Saturday, November 7, 2009

It's true that cockroaches have eaten an awful lot of my best work.

When Kurt Vonnegut died recently -- yes, 2007 is recent, because I'm getting old and the years are passing much quicker now -- many who loved him and his works passed around his list of eight writing rules. That's when I first became aware of them. They're pretty good rules. At least one of them surprised me -- I mean really surprised me. I thought I'd share them with you, with my own notes and commentary appended.

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

I agree. Part of the unbreakable contract with the reader is that you won't waste his time. I would add that this includes an imperative to do away with all artsy fartsy writing, designed primarily to show off your amazing skills and talents. Quit trying to impress your reader and tell him a story instead. I suspect this is also a call to get to the point. Quit beating around the bush.

2) Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

I mostly agree, but the challenge of this statement does tempt me to one day see if I can write a compelling story wherein every single character is a despicable fiend with hellish goals. I'm trying to think if there are any good examples of that -- not just the antihero, but one with no redeeming qualities at all.

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

I think this pretty much speaks for itself. Some variation of this rule shows up in every writer's advice on how to create "real" believable characters.

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

I think I mostly agree. But what about describing the setting? Can that be done totally within the context of revealing character or advancing the plot? Aren't you in danger of unduly burdening otherwise tight and concise sentences if the character and action parts also have to get bits of setting and physical description injected into them from time to time?

5) Start as close to the end as possible.

I agree and this is one of those bits of advice, obvious in hindsight, that freed up my own writing considerably. A lot of dead weight got lifted with this rule.

6) Be as 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're made of.

I agree wholeheartedly. This is the rule that frustrates me most, because it is so self evident, and yet it causes the most problems with a modern readership that is more and more composed of angry "we're constantly looking for ways to take offense" indignation groups. If your characters are black, or gay, or female, or any other sort that can be shoehorned into some category for which there is a vocal, self-elected and angry group of protectors, you're going to take some flak for what you do with them. Do mean things to someone of theirs and they will howl bloody murder. The thing you must constantly remind yourself is that these folks are few, no matter how loud they may be, they do not speak for the majority of whatever group they pretend to represent, and you must ignore them and soldier on, continuing to do nasty things to those characters, because doing otherwise is boring, which is among the worst offenses a writer can commit. You need to remind yourself that you will never hear from the thoughtful, reasonable reader, the way you always will hear from the indignation groups. But they are out there, and they are your true audience.

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.

This rule is most often expressed as "write for yourself" or "write to please yourself." I mostly agree with this. I tend to write for a very small, very select group, but not just a single person. I write to please and make sense to the other folks in the Clockwork group. But the entire purpose of forming the group was to be surrounded by those of like minds and similar tastes. Writing simply to please myself smacks just a bit too much of narcissism, and I know I'll never hold my own feet to the fire for my self-indulgences the way the other Clockworkers will. They will not let me get away with any self-indulgent crap.

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.

This was the one rule that really opened my eyes. Before this I was all about keeping the suspense, which usually translated into keeping the readers in the dark, until The Big Reveal! Now I see that the big reveal was much overrated. I now think of my relationship to the reader(s) as leading a group of trusted comrades on a commando mission. If I die en route, they should be able to carry on and blow up the Bridge without me (and, guys, please make sure you shoot Alec Guinness, if for no other reason than to see if he comes back all ghostly and reveals you've been hot for your own sister for the last two movies).


  1. I'm not sure that I agree with Rule 8 because it disqualifies Closed Mysteries. (COLUMBO is an Open Mystery. We know the killer from the first reel.)

    In the WALLANDER movies that I just watched, the killer or the antagonist is revealed at the two thirds point and that reveal works perfectly especially in FIREWALL.

    Here is something that sort of applies to that kind of pacing. So, after writing about vampires for a while, I decided to do a story about a young girl who fights monsters. I got an idea where it was headed and started right in on the pages. (I'm like that.) For some reason, I thought I might be able to talk somebody else into doing a regular eleven page feature and we could pitch a Tales- of- Suspense- style split feature project to Image or the like. Then I wandered away from that structural idea in favor of the webcomic/ OGN model when I started to see the pit falls of that approach. Mainly, anthologies give everyone a story to hate.

    But I kept the eleven page cliffhanger format and it kind of works. Seventy some-odd pages into it and the story moves right along. When writing for webcomics, you have to realize that a two page talking head scene might spin out over a week or two. The eleven page format seems to compress the action because you are always looking forward to/ thinking about that next reversal.

  2. Of course the Closed Mystery must be an exception to rule # 8. The Fair Play Closed Mystery (aka: the Whodunnit) is a version though where it's all about giving the reader as much information as soon as possible, since they have to, by virtue of the agreement, have as much chance of solving the mystery as the detective does. Are there other exceptions of note? Should there be?

  3. I'm really bummed I never got to meet Kurt Vonnegut. An AMAZING writer! My favorite short story writer, next to Ray Bradbury, who I have had the pleasure of meeting. :)

  4. The one guy who was really good at Rule #4 was Robert E. Howard. Here's his opening paragraph from "The Scarlet Citadel:"

    The roar of battle had died away; the shout of victory mingled with the cries of the dying. Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm, the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the
    heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson. In silent heaps lay war-horses and their steel-clad riders, flowing manes and blowing plumes stained alike in the red tide. About them and among them, like the drift of a storm, were strewn slashed and trampled bodies in steel caps and leather jerkins--archers and pikemen.

    This is a moving paragraph that describes a battlefield, and I think it's a perfect marriage of poetry within prose.

  5. Interestingly enough, Mark, that was the same viking toast Ellen Kushner made during our night of mead drinking at the WFC. Lots of plains littered with the carcasses of the fallen, the grass painted red with their spilt blood that night. Fun girl to drink with.