Vonnegut’s First Rule for Writing Fiction

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. –Kurt Vonnegut

I did something this weekend (while recovering from a minor surgery) that I haven’t done in years. I put a book down with the intention of never picking it up again. Maybe that makes me lazy, or maybe it makes me wise. I’ll let you decide.

The point is this—three pages into the novel, I knew I didn’t want to invest 300-400 pages worth of my time in a book I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. This is not to say that the book was terrible. I just recognized immediately that it was not going to be something I cared to invest in.

Call me a cynic. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, there are some things that are clear. You may not be able to judge a book by it’s cover, but you can judge it by the first few pages. That’s why it’s so important to have an outstanding opening. If you don’t, people will understand that their time will likely not be well spent reading your novel.

“But my book has the greatest ending!” you may say.

It may. But, for the love of all things good, please get to it sooner than page fifty. If you don’t have a gripping opening, then I have no reason to believe you’ll have a compelling ending. That’s simple logic, harsh as it may seem.

Vonnegut understood this. No one likes to finish a book and think, “What a waste!” Being forced to read lousy stories and books is one of the primary reason fewer and fewer kids are reading.

So what can we do as writers?

Use the pages we have wisely. Make them matter. Make them count. Every page.

8 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s First Rule for Writing Fiction”

  • I totally agree but honestly, I think “yanking the reader in on the first page or two” rule just applies to new and/or unpublished writers. Every book I pick up–mainly in the Christian publishing arena–I have to hang in there for 50 to 100 pages before I’m truly absorbed in the story. I find I’m getting more and more hesitant when it comes to purchasing books. Yet when I volunteer to review them and get them for free, I’m locked into reading the whole thing…whether it’s good or not.

  • No question. The “yank the reader in on the first page” rule is more important for beginning writers. Established writers generally have earned at least fifty pages or so of immediate buy-in, if they’ve shown a track record of good writing. But I’ve read several stinkers by bestselling authors. I finished them all, but only because I actually purchased the book. If I’d borrowed them, I’d have given them back, or returned them to the library, whichever is appropriate.

    I’d also argue that even “established” writers, short of Stephen King or Cormac McCarthy maybe, still have an obligation to demonstrate their ability early on. If I’m picking up a book by an author who’s published thirty books, but I’ve never read any of them, and I get his or her latest, and it stinks…that’s an author I won’t read again.

    Perhaps you’re simply more patient than I am. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  • I’m doing a creative writing degree, and at the minute we’re looking at hooks and openings. I understand the importance; captivate the reader, draw them into the story, have immediacy etc. But, I can’t help but feel that patience is a virtue for reading. There are soo many books I’ve read that had slow beginnings, but because I want to enjoy it, I invest the patience in it, because almost all slow starters go on to be brilliantyly immersive. Just a thought : / Also, if you like immediate catchy beginnings, try Hemmingway, the man’s a ‘lege’.

  • I think we’re getting away from what Vonnegut said, which is my fault, but it does bring up an important issue. If I could humbly speak for Vonnegut, I think he’d agree with you, Thomas, that patience is absolutely a virtue, if you’ll excuse the cliche.

    As an editor, though, beginnings are super important. Paramount, even. But, to be clear, not every story has to begin with the proverbial “bang.” In fact, I find myself rather disinterested in stories that begin with dead bodies.

    When I say it needs to start off strong, I mean the authorial voice needs to be clear and strong. I need to know from the first few pages that the author is in control of such things as voice, detail, pacing, character, and conflict. In the case of the book I put down, the author paid far too little attention to detail. I was hard pressed to find a single image in the first three pages. For me, that’s indicative of a larger problem.

    And that Hemmingway guy is pretty good, I guess. 🙂

  • Thanks for the response, Aaron. God did bless me with an abundance of patience–especially when it comes to writing. Good thing too!

    I’m reading a book now–slow as molasses–but the sentences sing. I really feel if one word was pulled from any given sentence, the whole book would be ruined.
    Still… it’s soooooooooooooo slow. This author successfuly records every breath taken by her characters. I’m sure it’s probably a fast read for some people but then I’d argue that if they’re reading it fast then they’re missing some of the beauty. It’s a heavy story and I guess I might have a love-hate relationship with it right now. 🙂 This author can really write! I know this doesn’t make sense–I hate the slowness of the story yet it works. Make sense?

    So how do we ever know whether we’ve used our pages wisely? Made every word count? I guess that’s up to each individual reader, and that’s scary.

  • Jess–do you mind if I ask what book it is? I think what you’re getting at is the fact that, though there’s little action in the story, the language is so well executed (even poetic, one might argue), that it makes up for the dragging pace. Charles Baxter called this “stillness,” and I like that term. I actually wrote a blog on it some time ago. He maintains that this “stillness” (elevated, poetic language, singing sentences to use your words) is most effective when bookended with dramatic violence or action. I’m curious, was there any action up front? Do you anticipate action on the back side of the “stillness?” Several “literary” stories lack external conflict and focus more on the internal. Maybe this is one of those books? Pardon me if I’m preaching to the choir here. I just love these discussions. 🙂

  • Hi Aaron, it’s Patti Lacy’s book, The Rhythm of Secrets–just hitting the bookstores. I’m to blog about it latter part of next week but since I haven’t finished it, I emailed Patti for a little Q&A to include. I’m half-way through the book. As for action up front–well, not ‘in your face’ action. More subtle-more psychological. Then again, there’s death by fire but even at that–it’s a quiet death by fire. Your word ‘stillness’ is a good one for this book.

    Here’s a sentence I thought especially nice and very visual:

    Moths and fireflies, drunk on the glow of porch lights, swooped from house to house, clueless to the fact that if they got too close, they’d singe their wings and flutter to the cold hard ground.

    I think I could identify with those moths and fireflies; remembered the many times I was a breath away from fluttering to the cold hard ground–for one reason or another.

    Another author whose sentences are beautiful is David Lindsey. He’s a thriller writer out of Austin, Tx. I especially liked his early books featuring Houston homicide detective, Stuart Haydon. His writing is so beautiful it seems at war with his subject matter. Very graphic stuff so hubby and I don’t read him any more.

    I believe poetry teaches fiction writers how to be BETTER fiction writers. It teaches us how to paint word pictures. I’ve started writing haiku and participated in a reading a few weeks ago. With poetry … wow! you’re really exposing emotions, putting yourself out there. Poetry is a great teacher. 🙂

    Looking forward to your next blog entry. Have a great weekend!

  • Jess–thanks for the recommendations. I’ll have to look into them. I agree with what you say about poetry. There’s something about the demand for a form that stretches our imaginations to the breaking point, but often, we find something beautiful when we’re about to break. Poetry should not have a monopoly on awe-inspiring imagery. I blogged once about establishing a poetic voice. I have at least one more poetry in fiction blog post to go before I’m done, but that’s a few weeks out. Keep checking in. Glad to have your readership.

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