Dissecting Vonnegut’s “How to Write With Style,” Part 1

This post is part of a new 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.

Writing’s never easy. Ever since the days a school teacher made you pick up a crayon and scribble out your first words, you realized this important truth. It doesn’t get easier as you get older. Most of us are content to keep writing at bay, like a rabid dog. We only use it when absolutely necessary—and it shows. Like math, it’s something we don’t think we need in normal life.

So, imagine how painful it is for those us of who make a living off of it?

I write for money. And, like an overworked muscle, I can easily spit out thousands of words without really thinking about it. But that’s a far cry from producing something that I’d actually want to read—and be proud of. For that, you need a few things: talent, time, and a stubborn refusal to give up.

People who pursue writing as a craft have to deal with a variety of hurdles. These hurdles keep us from achieving our ultimate dream: a story we hope others will read and enjoy. The hurdles are different for each writer. And they can change as we move through the stages of story development. But one big one for me is simple: getting my words to sound the way I like.

That might seem like an obvious thing to solve. Just write what you want to write, right? Isn’t that the whole thing—just tell a story and get on with it? But people who haven’t sat down and tried their hand at a story since grade school might not appreciate just how challenging it is to

A) come up with a story that is unique enough (yet still accessible!) for people to care about and

B) write it in such a way that it is enjoyable to read.

Most aspiring writers strain to make their words sound like someone they admire. They have their own Neil Gaiman they are trying to emulate. And emulation is fine, in a sense. But it can become a trap. Because you’re not Neil Gaiman, nor are you Stephen King, Tolkien, or whomever you look up to.

I’m not sure there was anyone wishing they sounded like Kurt Vonnegut. I’m sure, in his heyday, there were. He was respected enough as a writer for many people to crave his advice. And, as a gifted teacher, he spoke about the topic at length. But I’m not sure there is anything he said that is more potent and valuable as his How to Write With Style.

It is a simple essay with a few points that any smart writer will take to heart. I wanted to look over some of those points and dissect them. Not because they needed adding to, but so that we can find a way to apply what he said to our own writing, so it actually works.

Feel free to read over the entire essay, if you like (the link’s above). I will quote only a few parts as is needed.

Vonnegut starts out with a simple question: Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? It’s worth slowing down and considering this question. Even considering why he even asks this. Are we stopping and thinking about what we are writing?

Oh, man, there are so many bad books out there, aren’t there? Spend some time on Amazon, looking through the self-published eBooks. You’re gonna have a bad time. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands (maybe millions?) of people out there who think they are hot stuff. They churn out some half-baked rip-off of something they watched on TV. Not once did they bother to revise it or even proof it for grammar. And in a matter of days (or hours), it’s on Amazon.

(Worse still, it’s on one of thousands of fan fiction websites, where eager—albeit childish—readers gobble it up.)

These people never stopped and considered their work was hot garbage. Now, in a sense, you have to admire these people. They were brave enough to write something and put it out in the world. Sure, they might have an ego bordering on Personality Disorder, but at least they finished something.

Their problem (and many of us share it), is that they didn’t follow through. They were lazy, unwilling to stop and consider the fact that their work—although wonderful that it was finished—is not good at all. These people never stopped and asked questions about their writing. Never considered that this “gold” about their favorite anime characters getting it on was not something worth sharing with the world.

Vonnegut starts out with this question because he wants us to stop and start asking questions. Questions about our work. Why do we write? Is our writing any good? What can we do to improve it?

There are probably many writers out there who have no time for such questions. They are brilliant and the world needs to know that. We might have felt that way in high school, when we knew nothing. But spend any time seriously trying to take a crack at writing and you’ll realize you are far from brilliant.

And asking these kinds of questions is key to getting better.

The first question anyone should really ask is, “Why am I writing?” Hopefully, you’ve answered that question yourself (nobody can answer it for you and there might be many good answers to it). But let’s spend time considering Kurt’s question. Why should we examine our style, so we can improve it?

Because, as he says, it shows respect to our readers. If we are very lazy about how we write, nobody will be able to understand us. And if they can’t understand us, how can they appreciate our stories?

So, we see, style isn’t about being impressive. It isn’t about wowing a literary agent or publisher. It’s not about getting some blogger critic to gush over your work. Style, at its core, is about finding a way to simply and effectively communicate your ideas to your reader. So that, and here’s the kicker, they actually know what the heck you’re talking about.

