Monday, October 19, 2009

Step Right Up For Creative Writing 101

I have a bulging miscellaneous folder in my file cabinet. It's where I throw odd pieces of information, interesting interviews, story ideas, short stories I admire, etc., etc. Every now and then when this file grows so obese it crowds the whole drawer, I go through it searching for things to throw away. I weeded this week and what did I find?

A gem: a page from an old Cornell Magazine with a selection from Kurt Vonnegut's (class of '44) book BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX in which he lists eight rules for his "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 the suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, the where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I'm mulling over what he means in #7. Is he saying you should write for yourself?


  1. I love this list! I actually posted it on my blog not too long ago and gave a copy of it to my writing class (they all loved it). I think #7 is about writing for yourself. The 8th rule is funny because it goes against the "show don't tell" rule of writing, but I think he has a point.

  2. Thanks for posting this list! I do remember this from Anna's blog. A great list -- #1 is just plain sage advice. #3 is something I have to keep reminding my students. And I agree about #7, that it's about writing for yourself.

  3. This is brilliant! Thank you for sharing.

    I'm not so sure I agree that #7 is write for yourself. He seems so straightforward in his advice, I have a feeling if he meant write for yourself he would have said that. Maybe he just means you don't have to please everyone, so don't write too broadly.

  4. I've always liked #7! One of my favorite quotes. I think he means we as writers should not only write for ourselves, but we should not share our work before it's done, or at least as polished as we can make it.

    In my own experience I've found sharing my work, even an idea, can be harmful to the creative process. I tend to keep ideas and my work close to my chest before I ever share it with anyone.

  5. This is a great list! This will be printed out and posted on my wall!

  6. So THAT'S where #3 came from, lol.

    Ditto what Judy said!! Love this list.

  7. I've never seen his wonderful list before, so thanks for sharing it. I do have one question: What the heck is a Bagombo snuff box? Off to Googleland I go...

  8. My favorite is #3.

    I agree with MG that #7 is not yourself. I think he means that writers should not try to please the different conflicting comments gathered from editors/agents/writers, because you can't please everyone.

    Great list, Gale. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks for sharing. I love Vonnegut. #7 could certainly be write for yourself, but I also remember reading somewhere: Write like you're telling a story to a friend. Maybe keeping one reader in mind helps the story from becoming distilled. I try to write to my younger self.

  10. So glad people enjoyed this list as much as I did! I agree with MG and Meg that perhaps #7 is not writing for yourself, but saying it's important not to led astray by too many comments from other people - see my post of last week, "When Is It Time To STOP?"

    Janice, I have read the short story "Bagombo Snuff Box," and the main character presents his ex-wife and her husband with a snuff box he purchased in Bagombo, Ceylon. (now Sri Lanka).

  11. P.S. That phrase should read: Not to BE led astray . . .

  12. Hi Gale-Thanks for the note about this. In particular, I like #4. Especially when trying to cut as I've been. I will revise with this in mind.

    Lyn Sirota

  13. I have this feeling that people who write really well have lots of rules for writing successfully. They share only a fraction of them. The ones V. shares with us are priceless and mostly universal. But I hazard a guess that no two good writers write alike, i.e., there is no one (or 8) way(s) to write effectively. It also probably depends on your writing style whether you tell everything up front or string the reader along. Another variable is the kind of piece your writing. I think #7 is not so much about writing for yourself as it is about writing to please too many people. It's wonderful to come across these thoughts by a mind like V's, isn't it? Really gives my brain a whirl. Thanks, Gale, for posting them.