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Author Topic: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~  (Read 2606 times)

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Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« on: November 10, 2010, 11:34:44 AM »
Vonnegut´s 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story


I stumbled across a blog where a girl talked about eight rules of writing fiction, and I shamelessly googled the rules for my own thoughts. They were written by Kurt Vonnegut who, according to wikipedia, wrote them in self-assessment purposes.

He added to the listing of these rules that great writers tend to break them. So… Let's not take them too seriously, eh?

Anyway, here´s my take on them…



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

This seems easy enough, until you stop to consider what it actually means. Can you ever be sure your writing is good enough to be a fair way to spend another persons time? Not really. Not even close.
All we can ever do is make sure what we put out there is the very best we can give. Right?

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Oh goody, here's a fun part. Who doesn't love writing a likable hero? Or… wait. The unlikables are fun to write too. The difficult ones you seem to care about despite all their flaws and mistakes. The real thing isn't writing a likable character or characters, it´s about writing lovable ones. They can be sweet, nasty, mean, saintly, tough, weak… Think of the people you root for in life and ask yourself why. For me it's this, for you it's that… Just make sure you write people, not a perfect picture. We don't need the perfect picture to improve or find its way or get through tough times, it's already perfect... so why would we bother writing about it?

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Again, the perfect picture. If the character doesn't need anything, we have no reason to follow his or her story. Do we really care to find out just how long that person is going to stay perfectly happy and satisfied? Of course we need wants. We need the story to go somewhere, take us somewhere… even if it´s only to the table to pick up a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
I like this one. It pushes us to really think about what we're writing. it makes us get rid of pointless stuffing that pours onto the page when we get carried away or simply have nothing more to say and need to finish a scene or paragraph or even sentence. Think about this whenever you find yourself, say, describing the bedroom curtains in detail. Do we really need to know if the flowers on it are pink or purple? There is another angle to this, I personally think. Sentences used to set the atmosphere of a setting, give a sense of feeling, may not advance action or reveal character but are still important to me. I think if we stripped a story of that it wouldn't capture me as much, if at all. So, basically, I like the rule for what it is, but I think it's a little raw...

5. Start as close to the end as possible.
Brilliant. I've never heard it put like that, but I think it's brilliant. Don't get lost in back-story and leading-up-to's, start where the story really begins. You can always add the details of your back-story to the internal dialogue and through author comments as the story progresses, but don't allow that to take the spotlight. Your story should be front stage and center.

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.
The rule pretty much says it: we want the reader to know what makes our characters tick. How they face danger and difficulties, if they run and hide or fight. Our true colors are most visible when we're under pressure and faced with tough choices, yes? This also boils down to tension and drama, to give your readers a reason to care and a reason to wait anxiously for what waits on the next page.

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.
See, this one makes it simple for us. The whole 'not wasting a stranger's time' only needs to apply to one person ;) In reality, if we want to follow this rule, that one person should be you. If we don't count you, it should be someone whose opinion you appreciate and value. Someone you trust.
And, if we don't take the rule quite as literally, write in a consistent direction. Don't try to fit everything  into a single story. You may love lasagna and you may love roast beef, but I somehow doubt you'd throw it on the same plate. It not only ruins the taste, it ruins the mood.

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.
I like it. It´s basically telling you to help your readers care. Help them get so lost in your story they don't want to put the book down (or browse away from the page). Creating suspense is in my opinion a good thing, but it's a difficult thing to do well. Maybe what the great writers have in common, amongst other things of course, is the skill to create just the right amount of mystery and suspense to keep us on our toes. I think many writers disregard this kind of rules masterfully in their efforts to create a thrilling experience for readers, but I also think many try to do so and fail. Instead, we get a good plot that isn't revealed until too late, until after you've lost interest in the story. I definitely think this is a rule worth keeping in mind, even if you end up ditching it when your mystery starts to braid onto the pages...


What do you think of these?


Offline rick957

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #1 on: November 11, 2010, 08:10:01 AM »
Hiya.  :)  First I wanted to say that I greatly enjoyed reading both your blog posts so far.  I've often wondered why there isn't more discussion about writing technique on such a literary-minded site as Elliquiy ... there seems to be a good amount of mutual encouragement among writers, but not a lot of nuts-and-bolts debate or discussion on the writing process.  Hope your blog will continue.  :)

Second I wanted to say, I really like reading Elliquiy's blogs but I never can tell if people actually want responses to them, because almost no one responds to them, and not many bloggers go out of their way to invite responses.  So anyway, I'm going to respond to your blog, but if you didn't want responses, just tell me and I'll delete this post, no problem.  :)  Personally I'd be interested in hearing other responses to your blog also.

