Vonnegut’s 8 rules for great writing

You may already know Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for great writing but they are worth repeating:

1: 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.

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I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

2: Do Not Ramble, Though

I won’t ramble on about that.

3: Keep It Simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

4: Have the Guts to Cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

5: Sound like Yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

[…]

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

6: Say What You Mean to Say

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

7: Pity the Readers

Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

8: For Really Detailed Advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

Plus, what Vonnegut called the  8 basics of  Creative Writing 101 (From the preface to Vonnegut’s short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box):

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  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

And finally the last word from Mr Vonnegut on his writing rules:

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

I love these rules. They help stop me falling in love with my writing and, hopefully, be a better editor. My favourites are: Have the Guts to Cut and Keep it Simple –  the areas I most struggle with!

What about you? Do you find rules helpful? Do you know of any other good writing rules? Do you have a favourite? If so,  I’d love to hear from you :)

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My top book marketing tip …

swimmer In the olden days

In another life I was a successful marketing manager – I even have a degree on the subject. So, when my first book, The Blue Suitcase, was published a couple of years ago,  I was not daunted by the thought of marketing it. Far from it. It seemed as easy as floating on water. And I certainly didn’t think I needed to use social media to help me – I’m sort of old school when it comes to technology. This is still my phone today. You get the picture?

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However

I only realised how wrong I was when my techie son insisted I set up a twitter account and blog and I saw both paperback and ebook sales soar. I’ve been blogging and tweeting every since and, until recently, I even thought I was quite good at it. But that was the voice of ignorance and before I discovered the wonderful blogs by the super blogger, editor and writer Belinda Pollard and the excellent writer and blogger Molly Greene.

Small Blue Dog Publishing

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The future

I now realise I have merely been dipping my big toe in the social media pool. There is a whole lot of stuff  I could be doing to market my books and my time better – as anyone who has a blog will tell you, keeping a blog can suck the creative life blood out of you, if you let it!

So, I’ve made a decision! In the run up to the launch of my new novel, Killer Shoeshine, I am going to plunge into the deep end of the social media pool and make some changes here.

Change number one

One of the first things I’m going to try and do is make a new landing page for my blog and  book/s. I read an excellent piece about landing pages in Belinda’s helpful blog post: 2 enduring, low-cost, book marketing tactics.  And if you are looking for strategies to help you market your book/s,  my top tip is to follow Belinda’s and Molly’s blogs! (Molly even has a great book on blogging called Blog It).

Mistakes will be made

Of course, mistakes will be made. Especially as the techie son who helps me with all this stuff  is away on his travels! But, mistakes or not, sink or swim, this neo-luddite is moving on 😉

So, what about you? Do you embrace social media or do you run from it?  Do you think writers can be successful without using social media? Do you have a book marketing tip of your own? Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to hear them, so do please leave a comment :)

 

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What do you do to de-stress?

forest
When I want a break from writing I like to go for a walk. I especially love “luxuriating” in the smells and sounds of woods.  Some people call this “forest bathing” or “shinrin-yoku.” I talk about “shinrin-yoku” and  the importance of  getting away from  it all – especially our keyboards – in this week’s Crime Readers’ Association blog: (Move Away From The Keyboard!). Please do go have a look :)

However, there is one thing I  forgot to mention in my CRA post, so I’ll do so now. Remember in May, I told you that my daughter got Mossy the puppy, yes? Well since then three things of note have happened.

1: The number one son-in-law-to-be proposed to Josée, the number one daughter :)

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2: The happy couple, plus Mossy, who is now the size of a small wolf, have moved  in with us while they build their own home (I have written about this wonderful happening here in the lovely Leither Magazine : 2 People, a Puppy and a Parcel of Land).

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3: Daughter Josée has started a dog walking venture called Josée’s Happy Hounds – she has always loved those darn dogs!

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Josée’s main thing is to take small groups of city dogs on “wild walkies” ie: walks in woods, up and down hills, along streams and beaches. A kind of shinrin-yoku for dogs. And I sometimes go with her. When I do, we are – as you can imagine – accompanied by two or three or four dogs. While we’re ambling, or hiking as Josée doesn’t tend to do ambling, I’m replenishing my much deleted attention; getting the benefit of de-stressing by being with nature; and stimulating my sleeping creative subconscious (for more details on what I mean by all this stuff see the CRA post!), but I am also enjoying the company of my lovely  daughter and her wonderful dogs! So, what I forgot to say on my CRA blog post is that while shinrin-yoku  is good, it is even better when shared with others :)

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So, if you are a writer, what do you do to unwind from the keyboard? If you are a reader, what do you do to de-stress?

Do you agree that getting away from the civilived world for a few hours is good for  us?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts so do please take a peek at the CRA blog and leave a comment here and/or there. And if Like that Facebook button and/or  share on Twitter etc,  you will receive my undying appreciation :)

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Delighted to be a featured author for the Crime Readers’ Association!

