kurt vonnegut’s eight rules for writing fiction

kurt_vonnegut__jr__by_siglarkEight 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.

Source: Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

“Every day takes figuring out all over again how to f***ing live.”

The above quote comes from the marvellous Deadwood, out of the mouth of the marvellous Calamity Jane.

And I’m really feeling it right now.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted much of anything. Life is like that. Peaks and valleys. Hills and troughs. I feel like this is a lesson I’ve figured out before. Subsequently forgotten. And then had to learn all over again.

I was remembering how elated I was a year ago, nine months ago, six months ago. I was in a huge writing groove. I was feeling especially prolific. I thought I’d finally figured it out.

I’ve been writing. A lot.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve neglected this blog… and a variety of other social (media) endeavours. I thought I’d finally learned the way around the block. I’d finally mastered the steps and now I was ready to dance (a cliched, but apt metaphor).

I worked. I worked and worked. I worked really hard.

But it didn’t work. And I didn’t realize it until I thought it was done and I took a look at the first page and went nope. I just knew it wasn’t right.

And then I felt like bashing my head against a wall because I knew something was wrong with it, but I had absolutely no idea what. I’d done everything right, I told myself. I learned my lessons. I figured out what I had to do and I did it. And I worked really fucking hard at it.

But it still wasn’t right.

This made no sense to me. How was I still failing at this novel that I have been turning over and over for five years now? I’d written other things that came out perfect the moment I vomited them onto the page.

Why was this one not working?!

Maybe it was fundamentally flawed somehow. Maybe it was the great impossible thing. Maybe I should just abandon it completely.

I thought of this as well, and it just as easily could have been the title of this post instead: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.” (ST: TNG)

But I couldn’t drop this project. Other projects I’ve abandoned, yes, but this one is like a child. I would be like Dumbledore dropping baby Harry off at the Dursleys… but only after realizing he’s a squib and deciding that it’s probably best to sever all ties completely.

Anyway. This all caught me at a rough time.

Januarys are usually brutal, to be sure, but it’s been especially so as of late. I’ve been down a rabbit hole.

A rabbit hole is how I come to think of my mental isolation, the feeling of being more or less trapped in my own mind, like an invisible barrier keeps me alone with my own thoughts and other human beings are difficult to connect with.

A rabbit hole… a euphemistic trick perhaps, allowing me to frame in a palatable way what is probably some form of depression, anxiety, seasonal affectiveness disorder, some combination of the above, or something else altogether.

A rabbit hole can also happen when I am very deeply entrenched in writing something. The two very often coincide, but they are markedly different. The former is characterized by negativity and the latter by positivity.

The two coincide, but writing does not make me depressed. Rather, writing is often an outlet helping me cope. Writing is how I climb out of the rabbit hole. It is how I work through things.

I’ve found that something pushes me down a rabbit hole, but, like Alice, everything I encounter down there is some surreal version of things that have subconsciously been plaguing me for ages. Weeks, months, years, my whole life even.

Writing turns these surreal things over and lets me examine them. Sometimes it doesn’t help, but sometimes I can exorcise old ghosts. So, in a way, even though these rabbit holes are dark and difficult, I need them. They are a valuable part of who I am. They let me focus. They push me to work my way out.

But this recent rabbit hole – and I say this having just clawed my way out – was a doozy. Something pushed me down a rabbit hole in October (nothing too severe, but work stress and uncertainty, which always brings up a lot of anxiety), and there I lingered through the Christmas season, forcing myself through. It was okay; I was writing a lot. I could still see the thin circle of sky above.

And then, thinking I had just clawed my way out, I read that first page of a finished draft and thought nope.

And then Grandma died.

That almost sounds like a punchline. And perhaps I need it to be.

My grandmother had been dying of Alzheimer’s for over ten years. Alzheimer’s is strange because it does funny things to the grieving process. It takes someone aways from you long before they are physically gone. You can hear their voice and look in their eyes, but they don’t look back and see you.

I don’t want to go into details about my grandma yet, at least not now. I already spoke about her at the funeral, and that was the closest I could come with words for a while. I’m not good at putting frustrations and grief into literal words. I need to put it into a story. That’s what stories are for, after all. Grief and everything grief can represent.

Stress about work and money is one thing. Fear for the future is rational.

But grief is something entirely different. Grief is fear for the past. And that is irrational. It’s already over, isn’t it? We can’t change it.

But we can change it. And we do. We change it everything a memory slips or shifts. Every time a photograph passes into new hands. Every time a story gets another layer of embellishment.

