Kurt Vonnegut is a giant of 20th century authors and Sirens of Titan, his second novel, is now available as an e-book. While Vonnegut is usually called a science fiction author, this book is more a frame for his views on religion, politics, business, social classes, the military, and the meaninglessness of life: “the boundaries of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.” It reminds me of Albert Camus’ absurdism.
This isn’t simply a space adventure, though time/space phenomena and space travel allow the characters wide and imaginative experiences. Vonnegut’s book is copyrighted 1959 – if the story were written today, it would say “quantum physics” often. There’s a lot of striking metaphors and some fun visions of other planets. Also one fleeting, archaic anti-homosexual remark made in passing – 1959 was a long time ago.
The book is full of tangents and philosophizing. It doesn’t seem appropriate to compare Sirens to the usual writing tips. Vonnegut isn’t afraid to “tell” the reader something. He includes an “excerpt” from an encyclopedia to explain his premise – without even bothering to frame it as something a character is reading. It’s cast as from A Child’s Cyclopedia, which avoids any need to justify things technically.
Vonnegut conforms perfectly to one piece of writing advice that I’ve absorbed: use “said” as the tag for dialog (though he does slip in the occasional adverb – my favorite is “schoolmarmishly.”)
I also considered this advice from Smashwords: don’t mislead your readers as to what your book is about. While this relates to the description and cover rather than writing the book, I think it’s important. On Amazon, the description calls the book a “romp through space, time, and morality… and a prophetic vision about the purpose of human life.” I’m not sure I’d call it prophetic – I’d emphasize the black comedy and satire. But the characters certainly romp around and the story reveals a humbling purpose for humanity. The cover, alas, tells nothing.
Vonnegut suggested eight rules for writing a short story in 1999. That reflects decades of writing experience, and even though Sirens is a novel, I thought I’d look at them.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. Judging by the four star average on Amazon, Sirens does this for most readers.
- Give the reader at least one character to root for. Not so much. I never connected with any of the characters. But, it was only his second novel.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Most of the characters want something, though two have their memories erased so things change. The character responsible for most of what happens is a puzzle – it’s not clear he wants anything – he’s just trapped by the space/time phenomenon.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. (Of course, there’s more room in a novel than a short story.) Vonnegut abandons this advice – if he wants to go off on a narrator’s tangent, he does. Mostly, these were short enough and interesting enough that I didn’t mind, but in the last chapter I got impatient – I just wanted to know how the story ends.
- Start as close to the end as possible. Given the narrator’s explanations of some character’s early lives, I’m not sure he sticks to this.
- 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. Vonnegut subjects his characters to lots of trouble. This is advice I need to remember when I write.
- 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. Compelling advice. I imagine he wrote Sirens for himself. I’ve seen related advice that says: Write for your self and edit for your readers,
- 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. I don’t think I would have finished the story the same way, but the character the narrator primarily follows knew exactly what was going to happen to him on page 20. The story arose from how it happened. Vonnegut deviated a little, though – the character’s final situation was not revealed until the end.
Vonnegut added that great writers tend to break rules.
I’ve posted on writing advice before: