Monday, March 18, 2013

When Writing Don't Waste People's Time

Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing 101
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. 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.
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.

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. Though deceased I speak in the presence tense because as long as writers are read they live on shaping and forming the world. I am not sure what that says if you are still alive and people have stopped reading what you wrote.

If you search you can find a youtube of him stating these eight points. I thought that over the next few weeks I would look at each of these points and how they inform my writing.

Vonnegut does acknowledge that there are many great writers who violate every one of these points and yet succeed at greatness. There will always be exceptions. 

1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This is an unspoken and hopefully unenforceable contract between the writer and the reader. The contract is forged by the information we provide on the cover, in our bio, on the first page or in a synopsis. The issue is that this material must be authentic to the rest of the story. If my cover promises this is to be the new great American novel I better be ready to deliver. If I claim this story will change lives, I better be ready to change some lives.

With this introductory material I let my reader have some insight into what they are in for. Am I offering them a laugh out loud experience or a page turning drama, is this romance or adventure. Early in writing Henry on Fire I couldn’t answer these questions. I didn’t want to answer them. I didn’t want to box in or limit my story. After all I was writing the next great American novel, the second coming of Harry Potter.

In reality I had written a story that just poured out of my pen and I wasn’t sure what it was. Through critique feedback, rewrites, some learning about writing and even in selling the printed book face to face I came to see that Henry on Fire is a middle grade boy adventure where through experiences in middle school and the alternative world of Altara Henry figures out who he is.

I can only wonder how the story would have turned out if I had realized this before I published instead of several months afterwards.

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