Heinlein’s Rules for Writing

Robert Heinlein was a science fiction writer who devised these five writing rules.  He believed that few prospective writers actually followed through on these rules, thus contributing to their lack of success.  Since I am going stir crazy waiting for some readers to get back to me, I thought I would take some time to explore these five writing rules since they very much apply to me now.

Rule One: You Must Write

This seems intuitive.  To be a writer, I must write.  However, I know from my own experience that it’s extremely easy to procrastinate and put off writing.  Maybe one more planning exercise or jot down another character bio.  Anything but actually write my novel.  I did this for quite a while until I committed to write every day when the floodgates opened for me (and some might argue they should have stayed closed).  The point is, one needs to sit down, butt in seat, and write, even if it’s only 250 words a day.  One day that novel will be finished.

Rule Two: Finish What You Start

Almost as important as Rule One.  A lot of would-be writers have Chapter One of their big novel they’ve been working on stuck in a drawer, lonely and abandoned.  Writing a novel is about persistence.  It’s a long distance race that requires fortitude, passion, and an obsession to complete a task.  I know near the end that nothing short of death was going to prevent me from finishing that first draft, and later, my edits.  If I accomplished anything in this life, it was going finish this novel.  If it never gets published, heaven forbid, at least I know I gave it my all.

Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

This is one of the most controversial and least understood precepts of Heinlein.  Partially, this may be because Heinlein wrote in a different day when the publishing industry was sitting in a healthier state, and where editors could be more hands-on and publishers more willing to take chances on unproven authors.  My own interpretation of this rule is that at a certain point, you have to consider your novel “done” and submit it.  At this stage, unless an editor at a publishing house (or perhaps an agent) wants changes, you should stop editing the novel.  I like to imagine that as I continue, my writing will improve and as such, I will always likely look back on my first writing efforts with a derisive eye.  I could likely edit my first novel ad infinitum but this is not a productive use of my energies.  Sometimes, you have to learn to let go.  Sometimes, “good enough” is good enough.

Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

I’m not at this stage yet, but this is the real acid test for a writer, I believe.  Keeping a novel in drawer, to me, is travesty.  It might end up in drawer through lack of interest, but you have to see if what you have on your hands is something special or publishable.  If you don’t try, you’ll never know.

An acquaintance of mine, who notably was the person who originally encouraged me to write my first novel, wrote to me:

Without even reading it, but seeing your passion towards it you should aim high and try to publish it. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re only going to go as far as you reach and we are all scared of failure and rejection but those are the two things we make up in our head – you always need to take chances in life.  It’s 99% ‘what ifs’ and the 1% that blocked out emotion and just went for it. Everyone always makes an excuse for whatever it may be. I am completely guilty of it as well. But, you spent years getting this together and I truly believe that you should publish it.

 I guess I should try to publish it.

Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

This means getting rejection after rejection.  People telling you you’re novel isn’t good enough.  But, there is an audience somewhere for everything, you just need to find it.  I truly believe that.

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Beta Readers

My novel is now out with beta readers.  It’s scary.  I admit it.

For the first time, someone is actually going to read my novel for the first time, the full way through.  (This assumes of course they won’t get bored 50 pages in and put the book down for something better).  To date, people have read snippets here, and excerpts there, but this will be the first time anyone will see the big picture I was trying to accomplish.  I’ll finally get to see if what I was aiming for was achieved or just a big miss.

Yes, I am antsy.

Maybe I’ll think about my next novel while I wait.

 

My Novel, Part III

So what is my novel about?

Well, I don’t like to give away spoilers here, in case anyone reading this will end up reading my work, but I can discuss it from a 50,000 foot level.

Essentially, it’s a coming of age story about some mid-20s persons who have just left university and now trying to find their footing in life. I remember being 25 and its both a wonderful time (carefree and possibly making some money versus being a dirt poor student) but also scary since your career choice may not be settled and often you have to start off at the bottom of the rung, which can be a trying experience.

