Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Basic Rules of Creative Writing

As craft nerds at Writing Workshops Dallas, 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.

What Are Your Long Term Writing Goals?

Do you set achievable goals?

When it comes to starting and finishing long-term writing projects, I don't know how I'd get to THE END without goal setting. Before 2019 gets here start thinking about where you want to be this time NEXT YEAR with your writing.

Goal: the object of a person's ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

Resolution: a firm decision to do or not to do something.

The two definitions are so close to each other, but what I love about goal-setting (as opposed to, say, New Years Resolutions) is there is an aim, a desired result. With resolutions we generally decide to start doing something (like writing more) or stop doing something (like quitting smoking).

But goals force us to measure our ambition, our desired result. Goals hold us accountable to our dreams. For aspiring writers, that generally means writing something that has the chance to be published. Surviving the draft and getting to THE END is the trick.

What is your process for measuring your ambition? For charting your goals? Is it a daily word count? A chapter a week? A rough draft of your manuscript six months from now? Landing an agent? Getting published? Hearing from readers who only know you because of your work?

I like to start with the end point and figure out how to get there. I break goals into actionable steps so I don't get overwhelmed. If I want to write a book I need to start with a first sentence. That sentence leads to a paragraph, to a scene, to a chapter, to a completed rough draft.

What if you're still dreaming about starting or finishing your book at the end of 2019 (a full year from now!)? You will have let another year slip away. Literary community is one way to help keep yourself on track. In the coming year we hope you'll get plugged in somewhere, find a writing group or a critique partner who can hold you accountable to your dreams.

Understand what your desired result is and figure out how to get there. The steps are manageable and the path is clearly before you.

Happy writing!

My best,

Blake Kimzey

Executive Director, Writing Workshops Dallas

NEW: Give a Gift Certificate to Writing Workshops Dallas!

Upcoming Classes: Fiction | Nonfiction | Poetry | Screenwriting | Seminars | Online Online Classes | Teen Classes

Holiday Gift Certificates Now Available at Writing Workshops Dallas!

If you’re looking for a creative gift for the writer in your life, something they’ll love and appreciate, we have the perfect idea for you: a holiday gift certificate good for any of the classes that we offer! In general, we have two options for you, the thoughtful gift-giver:

Seminar Gift Certificate

3-Hour Seminars:

Every Sunday afternoon we offer a seminar on the craft or business of writing. These three-hour classes are great for any writer and we have a great many topics to choose from. Seminar topics are updated weekly and we imagine the writer in your life will have fun deciding which seminar to attend. These seminars are $60 for New Students and $45 for Returning Students.

Workshop Gift Certificate

8-Week Workshops:

On a rolling basis throughout the year we offer 8-week workshops in Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Screenwriting. These are in-depth classes taught by passionate and talented Instructors. You can see what our students have to say about us in our Testimonials. These workshops are $495 for New Students and $470 for Returning Students. We also have the option to buy a half workshop gift certificate.

You’ll be prompted to enter the name of the writer you’re buying the gift certificate for at checkout. Upon receipt of your purchase, we will send you a gift certificate voucher good for the seminar or workshop of choice for the writer in your life. And, we imagine, they’ll never forget the time you got them the one gift they really want.

If you have any questions about our gift certificates, feel free to contact us HERE. Thanks for letting us be part of your gift-giving this year!

FREE NaNoWriMo Write-Ins in November!

Free NoNoWriMo Write Ins.png

Writing Workshops Dallas is hosting 4 free NaNoWriMo Write-Ins on Thursdays in November, except Thanksgiving, from 6:30-10PM at The Drawing Board in Richardson, TX.

  • November 1st

  • November 8th

  • November 15th

  • November 29th

These Write-Ins are Free to attend, of course. Just let us know you’re coming. RSVP below.

Name *
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Check the dates you'll attend:

Legal Issues for Writers with Mike Farris

Legal Issues For Writers

Sunday, December 16, 2018 - 3:00PM TO 6:00PM

Doesn't matter if you write books, articles, or screenplays, every writer must negotiate a minefield of legal issues on the road to publication or production.  Attorney Mike Farris, an expert in this field, will guide you through that minefield, addressing common questions that all writers have, plus some you may never have thought of.  Topics will include:

  • How, and why, to register your copyright

  • What is copyright infringement?

