Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he led a course help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Kindle Scout in Memoriam

Originally published at Hidden Gems Books.

At the end of May Amazon’s e-publishing venture Kindle Scout was put to rest after a run of three-plus years. Amazon announced the winding down in an email sent to all of Kindle Scout’s registered users (“Scouts” in their parlance) on April 2. The email was cool and understated considering the subject matter: “[W]e wanted to let you know of some upcoming changes being made to the Kindle Scout program” followed by businesslike details of the program’s orderly shutdown. Amazon’s Kindle Scout was an innovative approach to publishing never before tried, yet it died with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the clearing of a throat.

Reader-powered publishing

Let’s rewind and look at what made Kindle Scout so different in the publishing world. Rather than the traditional process of publishing—unknown authors cold-submitting into a mountainous slush-pile while well-known authors are courted by editors—Kindle Scout tacked a direction both democratic and meritocratic in nature, a process it dubbed “reader-powered publishing.”

It worked like this: Writers submitted their novels to Kindle Scout for consideration. Kindle Scout posted the first three chapters on their Amazon.com web site along with the book’s cover, author’s bio, and so forth. Readers perused these novels much like bookstore patrons sample paperbacks from a rotating wire rack. Readers—”Scouts”—could then vote on which novels they wanted to see published. (Scouts were rewarded for participating by receiving free ebooks of accepted work, which in turn drove reviews and ratings on Amazon.) Each books’ nomination campaign lasted thirty days, giving authors ample motivation to promote their work via the social networks, word-of-mouth, message boards—some even purchased online click-through advertising for their campaigns.

If an author earned enough attention from Scouts (and the approval of the Amazon editors) they could secure a contract with Kindle Press, the e-publishing arm of Amazon that administered Kindle Scout. The contract included publication in Kindle format (sorry, no paperback), a $1,500 advance, fifty-fifty ebook royalties, and marketing backed by Amazon’s muscle power. Not shabby for any struggling writer attempting to break into the publishing world.

Kindle Scout’s first round of winners were announced on November 27, 2014. Over the next three and half years, Kindle Scout would select for publication nearly 300 titles of all genres and styles. Books ranged from the straightforward to the bizarre, from romance to science-fiction to historical dramas to novels of literary intent. Kindle Press was not a publisher of genre fiction—it published everything.

Royal Date by Sariah Wison is one of Kindle Scout’s biggest success stories.

Kindle Scout’s semi-open approach to publication was bolder than it sounds. An unspoken belief in the traditional publishing world is that book editors have reached their position because they’re fit to judge a novel on its artistic merits and profit possibilities—editors are the professionals, the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the adults in the room. Granting Scouts that responsibility and power sounds absurd on the face of it. After all, anyone with an Amazon account could sign-up and start voting—who do you know without an Amazon account? And yet—it worked.

In addition to the manuscript itself, Kindle Scout expected writers to provide a submission package: a 45-character tag line (harder than it sounds!), a book description, a thank-you note for Scouts, and even the book’s cover. Off-loading these tasks on the author meant the writer was wearing shoes normally reserved for book agents and front-line editors. Kindle Press sometimes released the author’s submission package as-is with no editorial or artistic revisions. (Unfortunately, this led to an early reputation of publishing “trash” novels fostered in part by a snarky write-up in Slate magazine.) Later on, editorial services were offered to accepted writers. Some books received new covers after publication gratis Kindle Press.

Kindle Scout was one-part bold experiment, one-part do-it-yourself publishing, and one-part partnering with Amazon’s marketing might. Another way to put it: Kindle Scout was turn-key independent publishing for the small-time author ready to step up their game.

My experience

When I submitted my novel Bridge Daughter to Kindle Scout, that’s pretty much how I viewed the program: An experiment in independent publishing with potential big returns. I’d shopped my book around to a handful of agents with the usual discouraging results and form-letter responses. Curious, I studied Kindle Scout’s FAQ and legal boilerplate and thought it was worth a go. If nothing else, I knew I’d kick myself later if I didn’t at least try.

My attraction to Kindle Scout was not merely its web-savvy nomination process. Kindle Scout’s winners list boasted publisher-friendly genres like romance and epic fantasy as well as quiet and quirky work. I found myself drawn to novels like Katie O’Rourke’s family drama Finding Charlie, Erik Therme’s chilling Resthaven, and Bradley Wind’s wonderfully personal A Whole Lot.

