Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

The Nine Rules of Vonnegut / 1

Bless’d be his name!

Kurt Vonnegut [1902-2007] was an American author who wrote fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction in his lifetime. A hard worker, a good teacher and a fine writer: his name lives on. I am a great fan, if only because reading his novel Slaughterhouse Five [1969] taught me how to be adventurous, how to get out of the house, how to move about on the page in time and space to good purpose, and I recommend the book to all of you. You may not ‘like’ it, as satire is often not exactly likeable, but it’ll certainly put you off war.

Vonnegut introduced an entirely new genre into fiction – what I’d define as mordant-ethical-pop. He used the rules of popular fiction to sell ideas – promoting an idealistic view of a universe which was at once absurd yet essentially hopeful, and which sold like hot cakes. But more importantly to this column Vonnegut was one of the first to realise that creative writing was a teachable subject. He gave a talk in Paris in 1968, in which he recommended nine rules for aspiring novelists.

These can be a little puzzling: Vonnegut refused to take anything seriously, seeing all things as being rendered trivial by the antics of creation itself, but I will examine them in true Bokononist style in order to spread the foma – Bokononism being a fictional religion invented by Vonnegut: foma being the ‘useful lies’ of which all novels are composed.

Here is his Rule No 1. ‘Use the time of a stranger, your reader, in such a way that he or she will not feel their time wasted.’ The stranger is your reader: you know nothing about her or him as an individual, so even before you start writing look for something you have in common. At the very least it will be the human condition, the human predicament – namely, we love, we hope, we grow old and we die. ‘Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others care about,’ suggests the blessed Vonnegut, ‘then speak to him or her, using language as direct and simple as you can.’ If the caring is genuine, he tells us, that will be the most compelling and seductive element in what you end up writing, rather than any stylish or linguistic games you might contrive: don’t ever use three words when one will do: keep it simple. ‘Simplicity of language is not only reputable,’ writes Vonnegut, ‘but perhaps even sacred.

Use clean, short, understandable words. Be incredibly clear. Don’t write “utilize” when you can say “use,” or don’t write “tenebrous” when you can say “dark.” Use clean, short, understandable sentences. Don’t fear periods, go easy on the adverbs, and avoid the passive voice…http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/kurt-vonnegut-guide-copywriting. I quote these last four lines from a marketing meister in the US called Eddie Shleyner, who by a very Bokononian co-incidence has at the very same time I was writing this piece on Vonnegut’s Nine Rules of Novel Writing posted a blog on Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Copywriting, which Eddie quotes from How to Write with Style (an essay Vonnegut published in the 1985 anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.)

Conscious that one must always acknowledge one’s sources – otherwise one is merely stealing from another writer, and pool-pah (Bokononian for the wrath of God) will strike – I had set about checking the reference, and lo – we were karass! (Look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokononism) So hi there, Eddie Shleyner! It’s cheering that we share the same enthusiasms, and the same obsession to instruct at all costs. Kurt would be proud of us…

Back to Rule No 1. You’re asking the reader not just to spend money on your book, but to spend hours of their time reading it. Time is far more valuable than money, and it could be spent on actually living rather than reading. Take the reader more seriously than you do yourself. Don’t waste their time. Make sure they close your book satisfied. You should by now have the skill of writing at your fingertips: use it to the best of your ability to transfer what is in your head into that of your reader, by virtue of (Vonnegut’s words) ‘mak[ing] people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper.’

Vonnegut’s Rule No 2 next week …and, meanwhile, here’s another rule for luck: ‘Do nothing that is not useful’ – from the 17th century Japanese samurai guru Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings.

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