Kurt Vonnegut - 8 Basics of Creative Writing


An Old Friend


Kurt Vonnegut created some of the most outrageously memorable novels of our time, such as Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast With Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His work is a mesh of contradictions: both science fiction and literary, dark and funny, classic and counter-culture, warm-blooded and very cool. And it’s all completely unique.
With his customary wisdom and wit, Vonnegut put forth 8 basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101: *
  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.
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.
* From the preface to Vonnegut’s short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box
I'm running a writer's workshop at the local library and will hand out printouts of Vonneguts "Basic Writing." I'm going to miss not finding any new books by Vonnegut's
Thanks for the post.

George Orwell has earned the right to be called one of the finer writers in the English language through such novels as 1984 and Animal Farm, such essays as “Shooting an Elephant,” and his memoir Down and Out in Paris. Orwell expressed a strong dislike of totalitarian governments in his work, but he was also passionate defender of good writing. Thus, you may want to hear some of Orwell’s writing tips.*
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
* From Orwell's essay“Politics and the English Language”
For Gronicus

Ask The Writer
Expert Advice from a Gotham Teacher
  • Should I hire someone to edit my manuscript before sending it out to agents? If so, do I want an editor or a writing coach? The Response
  • When I write I often mimic whatever I’m reading. Is this helping or hurting me? The Response
  • I always thought surprise was important in stories, but my writing group says it doesn’t work when characters do things that are “out of the blue.” Who’s right? The Response
  • For queries and short fiction submission cover letters is it appropriate to use my professional letterhead that includes my (PhD) degree? The Response
  • I write both poetry and fiction. Is it better to develop skills in one specific genre or go back and forth between genres? The Response
  • I’ve been told I overuse italics to make a word stand out. But isn’t that the point of italics? What’s the correct use? The Response
  • My writing group needs some inspiration and structure. Can you suggest activities or formats that have worked with other writing groups? The Response
  • I've been cautioned to avoid passive sentences with "was." But is every use of "was" passive? The Response
  • If the pronunciation of the main character's name is not apparent, should some explanation accompany it the first time it's mentioned? The Response
  • After submitting work to a publication, I received a letter, addressed to me personally, saying that although they could not use my article at this time, they will keep it in their files for future consideration. I took this as somewhat positive, and plan to submit more in the future. But should I bug them in another month telling them I've improved the article they have on file with a few changes, and resubmit? The Response
  • How do you know when a piece of fiction is finished? How do you know if you’re at the point where additional editing will degrade the story instead of improve it? The Response
  • When submitting, should I submit to only one publication or is it wise to submit to several at the same time? The Response
  • What is the timeline that an individual can resubmit a published poem to another publication? Can a published poem be entered in a poetry contest other than the journal it was published in? The Response
  • Why is a faction—blending fact with fiction—unacceptable as a genre in literary works? The Response
  • Is there a standard to the spacing of lines of a manuscript? I've heard several authors talk about the number of pages they write per day as a goal. The Response
  • Now that I have several chapters of my novel completed, I would like to know how to go about finding an agent? Any suggestions? The Response
  • I am trying to keep to a strict third-person limited point of view from the perspective of a single character. How can I let the reader know what my character looks like? The Response
  • Should new writers start with short stories before writing a novel? The Response
  • Should I revise as I write? The Response
  • I’ve seen this word spelled two ways: “all ready” and “already.” Which is right? The Response
  • In dialogue, what is subtext? The Response
  • Do novel chapters need titles? The Response
  • Why is the use of a deus ex machina discouraged in storytelling? The Response
  • I recently had an essay published in an anthology. While the content was not changed, my punctuation was. It's my first publication and I'd like to be able to use it in my portfolio, but will it reflect poorly on my writing skills? The Response
  • Should I leave my scene alone, knowing that I wrote it before someone actually performed a strikingly similar heroic deed, or should I change it since readers will undoubtedly believe that I simply copied from the headlines? The Response
  • How do I know if something is a cliché? The Response
  • I enjoy making up characters, but I’m not sure where to go from there. How do I take all these characters and write actual stories? The Response
  • Is putting the copyright symbol on my manuscripts enough to protect my ideas? The Response
  • Can I use the same theme from another writer’s book as long as I change the characters and the situations? The Response
  • Are ellipses the best way to show a pause in dialogue? The Response
  • When is it appropriate to use “you” in fiction? The Response
  • I like using adjectives but I often hear they make for weak descriptions. What’s so bad about them? The Response
  • How does a novelist cite research material? Should I include a bibliography? Or use footnotes? The Response
  • After telling a story using third person from one character's perspective for about three-fourths of the story, is it possible to smoothly shift to another perspective for the final quarter? The Response
  • How much of a memoir should be true? The Response
  • Is it true that for submission purposes italics in a manuscript should be replaced with underlined words? What is considered standard for the industry? The Response
  • I have writing slumps that can last for weeks because I can’t think of anything interesting to write about. How do I avoid this? The Response
  • At what point should I show my work to someone? The Response
  • What is in medias res? The Response
  • Why does the exclamation mark have such a bad reputation? When is it acceptable to use it? The Response
  • When you’re writing about a character’s thoughts aren’t you always “telling” instead of “showing”? The Response
  • What is the best way to write a telephone conversation when only one side is heard? The Response
  • Does a story have to have a moral? The Response
  • What is a run-on sentence? The Response
  • I am writing a story set in the 1700s in the US about a child that has been captured by Indians. I want to show some of the problems the child has of learning the new language. What is the best way to bridge that problem? The Response
  • When should I start thinking about an agent? The Response
  • What is voice? The Response
  • What should a manuscript look like? The Response
  • My main character is an all-out jerk. Some have warned me that this might not go over well with readers. What do you think? The Response
  • What is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction? How do I know what I’m writing? The Response
  • I often hear that my steamy scenes are too over the top. Are these readers just too squeamish for my stories? The Response
  • How do I know when I have enough short stories to make a book? The Response
  • Readers complain that my characters explain too much in their dialogue. What am I doing wrong? The Response
  • What is passive voice? The Response
  • When describing a character’s appearance, I either over do it or don’t give enough. How do I know what to include and what to leave out? The Response
  • Does fiction have to be grammatically correct? The Response
  • I always hear that writers shouldn’t change point of view, but I see it done in books all the time. Why can’t I do it? The Response
  • I’ve heard that too much phonetic spelling can be hard to read. How do I create the voice of a character who has a distinctive speech pattern or dialect without it? The Response
  • I keep hearing the advice “show, don’t tell,” but I’m not quite sure what it means. Can you explain? The Response
  • How do I jump from one time to another without confusing the reader? The Response
  • How important is the title of a story? The Response
  • If I’m writing a passage where a character is thinking something, should I put the thoughts in italics? The Response
  • After I get done with the first draft of a story, revision feels overwhelming. How can I keep going and not lose my momentum? The Response
  • How do I know where to break for a new chapter when writing a novel? The Response
  • When submitting, should I submit to only one publication or is it wise to submit to several at the same time? The Response
  • Do you have any tips on researching? I’m looking into dendrochronology and I’m having a hard time finding out more about forensic botany without spending hundreds for books I’m not sure would help. The Response
  • How long is a short story? The Response
  • Why is a faction—blending fact with fiction—unacceptable as a genre in literary works? The Response
  • Setting doesn’t seem all that important. As long as the reader has an idea of where it happens, isn’t that enough? The Response
  • What is a mixed metaphor? The Response
  • Now that I have several chapters of my novel completed, I would like to know how to go about finding an agent? Any suggestions? The Response
  • Is there a standard to the spacing of lines of a manuscript? I've heard several authors talk about the number of pages they write per day as a goal. The Response
  • How do you avoid making a character too one-dimensional? The Response
  • How is dialogue punctuated? The Response
  • I write both poetry and fiction. Is it better to develop skills in one specific genre or go back and forth between genres? The Response
  • I’ve been told my dialogue includes too much of characters’ conversations. Why should I omit greetings and goodbyes when we use them all the time in real life? The Response


Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Anyone who wants to make it as a writer needs to learn to face rejection bravely, gracefully, and frequently.

