Monday, November 16, 2015

Heinlein's Rules of Writing - the Amendment

A recent discussion on a writers' forum reminded me of Robert A. Heinlein's five rules for writing. These were put forward in his 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction, and are still fiercely debated, some considering them the elixir of life, others a poisoned chalice.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988, left) is considered one of the three masters of "Golden Age" SF, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He wrote some of the great works of the genre — but do his rules hold up sixty-eight years after he wrote them?

1. You must write 

Well, this seems the most obvious of the rules, though I'd possibly phrase it more like If you don't write, you're not a writer. You choose what you do, of course, but a writer who doesn't write is an oxymoron.

What this rule ducks, though, is exactly what "writing" means. For a full-time author like Heinlein, it might mean an eight-hour day in front of the typewriter (or its modern equivalent), but most of us have to juggle many other calls on our time: work, family, Facebook… No, scratch that last one, it's not an excuse. Perhaps the rule should be Use whatever time you can possibly spare to write — even if that only means squeezing in ten minutes a day.

2. You must finish what you write

As with many of these rules, my reaction to this is "yes and no". Its value is as a counter to something I see with a lot of beginning authors, project-hopping. I was guilty of this myself in my teens, rarely finishing a project before I lost interest and went on to something else.

What it meant was that I didn't get enough practice until a little later at writing something complete, in particular learning how to end a story. It's certainly good discipline to keep going with your current story and leave that shiny new project on the back burner till you've finished.

That doesn't mean, though, that every verbal doodle you put down has to be seen through. Many of my stories come from a weekly exercise I take part in, writing for an hour to a prompt. Many of my published works have started that way, included the two stories I published with Musa, The Treason of Memory and The Lone and Level Sands, but equally I've put down many of these pieces as "fun but no potential". If I felt I had to finish everything I started, I'd be inhibited from taking part in these exercises and miss out on some great ideas.

Perhaps this one should be Finish any project you commit to, unless you have very good reason to think it's not working.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order

This is perhaps the most controversial of Heinlein's rules. Taken literally, it's perhaps the worst advice since George Lucas was told everyone would love Jar Jar Binks. It's very rare for a first draft to be fit to send to any agent or editor, and even if you revise as you go (which I don't), chances are you'll still need to revise again in the light of the finished product.

Some people (including, again, me as a teenager) believe that revision spoils the originality and spontaneity of the initial concept. It's not true. Spontaneity, like comedy ad-libbing, takes an enormous amount of work to get right, while actual first drafts tend to be way off the mark.

Many people, though, interpret this rule differently, as advising against constant fiddling. That's far better advice. Getting hung up on making a story perfect is a recipe for never finishing. No story is ever perfect, and I'm not even sure it should be. If, like Oscar Wilde, your day's writing consists of inserting a comma in the morning and removing it in the afternoon, it's a sign the story's good enough to go out into the wide world.

Even so, the rule isn't perfect. Not all rejections are accompanied by rewrite suggestions, or any feedback at all, but occasionally time leads you to recognise one particular aspect of the story that keeps getting it rejected. If you have really good reason for believing a rewrite will fix that, go ahead. In any case, computers have made revision infinitely easier than when I was first pounding a manual typewriter — let alone when Heinlein was writing.

On a few occasions, I've had a response to a submission that they can't accept the story as it stands, but they'll reconsider it if I change X, Y or Z. Heinlein probably wouldn't consider that an "editorial order", but perhaps he had plenty of alternative markets lined up where he knew the editor. I assess requests like that on merit. They've ranged from tightening up the opening scene to changing the gender of the protagonist — it's perhaps not surprising that I agreed to the first (and the story was accepted afterwards) and refused the second, although not without considering.

So perhaps I'll make that one When you've got your story good enough, leave it alone unless you have a concrete reason to change it.

4. You must put the work on the market

Ultimately, I write to communicate. Of course I write largely what I'd want to read, but if the stories were purely for myself, there'd be no point in actually writing them down. If I want anyone to read my work, I need to get it published, whether with a professional publisher or self-publishing.

So yes, if you finish a story, it's worth nothing unless you're trying to get it read. If you're making a living from your writing, that has to mean "putting it on the market", but few of us are in that league. In any case, there are more options than in 1947, and a story can be published, self-published, or even given away free in a calculated effort to generate interest.

So this one, perhaps, could be When you've finished a story, do everything you can to get it read as widely as possible.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold

This seems to me an over-insistent rule that nevertheless contains a truth. It's very easy to get discouraged if a story is continually rejected, but all a rejection is saying — unless it's accompanied by feedback — is that particular editor can't use it at that particular time. It doesn't necessarily mean the next editor won't snap it up.

We all know anecdotes about how such-and-such a bestseller was rejected X number of times before someone took a chance on it. I certainly haven't published a bestseller, or anywhere close, but I did have one story that was accepted on the eighteenth time of asking. And, having been rejected by a number of fairly small markets, it was eventually published by a professional-rate magazine. It was simply a good fit with them at that time.

On the other hand, there comes a point where further submission seem merely cruel and unusual punishment of a deceased equine. That's nothing to do with the number of rejections a work has garnered. A story may be very specialist, for instance, with only a few markets you can reasonably submit it to, and when those are exhausted, there's nowhere else to go. Or the editor may give you damning feedback which, after the permitted tantrum, you have to admit is reasonable.

This leaves you with three options. You can say sod them all and self-publish. You can decide you'll probably never get a paid acceptance for that story, and stick it on your blog for free. Or you can invoke the final sanction and mark it as "retired" on your database.*

So we'll make this rule Don't give up trying to get a story published unless you're absolutely certain you're wasting your time.

