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Weekly Wrap: Independent Streaks

by Susan Henderson on April 13, 2007

Thanks to BPM Smith at Word N’ Bass for a little pre-publicity on my novel! I appreciate it.

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During a week when we discussed independent streaks and the indie presses who dare to publish groundbreaking literature for sometimes no profit at all, it seems fitting to begin the Weekly Wrap with a little Kurt Vonnegut, who died earlier this week.

I know many of you knew Vonnegut as a cranky teacher, a stubborn and discouraging critic of your writing, but also a hero and maverick in the world of literature, and a writer who was bold with his wit and opinions. NPR’s Morning Edition has a nice tribute to him, including the passage below. And if you follow that link, you’ll also get to some great radio interviews:

Vonnegut’s most famous work was an iconic novel born out of his memories of war and its absurdities. Vonnegut’s mother killed herself when he was a young man leaving to serve in World War II. As a private in that war, he was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in a former slaughterhouse in the ancient German city of Dresden. From there he stepped out into the hellish, surreal landscape that Dresden became after it was firebombed. It took him 25 years to turn that experience into Slaughterhouse-Five.

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When I prepared to interview for my first real job, I tried to dress the part of a professional. I wore one of my mother’s dresses, dug deep into my closet for a pair of heels, and bought a briefcase. Pretending to be mainstream made me feel a little silly and nervous, and after I shook hands with the woman who would interview me, I realized I’d been carrying the empty briefcase upside-down, price tag and all.

I got the job. But that was because the woman who interviewed me didn’t care much about packaging. She got right to the center of me, and soon we were talking about Maya Angelou and survivors and working with spunky teens. And we had a good laugh about the briefcase – because, honestly, if you can’t laugh, you are going to burn out real quick in my old line of work.

This organization and the people I tend to involve myself with the most are usually driven by passion. They buck the trends. They stand up against the system when necessary and won’t compromise what feels right in their hearts. These are the types I tend to meet at book festivals and small press gatherings. They’re not mainstream. They’re a bunch of book geeks who fell in love with Virgil and Larry Brown and Sarah Waters and Cornelius Eady before they fell in love in the real world.

The indie presses are invaluable to the literary community precisely because they are not chained to corporations or marketing teams. They are free to push boundaries of form and content, and they are responsible for helping new forms of writing like Mary Robison‘s Why Did I Ever? reach the mainstream. If there’s anything to remember from my blog today (besides the photo you’re about to see) it’s to remind you that small press books (and really ALL books) survive by word of mouth. If you like something, say something.

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I’m going to close with Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

— Vonnegut, Kurt, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

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Thank you to Kevin Sampsell for being here this week and for all he does at Powell’s and at Future Tense Books. And thanks to those of you who answered the Question of the Week: Suzanne, lance reynald, Nicole, Aurelio, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Juliet, Robin Slick, Carolyn Burns Bass, mikel k, Simon Haynes, Betsy, Kimberly, Richard, Gail Siegel, Julie Ann Shapiro, Jason Boog, Noria, n.l. belardes, patry, dennis mahagin, Bruce Hoppe.

See you Monday with a brand new question!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

sheryl monks April 13, 2007 at 7:13 am

This small press thanks you — for saying so.

sheryl monks
Press 53

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Susan Henderson April 13, 2007 at 8:20 am

Man, Kurt Vonnegut’s face makes me wish I knew how to draw.

Sheryl – It’s great to see you here!

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Betsy April 13, 2007 at 9:27 am

Sue, I really like Vonnegut’s rules you posted here – I’m going to bring them to my class. He was truly one of my earliest inspirations.

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billie April 13, 2007 at 9:38 am

Wonderful tips from Mr. Vonnegut. He leaves us with so much.

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Noria April 13, 2007 at 2:14 pm

Vonnegut said that Flannery O’Connor broke all of his rules but the first.

I had him as a teacher, briefly. I caught him at a terrible time in his life, just after one of his Pall Malls burned down his New York brownstone. All his writing archives, ash. He almost died. He and his wife separated, and he came to live in Northampton and was writer-in-residence at Smith. I was working on my MFA at nearby UMass, Amherst. I took a class with Kurt Vonnegut and it kind of broke my heart. He wore stained slacks and a filthy safety-orange sweater with holes in the elbows. He was drunk. He made inappropriate comments about the beauty of co-eds bending over to pick up their books. It was clear that I’d caught him at a sad, sad juncture in his life. I didn’t stay in that class long.

I wonder if the fire brought back memories of Dresden.

His books, especially Cat’s Cradle and Sirens of Titan, blew my mind at a point in my life when my mind needing blowing in exactly the way that he blew it, if that makes sense.

I will miss him.

Vonnegut’s peephole closed. And so it goes.

