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8 tips to improve your writing from Kurt Vonnegut

Fig. 1 “Be a sadist.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I interpret as conflict, as creating a mess and seeing how the characters behave and what lessons they learn or do not learn as a result.

Unable to retain more than one piece of advice in my head for long I’ve created this octahedron with the eight tips Kurt Vonnegut gives. This way I toss this over my desk as I write every so often, at least every time I reach for a sip of coffee. I can then check whether or not I am doing as required.

2) “Give your readers at least one character they can route for.” Kurt Vonnegut.

This is all about creating believable characters: the good, the bad and the ugly. With a mixture of traits, and most having something likeable.

3) “Don’t waste the time of a stranger.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I take to mean avoid the dull and the obvious in settings, choice of words and phraseology. Take risks. Surprise and thrill them. It can be how you see the every day in a quirky and original way, and not simply having wacky characters and locations.

4) “Every sentence must reveal character of advance the action.”

Kurt Vonnegut. No more indulgent ‘jazz writing.’ Think like a professional writer and make the words count towards something.

5. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.” Kurt Vonnegut.  

Never play that game of ‘twist in a tail.’ Writing stories is not the same as telling a joke and writing a sketch. Hitchcock used to talk about telling the audience there’s a bomb, then spending the story waiting for it to go off.

6. “Every character should want something. Even if it’s just a drink of water.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I take to mean avoid having characters as props to the protagonist: they too want something from life. Show what it is and have it in conflict.

7. “Start as close as possible to the end.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I interpret as meaning getting as close to the climax. Don’t hang back, and certainly avoid constant backfill and back story that with each draft takes you away from the big idea and the big events of the story.

From 2BlogI

8) “Write to please just one person.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Please one and you please many. Try to write for many and you’ll either get in a terrible tangle or produce mud.


4 ways to create characters who have impact on your protagonist’s life

Fig.1 How to think of characters in a book. 

I’m writing and taking advice on my writing. Against common sense I’m fixated on a fictional relationship between a character and 22 others. His serial relationship with each of these could be a short story each, a novel in the case of a couple of them. It looked like the main character was coming out of these relationships or encounters unchanged – that will change. This offers a way forward.

Each of the characters I am developed, or have developed, must have this effect, giving him:

  1. Happiness
  2. Experience
  3. Lessons
  4. Memories

And yes, the best ones do give him all of this. He doesn’t repeat the same mistakes, he learns for ill or for good and his attitude and therefore behaviour changes. It would be easier to being with a fool and a cad, like the Bill Murray character from Groundhog Day. I’m tempted: his traits as a child would therefore be aloof, alienating and anal. Sounds unpleasant. Things can only get better?

José Maria de Eça de Queirós in Newcastle – now there’s a story!

Eca in Newcastle

From Project Guttenberg

How to build a scene when writing fiction …

Fig.1 A ‘Block Reminder’ for scene building based on the ideas of author and writing coach Susannah Waters.

Last September I attended a writer’s retreat in Devon with Susannah Waters. On day one she introduced me to simple ideas on how to build a scene. For the last six months I have tried to keep this in mind as I write up first one, then a second novel.

Often, the comments I receive would have been addressed had I given these pointers some thought. Too often, I know, I upload a treatment, not a draft. I tell the story, but I don’t ‘show it’ in the sense of engaging the imagination of the reader.

This homemade die covers six key points:

W = who am I?

PH = stay in the person’s head

5S = refers to the five senses: see, hear, smell, touch and taste

D= asks what am I doing

SY=asks what am I saying


T=asks what am I thinking.

I used a seed box and my son created the fonts on a template, cut it out and stuck it to the box.

This morning, before I used this, I ran through eight episodes each more of a synopsis than a treatment. Each now is far longer, but this is good if I am now keeping the reader in my head.

Controlling plot is another issue; I never can. The very process of writing for me, like telling someone a dream I have head, means that new things come into my head and want my attention.

Filming at Seaford Head, East Sussex

Fig. 1 Jeremy Irvine (War House) and Dakota Fanning (loads of films) on Seaford Head looking towards the Seven Sisters.

This gem of a film, ‘Now is Good’ is also from the director of “The Magnificent Marigold Hotel’ – it came out in 2012. Did you miss it? Get it on Amazon Prime for free right now. Dakota Fanning is a 17 year old dying of cancer with a wish list of things to do. Her performance is wonderful and she is totally credible as English girl. The list includes doing something illegal, and sex … which explains the boyfriend.