With my novel prepped and submission package assembled, I filled in Kindle Scout’s online form, clicked a mouse button, and sent my book into the aether. Four days later, my book was on the Kindle Scout web site and accepting votes. If you’ve submitted work to agents or literary magazines and waited months for a response, four days probably sounds like sheer fantasy. It was another example of Kindle Scout ignoring accepted norms in the publishing world.

Plenty of people (including myself) pondered the skeleton key leading to acceptance by Kindle Scout. Was it page views of your book’s Scout page? Reader nominations? Kindle Scout’s secret sauce was its mysterious “Hot & Trending” badge which signified growing interest in your book. The speculation was so rampant, disreputable “services” arose on the Internet purporting to guarantee thirty days of Hot & Trending for a modest nonrefundable fee.

It may sound naive, but I suspect Kindle Press editors tended to accept selections based on content and marketability—in other words, using criteria much like their traditional publishing counterparts. The number of nominations a book received was never revealed to a winner so far as I know. (There’s a reason Scouts “nominated” books rather than “voted” for them. It was not a purely democratic process.) It seems to me the coveted Hot & Trending badge kept authors busy promoting their book during the 30-day campaign, doing the legwork a tech-shrewd publicist would normally perform.

And perhaps that was the best reason for an independent author to try Kindle Scout: Promotion. Putting sample chapters of your latest book on amazon.com before tens of thousands of potential readers is a fine way to generate prerelease buzz. The Kindle Scout platform was custom-built to kick-start ebook sales.

Alas, the good times hit a road bump in the first quarter of 2017. A change in editorial staff was announced via private channels to Kindle Press authors. Although not obvious at first, as the months wore on the pace of accepted manuscripts slowed to a trickle. The diversity I’d so admired also narrowed. A Kindle Press editor admitted to me earlier this year they were seeking work for the “Kindle Reader:” accessible fiction for an adult readership. Nothing wrong with that, merely unfortunate that Kindle Press couldn’t keep the door open for writers striking out on a different trail.

What’s next?

With Kindle Scout’s funky little experiment shuttered for good, I find myself strangely nostalgic. There really was something exhilarating about joining the experiment and seeing where it would take me. It strikes me that Amazon charted a map showing a new way of doing business in the publishing world. Kindle Scout’s formula could be replicated by an ambitious and web-savvy small publisher, or even an established house’s imprint seeking to shake things up. Yes, the book closes on Kindle Scout with the clearing of a throat. Let’s see if there’s a sequel.

Fiction as a controlled experiment

On Literature by J. Hillis MillerNot too long ago I finished reading J. Hillis Miller’s On Literature, a slim and thoughtful consideration of the role of the written word at the end of the 20th century. Born from a lecture at UC Irvine in 2001, Miller expanded his talk into six chapters and 160 pages of conversational prose asking the simple but still-unanswered questions of literary theory: What is literature? Why read it? And how does it “work”?

I almost didn’t finish the book, however, or even start it. Standing at the bookstore stacks pondering whether or not to purchase it, I almost returned On Literature to its place on the shelf after noticing the word “deconstruction” in its table of contents. Like a home cook who dabbles in books on nutrition, I enjoy reading how and why fiction works, but my patience runs low when I encounter the thick postmodern language of the deconstructionists and post-structuralists. As far as I’m concerned, literary theory veered into the weeds after the 1950s, becoming circular, reactive, insular, and insulated.

J. Hillis Miller

J. Hillis Miller

Miller’s On Literature does venture into deconstruction, but only briefly and at the end, and in the most surprising way. Miller proposes C. S. Lewis’ Alice books were inadvertently deconstructing Robinson Crusoe, in the sense that Alice offers an unnatural world of random occurrence and contradictory logic. This pushes against the grain of Defoe’s orderly world, a world of British conquest over nature and British uplift of the “savage.” Connecting these two unrelated works typifies the kind of thoughtful playfulness that makes On Literature something much more refreshing than the dry lit theory of graduate studies.

As Wikipedia notes, Miller is an English professor specializing in deconstruction, and his academic work suggests the kind of dry examination of literature that most so-called average readers would not identify with. In On Literature, Miller loosens the knot in his tie to reveal a lifelong love of reading and all its pleasures.