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Daryl April 13, 2007 at 2:52 pm

Wow Noria, fantastic share! Cat’s Cradle was THE book that opened my mind to the possibilities of what I myself could be allowed to imagine and have permission to write. This very week I am very confused by many things going on in my life, and well, now that Mr. Vonnegut has ascended to a ~different~ plane I feel like I can channel his creative spirit to write my own life as a novel. Decisions, decisions!

RE: summer camp stories, Aurelio and I have begun to share stories of what happened in our lives since “those summer camp years”. I’ve posted the beginning of my story on my blog. Thanks for showing the photos Susan!

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Carolyn Burns Bass April 13, 2007 at 9:33 pm

I’m printing out and posting Vonnegut’s eight rules somewhere I can review them often.

Aurelio! How often did you get mistaken for Greg Brady? Daryl looks just like the boy I went to my senior prom with in 1976.

The camp story is just too amazing. Did you sleuth out their camp connection, Susan? Spooky.

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Susan Henderson April 14, 2007 at 12:19 am

Betsy, billie, and Carolyn – I’m glad you liked the 8 tips. I’m printing them out for me, too.

Noria – That’s one hell of an interesting and heartbreaking story. Thanks for telling it.

Daryl – I love what you say about Cat’s Cradle opening your mind to the “possibilities of what I myself could be allowed to imagine and have permission to write.” I feel the same way about my favorite books. I’m heading over to read about your summer camp. (And no, Carolyn, Daryl and Aurelio found the connection all on their own. But when I was sent the camp photo, I begged for permission to post it.)

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Robin Slick April 14, 2007 at 12:15 pm

This world keeps getting smaller and smaller. You know I’m an agnostic, but there are times I really believe certain people are destined to meet for whatever reasons.

Anyway, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, another awesome week at LitPark though I am admittedly in mourning for Kurt and actually do believe in the power of banana cream pie. Ha.

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Aurelio April 14, 2007 at 12:23 pm

This camp connection thing still has me reeling! What a hoot!

I had such BIG hair back then (not quite Gaiman-esque though…)

I attended the Noveltown Mixer in Bakersfield, CA, on Thursday. It was hosted by Nick Belardes, and the debut issue contains pieces by many of the LitPark regulars, including our very own Susan Henderson!

Noveltown Review is all about small press and public exposure for writers – it and this week’s LitPark topic were in a Vulcan mind meld! I hope people here get a chance to check it out.

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Aurelio April 14, 2007 at 4:47 pm

When I said small press I meant indie – I’ll get all the lingo down just in time for it to change again.

(Wishing for that “edit post” button.)

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Susan Henderson April 14, 2007 at 11:27 pm

Robin – Your indie press post is amazing. You might want to repost that on your blog because it’s that good and useful. I am amazed by this whole summer camp connection. I was joking to Aurelio that I’d really like to find an old photo from my patrol camp so I can see the camp counselor I kissed. At the time it was very sexy, but now I’m thinking, what kind of camp counselor would kiss a 5th grader?

Aurelio – The picture’s adorable.

I’m glad you got to go to the Noveltown mixer. The moment Nick posts about it, I’ll link it here. I’m anxious to get my copy of the review.

(P.S. I’ll never add an editing button. Watching you guys sweat over typos is too much fun.)

Daryl – I’ve looked all over your site and read lots of wonderful posts but can’t find your camp story. Can you post the direct link here?

Okay, ‘night, everyone. I’ll catch up on the Monday and Wednesday comments tomorrow. Still playing catch up from my mother in law’s visit.

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Daryl April 15, 2007 at 5:59 pm

Well, it’s turned into a lot more than just a story about “camp”. But here it is.

http://daryldarko.googlepages.com/myfallfromhisgrace

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Claire Cameron April 15, 2007 at 7:52 pm

Those 8 rules are all you need.

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Claudia April 17, 2007 at 1:29 pm

Thanks for this Sue. I’m going to be thinking about Vonnegut’s rules the next time I sit down to write.

And Yehaw, Yay, Yahoo, Hurray for the indie presses! Without them I’d be writing in the dark.

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Nicole April 17, 2007 at 7:18 pm

OK, well, I know this topic is over. But I wasn’t done with it. I just posted a new blog, on the newly revamped Amazon on the nature of Getting the word out on Indie books

Not sure it will go anywhere, as the new Amazon blog (thus far) doesn’t appear to be associated with the book the author wrote. We’ll see if that’s a temporary glitch.

I do love Amazon and am grateful for them. That doesn’t mean I don’t love indie booksellers and chains too for that matter. I love any place you can get books. Just to put that out there.

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BPM Smith April 22, 2007 at 7:30 pm

Hey Sue. Glad you liked the shoutout on your Tap Root deal, congrats!

I think Kurt’s 8 rules are something we should all tape on the wall, above our desks. ciao.

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