Writing Week: Vonnegut's Rules

I suck at coming up with writing tips. So, I’m going to steal shamelessly from the best. Kurt Vonnegut. These are from his book of uncollected stuff, BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX:

  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 actually have these taped to my wall.

Number 3 is my favorite. Whenever I’m stuck with how to resolve a scene, I think about what each character involved really wants in that situation--even if it is just a glass of water. But, remember, your character may not know what he or she wants--but you have to.

Number 4 is also a great one. This you learn the hard way during the editing process. If a sentence serves no purpose, your editor is going to suggest you take it out. And keep suggesting it until you do.

What about you? Any favorite tips from the masters?

17 comments:

Mrs. DeRaps said...

I love Kurt Vonnegut. For real. He is so brilliant in such a clear and simple way. Love him.

I think that I'll tape some of these to my classroom wall...I've not read Bagombo Snuff Box but will have to pick up a copy.

Thanks! This is a great way to start my morning!

Matthew Rush said...

These are great. Kurt Vonnegut is the man. Thanks Angie.

Kelly Bryson said...

Thanks for these rules. I think I read them a long time ago. It's good to know that we're trying to reveal character, not torture our imaginary friends, the poor dears.

Rebecca L Sutton said...

Awesome post! I've heard this book mentioned but didn't realize how fabulous it was until now. I need to get a copy. Great advice. I'm doing some major revisions as this very moment so the timing is perfect. Thank you for sharing!

lbdiamond said...

A colleague turned me on to Kurt Vonnegut--great stuff!

Lovely post--great list! :D (I will refer to it often.)

Tom M Franklin said...

i've had a copy of this thumbtacked to the wall of my writing room for years now.

"Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted." is the one that sticks with me the most. (It's a Respect Your Reader issue, isn't it?)


-- Tom

Melody said...

So I've heard of this Kurt Vonnegut, but never read anything by him. I think I should, because this post may have just totally changed my writing...for the BETTER. :)

C.E. said...

Wow, excellent tips. Good stuff. Thanks!

Angie Smibert said...

Mrs. Deraps is so right. Vonnegut is brilliant (and funny) in such a clear and simple (and yet outrageous) way.

And, Melody, do try some Vonnegut. You won't be sorry. Cat's Cradle is a good one to begin with.

Anybody else have recommendations for a good starter Vonnegut?

Lois D. Brown said...

I wrote #3 & #4 on my sticky note for the day. Excellent!

lotusgirl said...

running off to print this. Fabulous list.

Jen Chandler said...

Great post. I love Vonnegut! I have one of his quotes on my desk at work:

Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.

Think I'll be taping these to my desk at home :)

Thanks!

Patti said...

I love number 4. I learned that one the hard way.

Tere Kirkland said...

Count me in as one who learned #4 the hard way.

I ought to tattoo it to my forearm in case I forget, like Momento. ;)

Hello. My name is Elizabeth. said...

They're all awesome, but #1's the kicker.

Dutchie said...

Thanks for sharing these tips! So far the best tips I have are by Jack Dann and from The Elements of Style, but it looks like a copy of this book is going on my shelf too.

I love #7, #3, and #4. I think they're more universal then some others. I've seen interpretations of them in other writing tips.

Angie Smibert said...

Thanks for the tip, Dutchie. I'll check out Jack Dann.

I love the quote, Jen!

Thanks everyone for stopping by!