Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., one of American literature’s foremost satirists, published 14 novels between 1952 and 1997, including his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five. In his introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of his early short fiction, he offered aspiring writers what he described as “Creative Writing 101” in the form of eight rules. Here they are:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
But such rules, as Vonnegut acknowledges, can and should be broken – just ask Agatha Christie! “The greatest American short story writer of my generation,” he concludes, “was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”