Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut Can Bite Me

By Tiffany Reisz, @TiffanyReisz

Hi Readers and Writers!

Today we're talking about the rules of writing and when you should break them. What rules am I talking about? The rules that writers, professional and amateur, seem to think actually exist. Here's the thing about the rules of fiction writing--there are none. Every writer has his or her own way of doing things, and since it works for them, clearly it must the right way of doing things. 

Admittedly, I'm a fan of learning from the greats. I've read more books on how to write good fiction than on any other topic. No matter how many books I write and sell, I never stop studying the craft of writing. There is even a craft to reading craft books. You have to learn to take what works for you and discard what doesn't. Here are some rules of writing by great authors I admire that I threw out the window.
"Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To Hell with suspense. Readers should have such a 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
I love Kurt Vonnegut. I even eulogized him for a local radio station when he died. And while I adore his rule "Be a sadist," this rule about suspense is less useful to me than the toilet paper it should be printed on. No suspense? Kurt Vonnegut, bite me. Why on earth would anyone read a book if they knew exactly what was going to happen?

I write Gothic erotic thrillers. Suspense is my bread and butter. Without a doubt the most repeated compliment I receive on my books sounds something like, "I love your books! I never know how they're going to end!" Surprise is a positive emotion. If it wasn’t we’d yell "Surprise!" not only at a birthday parties, but also at death announcements and break-ups. “Surprise! I’m sleeping with your boss!” No, you shouldn't give your readers every bit of information as early as possible. That's an info-dump and it ruins the momentum of the story. If Agatha Christie took Kurt Vonnegut's advice every mystery novel would have been two sentences long. "Someone was murdered. The butler did it."
"Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. This story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored." - Stephen King
Today while driving home from the gym, my boyfriend (author Andrew Shaffer) said he'd almost finished his new novel. "Having an outline," he said, "helped me actually finish a book." I get what King is trying to say with this advice--if the plot is the only part of your book that you focus on, the book will seem artificial or stilted. But it's nonsense to say outlining can stifle a book. After all, one of the most common criticisms leveled at King is that his books are bloated and meandering. Maybe if he outlined in advance he would write a sharper, tighter story.

Plot is vital to good genre fiction. Something has to happen. Every book I ever put down and never picked up again suffered from a listless or non-existent plot. When two star-crossed lovers meet and fall in love, what do we the readers want to see them do? Long for each other from a distance while they wait for fate to intervene and make it okay for them to get together without any negative consequences? Or do we want to see them run away together and/or fight the status quo that keeps them apart?

Some writers fear that by outlining they'll ruin the surprise inherent in writing. I always know how every single book will end before I write the first sentence. I know the last scene, the last line, the last emotional punch to the gut. Every book still kept me on my toes as a writer. I never knew what wicked words would come out of my leading lady Nora’s dirty mouth or what new secret about her past I'd uncover that would color in the outlines of her character and the story. Outlining a novel before you write is as wise as building your new house before you decorate it. The outline gives you a frame to work with, but the possibilities for artistic expression are still endless. You don’t have to outline your book before writing, but if you don’t, you better be prepare to revise. Which leads us to…
"You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order." - Robert A. Heinlein
Now this piece of advice isn't only bullshit, it's dangerous bullshit. First of all, it contradicts that legendary maxim "writing is rewriting." Perhaps Heinlein only meant to say, "Don't edit a story until the end of time." But cautioning writers to refrain from rewriting is like telling us that we're gods who can do no wrong. A lot of writers already think that so let's not add any fuel to the fire. The simple fact is that your first draft is not your book any more than the beans and onion on my kitchen counter constitute chili. They're ingredients that I need to cook dinner. The first draft is nothing but your ingredients. Once you have them in front of you--a beginning, a middle, an end, and all your characters--then and only then can you write your novel.

My debut novel The Siren went through six drafts, and it was only in the sixth draft that the best scenes came out. Whenever a reader quotes a line from the book at me as their favorite or shows me their Siren-inspired tattoo, it's invariably from a passage or scene that didn't exist until I gutted 70% of the book and rewrote from the ground up after an agent I queried told me, “I love your book but it has no plot.” My agent said that when she sees a book with potential, she'll often suggest the author do a re-write and resubmit it. She said what shocked her with my book was that I had made substantial changes, not merely "changing the color of the guy's sweater on page 43." All the best ideas in my books didn't emerge until the second, third, and final draft stages. No, don't play with your story forever. Eventually you have to cut the cord and let your baby go. But if you send a first draft out into the world, you're serving a can of beans and an onion in a bowl and calling it chili.

Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Heinlein have all written books I love and admire. They've also given great advice to aspiring writers, great encouragement. They're only writers, however, not gods. They are not infallible. There are no commandments of writing on stone tablets. The only rules of writing are what works for you to get your book finished and in the best shape possible. (And yes, even this blog post will be edited, revised, beta-read and proofread before it’s published.)

