Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

#amwriting: learning from the masters: Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake(Vonnegut)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”:

  1. “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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Keep it simple.

(note to self) Simplicity is the key to Not Rambling!

  1. 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?

  1. 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!)

  1. 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.’

  1. Pity the readers.

kurt-vonnegut_quoteDon’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.

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Achieving balance

the balanced narrativeYou’ve heard the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” The implication is that a small amount of knowledge can lead to overconfidence and leaping to invalid conclusions based on what you do know without taking into account the things that you don’t know.

When we are newly-hatched authors, we eagerly soak up the wisdom offered to us through writing seminars and handbooks on the craft of writing.

But if you are an avid reader, someone who reads widely and in many different genres, you can see that writing is not simply a matter of following rules.

This is especially true in regard to the many-layered concept of exposition, introducing background and necessary information into the narrative.

Sometimes there is life in a manuscript that has broken all the rules. The work shines because it’s clear that the writer had passion and it was conveyed in the written word. Life is a natural consequence of the rush of creativity and is set into the manuscript when the first words are written.

Unfortunately it is easy to murder what began as a beautiful story. Consider those writers who spend years carefully combing every spark of accidental passion out of their work, creating textbook-perfect sentences that are flat, toneless. The reader has no desire to care about the characters or their struggle.

kurt-vonnegut_quoteI’ve also known people who use “the ‘f’ word” regularly in their work  because they think it’s cutting edge, and then they have the balls to say they write like Kurt Vonnegut.

They don’t.

Blindly breaking rules without understanding them is not good writing craft. Vonnegut understood the rules, and when he broke them, he did it to inject life into his work.

He understood balance and was not afraid to use it.

You want to create a balanced narrative:

  1. Information must be delivered only as the protagonists need it.
  2. The information can never be something everyone already knows.
  3. You must offer SOME information–people appearing out of nowhere mean nothing if you do not offer an explanation for them.
  4. No one will die if you use an adjective to describe an object, once in a while.
  5. Show people by using simple, general descriptions such as handsome or dark-haired, and use their mannerisms to convey their moods–things that allow the reader to form their own idea of what the characters look like and how they are feeling. But do give the reader something to build their visualization around.
  6. Stick to simple basic speech tags like said and replied, and if the conversation has only two people, skip them sometimes for a sentence or two.

I know a few authors who are like pendulums. They have no concept of balance and leave each meeting of their writing group with the notion that they have to go all or nothing when deploying information.

Thus, if they have been told they gave too much information, they go too far and now their characters appear out of the ether, with unexplained powers and do things that make no sense.

First you have to realize that no one writes a perfect, completely flawless manuscript, not even Neil Gaiman. And then you have to decide: are you writing for the critics who might be out there, or because you love to write.

If you are not writing for the joy of writing, quit now.

Otherwise, keep writing. Only by continued practice will you develop the balance you know you need. And you don’t have to be committed to only writing novels. Some of the best work I’ve ever read was in the form of short stories.

You can gain a handle on balance by writing short-stories and essays.

With each short-story you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition. This is especially true if you limit yourself to writing the occasional practice story—telling the whole story in 1000 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

  • You have a finite amount of time to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.
  • You have a limited amount of space so your characters will be limited to just the important ones.
  • There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot, or affect the outcome.
  • You will build a backlog of short stories and characters to draw on when you need a good story to enter into a contest.

Go for the gusto, and try writing flash fiction–give yourself less than 1000 words to tell a story. Or really challenge yourself–tell that story in around 100 words ( a drabble):

Drake - a drabble by cjj

Drake, © Connie J. Jasperson 2013, All Rights Reserved

4 Comments

Filed under Humor, Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

When inspiration fails…

276px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_ProserpineThere are days when I just can’t come up with a new idea. The creative juices are flowing, but they’re moving  more like unimaginative sludge. I don’t see these moments as writer’s block—the ideas are lying dormant. They just don’t want to bloom quite yet.

This is when I clean the house. For some reason, inspiration always strikes when I am doing some mindless task, and though you wouldn’t know it from my office, I work better when the house is in order. If that hasn’t jarred an idea loose, I put on some Loreena McKennitt or Blackmore’s Night and go out to the internet and search for ideas, by looking at fantasy images from Canstock or Dreamstime.

Sometimes I just peruse the old masters from the renaissance era out on Wikimedia Commons, like Dante’s Persephone.

Then there are times when I have a cornucopia of ideas. They can’t all be used, there are so many of them. I try to write them down for use later, and that helps when I have a temporary dry spell.

That is, they help unless I forget to make full notes about the whole idea—random notes like “Give the dog a biscuit” are just a bit too ambiguous to be really helpful. Know what dog would have been helpful–however that random note did inspire me to give Billy Ninefingers a hilarious sidekick, a dog named Bisket.

Sometimes I get going on a tale and all of a sudden my enthusiasm just sort of faints somewhere along the line and I don’t know why. It turns out that idea really wasn’t a novel—it was a short story and it just wanted to be done and over with.  Short stories are wonderful exercises for writing longer pieces. If you can, you should try to build up a backlog of short pieces under 7000 words in length, because you never know when a call for short stories will come along and you might have the chance to be published in an anthology.

Old Restored booksAlso, writing short fiction helps you get the hang of using a story arc in smaller increments, to help the layers of your longer pieces.

Sometimes I get stuck in the middle, and don’t know what is going to happen next. That is really frustrating, but I just set is aside to come back to it later. Other times I get a little bit of a jump-start by talking to members of my writing group.

But there are times the piece just has to be shelved for a while.  That’s okay, because when I pull it out, I will say, “Hey! This is awesome—I love this story.” I never fail to find that spark when I run across a tale I forgot I had half-written.

I never get bored with my characters, but I sometimes get bored with the drivel I write for them to do. That is why sometimes walking away from a stalled story for a short while is a good idea. At that point I am beating a dead horse and it’s a waste of time. Later I will see the manuscript through new eyes and a better way to get my heroes to the final battle will strike.

When I am stuck on a paragraph that I just can’t get right, I email a writing buddy and run it past them. We bounce it back and forth until it conveys the idea I think it needs to–or I throw it out.

I’m always happy to talk with them when they are stuck, so it all balances out.

GrandmasNoBakeCookiesMy point is that we all suffer from occasional lapses of the creative muse. I never let lack of inspiration for one project stop me from pushing forward—I just find something that does interest me and do that for a while until I have my fire back.

Sometimes I just have to make cookies for a while. Chocolate no-bakes...yummy….

4 Comments

Filed under Adventure, Battles, blogging, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, Publishing, Self Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing