Vonnegut’s Eight Rules (& the Only One That Counts)

Every writer, after a certain amount of time, will come up with their own set of Writing Rules.  Some people keep it in their heads, repeating their rules mentally like Hail Marys when they run across prose that violates one of their sacred beliefs; some people write them out and post them in forums for the masses to argue over.

This is part of being a writer and being surrounded by other writers.  It’s a natural rite of passage that comes along once you’ve found a style and once you finally think you’re better than everyone else.

Hey, I’ll admit that I’ve thought I was the best writer ever.  I’ve had some reality slapped into me now and know this is nonsense.  But whatever the level of better-than-thou-ness, and however it’s manifested, these writing rules wiggle themselves out and into the public and start ruining everyone else’s writing lives.
Kurt Vonnegut has two major lists of writing advice out: one with seven points, and one with eight.  His advice is good, if you want to write like him, but in the eight-point list lies the Holy Grail of Writing Rules.

Guess which one it is,

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. Now 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.
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.
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.

— Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10

Alright, guesses ready?

If you guessed number seven, you’re right!  Write to please just one person.  Don’t whore around.  Don’t prostitute yourself to the Bitch-Goddess Success.

It’s one of those things that’s so simple it seems stupid — listen to yourself.  Remember, you have the big picture.  Reader input is valuable, but don’t try to write a novel that your pastor and grandmother and lover and poodle and dry cleaner will all love and approve of.

But what does listening to yourself mean? It means throwing away all the writing advice you’ve ever heard.  You’ve learned the rules, weighed them for what they’re worth (I don’t want to write like Vonnegut, so he’s gone) and cram it down the garbage disposal.

The sound of rules being ground up with potato peels and stinking cabbage is a glorious gurgling sound no one should ever miss out on.

Remember, you can edit and worry later.  For right now, just write.  If all you do is worry about the rules, you’ll never get anything done.

(as a post script, I think that last rule is utter bollox and that two and three are actually pretty good)



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Monday Links: No Media Kings

Are you excited? Becuase you should be.  You should be all antsy in your . . . pantsies . . . I guess.  That didn’t really pan out how I planned —

Anyway, this site rocks.  You want to talk about being inspired that you can really do this? That you can really write that freaking novel? That you can quit your job to do it? That you can even self publish it?

Well, welcome to No Media Kings, my favourite site about indie writing and publishing, not to mention graphic novel and film making (can it get any better? no, not really).  It’s freaking sweet.  I’m linking you up to the ‘You should make one, too.’ part of the site first.  I think it’s left overs of the older site, but don’t worry, you have my permission to visit the current site as well.

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“Monday” Links: Fantasy Book Covers

Sorry this post is late.  Don’t you just love it when your personal life has a minor blow up?
Okay, so some genre of book covers are a little predicable.  Back in the day, if you wanted a romance novel, you looked for Fabio and if you wanted a sci-fi you looked for little green men.  Book covers are a hit-or-miss game these days, but when you’re a fantasy writer, chances are you’re going to end up with “glowy magic” on the front.
No, really, it’s proven.

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The Pros of A Character With, Well, No Character

No, you read that right.  Today we’re talking about the pros of having a character that’s about as lifeless as cardboard cut-out.

The idea for the article came to me when I was trying to figure out just why a certain set of books has become such a phenomenon among young ladies.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  Before I go any further, I’ll admit that I’ve read them.  Yes, me, Sarah Melville, who hates cultural phenomenons and things for tweens.  I still haven’t, and never will, read Harry Potter, or see Pulp Fiction.  I abstained from Starbucks for years and years before giving in to that green siren’s caffeinated song.  So I admit, with a small amount of shame, that I read all four of those confused, badly written books.  

In three days.

Now, if they were such bad books, why did I zoom through them*? If they were really bad, wouldn’t I have put them down and barfed on them? Half of me really wanted to do that, especially when, uhm, werewolves showed up (why, dear God, why!?), but I didn’t.  I chalk it up to big print and — this is hard to say without meaning the wrong thing, but the story’s actually . . . okay.  The tension’s in all the right places — especially the sexual tension, which is off the hook.

Okay, I just wanted to see some hot vampire sex, and it never happened. It never freaking happened!

What is this world coming to?

Back to my main point, though, is that the story isn’t that barf-worthy (like, one level above).  From what I remember, it follows the two steps forward, one step back formula well enough to not be a disaster, and like I said, the tension’s off the hook.  Thankfully I’m old enough of a young woman to not lose my head over a character. But there are thousands, probably a million young women who, well . . . fell in love with a  fictional vampire.

And do you want to know how that was achieved?  It’s so simple, really.  It’s one of the things everyone complains about the most.

The main character has no character.  She doesn’t actually have a personality like a real person — she’s run of the mill and her ‘fault’ is being clumsy (which is never, ever a real fault because it’s ‘cute’).

