Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Writing for One


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #7
1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. 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.      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 thought I was writing for the world. As I have said before I thought I had the next great American Novel. So what can we make of this.

At the core of no. 7 is an admonition that I write for a real person. If that one person likes it then others will also. The opposite of this would be to write for a hypothetical everyone. To do that is to lose a concrete and real voice and to end up writing for no one.  

A few weeks ago I went away with a group of guys for a retreat. During our free time on Saturday afternoon five of us set out on a walk. We immediately headed down the gravel road marked ‘keep out.’ We passed several more signs that were equally as ominous but we forged on. We arrived at a small damn on an unnamed river. Signs grew more ominous telling us this was city property, no trespassing, do not walk here. I walked up to look at the fish ladder that was designed to let fish bypass the damn. A sign on the wall of the fish ladder said “If you fall in here you will die.” I liked the clarity of message. After we left the damn we wandered around a few more forbidden trails. When we crossed a small stream on a railroad bridge it struck me that our band of 50+ somethings were no different than the boys in the movie Stand by Me. In the movie a group of middle schoolers set out on a journey following a railroad track. Their goal is to see a dead body they have been told about. Okay we weren’t looking for a dead body but we enjoyed our journey all the more because all the signs told us we were not allowed to do this.

I think maybe I write for an updated 13 year old Stuart. I hope other’s enjoy it also.

Henry in the first book clearly tells us he hopes there is at least one person out there who will care enough about him to read his story. He feels he is doing all he can to pour himself out to whoever that might be. In the final telling of the Henry stories there will be that one person who will care.  
  1. 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.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Maybe I'm just Too Nice


Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing #6
1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  2. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  3. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  4. Start as close to the end as possible.
  5. 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.
I have three thoughts on this subject.
First I am just a nice guy. Yes I have probably done a few mean things in my life but basically it is my nature to be nice. For the most part I don’t even yell at other drivers. (My wife says that is because I don’t commute.) So to intentionally be mean to a character seems to ruin my nice guy self-image.

Second I find it very difficult to be mean to my main character. I really like him. I wouldn't write about him if I didn't like him, more than that I want him to succeed. If he needs something I give it to him. Early in my writing even before reading this list from Kurt Vonnegut it was pointed out to me that I didn't make my characters challenges big enough. My first attempts at giving Henry some obstacles seemed rather artificial. I think through rewriting they became real and congruent with the story.

I enjoyed reading some of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. He seems to have a fairly simple and easy formula. In each chapter Percy is at a new location encountering a new challenger emerging from Greek, or Roman Mythology.   It works.

So I have accepted that once I figure out what a character wants (No. 3 above) it is my job as the writer to do all I can to make achieving that goal impossible.

My third point is a problem. In Henry on Fire, Henry’s antagonist is his middle grade self. In this first story Henry struggles with his anger. In one draft of the story Henry became so angry no body, meaning no reader, would have cared enough to read the story. 

In the sequel a new character appears, Sean, who really annoys Henry. Henry refers to him as a freak. Sean is a very sympathetic character and Henry is a real jerk in what he says about Sean. So when the character is both protagonist and antagonist the challenge is to create a likable character that the reader will root for while he works through his issues.

7.      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.
  1. 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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Get to the Point


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.


My first thought was, “What does this mean?”


Then I remembered this friend who loved to tell the stories of his life, but never started near the end. He thought every detail of the back story was essential to understanding the event to be shared. I am afraid I was terribly impatient every time he started to speak. If he were going to tell you about a recent auto accident he had to start with when he bought the car five years ago and then revert to the reason he needed a new car. Then would follow a brief history of the repairs of the wrecked auto. Then before we got to the wreck he would tell you the back story on the other person and the other car. Five minutes could pass before you found out it was a fender bender and no one was hurt.


I find the other way to approach this is to bring as much action forward as possible and reveal the back story as the plot swings into action.


So if there is a life point to this it is to realize that people’s time is precious and not to be wasted or abused so we do well to get to the point.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Does every sentence have to reveal character or advance plot?

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.

Every sentence? I can’t help but think of Moby Dick which has long passages about whaling. Or the Hunch Back of Notre Dame which is as much an expose on French society as it is about the title character. However if you step back to the French title you discover that maybe the main character is not Quasimodo but is instead the cathedral itself. Notre-Dame de Paris. There still however seems to be a lot of extra material.

I once suggested that Shakespeare could be improved by using fewer words. My wife and several other people promptly informed me that not only was that not true, but that Shakespeare had used exactly the right number of words.

As I have confessed before through most of my writing experience my challenge was too few words not to many. If the assignment called for five pages I always ran out of things to say at three and a half pages. So the idea of cutting out material seems counter intuitive.

So what else might sentences do if not move plot and develop character? Is there no room for visualizing the scene or for setting the larger context? Without that doesn't every story become a”a once upon a time experience,” lacking the texture.

I had not read these points on writing as I rewrote Henry, but I found on my own and from critique feedback that there were a number of scenes that did nothing for the story except possibly bore the reader, further convincing them of how boring Henry’s life was, but leaving the reader so bored they would not continue reading. Some of those scenes made great short stories others didn't even have that quality to them.

So on point 4 I am not 100% in agreement with Mr. Vonnegut, but I would say every sentence should have a purpose. And the primary purpose of the vast majority of sentences should be to move plot or develop character.

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.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What am I looking for?


I continue my series through Kurt Vonnegut 8 points of Creative Writing 

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.

Have you ever walked into a store with a clear idea of why on this day at this time you have come into that store? And very helpfully you are greeted by a guest services assistant (also known as a clerk) and asked. “Can I help you find something?” What do you do? Of course you answer, but which answer.

a.     I’m looking for a wiznev can you help me find a good one?
b.     I’m just looking.
c.     No thank you.
d.     None of the above.

I have gotten better about saying a. I’m looking for a wiznev can you help me find a good one? But I still don’t always say that. Not because wiznev is a made up word and I don’t really want one. The issue is that even though this may be a planned trip that has taken over thirty minutes of my time already, I am not absolutely certain I am committed to buying a wiznev this day at this time in this place. And what if the clerk took me directly to the wiznev counter and they had the absolutely best wiznevs at the absolutely best price and the clerk produced a special additional 20% off coupon he would give me and I just didn’t want to buy it. What excuse could I give?

Given all this internal conflict over trying to decide what I really want how can I hope to know what my characters want? Fortunately as my characters emerged in the writing of Henry on Fire they began to make clear what they wanted. Papo and his friends wanted to prevent the rise of the Tara. Tanya and Anree both want to share more of Henry’s life in suburbia. Jamal wants to go out with Angela. I don’t think Fred wants anything. And Henry wants to feel alive.

I like the idea of giving characters the freedom to look around the story before they really commit to why they are in it and what they want. Then in the rewrite as I strengthen the characters I can go back and make their desires emerge more quickly and more clearly, but it’s their desires emerging not my plan for them.

My greatest learning in writing Henry on Fire was realizing that I as author could only succeed by giving my characters freedom to develop beyond my original vision. I had previously heard author’s describe this approach to writing and I never believed them until I experienced for myself.     

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.