So where does this leave us? I have no great hopes that the Blatchley Amendment to Heinlein's Rules for Writing is going to replace the original, but here it is.

1. Use whatever time you can possibly spare to write.
2. Finish any project you commit to, unless you have very good reason to think it's not working.
3. When you've got your story good enough, leave it alone unless you have a concrete reason to change it.
4. When you've finished a story, do everything you can to get it read as widely as possible.
5. Don't give up trying to get a story published unless you're absolutely certain you're wasting your time.

* Or "semi-retired" in my case. Never say never.

Image of Robert A. Heinlein: "Heinlein-face". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stardust by Neil Gaiman - The Book and the Film

I saw the film of Stardust not long after it came out in 2007, and loved it. A grown-up (but not especially "adult") fairy story, it was exciting, magical, beautiful and funny. I was aware that it was based on a book by Neil Gaiman, but for some reason it's taken me till now to get around to reading it.

I often approach film adaptation of books with some dread, although it's by no means always justified, but it's a much rarer experience to do it backwards. I read Iain Banks's The Crow Road after seeing the TV serial (a well-adapted version). Much longer ago, as a young child, I recall reading Dodie Smith's The One Hundred and One Dalmatians after watching the Disney animated version and being highly confused about the differences.

Whether it's due to the order of exposure, or simply because it works, I found that the considerable changes made for the film version of Stardust didn't bother me. I suspect it's the latter reason. Books and films are very different media, and as long as changes have a good reason, they're sometimes necessary1.

In any case, a bit of variation somehow works better in this case than most. The story of Stardust has so much the feeling of an old folk-tale that it's almost as if, rather than the film being based on the book, both are retellings of an older story, and have chosen to interpret its core events in slightly different ways.

The story tells how a young man, Tristran Thorn (Tristan in the film, but I'll refer to him throughout by his original name, to avoid confusion) lives in an ordinary 19th century English village that just happens to be a short stroll from the wall that divides the mundane world from the world of Faerie2. Desperate to win the love of the village beauty Victoria, he vows to bring her back a star that's fallen far beyond the Wall.

Tristran isn't an ordinary young man, since his mother belonged to the magical realm, and he finds no shortage of friends there. However, when he reaches the place where the star has fallen (by instantaneous travel using a "Babylon candle"), he finds something he hasn't expected. Far from being a lifeless lump of rock, this star proves to be a young woman called Yvaine.

Their return journey to the Wall is marked by encounters with a unicorn and a flying ship, among other things, but also by pursuit from a powerful witch and several ruthless princes, each of whom wants the magic of the star for their own ends.

The book and the film follow similar plots, but the film cuts out a good deal of the travelling (Tristran and Yvaine's journey back to the Wall is reduced from months to a week) and substitutes several more visual and dramatic sequences.

That's perfectly reasonable. The book is very much about the journey, a relatively calm affair (with a few notable exceptions) in which Tristran and Yvaine's enemies essentially neutralise one another, and it works beautifully that way. A film, on the other hand, needs focus, action and spectacle, and this is achieved by additions like a climactic action scene that has no parallel in the book. It's also achieved through Robert De Niro.

The book features a very brief sequence in which Tristran and Yvaine are rescued from the cloud where they happen to have become stranded by a flying ship on a lightning-gathering voyage. It's under the command of a fairly unremarkable character called Captain Alberich, who gives them passage for a while.

In the film, this has changed to a larger-than-life pirate vessel under the command of a transvestite pirate captain (De Niro) called Captain Shakespeare. Their time on board is now full of events, and the captain and crew end up playing a major part in the story.

This may have no sanction in the book, but it works spectacularly, with De Niro really hamming it up (in the best possible sense of the phrase). Similarly, the big fight near the end in the castle of the three witches, to save Yvaine from having her heart cut out, is a fitting climax to the film.

In general (apart from the flying ship) the various elements are explored more thoroughly in the book than the film. The central plot, of Tristran and Yvaine's relationship mutating from enmity to love, works in both, although it's perhaps a little more hurried in the film. Still, having to pack it in more tightly leads to some great one-liners from Yvaine, who's splendidly played by Claire Danes.

The book explores the village and explains its relationship with Faerie quite extensively, whereas it's glossed over in the film. We also learn a lot more in the book about the enemy princes, although the film versions still work well on their own terms. Coming from a kingdom where succession conventionally goes to the last prince standing, the seven brothers are down to three by the start of the story, with two eliminated along the way, leaving only the most ruthless to pursue Yvaine — though constantly accompanied by the ghosts of his dead brothers.

The three witches who seek the star's heart to restore their youth are more straightforwardly presented in the film, without the tantalising hints at their bizarre nature that we get in the book. Nevertheless, the chief of them (unnamed in the book, Lamia in the film) is played with huge gusto by Michelle Pfeiffer, both as stately beauty and old hag. The climactic scene, as Tristran tries desperately to save Yvaine before the witches cut out her heart, is very effective, even if it's a far cry from the witch's final, rather pathetic scene in the book.

So which is better, the book or the film? To be honest, I don't think I could answer that. If the film had been more of a straight adaptation of the book, it probably wouldn't live up to the original. As it is, what we have is a superb book and a superb film, telling different versions of the same tale. And that, I think, makes a perfect adaptation.

 1 That doesn't mean all changes are forgivable, of course. See my recent rant on the subject.

2 There's a very obvious parallel here with Lord Dunsany's classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter, which is probably not accidental. Gaiman is well versed in the classics of fantasy, and the fact that he uses Dunsany's favourite phrase, "the fields we know", to refer to the mundane world is a bit of a giveaway.