Count me as one of those people who think that the unfortunately late Kurt Vonnegut is a modern reincarnation of Mark Twain. His books and short stories are littered with barbed, humorous, and wickedly honest advice about the process of writing. Perhaps my favorite piece of wisdom that he bestows is this: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Of course, then he goes on to use one at the end of that same book, making the point that Rules only take us so far, even good rules. Without any further ado, my three favorite rules from Kurt Vonnegut. So it goes.
1. Start as close to the end as possible.
We, as writers, tend to see connections between events that others gloss over. That’s what makes for good writing, but also makes it difficult for the reader to stay involved. This rule is one that is universally followed by good plot-based writers (think Tom Clancy or John Grisham), who almost always have the crisis develop within the first few pages, and certainly within the first chapter.
To make this advice work, the “end” must be defined before the piece is written. What are you trying to leave the reader with? What is the final event in the plot? After you decide on your ending, see how close to that ending you can begin the story.
2. Every sentence should do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
This piece of advice plays constantly through my mind when I edit my writing. Vonnegut was famous for being a perfectionist, carefully selecting every word and eliminating the extraneous. If you read through his works, the one thing you will never find is fluff.
Editors typically describe this process as tightening. Strip out the unnecessary details and wasted words that get in the way of what you really want to say.
And if you can follow the first two rules, the third follows naturally…
3. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Does your work in progress begin as close to the end as possible? How could you start closer to the end?
Start writing a scene as close to the end of your story as possible. Write for fifteen minutes. When you finish, post your practice in the comments.
And if you post, be sure to comment on a few other pieces.