We don’t just grieve for those dead, we grieve for the past we shared with them. We grieve for the time we can’t revisit. What does it feel like to know that your childhood is gone forever? How immense is that weight?

Grief is different every time. There’s no pattern we can fall back on. We figure it out all over again every time we go through it.

That was what I clawed my way out of this rabbit hole learning: if I want to grieve, if I want to write, I have to figure it out all over again every time. There’s no one learning process to this. There’s no end date or final exam. It all shifts beneath us. What works one day won’t work the next.

Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live.

 

obligatory july post

I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. I have no real excuse other than I have been writing, just not any blog posts. The body of one book is barely cold and I’ve already started on another.

This one is a comedy, which is a nice change. It certainly makes life lighter.

I am finding a slight frustration, however, in the fact that I seem to keep jumping all over the place in terms of genre and style. I find I switch modes for each project and sort of adopt a different voice for each piece. Perhaps the differences are only really apparent to me, but it makes me feel reluctant to pick one and run with it, lest I find myself tied to that genre or style.

But anyway. The current piece I’m working on is what I think of as my “Default Mode,” which is basically the same writing style I use writing my blog pieces. It’s how I write when I just write and I suppose there’s something refreshing in that.

It is also a genre piece but only in the sense it riffs explicitly on genre. Perhaps I have been implicitly working through my frustrations.

We’ll see how it goes. It’s a fun, fairly episodic project, so I’ve been toying with the idea of posting it online. Maybe when I’ve got a bit more of it under my belt.

Anyway. Writing aside, life goes ever on as it does. Husband and I are moving. AGAIN. We found out a few months ago that our landlord is selling the place, so we’ve been keeping an eye out for a nice condo, and we found one…. ACROSS THE STREET.

As this is our fourth place we’ve had in New West, I realized we’re perilously close to forming a golden spiral across the landscape.

Is this cause for concern?

Mildly concerning. If I were a character in a Dan Brown novel, perhaps.

Whatever. I love New West. Unabashedly. We have good craft beer, good food, and they just put in a rainbow crosswalk for Pride Week. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before I dedicate a whole post to it.

writing and the importance of just getting it done

After extensive note-taking and a few false starts, just over two months ago, I actually sat down and starting writing that young adult subterranean fiction piece I first thought of more than half my life ago. (it is now best described as *bracing myself* a dystopian YA novel-meets-Jane Austen.)

I’ve learned through this project the importance of persistence.

I learned how to effectively deal with something that’s not working. Rather than just giving up or sitting around waiting for it to get better I learned to change my approach.

I started writing this story just for fun, just to write and see what happens.

That got me through two or three chapters and then I petered out. This is part of a larger pattern and is why I have so many unfinished projects. I lose steam. I lose my way. I don’t know where to take it from there.

So I tried something different this time. My message to myself was: Just finish it, goddamnit. Who cares how good it is? This is a first draft. Stop your worrying, Ashleigh.

The idea of writing a whole book is always daunting. So I tried something different. I decided to focus on smaller goals, smaller hurdles.

I told myself to just write one page. One page to outline what the story would be: beginning, middle, end.

One page was easy.

Then I took that one page and delineated the beginning, middle and end into three clear parts: First Act, Second Act, Third Act.*

And then I took the three acts and wrote one page for each.

Again, focusing on just doing one page is easy. And it’s okay if every sentence starts with “and then.” These are just notes. The “and thens” are what you want to figure out right now.

Sometime during all of this, I arbitrarily decided that 75,000 words was a good length for a YA fantasy novel. I also arbitrarily decided that 3000 words sounded like a good length for each chapter. So there I had it: twenty-five chapters.

Forgetting for the sake of maths, the first chapter that I’d already written as something of a prologue, I was left with eight chapters per act.

I took what I’d written for each act and a different colour pen and separated the page into eight sections, each section a sentence or two.

I then expanded each sentence or two into a one page. This might seem daunting because that immediately meant I had to write twenty-four pages, one per chapter, but this was the fun part. This is the part where I flushed out all those “and thens” and made sure they actually flowed.

You might bang your head on the desk a few times when you realize that you can’t find an adequate character motivation for a certain “and then” that you’d been banking on and then things change and evolve. But that is the beauty of this thing called writing. It’s just as much discovering the story and characters as it is making it up. If it doesn’t flow naturally, something is not working.

This part of the exercise I found invaluable because twenty-four pages might sound like a lot, but it is certainly better than having written 150 before you find out a key part you’d been banking on isn’t going to work. And you’re not worried about style or sentence structure, because you’re just making notes. It’s the best way to find out if the story sinks or swims. The stakes are still low and you will have identified any major problems before you’re already too far gone.