The Crime Readers’ Association (The CRA)

The CRA was set up by the Crime Writers’ Association to give readers news and information from their favourite authors along with tips for beginners working in the genre. So, if you love reading crime fiction, and/or are an emerging crime writer, why not consider joining? It’s free and all members receive a regular newsletter as well as editions of the CRA magazine – Case Files.

 

 

Featured Author

Every month the CRA invites different crime authors to be their “featured author”. Each Friday of the month the said featured author chats on the blog about stuff to do with books and writing. It’s all really interesting stuff. And, as it happens, this month I am the CRA’s featured author! Yay! I’d love it if you popped over and took a look at their blog.  You’ll also get heaps of appreciation (and Brownie points) if you also “like” that little Facebook button and share on Twitter! But I’d especially love to hear what you think about the posts, so do leave a comment on the CRA blog – that might just get you a gold star 😉

 

The Crime Readers' Association

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Book Covers: What makes a good one?

sbdp-email I’ve just read the excellent blog post, Book covers: Should we put people on them?, by Belinda Pollard. Belinda is an Aussie writer, editor, publishing consultant at Small Blue Dog Publishing, lover of dogs, the wilderness and things spiritual. In her post Belinda talks about what makes a good book cover.  This is very timely as I’m in the middle of developing a book cover  for my new crime novel (Killer Shoeshine) and eager for all the advice I can get.

As you would expect getting it right is not straightforward, what one person loves another hates. But there is some evidence to suggest certain covers sell more books than others.  In a nutshell Belinda says for a cover to work it has to immediately do three things:

  • stand out on a crowded shelf? (i.e. be distinctive)
  • be clear about its message
  • engage the reader emotionally.

And one of the best ways for a cover to achieve this is to place somebody on/in it. She quotes  from Derek Murphy of Creativindie who says:

Having a person on/in the cover creates intrigue and interest. But only if done right.”

Okay, “getting it right” may be easier said than done, but the message loud and clear is:

People sell!”

This was a shock for me.  You see, I personally hate seeing people on book covers, especially when they are generic photos of stock models. But what I have suddenly realised (in one of those rare light bulb moments) is that when it comes to covers what I personally like or don’t like doesn’t matter.  The important thing  is for the cover to do the three above things. It’s fascinating stuff and Belinda has convinced me. Now all I need to do is convince my publisher, AKA the long and suffering other half 😉

What do you think? Do you like seeing people on covers of books? Not convinced? Why not go over to Belinda’s  site and check out the full article? It really is worth a read. Plus, Belinda wants your help! She is running a straw poll on two possible covers for her new wilderness thriller, Poison Bay* (due out at the beginning of next year).

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As you can see, one cover has a person on it, the other doesn’t. Which do you prefer?  Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to tell Belinda your answer and to see the results!

*Belinda briefly says of Poison Bay: My book is about a bunch of people with a shared secret who go trekking in the New Zealand wilderness. Let’s just say, they don’t all come home. ;-)

 

 

 

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Do you judge a book by its cover?

jpeg A friend gave me the award winning The Whaleboat House by Mark Mills (which started out as Amagansett before it was republished with the new title). This was lucky for me because I loved it but would have never picked it up based on either of its titles or the dreary brown cover.

Almost all the best books I’ve read have been suggested by friends. What about you? How do you chose a book? A friend’s recommendation? A review? The title? An award of some sort? Or do you judge a book by its cover? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially as we’re now coming up to designing the cover for Killer Shoeshine 😉

Finally, a HUGE thanks to all for your thoughts on the title for my new novel. You’ve been very helpful. We are leaning towards “Killer Shoeshine” but this may change  before or even after it’s published! Meanwhile, as a thank you for your input we put your names  into a hat and Juliet Wilson’s came out!

Well done, Juliet (AKA CraftyGreenPoet)!  You win a copy of The Blue Suitcase or Food of Ghosts, paperback or ebook!

Front Cover food of ghosts cover final4

 

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what is the secret to being a successful writer?

yurt When we think of successful creative people we tend to think of artistic geniuses like Shakespeare or Michael Angelo or Wordsworth or Mary Shelly … you know who I mean, special people. However, research shows categorically that there is no specific personality type associated with creativity. In other words being creative is not just about special people doing special things. Turns out we all have creative abilities but we’re not always sure how to tap into them.

pat b One way we can  tap into our creativity is by working hard at something, keeping going regardless. If we persevere, nine times out of ten that eureka moment will happen. For us writers, this can mean setting out to write with little or no idea of how our story will finish. Possibly pegging away for what seems forever before a creative light bulb moment. You’ve heard that phrase, coined by the writing guru Robert McKee, “writing is a discovery we rarely know where we are going …”?  This is what we mean by it.