What’s odd in this image is that the bench is pointed away from the view towards some gorse bushes. The bench also lacks a dedication which all such chairs have up there. It also lacks a concrete base and a great deal of scuffed grass and mud, but that’s being pernickety isn’t it?

I walk the dog here often: I was down there this morning wishing I’d worn more.

Today I stumbled upon the largest camp of film lighting, catering, wardrobes and other support services I have yet seen. Are they filming ‘Iron Man IV’ down there? They use the concrete base, like a large roundabout, where there was once a Word War II searchlight and gun emplacement. There’s easy road access to the public car park. The ‘long hike’ Dakota Fanning complains of is a five minute walk.

Since moving down here in 2000 I have thus far stumbled upon the filming of a scenes for ‘Atonement’, what I was told was an East Enders special, a TV commercial and picking up shots for Harry Potter (It’s where the World Quidditch game is played). You will never be told what they are working on. Best to try and spot the actors and figure it out from there, or wait a year to 18 months to see what comes out in the cinema or on TV.

Do you live next to a regularly used film location?

As a boy growing up in Northumberland we had Alnwick Castle up the road. Long before Harry Potter they filmed something called ‘King Arthur and the Spaceman’ in which I was an extra all one summer. I was 16. I was the ‘King’s Guard Special’ to Kenneth Moor’s elderly King Arthur.

Much of Parade’s End was filmed in this part of East Sussex too. The laugh is to have shots along the River Cuckmere being used as scenes from the window of a train, the greatest error bring to have a coastal scene here doubling for Northumberland which is very different indeed, with sandy beaches and dunes, and sharp, low severe points of volcanic rock rather than the massive soft limestone cliffs we have down here.

I may go back to Hope Gap and have a look to see what they’re up to. Only three months ago there was a large film crew at Birling Gap. The cliffs here often double as ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ as they are more dramatic.

Seeking inspiration from ‘The Thorn Birds’

From Writing

Fig.1. The Thorn Birds. From my iPad

Every few weeks my writing output collapses as I wonder where on earth I am going with it. A few weeks ago I thought 30,000 words along the lines of ‘Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging’ would be good enough and about the standard and tone of what I was producing as I wrote up the antics of a 15/16 year old with his eye on any pretty girl.

A second character appeared and grew. She took over the lives of two others and developed a life of her own.

I have both these two age six or so onwards.

Somewhere I got a whiff of ‘The Thorn Birds’ and so have had a couple of days reading what I vaguely remember as a TV series of Rachel Ward. It was on in 1983. I picked up bits of it. I had assumed it had been on far earlier than that, more like the mid 1970s.

Anyway, this story told over sixty years has its appeal as a model. There is more sense to it as the lives of the immediate family around the central characters are brought to life than my determined efforts to thread together a group of girls from a Form Photograph.

Is this OK? Portuguese literature by Kindle Translate?

From E-Learning VI

Fig. 1. The opening lines of Os Mais Esposodios da vida Romantica – translated on the fly into English.

A recommended read, and not having an English translation I’m able to download the book in Portuguese and read it in English this way. What is lost in translation? A good deal, I’m sure, but for my purposes it is story that I am trying to get my head around rather than characterisation and a turn of phrase.

On rewriting fiction – again

Fig.1. One box from the garage: Five/Six project to work on here 😦

Thank you SWF Fall 14. [Start Writing Fiction. An Open University ‘Massive Open Online Course’ or MOOC that run from October to December 2014 on the FutureLearn platform]

A MOOC on writing fiction has rekindled my desire to be a published writer for the eighth or ninth time in four decades.

Writing in 1991/2 with a further burst of activity from 1996/8 and another from 2001/2006 and abandoned since 2008 I am glad, though daunted to be looking at drafts of novels and of screenplays that I just dug out of a lock up garage over 10 miles away. There’d be more if I could read floppy disks and ZIP drives.

These piles are stacked carefully enough, though some were tipped out of arch-level files when I started my OU MA in Open and Distance Education in February 2010. Here I am back again, as if these last five years have been something squeezed from me like the last teaspoon of paste from a tube of tomato purée.

I am thrilled to see a TV play called ‘Sardines’ – a farce in which some eight characters all end up hidden in the cupboards or under the bed of the same man in a penthouse flat in central London. I am gobsmacked to find variations something called ‘Form Photo’ which charts the relationships of one man from the age of 17 to 57 … mostly teens, with some first loves in his early teens. This is, I think, the one I am now turning to.

