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Rule Number 1 of Fiction Writing

Today, I am discussing Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing fiction. There are eight of them.

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Who is this total stranger? And why would an unknown person want to read, watch, or listen to anything you have to say?

That is the fascinating thing about human beings, we congregate in groups. You call them clubs, associations, tribes, communities, or even, societies. We are all looking to share common interests. There are all kinds of things that entice us. Some of us enjoy reading, others relish sports, and some of us love building model trains. The variety of interests are limitless. If someone can think it up, there will be a group of enthusiasts to follow. Then, there are the links that bind us, such as race, language, creed, and the such.

These groups of people are all around us. Which do you belong to? You might mingle in a multitude of clusters. Most of us actually belong to a variety of networks. We tend to separate our lives into categories such as work, hobbies, and friendships. There are also the activities of our loved ones that further engulf us in other tribes.

So, what does this all have to do with the first rule of fiction writing?

Actually, it represents everything. If you have an idea for a poem, an article, or a book, you have to know who you are writing it for. When I was an advertising copywriter, I would mentally choose several friends and colleagues that might show interest in my sales pitch/story. Yes, at that time I was peddling goods and services. Nonetheless, it was important to have reference individuals to focus on. The ultimate goal was to choose only one.

Their names would get written on small pieces of paper, folded in two, and put into a glass mason jar. I had many of these jars in my office — I filled them with all kinds of found objects. Some contained marbles. Others harbored colorful stones. A few protected small toys, such as little-green army men. And then, there was the empty-magic jar with the sole purpose of finding me an audience. The total stranger that was never really a stranger would go into this jar. He or she was obscure at that moment. But, he/she would soon surface to the top.

Let’s face it, whenever we want to tell a story, we envision someone in particular. I have often wondered why most people cancel this image out of their thoughts. And instead, search for an unknown person. Mind you, I did not have this problem. I would shake the jar around, drink a cup of coffee, and grab a single piece of paper from the depths of the glass container. I would unfold it and read the name. All kinds of emotions would surface. Sometimes they were pleasant and other times exasperating. But, the important thing was that I had started the hunt for an audience.

Once I had my name, I would delve deeper into my sentiments and ponder if I had a clear understanding of this person. Was it my biased perception or a true representation of this individual? It was a curious moment indeed. I would email this person and say, “hello.” While waiting for a response, I would continue my investigation. Remember, I had scribbled his/her name on a piece of paper for a reason. I had followed my gut instinct, as it had served me well many times before. My story was in motion and I was getting some clarity.

I would also use these initial feelings as markers to attach to parts of the story. These indicators were very important in constructing my tale. They made me ask deeper questions. Why had I chosen this individual? Why would they want to read my prose? What did I know about him? These questions and others would soon find answers.

Next, I would send out emails to friends that were close to this particular person. A deeper inquiry had begun and I was definitely in sleuth mode. This was a process that worked for me.

As I am reminded of this, I will start using it again. I am sure you will develop a method that suits you.

Let’s give this person/stranger a name, Tom. And, what is your story about? Let’s say your story is about self-improvement. In the jar, you put five names. These individuals had given you past indications of interest in this subject. For example, Tom had mentioned that he was reading a Tony Robbins’ book. He had quoted the author on several occasions. So, you know he is a good candidate for the material you are writing. The other four candidates had also given similar clues. They might not be Tony Robbins fans, but they had given other telltale signs.

There you have it, you are writing a self-improvement story curtailed for Tom. You know he is interested in the subject. So, how do you begin to speak to him? And, how do you persuade him to buy your stuff? You want him to be motivated enough to take action. And, if he is so inspired—to share it with friends and colleagues. That would be, as they say in soccer, a “GOOOAAAL!

By now, Tom and your friends have emailed you back. You immediately respond to Tom’s email and go through the expected greeting ritual—but quickly. You have an assignment with a deadline to meet. You ask the initial question. “Tom, are you still reading Tony Robbins?” His response is vital. If he answers ‘yes’, you are on the right track. This will of course puzzle Tom—he might ask questions. In response, you ask him a second question, “do you read any other material of the sort.” If he responds ‘yes’ immediately ask him if he wouldn’t mind reading an outline of the story you are writing. Make him feel important because he is. Let him critique it. Aren’t you writing the story for him anyway?

Remember, you are conducting research. You are making sure that your story will speak to Tom with the proper tone and context. Always thank Tom for his participation, it is good manners. Get him the story outline ASAP. Always be respectful of his time. This is a major part of Kurt Vonnegut’s #1 rule. This person should find value in your story. Let him help you make it just right. He is the source and the audience in one.

Now, respond to your friend’s emails. Ask them to assist you as well. Here is an opportunity to get more insight into Tom. Ask them questions about Tom’s interest in self-improvement. Some might have information and others might not, but not to worry, this is a good exercise for you. Ask them what they think of Tom in general and why. Don’t torture them, but get answers. All this data will help you analyze the responses that come back from Tom on your story outline. These trivial pieces of the puzzle will fall into place to write a solid story. A story that will capture your audience and not waste their valuable time.

Remember, it’s not about the number of people that read your words, but the select few that will recommend it. If they have ‘influence’, the value of your content will multiply through social media. The internet can elevate your writing to unheard reaches of distribution. You can only do this if you stay true to your story and to its recipient — Tom.

As Chris Anderson mentions in The Long Tail, there are niche markets that should be your main focus. To compete in the mass market you will have to water down your content and lose your story in the process. Tom values self-improvement, and so do millions of others. When you write to him about this particular issue, you are writing to all the Toms of the world. They might seem an insignificant number at first. But, if your story rings true and has a purpose it will spread. It might take some time. Your solid bit of prose needs to entertain and motivate so that it’s not discarded.

The world of storytelling is not a popularity contest, it’s about true substance. Have the patience to research your audience before you even start writing, as Seth Godin states in his book, Purple Cow:

Find the market niche first and then make a remarkable product. Not the other way around.

At this point, you have your audience and you have conducted your initial research — now the fun begins. Tom has reviewed your outline and given you his notes. Check his comments and ask him for more insight on each. Also, research his specific points of interest. Remember, Google is your fact-finding assistant — so use it.

Your friends have also given you insight into the psyche of Tom. Do their perceptions match Tom’s persona — does yours? Knowing the true nature of your audience and their desires will help you write a solid story.

You must be able to see through their eyes to crave their yearnings and thus, write for them. You are being empathetic to your audience’s perspective. With all this information, you can write with a sense of confidence and authority.

As you develop your narrative, you must continue to research. Your words must carry weight and a sense of truth. Once again, Google is there to help. Knowing how to use the algorithm of the search engine is quite simple. Type in exactly what you want to know and look at the list of links that appear. Find the articles that are most accurate to your query and learn, absorb, and understand. Use this knowledge to continue your story. Be appreciative of the reader’s time. Experience the world as he or she does. Become attuned to your public and their surroundings. Daniel Pink states in his book, To Sell is Human:

Perspective-taking is at the heart of your ability to move others.

It all comes down to salesmanship. You found an audience because you sought them out. You interacted with them and listened. You wrote a great story that is in tune with them. Now, you have to reach out to them again and let them know where to find your story. This interaction is key in today’s world. If you are not in constant communication with your fans, they will soon forget you and your message.

Take a lead from Pearl Jam. They are a success story in the art of storytelling. They are musicians, storytellers, and leaders to a community of fans. They understand their audience and give them exactly what they want — great music.

When you write, create an influential fan by not wasting his time. And, watch your single seed sprout into a crop that feeds many.

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