Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Basic Rules of Creative Writing

As craft nerds at Writing Workshops Detroit, we love writing advice and we love Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 basics of Creative Writing. These come from the preface to his story collection Bagombo Snuff Box:

  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.

Vonnegut said the greatest American short story writer of his generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). He said she broke every one of his rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that. And all great writers had to start somewhere. If you’re thinking about joining a community of writers, check out our classes (In-Person & Online) in Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Screenwriting via the button below.

Paneled Discussion @ Pages Bookshop: On Writing Life & How Do Authors Make A Living

We are thrilled to be collaborating with Pages Bookshop for a paneled discussion centered around the central question, how do authors make a living? 

But, it would seem, this is a conversation that no one is having. 

It's no secret that there's little money in writing, and that competition for the few resources — prizes, residencies, — is fierce. From MFA programs to submission fees, we invest heavily in our craft but receive debt and rejection in return. It's difficult not to compare ourselves to our luckier peers: why aren't we winning contests or finding an agent? Why can't we get our grant proposal funded or book published? Why is it so hard to support ourselves with freelance writing or adjuncting? 

These questions are often met with reproach, silent or otherwise, from fellow writers. We're supposed to be in it for the sheer love of the craft, without the need for material reward. But we still need to support ourselves and, too often, new writers applying to retreats, MFA programs, and arts jobs aren't given honest answers about the opportunities available to them — and may not know the questions to ask to start the conversation.

This seminar, conducted in a panel format, aims to open a frank conversation around privilege, hard work, and how writers really make their living. Sitting on the panel will be: 

  • Rose Gorman 

  • Nandi Comer 

  • Anna Clark

  • T.M. De Vos,

  • Matthew Fogarty

  • Kelsey Ronan

  • Toni Cunningham 

  • Ted Houser

This event is free and open to the public. RSVP with your email address below.

Event date: 

Saturday, January 12, 2019 - 6:00pm to 7:30pm

Event address: 

Pages Bookshop

19560 Grand River Ave.

Detroit, MI 48223

Ripped from the Headlines, or Gently Massaged from the Podcast by Ethan Chatagnier

Law and Order and its franchises have made a multi-decade run ripping stories from the headlines. It’s a good practice for a police-and-courtroom procedural–perhaps even a necessary practice for one lasting so long.

Writers are sometimes wary of that kind of headline ripping, and other times not interested. It doesn’t feel as creative. It doesn’t feel original. And newspaper headlines are not always the most intriguing or inspiring fare.

But newspapers are only one possible source of information, and many–magazines, documentaries, podcasts–have the express goal of finding and delivering the most interesting stories possible.

As for creativity and originality, there’s no requirement that a you write a story the same way you heard it, and that’s rarely the goal. Shift an idea. Transform it. Move it to a new state.

What you want is to strike sparks from your imagination, and to do that well, you need to strike your imagination against the world. We will be looking at this in my ONLINE Workshop: Finding Your Material in the Real World. You can learn more about this 5-week class, in which we will generate ideas for stories, by clicking on the button below. I hope you’ll join us!

You got to THE END | Now What?

How many people do you know who have written a novel or a handful of stories? Do you count only yourself?

Writing is a singular endeavor, and it is doubly so when no one understands your compulsion.

So why do we write?

When you are in the middle of writing your first draft, it’s like standing in a stream. You can’t see the current, but you can feel it. This is the story flowing out of you and you should follow it. This is good work. You have found the sweet spot, the wormhole, into your story. I believe that all the novels you want to write are already written. They already exist inside you in a preverbal, rhythmic, motor place in your body. The trick is to find a way of tapping into them. Getting to this place can be elusive. Sometimes it happens early on in the writing process, sometimes very late; but once you find it, your story will flow out of you in a natural, organic way.

The above italicized paragraph comes from Richard Skinner's great article from earlier this week called Know Thyself...By Writing Your First Novel.

Read the article. I think you'll find it inspiring.

If you're nearing the end of a project or have just completed a novel or several short stories, knowing what to do next in the absence of a critique group or formal workshop can be confusing. Do you put your novel or story in the drawer for six months and return to it later? Do you revise it immediately, and if so, how do you know where the soft spots are, where the opportunities for improvement can be found? Are you going to query agents or upload your manuscript to a self-publishing platform? Or send your short story to a batch of literary journals?

What is your next step?

If you'd like to talk about what to do next, contact us HERE and we can set up a time to talk on about where you are in your process.

Maybe you're looking for a developmental edit on your novel, or an editorial letter for a few short stories. Maybe you'd like a coaching relationship as you chart a course toward your ultimate goal.

At the very least, take a moment to read Richard Skinner's article and allow yourself to be okay with the uncertainty. That is where all writers live. You're in good company.

Happy writing!

