Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing, the Rommel myth, Becky Sharp and Baseball Joe: newsletter, January 11, 2019

January 14, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to all of the subscribers on Jim’s list (2,941) on Friday, January 11, 2019.



The first full week of the New Year has been notable around here (East Tennessee) for what it wasn’t: It WAS NOT “a dark and stormy night.” For the first time since just about anyone can remember, we have not had rain this week. That’s a real contrast from this fall when we have had an overabundance of rain. It’s been a good thing to see the sun shine for a few days.

And speaking of “a dark and stormy night,” those are the famous words of Edward Bulwar-Lytton, a 19th century British author who used that phrase to begin one of his novels and thus went down in literary infamy. We’ll get to him in a subsequent newsletter, possibly when the nights get dark and stormy again.

Within this week’s newsletter are a special announcement and two Amazon giveaways. Read on.

Meanwhile, I hope that your new year has started well and that you have a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,940 subscribers and had a 29.3 percent open rate; 8 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing fiction – especially rule number 4

For those of us coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s and seeking a voice to articulate the absurdities we were seeing and experiencing, Kurt Vonnegut was a God-send.

Vonnegut (1922-2007), a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing as a prisoner of war, wrote in a light, delicate prose that satirized the pompous pronouncements that were being bandied about to explain — or obscure — the lack of logic that we were tempted to accept. In his 14 novels, including Slaughterhouse-5 and Cat’s Cradle, and numerous plays and short stories, he cut through the fog and allowed us to see more clearly.

Vonnegut is still worth reading, and if you haven’t had a taste of him, you should.

Just as Elmore Leonard had his rules for writing in general, Vonnegut had his rules of writing, but these applied to fiction more than non-fiction. They are listed below.

I was reminded of these rules after reading a disappointing novel that violated rule number 4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. The novel had a good storyline, but early on it was weighted down by too much explanation and not enough plot advancement. The author is well-respected and well-reviewed, but in this instance he didn’t have enough faith in his plot or his audience to weave the explanations into the action.

It occurred to me that Vonnegut’s rules are good ones to have in mind even if you aren’t writing fiction, just trying to evaluate what you are reading. So here they are:

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.

And so it goes.

Erwin Rommel, the Desert Myth

One of the luckiest men of the 20th century in terms of having a continuing and positive public image is Erwin Rommel.

Rommel was “Adolph Hilter’s favorite general.” He was the Desert Fox, a moniker applied to him by British journalists. He was a chivalrous soldier who fought a “clean” war and refused Hitler’s orders to execute prisoners of war. He was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, although how much of a part he played in it has been debated since the end of the war.

The Nazi propaganda machined loved Rommel and built him into a hero because of his successes in North Africa. Rommel returned that love, repeatedly posing for the cameras as he directed tank divisions or studied strategic maps. The Germans needed a soldier-hero and Rommel fit the bill.

The Allies, too, loved Rommel for much the same reason. Rommel was touted by the British as a brilliant commander, which made the British victories against him so much more thrilling.

When Rommel died in 1944 — a forced suicide because he was implicated in the assassination conspiracy — the Nazis gave him a hero’s funeral and burial.

After the war, Rommel’s family reinforced this heroic image by authorizing an adoring biography, The Desert Fox by British author Desmond Young. That biography became the basis for the mega-hit movie, The Desert Fox, starring James Mason, that appeared in 1951 to great reviews and is still considered a classic rendition of his life.

Thus, the myth of Rommel, the good German, was cemented.

As time has passed, however, a more balanced view of Erwin Rommel has come into view. As historian Niall Barr has written:

Rommel possessed many military talents, but his flaws as a commander doomed him to failure. His lack of staff training meant that, for all his tactical success, he never properly understood the broader context of ‘his’ war in North Africa – or the fact that the campaign was essentially defensive for the Axis. Most importantly, his failure to understand the complex logistics of the North African theatre meant that his daring advances were never sustainable. Source: BBC – History – World Wars: Rommel in the Desert

Not only is his military prowess in question, but his role in the conspiracy to kill Hitler has been questioned. Rommel’s attitude toward Hitler, who had elevated him far more quickly that he would have been promoted through regular channels, was decidedly mixed.

Rommel’s image is no longer as heroic as it was in the first generation after the war, but it is still largely positive thanks not only to his achievement but also to the deliberate plans of those who want him as a hero.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”


Time once again to pay attention to Becky Sharp — and her creator, W.M. Thackeray

Becky Sharp is at it again — this time in an original, multi-episode, lavish production of Vanity Fair that you can watch on Amazon Prime if you are a member.

Becky and the screen are made for each other, even though William Makepeace Thackeray made Becky about a half-century before motion pictures came about. She is one of those characters that audiences can’t seem to get enough of — an underdog who is bright, resourceful, and ready to make of the world what she can, but only on her terms.

In writing about the many times that Becky has appeared on the screen, John Dugdale in the Guardian says:

Appearing at 10-or 20-year intervals, TV adaptations of Vanity Fair tend to come towards the ends of decades and inevitably find parallels with their own times. In a 1967 BBC production, Susan Hampshire’s Becky was a proto-60s chick, resembling the liberated protagonists of contemporary films. Twenty years on, at the height of the Thatcher era, Eve Matheson’s spunky redhead “who will stop at nothing” (as the publicity proclaimed) could hardly fail to embody the spirit of the age.

