Kurt Vonnegut’s Fifth Rule for Writing Fiction

Thanks to Aaron for another guest post while I’m on the road in Morocco.

By adgansky

5. Start as close to the end as possible. –Kurt Vonnegut

endLast week, I had a student approach me to ask my opinion on something they were working on. The story opened inside a hospital with the birth of a child. I liked the idea immediately, and anticipated some sort of tragic transpiring—mom’s life would be in danger, or baby’s. Or maybe baby would have a tale. Or maybe there was no dad. Or maybe dad was off to war. What an amazing opportunity for conflict.

Unfortunately, nothing so tragic happened. It was a standard birth, with no complications. And while the protagonist (baby) would eventually lead a revolution (I think) and save a world, and while their birth was significant in that regard, the birth itself felt as if it were included because the student didn’t know where else to begin. He’s in very good company.

The story goes, as I recall, that F. Scott Fitzgerald read an early version of The Sun Also Rises. He praised the novel as a whole, but took a few issues with the first two chapters. He gently encouraged Hemmingway to revise them. Hemmingway, in spectacular diva fashion, tore the first two chapters out completely. Turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea.

There seems to be within us, especially as we begin writing, a desire—a compulsion, really—to tell “the whole story.” And we want to start at the beginning so that our readers can know every detail of characters’ lives. The problem is, readers seldom care. What they care about is conflict. And the closer you begin to the end, the more conflict exists, the more readers are immersed in your world.

To do this, it may help to have a rough outline of where you want to go with your story. Find out where you want your characters to end up, then start as close to that point as possible. Some writers actually choose to begin the story a few minutes from the end, then flash back and show everything that happened to lead up to that point (think Thelma and Louise). While that’s an interesting tactic, we can’t use it every time. Sometimes it’s just better to do the Hemmingway bit—write the book, then rip out the first two chapters. Usually, what you’ll find, is that the rest of the story does an excellent job revealing whatever back story is necessary in a more natural way. Besides, doing this well allows you to create a sense of mystery.

But of course there are always exceptions to the rules. Fantasy and Science Fiction, generally speaking, would be the exception. Most readers of these genres understand that they’re in for the long haul. They also expect that most stories in these genre take a certain shape (usually the undertaking of a quest that sets the protagonist on a journey across an unfamiliar world or worlds).

This is a rule that has a lot more play room than some of the others. Which strategy is right for you? Regardless of genre, stories need conflict immediately. Check your novel for which conflict you establish on page one. The second step is to read. A lot. What are the masters doing? How are they doing it? Can you do something similar? It might benefit you to make a list of your favorite books and writers and go back and analyze the opening of each of their beginnings. How close to the end do they begin? What does that tell you about your writing.

For what it’s worth, I actually went back and deleted the first two paragraphs of this post. No lie.

Happy starting.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fourth Rule for Writing Fiction

If you’re enjoying Aaron’s guest posts, check out his Workshop Wednesdays on his blog, Forging Fiction. You can submit or just observe. He will put submitted pages up anonymously, give a few pieces of constructive criticism, and encourage his followers to do so as well. What you get is unfiltered constructive feedback (closely monitored by Aaron). Check it out!

BTW, New Orleans is a great city – great people, great food – glad to be home in L.A. though.

By adgansky

Vonnegut as a kid

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. –Kurt Vonnegut

I love the simplicity Vonnegut uses when asserting his rules, but sometimes I wonder if we need a little extra, especially for beginning writers. At first, this rule just makes perfect sense, but if we don’t spend the time contemplating the implications of it, we cheat ourselves and our readers. This rule is one of his most profound.

We understand that a story consists of a character struggling to achieve something, and an obstacle that stands in his or her way. We know that the action of the story is the forward movement to the accomplishment of the goal. We also know that we need to reveal who our character is, and why they’re so bent on accomplishing this goal. So we come up with an idea, find a character to fit the plot, and say “go.”

