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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