Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

I recently came across Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing Fiction and thought they were worth discussing. His advice:

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.

I originally planned to center this discussion on rule number 8, but since the discussions I host usually have narrow topics, I decided to throw this out there and let you discuss any of the rules you’d like. For example:

1. How do you keep a reader from feeling that his or her time is wasted?

2. Do you have a character readers will root for?

3. What does your main character want? What do your supporting characters want?

4. Do you make sure ever sentence reveals character or advances the action? Do you agree with this rule?

5. Do you tend to start too far from the end, frontloading your story with scenes that delay the action?

6. What awful things are you doing to your characters? Do you take every opportunity to traumatize them?

7. Who are you writing to please?

8. Do think readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on that they could finish the story themselves? As a reader do you want it all laid out for you so that the end is inevitable?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about Vonnegut’s rules during our Live Discussion on Thursday, October 30 at 9:00pm ET. Everyone is invited. Hope to see you there!

How do You Solve the Problem of Exposition in Your Writing?

“Exposition is a device for introducing characters, to provide setting, for creating tone, to explain ideas, to analyze background. Exposition should be immediately related to the event that causes its presence. The subject should be relevant to the circumstances, otherwise it’s a distraction that does not contribute.” -Leonard Bishop, Dare to Be a Great Writer

We all know enough about writing to understand that in today’s market, we need to keep exposition should to a minimum. Despite that, we often have to support our premises with facts or explain the reasoning behind that premise.

For my novel Light Bringer, I created a discussion group for people who believed in conspiracies. While each argued for his or pet conspiracy theory, sometimes quite humorously, I was able to expose an alternate view of history without having one character giving a long and boring lecture. The group also functioned as a cast to pull from whenever I needed a character to play a bit part.

For Daughter Am I, I created a character who loved to lecture. Though perhaps he told too much, it did go to character.

For A Spark of Heavenly Fire and More Deaths Than One, I had characters go in search of the information because I thought that if characters wanted the information badly enough, readers would also want the information and hence tolerate the intrusion of fact.

So how do you solve the problem of exposition? Do you dump it in all at once to get it over with? Do you parcel it out a bit at a time? Do you have one character tell another? Do you have a character seek it out? Do they read it somewhere, such as in an article or online? And how do you make it interesting for the reader?

My writing discussion group No Whine, Just Champagne on Gather.com will exchange ideas about exposition during our Live Discussion on Thursday, October 16 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

Depth of Character

Sherilyn Winrose, author of Safe Harbor published by Second Wind Publishing, speaks about depth of character:

There are a few things which will make me stop from reading a story.

Cookie cutter, cliché characters is one of them. Or characters who lie flat on the pages like paper dolls.

There is one author I just don’t read anymore, because her characters repeat, repeat, repeat. I gave up on any hope of some miracle of original characters with her. She’s popular and vastly successful in the publishing world. Three pen names last I heard, all of them have best sellers. We should all be so lucky. All the same, she lost me for lack of originality in her characters.

When I approach a story, generally the characters come to me first. I write romance, so there are some things my Hero must have. Momma’s boys, short, no morals, weak of will or ego-driven men need not apply.

Heroine – Pretty much up to the author. I personally refuse to give voice to damsels in distress, clingy, needy types, martyrs, and drama queens.  Heaven save me from weak women!

For supporting characters the sky’s the limit so to speak. I have a lot of fun with my supporting characters.

The ‘complications’ or skills my characters have dictates the amount of research required to make them real.  Some of the complications/skills I have, so it comes pretty easy.  Other times they come to me with things I know nothing about.

How do you bake biscuits in a camp fire?  What would it be like to have the hopes of many rest on your shoulders?  How many miles can two riders and a pack animal travel in the Sierra Nevada?

All of these things add depth and reality to characters.  If your heroin loves and grows roses, please don’t tell me she has a miniature rose growing over an 8 ft arbor..that ain’t gonna happen, and she should know that.

How do you approach your characters, their quirks, skills and inner being? Do you get lost in research? Or find not much is required?

Would You Like Me to Interview Your Characters?

I am starting a new blog, Pat Bertram Introduces . . .  where I will be posting interviews with fictional characters. The first interview has been posted: Pat Bertram Introduces Siegfried Marggrander, close friend and brother-in-law of Gus LeGarde, of the LeGarde Mystery series, written by Aaron Lazar.

If you wish a character to be interviewed by Pat Bertram, please answer fifteen to twenty questions from the Character Questionaire Page and submit them in the comment section along with whatever links you’d like included. Be sure to answer in your character’s voice, and be sure you mention the title of the book and who wrote it. If an answer to a question is yes or no, please explain why. (Example: Do you run away from conflict? Yes. Why? I don’t like fighting. See, there was this time in third grade where I got in a fight and . . .) Feel free to include your own questions. The character interviewed does not have to be the hero. Even if you don’t want your character interviewed, you can ask your characters these questions to help you profile them.

