In Others’ Words: Writers’ Rules



I was a rule follower long before I realized I was a writer. “Which way do we go — and how do we act while we get there?” was my mantra.

And while I like life to be heavily flavored with grace and passion and laughter these days, ย there is still a time and a place for rules. Writing requires grace and passion and laughter too — but rules are needed to help the idea in my head and the words I’m writing become a real story.

I like author Kurt Vonnegut’s rules — and not just because #2, #3, #4 and #6 all appeal to my red pen editor’s eye. Of all the rules, #7 intrigues me the most: Pity the readers.

Now what do you suppose Mr. Vonnegut meant by that? I stopped and asked myself when have I felt as if an author wasted my time? If I rewrote that line (with apologies to Mr. Vonnegut), I’d say, “For pity’s sake, don’t waste the readers time with an implausible plot or characters too stupid to live.*”

In Your Words: How’s your Wednesday going? Did any of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules appeal to you? And what do you think about #7? I’d love to know!ย 

*Best-selling author Rachel Hauck was the first one who taught me about not having characters who are too stupid to live! She talks about it in her post “Avoiding the Rory Gilmore Syndrome.”

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  1. January 16, 2013, 5:51 am   /  Reply

    Oh, these are great!! I like them all equally, but I do like #7’s mystery.
    “Pity the reader”?
    For me, I pity my readers because I know the road ahead of them when they open the first page and see happiness and contentment…muahahahaa!!
    I want my readers to freak out when they see what I’ve done to my heroine, I want them to be almost drained by her suffering, sigh when she sees that there is life out there waiting for her and then weep for joy when he FINALLY gets it together and saves her from…like I’m gonna tell?
    I love that phrase “I’m too stupid to live”. I’ve used it for years, only I remove the “I’m” part and share the love.

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 7:02 am   /  Reply

      An evil laugh so early in the morning …
      only from you, Jennifer. Only from you.


      And now me.

  2. January 16, 2013, 6:04 am   /  Reply

    Years ago as a college English major, Kurt Vonnegut was visiting guest speaker in our West Coast evening creative writing class. He didn’t teach but read a selection of his WIP and we read from ours. He drank more beer than I’d seen anyone consume. That’s what stands out from that night, though I like rule #4.

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 7:03 am   /  Reply

      Now why doesn’t it surprise me that you have a Kurt Vonnegut story, Dee?


  3. January 16, 2013, 8:03 am   /  Reply

    I like your interpretation of #7.

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 9:55 am   /  Reply

      I had some help from Rachel Hauck …

  4. January 16, 2013, 8:16 am   /  Reply

    Number 6: Say what you mean to say. So simple, but not when I first started penning stories.

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 9:55 am   /  Reply

      So true, Elaine. So true.

  5. January 16, 2013, 8:28 am   /  Reply

    The rules sounds so simple – but they aren’t. #7 is intriguing though. I know as I have read books that felt like work, or I had to consciously tell myself to keep going because someone put a lot of work and effort into this book – that I say quietly in my mind a prayer that God will help me not do that to someone else. I think I will post #7 on my computer or on my BB. It is a good one to remember.

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 9:56 am   /  Reply

      What a good idea, Jodi.
      I will do the same.

  6. January 16, 2013, 8:31 am   /  Reply

    By the way, your Rory Gilmore link doesn’t work on my end. I had read it before when Rachel posted it but I thought it was a good time for a reminder. Maybe other people are able to make it work though. (It takes me to MBT but says Page Not Found)

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 9:57 am   /  Reply

      Oh, so sorry. It worked for me last night … but now it is not.
      Yikes! I will see what’s going on!

  7. Loree Huebner
    January 16, 2013, 9:43 am   /  Reply

    My husband saw Kurt Vonnegut speak when he (my hubby) was in college at Indiana University. (I love when hubby tells this story)

    Mr. V asked the audience, “How many of you are writing a book.” A number of people raises their hands. Mr. V then said, “Tear up the first ten pages. You’re writing about yourself and nobody cares. Blow something up, make something happen. Get their attention.”

    Number seven is hysterical, but true!

    • Loree Huebner
      January 16, 2013, 9:44 am   /  Reply

      *raised* silly typo!!

      • Beth Vogt
        January 16, 2013, 9:58 am   /  Reply

        What a tremendously wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it!