Three tips for coping with rejection:
  1. Laugh at your rejections.
  2. Learn from your rejections.
  3. Always have a new project underway, something that will give you hope no matter how many rejections come your way for the previous project.
You may take some consolation in knowing the rejection history of these writers and works:
Dune by Frank Herbert – 13 rejections
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 14 rejections
Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis – 17 rejections
Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 18 rejections
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle – 29 rejections
Carrie by Stephen King – over 30 rejections
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 38 rejections
A Time to Kill by John Grisham – 45 rejections
Louis L’Amour, author of over 100 western novels – over 300 rejections before publishing his first book
John Creasy, author of 564 mystery novels – 743 rejections before publishing his first book
Ray Bradbury, author of over 100 science fiction novels and stories – around 800 rejections before selling his first story
The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter – rejected so universally the author decided to self-publish the book
From rejection slip for George Orwell's Animal Farm:
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”
From rejection slip for Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It:
“These stories have trees in them.”
From rejection slip for article sent to the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling:
“I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."
From rejection slip for The Diary of Anne Frank:
“The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”
Rejection slip for Dr. Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street:
“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
Rejection from a Chinese economic journal:
“We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity.”
Ray Bradbury, author of over 100 science fiction novels and stories – around 800 rejections before selling his first story

Imagine if you had the 800 rejected stories. I wonder what the stories were? I'll be that most of them would be best sellers by todays standards. What a loss...
Writerisms and other Sins: A Writer's Shortcut to Stronger Writing