Sound too simple? It isn’t. Our ideas about style evolved out of this pragmatic reality. Past writers simply wrote to be understood. We came along and wrapped boundaries around their words choices, idioms, and rhythms and called it a style. Then we trapped ourselves inside this narrow definition, preventing us from actually doing what we are trying to do: be understood.

Vonnegut understood this. And that’s why so many people respected his writing.

NaNoWriMo Update 3: The Long Haul to Thanksgiving

I’m at around 46,000 words into my new story. Happily, I can say I have not missed a day of writing since NaNoWriMo started. That’s not because I’m such an incredible writer, nothing stops me. It’s because I committed to writing bit by bit each day, even when I knew what I was producing wasn’t great.

Adding stars to my calendar and hitting my numbers was all that mattered.

But now we face a new challenge as we enter the final week of NaNoWriMo: the Holidays.

It’s almost cruel to have picked November for this event. Obviously, we will run afoul trying to hit our numbers as the holidays approach. How can we keep the momentum going as we make plans for Thanksgiving, doing all the things we wanted to do?

While not everyone will be traveling this year, given restrictions, the holidays are a time when we should take a break, unwind, and just relax. There will be plans and events happen as well, taking a big bit out of our time.

But if we’ve stuck with NaNoWriMo this far, there’s no reason to stop. Even during the holidays, we can set a little bit of time aside to hit our goals–before getting back to friends and family.

That’s why setting goals, making the time to write, and staying focus is so important. As usual, the stuff you write during the holidays might not be great. You might rush through it or feel a tad distracted. That’s okay. What matters is you’re learning how to stick with your goals even when distractions are afoot.

That’s a good skill to have, no matter the month. Because life doesn’t stop just because you’re a writing. We need to learn how to get things done, regardless of what’s going on.

NaNoWriMo: Setting goals and Compartmentalizing

NaNoWriMo: Setting goals and Compartmentalizing

For the second week in a row, I’ve managed to keep my commitment to write 2,000 words a day for Nation Novel Writing Month. Last week, I decided to break through snags in the writing process by writing out my rough summary inside of prose, just to keep hitting my word counts.

That has proven to be an effective strategy. Many writers get frustrated and give up because they try to write out their prose when they haven’t properly brainstormed the next scene, chapter, etc. By moving into “sketch mode,” I have been able to continue to work out my story, hitting my daily quotas, without letting blocks or frustration get in the way.

But that isn’t a magic cure for the kind of struggles and procrastination that sets in when you write. Writing is hard work. Writing a story is very hard work. I find that trying to work out your story can easily become an excuse not to write.

The goal is to write, plain and simple. It doesn’t have to sparkle at this stage; it just has to exist. Anything “trick” you can use to get it on paper is worth it. Even then, I found myself struggling to really keep moving forward. Even with every trick in the book, committing to writing each day can feel like a massive chore.

But having that little calendar and seeing those gold stars is a great motivator. Making my focus just to get those 2,000 words done has been enough to get over my blocks and frustrations and just write. Hey, compartmentalization is a good thing when it comes to getting work done. I can forget about writing the “perfect” story, even let go of worries about how my “sketch” parts look, as long as my focus is on just hitting my numbers.

Afterward, I can edit, revises, and rewrite to my heart’s content. Then I can shift gears and look for ways to improve the story and prose. But for now, all that matters is putting words on paper.

So, I appreciate NaNoWriMo for helping me see that.

NaNoWriMo: First Week Progress and Writing Hack

Last month I prepared to take part in National Novel Writing Month this November. The goal is to write every day to produce a 50,000-word novel. That comes to about 1,666 words a day. I rounded up to 2,000–because I’m a glutton for punishment.

I’m happy to say that this week has been successful. I’ve been able to keep to my goal since Sunday, with today reaching the goal of about 12,000 words. I am charting my progress using the handy calendar provided by the official NaNoWriMo website.

Writing at such an intense pace isn’t easy, even for people like me who write for a living. I’m used to churning out thousands of words a day (I literally write an average of 12,000 words total)–but it’s a very different kind of writing. Crafting prose for a book at 2,000/words a day is easier said than done.

Perhaps it’s not even all that easy to say.

So, how do I do it? Easy, I cheat.