But what’s most surprising is Miller confessing to seeing literature as a kind of virtual reality or “secular dream vision.” Miller argues fiction

Myst linking book

Myst linking book

is not, as many people may assume, an imitation in words of some pre-existing reality but, on the contrary, it is the creation or discovery of a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality. … A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver. [Emphasis mine.]

This is not a fashionable approach in academia today. It’s far more common to dissect literature with the scalpels of Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and gender and sexuality—in other words, to view fiction through the lenses of power dynamics and identity politics. And Miller goes farther than viewing books as portable virtual worlds. He proposes these hyper-realities are not merely witnessed by the reader, they’re discovered, magically, when the book is opened and the first words begin to settle in his or her mind. Like the linking books in the video game Myst, a novel is a device that not only opens a door to an alternate reality, it allows us to dwell within its world, briefly.

Dealing in Futures by Joe HaldemanThe problem with talking about fiction as a hyper-reality or virtual world is that those terms suggest science fiction. When I was young, one of my favorites books was Joe Haldeman’s science-fiction story collection Dealing in Futures. Its title instantly suggests that the book will generate for you any number of alternate worlds of a future time—that it’s “a pocket or portable dreamweaver.” Miller doesn’t limit this idea to science fiction, however. He sees all fiction as generators of virtual worlds.

Miller admits that this view of fiction has long been out of fashion in the academic world. He sometimes sounds a touch embarrassed admitting it, which is why I say the book reads more like a confessional than a treatise.

Over the years I’ve met writers who’ve told me they have little interest or use for books on how fiction “works.” To study literature is to kill the magic and pleasure of book-reading, the thinking goes—a notion that conveniently plays right into Miller’s “secular dream vision.”

On Literature recharged a personal theory I’ve been tossing around in my head for some time now. I don’t claim it’s original, but if I picked it up from somewhere, I couldn’t name the source. I also don’t claim it’s an earthshaking theory either, but it has changed how I view books and my own writing. The theory is simply this: Fiction is a controlled experiment being run by its author (or authors).

By “experiment” I mean something closer to trial-and-error than a formal scientific process. Books are not beakers of liquids bubbling over open flame. I also don’t mean the experimentalism of avant garde literature, the breaking of rules to create distance between the work and its reader, such as the mathematical formalism of the Oulipo. By “experiment” I mean an author asking “what if…?” or “what would it be like if…?”. The author imagines a world not their own to answer that question, and then, by writing the story, plays out that experiment to its conclusion.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

The “what if?” doesn’t have to be particularly daring or fantastical. “What would it be like if a young governess fell in love with her married employer?” could describe the experiment of Jane Eyre. In it, Charlotte Brontë constructed an experiment in experience—an experiment in the human condition, and from the point of view not commonly told up to that point in British literature. The experiment’s result is a document of 19th century countryside England, a world fairly foreign to us today but recognizable as a landscape of the human psyche. And thanks to Brontë’s experiment, we can visit that world without a time machine or other exotic technology.

When I say a “controlled experiment,” I mean controlled by the kind of restrictions Brontë imposed on herself throughout the creative process. Fiction is a plastic form. Brontë could’ve introduced any number of outlandish plot devices or characters. Instead, Brontë kept the novel’s details and events near to the world she knew and let the characters push through the complications themselves. Jane Eyre‘s ending is not clean and crisp, but it was under Brontë’s control. These decisions are guided by the hand of the author, controlling (but perhaps not dictating) the experiment’s outcome.

For an example of an experiment with a different set of controls, there’s Lewis’ Alice books. “What if my little friend Alice was transported to a world of playful illogic and word games?” Lewis gave himself the freedom to veer wildly from the known world. For one, the Alice in the books isn’t even the real Alice Liddell. And if gravity suddenly reversed itself the Alice books, we wouldn’t be surprised at all. On the other hand, gravity reversing itself would utterly destroy the experiment called Jane Eyre. Alice and Jane Eyre were written in the same time period by authors living a few hundred miles apart, but they ran very different experiments in what it means to be human.

Just as in science, not every experiment is a success. Some are duds. And Brontë did produce a dud of sorts: an experiment called The Professor, a novel about a male teacher at a Belgian all-girls school. The manuscript was rejected by every publisher she offered it to. Years later she tweaked the parameters of that experiment—tweaked the parameters of the experience—and wrote Villette, a novel about a female teacher at a Belgian all-girls school. Of Brontë’s works, The Professor is considered for completists and not widely read. Villette is thought by some to be Brontë’s true masterpiece.