One of the defining experiences of Kurt Vonnegut's life had to be the bombing of Dresden. As a prisoner of war, he was put into a cell in an underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse that had been converted into a prison camp. After the city was destroyed by bombs, he and his fellow surviving prisoners were put to work burying the dead, "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes."
The experience is recounted, in fictionalized form, in his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse Five. If you have not read this book yet, run — don't walk, run — to the nearest bookstore to get your copy. It is necessary. And it is not what you think it might be. It's funny, sad, whimsical, strange, delightful...actually it's impossible to describe Vonnegut's writing. Go read it.
Vonnegut lived to a ripe old age, and worked right up to the end. In spring of 2007, he had a fall at his apartment, resulting in brain damage. He died several weeks later on April 11.
Here, for your pleasure, are his eight rules for writing a short story:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.