  1. What is your story?
  2. Who are you?
  3. Where do you live?
  4. Are you the hero of your own story?
  5. What is your problem in the story?
  6. Do you have a problem the wasn’t mentioned in the story?
  7. Do you embrace conflict?
  8. Do you run from conflict?
  9. How do you see yourself?
  10. How do your friends see you?
  11. How do your enemies see you?
  12. How does the author see you?
  13. Do you think the author portrayed you accurately?
  14. What do you think of yourself?
  15. Do you have a hero?
  16. Do you have a goal?
  17. What are your achievements?
  18. Do you talk about your achievements?
  19. Do you keep your achievements to yourself?
  20. Do you have any special strengths?
  21. Do you have any special weaknesses?
  22. Do you have any skills?
  23. Do you have money troubles?
  24. What do you want?
  25. What do you need?
  26. What do you want to be?
  27. What do you believe?
  28. What makes you happy?
  29. What are you afraid of?
  30. What makes you angry?
  31. What makes you sad?
  32. What do you regret?
  33. What is your biggest disappointment?
  34. What, if anything, haunts you?
  35. Are you lucky?
  36. Have you ever failed at anything?
  37. Has anyone ever failed you?
  38. Has anyone ever betrayed you?
  39. Have you ever failed anyone?
  40. Have you ever betrayed anyone?
  41. Do you keep your promises?
  42. Are you honorable?
  43. Are you healthy?
  44. Do you have any handicaps?
  45. Do you have any distinguishing marks?
  46. What was your childhood like?
  47. Do you like remembering your childhood?
  48. Did anything newsworthy happen on the day you were born?
  49. Did you get along with your parents?
  50. What in your past had the most profound effect on you?
  51. What in your past would you like to forget?
  52. What in your past would you like others to forget?
  53. Who was your first love?
  54. Who is your true love?
  55. Have you ever had an adventure?
  56. What is the most important thing that ever happened to you? Why?
  57. Was there a major turning point in your life?
  58. Was there ever a defining moment of your life?
  59. Is there anything else about your background you’d like to discuss?
  60. What is your most closely guarded secret?
  61. What is your most prized possession? Why?
  62. Do you have any hobbies?
  63. What is your favorite scent? Why?
  64. What is your favorite color? Why?
  65. What is your favorite food? Why?
  66. What is your favorite beverage? Why?
  67. What is your favorite music? Why?”
  68. What is your favorite item of clothing? Why?
  69. Name five items in your purse, briefcase, or pockets.
  70. What are the last five entries in your check registry?
  71. What are the last three books you read?
  72. If you were at a store now, what ten items would be in your shopping cart?
  73. If you had the power to change one thing in the world that didn’t affect you personally, what would it be?
  74. What makes you think that change would be for the better?
  75. If you were stranded on a desert island, would you rather be stranded with, a man or a woman?
  76. How do you envision your future?

The Meaning of Gestures

My guest blogger today is . . . me! I’ve been getting so many authors to host that I feel like a guest on my own blog. Inviting authors to guest might have started out as a generous gesture, but it turned out to be entirely self-indulgent. It’s like school: having a more advanced student do your homework and not getting in trouble for it.

Most gestures have meanings, and as writers, we need to know what that meaning is so we can have our characters use the gesture properly, either to work for or against the character. For example, open palms generally connote that the person or character has nothing to hide, but a liar can purposely show his palms in order to hide his lying nature. Animated hands show that the character is interested in the other person, or they say that the character is running a con, wanting you to think he’s interested. Psychopaths use expansive gestures, which disarm those they come in contact with, but as we know, psychopaths have no interest in anyone but themselves. Shoulder and head turned sideways means disinterest, but can also be a symptom of a crick in the neck.

Other common gestures and positions:

Clammy hands show nervousness.
Open hands show friendliness.
Hidden hands show guilt.
Biting the fingernails shows nervousness.
Gripping the arms of a chair can show nervousness or anger.
Fists show defensiveness or aggression depending on how they are used.
Hands to cheek show pensiveness.
Ankles locked mean withholding information.
Fingers in front of the face mean the character has something to hide.
Fingers drumming show nervousness or boredom.
Hands spread show openness.
Legs stretched out mean shame.
Sudden gestures connote threat.
Leaning forward shows interest.

One final note: Tapping feet show nervousness or lying, which could be why people in a position of power need big desks. They don’t want anyone to see those constantly moving feet.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Draggy Dialogue? Reeking Repartee? Why the Chit-Chat Can’t Be Idle

Tracy Fabre is guest hosting my blog today. Fabre is the author of Evan’s Castle, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Stonegarden Publishing. Fabre says:

Dialogue (unless your novel manages to avoid it entirely) is something both difficult and essential to get right.  It serves two key purposes in fiction: it furthers the plot, and helps the author build the characters.  (It can also entertain, frighten and inform, as characters joke, threaten, and sometimes pontificate, but we’ll keep it simple for this post.)

