Everyone and his uncle is writing about Kurt Vonnegut today, I’m sure. I have to admit I wasn’t a Vonnegut fanboy by any stretch, but I had a great deal of respect for him. I always thought he was the best writer alive during my lifetime.I know I’ve read a few of his short stories from time to time. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five (which is probably something everyone in Washington D.C. ought to read–I think we’d be better for it as a nation) but I should. It’s a common book, so the next time I see a used copy, I’ll buy it and read it. That could be Saturday for all I know.
But a Vonnegut essay did have a profound effect on me. I first read it at 18. It was a short, probably 400-word essay titled How to write with style, written for a paper company as a promotional piece. Go read it.
My favorite passages:
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
Had I heeded this advice at 21, there’s no telling how many things I would have published by now.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
Don’t visit dictionary.com and try to work the word of the day for the last week or so into what you’re writing, in other words. (Yes, some people do that to try to make themselves sound smarter than they are–including people who should know better.)
The writing style which is most natural to you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child… I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench… I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.
I was going to say it’s steel that’s galvanized, not tin, but technicalities aside, everyone else’s opinion of his own sound was much better than his own. There’s another lesson here: If you find yourself enjoying your own writing too much, your ego is too big.
I just have one other thing to add. Vonnegut hated developing new characters. If you’re an aspiring fiction writer, a way to get around this weakness if you have it (I do) is to keep elements of the story on notes on index cards rather than sitting down and writing furiously, which is my natural inclination and I’m sure I’m not the only one like that. The two most important elements of a story are plot and characters, and it’s the characters that make it interesting. Start with a few lines out of a psychology book that seem to describe someone you used to know, then flesh in some details. Imagine how those people would interact with the other people you’re creating, and the world in which you’re placing them.
And so it goes…