Also in front of me is the manuscript I may have given 18 months to – a typical time span, 18 months and 300 pages and 100,000 words. Working title ‘Journey To Work’ because the premise in 1996 was that a character wanted a car that would drive him to work … i.e. a self-driving car. It is not about the motor industry (although I was doing a lot of work for Land Rover at the time). It also has the title ‘Fifteen Roads to Nowhere’ about this guy who sets out on this mad quests: the car thing, a relationship with such enthusiasm … eventually he takes a bet to drive, or be driven by this homemade car across 100 miles of English rural and urban landscape. So there’s that one.

What else?!

‘The Contents of My Mind’ was an effort to explore how a person’s mind is stored digitally after their death and in this instance is put into the brain of someone who had been in a coma. You end up with a hybrid horror of a person trapped in a body that isn’t theirs that also enforces a new way of thinking and doing on them. Toss! It went to the BBC, was read and returned. 2004 or so?

Hardly a novice writer then?

Always a novice writer. Even should I have the good fortune to be published eventually I will doubt what it is that I do or have done. My sincere hope, as I return to a commitment to writing fiction after a long break is that I now have a better idea of what it is I do, what makes this ‘chef’ how it is that I toss the ingredients down and pull out a meal that is enjoyable. A short film broadcast on Channel 4 that I wrote, directed and produced is my only broadcast credit; I have not been published outside a school magazine.

Editing that destroys what I write isn’t the way to write – it becomes like writing by numbers. I have plenty of examples of that too, where I have tried to write as I believe I am required to write. I did this with a 12 part historical TV series that I read today and it is about as thrilling as a telephone directory – there is nothing of me in it. ‘The Little Duke’ could be retuned wearing my new head.

Far better the outrageous, Tom Sharpe meets Henry Miller, of things like ‘Sardines,’ even ‘Exchange with a Frenchmen’ … the treatment of which I have seen kicking around somewhere. I cut and pasted hundreds of strips of papers into a long scroll. I think, as I am now doing with other work, that I am starting to know how to construct that prose.

I also found the proposal, in French, for a series of false news stories.

I was on the team writing, directing and producing these things for Antenne 2 in 1991. Outrageous. One story even ended up on the news. We told some lie about the French Prime Minister owning a Honda even though she claimed to be wedded to supporting output from French car manufacturers Renault and Peugot. At this time I also spent six weeks on the road documenting the lives of those in the HLMs outside major towns and cities where immigrants had been put. And I wrote a story about an Algerian boy who when stressed turned into sand … All this and I was translating from French to English a kids cartoon series called ‘Chip and Charlie’ from France Animation.

The funniest read is something I typed up in the Christmas Holidays when I was 13 1/2 I now look at it’s nonsense and think ‘Blue Lagoon … only in space’ 🙂

Still in the garage there is the manuscript for a kid’s adventure story called ‘The Time Telescope’, a kids TV series about a time shift device called after the main characters, brother and sister ‘CC and Susie’ and some kids’ stories written when my own children were six and four. ‘Hapless Harry’ comes to mind … a small boy who ‘transmogrified’ into everyday objects whenever he did something naughty. He turned into his dad’s brief case and got taken to the office in one adventure, I remember.

On verra


Why I’d say yes, yes, yes to the Bad Sex award

By Sally O’Reilly, The Open University

Sexual intercourse is getting on a bit. Not only has it been boosting the human population since we emerged from the primordial swamp, it’s more than half a century since Philip Larkin noted its arrival on the cultural scene in his poem Annus Mirabilis. Until then it was, Larkin writes:

A shame that started at sixteen

And spread to everything.

For thousands of years, sex had lurked behind curtains and in the sub-text of innuendos. Suddenly, it was a matter for discussion, celebration and artistic exploration. This was good news for sex, perhaps, but not for writers, as Ben Okri has just found out after winning the Literary Review’s 2014 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

I speak from experience, having essayed a few torrid moments in my last novel Dark Aemilia. Given that my protagonist had inspired the later, bleaker Shakespeare sonnets, which give a compelling insight into the pain of unrequited or rejected love, it seemed appropriate that she and the infatuated Mr WS should engage in an obsessive sexual romance. So the script demanded that they take their clothes off, and, having taken them off, that they engage in the sort of sex that was likely to obsess them.