Now, pegging away is fine but it takes courage and blind faith to boldly keep writing when you’ve not sure where you’re headed, especially when there are no guarantees. After all, it’s not a foregone conclusion we’ll have our eureka moment every time. There will be mistakes. We may even end up with  something we’re never happy with. But you must not be discouraged. The acclaimed writer Pat Barker has three unpublished novels in her drawer. These unpublished novels did not stop her being a success.

So, what does this research mean for you, the emerging writing? It means there is no secret to being successful. You can be a success if you:

stop worrying about having a special writing gene (we all do it!) because there isn’t such a thing

have a little bit of courage

a lot of blind faith

and don’t give up!

It won’t necessarily be easy, all that pegging away takes time, so you’ll have to find some, but as long as  if you have the guts and the will to do it, you can be a successful writer.

‘One of the great secrets of success is “pegging away.” No disappointment must discourage, and a run back must often be allowed, in order to take a longer leap forward.’          

Amelia E Barr

Have you ever  struggled to finish writing a story? What made you carry on? Or did you stop?  Are you struggling to finish something now? What is the hardest part about “pegging away”? I’d love to hear from you, so do leave a comment :)

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Help, new crime novel needs a title!


Food of Ghosts:Kindle,-2 I have finally finished the edits to the second DS Louisa Townsend mystery. The first book in the series is called Food of Ghosts. Here’s what Liane Adam, a recent Amazon reviewer, said of Food of Ghosts:

“A gripping thriller which I couldn’t put down. Marianne’s writing is accessible and well observed and characterisation convincing. I can’t wait for the next installment of this classic whodunit! At times it reminded me of The Killing as at various points you become convinced of who the killer is. Highly recommended.”

The new novel is tentatively called:  Killer Shoeshine in Suva

Does this title interest you, even just a little bit? Does it suggest a cosy read or a gruesome read or neither? Does having Suva in the title attract your attention? Do you know where Suva is? Do you care? Do you like a title to be obvious or mysterious? Do you like one word titles, such as REDEMPTION, or long literary  titles like The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night? Do you have any title ideas of your own? Yes? I would love to hear them :)

By the way, shoeshine boys feature heavily in the story, which is set in Suva (Fiji), and there is a killer and DS Louisa Townsend needs to find him, or her.

Why do I need help with this? I am terrible when it comes to titles. I can forget them as quickly as I notice them. I even forget the names of authors, which is why I often buy the same book twice. (Have you ever done that?) So any thoughts will be much appreciated.

As a thank you for leaving a comment and/or sharing this post on facebook or twitter or gmail or Linkedin etc one lucky person will win (yes, I said WIN!) a free copy of either Food of Ghosts or The Blue Suitcase, your choice.

If you do share the post, do make sure to tag me so I know to include you in the draw! The winning name will be drawn on the 3rd October.

PS: On a completely different note, as requested, here are some pics from our recent stay in la belle France, including the renovated bathroom and some oysters. Why oysters?  I had for them very first time. My verdict of the oysters? Not nearly as bad as I thought. A fresh sea taste and actually quite nice :)

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lavander veggiwa

winefest man

marc.:wine

oysters

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brambles2 quince

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lazing about

Vive the good life in France!

 

 

 

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Only in France …

photo 1-1We are still in France. On the way to the dump with our DIY rubbish we came across the above. The sign says ‘trolly of wooden off-cuts for sale, 9 euros!’ Well, apologies to all my French relatives and friends, but only here could you buy a shopping trolley full of landfill – those off-cuts were not wood!  The stuff we were dumping was better than the stuff on sale so, no, we didn’t buy it ;o)

Luckily there are lot of other lovely things about being in France which more than make up for some of the more unusual stuff. Such as the view of the collared dove from our bedroom window …

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the vines …

grapes

and the flowers …

hollyhocks

 

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and not forgetting the donkeys, of course ;o)

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ps:  btw the bathroom is almost finished, the big unveiling coming soon!

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Gone plumbing in France …

I am in France for the next wee while with the other half. The plan is to give the bathroom and kitchen in the house we inherited many years ago a bit if a make-over. We’ve started with the bathroom. If you know anything about French plumbing, you’ll know that this will be challenging  – French plumbing is old fashioned and tricky and downright complicated, and don’t even get me started on paint! – but we’ve brought some stuff  with us to make the job easier.  BTW the blue bath and sink are going not coming!

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french plumbing

blue bath

plumbing But, hopefully, there will also be time to do a bit of  this …

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and this …

sunbathingrbear1 and this …

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and this …

cyclehome and this …

nachamps sign

and this …

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and this …

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and this …

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and this …

redplums

and this …

sunflowers

and this … pain raisin and this …

cafetaba and this

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Bonnes vacances :)

 

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