Anyway.

From there, I had roughly 300 words per page, which would then be expanded to 3000. For some chapters, this was as good enough a place to just sit down and start writing as any. For others, I hit a block and needed an even stricter approach.

For about half of the chapters (All the Act Two ones; I have a huge problem with second acts. I blame F. Scott Fitzgerald.), I actually broke it down further into scenes or subjects and applied word count goals to each. Then, it was as if I didn’t have to write a whole 3000-word chapter, I just had to write one 250-word scene where the main character rides a horse. Easy. Write a few of those and then you’ve got a chapter.

When stuck, break it down to a page at a time. Or even a paragraph at a time. Sometimes, the first couple sentences are the hardest and then it flows. Most times, it’s just getting going that’s the hard part. Once you’ve started, you’re golden. You just have to force yourself to write that first paragraph. Just get it done.

When I’m trying to write, I set myself word goals a day. The easy default is 1000 words a day.

I used to meet this goal adequately enough before, but once I really set this level of organization to this project, I slowly started writing more and more each day. By the time I got into Act Three, I was writing an entire chapter – all 3000 words – a day. For the last several chapters, I was writing two chapters a day.

Another bit of discipline that I forced on myself was to not go back and read over what I had written. Not until it was all done. I would finish a page – just one page – print it off, stick it with the others, and keep moving forward. One page at a time. I didn’t want to get into that cycle of editing while I write, constantly going back and then pushing forward.

I wanted to focus on the forest not the trees. I will edit it all together when the first draft is done.

So, here I am. Done.

The whole thing is 81,000 words right now. But 81,000 words in two months marks me as the most prolific I’ve ever been. That’s not even counting other stuff I wrote this month. It’s amazing how focusing on writing one thing makes you already ‘in the zone’ for writing other things.

And now I am prepared to read that first draft over again and just see how terrible or magnificent it actually is. But even if it is terrible, that’s okay, because the hard part is over. It is done.

All I have to do now is edit, and editing can polish a turd into a diamond, that’s for sure.

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*This is a good starting point for breaking down structure. It’s something I learned from working in film, but it gives you a spine and then you just have to fill in the blanks. It will either help you get over any humps in the brainstorming process or give you a placeholder to put in until you work out the finer points.

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– F. Scott Fitzgerald calls out a hater in 1920

 

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– Lawrence Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (1977)

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– W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915)

black paintings in a white wing

Sometime in the late summer of 2008 – right before the crash – I was in Madrid. Madrid is home to one of my bucket list items (if I actually had a bucket list): Picasso’s Guernica.

Housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, Guernica is an absolutely astonishing sight to behold. The impact of such a piece comes not only from its imagery – rendered starkly in monochrome – but also in its sheer size.

I truly thought no other work of art would ever provoke such an emotional and visceral reaction from me. I actually gasped, my breath catching in my throat the moment I stepped into the gallery space. “Nothing will top this,” I thought, “Ever.”

guernica

But Madrid had a lesson in wait: checking items off a bucket list is one thing, but the moments that truly take us by surprise are often far more rare, and far more valuable.

Perhaps the next day or even a week later – my memory has grown hazy – I visited the Museo del Prado. I wandered room after room of classic paintings by the Old Masters: Titian, Rubens, and on and on. At this point in my travels, I had recently been through the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris. If you’ve been to any major national museum, you know the drill. I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I get it. Biblical allusions, yada yada. Greek and/or Roman myth, I know I know. Portrait of someone I recognize from the money, OLD HAT.” It’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the artistic value of each piece, but it gets a bit samey  after a while.

GRAND_~1

I was adamant that Guernica surpassed them all. Guernica was, as Lawrence L. Langer asserted, the first true art of atrocity. I cannot even begin to summarize the importance – artistically, culturally, politically – of Guernica. So I won’t. Because, really, that’s not what I sat down to write about today.

At the Museo del Prado, I found a Dali to break the monotony*, then it was back to the usual vanilla brilliance of pictures-you-really-wish-were-of-Dorian-Gray. I began to fancy myself a burgeoning proclaimer of been there, done that, bought the souvenir snow globe. I was 24 and arrogant.

But art has a way of knocking you down a peg or off a cliff.

I wandered into what seemed at first like a tiny wing of the museum. I had learned that sometimes they keep art films in secret compartments such as this. (It was an alcove like this where I saw Un Chien Andalou, at the Tate Modern, I think.)