Copyright © 1995 by C.J. Cherryh

Copy and pass "Writerisms and other Sins" around to your heart's content, but always post my Copyright notice at the top, correctly, thank you, as both a courtesy and a legal necessity to protect any writer.
Writerisms: overused and misused language. In more direct words: find 'em, root 'em out, and look at your prose without the underbrush.
  1. am, is, are, was, were, being, be, been … combined with "by" or with "by … someone" implied but not stated. Such structures are passives. In general, limit passive verb use to one or two per book. The word "by" followed by a person is an easy flag for passives.
  2. am, is, are, was, were, being, be, been … combined with an adjective. "He was sad as he walked about the apartment." "He moped about the apartment." A single colorful verb is stronger than any was + adjective; but don't slide to the polar opposite and overuse colorful verbs. There are writers that vastly overuse the "be" verb; if you are one, fix it. If you aren't one---don't, because overfixing it will commit the next error.
  3. florid verbs. "The car grumbled its way to the curb" is on the verge of being so colorful it's distracting. {Florid fr. Lat. floreo, to flower.}
    If a manuscript looks as if it's sprouted leaves and branches, if every verb is "unusual," if the vocabulary is more interesting than the story … fix it by going to more ordinary verbs. There are vocabulary-addicts who will praise your prose for this but not many who can simultaneously admire your verbs as verbs and follow your story, especially if it has content. The car is not a main actor and not one you necessarily need to make into a character. If its action should be more ordinary and transparent, don't use an odd expression. This is prose.
    This statement also goes for unusual descriptions and odd adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.
  4. odd connectives. Some writers overuse "as" and "then" in an attempt to avoid "and" or "but," which themselves can become a tic. But "as" is only for truly simultaneous action. The common deck of conjunctions available is:
    • when (temporal)
    • if (conditional)
    • since (ambiguous between temporal and causal)
    • although (concessive)
    • because (causal)
    • and (connective)
    • but (contrasting)
    • as (contemporaneous action or sub for "because") while (roughly equal to "as")
    These are the ones I can think of. If you use some too much and others practically never, be more even-handed. Then, BTW, is originally more of an adverb than a proper conjunction, although it seems to be drifting toward use as a conjunction. However is really a peculiar conjunction, demanding in most finicky usage to be placed *after* the subject of the clause.
    Don't forget the correlatives, either … or, neither … nor, and "not only … but also."
    And "so that," "in order that," and the far shorter and occasionally merciful infinitive: "to … {verb}something."
  5. Descriptive writerisms.
    Things that have become "conventions of prose" that personally stop me cold in text.
    • "framed by" followed by hair, tresses, curls, or most anything cute.
    • "swelling bosom"
    • "heart-shaped face"
    • "set off by": see "framed by"
    • "revealed" or "revealed by": see "framed by." Too precious for words when followed by a fashion statement.
    • Mirrors … avoid mirrors, as a basic rule of your life. You get to use them once during your writing career. Save them for more experience. But it doesn't count if they don't reflect … by which I mean see the list above. If you haven't read enough unpublished fiction to have met the infamous mirror scenes in which Our Hero admires his steely blue eyes and manly chin, you can scarcely imagine how bad they can get.
    • limpid pools and farm ponds: I don't care what it is, if it reflects your hero and occasions a description of his manly dimple, it's a mirror.
      As a general rule … your viewpoint characters should have less, rather than more, description than anyone else: a reader of different skin or hair color ought to be able to sink into this persona without being continually jolted by contrary information.
      Stick to what your observer can observe. One's own blushes can be felt, but not seen, unless one is facing … .a mirror. See above.
    • "as he turned, then stepped aside from the descending blow … " First of all, it takes longer to read than to happen: pacing fault. Second, the "then" places action #2 sequentially after #1, which makes the whole evasion sequence a 1-2 which won't work. This guy is dead or the opponent was telegraphing his moves in a panel-by-panel comic book style which won't do for regular prose. Clunky. Slow. Fatally slow.
    • "Again" or worse "once again." Established writers don't tend to overuse this one: it seems like a neo fault, possibly a mental writerly stammer---lacking a next thing to do, our hero does it "again" or "once again" or "even yet." Toss "still" and "yet" onto the pile and use them sparingly.
  6. Dead verbs. Colorless verbs.
    • walked
    • turned
    • crossed
    • run, ran
    • go, went, gone
    • leave, left
    • have, had
    • get, got
