Kurt Vonnegut’s Sixth Rule for Writing Fiction

Well, this is embarrassing – I lost track of the days, but better late than never. #6! Thanks, Aaron. Now let’s all go make life difficult for our characters.

Also, a hearty shoutout to friend and mentor Cheryl Strayed: Her memoir Wild hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!!

Now here’s Aaron:

by adgansky

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’re made of. –Kurt Vonnegut

No one likes to betray a friend, but we sometimes feel that way when we make bad things happen to our characters. But then, maybe you don’t feel that way. maybe it’s easy for you to throw obstacles at your protagonist because you don’t care much for them. Ideally, though, you will feel a little bit bad when you, as I did recently, have a Sasquatch jump out of a forest and beat your favorite character near to death (it’s a fantasy–work with me here). I may have cried a little. I do that sometimes.

For me, this rule, like the greatest two-handed broadsword, is double-edged. On one edge, we need to create (or, as some might say, build or discover, depending on your personal writing philosophy) characters that we love, that we hate to hurt. If we’re not doing this–if we as their creator don’t have an intense emotional connection to them, how much less will the reader care?–we’re letting our readership down. Our characters’ pain should, at least in some small part, become our pain.

The second side we need to allow our characters to experience these misfortunes. If we don’t, we’ll never really know them. How do they react when faced with Sasquatch in a dimly lit forest and the break of day? How do they cope when their loved one dies? How do their bodies mend after a car crash? How do they recover psychologically after a messy divorce? After being betrayed by their best friend? What does this do to them?

This is not to say that the characters life must be one tragedy after another, a veritable helicopter rotary blade of horrors. Your character should overcome, should be rewarded for their efforts. Just understand, that, once they do, something else must threaten them, or their families, or their fortunes, or whatever it is that they care most about.

Wallace Stevens says that, “Death is mother of beauty.” This may suggest that we only appreciate beauty because we know it is temporary, we know that there is an ever-abiding threat. If beauty persisted indefinitely, we would not call it beauty. We would not even notice it to begin with.

Make something beautiful by introducing something that threatens it. Take something your character feels is permanent, and then threaten it. Then, and only then, can you see what your character is truly made of.

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

We’re halfway through Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing. We will get to the last four in a couple of weeks – this blog will be on hiatus until after July 4th. Keep writing and please check out Aaron’s blog.

By adgansky

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.

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.

POV

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 Third Rule for Fiction

Bad me. I’ve neglected to direct you to Aaron’s wonderful short story, An Affair To Forget. Only 99¢ in the Amazon Kindle Store!

Now on to the 3rd Rule in his guest post this week:

By adgansky

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

It should go without saying that our protagonists should want something. If they don’t, then we have no story. There really are three indispensable elements of fiction: character, desire, and conflict. Without these three, fiction cannot exist. Conflict, however, is derived from the character and their desire. If a character wants a glass of water, the conflict might be that they’re stuck in a desert, or the fact that he forgot to pay the water bill and now his tap is dry. Without the desire for water, the bill is superfluous.

All that being said, what we as writers forget is the first portion of this adage. Vonnegut does not say “Every main character,” but simply, “Every character.” Giving protagonists a desire is usually pretty easy. Remembering that our smaller characters have desires of their own is a different matter. We tend to think of these “minor” characters as planets circling the sun of our protagonist. They exist and revolve around their story. But this robs us of a beautiful opportunity. Conflict is often derived from opposition of character desires.

For example, there is one glass of water, and two characters want it. Or, there is one glass of water. One wants to drink it, the other wants to dump it on his head for some momentary relief from the suns unrelenting rays. Bob wants to marry Sally now, but Sally wants to explore Africa before settling down. Sue wants to go to college, but her mom wants her to stay to care for her ailing father.

Then, take it to the next step. Give Sarah a friend. This friend should want Sarah to come to college with her. But Sarah’s boyfriend, who’s staying in town, should pressure her to stay and care for her father so that he can be with her.

The hot dog vendor, who overhears all of this, just wants all the rowdy kids to clear out from in front of his stand so he can get to the people behind them in line. The guy at the end of the line should be late for an appointment. They may be bit characters, but their desires should be clear, and should play a part in our story.

If you’re like me, you often forget to apply this rule to our auxiliary characters. We just don’t put the same amount of thought into our bit characters, so the become stock and irrelevant. Go through whatever you’re working on now. Identify every character in your story. Then, find out what it is that they want. Why do they want it? What will they do to get it? How might it affect the course of the protagonists story. Often, you’ll find this takes your novel in a new direction, a more organic, believable, poignant direction.