Perhaps cheating is not the right word. But I think many writers fall into a trap when they think they have to craft perfect prose, every time they sit down to write. But a first draft can’t be “perfect.” That’s not the goal. The goal is to actually write the thing. Get whatever down on paper you need to get it done.

That means you need to hit your 2,000-word goal, regardless of how pretty or “right” the writing is. As long as you hit that goal, then you’re progressing. Which means, you can “fudge” what you actually wrote, so long as you’re moving forward.

What does fudging mean? It’s simple. Instead of writing out your word-for-word prose, just write out the rough descriptions of what you want to happen next. Most writers hit a block when they try to write out their prose when they need to brainstorm the next chapter, scene, steps, etc. You can’t brainstorm and wordcraft at the same time. It doesn’t work.

So, instead of trying to write out that perfect prose, at the very least, write out what you want to happen next as simply and in a straightforward way. I’ve been doing it when I get to parts that normally would slow me down, like action sequences or descriptions that are necessary but can trip up my writing progress.

It looks kind of like this:

Mark discovers that the gun used to kill the woman was lost in the river. He goes there, but knows that without help from the police, he can’t find it. While weighing his options, Jacks the crime boss shows up with two of his henchmen. They try to throw Mark into their car, but he fights them off, getting away just in the nick of time. A chase occurs and Mark finds himself in a part of town he’s never been to before. He jumps into a window and hunkers down in the dark.

Hey, as long as I hit 2,000–what does it matter? I can always go back and “flesh out” the rough parts when needed. The point is I’m not stopping to write. I’m moving forward with the story. Eventually, I hit my stride again and continue with the prose.

That example may not look pretty or be considered “real” writing, but it’s better than nothing. And it can get you to the next part where you can slow down and write it out properly.

There. My writing hack. It just might prevent you from experiencing writer’s block ever again. Or not. Just keep writing.

I’m doing NaNoWriMo! (National Novel Writing Month)

This November, thousands (perhaps millions) of folks around the world will be writing their tails off. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (or more) novel through the end of November. That works out to a little less than 2,000 words a day.

Sounds impossible? Not if you prepare!

Since I wanted to try to hammer out a novel this NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d take the month of October to prep.

Many, many, people who want to write a book defeat themselves from the get-go, because they think it’s harder than it really is.

Honestly, all you have to do is write one word after another.

Setting a goal to write 2,000 words a day is all you need to get started. After that, there is the follow-through: making sure you set time aside every day to get those words down on paper.

Here’s the big secret: they don’t have to be great!

Focus on a Reasonable Expectation: Just Getting it Done!

If the goal is to write the first draft of a novel, then as long as you get your 2,000 words done each day, you’ve achieved your goal.

Lots of people give up because they don’t think the novel is “good enough.” But remember, there’s only one thing a first draft has to be: it just has to exist.

The improvement comes later.

But before I jump into NaNoWriMo, I wanted to be prepared at least a little bit. Honestly, you don’t need a perfect outline to start writing. You don’t need to have all your characters, themes, setting, etc. all worked out. You just need an idea.

And like a literal journey, once you pick the road (idea), you just start writing.

Like so many other folks out there, I know I can easily run out of steam. So, I sketched out a few possible ideas for my NaNoWriMo story:

NaNoWriMo preparation notes 1.
A few (very) rough ideas for NaNoWriMo

Pretty rough ideas. Nothing perfect. Just some jumping-off points that I know are interesting enough to keep me motivated. I have several ongoing writing projects I’m in the middle of, so I was thinking about writing something in those worlds.

But I didn’t want my NaNoWriMo project to be a continuation of something else I’ve done. I wanted to start fresh and see what I end up with.

So, one particular idea sparked my interest. Although I didn’t think I needed to, I ended up roughing out a (very simple) outline for the story:

NaNoWriMo preparation notes 2.
I started writing out a possible outline for my story, using the Hero’s Journey as a template.

I am using the Hero’s Journey structure (from The Writer’s Journey) as a guide.

I won’t start writing until November 1, but having some ideas written down beforehand is very useful. Once you start thinking about a story, your creative unconscious can take over. Thinking about your story (or brainstorming) over the next month can get you fired up by the time you put pen to page.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be chronicling my journey. Through November, I hope to post each day about my progress. The actual story I’ll keep to myself (for now), but I will share any insights or ideas that I pick up along the way.

If you’re interested in NaNoWriMo, then check it out! https://nanowrimo.org/