  • What is the “public domain”?

  • Defamation, invasion of privacy, and the right of publicity

  • The agency agreement

  • The publishing contract

  • How to obtain life rights

  • The option/purchase agreement for film rights/screenplays

  • How to protect your work when pitching to film producers

  • Collaboration agreements and works-for-hire

About Attorney Mike Farris: Mike was lead attorney in the Fifty Shades of Grey litigation in Fort Worth that resulted in a $13.25 million judgment in favor of his client.  He negotiated the sale of film rights to The Free State of Jones for his client The University of North Carolina Press, which was made into a major motion picture starring Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey and directed by multi-time Oscar nominee Gary Ross. Film rights to Mike's Hawaiian true crime book, A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow, have been optioned by Aaron and Jordan Kandell, two of the writers on the Disney hit Moana. Mike's next true crime book, Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga, set in the Territory of Hawaii in 1928-1929, is set for release later this year. Mike is also the author of seven published novels, including thrillers such as The Bequest and Manifest Intent, and the Hawaiian historical fiction Isle of Broken Dreams.

Fee: $60 or $45 for former/current students | Live Stream Available!

  • Mike Farris, Presenter

  • Sunday, December 16, 2018 - 3:00PM to 6:00PM

  • Seminar meets at The Drawing Board at 75 & Campbell: 1900 Jay Ell Dr / Richardson, TX / 75081

  • Live Stream is available for students who live outside of Dallas. Just let us know when you register.

Click the button below to register for the seminar. Contact us HERE if you have any questions about this seminar.

Weekend Flash Sale: 15% Off @ Writing Workshops Dallas

We're having a weekend Flash Sale good for 15% Off any of our upcoming 8-Week classes that start this month. We've got great courses to choose from in Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction, Screenwriting, and Online Classes. Just use discount code FLASH at checkout.

If you've already enrolled in one of our 8-week classes starting in October, we'd love for you to be our guest at an upcoming Seminar of your choosing. Simply contact us HERE and tell us which Seminar you'd like to attend for free (in-person or live stream).

How to Write Science Fiction that Sells with Nebula Award winning author William Ledbetter

How to Write Science Fiction that Sells

Sunday, November 4, 2018 - 3:00PM TO 6:00PM

Anyone can write tales about robots and aliens, but does that really make it science fiction? The truth is modern readers and publishers of written science fiction are much more sophisticated and demanding than those in the days of bug-eyed monsters and scantily clad space pirate queens. Come join our discussion about how you can avoid these worst tropes and stereotypes, why you don't have to be a scientist to write good science fiction, get tips and shortcuts for researching the science in your story and learn why written science fiction is quite different than what you watch on TV and in movies.

Instructor William Ledbetter is a Nebula Award winning author with more than sixty speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in markets such as Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog. He's been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He lives near Dallas with his wife, a needy dog and two spoiled cats. His new novel "Level Five" is available from Audible Originals. Learn more at www.williamledbetter.com

Fee: $60 or $45 for former/current students | Live Stream Available!

  • William Ledbetter, Presenter

  • Sunday, November 4, 2018 - 3:00PM to 6:00PM

  • Seminar meets at The Drawing Board at 75 & Campbell: 1900 Jay Ell Dr / Richardson, TX / 75081

  • Live Stream is available for students who live outside of Dallas. Just let us know when you register.

Click the button below to register for the seminar. Contact us HERE if you have any questions about this seminar.

Turning Real Life into Unreal Ideas by Ethan Chatagnier

Finding your material in the real world doesn’t mean finding only realist ideas. Science-fiction prophets, fantasy wizards, and genre-bending literary writers can benefit just as much from real-world inputs as slice-of-life literary realists. Perhaps even more.

One of my favorite examples of this is Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film District 9. It’s a movie with aliens, futuristic weapons, a mech suit, and a mysterious gene-editing fluid. What makes the idea unique is its approach to the aliens: they aren’t visitors, they’re refugees, and the government sets them up in camps and treats them like refugees. So the usual sci-fi question “aliens come to Earth: will they kill us?” is reversed: “aliens come to Earth: will we kill them?”