It’s a good starting point. But if you end here, you’ve cheated yourself, your reader, and your character.

How do you reveal character? There’s about 1300 blog posts that you can consult, and about as many published books that touch on the subject. But many of them parrot the same few things: Know their name, their history, and what they look like.

Again, a good starting point. But this is not the end. How does their history change their perception of the world around them? What details do they notice? Why are these details significant to them? How do these details affect them?

Here’s an exercise in character development that skirts the normal “your character has a scar…” set-up.

Describe the setting. Do it in such a way that the setting affects your character in some profound way. Resist the urge to throw a dead body in the room. Instead, let them be alone, and put them someplace that has some emotional connection for them. You don’t even need to say specifically what it is. Just let it be clear from the images they record in the narrative and the tone in which they describe them.

Here’s another exercise in character development: Put your character in action. They don’t need to be chasing down a bad guy, or even running from one. They could be locked in a killer tennis match, or maybe swimming from a boat to the shore to see their Savior. Maybe the stakes are higher and they’re smack in the middle of a war. Perhaps they’re dueling for the honor of their family—swords or pistols. Maybe they’re a thief and they’re sneaking into a heavily guarded area. Whatever it is, remember that they’re physically doing it.

For extra points, combine elements of the first exercise in the second.

Now, onward and upward for your characters. Crack the whip, and get them going.


ImageI’ve been ruminating for awhile and am about ready to start a new novel. Every time between books, I panic, certain I will never have another idea and every time, something happens (or doesn’t) and it comes to me. Books arrive. I don’t know exactly how to explain it if it hasn’t happened to you. Also, I have learned not to talk about a novel ahead of time – magic in containment and all of that.

A friend asked me to write about Point Of View and since I’m trying to decide on that for this new novel, it was a serendipitous request. If you want to study in depth, pick up Points Of View by Moffett and McElheny.

Many first novels are written in first person singular. I did it with Dead Weight. In many ways, this is the easiest to work in. You include what the character sees and experiences; you leave out all the stuff your character cannot know about. You can’t get confused hopping around in different characters’ heads because you only have one to deal with. It’s one way to make a novel feel intimate – your reader gets to know the thoughts of your main character and their world view. Famous novels in first person include The White Tiger, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Room, and Lolita. Obviously, your protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable – witness the loathsome Humbert Humbert – for first person to work.

An example of first person plural (we) is And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris. It’s also a very funny book. This is a great marriage of subject matter and POV. It’s a way to include the character of the office without dipping into particular people and allows for office politics and group-think to be portrayed in a way that can only be captured by the plural.

Second person: Brights Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, Jennifer Egan’s story “Out of Body” in A Visit From The Goon Squad, Paul Auster’s upcoming Winter Journal. It seems to be a love it or hate it POV. I used it in The Green Bench. Flash fiction was enough for me. I can’t really imagine keeping it up for an entire novel. I take that back – it could be incredibly effective when writing about what happens around genocide. For example, if you’re writing about WWII Germany: you sing the hymn as loudly as possible to avoid hearing the trains filled with begging screams roll by your church. That kind of thing. Tragically, there are too many instances, some going on right now, to list, but you get the idea – the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, etc. It’s a POV for a few particular effects – instructing another, a conversation with a part of yourself (Auster and his body), and of course, group-think. Because it can feel detached, it is often chilling.

There are several permutations of third person and it a great POV to use for action and/or suspense. It also allows flexibility if you want to jump into more than one character’s head. Within third person there are the sub-categories of objective, omniscient and limited. You may also find sources citing selective singular, dual, detached, etc. In my latest novel, Wrestling Alligators, I used a multiple or variable third-person POV and studied Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections specifically for that reason on the advice of my mentor, Rob Roberge (we both had our issues with the book). As I wrote in my annotation, “Franzen is a good example of shifting points of view, particularly the three siblings, and helped me establish my own narrative structure. He moves among all five family members, mostly with success.”

