There was a time when I was a wee lad and Kurt Vonnegut was not particularly famous, when you could make a decent living selling short stories to magazines. There were lots of magazines and lots of readers. There was no internet and people doomscrolled their newspaper in one sitting at breakfast. There were only three channels on the TV and you had to get up to change between them. So people read a lot more.

Was it better. Maybe. People had more time and way more attention span. ADHD wasn’t a real thing. Sitting still and reading a short story in a magazine wasn’t such a bad way to spend the time on an afternoon.

Kurt Vonnegut sold a lot of short stories to magazines in those days, before, as I mentioned, he was famous. He had a family and he made a decent living selling a penny a word tales to Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and so on. These weren’t the voicey, fantastical stories he later hit the big time with. These were just stories about folks.

Hundreds of them. He had a big family.

As you might expect, he had a few thoughts on writing short stories. Pay attention. I think he’s just about as right as rain. I try to listen to this litany a few times a year.

Hi Ho.

“NOW, lend me your ears.

This is how to write a good short story:

  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.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr