Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story


Kurt Vonnegut

My long-time friend (for almost 40 years now) Mitchell Stocks forwarded this list: “Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Short Stories.” I had never seen the list before. Since I know that some of the regular readers of MontanaWriter are short story writers, like Mitch, I am passing this helpful list along.

Short stories, like poetry, are not big sellers in the marketplace. But there remains nothing as satisfying to a reader as a good short story. As I am in the process of finalizing a book of short stories, I am going to be using these  “rules” as I go through my own stories and the “final-touch” process… with the hope of living up to Vonnegut’s lofty standards.

Thanks again, Mitch, for the list!

Eight rules for writing a short story:

  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 hell 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.

Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction.

Guest Post: “Pitchers and Catchers Report” by Jared Linsly

The Long Dark Night is Ending

The Long Dark Night is Ending

For baseball fans, can there be any words sweeter than these: “pitchers and catcher report”?

Spring training means hope and the end of darkness. It means that long afternoons and warm nights will come again. It means that even this, the longest and coldest  winters in memory, will soon pass. Baseball is about to begin!

In honor of the unofficial end of winter and the beginning of spring– in Florida and Arizona at least–  MontanaWriter is pleased to feature a number of baseball haiku.

Baseball and haiku are a perfect match. Both are deceptively simple… yet for anyone who has tried their hand at baseball or writing haiku it is quickly clear that they are both difficult undertakings. Both are games of numbers. Both require patience, attention, and a mindfulness. And both are rooted in the pastoral. And most of all, both are enjoyable.

Today’s baseball haikus were written by baseball aficionado, Jared Linsly. Jerry is a regular reader and commenter to MontanaWriter and our  “go-to guy” for all things baseball.


Selected Baseball Haiku, by Jared Linsly

Pitchers, catchers report now
Life reverts to youth

Winter’s melancholy gone
Spring Training is here!

Ball strikes bat and glove
Grills and grass release their scents
Pastime lures faithful

Crowd noise from bleachers
Swells as hurler makes his stretch
Lingering suspense

Ball hurtling home
Batter coils expectantly
Explosion unleashed

Enough of Winter!
Beisbol numero uno!
Hot Stove burns brightly

Two-Thousand-Ten gone
Twins need to bolster mound corps
Spring Training impends

New season is nigh
White Sox have tossed the gauntlet
Twins need clutch offense

Poetry Review: “Seeing for a Moment” by Denise Levertov

Denise-LevertovI have always thought of Denise Levertov as intimidating. Looking back at a volume of her poetry I am not completely sure why that is. At first glance, she does not seem anymore or less accessible than a dozen other poets I can think of… and yet she does intimidate.

Theology and philosophy are constant themes in her poetry. Levertov brings an intelligence and breadth to her poetry that demands intelligent readers. You cannot read her lightly or with only your ear… you need to use both sides of your brain.

“Seeing for a Moment” is to my mind a “typical” Levertov poem… not so much in style as in direction or theme. It is a theological poem in the best sense of that term. It asks the reader to think deeper and more theologically about an ordinary moment: seeing one’s reflection, and more than merely a reflection, in a mirror.

Stylistically the poem is deceptively simple: short lines and stanzas. The complexity of the poem, like most of Levertov’s poems, is in the ideas not the form. It is this in the end that makes her an interesting and demanding poet.

Outside my Minnesota home the weather is warming.  The sun stays longer each day in the sky, brightening my mood and making me feel strong enough to tackle even Denise Levertov. Enjoy!

Seeing for a Moment

I thought I was growing wings—
it was a cocoon.

I thought, now is the time to step
into the fire—
it was deep water.

Eschatology is a word I learned
as a child: the study of Last Things;

facing my mirror—no longer young,
the news—always of death,
the dogs—rising from sleep and clamoring
and howling, howling,

I see for a moment
that’s not it: it is
the First Things.

Word after word
floats through the glass.
Towards me.

Music Monday: “Ol’ Man Time” by Milt Hinton

Milt Hinton is the most-recorded jazz musician of all time. In his long illustrious life as a band and studio musician, Hinton played with just about everyone. He is most famous for the technique he perfected called “slapping” or “slap bass.”

To jazz historians and aficionados he is also famous as a photographer. Hinton loved taking photographs and carried a camera with him where ever he went. His remarkable photographs chronicle the life of Jazz from the days of Louis Armstrong to almost the present day.

Hinton lived to be 90, so when he sings of Ol’ Man Time… he knows what he is talking about.

How can I not be partial to someone name Hinton, and feature him on Music Monday?


Poetry Review: “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

In this coldest of winters, “Those Winter Sundays” has come often to my mind. That is the way of a good poem… it returns unbidden, yet never unwelcomed.

The key to Hayden’s poem lies in the sound of the consonants. At the beginning of the poem the consonants crack and pop like old houses in the winter night (“blueback,” “cracked,” “ache”) like burning wood. The consonant choices Hayden makes emphasize the meaning and mood of the poem.

In three short stanzas, Hayden takes a simple memory and makes it transcendent and universal: the selflessness of love, the regret of time, the dignity of duty. What makes this a good poem is Hayden’s marriage of tactile language and honest emotion and memory. What makes Hayden a good poet is that he is able to do this over and over.

This is one of Hayden’s better known poems, if indeed you can say that of any Hayden poem. It is certainly one of my favorites… and perfect for this time of year.


Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Poetry Review: “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg” by Richard Hugo

Richard_Hugo_Collected-PoemsRichard Hugo is one of a number of Montana poets and writers who came from somewhere else and settled in Montana as an adult. Unlike Thomas McGuane, for example, who is from Michigan and so is a Midwesterner ultimately in outlook and perspective, Hugo came from Washington State. Hence Hugo is a quintessential Westerner. His is always a Western ear and a Western eye.

Many of Hugo’s best poems are rooted in nature as you would expect.  Today’s poem, “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg,” though, is a much different kind of poem altogether… darker and nearer to the heart and bone.

In “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg” we see the descriptive power that Hugo uses so well in his best nature poems turned in a different direction. It is a direction that is simultaneously inward toward the depression and loneliness that marked his life, and outward toward a “passionately dispassionate” look at a small broken-down town.

Hugo was no Romanticist. Being from the West he could see from the inside a broken down Western town for what it really was. He felt as well as saw the pain, the brokenness, the loneliness and the beauty that was small town Montana.

Tired of Midwestern winter, I find  Richard Hugo a door home… a familiarity that mitigates, for awhile anyway, the uneasiness of exile… the overwhelming sense of restlessness. Hugo is a Montana Poet through and through.


Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs–
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

Poetry Review: “The Victor Dog” by James Merrill

James_MerrillI do not go to a lot of poetry readings. Seeing poets in person and hearing them read has just never struck me as a way I want to spend a free evening. I would much rather go to a baseball or basketball game to be entertained. For an evening of poetry, I prefer a quiet bookstore where I can read the poet myself while sitting in a comfortable chair in silent solitude.

A number of years ago, on a whim, I went to the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis to hear James Merrill read. I must have read in the paper, or heard on the radio that he was going to be there… and Sue must have been otherwise engaged. For whatever reason, I went and listened to him read.

I do not remember if he was good at reading his work. I do not remember much about him at all: what he wore, what his voice sounded like, what poems he read that evening. I only remember feeling uncomfortable sitting amid so many outwardly “artsy” people in such an outwardly “artsy” place. I remember thinking that a modern art museum is no place for poetry to be read… I already knew that outwardly artsy people are not the kind of people I  want to spend an evening with.

I have always liked Merrill as a poet. He is admittedly difficult at times and has a tendency to make a number of obscure references. But I am fine with that. I have never felt compelled by any poet or writer to spend a great deal of time trying to chase down footnotes and references. If I fail to “get” some of the references, I am fine with that. I feel neither cheated nor diminished. I spend most of my life feeling like I am missing important references anyway.

I do not remember the first time I encountered “The Victor Dog.” It may very well have been the night I heard Merrill read at the Walker. But I suspect it was sometime before that.

“The Victor Dog” is a good example of Merrill’s poetic style and word play and the great intelligence he brings to his art. It is also, to my mind, an example of how W.H. Auden’s work influenced Merrill.

In “The Victor Dog” Merrill uses the familiar music company logo to think about music and the nature of art and artists.


The Victor Dog

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.
He’s man’s–no–he’s the Leiermann’s best friend,

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.
Does he hear?I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel’s
“Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.”

He ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit
By lightning, and stays put.When he surmises
Through one of Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,
He doesn’t sneeze or howl; just listens harder.
Adamant needles bear down on him from

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near–
But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,
Much less to imitate his bête noire Blanche
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.

Still others fought in the road’s filth over Jezebel,
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forebearance.
Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.

The last chord fades.The night is cold and fine.
His master’s voice rasps through the grooves’ bare groves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave’s
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

Only to dream he is at the première of a Handel
Opera long thought lost–Il Cane Minore.
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars . . . . Is there in Victor’s heart
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

On FaceBook and Walt Whitman

Yesterday I turned off my Facebook account, or to be more accurate, made it “inactive.” I had thought of deleting it altogether, but a friend warned me that if I did that, someone else could assume my Facebook identity – something that happened to someone she knows. Why anyone would want to assume my identity, Facebook or otherwise, is beyond my comprehension. But I have a stubborn paranoid-streak that runs deep.. and so I err on the side of caution.

I have with studious intent avoided most things controversial or “too personal” on this blog. Being from a pre-digital generation, I am constantly aware that what I write or post could come back to haunt me… and most likely would.  At the same time, I share with most of my generation a complete bewilderment at what people feel compelled to share and post on FaceBook or Twitter. In a new digital age that breaks down boundaries, there are it appears no longer boundaries.

I am surprisingly partial to boundaries. While it is in my very nature to push boundaries and to question authority, I live under the unspoken assumption that human interaction should always be guided by the rules of hospitality. The boundaries of hospitality are that you do not brag or boast or make things about yourself. The essence of hospitality is always the other.

facebook_logoI cringe most socially (and socially I do cringe much) when called upon to talk about myself. Glancing at my own FaceBook postings, I see that by nature FaceBook asks me to do what comes very unnaturally to me… to talk about myself or draw attention to myself. That is something I longer want to do.

I do not know if the digitally shrinking world is really all that good of thing. There was a time in my life when most of my life was contained in a mountain valley. Where movies and books allowed me temporary escape but not permanent exile. In my mind I left others and my community, but never far or for long.

Yesterday I turned off FaceBook and felt the need to open Walt Whitman. Whitman sang of himself, yes… but always in context of the world and the other. Whitman, the mystic,  merged his self with others and the world. FaceBook takes an opposite direction… in the guise of social connection it actually extracts the self from the world and others. I prefer Whitman.

In the North Country

The Metrodome Collapses

The Metrodome Collapses

In the North Country we are entering our third month of winter. The recent storms that passed through Dallas and the South no doubt minimizes the amount of sympathy we can expect from inhabitants of warmer climes. And yet sympathy is what we are most in need of… and warmer air.

I have often wondered about the sanity of the first European people who said about Minnesota, “Hey this would be a good place to live.” Too cold in the winter… too humid in the summer… obviously those first enthusiastic residents arrived in the fall, when Minnesota is at its best, or in early spring when things are green and full of promise.

And so I whine to a world that does not care… about my problems… about the weather outside my door… about the cold place where I live.

I call call this blog MontanaWriter because I am in my heart of hearts a Montanan… a lover of: Big Sky, of wide open country, of mountains, and trout-filled rivers. I am restless in woods, feel weighed down and minimized when I cannot see vast distances and open possibilities. And yet… I like living in Minnesota.

It is not love, to parody Steinbeck’s famous lines about Montana, that I feel for Minnesota… it is extreme like.

I like the four seasons we have in Minnesota, though I wish there was more variety. The monotony of Minnesota weather, I admit, gets to me at times – no snow in July, no 70 degrees in January. (I miss always the random wonderfulness of Chinook winds.) But those who do not go through winter never get to truly experience spring. It is in spring and fall that I most pity those who live in the warm vacation spots of the world.

Looking out my living room window, I see a world of white and dirty white. Snow heaped upon snow. A monotony that makes you restless… but a monotony that is filled with promise.

Pitchers and catchers will be reporting soon. The Daytona 500 is just a few weeks away. Yesterday the thermometers climbed into the mid-30′s and I ran an errand in just a sweatshirt.

Pity us all you want, people of the south. But soon, and very soon, we will be walking again in the green light of true spring. For that we will be more thankful than people of your land. For that, we will know who is truly blessed… and who it is who blesses us.