I haven’t written about Kurt Vonnegut in a while, and I believe it’s time to revisit him and his wisdom. I am dusting off a piece I wrote several years ago, as it has merit in my writing life today.
Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was one of my literary heroes. He was considered to be one of the most outrageously creative writers of our time, and indeed time figures prominently in much of his work – such as in his semi-autobiographical novel, Timequake. In this novel, he writes about trying to write a story. He understood writers’ block, because he had experienced it. Reading Timequake is like seeing my own struggle to write reflected in another author’s life.
His most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five came out of his experiences in WWII as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut understood being a prisoner of war because he had experienced it.
In 1982, Vonnegut wrote a short piece for the International Paper Company, titled simply, ‘How to Write with Style.’ He began his essay by first considering the question of “why we should strive to improve our writing style”:
- “Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowder-head — or worse, they will stop reading you.”
For me as both an editor and a reader, this is a critical point, because if you, as an author, become irate at hearing honest opinions from your beta readers or editors, you are doing them a disservice. We all experience this feeling of shock and dismay, but do take the medicine and try to understand what your reader saw that wasn’t up to par.
My most painful moments have been at the hands of editors who truly wanted to help me improve my work. I thank God they cared enough to tell me the truth.
If you’re doing this only for your ego, then, by all means, enjoy writing whatever falls out of your head. Do it and have fun, but don’t show it to anyone for if you do, your ego is in for a bruising.
That joy and abandonment is how a first draft should be written. But, if you have a first draft, don’t ask me what I think of it, no matter how proud you are unless you want my perspective because we all know every ms has flaws.
After Vonnegut had explained why authors must work to improve their knowledge of the craft, he went on to present 7 more concepts authors must strive to achieve:
- Find a subject you care about.
Let’s be real – if we don’t have a passion for our subject, it’s difficult to wax poetic about it. But when you are passionate, you can’t stop discussing it. It takes all your attention, and you find new things to say about it every day.
- Do not ramble, though.
What a sense of humor! He was right – keep it brief! Don’t spend 50 words when 10 will do. The longer a sentence is, the more opportunity an author has to weaken it. I am terrible at putting this concept into action.
- Keep it simple.
(note to self) Simplicity is the key to Not Rambling!
- Have the guts to cut.
Sometimes an author is in love with a particular sentence or paragraph – and it may be one which, to an editor, doesn’t really work. You must be prepared to divorce the sentences you are married to. This happens to me all the time – and now I try not to cry when my most beautiful, alliterative prose is given the boot. Nine times out of ten tossing out the offending gibberish improves the reader’s experience. After all, this isn’t only an ego trip – it’s the reader I’m writing for, right?
- Sound like yourself.
You may find this to be a ‘Well, duh!’ moment, but take a moment to think about how you actually speak. Do you say “I shall meet you anon.” …er…no… probably not. I usually say, “I’ll meet you as soon as I can.” Write it the way it feels most comfortable to say it. (Thank you, my many wonderful editors, for helping me to understand this concept!)
- Say what you mean to say.
Another ‘Well, duh!’ moment, you might say, but think about how hard it is to express your thoughts when you are trying to tell a stranger how to get from your house to the Walmart in the next town just south of you. Use the words that most clearly express your thoughts. Don’t use vague words to describe simple things – don’t say ‘red marks that started to bleed slightly’ if what you’re describing are ‘bloody scratches.’
- Pity the readers.
Don’t make your readers want to put down your book at the end of the first page. Write the sort of story you want to read – put yourself in the reader’s place. All we dedicated readers really want is the best tale we’ve ever read!
Is that too much to ask?
No, and maybe. We’re only human after all so mixed in with our flashes of literary brilliance are the occasional things which do well for lining the bottom of the bird-cage.
As writers, we struggle to grow every day, and yes, there are times when what we put to paper isn’t our best work. But that is where having the guts to cut is important.
I just hate it when one of my most beautiful turns of phrase during the first draft of a tale becomes not-so-pretty in the second draft and ends up on the verbiage-heap when the editing is done!
Sometimes we find ourselves writing in a desert, a place where the words won’t come. We feel that our work is dry and uninspiring, but I guarantee the most famous and well-loved authors have suffered the same dry-spells, suffered the same feelings of miserable failure we aspiring indies feel.
When I read their beautiful, harsh, and diverse work, I am inspired. I believe I can do this crazy thing. I remind myself that, for me, it’s not about numbers and sales, because it can’t be. For me, it has to be about improving the quality of my work and the telling of the tales I have locked in my brain and getting them out there in book form to the best of my ability.
Reading and understanding how the great authors write is one of the keys to unlocking our own potential. We indies have to use every tool we have available in this rough business, and we have to know what we want to achieve.
I want to achieve great sales, of course. But more than that I want to write compelling tales that move my readers. I may never achieve the first, but I think I can do the second.