Creative Writing 101 With Kurt Vonnegut

imagesEver since I decided to read Breakfast of Champions in high school literature class instead of whatever bland tome the teacher had assigned, I have loved reading anything by Kurt Vonnegut. (By the way, the teacher, a Vonnegut fan himself, let me get away with – and even encouraged – my little protest.) From Slaughterhouse Five to Sirens of Titan to Galapagos, Vonnegut’s work has shown up repeatedly on my to-read (and to-read-again) lists.

Writing Class with Vonnegut? Sign me up!

Among many other jobs Vonnegut held before jumping into and struggling with writing full time, was a short bit as an English teacher. Can you imagine?! Unfortunately, Vonnegut died in 2007, so unless we can get a modern-age Dr. Frankenstein to reanimate Kurt, there’s no longer an opportunity for him to teach us his writerly ways.

Or is there?

Unknown-1In 1997, Bagombo Snuff Box was released. This collection of short stories is pretty good, but the real gem is at the beginning of the book when Vonnegut offers up eight creative writing tips. These are a bit longer than the curt tips from Hemingway I shared last week, but the advice is spot on…and has a delicious dose of Vonnegut humor as you get toward the end.

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Creative Writing 101

I copied these down by hand when I first started trying to realize my dream of being a writer and have kept them nearby every since.

“Vonnegut’s words” My comments.

  1. “Use the [reading] time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time is wasted.” In other words, don’t waste someone’s time on the five pages of pretty words you came up with to describe a tree. Instead, use those five pages to tell the story.
  2. “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” After all, if your readers don’t care about a character, whether that character is good or evil, they aren’t going to stick with your story.
  3. “Every character should want something even if it is only a glass of water.” If characters don’t want anything, they have nothing to strive for in the story. If there’s nothing to strive for, you don’t have a story, you just have a string of events.
  4. “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.” Even a sentence that seems to only be about setting should in some way advance the story, set the mood, or show what a character is like. If you absolutely feel the need to describe a setting in detail, make it through your character’s eyes. A person who sees a tree as a nothing more than a source of timber money is a MUCH different character than one who sees it as a home for birds and critters. 
  5. “Start as close to the end as possible.” Jump into the action! Don’t give readers fifty pages of backstory. Jump in and then weave the backstory in as you move your characters along through the main story. 
  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.” If things are too easy for your character, then your character is boring. Struggle is not only interesting, but how your character handles the difficulty reveals who he is and makes us feel more for him.
  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.” Don’t try to write the next Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Game of Thrones meets Fifty Shades of Grey in an attempt to please all the trends and all readers. Write a story with one reader in mind, especially if that reader has well-defined tastes in her fiction.
  8. “Give your readers as much information 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.” Some suspense is good, you want to keep people turning the pages, but if your readers feel absolutely lost because you think you’re clever and tricky, you not only waste their reading time as they try to figure out what in the world is going on, but you also risk annoying them into giving up and abandoning your book. 

bagombo snuff box, vonngeut

And my advice? Print this out and pin it up wherever you write (unless it’s in a coffee shop or library – they get a bit annoyed when you start tacking things up on the wall). As you work, check back often to make sure every word and every scene matters. And, of course, don’t forget to torment your characters – with cockroaches, if you can manage it!

PS – I had planned on posting a little bit later today, but I worried that if I don’t post ASAP the political rant I want to go on about the United States’ completely messed up voting system will fester all day and turn into a blog post full of incoherent babble (more than usual). There may be a rant coming up next week, but it will be a better thought out rant.

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TAMMIE PAINTER is the author of THE TRIALS OF HERCULES: BOOK ONE OF THE OSTERIA CHRONICLES and an artist who dedicates herself to the tedium of creating IMAGES with colored pencil. Click HERE to learn all about her first solo exhibition.

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12 thoughts on “Creative Writing 101 With Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Joseph E Bird says:

    Vonnegut is one of the few writers that I think truly has a distinct “voice.” I’ve read these tips before but I always appreciate another look. Yeah, I should print it out and tack it to my monitor. I always have trouble with No. 5.

    • painterwrite says:

      Me too. I guess my cynicism forces me to assume everyone is an idiot and won’t understand if I don’t explain things beforehand. Still, the stories I re-read where I have adhered to #5 are definitely more powerful. Ah well…practice practice practice.

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read any Vonnegut, but these tips are wonderful. Basic but crucial. I might pick a bit at the last one, but I agree, we shouldn’t leave readers confused or in the dark, unless it’s part of the build up to a mystery’s reveal.

    • painterwrite says:

      I do hope he was being a bit facetious with that one, but he’s right. I can’t stand reading a book in which the writer tries to be so clever I have no idea what’s going on. Even in a mystery or thriller knowing something the characters don’t (and need to) know actually adds to the suspense. Now, go get thee a Vonnegut!

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