Category Archives: Writing motivation

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight rules for writing fiction

In a recent meeting of our glorious critique group, Drafthouse, Sanford and Joe got to talking about the wonders of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. They cited one after another after another story or story element that I simply didn’t realize that was being done at the time he worked. Crazy shit but crazy shit that obviously worked.

It seemed, growing up, every time I had heard Vonnegut’s name it was being mentioned by in stuffy terms by pretentious people. But to hear Sanford and Joe go on about him, it was like hearing my own deep praise for artists like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood or Alison Krauss’s Jerry Douglas. I mourned my not having read literally any of Vonnegut’s works and decided right then that I would remedy the situation.

As of this writing I still haven’t read my first Vonnegut, not having reached to the end of my current read in progress, but I’ve had time to poke around about Vonnegut’s writing approach. This morning, I came across this short list of his Eight Rules for Writing Fiction on, just one of their long list of people listed on their slightly disturbing page, People.

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

1-4 run parallel with about every other writing how-to I’ve read.

  • Don’t betray the reader’s trust.
  • Make characters sympathetic.
  • Drive characters’ action with desire.
  • Making every sentence necessary — for Poe and his preference for shorter work, it was every word.

As are 6-8, though I found fresh Vonnegut’s belief that a writer strive to please just one person, especially his choice of a pneumonia analogy.

But it was 5 that I hadn’t run across before. I had heard similar, beginning-centric advice as:

  • Start at the first interesting moment.
  • Start in the midst of conflict.
  • Start with a hook.
  • Start somewhere interesting and go back later and fill in back story.

But I had never heard a writing tip that measured from the end, the story’s resolution. The line’s uniqueness stopped me. It got me thinking. I started to mentally test my own stories to see if I had begin them at the correct point according to Vonnegut and in most cases the answer was “no” or “close.” There were too few yeses. And the shocking was that the small handful of stories that did pass Vonnegut’s test happened to be my stronger stories.

I considered the story that I was — and am, truth be told — working on, a short story about a woman whose obsession with creating the perfect culinary dish for an upcoming national competition leads her to insist on human meat as her protein. At the time I had read the article, the story began with her slow progression toward obsession, nowhere close enough to the end. By applying Vonnegut’s advice, the story needed to begin with her already having succumbed to her demons.

This may sound like the beginning-centric advice above but it’s subtly different. Instead of concerning myself with the right opening line or the right conflict to begin with, I’m looking at the resolution and moving backwards to the very last conflict that I can’t under any circumstances omit and still have the story understandable.

So out was her guilt that she’d put her family through who-cares-what. Out was leading with the inciting incident. Instead, I rearranged the story to begin with the disturbing moment she obtains the key ingredient, the conflict after which all other events are closing out the story. I found that flashing back to earlier conflicts, those that forced the character to the main conflict itself.

The difference was marked. Now I can’t wait to put this story to bed and possibly revisit and rearrange the events in one or two of my recent favorites.

Back in the writing saddle.

Recently I took another look at the blogging aspect of my writing career. I had a good run this year, blogging nearly 5 days a week for a number of months. I had built a pretty good habit and got a little of a following going; however, that all came to a screeching halt last month when I realized that blogging was factoring at all into whether and how much I would write on any given day. Blogging was fine when I had something to say, too, but around the same time I made the realization about it affecting my writing output and time, I also found that I was spending more time than I could accept — namely ANY time — hunting for interesting content to blog about.

Why was I doing it? Platform? Pride? Boredom? Was I writing as a result of writing fatigue? Yes to all, probably, though I wouldn’t guess at proportions.

After reevaluating blogging and writing, I’ve decided to admit that I headed down a road that didn’t gain me much in the way of following or building my writing. As I had said in a blog entry sometime this year, there are benefits to writing something — anything — every day and that blogging does bring one closer to one’s real voice, but if that blogging interferes with the more important work of writing and honing fiction, then it’s got to be reigned in.

Sigh of relief.

Now, after taking a couple weeks off from pushing myself to write three pages each day — a wonderful habit that one of my perpetually unnamed writing buddies practices — I am officially back in the saddle. Just today I finished up the second draft of my witch/tattoo story. I’ll let it sit for a couple weeks before rereading it and making what I hope to be final edits. During that waiting period, I’ll be writing a story that I quickly synopsized and outlined in the wee hours only two days ago. Needless to say, I’m excited to get into a new story, not only because it’s not the same story I’ve been working on but because it’s so new an idea to me that it’s glowing with exciting energy.

(The new story is another witch story but one that looks at the type from a different angle than I’ve explored before. She’s every bit as dark as other evil, magical women I’ve written about — in fact, she’s probably a good deal darker — but there’s some dim light about the application of her evil.)

As with any hiatus, I rediscovered my love for the craft. I have a tendency to do anything I do with maniacal energy, thus quickly burning myself out. Maybe this time around, I won’t do the same. I believe in a gentle float downstream when it comes to my own artistic endeavors but I have a difficult time feeling good about it when others around me can produce such ridiculous word counts.

