This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.
We’re talking a look at one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best essays on writing. The celebrated author is breaking down style—the way your writing sounds. One of the biggest points he makes is that you must have something interesting to write about. And so he writes:
So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.
This might just be enough to discourage any would-be writers. As we talked about last time, how do you know if what you’re writing about is interesting? Interest and taste are subjective, so let’s look at it from another perspective.
How do you separate the “bad” ideas from the “good” ideas?
I once heard it said, “There’s no such thing as a bad story. It’s just how it’s told that matters.” Well, that doesn’t really help us, does it? We need to know if our idea is worth writing about. Will it hold a reader through a short story or exhaustingly long novel? Can it hold my attention, long enough to finish it?
We can’t predict how people will react to our writing. Not at first, at least. At the start, we are stuck with a certain kind of struggle. We just need to get something on paper. Worrying about what people think will only hamstring us. But we’re still left with this question: is my idea any good?
Forget the old, tired question of where do ideas come from? If you’re interested in writing, you’ve already answered that question. Ideas come from the driving passion you have to tell stories. The ideas come from you; or better put, that stuff that makes you, you. And, if you want to tell stories, you need to have a certain perspective.
You need to be always thinking about stories. Somewhere in the back of your mind, there is always a process going on, analyzing your environment. Little comments, images, questions, interactions are fodder for new ideas.
What you need to do is learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. And it all boils down to passion.
That’s how Vonnegut answers this question.
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.
Vonnegut believes the key to winning style is to write about something you care deeply about. At least, that’s the first key. I suppose this is the best way to decide if an idea is “good” or “bad.” For the sake of a fiction writer: is the idea so intriguing to you, so compelling, that you need to explore it? Does it nag at the back of your neck like a pinch, that you have to do something with it?
“Subject” in this sense can mean almost anything. In storytelling, it could be a character. Or a setting. Or a type of story. Or even a question. The “heart” of your story needs to be something that keeps you at your writing desk, day in and day out, until you finish the dang thing months (or even years) later.
Vonnegut says it doesn’t have to be a novel. Even a letter to you mayor about a pothole or “a love letter to the girl next door” will do. Anything that gets you writing, and writing authentically will work.
But what does it mean to write authentically? What’s the difference between writing from a place of true passion—and just writing because you think something will sell? I think we can explore this idea, next time.