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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing

The famous American writer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007), published fourteen novels, five plays, three short story collections, and five works of non-fiction.

His most known work, and best-selling novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was written from the experiences he experienced at Dresden in World War II.

These are the eight rules of writing he crafted that can be applied to any type of writing.

Rule 1: Use the Time of a Total Stranger in Such a Way That He or She Will Not Feel the Time Was Wasted

I know it’s tough trying to figure out what a total stranger might want, especially one that you’ve just come up with, but you have to get to know these characters intimately. So, invite them into your home, pour them a scotch and get to know these people. Their wants, their needs, and their ambitions.

Rule 2: Give the Reader at Least One Character He or She Can Root For

Readers need a character they can root for, someone they feel invested in. Think of any of your favorite novels, they all have a character that you can root for, a character that you’re invested in.

Rule 3: Every Character Should Want Something, Even If It Is Only a Glass of Water

Everyone wants something, whether it be a new car, world peace, to find the love of their life, or just to go to sleep happy. Everyone wants something.

Rule 4: Every Sentence Must Do One of Two Things–Reveal Character or Advance the Action

I absolutely hate when writers get diarrhea of the mouth and start to blab on about nothing important to the story, or they spend too much time describing the scene. Robert Jordan often did this in his great fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, too much description and not enough story.

Rule 5: Start As Close to the End As Possible

Starting anywhere else leaves too much room for fluff, and we don’t need fluff. We want to reveal character and advance action! Leave out the extra long back story, leave out the fluff.

Rule 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 Are Made Of

Readers want characters they can root for, they want characters that they can relate to. There’s no better way to do this than to put one of your characters in a shitty situation and watch them climb out of it.

Rule 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

Stephen King says first and foremost to write for yourself. Writing for someone in particular is good too, like a spouse, but more than that and you’re asking for trouble. You can’t please everyone.

Don’t worry about what one person has to say about your writing, you should only start to worry when multiple people start saying the same thing. At that point, there may be reason to take a step back and rethink things.

Rule 8: Give Your Readers As Much Information As Possible As Soon As Possible. To Hell 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

Write simply, there’s no need for extravagant words and riddle like prose. Use words your readers know and lead them in the right direction. Vonnegut wrote simply. Hemingway wrote simply. Learn from the best.

Understanding Great Writing… Just Like Kurt Vonnegut

During the mid to late 1960s, after Vonnegut was already a successful novelist, he took to teaching the craft at the Iowa Writer’s workshop.

Much like his books, his advice, possessed unusual quirks. By many he’s seen as a genius who changed the writing landscape forever. Hold these eight rules to heart and try seldom to break them.

Until next time, write on!

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