Blomkamp’s idea didn’t come from space. It came from the news—specifically, from interviews with South Africans about an influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. That link to a real world idea didn’t clip District 9’s wings. Instead, it gave the movie an intense dramatic resonance. Some clips from those interviews even made it into the movie.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is arguably the most imaginative novel series of our time. He details his inspiration and writing process here but here’s the short version: part of the idea came from a strange dream he had; part came from his reaction to the BP Gulf Oil Spill; the other part, the all important setting, came from walks he took through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and the abandoned lighthouse there.

There’s no greater argument for looking to the real world for inspiration. It doesn’t limit you to realist stories. It can spark your wildest imaginings, while at the same time anchoring them to the themes that speak to us. This 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 Single Best Scrivener Feature for Nanowrimo by Blake Atwood

I would never have become a full-time editor and author were it not for Scrivener.

It wasn’t just because Scrivener is so flexible. Or that it offers unparalleled organizational capabilities. Or that its composition mode strips away every distraction from your screen so that it’s just you versus the blank page (which is simultaneously terrifying and liberating.)

While I appreciated those features, one feature in particular forever unlocked my writing: project targets.

With Scrivener’s target-setting capabilities, I told Scrivener I wanted to write my first book in four months. I set my total word count at 50,000. I selected that I wanted to write every weekday. Then Scrivener did the math I was too afraid to do and told me I had to write 581 words per day over eighty-one writing days.

I could do that.

Plus, if you set up target-tracking the right way, Scrivener will play a pleasant sound and display a small popup of congratulations every time you hit your writing goal. Eventually, the noise elicits a Pavlovian response. You can’t wait until the next day you get to write just so you can hear that sound again and know you’re making real progress toward a dream you may have harbored for decades.

While working a full-time job, I woke at 5 a.m. every weekday morning, shut my office door, and hammered out 581 words. Six months later—because I took two months off thinking my writing was terrible and my book was dumb—I finished The Gospel According to Breaking Bad. I self-published it so its release could coincide with the series premiere of the show’s last season. Book sales were buoyed by Breaking Bad’s immense popularity at the time and a mention in the Washington Post.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to pursue full-time freelance work. One of my first gigs was ghostwriting a book.

Guess what piece of software was essential to the creation and successful completion of that work?

Now four years into freelancing, I use Scrivener every day, both for my writing—even this post—and the writing I do for my clients. I could make my living without Scrivener, but I’m grateful I don’t have to.

And I’ll always remain grateful that a single feature in this superb software made me a writer.

I have no doubt that once you overcome the learning curve, you’ll come to love this writing software too—especially when you hear that project completion bell.

Join me in person or via live stream on Sunday, Oct. 13, from 11 a.m. To 1:30 p.m. for “Scrivener 101: How to Start Using Your New Favorite Writing App.”



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. This 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!

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!

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!

Overcoming Writer's Block by Janée J. Baugher

Do you have difficulty getting started writing?  Perhaps you suffer from writer’s block.  But, as with most maladies, there is a cure. 

First off, figure out what’s got you blocked.  You’re bereft of ideas?  You’re feeling fearful?  You’re experiencing perfectionism paralysis?  Next, figure out what things you can do to combat your blockage.  For example, have you tried the Surrealist’s automatism techniques?  Have you tried focusing on process (rather than product) and simply writing as if no one is reading? 

Have you tried writing with exceedingly low expectations?  Author Julia Cameron of the book, The Artist’s Way says, “It’s not the writer’s job to think the thing up but to put it down.”  In other words, if you’re welcoming your thoughts into your writing process (i.e. the act of turning a blank sheet of paper into a page of words), you’re suffocating your writing before it can take its first breath.  You might be asking, “how can I write without my thoughts?”  Writing without conscious intent is the work of creative writers.  Going to the page without a notion of where our words will take us is how literary arts “write in the spirit of discovery.”  Read Peter Elbow’s essay “Freewriting” as an instructional guide about how to simply delight in the word journey.

As with anything that one aims to master, this process takes great practice.  However, if your writer’s block is truly just a matter of not having ample time.  Read my article in Fiction Southeast on how to capture just enough time each day to make the words count.

Now, get to it!  Write on!