Developing Ideas for Fiction by Ethan Chatagnier

I don’t get any special credit for recognizing that Jurassic Park is a great premise. Two hundred million copies sold. Box office records. Everyone knows it’s a great premise.

It’s one of those books/movies that’s so finely tuned it’s hard to imagine it any other way. Imagine it as the tale of a grad student cloning a pterodactyl in a lab–no theme park–and the majesty and drama disappears. That’s where Crichton began his first draft of this story in 1983. It would be 1990, and several completely drafts later, before the book was published.

The idea of cloning dinosaurs from DNA is a good idea on its own. But it needs more development before it can take flight. What would make it more compelling?

Here are some of the ways Crichton developed it into the Jurassic Park we know and love:

  1. It’s set in a theme park, a place of wonder and discovery, and with the pretense of control.

  2. It’s set during a “soft open,” limiting the cast of characters to a handful of experts we can care about, rather than a horde of dinosaur bait.

  3. The island setting and tropical storm cut off the characters from potential help.

  4. The corporate espionage of an important employee throws all the park’s control systems into chaos.

There’s more of course, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern not the least of it, but with those four elements you have a seed idea transformed into a magic idea, one with thrills and drama built in.

The right development of an idea can make all the difference in the world, and that is what we will be looking at in my ONLINE Workshop: Finding Your Material in the Real World. You can learn more about this 5-week class, in which we will generate ideas for stories, by clicking on the button below. I hope you’ll join us!

The Starting Point – Short Screenplay Writing by Toni Cunningham

Why short screenplays?

This is a question I asked myself when I was putting together my workshop description for Writing Workshops Detroit.  Why not “writing strong female characters” or “writing well-rounded minority characters”. While the answer is pretty clear for me, keep an eye out, as those are two additional topics that I would love to tackle. In the meantime, I can not underplay the importance of short screenplays in my journey.

Shorts are at the crux of how I learned to write screenplays. When you sit down to outline a 90-page feature, there are specific rules you need to follow. Plot points, page breaks, timeline beats – and all of those things can be overwhelming if it is your first time trying to structure a story. Shorts allow you to hit the main aspects of storytelling and perfect them before moving on to something a bit more challenging, like a feature or a pilot.

In How to Get to The End: A Short Screenwriting Seminar, the aim is to remove all of the outlying obstacles from your path and just concentrate on the story. By providing three prompts, it forces you to narrow in on the specifics very early on while brainstorming. Beyond that, a 5-page short does not allow for a lot of superfluous detail and description. It depends on you to quickly and skillfully get to the point. You will find that you are self-editing as you go, making cuts that might be painful, but in the end, necessary. Your story will thank you.

If you are a filmmaker or an aspiring filmmaker, a short can be your best calling card. Think about that when brainstorming or outlining. Keep a budget in mind. Maybe your short takes place in one location, with fewer than 3 characters. Or perhaps, you are more concerned with being known for your writing alone. In that case, create a world worthy of a Peter Jackson budget and throw caution to the wind. Either way, know what you want to do before your fingers ever hit the keyboard.

Obviously, a 3-hour seminar is not a ton of time to write a short. However, it is just enough time to get your first draft written. Don’t worry if you are over on pages or if you are unable to finish. Just know that you have dedicated this time to be create something out of nothing and be proud of what you have accomplished.

Feedback is one of the most important things a screenwriter can receive. And if your goal is to work through Hollywood, you better believe you will get a ton of it. With that in mind, I will encourage students to share their stories with the rest of the class via email for everyone to read on their own time and give notes. You are not required to do this, but it is an option. Everyone who sends me their short at the end of the workshop will receive full coverage on it within 2 weeks.

I can’t wait to get started! Hope to see you there. .

Fiction Ideas that Work: Resonant Ideas by Ethan Chatagnier

What if blindness was contagious? What if everyone rode unicycles instead of bicycles? What if snow glowed in the dark? What if humans became unable to conceive children?

Most great ideas start with a “what if?”--but not all what-ifs are equal. Two of the ideas above are resonant, evocative. Two are not. Unicycle-world is quirky. There’s some magic to a world where snow glows. But neither is likely to strum a sympathetic chord within us. Neither is it tied to larger concerns and themes.

That’s what resonance is: the prolonging of a sound, the stretching of it. The way one frequency is tied to another.

Contagious blindness, the premise behind Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s Blindness, is connected to disaster and illness, to the idea of contagion, and the various metaphorical meanings of blindness.

The end of human conception resonates as well. Connected ideas: survival, fragility, sterility. Bonding and lack of bonding. Hope, or the end of it. Life and self-preservation. (This idea formed the basis for the book The Children of Men and its film adaptation).

Resonant ideas are a writer’s lifeblood. Always be on the lookout for them.

