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?