Saturday, November 05, 2011

first rule of writing: have something to say

(from "Breakfast of Champions")

The NYTimes review of the Kurt Vonnegut bio says some very annoying things, like:
“On the strength of Vonnegut’s reputation, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ spent a year on the best-seller lists,” Mr. Shields writes of that 1973 disappointment, “proving that he could indeed publish anything and make money.” Although he is clearly conversant with Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater, Montana Wildhack and other “denizens of a zany Yoknapatawpha County for the Vonnegut faithful,”
I call bullshit on this statement. Breakfast of Champions is a great book.

...for the first part of his writing career Vonnegut successfully compartmentalized his familial and writerly personas. But eventually they began to blend, as Mr. Vonnegut made himself more of an explicit persona in his writing (sometimes melding with Kilgore Trout). He reached “a tipping point in the balance between fresh narrative and essayistic memoir,”
I loved when Vonnegut got autobiographical, that's some of his best writing.

The reason that virtually all of Vonnegut's books are worthwhile is because he always had something interesting to say. Here's an excellent little piece someone excerpted from Palm Sunday: How to Write with Style.
Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful– ? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

1. Find a subject you care about

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...

More at the link. I will chime in that in spite of all the claims to the contrary, Shakespeare isn't still popular because of the beauty of his language. I think it's because he had something to say; his plots were good and tight (although not always perfect - I even have a problem with HAMLET); and he wrote better parts for women than any other playwright, including Shaw.