So here’s what I learned from Professor Vonnegut.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.Obviously, the stranger is my reader. How can I ensure that I’ve not wasted my reader’s time? To answer this, I asked myself, as a reader, which books I felt not only didn’t waste my time, but enriched my life...and which books were the exact opposite. The answer is simple: if a book made me think, I enjoyed it. If it was too obvious (read: cliched) or if I didn’t care about the characters (read: the characters did stupid stuff no one would ever really do), then I felt as if it were a waste of time. My goal in writing: make characters the reader cares about, and make a story the reader thinks about.
Believe it or not, I struggle with this one. Silly, I know...it’s the easiest one on the list, but one I struggle with. In many of my works, my female leads aren’t just straight-forward and blunt, they’re downright snarky. Recently, my critique group led me to the realization that I was trying to give my readers House, but they were getting Hitler. So my goal in writing: give my lead characters more depth down so they’re not hated.
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.This is one that I think I—and every writer—should focus on. Motivation is so often lost. When a writer wants to show something dramatic or give a hilarious one-liner, they often forget about the character. It’s the dance of plot versus characterization, and usually plot wins. Even with minor characters, there should be some sort of desire. The key is not to tell the reader “He wants this,” but to show it. My goal in writing: Have characters whose actions, reactions, and choice of speech are so strong that the reader knows what the character values and desires.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.This is the idea of plot versus character again. Stating it in this way makes you tighten your focus more. Every sentence must have purpose: plot or character. So when you describe the setting, there should be a purpose to it based on these. In a recent revision, my main character is outside and observes the nature around her...and then reacts to the nature in such a way that her feelings about her situation in life are revealed. The nature description serves a purpose. (This, by the way, is where I think Tolkien and Hawthorne and Melville failed.) My goal in writing: Cut away all fluff, and make sure relevance is in every passage.
...more on this tomorrow, as I explore Vonnegut's other rules of writing.