the mutt

The Gut Stuff

Posted in Writing by grx20 on April 14, 2009

kurt_vonnegutNo, no, no! It’s not the English gut … it’s the German, goot, “gut”.
I’ve got some awesome stuff from Kurt Vonnegut – a lot of interesting writing tips and suggestions, all in his unique, succinct way.

I gave Slaughterhouse Five a shot a couple of years back, but I couldn’t finish it. I suspect it’s a cultural thing. The book is set in a different time, in a different place – both of which really have no relevance to where I come from. To be honest, I didn’t much take to his style back then. Still, he has some very useful advice. One may squint at the sun, wear shades and a hat and curse the glare. But one needs the rays.


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.

Second Course … and third and desert too. [This is really long, but worth your time]

Kurt Vonnegut also wrote a wonderful piece, simply titled: How to write with style? It’s easily available online, should you want a printer-friendly version. Please note that the copyright for this rests with International Paper Co.

How to write with style
By Kurt Vonnegut, © 1982 International Paper Co.

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 empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

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

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.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way–although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do not ramble, though.

I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep it simple.

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.
“Should I act upon the urgings that I feel, or remain passive and thus cease to exist?”
” “To be or not to be?”

“To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long.

Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Have the guts to cut.

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like yourself.

The writing style which is most natural to you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.

All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens not to be standard English, and if it shows itself when you write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say what you mean to say.

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but I am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable–and therefore understood.

And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the readers.

They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school–twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify–whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For really detailed advice

For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (Macmillan, 1979). E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or how badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say

(Pic courtesy:



Posted in Writing by grx20 on November 19, 2008

Been a while, hasn’t it?

BIC HOK TAM sounds like a Thai dish that one would look at suspiciously.
“It doesn’t have peacock ears, right?”
“No, ma’am, it not have the peacock ear.”

If you head over to this interesting site called book in a week, you will find their philosophy is captured in BIC HOK TAM.

BIC – Butt in chair
HOK – Hands on keyboard
TAM – Typing away madly.

snoopy typing

As they say, ‘this is the best way we know of to get any writing done.’ And I agree. I especially like TAM – Typing away madly. It brings to mind visions of a writer at his desk pounding away at his keyboard, a manic look burning through the paper (or screen), hands thrashing around and hair flailing, when the promise of dawn is still far away. I like TAM – it sounds good, inspiring almost. Type away madly – Swing Away (as in The Signs) … type madly, with abandon. Madly … like a brute, getting fingers wedged between the keys. The glazed, scary glint in the eyes is essential.

Get your story down on paper. Edit later. Make mistakes … hell, you will make mistakes. Don’t worry about it. No one’s going to see it. Not everything you write has to be published. Send your internal editor on a holiday under the Tuscan sky. If it sounds awful and terrible to read, that’s fine. You CANNOT get it dot-right on the first go. Books aren’t dropped at your doorstep by the Book Stork. It takes a lot … a lot of work. So focus on getting the entire story on paper, no matter how hard it seems.

It has worked for a lot of people – as their website will testify. And I agree with the fact that unless you get your BIC and HOK and TAM, you really will not get anywhere.

On a related note, I must mention that November is National Novel Writing Month. Or NaNoMo, (NaNoWriMo, in some cases). Of course – that’s in the United States, not here, in India. But it is an interesting concept. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Write hot is the mantra. The idea is to get that difficult first draft done, without editing, without correcting, worrying, or bothering about how good it is. Like the site rightly says, most people don’t even get to writing the first draft. Don’t worry about the plot, character development, flow, and other related demons. That’s for later, when you edit. You might not even write in sequence. Maybe just random scenes each day. Start with the middle, shift to the end, maybe a few parts of the beginning later … whatever. Get 50,000 words done in a month. 50,000 isn’t quite novel length. It is about 30 to 40 thousand words short. But it’s a start. And getting 50,000 words under your belt is not a mean task. Check out the website, for more details.

I would like to invite you to read (or re-read) my post called, The Price Of Your Dreams. What if the price of all your dreams is writing 10 pages a day? Assuming 250 odd words a page, that is 2500 words a day. At the end of week one (a seven day week, Herr Escapist), is a cool 17,500 words. In a month, you should have knocked off a jaw-dropping 70,000 words. That, monsieur, is a novel. And to nicely tie things up, the key to getting this done is BIC HOK TAM.

