Writing Advice From Kurt Vonnegut

Writer's Stop

Writer's Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

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

This is pretty important. At the end of a story, article, novel or whatever, a reader shouldn’t wish he/she had that time back. Most writers are fairly cognizant that the reader is doing them a favor by bothering to read and at, but some really push a reader’s generosity. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series comes to mind, partly because I finished it not long ago but mostly because he is one of those writers who is philosophical okay with meandering in the narrative weeds and dragging his readers along with him. His books drag on for hundreds and hundreds and then hundreds more pages, introducing a Russian novels worth of main characters with their own ancillary casts who bring in even more minor characters. There are so many point of view characters that when readers, naturally, develop preferences, they find other characters and plots/sub-plots distracting and a waste of time. If anyone needed proof that Martin is just indulging himself, they’d need only compare the novels to the HBO adaptation, which has cut characters and plotlines with equal abandon and is still managing to tell quite a good story. A secondary rule to the “don’t waste your reader’s time” would probably be – if you can edit your story by half and still tell a good story – you’ve burying your lead.
2.      Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

I don’t really believe this to be true of current day story telling. There are plenty of examples of books without a redeeming character to be found and yet people read. It’s not about rooting for the character as much as finding their story compelling, and that doesn’t mean characters have to be sympathetic as much as they just are extremely interesting.

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

I agree. Although the character doesn’t have to know what it is he/she wants or even be aware of the need/want, but the reader has to known.

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

Yes, please! But it doesn’t have to be every sentence. Maybe every paragraph or page. Certainly every chapter should find characters, plot and readers farther along than they were.

5.      Start as close to the end as possible.
It cuts down on the meandering and as a writer, you can always go back and add. – either to beef up or to judiciously insert back story.  It’s easier to add than it is to cut.
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.
I was noting this not long ago after Rob and I watched the movie, Beginners, with Ewen McGregor and Christopher Plummer. All stories are about two things really – loss and gain. Death, love, birth, aging, family, friends, lovers. You are losing or gaining or both nearly all the time.
And turmoil is what draws us. Think of the bloggers you read. What’s going on in their lives that brings you to read or makes them write?  For myself, I know that it’s easier to write when things are going on – good or bad. Status quo rarely compels me to come to the keyboard.
The same is true of readers. Zen is an admirable state of being but dull from a narrative perspective.
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.

You should know your audience and you should cater to them. One of the reasons I am uneven and mostly unknown as a blogger is that I don’t write for that sweet spot niche. I wander about and so does my readership. Success means picking you p.o.v. and honing in on it.

8.      Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.
Agreed. Even mystery and suspense writers need to set a careful stage. When too much info is withheld than readers are caught off guard when characters take different turns or disappear from a story. Surprise is all well and good but if a novel hinges on constantly fooling the readers into believing one thing will happen and then the opposite does – one ends up with angry readers who won’t read your stuff again. People like the occasional surprise but prefer, really, the predictable. The bad guy gets his just dessert. The star-crossed couple comes together at the end. There are writers here and there who can get away with killing off major characters or having the couple part ways at the end of the story, but not many. That kind of story-telling turns most readers off. People don’t read fiction because they want more real life but because they want life that defies real life and is better than it. It’s more adventuresome or romantic in some ways but relatable on others. There is a reason whey some authors are perennially popular in spite of the fact that they seem to write the same book over and over. People like knowing what is going to happen. Real life isn’t like that at all after all.
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2 responses to “Writing Advice From Kurt Vonnegut

  1. “Zen is an admirable state of being but dull from a narrative perspective.”

    reminds me that i should stop blogging. i’m momentarily fairly level on the inside… bruised, battered, exhausted and grinnin’ ear-to-ear isn’t particuarly compelling.

    • No. I’ve noted that among women bloggers it’s the mommies with sick kids or illness themselves or who suffer from a multitude of mental health issues and don’t mind sharing, who get read.

      Grief blogging is big. Especially if you are prone to wallowing and ranting b/c everyone loves to have their darker less productive emotions validated.

      I suppose if you went “50 shades of grey”, you’d garner an audience too.

      There aren’t that many uplifting pop bloggers. Not unless they focus solely on some consumer aspect of life – homemaking from scratch sells as does hyper-motherhood.

      There’s just not enough angst in my life and even if there were, I am not sure I’d feel it necessary to spew semi-regularly about it. Blogging is sort of dead anyway. People would rather pin or tweet. Less effort with reading and thinking that way.

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