13 Sep

I’m taking a creative writing course this fall, and I picked up the required text book for it. It’s what you would think it is, the size of a pocket book, written by a writer no one has ever read. When I was flipping through, to test to see if I would actually read it, I found a short list on the rules for writing short stories.

  • Do not write about deaths of likable characters, about funerals, serious illnesses, the morbid and gruesome, prostitutes, drug addicts, insane persons, drunkards, or sordid characters in general.
  • Keep away from subjects on which public opinion is sharply divided.
  • Don’t write stories about marriages between – or the intermixing – of races.
  • Do not make the citizen of a friendly nation a villain.
  • Never include detailed descriptions of excessive suffering.
  • Never let the villain triumph in the end.
  • Never speak of motherhood slightingly or with levity.
  • Don’t ridicule people in authority.
  • Don’t write about sexual perversion or a too realistic presentation of sex, as these are subjects from which most readers shrink in disgust.
  • Always choose heroes who are American. “When the setting is foreign, it is especially necessary to have an American hero.”

Clearly, I was thinking “So I thought, what the hell am I getting myself into?” But, I read deeper into the parts before and after the list, and realised that the writer of the text was also against these rules that students of his found in a dusty book from the 1950’s. Which is a relief. I also started thinking to rules of writing that I’ve read and struggle to follow from some authors I more than respect. I think putting them down here might help to serve as a reminder.

From Kurt Vonnegut

Eight 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. 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.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this list in his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction and mentioned afterward that great writers tend to break all but the first rule. He also wrote an article entitled How to Write with Style which offers up the following tips.

  • Find a subject you care about.
  • Do not ramble, though.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Have the guts to cut.
  • Sound like yourself.
  • Say what you mean.
  • Pity the readers.

Normally this is the part where I talk about what a brilliant man he was, but I just found a quote by him in Armageddon in Retrospect on the subject on rules of writing that I pledge to uphold.

“My advice to writers starting out? Don’t use semi-colons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college.”

Brilliant, brilliant man.

From Mark Twain

This list is from a criticism essay Mark Twain wrote on a gentleman named James Fenimore Cooper. Whoever that is.

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
  3. The personages in a tall shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-doll Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale, and hate the bad ones.
  11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
  12. An author should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  13. An author should use the right word, not its second cousin.
  14. An author should eschew surplusage.
  15. An author should not omit necessary details.
  16. An author should avoid slovenliness of form.
  17. An author should use good grammar.
  18. An author should employ a simple, straightforward style.

Aside from the issues that some feminists may have a problem with, two things are clear. One is that James Fenimore Cooper is an awful writer, and two is that Mark Twain makes some great points. Eschew surplusage, which means to avoid ambiguity, say what you mean. The issue of building a cohesive and concise story comes up a few times, as does avoiding any unnecessary plot points or characters.

I just need to keep these in mind when I’m writing my stories.


8 Responses to “Rules”

  1. xxhawkeyexx September 13, 2009 at 8:32 pm #

    I liked your post, it’s really useful :)!
    Keep writing,

    • John September 14, 2009 at 3:35 pm #

      Thanks! And that is the plan.

  2. Dan September 14, 2009 at 11:27 am #

    Really, these should be considered general guidelines rather than ‘rules’ because some of the best fiction are the stories that don’t conform to norm.

    If the rules you listed at the beginning of this post were followed, Fight Club would never have seen the light of day… then where would I be?

    Just wondering: since I like me a good semicolon every now and again does that make me a sexual deviant?

    (btw Just finished the first season of “It’s always Sunny in Philadelphia” and I’m loving it)

    • John September 14, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

      First of all, all rules are general guidelines. Kurt Vonnegut himself mentioned that great writers tend to break all of the rules except the first one. But, they still know these rules, and why they are breaking them. That’s important. Take District 9 for example. None of the characters were likable, but the point was to portray humans as dicks, so having a likable character would make that point null and void. Also, the rules at the very beginning? Those are a joke! Something that made me very worried about my upcoming writing course.

      You should look into a reading comprehension course.

      And yes, you are the largest sexual deviant I’ve ever had the displeasure of working beside all summer. You should be ashamed. Ashamed.

      Oh man, Danny Devito wrecks shit up in the second season. Just wait.

  3. Dan September 16, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    Here I thought I was agreeing with what you had said in your post…
    I was trying to say that literary rules are a good starting point, but the most interesting works are those that stray from the beaten path.

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m ESL, but then I remember that I don’t know any other languages.
    I would be ashamed of myself if I weren’t so busy deviating sexually.

    • John September 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm #

      I would never agree with you.

      • John September 16, 2009 at 5:20 pm #

        That came across pretty mean.

      • John September 16, 2009 at 5:21 pm #

        Which is good.

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