Getting Letters of Recommendation for Your MFA

It can feel like you're jumping through a bunch of hoops just to get your MFA application complete. One of the things I worried over the most: letters of recommendation. For starters, I had been out of college for seven years and I wasn't a liberal arts major to begin with. I didn't know who to ask or how to ask them for what I thought was a BIG favor.

So, I made it as easy on them as possible by almost writing the letter for them. I figured my letter writers were busy and that I wasn't the only one asking them for a letter of recommendation. But, I didn't have a problem getting my letters. Why?

In each case I moved the due date up by at least a month. Instead of saying I needed the letter by December 15th I said I couldn't have it later than November 15th. This created some wiggle room if we needed it. Without fail, all the letters came in on time.

Even if your letter writers know exactly who you are, you should make it easy for them to write specifically about you and your work. This is doubly so if you are asking someone to write a letter who only has a faint recollection of you and/or your work. So I wrote a muscular paragraph in my Ask Letter on the following things:

  • I wrote a paragraph on why I wanted to get an MFA and why I was ready now.

  • I wrote a paragraph describing my work.

  • I wrote a paragraph stating my literary influences.

  • I wrote a paragraph telling them exactly what I wanted to accomplish in an MFA program.

  • I wrote a paragraph telling them the most interesting things about my background so they could know me better.

Now that I am asked to write letters of recommendation, I ask students who reach out to me to address the bullet points above. I'll often adapt what they write and add my own perceptions from the time I spent with them and their work. If you include this information in your Ask Letter you'll eliminate a step for your letter writer and make it easier on them to get you the letter you need for all of the schools on your list.

And, in the end, you shouldn't worry too much about the letter of recommendation. Yes, you need them. So make sure you get them. But the people you ask to write letters for you have been in your shoes before. They know you're nervous about asking for the letter and they expect to write some every fall. I know I do. And I don't mind, as long as I get the request with enough advanced warning.

As long as you don't ask for the letter a week before the real due date and you give your letter writers enough info to work from, you should be good to go. So finalize the list of places you're going to apply to and ask your letter writers sooner rather than later.

Oh, and don't forget to ask for their mailing address so you can send a hand written thank you note.

If you have any questions feel free to contact us. And if you'd like some help getting your application in order this year we'd love to work with you. Just let us know. Our instructors have MFAs from Iowa, Michener, UC-Irvine, Michigan, and beyond. We'd love to help.

How to Start a Career in Journalism with Cyrus Farivar

How to Start a Career in Journalism

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 6:30PM

Cyrus Farivar has been a professional journalist for nearly 15 years—early on in his career, as a freelancer, he wrote the very first story for the New York Times about podcasting. He's reported both for radio and print, both in the US and abroad, as a freelancer and a staffer, and has published two non-fiction books. In more recent years, he's used public records laws to gain access to 4.6M license plate reader records from the Oakland Police Department, among others. In this seminar he'll teach you how to get started as a journalist, and in particular, how to use state and federal records laws to your advantage to tell compelling journalistic stories. We'll go through a series of examples as to how to go about crafting such records requests, and what to do if they're denied.

Instructor Cyrus [suh-ROOS] Farivar is a Senior Tech Policy Reporter at Ars Technica, and is also an author and radio producer. His second book, Habeas Data, about the legal cases over the last 50 years that have had an outsized impact on surveillance and privacy law in America, is out now from Melville House. His first book, The Internet of Elsewhere—about the history and effects of the Internet on different countries around the world, including Senegal, Iran, Estonia and South Korea—was published in April 2011. He previously was the Sci-Tech Editor, and host of "Spectrum" at Deutsche Welle English, Germany's international broadcaster. He has also reported for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, The Economist, Wired, The New York Times and many others. He’s also survived three VfDs on Wikipedia. However, on a 4th VfD attempt in February 2007, he was, in fact, deleted. He was added back briefly in 2015, then deleted again. His PGP key and other secure channels are available here. He is based in Oakland, California.

Fee: $60 or $45 for former/current students | Live Stream Available!

  • Cyrus Farivar Presenter
  • Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 6:30PM - 8:30PM
  • Seminar meets at The Drawing Board at 75 & Campbell: 1900 Jay Ell Dr / Richardson, TX / 75081
  • Live Stream is available for students who live outside of Dallas. Just let us know when you register.

Click the button below to register for the seminar. Contact us HERE if you have any questions about this seminar.