Here are a few things which must be taken into consideration as you write your dialogue.

It must be believable and natural.  It must be plausible that your character would speak, shout, wheedle, cajole, or threaten with the words you choose for him.  Are you writing about a twelfth century cleric?  Then he’d better not say, “Dude, that habit is, like, so five minutes ago.”  Are you writing about a teenaged NYC prostitute?  Then she’d better not say, “Fain would I fathom the nature of a bespectacled pigeon, forsooth.” 

It must fit the scene, and the words you use to describe how it is uttered.
        “I am so extremely happy,” Lulella intoned.
But intoned implies dull, flat, ponderous–okay, so does her speech–so if you were trying to show she’s actually happy, none of it works.
        Roderick stated, “I love you.”  Does that seem right?  No.  Stated is another word which implies flat, dull, boring; if that’s not how you meant him to sound, you need a new qualifier.  I could write a whole book on how said is really the perfect word, much more so than physiological impossibilities such as:
        He smiled, “Hello!”  
                No, he didn’t.  He said it.  He smiled while he was saying it.
        “Baby,” he rushed into the room carrying vermicelli, “you’re here!”
               No, he spoke as he was rushing; there’s a difference.
Don’t be afraid to use said.  It becomes invisible, and the speech itself takes precedence, as it should.  There are places where other impossibilities such as purred and barked do work, but limit your use of qualifiers such as laughed and smiled because, kiddo, you can smile your dialogue all you want but it’s just going to sound like a buncha mumbling.

Don’t feel you must use any variation of said at all if the speech explains itself.  
           “I think I’m going to have to slather you with butter.” He smiled.
           She smiled back.  “I think that would be very interesting.”
I think we know what’s going on there… unless of course he’s really about to kill her, in which case I’m sure you’ve written the rest of the scene to show her being brave and clever and escaping unbuttered.

Make it clear who’s speaking, but don’t over-do it in a heavy-dialogue scene. 
         “I don’t like gazpacho.”
         “You’ve never had gazpacho.”
         “Yes, I did, in Boise,” Velmarine insisted.
         “I don’t remember that.”
         “You weren’t there. It was a Tuesday.  Where’s the butler?”
         “What butler?” Claude looked around, puzzled.
         “The one I hired last Tuesday to clean the gutters.”
         “We don’t have gutters. This is a condo.”
         “Oh, that explains the snooty people in the lobby.”  She sipped her tea.
Also, make sure the first pronoun to follow a bit of dialogue refers to the person who spoke.  In the above lines, it should be clear that Claude said “What butler?” and Velmarine mentioned the snooty people, without a single said being present.  Remember that readers generally take things literally, in order, so keep your curve balls to a minimum.

Say it out loud.  Really.  If you know your characters well (as you should), then say their dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds right.  It’s okay, you can whisper it; no need to alarm the neighbors.  But say it. 

Cut what you don’t need.  Some dialogue isn’t necessary: you don’t need every greeting, every farewell; you need to concentrate on the key elements of plot advancement and character development.  You may have written some incredibly profound bit of pontification but if it doesn’t fit the scene or the character and adds nothing to the plot, cut it.  You may have written the funniest freakin’ bit of repartee the literary world has ever known, but unless you need it… erm… you don’t need it. 

Speaking of cutting, I’ll stop here. 

What have your challenges been as you write dialogue? 
What do you consider your successes? 
Would you be willing to post to the discussion short samples of your dialogue which you either love or hate?

Coloring Your World

Color is an important part of life, and we should honor that importance in the stories we write. Although we can simply name any color for our characters’ bedrooms or the clothes they wear, by choosing a specific color, we can add layers of meaning to our stories and even to the personalities of our characters. We can add mood, symbolism, theme, even emotion. But first, we need to know what the colors mean.

What Colors Mean:

Black — Evil, falsehood, error, grief, despair, death.
Blue — Chastity, loyalty, fidelity, faith, modesty, eternity, immmortality.
Green — Love, joy, abundance, hope, youth, mirth, gladness, resurrection, spring.
Purple — Temperance, royalty
Red — Magnanimity, fortitude
White — Purity, truth, innocence, hope.
Yellow — Faith, constancy, wisdom, glory, jealousy, inconsistancy.

