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 -


  1. Probably a good take on the rules, though with #3 how is a never-published writer possibly to know if a story is "good enough" until it's actually accepted by someone? I get way too close to what I've written to be remotely objective, and I vacillate between thinking it's pretty darned good, superior in quality to a lot of what's successfully published, and wondering who the hell I am fooling thinking I can write my way out of a wet paper sack.

    Given that this is true, it is altogether too easy to tweak endlessly, especially once you get some rejections under your belt and are scared to send it to the rest of your agent or market list without fixing whatever it is the form rejections are not telling you is wrong with it.

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