In 1998, Natasha Little was the anti-heroine in an Andrew Davies-scripted serial that epitomised the “harsh” approach. Her Becky too (as a complementary BBC documentary invoking 90s celebrities like Madonna underlined) reflected her decade, but could also be seen as encapsulating the ethos of the 18-year Tory reign that had just ended. Source: False conceit: why is Vanity Fair’s scheming heroine misread on screen? | Books | The Guardian

Always, however, Becky Sharp is great fun to watch, and good actresses have relished the role.

So, in enjoying Becky Sharp yet again, we should also pay some attention to the complex and multi-talented man who mad her. William Makepeace Thackery (1811-1863) didn’t set out to be a writer. In fact, he didn’t set out to be much of anything at all. He inherited a tidy sum from his father when he was 21 but lost a good bit of it on gambling on other vices. He tried his hand at being a bohemian artist and at practicing law, but he didn’t seem suited for either life.

What he was suited for was being a writer, and that came by fits and starts — mostly with hackwork to earn money. He contributed both articles and caricatures to the satirical magazine Punch, and there in the 1830s and 40s he began to find a voice, a style, and an audience. Thackeray became one of the best caricaturists of his day. The appearance of Vanity Fair, first serialized in January 1847, put him at the “top of the tree,” in his words, in the London literary world. Thackeray made two profitable lecture tours of America in the 1850s and continued to produce books, often illustrated by the author.

Thackeray’s personal life was not so successful. His wife, Isabella, suffered from depression, and this worsened over the years, despite many efforts to find a cure. His youthful dissipations caught up with him, and he fell victim to a variety of ills in the last decade of his life. He died of a stroke in 1863.

But his work, and particularly his heroine Becky Sharp, continue to live and be revived. If you have a chance to watch the latest version on Amazon Prime, you should give it a try.

Illustration 1: The cover of the first edition of Vanity Fair. It was indeed yellow, which became a Thackeray hallmark, and the author did the illustrations for the book, including the one on the cover.

Illustration 2: Becky and Mr. Joseph Sedley, from chapter 1 of Vanity Fair. (Image scanned by Gerald Ajam and captions by Tiaw Kay Siang and Sabrina Lim.)


The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done

The issue of race is the one that continues to divide America more than any other. The issue goes back to before we were a republic and is all-too-present with us today. Confronting it has never been easy.

That’s why listening to reasonable voices is important. One of the most reasonable and intelligent voices to come out of the South — Alabama, even — in recent years is Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who has helped create the  The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative that aim to bring America’s history of segregation and racial terror to the forefront.

On the Media devoted its entire show to this issue earlier this year, and the folks there rebroadcast it last Sunday. Listen to it — all or part of it. It’s challenging and thought-provoking.

The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done | On the Media | WNYC Studios


New edition of the Baseball Joe series

The newsletter last week carried an item about the incomparable Edward Stratemeyer whose publishing syndicate produced for us young 20th-century readers series of books like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. One of those series was titled Baseball Joe, and Stratemeyer published 14 volumes between 1912 and 1928. The “author” of the series was Lester Chadwick, but they were actually written by Howard Garis and John Duffield.

I promised a big announcement about Baseball Joe last week, so here it is: First Inning Press is publishing new editions of some of the volumes of the Baseball Joe series. So far, we have four Kindle (ebook) editions out and about on Amazon:

Baseball Joe of the Silver Stars or The Rivals of Riverside

Baseball Joe on the School Nine or Pitching for the Blue Banner

Baseball Joe at Yale or Pitching for the College Championship

Baseball Joe in the World Series or Pitching for the Championship

The Baseball Joe series follows Joe Matson as he starts on the local sandlot and ascends to the top of the baseball world. These new editions contain more illustrations than were found in the originals. The new illustrations are by me.

The first of the volume listed above (Silver Stars) is currently $ .99 on Amazon. The others are $2.99. We will be bringing out paperback editions before long and will also be publishing other volumes in the series.

Amazon giveaway: I have organized an Amazon giveaway for Baseball Joe on the School Nine that is going on right now. I’m giving away five copies. If you are interested in getting a free copy ($2.99 value), head over to this link on Amazon and enter the contest. Good luck!


Seeing Suffrage (repeated from last week)

Several years ago I wrote a book about the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade that was held on March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C. It was the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated. Not only did this event turn out to be a pivotal one in the history of the suffrage debate, but it also was one that was well-covered by the newspapers of the day — particularly photographers. In my research, I had discovered a trove of photographs in the Library of Congress and in the library of the Sewell-Belmont House, the historic headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. Many of these photographs had never been published before and were included in the book.

The book, Seeing Suffrage: The 1913 Washington Suffrage Parade, Its Pictures, and Its Effect on the American Political Landscape, was published by the University of Tennessee Press. The press published it only in a hardback edition, however, and has never brought it out as an ebook. Since I hold the copyright, I decided that it was time for that to change. That project was completed just two days before Christmas and is now available on Amazon (free if you are a Kindle Unlimited member). If you have a chance to look at it, I’d like to know what you think.

Amazon giveaway: I have organized an Amazon giveaway for Seeing Suffrage that is going on right now. I’m giving away five copies. If you are interested in getting a free copy ($4.99 value), head over to this link on Amazon and enter the contest. Good luck!


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Baseball Joe


Best quote of the week:

We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. E. M. Forster, novelist (1879-1970) 

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 


You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Fighting poets, the public domain, the genius behind what you read as a kid, and the American cult of ignorance: newsletter, January 4, 2019




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