Some thoughts on POV from Men With Pens. In a future post, I may write about how I decide which POV to use in the next book. Stay tuned. And Aaron will be back Monday with more Vonnegut for you.

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.

3 Keys to Vanquishing Envy – UPDATED

Photo Envy Hotel courtesy of TripAdvisor

A friend of mine just got a book deal. Am I jealous? Honestly, no. Well, why not?? Because I don’t believe in fixed-pie thinking. Success isn’t some giant pie with only 8, 12 or 16 pieces. There’s enough to go around, which isn’t the same thing as saying everyone will be successful in the way they expect. Maybe you have to adjust your expectations or reassess your gifts or expand your knowledge (read the classics, learn a new skill). Change markets. Maybe you aren’t a fiction writer, maybe you’re better suited to essays.

Disclaimer: easy for me to say because I’m really enjoying my life right now. Was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, getting some royalties, a little fan mail, just had a short story accepted, great trips ahead, etc.  But I felt this way even when things were bleak and I mean bleak. My first screenplay agent took my contacts to launch his own writing career. The head of that agency took over my career, then ended up in rehab and leaving the business… after her office manager tossed out all of the client scripts when he “cleaned up” the office! Oh yeah, I’ve paid some dues.

So, how to get past those awful feelings of envy? 3 suggestions:

1. I’m next! This is your new mantra. Something great happened to another writer? You’re next! See how that changes your perspective? No fixed pie thinking – think in terms of abundance, that there’s enough to go around even if it doesn’t feel like it. You cannot be ruled by your emotions or you won’t endure until the point of breakthrough. It takes persistence to finish something and even more to see it to market.

2. Create good karma. Everyone rises: help others, celebrate others and they will help and celebrate you. This isn’t always a direct result, but the more generous you are, the more things will come around to you. Plus it’s good for you on many levels. Be a good and kind person (added benefit: it makes the world better). Note: (shameless plug alert) Hitting “Like” on my FB Author Page will help create good karma. Well, in any case, I’d be grateful!

3. Keep writing! The more you produce, the better your chances of getting those wonderful acceptance letters and emails. And keep improving your writing with good impartial feedback, classes, workshops, the company of other writers and directed reading. If you can’t be happy for other writers or get past feeling crummy, then use any negative feelings as fuel to energize your ambition. Psychologists say “I’ll show them” is the most powerful force to overcoming obstacles.

Beat envy by being enviable and keep writing. Oh, and my friend? As soon as the contract is signed and I get the go ahead, I’ll be celebrating and publicizing.

UPDATE: Contract signed! Kate Maruyama’s novel, Harrowgate, will be published by 47North! Release date TBA. Congratulations, Kate!


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)

 ______                                          _______________         

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!




Writing tics

You’re probably familiar with verbal tics – we all have them to an extent and they are part of what makes a person’s speech unique. Lately, I’ve met a number of people in a wide variety of settings using the word yeah repeated three times in quick succession (part of a movie or TV show I’ve missed?) That’s one example of how you can use a tic to distinguish a character. But tics in the writing itself weaken your narrative and annoy the reader.

Once you’ve developed your voice as a writer, consider taking a look at your writing tics. Some of it belongs there, but you may be surprised at what you don’t notice along the way and what needs to go. I’ve been doing some revisions my first novel in order to publish it as an ebook (more on that later), and noticed a heavy reliance on “very”, “really” and “actually”. How heavy? 226 uses of the word “very”. Well, that’s embarrassing. The good news is my writing has improved since then.

Advice? Use the Find function and search your manuscript for common adjectives and adverbs. Then check your dialog tags. “Said” or “asked” only please. None of that “she retorted” nonsense. After that’s done, read your manuscript out loud. Yes, the whole thing. It’s invaluable. You can also put it all in another font and/or color when editing in order to spot mistakes that have become so familiar, they are hard to see. Clean up your act. Writing tics will suck the juice out of your work.