Five years ago, I listened to an interview with a pianist about playing music designed to be nearly impossible to play. I immediately thought “What if someone wrote music designed to actually be impossible to play?” Impossibility. Challenge. Composing. Performing. The difficulties and impossibilities of living any life.

It would be three years before I found the right form for that story, but it was on my mind the whole time. The idea hummed against other ideas.

When an idea does that, it means there is a story to be written, and that is what we will be looking at in my ONLINE Workshop: Finding Your Material in the Real World. You can learn more about this 5-week class, in which we will generate ideas for stories, by clicking on the button below. I hope you’ll join us!

On The Personal Essay by Kelsey Ronan

I come from a line of storytellers, and it was my grandfather’s version of our family history that I liked best. In my favorite story, my mother is being born. His audience didn’t need him to set the scene, but I should tell you this was Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors, and below the windows of the maternity ward muscle cars pumped doo-wop and Elvis down streets still flush with Arsenal of Democracy money.

My grandfather was Irish by way of Detroit, from a line of poets and philosophers moonlighting as autoworkers. He said the family line could be traced back to an Ireland before Cromwell, before Brian Boru, where each county was its own kingdom and our ancestor had reigned a king. Yes, he was an autoworker and my grandmother served biscuits and gravy at a diner, and yes, they were still teenagers, but my mother was a princess without a kingdom; a kind of Rust Belt Anastasia displaced among the smokestacks and coney islands.

My newborn mother was placed in his arms. “Daddy,” she said, umbilical cord just snipped. “Get me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.”

 “You have to wait, honey,” my grandfather admonished. “You can’t even open your eyes yet.”

At this point in the story, my grandmother would interrupt, exasperated, and say, “What a bunch of bull.”

“I know, Martha, but you have to embellish,” he’d explain, his hand flourishing through the air in front of him. If you spent your life on the factory line, repeating the same movement, eyes fixed to the same rivet, a conveyor belt of identical pieces, each day a carbon copy of the day before, your mind had room to wander. And if you came home from the assembly lines to listen to music and read poetry and history, your mind was particularly conditioned.

In my grandfather’s stories, he had to reconcile the two: the facts and the lyricism of his rich inner life. When I started writing essays, I used this as a guiding principle, something we'll key in on in my upcoming workshop on the personal essay.

It was inevitable that I tell stories, too: by the time I was born, the maternity ward overlooked a Flint collapsing in on itself, the Chevrolet and Buick factories bulldozed, labor outsourced, houses empty and waiting for time and scrappers to pick them clean. My grandfather told me his stories while we drove around Flint on his ghost tours. Everything in Flint used to be something else, he’d point out; the social security offices downtown once an upscale department store, that abandoned shop front once a soda fountain, that one an ornate theater where the Friday night lines wrapped around the block. The deer reserve where tanks lined up before they were sent off to destroy the Third Reich.  

When my grandfather passed away, there was still so much of the city he had given me no stories for. Boarded-up houses, shuttered businesses, schools that closed, overgrown parks. Places that begged you to consider who had lived there and where they’d gone. Hollowed-out places that offered nothing but space to imagine.

In my essays, I return to my grandfather’s themes: Flint and Detroit, my family, love. When I left Flint to earn my MFA in fiction, I conjured these things as a means of keeping them close, to both explain these cities to people who thought of them only as crime statistics and bankruptcy headlines, and to celebrate them. I don’t have my grandfather’s gift for magical realism, but like him I want the historic and personal, humor and grief, fact and lyricism, to coexist on the page. In my own way I want to embellish.

Before I moved out of Flint, the high school where my grandparents met closed down. Before the city put metal shutters over the windows and padlocks on the doors, you could stand underneath and look up into the windows. The chairs were stacked on desks as if the students had just left for the day. An old globe on a windowsill waited for a finger to come spin it. The library shelves were still lined with books. Stories there—a silent abundance of them—waiting.  


Form & Structure in the Personal Essay by Lori Tucker-Sullivan

Thanks to talented writers like Leslie Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Roxane Gay, the personal essay is having a day. A review of recent New York Times Bestseller lists, or lists of top books of 2016 or 2017, is very likely to include compilations by Sullivan, Gay, and other essayists like Sarah Gerard or Samantha Irby. It’s difficult to say why essays are becoming so popular, but I think it has to do with a few factors, including the rise of blogging as a way to express one’s thoughts or reactions to events, and an increased need to explore life’s questions in a communal way. That is, while I may think I know a thing or two about life, I also have a great curiosity to know what others—those like me and those unlike me—have to say as well. As a genre, the essay provides fertile ground for provoking exploration and new considerations.

