Wise Words for Writers: Robert Heinlein

In my last post I spoke about rules – that there are none worth mentioning apart from “is it working?”…………  Does this work?  Is your reader engaged from beginning to end?  Are they hungry for more?

I still believe that is all that ultimately matters, however since writing that post I was reminded of some other kinds of rules that are worth considering.  They come from the Science Fiction master, Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein’s Rules:

1. You must write
2. You must finish what you start
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
4. You must put your story on the market
5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold

By my experience, rules 2, 3 and 4 are most difficult for most people, though you may not suffer from failing at all three.

Rule number 2 can be applied to more people than I can count – including some graduates of quality writing programs.  Do you have any idea how many drawers, boxes, attics, basements, garages and closets are filled with half-finished works?

Rule number 3 may be the rule that most writers have the hardest time keeping.  No more rewriting. No more rearranging. Give it one good edit if you must, but then move on 

Rule number 4 also applies to countless people.  Put it out there already! And while you are waiting for an agent, editor or publisher to fall in love with it, go and write your next one.

For me, at the moment, I am having the most trouble with rule 5.  A rejection or two and I drawer the thing.  How about you?

5 thoughts on “Wise Words for Writers: Robert Heinlein

  1. Rule #3 is great advice. Even when writing essays for graduate work, i.e. essays that will not be published, I can get stuck re-reading and tweaking the text repeatedly well past the point of diminishing returns.

  2. Definitely 4, to the point where I would go as far to respectfully disagree with it. I need to rewrite sometimes so that the right thing happens at the right time, so that I can finish out the rest of the thing in the proper order.

  3. They’re very simple and obvious rules, really, but it’s good to be reminded of them. There are some other ‘rules’ that Kurt Vonnegut proposed, but they’re more about the content of stories rather than the process of writing.

    As to rule 5: for short stories, after a couple of rejections I tend to look at the thing and rewrite. Sometimes the rewritten version gets published. A few times, though, I’ve decided to hang onto it for some reason or other – for example I’ve checked Duotrope and don’t immediately see a market for it at the length it’s worked out at. These I do file away because I have a longer term project they’ll come in useful for. Or I might stick them on my blog!

    For novels – I have two written and never accepted, though in hindsight it’s easy to see why. They’re not really that good. But I have plans for them, because some long segments can get rewritten as short stories or, possibly, novellas at some stage. In the next month or two I’m going to lift one chapter from one of them and rewrite it so I can recycle it into something else I’m about to start writing. I take the view nothing’s ever really lost, or a waste of time, because the recycling option is always there…

    I’m not quite sure about rule 3. I re-read, re-write and edit a fair bit. I recently went to a talk by a local and very successful writer who commented that his work goes through 6-7 drafts: one just to get the ideas down, one to fill in characters and motivations, one to fill out situations and places. Only at that point will he let his wife read it. The fourth and fifth drafts are usually filling in the holes she’s found in the novel, and the sixth and maybe seventh are tidying up the prose and style. Personally I’ll typically develop all that stuff on a patchwork basis as I go along. I treat this rule as having the general meaning of ‘don’t get so wound up in rewriting and editing that the piece never gets finished’.

    I’d also suggest a rule 0: decide what you want to write about. I tend to have the sort of grasshopper mind that likes to keep three or four things in play at once, and then I’ll get to a point with one of them (or, as recently, a completely different one that suddenly happens in the back of my mind) that feels like it’s the one I really need to push on with and finish.

    • I appreciate your read and comments, and I hope others who read this post will also look at what you have said.

      For me, there is this for rule 3. I take it as saying “rewrites need to be handled with extreme care.” There is a tipping point which most writers cannot see in their own work. But on one side, the rewrite helps. On the other, it makes things worse.

      As for rule 0, agreed. Having something to write is always a good place to start.

      As for rule 5, that is the temptation – to rewrite. I think that is part of the reason for Heinlein’s rule 3. An edit, perhaps if your writing has improved considerably since the story first went out. But otherwise, if it was deemed good enough to send to 2 or 3 places, it is good enough for however many it takes to get it “sold.” Besides, I think he would say you should be working on your next story instead…but then he lived before multi-tasking.

      -Michael

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