In our lust-soaked culture I felt there was no way the reader would accept a chastely sanitised Lurve without some robust consummation. But I worried that the spirit of bad writing might be chasing me down the Jacobean corridors, so I kept it brief. The fairly elliptical bouts of shagging which enliven my narrative will not give EL James pause for thought – there is no throbbing, few body part references and not a silken cord in sight.

But perhaps omission, metaphor and suggestion are sexier than, well, sex. It is difficult to write about the act of love without resorting to knicker-dampening cliché, or the most appalling schmaltz. New words should be made available if we want to carry on depicting “scenes of a sexual nature” – and the fact that the language of raw physicality is limited is demonstrated by the rarity of raw physical writing.

Most novelists don’t explore the animalistic elements of our being in much depth. When we write about eating and drinking, we focus on the food and the wine, not the act of chewing and swallowing. The delineation of everyday living doesn’t usually include trips to the loo – though in my first novel I did have an explicit weeing sequence, written from the point of a man. And vomiting is relatively underexplored. Orgasm has had far more literary attention than the ungovernable heave.

Which brings me back to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Given that both Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan and Haruki Murakami are on the shortlist, it’s clear that being a great writer is no protection against poor sex prose. (Other former nominees include Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.) So who is writing about sex well? Where is the excellent literary shagging to be had? Is the library scene in Atonement a best-practice example? Are there brilliant sex scenes that have slipped my mind?

As in fashion, pop music and all forms of culinary art since Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, it has all been done before. It’s hard to “make it new” as Ezra Pound exhorted writers to do. Readers have already been shocked by the inchoate loin-count in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the joys of compulsive teen masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint; the fetishisation of the “c” word in Tropic of Cancer and by Fear of Flying with its “zipless fuck”. It says something about the current state of sex writing that the most exciting innovation of the last five years has been the mainstreaming of “mummy porn” in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Perhaps the way lies ahead not in explicit writing but in experimental fiction. DH Lawrence wrote about sex very badly indeed – ludicrously, insanely, improbably. In an attempt to be honest, direct and – yes – animalistic, he boldly overwrote where no man had overwritten before. Conversely, he also wrote about sex with courage and originality, using impressionistic sensory description to convey the sexual sensibility of women in a way that few male novelists have attempted since. And he should also get some points for his willingness to write about bad sex. Paradoxically, the sex in contemporary bad sex writing usually attempts to depict very good sex indeed. It’s as if the couplings described must emulate how we imagine the pretty writhings of Hollywood’s finest.

So where does this leave my future relationship with the sexual paragraph? Will my characters get down and dirty again? I’m not sure. If I can find a way to write about the “inchoate” without sounding like a breathless purveyor of lady porn, I may give it a try. I’m certainly not put off by the idea of winning a Bad Sex award. With so much dire sex to contend with, it would be an accolade of sorts.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Start writing fiction: a free MOOC through FutureLearn with The OU

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Something I wrote 40 years ago ! (age 13)

The last five weeks I’ve been following the FutureLearn MOOC ‘Start Writing Fiction’.

Extraordinary. I’m on my second pass. I came through early, and now return not wanting to get ahead of the conversation. Particularly useful as I am actively writing at the moment, so this is the best of all learning because it is applied. Regarding character it about giving them shape, depth and ‘points of interest’ – more 6D than even the 2D we are asked to get away from. I visualise characters as hedgehogs with many prickles, but only a few of these matter to the story – though all of them matter to the notebook which I’m gradually coming to care about more and more, cursing the times I ‘have a thought’ and don’t get it down somewhere safely. I am hugely pleased to be here and very proud to be an OU graduate already – not, sadly, from this faculty: yet!

I’m finding the oddest of balances in my life too:

  • Writing for myself from 4.00am to 8.00am.
  • Picking up work from 10.00am.
  • Evenings from 5.00pm to 9.00pm

I am often ‘poolside’ teaching or coaching swimmers.

Delighting yesterday evening to be back with some squad swimmers I last saw four years ago – now in the mid teens, some achieving amazing things in the water, all at that gangly stage of youth development my own children have come through in the last year.

The issue then is how or where or why I fit in the OU module L120 I committed to. Learning a language is daunting and outside my comfort zone. What I do know now, not surprisingly, is that all learning comes about as a result of concerted and consistent effort over a long period of time.

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