Crafting such an essay isn’t easy. Forget what you learned in your sixth-grade Language Arts class. In addition to be longer than five paragraphs, the contemporary personal essay provides the reader with a moving lens through which she might consider a particular topic. Using vivid language, scene-setting, structure, dialogue, and other elements borrowed from fiction, the essay writer takes a subject and considers it from many angles, thereby crafting that lens for the reader. The best essays do so in such a way that the personal becomes, at least somewhat, universal; the writer’s experiences, though very personal, are relatable to readers but also nudge the reader toward new considerations. Rarely is there a tidy, simple answer at the end, as the best essays leave the questions edgy and jagged rather than smoothed down; a tidy package wrapped in a bow is rarely provocative. These are all things we will explore in my upcoming 8-Week Form & Structure Workshop in the Personal Essay.

Jamison, in writing about the “how-to” of essay, once said, “I write. . . because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?” This, I think, is one of the most important questions for the essay writer.  

When thinking about how to approach a topic for an essay in a way that allows the personal experience to become resonant, the writer pulls information from multiple sources: personal experience yes, but also perhaps reportage, scientific facts or figures, pop culture elements, and others’ experiences. A good essay, I feel, contains more questions than answers. It poses the “why” or the “what should I think?” or “what can we do?” of the particular situation.

The key to the successful essay is then figuring out how to braid or weave these various questions, viewpoints, and pieces of information into a coherent and compelling work that, returning to the lens metaphor, takes the reader from the very small and personal, focused perspective, to the broader, wide-angled consideration.

I recently became very interested in the plight of the mother orca who carried her dead calf on her forehead for 18 days, far longer than was normal. Several stories were published about the orca, with marine biologists, Native American tribal members (who follow the orcas off the coast of WA), and others debating why the whale would not drop her deceased calf into the ocean as is usually the case. Was it a symptom of the sick ocean waters, a byproduct of a lack of food sources, extreme grief, or a simple quirk of nature? I am a mother whose youngest child is entering adulthood. That child is studying environmental science and has a deep concern for the wellbeing of our planet. I am a widow with an understanding of all-consuming grief and the irrational need to hold both physical and ephemeral representations of a lost loved one. The whale was named Telequah by the Lummi Nation tribe. My grandmother was born in Tellico, TN, a town originally named Telequah by the Cherokees who first lived there. She was blinded as a child but went on to attend college, marry and have a family. When my grandmother’s infant son died of measles, she held him for most of a day, unaware that he had passed, or perhaps unwilling to accept that truth. My own mother, who witnessed this event as a four-year-old, didn’t understand and would never know the real answer.

I have been playing with an essay that weaves together all of these disparate elements: my own personal tragedy, the ancestral tragedy of my grandmother and her child (an old story connected to a current-day story through this coincidence of a name), the broader tragedies we are all bringing to bear on our planet and how they are shown to us through the actions of a mother whale, the grief of loss but also of letting go of a child who is now an adult, and finally, the terrible finality of saying goodbye one last time. What can we learn from each other’s grief? How can we better understand the distinctly individual timing of saying goodbye and moving on?

While I don’t know if this will ever result in publication, the pleasure is really in the work and the crafting. It is why I love the essay as a writing genre. Weaving these perspectives and stories together into a coherent piece that explores, questions, suggests, enlightens, and questions some more, is both the challenge and the joy of writing the personal essay.

Click on the button below to learn more about my upcoming 8-Week Form & Structure Workshop in the Personal Essay.

Looking for Talented Writers Who Want to Teach Creative Writing!

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Do you like being tethered to the craft concerns of teaching creative writing in order to fuel your own creative practice? Do you enjoy mentoring emerging writers? Giving great feedback on work and creating lessons that help students grow into the kind of writers they dream of becoming? If you're passionate about these things, have a track record of publication and have experience teaching fiction, poetry, nonfiction or screenwriting, we'd love to talk to you.

To let you know a little more about Writing Workshops Detroit, in general we'll offer two kinds of classes for creative writers:

  • One-time seminars on Sunday afternoons/evenings that cover either the craft of writing or the business of writing and last about 2.5 hours. Seminar topics will be updated on a rolling basis, and we'd like to offer a seminar a few Sundays each month. Let us know what kinds of topics you're passionate about presenting.
  • 8-Week Writing Workshops that meet once a week for two or two and a half hours each on a dedicated night of the week, ideally from 6:30PM-8:30PM or 7:00PM-9:00PM, for eight weeks straight. Our classes will meet at Bamboo Detroit downtown. What kind of workshop would you teach?

If you have any interest in teaching a workshop or offering a craft seminar we'd love to talk with you. You can see our current list of Instructors here.

We're open to your ideas for great course offerings. We follow the passion of our teaching artists, and we like to try new things at Writing Workshops Detroit. Tell us how you'd like to be part of our growing creative writing community in 2018 and beyond. Introduce yourself via the button below. We look forward to hearing from you!