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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut's Rules for Writing

In the introduction to his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons 1999, pp9-10), Kurt Vonnegut presents his 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. 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.

Those rules are interesting, especially the eighth—most of us who write crime or mystery fiction depend upon suspense to carry our stories forward.

Vonnegut is as tongue-in-cheek about the application of his rules as he is about most things.

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor,” writes Vonnegut. “She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

He also penned a set of eight rules for “How to Write with Style.” (IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, Vol PC-24, No. 2, June 1980.) Interestingly, the rules appear in an advertisement for the International Paper Company. These rules refer to all writing, including technical and non-fiction. 

1. Find a subject you care about. 

2. Do not ramble, though. 

3. Keep it simple. 

4. Have the guts to cut. 

5. Sound like yourself. 

6. Say what you mean. 

7. Pity the readers. 

8. For really detailed advice…I commend your attention to The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillian, 1979)

Vonnegut ends by calling E.B. White “one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has produced so far” and noting “that no one would care how well or how badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have something perfectly enchanting to say.”

Do you have a favorite author who has provided “rules” for writing? And do you tend to follow them?


Kait said...

Vonnegut had such a unique view of life and writing voice. I wonder at how his writing rules came about. I have a feeling there is a story there. Someone approached him, someone posh and toney like the editor of the New Yorker and asked, but sir, what are your writing rules. At which point Vonnegut knew he had the man firmly hooked and proceeded to reel him in. OK, that's my private fantasy and I'm sure never happened, but I do think ole Kurt enjoyed writing, and breaking, rules!

I don't know about my rules for writing. I find myself constantly referring to Stephen King's ON WRITING when I need to refill the well. It's not so much a 'how to' as it is an ode to perseverance. And for me, that's the biggest rule. Keep at it.

E. B. Davis said...

I have many "favorite" authors, but they all write differently. No two are alike, but they all have captured my fascination and have touched my heart. It is that last element that I think is the most important. I don't want superfluous words, but when a book is pared down too much, feeling can be lost. The plot must pull the reader in, the MC must engage readers' brains, but authors who can also express feeling, capturing readers' hearts--to me that's genius. I doubt that can be taught. In matters of the heart, there are no rules, which, I think, is what Vonnegut was alluding to when he referred to great writers breaking the rules.

Warren Bull said...

Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing is one of the books about writing that helps me keep ideas flowing. Nancy Pickard has a system for evaluating writing that I find really helpful. Agatha Christie was a member of a group of writers that came up with rules for mysteries. And she breaks them with such élan.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I, too, have many favorite authors. I learn their characters, enjoy their plots and settings, and leave their books thinking about bigger issues they've raised.

Jim Jackson said...

The following quote is attributed to W. Sommerset Maughm, “There are only three rules in writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I love Jim's comment attributed to W. Sommerset Maughm. I've read more than one book on writing, however, I think I've learned more from the writers I enjoy most - too many to list here, but I'm thinking of Jane Langton and Louise Penny especially.

Kara Cerise said...

I like Elmore Leonard's rule -- "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

KM Rockwood said...

Kait, I can just see Vonnegut thinking madly, giving his "rules" spur-of-the-moment when someone asked him, and never looking back.

E.B. I too have favorite writers who follow their own (or no!) rules. I think when you're good enough, you can be a rule unto yourself.

Warren, Ray Bradbury was another great author who established his own way of doing things. And Agatha Christie could, of course, do anything she wanted and manage to have it turn out well.

Margaret, I think most of the greats leave us with things to take away from their work.

Jim, I think W. Sommerset Maugham may be wrong--it's probably fortunate that no one knows what the rules are.

Gloria, you're right, we can all learn from other authors.

Kara, that's a good one.