V is for Vonnegut


Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was born in Indiana in 1922 into a family of Architects. He studied Chemistry at University but enlisted in the Army at the start of WWII. During the war he was a POW and was inprisoned in a building the Germans called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five).

After the war he continued his studies at University, but switched to Anthropology and worked as a reporter at The City News Bureau of Chicago. His first short story appeared in print in 1950 and his first novel in 1952, but through the 60’s the structure of his work changed. He enjoyed experimenting with the structure of his novels and this is most apparent in Breakfast of Champions.

Vonneguts novels had science fiction themes but have been widely read by fans of other genres. In 1997 he announced his retirement from writing fiction but continued to write for the magazine In These Times, articles ranging from observations on a trip to the post office to contemporary US politics.

He taught and lectured in English at Harvard and died in 2007 after a fall down the stairs where he suffered massive head injuries.

In ‘Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction’ Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:

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.”

Vonnegut’s – How To Write With Style

My favourite Vonnegut quotes:

“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen, or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armour and has attachked a hot fudge sundae.”

“Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule, do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Kurt Vonnegut – the shape of the story – EXCELLENT – If you haven’t already seen this you really should 🙂

Vonnegut continues after the 8 Rules Of Writing by saying that these rules are broken by many well known, and much read authors. So how do they get away with it? Learn the rules then break them seems to be the general advice, but then you’re also told that as a new writer you should conform to the standard way things are done or an agent or publisher won’t touch you with a barge pole *slumps* lol. Do you stick to the rules or get pleasure in breaking them?

38 thoughts on “V is for Vonnegut

  1. I had the distinct pleasure of attending a talk that Vonnegut gave when I was in college, back in 2003. He was funny, intelligent, well-spoken, and so, so inspiring for a young writer to hear. I’m so grateful I had the chance to hear him speak.

    Great post!


  2. You could have done your own name–Vikki–for V. But I’m glad you gave me more info on Vonnegut. I’ve never read him yet, but I love those quotes you have down, and that video was funny. I’ll have to try reading one of his books someday.


  3. Oh my, I thought this was the best quote “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.” That was until the semicolon quote came along.


  4. Hipee, there is no other “V” on the planet better than Vonnegut. You have hit the jackpot with this one. Isn’t it so strange and wonderful that my fellow American literary writers are so strange and wonderful? Love it. Thanks 🙂


  5. Funny coincidence — I’ve decided against using semicolons in my latest work. Regarding rules — if you don’t learn them first, there’s no fun in breaking them. For the last few months, I’ve been having a real party breaking rules. I’ll let you know if it works later 😉


  6. I’m a big Vonnegut fan–the thing about him that I love is he was so wholly himself–there was no mistaking him for someone else on the page or out in the world. As for rules, I think readers (especially professional ones like editors) can almost always distinguish between a writer breaking the rules as a stylistic choice and a writer who is just inexperienced and unaware of the rules. Unless you are confident that you are solidly (noticeably to a reader) in the first camp, it’s probably safest to follow the rules. Of course, this philosophy fails to take into consideration the fact that many, many, many of the “rules” come down to strongly held opinions–opinions that often vary from person to person. So maybe taking a cue from Vonnegut and being as fully you as you can be on the page turns out to be the answer? Understand the rules, study “good” writing, but ultimately, trust your own voice and trust that you will find the editor/reader who has been looking for the story that you have to tell in the voice that only you can tell it in.


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