Are you a one-eyed person in a kingdom of the blind.

Kurt Vonnegut had a rare gift for the way he wrote, and no one was ever able to write like him.
Kurt Vonnegut had a rare gift for the way he wrote, and no one was ever able to write like him.

I HAD A CONVERSATION with Kurt Vonnegut this afternoon.

It really wasn’t much of a conversation.

I was here.

He wasn’t.

But his words were.

And I lean heavily on his words.

I would try to write like Kurt Vonnegut, but nobody can write like Kurt Vonnegut. There were times when even Kurt Vonnegut had trouble trying to write like himself.

He was an architect until he discovered he would rather build things with words.

Then he became a writer.

No one ever figured out his genre.

He certainly had no idea what it was.

Sometimes, he gave us black comedy.

Other titles read like science fiction.

Always he added a heavy dose of satire.

Kurt Vonnegut could make you laugh on the outside even when you were crying on the inside.

He had a rare gift.

He made the complicated simple, the simple bizarre. He turned phrases inside out and twisted them into verbal pretzels.

He was a writer.

He was a genius.

What should I write about?

That was the first question I asked him.

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about,” he said. “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

What other advice could he give me?

Vonnegut was ready.

He had eight tips, and they came right out of his book, “Bagombo Snuff Box,” which was a random assortment of short stories he had compiled over the years.

Here is what he had to say.

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 hell 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.

Those were his words, and the words were pure gold and pure Vonnegut, straight from his heart, straight from his mind, straight from the gut.

After all, he was the man who wrote: “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

He writing always came from the edge.

And he always stayed far too close to it.

He firmly believed: “If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind.”

And so it goes.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Kurt Vonnegut always had a strange way of saying things, and maybe that’s why his works have endured. If he has any advice on writing, I want it. And he does.

    • Darlene Jones

      Great advice. I like numbers 5 and 8.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        When it comes to writing, I’m partial to No. 4.

  • “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”

    I liked this one. There is something very important here. Something I need to go ponder over for a while.

    As for the tips, I like 1, 2, and 4. However, if I like 2 then I must like 6, too. So now I have 1, 2, 4, and 6. It’s not easy to isolate these tips. Together they form a perfect list.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Woelf, they are tips that mean something, cut straight to the core, and I can understand them.

  • Christina Carson

    I always enjoy these looks through your eyes into the lives of other authors.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Christina. It’s always good to glimpse what they saw, steal it, and add it to our own writing notebooks.

  • It has to be 6. My motto is ‘Torture Rachel.’ Rachel is my best beta reader. I like that he has a reason for me to be a sadist: it shows what the character is made of.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, No. 6 is what makes a good book better.

      • It sometimes worries me how far I’m willing to go; I guess it’s a good thing my power is only fictional.

        I remember well how I felt when Margaret Mitchell killed off the daughter of Rhett and Scarlett. There had already been so much death in that book… MM had a lot of guts as a writer.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          Alicia: I’m not for sure Margaret Mitchell had any plans for the daughter dying. She was simply writing along, and the daughter was killed. I believe she was probably as shocked and saddened as the rest of us. It happens like that when writing books.

          • I disagree – it depends on where you are on the spectrum of pantser-to-plotter. I don’t know where she was – you are probably right about MM. But I’ve known about those plot points (because that is what they are) since the very beginning: they give the book its legs, and I don’t leave them to chance.

            There are few things as powerful as a death in a novel – it can’t be left to chance.

            But then, as you know, I’m an extreme plotter.

  • Don Newbury

    Remarkable quotes–I’d never heard them. They are rich indeed.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, they were sound words of wisdom coming from a strange bird.

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