As to Herr Vonnegut and your responses to him ...

Quote
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This seems easy enough, until you stop to consider what it actually means. Can you ever be sure your writing is good enough to be a fair way to spend another persons time? Not really. Not even close.
All we can ever do is make sure what we put out there is the very best we can give. Right?

I agree with your response, but I also think this is the dumbest of all the rules; it's basically a roundabout way of saying, try to write something worth reading.  Why would you let anyone else see it if you didn't think it was worth reading?

I think a writer should take their craft seriously if they want people to take their work seriously (as something valuable and meaningful, not "seriously" as in non-comedic).  But I also think the creation of art requires a suspension of self-judgment on the part of the artist; it's about getting out what's inside you, whatever's inside you that wants to come out.  Afterwards comes the part where you make some judgment about whether or not the stuff you just put out is any good, or good enough to show to others.  It's one thing to try to connect to an audience, to transmit something meaningful, but it's another thing to worry about what your audience thinks of you or your stuff. 

I'm being a bit facetious and over-the-top here, but part of me wants to say, "Fuck 'em! ... Nobody's forcing you to read my stuff if you don't like it."  I think a writer or artist needs to have some of that attitude, at least ... If I put the work in front of you, it's only because I think it's worth your attention; if you don't think so, read something else, you know?

Anyway, I don't think any of that is the point of his rule, but that's my gut response to it.

I'm skipping rules like #2 because I have no major positive or negative response to it.

Quote
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

This rule seems gigantic to me, like maybe the most important thing.  Isn't this all that a writer does, is get inside a character's head, figure out what the character wants -- at each moment, in small things, but also broadly, in the bigger picture -- and then show the audience the character's attempts to get what he or she wants? (and the ensuing complications, which form the plot)?  Seems that way to me at least.

Quote
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

... There is another angle to this, I personally think. Sentences used to set the atmosphere of a setting, give a sense of feeling, may not advance action or reveal character but are still important to me. I think if we stripped a story of that it wouldn't capture me as much, if at all. So, basically, I like the rule for what it is, but I think it's a little raw...

#4 seems really important to me too, and I also agree with your response to it; I think creating atmosphere and setting is an inextricable part of revealing character, kind of a prerequisite, setting the stage on which the character is revealed ... or something like that.

Quote
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
Brilliant. I've never heard it put like that, but I think it's brilliant. Don't get lost in back-story and leading-up-to's, start where the story really begins. You can always add the details of your back-story to the internal dialogue and through author comments as the story progresses, but don't allow that to take the spotlight. Your story should be front stage and center.

I totally agree with what your response says, but I'm not sure that's what his rule is getting at ... I'm not sure what it's getting at, really.

#6 is a fun one.  :)

Doesn't the idea of #7 work against the idea of #1, sorta?

#8 hits me as the most interesting rule, but I can't decide if that's because I strongly agree with it or strongly disagree with it.  Either way, it's a rule that contradicts my personal approach to writing, which means I may have a lot to learn from that rule ... or I may end up deciding it's B.S.  Have to mull that one over.  :)

One last thing:

Quote
He added to the listing of these rules that great writers tend to break them.

That's a really telling comment, I think.  Hugely.  There's more to be said about that, but this is too long already.  :-[

Quote
What do you think of these?

There ya go, sorry if the length put you off.  :)  I hope somebody else comes along and comments too (assuming that's what you wanted).

Nice blog!

Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #2 on: November 11, 2010, 11:16:21 AM »
Hey there! Thanks so much for the response ;D I definitely love talking about the things I find interesting enough to write about, so... yeah :) Comments are very welcome. And thank you for the compliment!



I agree with your response, but I also think this is the dumbest of all the rules; it's basically a roundabout way of saying, try to write something worth reading.  Why would you let anyone else see it if you didn't think it was worth reading?

I think a writer should take their craft seriously if they want people to take their work seriously (as something valuable and meaningful, not "seriously" as in non-comedic).  But I also think the creation of art requires a suspension of self-judgment on the part of the artist; it's about getting out what's inside you, whatever's inside you that wants to come out.  Afterwards comes the part where you make some judgment about whether or not the stuff you just put out is any good, or good enough to show to others.  It's one thing to try to connect to an audience, to transmit something meaningful, but it's another thing to worry about what your audience thinks of you or your stuff. 