Vonnegut’s Second Rule of Writing Fiction

Hello from New Orleans and thanks to Aaron Gansky for this week’s guest post. Enjoy and let the good times roll! (note: I added the image for fun)

By adgansky

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. –Kurt Vonnegut

I’m going to go ahead and say it. This is a rule that should never be broken. In fact, the simple brilliance of this line is so stunning, that I really wish I’d said it first. If ever there was a rule that had it’s finger on the pulse of fiction, this would be it. We could make cases and argue over the others, but this one I think we have to concede, there’s really no way around it.

Of course there will be naysayers. There’s always someone to assert their rebellious spirit and shout loudly that there are no rules in fiction, that rules were made to be broken, and that true genius can find away around the boundaries we mere mortals erect for ourselves. I have to believe that these people exist, because I used to be one of them. However, I think that even the most obstinate “freedom writer” out there must tip his or her hat to Vonnegut on this one.

To those of you who may still feel that there are ways around this, think of it this way: maybe there are. But why would you want to take them?

I’d also say that this rule does not mean that we must “like” the protagonist, but it sure does help. I’ll use Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five as an example. For those of you who’ve not read it, the book follows Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran and survivor of the Dresden fire bombings in Germany. The premise is that he’s come unstuck in time and he jumps back and forth to random points in his life.

What’s interesting about it is that Billy Pilgrim is far from what we would call a hero. Vonnegut even goes so far as to say that there are no heroes or villains in the book. And he’s right. Billy does not behave like a hero—especially not a war hero. He never kills anyone, never even handles a weapon. In fact, most of his time in the war is spent hoping that he’d simply just die. Nearly every moment of Billy’s life is mundane, boring, and often tragic. But it is the tragedy of Billy’s life that make us root for him. We want so desperately for something good to happen to him, even though he’s no Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He feels as much like a real person as you can get, even though he’s a bit of a loser. And thusly, he becomes sympathetic.

Rooting for a character does not mean you have to “like” them in the normal sense of the word. I’d never invite Billy Pilgrim over for dinner. But I sure don’t want him to die. I want something good to happen to him. I want him to find some moment of happiness. In several ways, the novel is about that—Pilgrim’s quest for contentment. He seldom finds it, but when he does, the moments are that much sweeter.

Take a moment to reflect on the novels you’ve read. Which stand out as the best? Which characters did you find yourself most pulling for? Do you recall any in which you didn’t care whether the character succeeded or not? Now think of what you’re currently writing. Who is the reader rooting for? Are there several, or only one? Are there any at all?

Portrait of a Bookstore

One of my favorite places – and most meaningful – is closing. Portrait of a Bookstore is the first place I gave a reading for my first novel, DEAD WEIGHT. They said at the time that it was one of their most successful events 😉

I love Portrait of a Bookstore – loved it before I ever thought it possible to read there – and Imagewill miss it. Our community will miss it. I am so incredibly grateful to Lucia Silva who gave me that opportunity to “go public.” The staff is the best. And so goodbye to another independent bookstore…

From their blog:

After 26 glorious years, 14 of them spent happily inside Aroma Café, Portrait of a Bookstore is gracefully retiring. How could we say goodbye after 26 years of such success? In the words of Orson Welles, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” This is our happy ending. Our official closing date is May 17, 2012.

On May 17, 1986, Julie and Frank von Zerneck, along with their children Danielle and Frank, Jr.,  gave birth to this bookstore, which grew to be a haven, a home-away-from-home, for so many members of this community. One of the smallest bookstores in the world, “small but mighty,” as we’ve always been called, our selection of books was impeccably curated, worthy of the praise of any astute bibliophile.

Their last day is May 17, 2012 and everything in the store is 50% off.

Pinterest & Daniel Craig

I’m having a lot of fun procrastinating creating boards for my novels and one for a short story, MegaCool, that scissors and spackle just published. My European publisher has one for our book covers.  I can’t draw well (think stick figures), so it’s an outlet to display images that I had in my head while writing.

Do you use Pinterest for your writing or at all? Have you ever created an image board before or while you’re writing for inspiration?

Just as sensory details enrich your writing, they can also enhance your writing experience, so light candles, put on some music, maybe have some fragrant flowers or incense in the room and enjoy. Keep writing!