Vonnegut’s First Rule for Writing Fiction

Over the next couple of months, Aaron D. Gansky will be making appearances as my first guest blogger. Aaron is a novelist, teacher, and editor of The Citron Review, an online literary journal. In 2009, he earned his M.F.A in Fiction at the prestigious Antioch University of Los Angeles. His short eBook An Affair to Forget is available for download at the Amazon Marketplace for 99 cents. In addition to writing and editing, he teaches American Literature and Creative Writing in California. He is a loving father and husband. You may reach him by e-mail here, find him on Facebook, or follow @adgansky on Twitter.

Aaron and I met at Antioch and co-wrote, Write To Be Heard (Lighthouse). Will let you know when we get a release date. And now, Aaron:

By adgansky

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

I did something this weekend (while recovering from a minor surgery) that I haven’t done in years. I put a book down with the intention of never picking it up again. Maybe that makes me lazy, or maybe it makes me wise. I’ll let you decide.

The point is this—three pages into the novel, I knew I didn’t want to invest 300-400 pages worth of my time in a book I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. This is not to say that the book was terrible. I just recognized immediately that it was not going to be something I cared to invest in.

Call me a cynic. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, there are some things that are clear. You may not be able to judge a book by it’s cover, but you can judge it by the first few pages. That’s why it’s so important to have an outstanding opening. If you don’t, people will understand that their time will likely not be well spent reading your novel.

“But my book has the greatest ending!” you may say.

It may. But, for the love of all things good, please get to it sooner than page fifty. If you don’t have a gripping opening, then I have no reason to believe you’ll have a compelling ending. That’s simple logic, harsh as it may seem.

Vonnegut understood this. No one likes to finish a book and think, “What a waste!” Being forced to read lousy stories and books is one of the primary reason fewer and fewer kids are reading.

So what can we do as writers?

Use the pages we have wisely. Make them matter. Make them count. Every page.


When I was in grad school, we had project period contracts, approved by our mentors. I found that it helped a lot to focus in on what I really wanted to accomplish. After, some of us continued, but missed most of last year, so I started this year with a new one. How to do it? Below is one that has some of my tasks and objectives for 2012. Not all of them belong in public, hence the gaps, but it will give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. I left January’s pretty much intact. Make your own, sign and date it then exchange with another writer or give it to someone who will hold you accountable. It helps.

Establish your goals for the next 5 months, including the books you want to read. These should be craft books or fiction that will help your own work. When I was working on my comic novel, WRESTLING ALLIGATORS, I read Nick Hornby, Carl Hiaasen, etc. List those books at the end. It will help your writing a lot if you annotate them and see what you learned, what could inform your writing or what you want to avoid. Then submit that annotation to AnnotationNation.com and let other writers know what you’re thinking, how you work, what you find valuable. Anyway, after you’ve decided what you’d realistically like to accomplish and the reading that will support it, then break it down month by month. Which book are you going to read each month, how many pages will you write either per day or week, include updating any blogs or websites you maintain, include how many submissions per month both to agents and journals to keep you circulating your work. Keep your activities to 4-6 monthly tasks. My list of objectives is longer than usual because I have some things in the works and because I’ve done a number of contracts. Start slow, but challenge yourself. Also, do not beat yourself up if you don’t meet a couple of your goals. Just adjust for the next time.

In case you’re wondering, I was in the Citron cohort (referred to below) while attending Antioch (one of The Atlantic’s top 5 low residency programs). We still check in with each other every Sunday and they’re a tremendous source of support for me.

Post MFA Project Period Contract

NAME: Diane Sherlock   

TERM:      Winter/Spring 2012

PROJECT PERIOD: From Monday, January 2, 2012 to Monday, May 30, 2012

Post MFA Objectives:

• Continue to produce works of fiction

• Write critical analyses of literature

• Reflect on the place of creative work in community, culture, and society via my blogs and websites

• Raise visibility as an author

• Continue to develop a professional literary career

Project Period Objectives:

1.  Finish the polish of African screenplay

2.  Read at least a novel/book a month

3.  Participate in the Citron post-MFA conference

4.  Continue with blog and branding ideas

5.  Continue with Annotation Nation

6.  Apply to writing residencies and other interesting opportunities


8.  Develop marketing strategies; continue to submit novel excerpts, short stories and flash fiction to literary journals

9.  Finish volunteer commitment, continue support in Ghana and Kenya.

10. Draft notes for the next novel; travel for inspiration and research

11. Develop TV series

12. Finish co-written book with Y

Based on the learning objectives, identify the activities for this Project Period:

Finish African screenplay & register with WGA

Edit WILLFUL IGNORANCE, format, submit to Smashwords 

Edit GROWING CHOCOLATE, format, submit to Smashwords 

Develop TV series, write synopsis and character list, meet with X for background info

Read from personal book list; annotate THE FAMILY FANG

Give African screenplay to V 

Date:  January 31, 2012

(part of a goal above)           ________________________________________

   (ditto)        __________________________________________

Update websites           

    (another from above)       _______________________________________

    (and one more to achieve your goal)       _______________________________________



Date:  February 28, 2012



Check status of submissions           

Brainstorm new novel            


Read from personal book list            

Date:  March 30, 2012



Update websites           

Read from personal book list with 1-2 pg annotation           


Date:  __April 30, 2012







Date:  May 30, 2012

List readings to be completed:






(add more if you’re a fast reader)

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Signature                                              Date

What do you think? Will you try a contract? Please report back if it works for you. And feel free to post your objectives in the comments. Happy New (Writing) Year!