It is not uncommon to come across a reference to Kurt Vonnegut. Especially here, a place dedicated to writers and writing where he is frequently invoked, and at least one of our number has even met the man. But occasionally he pops up unexpectedly in day to day life. This happened to me once when, as I blindly walked the streets of Indianapolis, I happened to glance up to find a 40 foot painting of Vonnegut peering down at me. These references are always good because the man had a lot of interesting things to say, and even more worth reading. In a series of well-known rules for writing short stories, Vonnegut identified what he felt were eight important points to keep in mind as a writer:

  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 hell 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.

Of course, as the Wikipedia article on Vonnegut points out, "Vonnegut qualifies the list by adding that Flannery O'Connor broke all these rules except the first, and that great writers tend to do that." Maybe we can focus on just being good writers, and follow more of them than not, despite Vonnegut's own apparent insistence on breaking one of my personal rules of writing, "Never end a sentence in a preposition." But I don't have a 40 foot painting myself anywhere, so what do I know?

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