Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kurt and Me

Are there rules for writing?  No, not in the sense of strictures that you must follow or your piece will collapse like wet tissue (always, of course, with the exception of using the comma of address :)  The usual word is "guidelines," but I prefer a term borrowed from business: "best practices."  Which means: "This worked for our company and led to increased profit, so go the hell ahead and emulate us."

Recently I was pleased to find that Kurt Vonnegut and I share similar best practices.  He left a list of eight pieces of advice for aspiring fiction writers, most (although not all) of which I have been telling my students for decades.  Here they are, with my annotations in parentheses:

1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
(This seems self-evident.  Also vague -- obviously many people don't feel that time spent reading Danielle Steele is wasted.  But many do.  Such as me.)
2.      Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
(There are exceptions to this -- I didn't like anyone in John Updike's RABBIT RUN, and it was a literary success.  But if you want to make a commercial sale, it's a good idea.)
3.      Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
(Yes!  This is key to controlling motivation, which is key to controlling your entire story.)
4.      Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
(Not quite in sync with this.  Some sentences of description, for example, are exclusively concerned with setting and atmosphere.)
5.      Start as close to the end as possible.
(It depends.  George R.R. Martin, to take one example, did not start GAME OF THRONES near the end of the struggle for the Iron Throne.  On the other hand, that phrase "as possible" allows for a lot of wiggle room.)
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.
(Yes.  Fiction is about things that get screwed up.  Nobody wants to read about lives that go smoothly -- even if we want to live them.  A key question in story development is: What can go wrong here?)

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.
(I write for one person: a hypothetical reader remarkably like myself.  In other words, I write what I would want to read if someone else wrote it.)
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.
(I can't completely agree with this one.  Some stories are better made explicit; some are not.  But I think what Vonnegut is railing against here is the "twist ending," which often feels contrived, and which -- alas -- SF too often employs.  Also, it's critical that we understand why characters are doing whatever they're doing.)


TheOFloinn said...

Flynn read the perspicacious advice and scratched his head. "But there are rules of writing," he said, advancing a conflict; though inasmuch as there was no one about this revealed his character as the sort who sits and talks to himself. "There are rules of writing. It's just that no one knows what they are." Thus putting the narration into suspense. Will he discover these rules or not?

"How," he wondered, "can I start close to the end when I don't know how it will end?"

But suddenly he is run over by a truck, thus providing a surprising twist ending to this comment.

David Ivory said...

I believe the reader should think they understand what is happening, and not feel that they're missing out on a vital piece of information. But a revelation that puts everything in a new light can still be a good thing.

This has to be done with respect. I'm thinking 'Fight Club' and 'Bladerunner' where true nature of the protagonist is as much a surprise to the character as the reader. In these cases to the protagonist themselves.

So I'm in with all the other points - down on this last one. It just takes a good writer to know where to draw the line.

Nancy Kress said...

Mike, you are Too Much.

TheOFloinn said...

Mike, you are Too Much.

Not as Much as before. I lost 25 pounds in the hospital.

Jim McClanahan said...

I find that Tom Clancy quite often breaks rule no. 6. I think he just can't stand for the forces of good and the American way to ever stub their toes. It has a lot to do with why I stopped reading his stuff.