Yet in this tiny wing were an arrangement of fourteen paintings that I ended up a long time with. No one else came in while I was there. Must have been a Tuesday morning.

My morning with Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings easily remains the most deeply moving and profound experience I have ever had with art. There is just something at once so fantastic and so essentially human at work in these pieces. They are once both surreal and real; both intensely personal and terrifyingly universal.

Atropos_o_Las_Parcas

The Three Fates

I’m about to borrow heavily from Wikipedia for some background here, but Goya was “regarded both as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” It’s a fascination I’ve since realized I’ve had my entire life: people overwhelmed by an era of transition. It’s why I love Mad Men, the Lost Generation, and the whole saga of Richard II and Henry IV (or, if you prefer, Aerys II and Robert Baratheon).

After an early career of patronage by the Spanish crown, the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, “the internal turmoil of the changing Spanish government,” and a late gotta-pay-the-bills stint of painting commissioned portraits, Goya, at the age of 72 and going deaf, took a country house “with the idea of isolating himself.”

LA_ROM~1

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro

It was there that he created his Black Paintings:

Goya developed an embittered attitude toward mankind. He had a first-hand and acute awareness of panic, terror, fear and hysteria. He had survived two near-fatal illnesses, and grew increasingly anxious and impatient in fear of relapse. The combination of these factors is thought to have led to his production of the fourteen works known collectively as the Black Paintings. Using oil paints and working directly on the walls of his dining and sitting rooms, Goya created works with dark, disturbing themes. The paintings were not commissioned and were not meant to leave his home. It is likely that the artist never intended the works for public exhibition: “…these paintings are as close to being hermetically private as any that have ever been produced in the history of Western art.”**

Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823)

L: Saturn Devouring His Child; R: Two Old Men

This is all from Wikipedia, but I read the same in essence upon a museum placard and in the little booklet I immediately purchased from a vending machine just outside the wing. Surely, I realized afterwards, these paintings must have a remarkable effect on the daily gallery visitors if the Prado thought to provide €3 information booklets right there. I could not be the only one fraught with the impulse to immediately claims these works, unable to wait until the gift shop to somehow make a part of them mine.

The titles given them are essentially basic descriptions. To me, they lack the impact. Above, is that two old men? Or Cronus with death whispering in his ear? Or was Goya, now going deaf, reflecting on the frustrations of his old age? And Saturn Devouring his Child shows such contrast with a glorified work of an Old Master it’s as if some late-Romantic debate ended in flipped over tables, smashed glasses and a bar-room brawl.

Witches’ Sabbath (the Great He-Goat)

As much as knowing the context of the Black Paintings seems to add to my appreciation of them, it is by no means essential. The paintings captured me the moment I saw them. As with Guernica’s sheer size, presentation is the key. The paintings’ arrangement as a collection is a significant part of the impact. Each painting alone is haunting in a way that the word has become too over-used to do justice, but together they just… wow.

Guernica might have been literally breath-taking, but the Black Paintings stunned me… and almost shamed me. Where Guernica stood as testament to the horrors other people are capable of, the Black Paintings point to something deeper.

Perhaps they were so slyly asserting that I, too, am capable of horrific things. They capture atrocity, but in a far more indefinable and deeply rooted sense. Picasso created Guernica so as many people as possible could see it and learn from it. I like to imagine Goya created the Black Paintings in contemplation of the atrocities within himself, whether in his soul, his potential, or his memories.

1920px-Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_-_Duelo_a_garrotazos

The Cudgel Fight

Something about that connected with me and I’ve never been able to forget it. Perhaps this is all too difficult to put into words because that is the way of truly great art. Art is an abstraction of things too real and too powerful to properly comprehend. It cannot be expressed in simple or clear terms. It cannot be quantified or explained away. It cannot be expressed in numbers or facts. It cannot be delineated into mere names or places or even into language. To do so is to miss its core purpose, its je ne sais quoi… its duende… its element of the sublime.

old men

Two Old Men Eating Soup

That was something I understood intellectually but could never truly appreciate. And the realization came so unexpectedly, too. It came in a moment inside an art gallery, I know. I should have been expecting this. But I wasn’t. This made me realize that for all my life up to that moment I had approached art as a vessel of history or place: as a bucket-list item.

And Art cares not for your bucket list.

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Fantastic Vision

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*Possibly the douchiest phrase I have ever written. Apologies.

**as cited from Wikipedia (I am now citing citations cited on Wikipedia. Through the looking-glass, people, RIGHT THROUGH IT.): Licht, Fred. Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art. Universe Books, 1979. p 179.