    You can add your own often used colorless verbs: these are verbs that convey an action but don't add any other information. A verb you've had to modify (change) with an adverb is likely inadequate to the job you assigned it to do.
  7. Colorless verb with inadequate adverb: "He walked slowly across the room."
    More informative verb with no adverb: "He trudged across the room," "He paced across the room," "He stalked across the room," each one a different meaning, different situation. But please see problem 3, above, and don't go overboard.
  8. Themely English
    With apologies to hard-working English teachers, school English is not fiction English.
    Understand that the meticulous English style you labored over in school, including the use of complete sentences and the structure of classic theme-sentence paragraphs, was directed toward the production of non-fiction reports, resumes, and other non-fiction applications.
    The first thing you have to do to write fiction? Suspect all the English style you learned in school and violate rules at need. Many of those rules will turn out to apply; many won't.
    {Be ready to defend your choices. If you are lucky, you will be copyedited. Occasionally the copyeditor will be technically right but fictionally wrong and you will have to tell your editor why you want that particular expression left alone.}
  9. Scaffolding and spaghetti. Words the sole function of which is to hold up other words. For application only if you are floundering in too many "which" clauses. Do not carry this or any other advice to extremes.
    "What it was upon close examination was a mass the center of which was suffused with a glow which appeared rubescent to the observers who were amazed and confounded by this untoward manifestation." Flowery and overstructured. "What they found was a mass, the center of which glowed faintly red. They'd never seen anything like it." The second isn't great lit, but it gets the job done: the first drowns in "which" and "who" clauses.
    In other words---be suspicious any time you have to support one needed word (rubescent) with a creaking framework of "which" and "what" and "who." Dump the "which-what-who" and take the single descriptive word. Plant it as an adjective in the main sentence.
  10. A short cut to "who" and "whom."
    • Nominative: who
    • Possessive: whose
    • Objective: whom
    The rule:
    1. treat the "who-clause" as a mini-sentence.
      If you could substitute "he" for the who-whom, it's a "who." If you could substitute "him" for the who-whom it's a "whom."
      The trick is where ellipsis has occurred … or where parentheticals have been inserted … and the number of people in important and memorable places who get it wrong. "Who … do I see?" Wrong: I see he? No. I see "him." Whom do I see?
    2. "Who" never changes case to match an antecedent. (word to which it refers)
      • I blame them who made the unjust law. CORRECT.
      • It is she whom they blame. CORRECT: The who-clause is WHOM THEY BLAME.
      • They blame HER=him, =whom.
      • I am the one WHO is at fault. CORRECT.
      • I am the one WHOM they blame. CORRECT.
      • They took him WHOM they blamed. CORRECT---but not because WHOM matches HIM: that doesn't matter: correct because "they" is the subject of "blamed" and "whom" is the object.
      • I am he WHOM THEY BLAME. CORRECT. Whom is the "object" of "they blame."
      Back to rule one: "who" clauses are completely independent in case from the rest of the sentence. The case of "who" in its clause changes by the internal logic of the clause and by NO influence outside the clause. Repeat to yourself: there is no connection, there is no connection 3 x and you will never mistake for whom the bell tolls.
    The examples above probably grate over your nerves. That's why "that" is gaining in popularity in the vernacular and why a lot of copyeditors will correct you incorrectly on this point. I'm beginning to believe that nine tenths of the English-speaking universe can't handle these little clauses.
  11. -ing.
    "Shouldering his pack and setting forth, he crossed the river … "​
    No, he didn't. Not unless his pack was in the river. Implies simultaneity. The participles are just like any other verbal form. They aren't a substitute legal everywhere, or a quick fix for a complex sequence of motions. Write them on the fly if you like, but once imbedded in text they're hard to search out when you want to get rid of their repetitive cadence, because -ing is part of so many fully constructed verbs {am going, etc.}
  12. -ness
    A substitute for thinking of the right word. "Darkness," "unhappiness," and such come of tacking -ness (or occasionally - ion) onto words. There's often a better answer. Use it as needed.
    As a general rule, use a major or stand-out vocabulary word only once a paragraph, maybe twice a page, and if truly outre, only once per book. Parallels are clear and proper exceptions to this, and don't vary your word choice to the point of silliness: see error 3.
This article is Copyright. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with the author's permission.
From Turkey City Lexicon

