What Vonnegut Said

I’ve been thinking about the idea of deliberate practice, and it seems to me that while the idea is certainly a good one, the way it’s described in Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated doesn’t really help writers. Colvin describes deliberate practice as a way of breaking down and working intensely on the components of a particular activity. He goes specifically into how deliberate practice can work for musicians and chess players. But I don’t think writing is similar to either of those activities. Music may be closer than chess, which seems to me rather like a mental sport. Music is an art, but it’s an art that involves interpretation rather than original creation. It’s more like acting than writing.

Writing is more like composing or being a visual artist. It involves the creation of something new.  Writers are content producers rather than content interpreters.

Colvin does give us one model of a writer who used deliberate practice, but it’s Benjamin Franklin, whom I would not hold up as an example of a great creative writer. So does the idea of deliberate practice apply to writing? I think it does, but perhaps in a different way. I’m not sure there is a writerly equivalent to practicing a golf swing, except for the most inexperienced writers, who are actually helped by coming up with a series of first lines, or describing several characters, or just writing dialog for a while. But experienced writers, who are expected to produce genuinely creative work, are going to be way beyond, and not particularly helped by, those sorts of basics. At least not as daily exercises – they certainly wouldn’t hurt, but they wouldn’t be enough. If we are to take the idea of deliberate practice seriously, it should work for the most experienced writers as well, although perhaps in a different form.

If I were to start to formulate a way to practice deliberately as a writer, I would probably focus on four things:

1. You need to write a lot.
2. You need to write different things.
3. You need to get feedback on your writing.
4. You need to study the work of other writers.

I find that I do this, even though I don’t do the sorts of simplistic exercises I described above, the equivalent of golf swings. As least, I write a lot now – there was a time when I didn’t write every day, and I can tell you that my writing was different. I had less confidence in it, and I think its quality was less consistent. So now I write at least 1000 words a day, every day. And I write different things: stories, essays, blog posts, facebook and twitter posts (which are an art form of their own, if you want to do them well). Soon, I will be working on a novel.

I think what has helped me the most, recently, has been writing this blog. I get feedback so quickly, whether through hits or comments. I know which of my posts people respond to. That has taught me a lot about writing. But of course I get feedback on everything I write – although I don’t have time for a writing group at the moment, I get constant feedback from editors.

And I study the work of other writers. Not just that, I study what they say about writing. I’ve just finished P.D. James’ Talking about Detective Fiction and I’ve just started Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist.

And following an interesting facebook post or tweet (I don’t remember which) the other day, I found the following videos of Kurt Vonnegut talking about how to write stories.

Here he is on the shapes of stories:

And here he is giving general short story advice:

I thought I would comment briefly on his suggestions.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Well, yes. At a minimum, the reader has to neither put your story down in the middle nor throw it across the room at the end.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Maybe. Franz Kafka didn’t. Neither did Albert Camus.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

I’m not so sure about this one either. I can see experimental fiction about a character who genuinely doesn’t want anything. But perhaps Vonnegut is talking about what will make your story appealing to readers, and yes, readers want characters to root for, and in order for readers to root for them, they must actually want something. Even if it’s only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.

Ideally, every sentence should do both of those things at once, and should also be stylistically interesting.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

This is a bit of a cop out: “as possible.” Yes, as possible, meaning you don’t want material that is not important at the beginning of your story. But an inexperienced writer may take this advice as license to start in the middle of the action without taking the time to make readers care about the characters first. I know this sort of advice has mislead me in the past.

6. Be a sadist. (By which he means, torture your characters.)

He’s exaggerating here. Yes, your characters should go through trials and tribulations. But if you do nothing but torture them, put them through nothing but tribulations, your story won’t be much fun to read. I would say rather, be an authorial god. The gods meet out good and ill. That’s what you need to do. If there is only ill, what’s the point?

7. Write to please just one person. (By which he means – what?)

I’m not sure what he means by this, but I will say that when I write, I often have an imaginary reader in my head. That imaginary reader is a version of me. I write what I would like to read. (It occurs to me that I had a conversation about this once, with a friend who is also a writer. He told me the same thing, and I didn’t understand it at the time. I think I do now.)

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.

Again with the cop out: “as possible.” If you’re writing a murder mystery, you can’t reveal the identity of the murderer until the end. But you do need to make sure the reader doesn’t feel as though you’re holding information back. The story can’t depend on the reader not knowing something the characters know.

I think these are fairly simple rules, the sorts of rules I learned when I first started writing. Perhaps the greatest use of them for a more experienced writer is thinking them through, deciding what works and what doesn’t, and why. After all, I think one component of deliberate practice is continually going back to the basics. And that’s not a bad thing, for chess players or musicians or writers, even though they might do it differently.

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8 Responses to What Vonnegut Said

  1. sarah says:

    I must admit, whenever I am presented with a list of “rules for writing”, I automatically want to break them! 😉 And it is in the thinking of how to break them that I get my best ideas. But numbers one and seven here do make good sense.

    Regarding the “deliberate practice” concept, especially the idea that it can trump talent – I used to believe that too (and I read and enjoyed the book and others that were similar). But then I became involved in a field of sport with people who are aiming for the Olympics. And I discovered that, while deliberate practice is very helpful, talent *does* trump it. Some people are just naturally good at particular things – like a sport or writing – and others, no matter how much they practice, will never be able to match their sheer inherent brilliance.