See the pages stacking up.

Type away madly.


12.5 writing rules

Posted in Writing by grx20 on November 10, 2008

Came across this picture while surfing the net. Don’t agree with all of them, some are nice.

I think you can buy it at


Write now – a simple system to get started

Posted in Writing by grx20 on October 10, 2008

It started as a one-off exercise, but has evolved into a habit. A writing routine, that’s worked well for me – it keeps me motivated, improves my observation skills and my writing significantly. Maybe it will work for you as well. It is an exercise in writing, as much as it is an exercise in communication.

It comes from the fact that life happens as much during the big, momentous occasions as it does during the seconds that tick away with predictable monotony. And when I come across one such moment, I tuck it away in my mind (and later in a notebook).

Later, I recollect one such moment – usually it is a snapshot of a person, an expression, a conversation even. And I write about it. Some of these have the potential to be character profiles, some have the germ of a story in them, some have only enough for a single cliff-hanger moment. But they all have an element of human drama.

I challenge myself to capture it as best as I can. To be able to bring alive all that I felt and convey to the reader the scene as vividly as I saw and experienced it. The exercise forces me to find the right words, to look up the thesaurus, to be succinct.

The payoff? Hopefully, as I keep at it, as I practice, the quality of my writing will improve. And hopefully, writing about life and describing it will be just a little less daunting and intimidating.

The idea is to write for the sake of writing. Not to meet a word/page deadline, but just to write for experiencing the joy of writing. 

Lately, I’ve found that it works splendidly like a warm up. And something to write on the days I have nothing to write.

Example: Walking around in my apartment complex – I see a small girl walking away, slowly, dejected, with a badminton racquet hanging limply from her hands. She has no one to play with and the sadness is tangible.

Another one. One night, the train I was in was pulling out the station. In the distance, I see two cane chairs – easy chairs – suspended from the ceiling in a balcony. Lit by a dim fluorescent bulb, they stand out in the darkness – and in the light breeze come together, part, come together, part.

I ask myself, how can I best describe these moments with words?

If you have a similar system or something different, do write in.

My thoughts too…

Posted in Writing by grx20 on October 6, 2008

I came across this blog which has some excellent posts about writing and the craft of writing.
In fact, a lot of it is what I wanted to talk about here.
While she has saved me the trouble (and done it in style, I might add), she has also forced me to think of something else to say!

I highly recommend a dash over to her blog.

Kim W. Justesen has her blog here.

Some of my favourite posts are also at the sidebar on the right under the ‘Great Reading’ section.

Let’s make a note to remember

Posted in Oddities, Writing by grx20 on September 26, 2008

(Yes, yes, I am punning on the Bryan Adams song).

This is an invitation to everyone to do just one thing. To simply write well.
Whether it is a reminder note or a thank you note, write it well. Choose words with thought and care.

English has some beautiful words that can convey, and very well, too, exactly what you feel and think. When a particular word doesn’t come to mind at once, spend a couple of seconds trying to find it. If you still can’t find that word, think of a simile, create a new metaphor, coin a new expression. And later, go back to the thesaurus and find that elusive word.

We all have our comfort zone of phrases and constructions we can serve up pronto. But let’s resolve not to be lazy.

If a particular construction is tricky, don’t avoid it, learn it.
If spelling spells trouble, learn.
It’s nice to use big words once in a while.
Use puns. (One can always get away with it by adding ‘phew!’ in brackets.)

It’s nice to read something written well, with wit, and with care. It is a discipline you take on, more for improving yourself and your writing than to create immortal pieces of literature while dashing out the front door.

Here’s to a reputation of being ‘note’orious. (Phew!)

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That is quite unnecessary

Posted in Writing by grx20 on September 12, 2008

In most sentences, the word ‘that’ can be dropped without having Wren & Martin groan in protest.

Try it.

It is especially useful in awkward constructions like, ‘He told me that that was the umbrella Sinatra stole from him.’

A better way of putting it would be: ‘He told me that was the umbrella Sinatra stole from him.’

Of course, one could argue (that) the best thing would be to have Sinatra not steal any umbrellas.

Phew! Now, that was uncalled for.