Part One: Words and Sentences

  • Brenda Starr dialogue
    Long sections of talk with no physical background or description of the characters. Such dialogue, detached from the story's setting, tends to echo hollowly, as if suspended in mid-air. Named for the American comic-strip in which dialogue balloons were often seen emerging from the Manhattan skyline.
  • "Burly Detective" Syndrome
    This useful term is taken from SF's cousin-genre, the detective-pulp. The hack writers of the Mike Shayne series showed an odd reluctance to use Shayne's proper name, preferring such euphemisms as "the burly detective" or "the red-headed sleuth." This syndrome arises from a wrong-headed conviction that the same word should not be used twice in close succession. This is only true of particularly strong and visible words, such as "vertiginous." Better to re-use a simple tag or phrase than to contrive cumbersome methods of avoiding it.
  • Brand Name Fever
    Use of brand name alone, without accompanying visual detail, to create false verisimilitude. You can stock a future with Hondas and Sonys and IBM's and still have no idea with it looks like.
  • "Call a Rabbit a Smeerp"
    A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. "Smeerps" are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)
  • Gingerbread
    Useless ornament in prose, such as fancy sesquipedalian Latinate words where short clear English ones will do. Novice authors sometimes use "gingerbread" in the hope of disguising faults and conveying an air of refinement. (Attr. Damon Knight)
  • Not Simultaneous
    The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. "Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau." Alas, our hero couldn't do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into "Ing Disease," the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in "-ing," a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)
  • Pushbutton Words
    Words used to evoke a cheap emotional response without engaging the intellect or the critical faculties. Commonly found in story titles, they include such bits of bogus lyricism as "star," "dance," "dream," "song," "tears" and "poet," cliches calculated to render the SF audience misty-eyed and tender-hearted.
  • Roget's Disease
    The ludicrous overuse of far-fetched adjectives, piled into a festering, fungal, tenebrous, troglodytic, ichorous, leprous, synonymic heap. (Attr. John W. Campbell)
  • "Said" Bookism
    An artificial verb used to avoid the word "said." "Said" is one of the few invisible words in the English language and is almost impossible to overuse. It is much less distracting than "he retorted," "she inquired," "he ejaculated," and other oddities. The term "said-book" comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word "said," which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era.
  • Tom Swifty
    An unseemly compulsion to follow the word "said" with a colorful adverb, as in "'We'd better hurry,' Tom said swiftly." This was a standard mannerism of the old Tom Swift adventure dime-novels. Good dialogue can stand on its own without a clutter of adverbial props.