  8. January 16, 2013, 9:56 am   /  Reply

    Those are GREAT…up until #7. It sounds condescending, like readers are somehow “less than.” If there weren’t readers, we’d be out of work. Just sayin.’ ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Beth Vogt
      January 16, 2013, 9:59 am   /  Reply

      I respectfully disagree, dear friend. I think he means to be respectful of the reader — although he didn’t quite say that. “Have pity on the reader” — don’t bore them, don’t waste their time, don’t give them less than your best … that sort of thing.

      Maybe he picked the wrong word? (Yikes, I’m criticizing Kurt Vonnegut.)

  9. January 16, 2013, 10:05 am   /  Reply

    I loved the Gilmore Girls. My daughter and I watched it together every week, but Rachel’s right, Rory got annoying after a while. Of course, that didn’t stop us from watching. We’re cornball like that, or maybe we were too stupid not to watch! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I love “too stupid to live.”

    “Pity the readers.” I think it means have compassion for them since they’re reading our writing that may not be as impressive as we think.

    • January 16, 2013, 10:06 am   /  Reply

      Btw, loved this post and loved Rachel’s also.

      • January 16, 2013, 11:01 am   /  Reply

        I used to watch Gilmore Girls too, with my daughter, Amy. Another “Aha!” moment with you, Kim.

  10. January 16, 2013, 10:26 am   /  Reply

    Ha, I love your revised #7, Beth!

    And can I just say, Rory Gilmore WAS too stupid to live in the latter seasons of Gilmore Girls. I have no patience for her in seasons 6 and 7.

    Ahh, felt good to get that off my chest. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • January 16, 2013, 11:01 am   /  Reply

      Glad you feel better, Melissa. That is what community is for — expressing yourself freely.

  11. January 16, 2013, 10:35 am   /  Reply

    All of the rules apply to me! But, I have to say, that #5 – Sound like yourself – is becoming more and more applicable to me. I have a voice, which I love to use on my blog and magazine articles I’ve written, but sometimes I think it’s a bit too much for my fiction, so I cut and cut, until my fiction is pretty standard. I’m trying to learn how to capture my non-fiction voice and put it into my stories. It isn’t an easy task – but I know my writing will be better for it.

    • January 16, 2013, 11:02 am   /  Reply

      Speak up, Gabrielle, speak up! Even in your fiction — especially in your fiction!!

  12. January 16, 2013, 12:02 pm   /  Reply

    At the moment all I can think (in Mr. T’s voice is) is pity the reader…I pity the reader. Thanks for that. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • January 16, 2013, 1:13 pm   /  Reply

      That’s what I was hearing in my head, too! HAHAHAHAHA!
      I love this – #7 is so spot on. When I go back and look at some of my first versions, I cringe and bury my head under my pillow, SO GLAD that no one will ever see them. Pity the poor reader who must slog through the masses of mediocre – give them my very best. Every time.

      Thanks for sharing these, Beth. You do find the darndest quotes.


  13. Jeanne T
    January 16, 2013, 12:55 pm   /  Reply

    I like all of these too. I have to work to keep it simple. It’s so easy for me to describe story world, to the point it becomes a distraction for the reader. So I’m working to keep things simple, but not simplistic. ๐Ÿ™‚ Oh, and I want to make sure I sound like myself–honing my voice as I write. Oh, and….well all of the them apply to me in some way. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Rule #7–It seems like it’s saying write a story a reader will want to read. Not something banal. Okay. I’m off and running into the rest of my Wednesday. A certain friend challenged me to work on some characters for a new story. I guess I’ll go do that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. January 16, 2013, 2:50 pm   /  Reply

    “Too stupid to live” showed up on one of my critiques one time for something my heroine did. Learned so much from those 4 words, and I’m greatly indebted to that judge for not being afraid to say that. I think that’s one of the things #7 is about…don’t give your reader a hero or heroine who does something that makes them TSTL. ๐Ÿ˜‰ and having cut a ms from 95k to 60k, I totally understand #4.

    Great post!

  15. January 17, 2013, 6:20 am   /  Reply

    About #7–yes, pity the readers. Don’t take up a whole lot of real estate in a manuscript proving you (by ‘you’ I mean me, anyone) ‘know how to write’. Just tell the story. Kurt Vonnegut also has a great video out there about story construction. Funny. True.

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