I'm being a bit facetious and over-the-top here, but part of me wants to say, "Fuck 'em! ... Nobody's forcing you to read my stuff if you don't like it."  I think a writer or artist needs to have some of that attitude, at least ... If I put the work in front of you, it's only because I think it's worth your attention; if you don't think so, read something else, you know?

Anyway, I don't think any of that is the point of his rule, but that's my gut response to it.

I think what he's getting at is the mindset. I think you're right about it being a fancy-pants way to say "do your best" ;) and I also think it may be focused mostly towards those who primarily write in the purpose of publishing. Those who write to express emotions obviously shouldn't worry about this... Or, that's how I see it anyway.


I totally agree with what your response says, but I'm not sure that's what his rule is getting at ... I'm not sure what it's getting at, really.

Haha, yeah... I think he's saying "skip all the BS and get to the action-action-action! He seems pretty determined to rid the story of everything not vital to moving the story forward, as in rule #4


Doesn't the idea of #7 work against the idea of #1, sorta?

It does if you take it literally. If you think of it in terms of mindset it's not as counteractive. I think. Maybe. XD

#8 hits me as the most interesting rule, but I can't decide if that's because I strongly agree with it or strongly disagree with it.  Either way, it's a rule that contradicts my personal approach to writing, which means I may have a lot to learn from that rule ... or I may end up deciding it's B.S.  Have to mull that one over.  :)

I go both ways on that one also. I think it's a good thing to reveal lots and lots of information, to let the reader get familiar with and delve into the setting and events, characters, but I also think sometimes it's better to leave things unsaid. Maybe it's more a question of giving them as much information as needed to let them experience the story in that way, rather than giving as much as possible. But then, that's pretty much common sense ;D


Offline Raphael

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Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #3 on: November 11, 2010, 12:44:53 PM »
If I quote everything I'd like to respond to, this post will be larger than my bed sheet in the end... Heh.

So instead, I hope you forgive me - I would like to simply let my thoughts on the topic flow freely, and if someone is interested in reading them, they'll surely find reference to Amelia's blog and Rick's response.


-cracks knuckles-

Well then...

Vonnegut's 8 rules are more or less half of the rules I follow when writing.

Rule 1 - yes, if you write a book and your mom reads it, they will not feel their time was wasted. But a total stranger will have their time wasted unless they earn something from your writing - entertainment, information, or a message to ponder over. Or with other words - write with a purpose that lies within the pages of your book.

Rule 2 - it's pretty much quite simple, absolutely essential, and so far undeniable. Nothing to say here, I follow it blindly.

Rule 3 - again, simple, extremely important, undeniable. Nothing to say about that one.

Rule 4 - I disagree with it. Or, if you wish, I add an "almost" in it - ALMOST every sentence should reveal character or advance the action. It depends on the individual style, skill, and goal of the writer, of course. To me, there's sentences that are aimed at the reader, not the plot. Description of scenery, for example - it aims to plunge the reader into the world you're creating, or to underline or contrast to the character's current emotions or actions, etc. Description is, at least in my works, vital, and it's instrumental as well - but it neither reveals character nor does it advance the action. So... Almost every sentence.

Rule 5 - more or less. I'd say - start where it gets interesting. What LED the story and the characters to the point where it got interesting can be revealed through dialogue, author's comments, flashbacks, etc depending on the writer's style and writing preferences. But to make your reader go through 200 pages of booooring everyday life before something happens is just stupid, I think. And it breaks half the other rules ;D

Rule 6 - Again - undeniable, essential, and correct. Plots are driven by conflict - whether it's an emotional one inside the character, a social one between two or several characters, or a global event that the characters are dumped into - but conflict is what makes it all tick. So yeah... give the good guys hell ^_^

Rule 7 - I agree, metaphorically. What defines most genres in modern literature is that they predominantly attract a certain group of people - young or old, male or female, goths or nerds, etc. So I'd say - sit down and think hard what group of readers you're aiming to please, and keep it in mind. Make it your goal to write for that specific group. Writing sleazy romance novels aimed to please older male gun owners isn't gonna work. Writing complicated, sophisticated lawyer drama for children doesn't work, as well. So my own rule is - KNOW WHO YOU'RE WRITING FOR, AND WRITE FOR THEM FIRST.