This is a very character driven novel. To me, that means that the crux of the story is about moving characters from point A at the beginning of the novel to point B at its end. Obviously, the plot, such as it is, is the device to accomplish this goal. This is quite different from a plot driven novel where the plot is the essence and characters populate the world to accomplish the plot goals. I say this is character driven since the characters were developed in my head many years ago when i was bored and travelling and decided it might be fun to experiment with creative writing. There are two female characters in particular who I have had in my head for quite some time.

In a lot of ways, this story is my way of understanding who these characters really are: What motivates them? What fears do they have? What are their dreams? What kind of weaknesses do they possess? How do they handle problem solving?

I can say, after finishing my first draft and now editing the novel, that if nothing else, I have satisfied myself in my mind, why the characters are the way I originally envisioned them about eight years ago. That is a small victory at least.

I divided the book into three parts. I wasn’t sure about this at first but I think its the right decision. Usually, a novel is divided into parts where there is a time shift or a radical shift in point of view. In this case—again, no spoilers—the parts represent different interconnected stories, some of which bleed into the other. By the end of the novel, the reader hopefully (if I have done my job as a writer) will get a better understand of the evens in Part I from reading Parts II and III.

The novel is not only character driven but heavy in theme. One of the major themes explored is that of inspiration and muses. I should know, since I have my own muses whom assisted in the inspiration of this novel. Other themes will become apparent as the reader progresses through the novel.

As far as structure, it fits the three act structure well, although I do subdivide Act II into Act 2a and Act 2b, since while they generally attempt to accomplish the same goal (put obstacles in the way of the protagonist), I think they also play subtly different roles. I also believe it’s a good idea to have something dramatic happen at the novel’s mid-point. In the case of my novel, there is a psychological significance to this event but whose meaning only becomes better understood by the end of the novel.

My First Novel Part II: Inspiration

I’ve been quite busy editing my first novel so I haven’t had much time to post here but wanted to throw in a few thoughts about the writing process to date.

Inspiration is a bizarre thing. I can’t really explain how I came to write this novel. It certainly isn’t anything I would consciously sit down and say to myself, “Hey, maybe I should write this crazy coming-of-age story.” The truth is, the two main characters originally came from short stories I wrote years ago when I was living out west and travelling a lot. In retrospect, it is a shame I never nurtured my writing abilities after this period of time since I recently found these once-lost short stories and marvelled at how my perception of the characters, even seven years ago, hasn’t really changed much.

I was encouraged to write this story by a bartender whom I once told about my passion for writing. The funny part is, I don’t even remember telling her originally, most likely because I had one too many beers. The next time I saw her, she asked how my writing was going. Of course, I was confused as to how she knew about my writing since to that point, I had told very few people about my aspirations. Regardless, she was undaunted in asking me every time I saw her how my writing was progressing. Of course, it wasn’t progressing at all, but her questioning me did give me the spark to try to organize my thoughts to make a serious effort.

I spent most of the first year struggling to write was would become essentially Act One of my novel. It was really getting the characters, tones, and basic themes down. I had no clue where this story was going and only the roughest idea of how it would end. I also realized I had no clue how to write or structure a novel, so took some time off after finishing this first part and read every writing book imaginable. I studied all about three act structure and things like turning points, inciting incidents, and pinch points. Only once this had been properly digested, could I progress in writing the novel. This time away also allowed the rest of my novel to form in my mind.

It wasn’t until I sat down one day and committed to write every day on my novel, even if that meant only 200-300 words hit the page, that I made breakthroughs. It was as if my mind said to me, okay, I know you are taking this serious now, so I’m going to help you finish this thing.

I often found that hiking served as a wonderful muse for this novel. I know most of the ending came to me while I was hiking in Algonquin Park one summer day. Music also played a key role. There are a number of scenes that have their own particular song which inspired me. The emotion from that song, whether it be happy, depressing, or hopeful, encapsulated the emotion that I then tried to capture on paper through my writing.