    I see it in my writing students – some work so hard on their writing and are technically good, but they don’t have that vision, that barely-definable consciousness of story, which makes others (even if technically inferior) better writers.

    But I sound argumentative, and I don’t mean to! I love reading blogposts about the writing process.

  2. I like your qualifications to Vonnegut’s statements. Writing advice given with utmost confidence and authority is never absolute; there will always be exceptions or adjustments to fit each writer.

    1. You need to write a lot.
    2. You need to write different things.
    3. You need to get feedback on your writing.
    4. You need to study the work of other writers.


    Soon, I will be working on a novel.

    Awesome news. I can’t wait. 🙂

  3. I am not sure I agree with you about Kafka; or maybe I agree with you, but what we’re talking about is a qualification of the wording “root for”. We may not exactly root for Gregor Samsa but we are unvoidably intimate with him, we are rooted IN him. His plight is as urgent to us, as impossible to remain indifferent to, as if it were are own. Same with other Kafka non-heroes caught in byzantine meaningless horror. There may be no point in rooting for them to succeed, we may not even like them, we may not regard ourselves as similar to them. But we cannot remain indifferent, we cannot just look away. A certain empathy and identification is profoundly present, even if — even when — perhaps partly because — we say “oh but I would never–“. Alienation and identification reinforce each other, in these cases (Camus too, I think); they are not opposites.

  4. Sarah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. At the very top of the performance curve, how much does the length of one’s arms, for instance, determine who becomes the best swimmer? And I wonder if there’s an equivalent for writers, a natural ability to “hear” language almost as though it were music. I know I’ve always had a sort of ear for the rhythm of language. I had it as a child. And I can spot it in certain writers, my favorites.

    I do think the concept of deliberate practice itself is useful, and I’ve seen writers who write a lot get a lot farther than writers who initially seemed to have more intrinsic talent . . .

    Ben, I think you’re right, and the idea of rooting for a character is too simplistic. At least, I think that’s what you’re saying? I do think we don’t root for Gregor: what would we root him for? But we are with him, even if in a somewhat horrified way. Same thing with Sartre’s characters, I think.

    The one place I do fine myself genuinely alienated, and not identifying, is in absurdist theater. Like Ionesco. It’s fascinating to see everyone turning into rhinoceroses, but I don’t even remember the characters in Rhinoceros. I love it, but there’s no one to root for or be with. Mario Vargas Llosa says the novel can’t do this (genuinely alienate, as Brecht does), in a letter I read this morning. I’ll have to write more about that . . .

  5. I think that’s what I was saying too; rooting “for” is too simplistic, but it is — I don’t ever want to make a writing rule about always? — but it is at least almost universal in narrative prose fiction that we are rooted in the characters.

    You’re right that theater is a little different, and there’s a bit in John Gardener, I think in On Becoming A Novelist maybe, where he talks about how the structure and tradition of the novel imposes a kind of inherent moral framework (or range of moral frameworks) and how Beckett, the Beckett of Godot, could not really be a novelist, could not fit that worldview into a novel, and (I guess he would say) that even when the existentialists like Sartre and Camus, perhaps, try, the novel ends up constraining them to say something else. Well either that, or that existentialism fits inside novel-writing in a way that pure nihilist absurdism doesn’t, because even if the world is meaningless in existentialism, we still can make meaning — if only as an act of defiance — and that accords with the implicit moral structure of narrative.

    I don’t know if I entirely get, or entirely agree with, what Gardner is saying, but I find it interesting and provocative… which is really the most you can ask of writing rules and of writers’ pronouncements about writing…

  6. I really like the idea of being rootedin.

    Yes, I think “interesting and provocative” is the right test for writing advice. 🙂 If it’s that, it’s useful. I’m not sure which Gardner I’ve read, something on novel writing but I think he has several books. But I’m like Sarah in that I immediately want to go rewrite Waiting for Godot as a novel just to see if it will work!

    Maybe I’ll go back to Gardner after Llosa. I’m on a sort of reading about writing spree . . .

  7. nicolecushing says:

    I think ANY set of writing “rules” is bound to be arbitrary. We can always find exceptions to them.

    I try to think of Vonnegut’s rules as suggestions for contemplation (which is likely the spirit in which he offered them; I have a hard time seeing Vonnegut as someone who would insist on his way as being the “One True Way”). I can think of some of Vonnegut’s own protagonists (Malachi Constant, for one) who come across to me as unlikeable and — at least initially — difficult to “root for”. In that particular case, Vonnegut induces identification with the character by unleashing massive amounts of suffering his way (inflicting the aforementioned torture and sadism ). So, in a sense, these writing “rules” are idiosyncratic to Vonnegut’s worldview. For Vonnegut to get across what he wanted to say about violence and nationalism and the meaninglessness of things, he had to follow those rules. It might not mean a thing if we’re trying to give the reader a different experience than what Vonnegut wanted to give them.

    I try to take *any* writing advice as, at best, a suggestion. I’ve taken workshops in the past and still actively participate in a critique group, etc. But I think I learn the most about my craft when I write every day and read every day. The ideas only help so much, for me — learning more about my craft is like experimenting. I try things, see if they work. Try new things, see if *they* work, and so on — improving all the while.

  8. I agree! I think any writer’s rules are generally idiosyncratic to that writer’s world view. Each writer generalizes what works for him or her. But I find it interesting to see how different writers have thought about their craft. And I certainly agree about learning the most from writing and reading very day, and learning itself being a process of experimentation. That’s what it is for me as well . . .

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