Grant me the discipline to keep gently paddling forward even as speedboats pass me by, threatening to upset my Zen.

Writing update and a hello after a blogging break.

I’ve got to say I’m impressed that I can post from my new iPhone. I would have expected the experience to have been more difficult, but no, typing — once one gets used to it — isn’t so bad. And the tools show up well, if a tad too uncomfortably small.

But what does this have to do with writing? Nothing. So, to the writing.

Not having posted for most of November may have led some to think I hadn’t written either. That was not the case. I have actually been fighting with the end of a story I had writes the first draft of earlier this year but had abandoned in lieu of Forever. I got back to it and realized that most of the negative critique it received was in fact warranted. It isn’t a bad story, but the first draft was tedious, especially toward the end. This rewrite has been both enjoyable and, for the most part, successful.

thank goodness for Forever. Having stuck with that story turns out to have been worth the struggle. Though I haven’t heard back from any of the places I submitted to, I can tell that, sale or no, I emerged from the long difficult experience not only a better writer in regards to skill but a better thinker and a better self-critiqued (in the good sense, not in the way that I can’t write or otherwise function.)

still, as I said, I’m having trouble with the ending. Part of the problem is that the original impetus for writing the story was not well-documented. The other reason is that, because I ran into and learned how both recognize and solve logic problem and other literary shortcomings, I discovered a few not small problems with the story’s structure and action.

this isn’t a bad thing. I’d rather know what and where the problems are so that they can be fixed, but they do need to be fixed and that almost inevitably takes time. I think the biggest obstacle that I’m facing right now is that the original story suffered a bit from a non-ending and my lead — as is commonly the case in my early drafts — was too much of a passive observer. Both problems are fixable but require a but of head scratching.

Fun fun fun.

I’ll keep you posted. I have a deadline of two days (three?) for this draft, so I’d best figure something out soon.

When not writing (new stuff) is not only acceptable but beneficial

At last week’s Drafthouse critique, one of our members announced that she would likely not be writing for the remainder of 2011. There followed a palpable pause. Judging from the members’ expressions, the general take was that this unnamed person had spoken something akin to blasphemy.

To not write is in itself unthinkable. But not to write for in excess of two months? A fella could get shot for less.

Then I thought about it. All this member actually said was he wasn’t going to write, the implication being “new stuff.” He could edit, submit, research, anything really. He just wouldn’t write new stuff.

Now, instead of hunting him down and gutting him, I found myself thanking him for giving me something to consider.

I have a pretty substantial backlog of unfinished stories. I suspect I could get a whole lot more accomplished editing than writing new material. It’s not like I abandoned most of those older stories because they were bad ideas. Some, sure. Truth be told, I abandoned most of them because my skills didn’t measure up to the promise those stories held. I stopped because I had more work to do. They weren’t as much abandoned as given over to better parents until I sorted my shit out.

Well I’m sorted out now. So instead of writing new material, between now and the new year, I’ll make determinations about which of those older stories are good candidates for reworking. In the background, I’ll continue to submit the stories that I completed this year — sadly only the two. Susurrus and Forever By His Side — but I’ll dedicate most of my energy to polishing the old stuff that’s been in storage all these last few years.

Okay…I can do this submission thing

I’m going into this weekend far less frightened about the submission process, thankfully. If you’ll recall, I was running into a mental block trying to decide which publications would be the best fit for me. I had outlined all sorts of problems I was having.

Well it’s all behind me now, all because of a game I used to play when I was a kid.

For whatever reason, I used to be obsessed with bracketed competitions. When I would bore of smacking my Matchbox cars together, I would dump them all in a pile and pick a random two. I would look at them and consider every one of their strengths and weaknesses — shape, color, likely real-world speed. At one point I even assigned some special super power to each car and its tiny imaginary driver. I would make a judgment. I would discard the loser into a loser pile and hold the winner aside for the next round. After an hour or so — whatever time that is in kid time — I would end up with the top car in my collection.

Even then, I understood that I could only find the one best car, that I would need to repeat the process again, the best car excluded, in order to find the second best car in my collection. I was more than willing to do that, being the griming little work I was (and still am, to be honest).

So when I hit that wall I mentioned earlier, I decided to figuratively toss all the publications into a pile and weighed them against one another, two at a time. After about an hour, I had a winner. After a second hour, I had a second publication. Done.

(You see, I only am bound to submit to two publications in order to earn a cupcake — or was it cupcakes. No matter. My perpetually unnamed writing partner and masterful bakestress, knowing that I am, if nothing more, loathe to submit, promised me cupcakage if I were to submit my novella to a mere two publications.)

The frustrating thing is that while I was tearing my hair out, worrying over publications, I read over the last half of the story and found one item that was glaringly unclear. So I’ll probably have to take a little time to iron that out. But having seen that error gets me paranoid that others are hidden somewhere further on in the text.

Maybe another read-through. No. I must submit. Just one, though? Urg.