Today, I still marvel how my subconscious played a role in helping me write this novel. There are a number of instances where I would write something which baffled me (for example, a character would have a weird trait) only for the literary reason for that quirk to become apparent in the latter stages of the novel.

I’m working on editing now, which is an interesting process in itself and worthy of its own post. I hope to be ready for beta readers in May. There will be a sense of relief to actually get this thing out into the public and see what it is I have really created. Is this just something I have written for myself, with no value or meaning to others, or something else that resonates with readers, perhaps on an individual level.

I guess I will find out shortly.

 

My First Novel, Part I

Ok, I just finished writing the first draft of my first ever novel.

Did I learn anything in the process? Plenty. So, I thought I would share some of the more salient points of my experience with you. My first draft totaled approximately 150,000 words, about twice as long as I originally had planned to write. However, as I started writing the story, I realized it was becoming more complex by the day. My original high-level outline called for about 60-70 scenes. The final draft had 105 scenes, not including the epilogue.

I tend to be a bit wordy but I found that my writing tightened up as I went along. Scenes that went on for 3000+ words in the beginning, I could now write in only 1500-2000 words. I think when you are banging out scene after scene, like I was near the end, there is a fatigue element that is somewhat helpful in that a reader can also experience fatigue in reading a writer’s work. This becomes even more apparent during the editing stage when I read through my work end-to-end for the first time and you get a better sense of pacing within your novel.

I started at the beginning thinking I was going to be a strict outliner, but ended up discovering I was more of a “pantser” that I first imagined. Now, I was partially saved by the fact my novel is mainly character driven so that intricate plotting was less of a necessity than if I was writing a hyper-intense thriller. I discovered, at least for this novel, that I prefer using writing beats versus having a whole slew of scenes mapped out in detail. I would often tackle a scene with a vague notion of what I was trying to achieve in it then would let my inspiration guide me through the scene. Sometimes, I would get stuck and writing a scene took me longer than I originally planned, but I didn’t like moving onto the next scene until I had satisfactorily completed the current one. Of course, “satisfactorily” is a subjective term, but as I loathe the thought of major re-writes, I generally wanted to at least nail the tone and basic content of the scene as I envisioned it in my brain. If I could do 75% to 80% of the work, I could finish the remainder during the editing stage.

I wrote my scenes in order. I think it would be difficult for me to write certain scenes out of order, although there were numerous scenes I had in my head that I knew I wouldn’t write for awhile and that were seared into my brain, dying to come out onto the page. When I finally did get to writing them, it was a great relief to me to remove these contents from my brain and place them onto a page.

I tackled my novel by dividing it into four parts. Essentially, I used a high level plan where I employed a three act structure. In this three act structure, Act 2 can often be divided into Act 2a and Act 2b. Both serve the overall goals of what an Act 2 should serve (it’s the real meat of a story), but in my mind, each half presents different challenges that the main characters must face. Of course, Act 1 sets up the story and the problems needing solving, and Act 3 provides the final challenges and resolutions. By dividing the novel into four parts, I found it less daunting to write. I would start writing each section and then plan it out in more detail as I went along. Usually once I was half way done the section, I could map out the rest of it in my head. Sometimes, I would play around with it on paper just to make sure the section didn’t go off the rails.

My novel was highly theme driven also. I planned out the basic themes before even starting the novel. As my writing continued, I would revisit my notes to make sure my draft was following along with these themes and potentially addressing any new themes that may have popped into my head.

I often found that my subconscious brain did a lot of the heavy lifting for me. Many times, I dreaded a certain upcoming scene because I had no clue what was going to happen in it but I knew it was critical to the overall development of the novel. Often time, I would be thinking four to five scenes ahead of me and by the time I reached the scene I had previous dreaded, my subconscious had figured out what needed to happen in the scene, thus making writing it much easier than I expected. One of the neat byproducts of this was sometimes I would write about some quirky thing in one section of the novel, not understanding what it really meant, only to later have it make complete sense to me as I wrote a later scene.

