Review: Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds

There is no such thing as a good fiction writing textbook. I say this as someone who’s taken more than a few fiction writing classes — and has read a few textbooks on her own. But it is possible to learn from other fiction writers: not by reading a textbook, but by sitting down with a writer you admire and just talking. George Singleton’s new book, Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom And Cautionary Advice For Writers feels like that perfect conversation with a writing mentor.

Singleton set out to collect the stories and aphorisms he’s shared with his writing classes over the years in Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds. He organized these bits of writerly wisdom in bite-size pieces. Some made me laugh, some made me wonder and all of them made me think. There’s more than a hint of humor in Singleton’s suggestions, making even the points that can be hard for a young writer to absorb easy to absorb. Consider No. 110:

Keep a small bottle of instant hand sanitizer on your desk at all times, for reasons. One, it’s hard to write when you have a head cold or the flu, and this stuff, supposedly, kills 99.99 percent of germs in fifteen seconds. Two, a bottle on your desk will remind you to clean up your sentence-by-sentence writing.

While a thick skin can be a useful attribute for a writer, I must admit that I prefer Singleton’s roundabout mention that writers need to edit on a sentence-by-sentence basis. I’ve had teachers that took a different route — picking apart a manuscript line by line in front a whole class can be an unenjoyable process. It’s little gems like No. 110 that make Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds not just a real writer’s education, but a pleasant one in the process.

But you do have to pay attention to Singleton’s comments to get the full value — especially those sections that offer a little help with money. They’re sprinkled throughout and range from something as simple as stealing office supplies to what economic conditions are best for selling a piece of fiction, but Singleton wraps them in stories, analogies and other wrappers that make them easier to read — but also just a little easier to miss. I almost skipped reading No. 156: it starts out talking about certificate of deposits before making a connection to how writers can leverage writing credits to get interest from bigger publishers. It just goes to show you that Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds is a book worth paying close attention to.

Singleton has more than earned his chops as both an educator and a writer. His short story credits alone are enough to impress: in addition to having published four collections of his stories, his fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy and many others. You can find more about him at GeorgeSingleton.com, as well as the other stops on his WOW! blog tour (which this post is part of).

In short, Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds is a good read for any writer. Even if you focus more on non-fiction, Singleton’s anecdotes will provide you with new places to take your writing — and new ideas on how to polish it. And we aren’t talking about a one time read here, either. Even after finishing the book, I’ve picked t up a couple of times already looking thoughts and ideas about a particular topic. You can find Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom And Cautionary Advice For Writers on Amazon.com.

As usual, I’m offering up my review copy as a giveaway. To enter, leave a comment on this post sharing a bit of wisdom that has helped you as a writer before the end of the day Friday. I’ll randomly select a winner on Saturday. I will pay shipping within the U.S. — if you win and live outside the U.S., I’ll ask you to cover the difference. Oh, and a plus for this giveaway — the copy I’m offering is autographed!

7 Comments

  1. Jodi Webb   •  

    I don’t know how told me this or if I read it…
    Stop writing for the day mid scene because it will keep you thinking about your piece and what’s going to happen next.

    Plenty of times this has had me thinking about the characters in my non-writing life(while I make supper, send emails, watch my kids play basketball). Sometimes this unconscious mulling over the scene helps me realize the scene wasn’t true to their personalities or helped me map out what comes next.

  2. Rebecca   •  

    To get in the writing mood, I always read a good book. I find I have so many ideas while reading a book that I should always read in front of my computer.

    Thanks for the giveaway opportunity! :)

    Rebecca

    (PS, My company is giving away an iPod shuffle over @alice)

  3. Nicole Nascenzi   •  

    I always love the writing advice of Anne Lamott although she focuses on nonfiction I think it still applied. Shitty first drafts are expected and OK – you should work on getting the story on paper (or on screen) and polish it later.

  4. I find it is useful to keep track of ideas when I’m not trying to write something because it gives me a bunch of potential starting points when I am ready to write. I have dozens of draft blog posts with just a title and a few sentences written. These give me a very easy place to start when I need to create something, but am lacking inspiration.

  5. thursday   •     Author

    @Nicole, I think it’s interesting that George’s book has been compared to Anne Lamott’s a couple of times already.

  6. Moshe Yudkowsky   •  

    As I was writing my non-fiction book, I always kept one thought in mind: how does this word, this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter serve my central purpose? I discarded a long, well-written, and informative chapter just weeks before I handed in my manuscript — because I decided the chapter was superfluous.

    I highly recommend Mortimer J. Adler’s “How to Read a Book” to any aspiring author. His explanations of what to look for in a good book led me to understand what I must put into a good book.

  7. Shy   •  

    This is sort of similar to what Nicole said, but I’ve always been fond of the advice “Done is better than good.” It is much easier to finish something that you know is sub-par and make it great after it’s done than to try to choose the perfect word each time from the very beginning… you’ll never finish that way.

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