Self-Editing 201 with Professor Vonnegut

October 19, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Posted in editing, Meg, self-editing | 1 Comment

You’ve aced Self Editing 101 and eliminated all unnecessary words (adverbs, that, just, about, able, anyway, but, by, even, like, notice, of, realize, said, seems, so, some, still, then, very, etc.) and struggled through S-E 102 as you ‘actionized’ your passive voice. Now, it’s second year, folks, and time for an advanced lesson. Our guest professor is Kurt Vonnegut and his rules on writing short stories :

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. Now 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. — Kurt Vonnegut

Now, I’m in the midst of applying this to my current ms. I wiped out a whole character because he wasted time making my main character turn over (she’s in the Caribbean and needed help sunbathing- yes, didn’t advance the action or reveal character either). I need to double check what my characters want- money, love, safety, etc. and then make sure every obstacle keeps them from this desire. (Writing is one of the only places you can unleash that inner bitch and be intentionally cruel! I love it!) And I need to make sure I have someone sympathetic enough to have the reader turning pages even through the bad scenes I missed.

But the last one, the rule about telling all, I think I will break this one. I don’t want the reader to know certain aspects of the book. I hate reading books that I can see the ending. Why waste my time? Isn’t the goal to write a book that people will stay up all night to get to the last page? I even love romances when I’m not sure whom the heroine will pick or if there will be a happy ending. So this rule I’ll break.

And rule breaking, that’s a topic for another blog, but if you want to break the rules, go for it. According to Wikipedia, my new favorite website for all things,Vonnegut qualifies this list by adding that the greatest American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that.



1 Comment »

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  1. This is great Meg – and I agree, you know how I feel about subtlety – the black moment in my YAF takes a page to figure out even what’s going on – I’m so glad people liked that, because I hate having obviousness on silver platters


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