Friday, November 20, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut's writing tips

Though Kurt Vonnegut aimed these tips at short story writers, they apply to any story length.

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. No 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.

I also found a few quotes attributed to Vonnegut with regard to writing and life in general:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.

I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.

New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.

When Vonnegut learned that Slaughterhouse Five was one of several books tossed into the furnace by outraged school administrators, he wrote the following letter:

Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. […]
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. […]
If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn't even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Too bad Kurt predated blogging. His was certain to have some interesting content!
More writing tips from a Dharma Bum to follow.


Kimberly Loomis said...

Excellent blog! Having just read "Slaughterhouse-Five" I can honestly say I am now quite the fan of Vonnegut. What a brilliant letter he wrote to the director of that school board. [I think that just made me an even bigger fan of Vonnegut's.]

Emma Lai said...

All very good advice, Cate! Thanks for sharing.

Cate Masters said...

Thanks Kimberly! I admit, I have to re-read Vonnegut, it's been so long ago.
Thanks for stopping by, Emma!

Alice Audrey said...

Seems like most every thing else works out if you keep the first point in mind. Excellent advice.