So it’s really easy to put yourself in her shoes.  Hey, I’m a girl . . . so is she! She’s a teenager . . . so am I! There are no actual personality traits that clash with the reader (how many people do you think relate to Mersault from The Stranger? Yeah, just one, and that’s my friend DJ Trux.  But . . . other than him that’s it.)  So every young woman that reads the novel, heck, every old woman and gay bear that reads the novel, finds themselves as the protagonist, falling in love with a glittery vampire.

It’s like nestling into an empty sarcophagus instead of an iron maiden.

The moral of the story is if you want to create the next cult of rabid teenage followers, give your character no character.

Now you’re set.

(If this pans out for you, I’d like a royalty please. Like, a third of a cent would be great.)

*okay, have you seen how big the print is? Do you know how fast I read?  I’m not like that Amazon review lady (I forgot how many hundreds of books she reads a day, but it’s inhuman), but I do read pretty darn fast.  But that’s not what this article is about.


Filed under character development, satire

Monday Links: How [Not] To Write A Book

As you know, the life of a writer can be depressing, difficult, thrilling, and in this case, comical.  Yankee Pot Roast gives us advice on How to Write A Book, and it’s darn good advice!

Read it and you’re sure to magically turn into the most productive version of yourself.

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Staying True to Your Characters – or – How Dorian Got All Wonky On Me

I’m not sure, but I think my writer’s group ruined one of my characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my writer’s group and their feedback is great, but when all of them said they didn’t like a character of mine being pessimistic, I changed it.
The thing is, that character is a pessimist.  That’s the one thing that grounded his personality for me.  Being a first draft, I didn’t have a good idea of who this Dorian was, the only strands I could grasp were ‘pessimist’ and ‘philosophical’. (what? Don’t roll your eyes.  Oh another brooding philosopher, Sarah.  Come on!  Look, I can write sexy characters.  I have that right.  And nothing’s sexier than a sad, introspective guy) So I unknowingly tore apart half of my character and made him more upbeat.  I radically changed the scene they didn’t like into a scene they did.  My shimmering pessimist was now dolling out advice like a self-help writer, and ever since that change a few months ago, I’ve been slowly spiralling down into utter confusion about my novel.  That one scene — changing “you’re not very likely to be happy in life, is what I’ve learned” into “chin up, eh?” (or something like that) ruined my whole novel.

It wasn’t until last night that I realised I had inserted a completely different character into my novel.  Sure, he looked like Dorian, and spoke like Dorian, but it was the evil, optimistic doppelgänger, and he was not welcome.

Which brings us to today’s lesson — don’t listen to your writer’s group because they don’t know whack.

Wait — that’s not it.

The lesson is, stay true to your characters.  This rule stands the tallest of the tall if you’re writing literary fiction.  Don’t force your characters to do something they don’t feel like doing — and don’t do it especially if your loyal reader or writer’s group or the devil on your shoulder is urging you to do it.  Are you trying to create a new character? If the answer is no, well, you know what not to do now.

Besides, who has the big picture? You, the writer — the creator of the character — or your writer’s group, who has a single chapter excerpt in their hands and knows nothing more than that?

I now realise just how important it was for Dorian to be pessimistic in that scene, especially after a scene of him being an optimist (a romantic, is what he called it).  It’s part of his character.

So today I’m bringing back my sexy character and giving the doppelgänger the boot.


Filed under character development, writing advice

Monday Links: Old Faithful

It feels like I’ve been in the online world of writing forever, and in that forever, I’ve gathered quite the collection of writing sites.  I used to follow Miss Snark back in the day, and through mazes of blog links found Evil Editor, Query Shark and the amazing Nathan Bransford agent blog.  Add the novelty that is Stumble Upon, and the writing sites flow in endlessly.

And guess what? I’m going to share them all with you.

I settled on Monday to share links — why? Becuase everyone hates Mondays.  They’ve nothing going for them.  Sundays belong to PostSecret, Tuesdays I get to look forward to college group, Wednesdays are Top Model night, Thursdays are the glorious days of my supper get-togethers and The Office, and Friday, well, Friday’s just amazing.
So I decided to give Monday some love.
Monday Links will be like finding a batch of wild kittens in your attic.


For your first Monday Link, I give you the site I’ve been using to help me with my writing since I first started.  For seven years Name Nerds has been at my side, guiding me to the perfect names for my characters and future children.
Name Nerds offers great lists and fun name generators to play around with.  Browse the names of Russian Royalty or precious gems to get your naming party started.
My favourite part of the site is the list of terrible names that came from baby books.  Some of them really are awful, and some of them I’ve actually used.

I hope you enjoy the site as much as I do!  And Happy Monday, peeps.

currently enjoying: November Has Come by the Gorillaz

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