The Rules of Writing…


KURT VONNEGUT JR put it very simply. Paraphrasing him, he said, ‘there are no rules.’

Well, he didn’t quite say that but I’ve learned a lot about writing from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut outlined eight basic criteria for telling a story, well. He called it ‘Creative Writing 101’. Here they are…

  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 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.

All this can be found in the preface to his short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box. Along with the admonishment,

‘The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.’

Samuel Beckett, a fellow Irishman, to whom every Irish writer pays homage, despite knowing very little and understanding almost nothing of what he wrote, must have broken every ‘rule’ there has ever been for the art of writing and, in so doing, devised, perhaps unwittingly, a new rule book that no-one understands.


But, both Beckett, and the writer to whom he was apprenticed, James Joyce, were meticulous in their mapping of the uncharted literary waters they chose to navigate and not, I believe, so future generations might navigate the same waters, but so they could find their own way home. They were, as Will Self outlined in a recent Guardian article on the future of the novel,, already struggling with the 20th century’s nascent technological threats to the novel form. As he writes, ‘The use of montage for transition; the telescoping of fictional characters into their streams of consciousness; the abandonment of the omniscient narrator; the inability to suspend disbelief in the artificialities of plot – these were always latent in the problematic of the novel form, but in the early 20th century, under pressure from other, juvenescent, narrative forms, the novel began to founder. The polymorphous multilingual perversities of the later Joyce, and the extreme existential asperities of his fellow exile, Beckett, are both registered as authentic responses to the taedium vitae of the form, and so accorded tremendous, guarded respect – if not affection.’

Self’s depressing narrative for the demise of the novel, does have its truths. ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you’ is a coda he repeats, twice and to some effect.

And Self takes no prisoners; those who hail the printed word with a Luddite zeal, he dismisses as having Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Gutenburg Minds’. He outlines the physical demise of the novel as a printed format, with an accurate narrative on publishing’s own,  and ultimately self destructive , drive for profits, no better described, paradoxically, in the guise of the monopolistic monolith of Amazon, but through the ’80s’ restructuring of the literary world as editors took early retirement, in face of the approaching hegemony of the literary agent.

Joyce and Beckett were faced with their own mechanical challenges but the game changers for McLuhan included telephones, cinema, radio and television. Today, there’s the infinite choice, as presented by Broadband, and the instant gratification, presented by smartphones, tablets, laptops and games consoles.


Personally, I would be interested to see what percentage of the growing world of digital publishing, particularly the so called self published ‘best sellers’, are either soft porn books or self help guides to becoming a self publishing best seller? I ask this because it appears for every person who sweats blood and tears to put themselves in print, digital or otherwise, there must be at least two dozen people to tell them how to do it.

And equally, how much academic employment has been created directly as a result of digital publishing? You’ll find ‘creative writing’ is now a taught subject from night class courses in junior colleges to the  highest centres of academia. What can they teach you? Well, you’d guess that their achievement might be measured by the number of best selling writers they’ve produced. So how many are they? What, no-one knows? Hmmm

Surely, this might be because they can’t tell you how to do it, but they can tell you how NOT to do it. And, if that were true, then Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition about Flannery O’Connor’s ability to break all the rules, might be redundant. But it’s not, because the point is writing is about telling a story and while the story cannot remain the same (or else, what’s the point of telling it?), surely, how we tell it, must change, too.


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