese fluently, don’t spend eight or ten pages of a novel wherein the characters only communicate in Russian or Chinese, just to show the reader how smart you are. Don’t keep disposable safety razors anywhere near your writing desk.
But these seem obvious. What I want to talk about is how agents have evolved into believing that pre-blurbs are good things. Is this true? Good grief. Let me make it clear that when my editor for last couple books asked me, “Who would you like to blurb your book?” I said, “No one.” I meant it. It’s a slight pain in the butt, and most people I would ever like to write a book blurb, I knew, were busy writing their own novels or stories. If I didn’t know the writer-and why would I want to bug a stranger?- I felt as though I would be invading his or her space. If the writer was a friend-gee, how many friends write blurbs for one another- I knew that he or she had enough things to worry about.
Here’s a true story. I was asked to rate a writer’s blurb-worthiness on a scale from A to F. We went through a bunch of A’s : T.C. Boyle, Barry Hannah, and so on. I said, “What about Thomas Pynchon? What about J. D. Salinger?”
Then we went through people I knew, all of whom I said “C,” because I didn’t want to bother them. Then, finally, I was asked, “What about John Kennedy Toole?”
I waited for a while and listened to silence on the other end of the phone. Was I being tested? Did this PR person want to see what a rube I might be? I said, “He’s dead.”
She was silent for a while and then said, “You gave me his name.”
I said, of course, “I DIDN’T GIVE YOU ANYBODY’S NAME. YOU’RE THE ONE WHO STARTED THIS LITTLE GAME.” I said, “He committed suicide, maybe back in the late sixties, and his mother took the manuscript around-it’s a famous publishing story.”
She said, “Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
I said, “I’M TELLING EVERYONE. ARE YOU CRAZY?”
So that’s the Regular World of the Blurb. And now it’s come to the pre-blurb. In the World of the Pre-Blurb, agents send a manuscript around in hopes that another writer’s initial glowing words will somehow transform an editor’s “We’re going to have to pass on this novel” to “Jeepers! If Blank says it’s okay, then it must be okay! Maybe we can get Faulkner, Cheever and Flaubert to do real blurbs when the novel comes out!”
I use exclamation points sparingly. That’s another What Not to Do-don’t scatter exclamation points all over your manuscript as if you poured them out of an exclamation point shaker.
I’ve done a handful of these pre-blurb things. Some novels get published (and I don’t think needed pre-blurbs) and some didn’t. I do not-believe me-blame the writer. He or she almost has to say, “Okie-dokie, if you think it’s a great idea, then send out the manuscript.” What’re you going to do, piss off the agent after you spent all that time trying to get one?
I can’t wait to see what happens in the future: “What you need to do, while the fetus is still growing in your womb,” the agent will say, “is get a bunch of writers to say what a great writer you’ll be. You need some proof that you took enough folic acid, didn’t drink or smoke, and played classical music on your belly. And then you need them to say how the kid will go to the best schools, and participate in the proper amount of extracurricular activities-to be well-rounded, you know- and so on. Then, when your child gets out of college we’ll get him or her to write a novel. And the pre-pre-blurbs can be sent to pre-blurbists, so that editors will want the novel. And then they’ll offer a contract, and get going on rounding up some real blurbists.”
No wonder the publishing industry struggles as of late.
So my What Not To Do Wednesday lesson, I suppose, is not expect any kind of rational, logical behavior when it comes to getting published. And don’t call an ear, nose, and throat doctor when you find a scar on your tongue-it’s from having to bite it so often.
Thanks, George. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a pre-blurb. Imagine all the other writer-ly wisdom you’re going to get from Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds. Plus, now, I’m kinda hooked on George. I need to read one of his other books. He’s published four collections of short stories, two novels, and tons of short stories in magazines and literary journals.
To tell the truth, George sent me a copy of his scathingly brilliant book. And I’d really like to give it away to someone who comments today. But here’s the thing: This is a book with pep talks! Warnings! Screeds! It’s the sort of book every writer needs sitting by his/her desk when the going gets tough and you’re doodling tattoo ideas on your forearm (or maybe that’s just Cathy C. Hall). So, I’m not sure I can part with my book. But George has very graciously agreed to part with more of his writer-ly wit and wisdom today. He’ll be hanging about, ready to dispense advice to anyone who stops by with a question.
Didn’t I tell you he was completely different?