What Your Favorite Color Reveals About You:

Red — Ambitious, energetic, extroverted
Pink — Affectionate, compassionate, romantic
Maroon — Sensuous, friendly, emotional
Orange — Fun-loving, action-oriented, competent
Peach — Gentle, charitable, enthusiastic
Yellow — Optimistic, expressive, people-oriented
Mint green — Modest, insightful, kind-hearted
Apple green — Innovative, adventuresome, self-motivated
Green — Benevolent, service-oriented, scientific
Teal — Idealistic, faithful, sentimental
Light blue — creative, perceptive, imaginative
Dark Blue — Intelligent, responsible, self-reliant
Mauve — Delicate, reserved, sensitive
Purple — Intuitive, spiritual, insightful
Beige — Practical, well-adjusted, steadfast
Brown — Down to earth, honest, supportive
Black —  Disciplined, strong-willed, opinionated
White —   Individualistic, lonely, low self-esteem
Gray —  Passive, noncommittal, stressed
Silver —  Honorable, chivalrous, romantic
Gold —  Idealistic, noble, successful

More about color:
The Meaning of Your Car Color
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Green and More


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.

A Writer’s Mythical Journey

The best books always have characters that go through a transformation during the course of the story, but most books today seem to have static characters. The authors tell us a lot about the characters and their myriad relationships but the characters do not really transform. Perhaps because the writer isn’t asking the right questions.

In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold wrote, “Ask your character these two questions: Who are you? Who do you want to be?

“Ask them of yourself as well.”

Perhaps the key to writing well is knowing who we are and what we want to be in relation to the book we are writing. Maybe the way to get inside it and to create a vivid and compelling world is to make the character’s transformation our own. And we do this by having a clear idea of what we want to say and choosing the right words to say it.

The realization that the words we write can change us as writers as well as affect our readers is making me rethink my own mythic journey as a writer. If words are so powerful that they can change readers and writers both, then they deserve my best. I don’t think I’ve achieved my best. At least, I hope I haven’t.

Writing is changing me in ways I could not even fathom several years ago, and I have a hunch I am at still at the beginning of my journey, so I have no idea how I will be transformed. I’m hoping I am a hero in my own journey, and that I will become a powerful writer. I now can see that writing will never get easier for me, because with each book I will pick something to challenge me, to help me get closer to that being that author I need to become. Published or unpublished.

It’s the journey that counts. The process of transformation.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Conflict is Collision

The greatest role of dramatic writing is conflict. The most elaborate plot in the world is useless without conflict to give it tension and excitement.

So what is conflict? Conflict is the collision of the character’s desires with resistance from the forces of antagonism, be they other characters, the environment, the hero herself.

Some writers see conflict as a war between two opposing forces, but it can be more subtle than that — a change in a relationship, perhaps. People cause most of our problems, and interaction with people — connecting, confronting, disconnecting, alienating — shape the true concerns of our lives.

If the conflicts are plausible and appropriate, the reader’s tension level increases, and as the character gets closer to her goal, the tension should increase further because the stakes are higher. Tension created for its own sake is cheap. There must be a relationship to what has gone before; character’s efforts must have meaning.

For the tension to tighten, there has to be a reason why the stakes are higher, and that reason should be tied to consequences. Perhaps a bomb is about to go off, or perhaps the enemy is getting stronger. These time constraints put the hero under pressure, and the consequences of not reaching the goal becomes more dire. That bomb ticks louder and louder, the writer’s sentences grow shorter, and the reader eagerly turns the pages.

That, in the end, is what writing is all about: connecting to a reader. And readers want conflict. So it is up to us to create it in our writing, no matter how much we want to avoid it in our lives.

On Writing: The Name of the Game is “Hurt the Hero.”

I like my characters and don’t enjoy hurting them so my novels tend to focus on unraveling the mystery of the situation, because one thing I do understand is that at the heart of all books is a discovery. In a mystery, the discovery is the killer. In a romance, the discovery is love. In a character driven novel, the discovery is the nature of the character himself.

For the first time, though, I understand why the hero needs to be hurt. If the hero doesn’t hurt, why should we care? And if he doesn’t hurt, how would we ever discover his emotional core, what it is that he really cares about? When we discover what the character cares about, we care about him, and want to read to see how he reacts to the hurt and to find out what he is going to do to make it stop.

True character is revealed in the choices a person makes under pressure or when he is hurting or both. The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation will be and the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature. Pressure is necessary. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little.

In Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, David Gerrold wrote: “You need to ask yourself these questions in every situation. Asking these questions brings each scene to life: Why is the moment important? Where is the pain? Why does it hurt? And most important — what will make it worse?”

In life, experiences often become meaningful with reflection and time. In retrospect, a horrendous experience takes on an aura of excitement or even happiness because we remember being fully alive. In art, experiences are meaningful now, at the moment they are happening on the screen or in the novel. We can see instantly that the character is hurting, but we can also feel the excitement of the moment, the adrenaline rush. It all happens at once, the reflection and the experience, which explains why movies and books sometimes seem more real than life itself. Without the character hurting, however, the experience becomes muted, less real.

So: hurt the hero. I guess I’ll just have to learn to like it. Or at least learn how to do it well.