Rule 8 - I agree partially. Again, here I mostly see it as a figure of speech. This is Vonnegut, after all, hehe ;D I follow this rule in the following way: I aim to make the world and the story I'm creating full of life and color, vibrant, vivid, dynamic. And this cannot be achieved if the reader has no freaking idea what the world is like, or the story. Vonnegut never aimed for much suspense - I'm sure Stephen King's rule 8 is the almost exact opposite of Vonnegut's... lol. My own rule is - through description, narrative summary, dialogue and action to add more and more and more detail to make the reader FEEL my world and my story. Of course, it shouldn't be overdone. But still - make your words echo within your reader's all five senses. Make them walk on your highways, smell the perfume of your beautiful girl, hear the sirens of your police cars. Make them understand what world your character lives in - geography, politics, economics, demography, social tension, everything. They want to know about the world of your characters. If they didn't, they'd be reading the newspaper instead.

I have several other rules that I follow and I deem essential. But they are not the purpose of this blog :P

Offline rick957

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #4 on: November 11, 2010, 01:38:09 PM »
Yay, discussion.  :)  Nice to see more responses and interesting comments.

Ris, I'm impressed that you found so much to disagree with in Vonnegut's rules.  :)  It suggests that you've given topics of literary craft a good bit of thought personally ... not something that many folks do, including many writers.  Your explanations were thought-provoking.

Here's an older Elliquiy thread with a very similar topic to this blog post, in case anyone's interested:  Elmore Leonard's writing rules.

Offline Raphael

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Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #5 on: November 11, 2010, 02:17:12 PM »
Yay, discussion.  :)  Nice to see more responses and interesting comments.

Ris, I'm impressed that you found so much to disagree with in Vonnegut's rules.  :)  It suggests that you've given topics of literary craft a good bit of thought personally ... not something that many folks do, including many writers.  Your explanations were thought-provoking.

Here's an older Elliquiy thread with a very similar topic to this blog post, in case anyone's interested:  Elmore Leonard's writing rules.

Once, as an intellectual exercise, I sat down and I daydreamed I was a guest lecturer for a university for a novel writing class. For days and days I would sit and write down my views, notes, knowledge, and understanding about writing a fiction novel, and then in the end I put them together and them broke them into lessons. And that after being born and educated and raised by two literature teachers, and after being instructed and advised for years by a good friend of mine who is a successful local fiction novelist (60 years old). So yes - I have given it allot of thought, and even though I am mostly reluctant to share my thoughts since I am merely a writer, not an author, I kind of wanted to jump in here and share something. So thank you! And yes, I just posted into what you suggested as an alternative topic, as well! Hehe.

As for disagreeing with some of Vonnegut's rules - the last paragraph of my post in Elmore Leonard's writing rules thread applies here, as well. To Vonnegut these were his personal rules. But to us they should be rather perceived as guidelines through which we could eventually define our own rules. ;D

Offline Sonya

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #6 on: November 11, 2010, 05:01:33 PM »
 This is really something that I need to keepp in mind, really all great points to consider when writing. :) I love it.

Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #7 on: November 11, 2010, 05:15:08 PM »
Hey Sonya :-) Thank you for commenting, I hope you'll find this useful!

Online Thufir Hawat

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #8 on: November 13, 2010, 05:57:51 AM »
I like the rules. Following them shows why Vonnegut is, well, Vonnegut.
And I strongly disagree with adding "almost" to rule 4, as suggested earlier. There is no "almost". That's "the Chekhov's gun" rule, and Vonnegut seems to agree. If the scenery matters somehow, even indirectly, by revealing something about the person that chose it, go for it. In this case, it reveals a character. If it doesn't, forget it! There is this invaluable thing called Internet, if I wanted to read about nice comfy chairs, I'd read a catalogue.
Everything that doesn't follow this rule, I call "purple prose". And I really strive to avoid purple prose.
Rule number 6 is my favourite since a long time >:).
And there are some rules that I need to work on myself.
Thank you for this post, Amelia! I might have needed that reminder 8-).

Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #9 on: November 13, 2010, 08:00:27 PM »
Hi Thufir :-)

I love rule 6 too, it's my favorite ;D I think all my writing partners have or will at some point hear me say "oooh! And then I can crush her by doing this and she'll be hurting so bad...! Awesome!"

As for rule 4, I swing back and forth. I'm tempted to say "if the setting and atmosphere matters, it does because it sheds light on some aspect of the characters or the story"... But I'm not sure. Either way, it's definitely worth considering.

Thank you for commenting!

Online Thufir Hawat

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #10 on: November 14, 2010, 07:15:26 AM »
Sounds familiar >:)! Applying rule 6 to all characters got my players to call me a sadistic GM a long time ago. And GMs have told me I'm sadistic towards my characters :P.

You can certainly write to showcase the setting and mood. In fact, there are some pretty well-known examples of this, including some best-sellers 8-). But you still need characters and their actions in order to do so, and memorable ones, or it soon sounds like an offer from a travel agency, written by an employee in a dark mood.

Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #11 on: November 14, 2010, 08:45:17 AM »
Well, there we definitely agree, but my thought is if writing a character necessarily exposes more character depth in those situations. It might add to the already established one but it might not really add enough to impact the story... and still give a pleasant sense of surrounding to the reader. And, just to be clear, I'm not talking about detailed chair-descriptions, hehe ::)

Online Thufir Hawat

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #12 on: November 14, 2010, 10:12:27 AM »
Well, there we definitely agree, but my thought is if writing a character necessarily exposes more character depth in those situations. It might add to the already established one but it might not really add enough to impact the story... and still give a pleasant sense of surrounding to the reader. And, just to be clear, I'm not talking about detailed chair-descriptions, hehe ::)
Note that Vonnegut's rules don't mention you have to have impact on the story ;). A setting detail will still be revealing the character, just because it is there. The character might react to it, or have no reaction, and both would be revealing both for him and the setting. Inaction has meaning and consequences, too, while a character's action are not always changing anything.
In short, the answer to the dilemma of rich setting vs full-blooded characters is "yes" >:).
Also, detailed chair-descriptions totally fall under Vonnegut's rules, that's why I mentioned them :P.

Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #13 on: November 14, 2010, 10:20:25 AM »
-snickers-

How do you fit detailed chair-descriptions into his rules?

Online Thufir Hawat

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #14 on: November 14, 2010, 10:35:21 AM »
-snickers-

How do you fit detailed chair-descriptions into his rules?
You don't fit them into his rules. You follow his rules and cut them out of your text :P!
Easy, isn't it?

Offline AmelitaTopic starter

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #15 on: November 14, 2010, 10:36:27 AM »
-blinks, laughs-

right  XD as I was saying... Aaaanyway ::)

Offline SirDrRPer

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #16 on: November 22, 2010, 06:49:37 PM »
Good points.  I have always incorporated some of these, but to see them laid out explicitly really makes you think the next time you write.

Offline Manoir

Re: Ame's writing related thoughts & advice ~Vonnegut's 8 rules~
« Reply #17 on: November 27, 2010, 02:25:57 PM »
I love Vonnegut -- as author, philosopher and social critic -- and I'm so glad now, as I approach the infinite possibilities of collaborative writing on Elliquiy, to be reminded of his rules, which -- it strikes me re-reading them now, after so many years -- have special implications both for collaborative and for erotic writing, modes I'm most interested in exploring here, since in these kinds of writing one stands on middle ground, as both the other writer's partner and their audience, and, overlaid on that, in the connection of being virtual lovers in the composition, which is lovemaking made words.

Therefore, the first rule becomes a reciprocal "golden rule" where each commits their time not to waste the other's. And the Sufi critique of the Golden Rule applies well here: that most people want the wrong things for themselves, for so it becomes each partner's objective to lead the other where they didn't suspect they wanted to go, to embody innovation and surprise, taking leads from unconscious and subtextual cues.

As for the second rule, the shared compositional process enlarges it to "at least two characters" and "root for" enlarges into "challenge," "develop," and, ideally, "transform." And just so, the third rule becomes "want something and someone!"

Rule four is my favorite, for it distinguishes for me between pornographic and erotic writing. In porn, literally "depiction of harlotry," plot and character are either absent or secondary, at most bare armatures upon which primarily physiological, reflex-based episodes are draped for titillating display, while contrarily, in literary erotic writing, sex becomes not the end but an intensified beginning, of revelation of personality, character and motive, and plot flows through, energizes and is transformed by sex like the current of a freshet through a hydroelectric dam.

Relative to rule five, the achieved end of sex becomes the platform of a new, loftier, more literarily powerful  beginning, the essence of complication and ascending action. Rule six is utterly story-dependent and best left to the individual imaginations, but always a deeply significant element of sexual awareness, of the vulnerabilities, risks and unintetions sex entails.

Seven, Vonnegut's appeal that we write to please one person, in its embellishment upon rule one, brings the resonant congruence of co-writers and lovers full circle to identity and fusion. And rule eight, with his plea for clarity and condensation, exemplifies the Vonnegut I loved as a writer, and discovers for collaborative writing the further use of that power of composition potential in shared consciousness which is the reward of both lovemaking and of all -- but especially this, our newly invented -- fully-realized literatures.

All this is speculative, improvised of my excitement at being here,  and my first post away from my introductory thread as a provisional, "unapproved" member, and I welcome any corrections, criticisms and re-thinkings of these my beginning efforts at connection.