Okay, I lied. There is one commandment of writing that is carved in stone and cannot be ignored by any writer wishing to succeed.
A writer writes. - Every Published Author Ever
Tiffany Reisz’s books inhabit a sexy shadowy world where romance, erotica, and literature meet and do immoral and possibly illegal things to each other. She describes her genre as “literary friction,” a term she stole from her main character who gets in trouble almost as often as the author herself. Reisz’s debut novel, The Siren, was published by Mira in 2012. It is the first book in her The Original Sinners series. Reisz describes it as “not your momma’s Thorn Birds,” and she means it. Visit Tiffany on her blog or on Twitter @tiffanyreisz Reisz lives in Lexington, Kentucky.


  1. Thanks for an entertaining piece. I think you have pretty much proved that there are no rules. I suspect that for every rule that has ever been advanced, it would be possible to find a best seller that busts it wide open.
    I like outlining, I used it a lot when I was writing lectures and strategy documents. On the other hand the most exciting thing I have ever discovered is the way that fictional characters, running around in my head, keep changing the story.
    It's a bit like the rush I used to get from skiing or surfing, kind of flying on the edge of control. The good news is that I can still get the fiction rush, even though my knees are way past surfing.
    Every author's brain is different, so the trick is to keep trying things until you find what sets your brain alight.

  2. Thanks for this. I've tried at times following all the 'rules'. Yuck! All it does it stunt the writing and make it sound like my computer wrote instead of me.

  3. love your blog, that sums it up for me. :-)

  4. I'm pretty sure what Vonnegut meant was that when a reader knows all the information it can heighten dramatic tension. If I am aware Mr Black is intending to kill Mr White, but Mr White doesn't know it, I am more on the edge of my seat, and more engaged in the characters and caring about what they're doing, than if Mr Black is just a strange and slightly suspicious character on the edge of Mr White's life. I believe this approach increases the suspense and makes for a much more clever story.

    A reader being able to finish the story for themselves doesn't mean the ending is obvious - it means the reader has become so engaged in the story that they can take over creating it if necessary. I recently read and loved The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, which relied on the narrator keeping significant information from the reader - but if cockroaches had eaten the last few pages then the main value of the story would have been lost. Surprise isn't the same as suspense. The scariest part of a thriller is knowing someone is in the house with the heroine - but she doesn't know it. Without that information, there is no suspense at all, and you're left with a pretty limp story.

    So I personally actually find that piece of advice one of the best available. JMO.

    But I totally agree with you about the only true rules for writing. Infact I'd say "what works for you to get your book finished and in the best shape possible" is the most worthwhile advice I've seen.

  5. If we followed every piece of writing advice ever proffered, we would be so confused by the contradictory information that we'd curl up in a ball and never pick up a pencil/ face a keyboard again!

  6. I'm inclined to agree about Vonegut, and I think Stephen King's book on writing is brilliant, but you still have to do what works for you.

  7. I loved this. I have people in my life who occasionally advocate rules to me; it's nice to be able to say "no thanks, dear."

  8. Oy, you've NO IDEA my beef with Heinlein and the Pandora's Box of rage that opens whenever I hear his name.
    (Not your fault, speaking generally, and solely for myself)

    I can't speak to his books, I haven't read them, but his quotes about writing frankly bring out the worst in me.You're right, he's not a god, yet a lot of his fans (At least the writers I know who quote him like biblical scripture) use him to talk down to me.

    I couldn't on any writing community in 2011 without Heinlein quotes being seared into my brain, and I was sick of it!

    I also got lectured to read Updike and Vonnegut more times than I care to remember, like I'll NEVER improve unless I "absorb their greatness."

    Sorry if I offend any fans, but when those quotes are used as weapons against writers, whatever sincerity they may imply from the writer doesn't get conveyed as such secondhand, to put it nicely...

  9. I love this!

    When I read On Writing, I was dismayed by the advice to just plow ahead and make up the rules as I go. I'm writing a science fiction novel -- I need the rules! As soon as I disregarded that advice, I plotted out every necessary detail of background and history and have been writing more efficiently ever since. I'm glad to know someone else isn't afraid to publicly disobey Mr. King!

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  11. I don't know if I'd used the word "Disobey" but I don't relate to S. King, or his craft book and I'm not afraid to publically admit that.

    So many writers I know keep recommending "On Writing" to me, and aside from the fact I'm not typically interested in S. King's books, I don't agree with a lot of his views on craft, never mind the fact that his experience and mine aren't even remotely similar.

    I respect what he's accomplished, but I don't have to worship the guy to do it.

    I tried to read "On Writing" a few times, and I felt it was more a dramatized rant of the process, that while clearly speaks to some writers, it didn't to me personally.

  12. You state there are not rules. And then create your own.

    Kind's style isn't yours. Neither his style of writing (it seems), not his way of creating his books.

    So? So it isn't a bad way per se. It's just bad for you. But for others... I love his books. And I think I'm stuck at this WIP because I started to plot out too much.

    There are not rules. True. Well, there are not rules that are universal. There are only rules that are valid for you (this is the non-personal you :D). Some need a plot, and outline, that they have to follow quite strictly. For others, this is a killer to creativity. And still others... they fall somewhere in between. Actually, we all do.