Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and decided to create a five-week long series uncovering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Firstly, I covered Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, then Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and this week I’m focussing on Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules.

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer who’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five, you probably read in high-school, and if you didn’t, I recommend you slide that puppy to the top of your TBR pile!

Vonnegut’s writing career spanned 50+ years. He published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, with further collections published after his death.

If you haven’t read any of Vonnegut’s work, then here’s a quick quote that captures the his spirit well:

“Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

Now, I do want to preface this post by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided on for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.

In the following blog, I list Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing (geared specifically towards fiction writing), followed by my own interpretation of each rule.

Rule #1: Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This rule takes on a totally different meaning in the age of technology. People are busy, our attention spans are shorter, we’re highly distracted, and we have easy access to entertainment. Contemporary novelists aren’t competing among themselves, they’re competing with Netflix, Stand, YouTube, Social Media, and so on.

Few people will stick with a book that isn’t demanding their attention, that they don’t feel compelled to read.

Few people are willing to invest their time in a work that doesn’t give them something back.

Rule #2: Give the reader at least one character they can root for.

I’ve read a lot of novels over the last few years, both literary and genre, whose casts are comprised of despicable characters; however, there was always one character who I despised a little bit less than everyone else or whose flaws were more endearing than off putting.

Everyone likes a fuck-up with a heart of gold. 

I absolutely believe that there are readers out there who are sophisticated enough to stay with a book whose characters are complex, contradicting, and unlikeable; I can think of several authors who’ve made best-selling careers out of this formula, and yet, even in these challenging works there is at least one character for whom the reader can root for.

Every character must want something
Every character must want something, even if it is a glass of water.

Rule #3: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

One classic craft rule is, ‘figure out what your character wants and then take it away from them.’ This one simple tactic forms the basis of tension, character motivation, and narrative-drive.

If you know what your characters want, you also know the general trajectory of the plot, the core conflict, potential obstacles, and who your protagonist is.

Rule #4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. 

This circles back to rule number one: don’t waste people’s time. You cannot afford to have any dead sentences in your story; every line must be doing something. A novel that keeps us awake until 2 a.m. does so because each sentence pulls us along into the next.

If a story is constantly turning, a reader will stick with it.

If the writer gives in to his poetic genius by publishing purple prose, then the reader will set down the book and turn on Netflix.

Every scene must do something, either reveal character or move the story forward.

Rule #5: Start as close to the end as possible.

This is a different take on ‘start in the middle’, but it bears the same philosophy: the only person who needs 150 pages of backstory is the author.

My favourite anecdote about this comes from Jay Kristoff, author of the Nevernight trilogy. While revising book one, Kristoff deleted 80,000 words from the start of the novel. Why? Because it was all backstory!

Now, you can weave that backstory into the main plot or you can allow that backstory to inform the narrative, but you do not need to hold the reader’s hand through pages of ‘set-up’ material.

We don’t care where a character has come from, we care where they are, and where they’re going.

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.

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.

This is probably the hardest rule, or at least it is for me.

If you love your characters, or at least like them, then you’re rooting for them to succeed. You want them to achieve their goals and to live long, happy, pain-free lives.

Unfortunately, that’s not very interesting to read. And victories without losses, aren’t that compelling.

We want to see the character overcome obstacles, pull up by their bootstraps, be clever, and survive emotional and physical setbacks; we want them to earn their victories.

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.

You decide who that person is; however, I hope that person is yourself.

Whether you decide to go indie or traditional, publishing is hard and you cannot control your readership. What you can control is your story. It would suck to spend five years writing a story that you think will sell and then have it tank. It would be even worse to write a book you aren’t that into, have it succeeded, and then feel compelled to continue in that series, genre, or style.

The best way to be happy as a writer is to write what you want to write, anything else will feel like a waste of time, money, or passion.

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.

This rule is perhaps a little controversial, though I have to say, I needed this advice while writing Every Time He Dies. There is a careful balance between withholding information as a form of suspense and withholding so much that your reader either becomes confused or bored, but what Vonnegut is getting at is that you can create narrative drive by dripping out information.

You need more than a good secret to keep a reader reading.

It is far more interesting to be given the information, to see what the core conflict is, and then to follow the character as they go about resolving it.


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How To Make Your Fiction More Interesting

It was 1 p.m. in the afternoon and I was watching the cursor on my word doc. blink, blink, blink.

I’d spent the last three hours writing … actually, that’s being a bit generous …

In truth, I probably wrote for 1.5 hours. The rest of the time was made up with quickly checking/replying to emails, hanging out laundry, patting the dog, making lunch, refilling my water bottle, and staring out the window. 

Yup, you guessed it. I am working on a first draft.

It’s been three weeks since Every Time He Dies was officially released and as you well know it took me seven years to write that novel. 

The last few years of working on Every Time He Dies was so joyful because I was confident with the story and the characters.

Here’s the thing, because that project started so long ago, I’d totally forgotten what it’s like to begin a new project!

The new novel (which I started in January this year) is about three female protagonists who have animal companions. The book has elements of sci-fi, cli-fi, horror, magical realism and literary fiction.

When compared to ETHD, It could not be more different … at least in premise.

Don’t worry, it’s still written by me so it reeks of mysticism, time manipulation, and otherworldliness.

But … can I just say how weird it is to be working on a project I am so unfamiliar with?

Right now, I am ten months into the drafting process and I’m still drifting. 

I wrote a 60,000 word draft at the start of this year, but it’s really just a brain dump of ideas. Now I am HEAVILY revising that document to the point where it feels like a totally new story. In fact, to say that I am revising my brain dump draft feels a bit disingenuous considering how much I am changing the story. 

I hope you’re getting a sense here of how messy writing is because it is messy. 

At the start of this project, I produced an outline, completed profiles of all my characters and typed one that initial brain dump version of the story. All of this succeeded in getting the ball rolling, but these processes only lead me so far.

Writing is a physical act. You can’t always think your way through it. Sometimes, you don’t know if something is going to work until you sit down to write it. 

As a result, there comes a point where you have to put one foot in front of another (or one letter after another) and that is how you make your way through the dark. Slowly. Very slowly.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’re probably thinking, “Don’t you write 2000 words a day?”

Yeah, for the most part, I do. 

Q: How the heck do you do that?

A: I follow Natalie Goldberg’s rules for writing and rule number one is: keep your hand moving. 

A: Okay … but what does that actually mean?

Q: Basically, during the drafting phase, I try not to think too much about what I am writing, instead, I let the story lead the way. 

And yet, there is some cognitive action going on behind the scenes.

Lately, my writing mantra has been make it weirder. 

It’s amazing how effective those three words have been.

I can be working on a scene and thinking, “God, this is boring! I’m just moving the characters around! I’m just describing their day!” 

Then I pause and think, “Okay. So this scene stinks. Big deal! What can we do to fix this? How can I make it more interesting? How can I make it weirder?

I then skip ahead to the next page and let loose. 

This approach has resulted in some damn fine writing, and you know … some pretty weird stuff too.

If you’re currently in the throes of writing a first draft, or if you are revising a manuscript and thinking things such as, “this is boring”, I invite you to try my mantra or to come up with your own. 

You may be surprised by just how effective this simply mind game can be.