Music also played a major role in the creation of this novel. I often found certain songs would serve as a muse for me in my writing. Depending on the song, I could visualize clearly in my head how certain scenes would play out. I could feel the emotions of the characters involved. I used this process to capture exactly what I saw and felt onto the page as best as I could.

Writing a novel was a dream of mine since childhood. Unfortunately, I spent a good portion of my life doing nothing to advance my writing skills, other than reading, of course. Despite the fact I had purchased books on writing novels, how to structure them, how to promote them, etc, I had committed next to no time investing in developing my actual writing skills. Luckily, I had a few inspirational persons along the way who encouraged me to write. I figured, if even one other person is interested in me writing a story, then there are perhaps others. Maybe even a dozen or so. 😉

I am busy editing now, which will comprise a future post. Suffice it to say, regardless of what happens with this book, I am happy to have plowed ahead with this process and am the better person for it.

2016, Here we Come

Hello all, I have been very quiet for last six months because I have been quite entrenched in finishing off the first draft of my novel.  I finished it in late November and am now in the editing stages.  I have to admit it has been both an exhilarating experience–making my characters comes to life–and a frustrating one as I realize the current limitations of my writing abilities.  However, I am hopeful if I continue to plug on, I will improve as a writer, even incrementally so, one day at a time.

I am now in the dreadful editing phase of which I would like to comment on more later.  I hope to spend more of my posts in the next while discussing my experiencing so far in writing my first ever novel, and the challenges of editing.  Hopefully, one day soon, this novel might be good enough to be published.

I have other writing projects on the table that I am excited about.  They are derivative of my current novel.  I’ll speak a bit about those in the coming months as well.

In the meantime, happy new years to everyone, and happy writing.  May 2016 be a prosperous and happy year for us all.

 

Writing and Empathy

As I continue to develop my writing, I find myself increasing more aware of my surroundings, analyzing others around me. I ponder on the motivations of those I run into, either noble or otherwise. I find myself more in tune with their vulnerabilities, their fears, their insecurities, their arrogance, their deception, their hopeful joy, their frustrated sorrow. The more I write, the more empathetic I become. I guess this is my brain rewiring itself so I am in tune with the vibes others put out there every day, which were likely always present but invisible to my embryonic writer’s eyes.

As writers, aren’t we attempting to paint pictures of reality, even if it is the most subtle of things we are unearthing and bringing forth to the light? Isn’t it our duty not only to entertain but to shine a mirror back onto society to reveal an image, flattering or not, about itself? I suppose the most rewarding thing about writing (and consequently reading) is that when done well, there is a sense of accomplishment in comprehending either a simple truth that resonates with us, or perhaps, something more grandiose and profound.

For most of my life, I have been the “strong but silent” type. An observer. While I myself am not the biggest partier in the world, or the most creative, and certainly not the most social, I have had the privilege of crossing paths with such individuals. I take note of how they interact with others, how they speak, how they laugh, what makes them angry, sad, nervous, insecure, fearful, and even aroused. At the same time, I have become more aware of my emotions as they relate to various matters, becoming more self-aware in the process.

I heard an interesting comment from a reader of my work the other day when she told me “I feel like I am taking a tour of your mind.” That’s a scary thought but, when I thought about, somewhat accurate, since my writing really is just an amalgam of my own observations about me and others. Perhaps that is why some suggest that writing is therapeutic, that our brains release endorphins when we write because we gain a sense of accomplishment even when we tackle smaller goals.

The beauty in writing is that, if I am successful, I can help others see the visions I have in my head. I bring those fictional avatars to life and mold them into real flesh and blood characters with whom we love, hate, fear, lust, envy, and pity. Perhaps I can make you feel something you’ve never experienced before, or reminded you of that time you cried just like the main character did. These are all very powerful things.

It’s no wonder that the biggest dictators in society use the power of the written word to provide disinformation, to mislead the masses, to slant the truth in their favour to evoke a response to their liking. It’s also no surprise that the written word can change the world, spark revolutions, provide hope, foster faith, and inspire greatness.

The Written Word is powerful, and I am its humble servant.