Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Vonnegut's Eight Rules

Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction:
  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.
- Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.
Of course, there are always exceptions. Vonnegut added: "The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You don't want publication yet.

I recently received the following email from fellow attorney-writer Courtney:
I'm gearing up for the impending NaNoWriMo--I have a novel idea that has been floating around in my brain for approximately 5 years, but with all the nonsense that comes with living life on a daily basis, I haven't done anything other than put a loose outline on paper. I'm hoping this is my year and maybe next year at this time I can be worrying about trying to get it published. I'm actually contemplating taking a few days off of work in November, shutting off the cell phone and internet, and just going into some kind of writing zone--somewhat akin to the old fashioned "all nighter" pulled in college to crank out a paper--but this time probably it will involve a lot more sleep and a glass of organic red wine.

Do you have any advice/tips for me? For example, I'm looking for things I should be doing now to set myself up later for publication. I have purchased a book titled, "Publishing Your Manuscript," which I must confess I have not cracked open yet, but it somehow makes me feel closer to my goal by sitting on my bookshelf.
So, here's my advice, and I hope it doesn't sound too harsh: DO NOT DO ANYTHING to set yourself up for publication. You're not there yet.

You need to write first. And write and write and write and write...

The internet is full of awesome resources to help you get published. Mur Lafferty has an amazing podcast called I Should Be Writing that covers everything from first drafts to revision to submission, with published-author interviews to boot. NaNoWriMo itself has a page called I Wrote A Novel, Now What? I've got a list of blogging agents, editors, and other helpful industry players here: How Do I Get An Agent? and you can also follow my entire list of agents who Twitter (I've found nearly a hundred, there's probably more...)


It is SO easy to lose yourself in the scrum of people running towards the prize of publication.

You can end up crafting the perfect query letter, instead of crafting your novel. (Somewhere in the archives of the lovely Natalie Whipple is a blog post where she talks about the frustration of having written a query letter that got lots of agent attention, only her book wasn't actually fulfilling the promise of the query letter, and so of course there was no chance of publication yet. CONGRATS ON YOUR BOOK DEAL, NATALIE!!! You totally earned it.)

You can find yourself worrying about whether you're going to get stuck in a career of writing in a certain genre, instead of actually finding your voice. You can find yourself comparing your process to those of other writers without being able to remind yourself that YOU are not THEM and what works for them may not work for you. Eyes on your paper, writers.

You can waste way too much time blogging and Tweeting, trying to find an audience for books you haven't written yet. Even if you find a community that's trying to be supportive, if you're not in the right mental space, it can do you damage. The writer isn't the one spending all his time hanging out online talking to other writers about "the process." The writer is the one who stays in the room.

Last year a lot of people were telling me things I wanted to hear: you're great, it's just a matter of time, don't worry about it... but it wasn't what I needed. I needed to be spending more time on my revisions. I needed to be spending less time trying to figure out the "magic bullet" of publishing, and more time just writing more and more and more to make myself better. Hell, even if I am great and it's just a matter of time, I needed to be spending more time writing new stories, and less time pursuing publication because words are my product and I need as many of them on paper as I can get, so that I actually have the work I need upon which to base this supposed future career.

Finally, and worst of all, if you work to learn the publishing trade right away, you might actually manage to get your book published right away... before it's really ready. You want your work to last a long, long time. You should make sure it's as close to perfect as it can be before it goes into print.

Screw publication. Find out what kind of writer you are, first. You'll have a lot more fun, and end up being more successful in the long run, I promise.

Monday, August 1, 2011


I'm afraid my first novel will never find representation.

I'm afraid I'm taking too long with my latest round of revisions.

I'm afraid my changes will make the book worse, not better.

I'm afraid that everyone else will like the new edits, but I'll still prefer the original.

I'm afraid readers won't "get" what I've tried to do with this book.

I'm afraid the novel won't be taken seriously enough.

I'm afraid that I won't fall in love with the characters in my second novel as much as I did with the characters in my first.

I'm afraid that I'm losing too much time on my first novel and not getting enough new work written.

I'm afraid that everyone will want my second novel to be written just like the first.

I'm afraid that I'm too close to my own work to revise it yet again.

I'm afraid of the blank page.

Fortunately, I'm more afraid of not trying.