Heinlein's Rules for Writing (and How to Break Them)
Those kingly credentials have obviously made Mr. Heinlein's work very famous in writer's circles everywhere, but almost equally well-known amongst the literati are five pieces of advice he was known to pass on to new writers looking for direction, claiming they could make a "direct competitor" of anyone willing to follow them to a tee. Now known simply as "Heinlein's Rules," these chunks of wisdom have come to garner almost as much controversy as his stories did. Indeed, this very article exists not simply to pass them along to be followed blindly, but as an attempt to interpret them in a way that is most effective in the modern literary landscape--even if it means breaking one or two of them right in half.
Before I tackle Heinlein's rules, however, let me give you a bit of a disclaimer. I would never in a million years imply that I know more about the art of writing than Robert Heinlein did. But it is my opinion that everyone who picks up a pen is different, and I honestly believe there is no rule set that can be applied universally. What follows is what works for me. But if you'd rather listen to the man who wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I sure as hell wouldn't blame you.
Heinlein's First Rule: You must write.
Alden's Verdict: Unbreakable
There's just no arguing this one. Writers write. There are a lot of activities and distractions that will keep your butt away from that chair, some of them necessary, some of them even beneficial to the craft, but at the end of the day you have to grit your teeth and get to work or you're just a pretender. In my opinion, being able to proudly, confidently proclaim yourself a writer is an important step on the path of professionalism, but make sure you're not lying to yourself. You don't have to be a bestseller to call yourself a writer. You don't even have to be published. But you must sit. You must work. You must write.
Heinlein's Second Rule: Finish what you start.
Alden's Verdict: Bendable
Nine times out of ten, this rule is rock solid. But, oh, that one. Don't get me wrong; I'm not an advocate for throwing in the towel. I don't think you should set a project aside until you've struggled and strained and squeezed every drop of blood you could muster out of that sucker. But sometimes you reach that point before you've reached "The End." It happens. And in that case, I think it's okay to hit the pause button and start something new, but only with an unbreakable caveat that says you will return to the unfinished work as soon as the new one is done. One of my best stories was written in just such a manner.
Heinlein's Third Rule: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
Alden's Verdict: Breakable
This is by far the most controversial of Heinlein's rules, and it's the first rule that I think you should smash into pieces. Whether you're writing novels or short stories, the revision process is absolutely essential to polishing your story into a piece worthy of publication. A literary behemoth like Mr. Heinlein may have been able to produce publishable first drafts, but I most certainly am not.
That being said, I do think the spirit of the rule can still be followed safely without taking it literally. That is, don't get preoccupied with the editing process. You could probably tinker around with a story forever if you let yourself, but at some point you just have to stick a fork in the thing and proclaim it done.
Heinlein's Fourth Rule: You must put your story on the market.
Alden's Verdict: Unbreakable
Some of you may disagree with me and Bob on this one. Certainly not every story is going to be of such quality that it can be fearlessly jettisoned into the public stratosphere, and that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that once the fork is in the pork, it's time to set the table.
As writers, sometimes we can be the worst judge of our own material, for better or worse. How will you really know whether or not that story of yours is any good if you're unwilling to spine up and show it to someone? And if you're willing to show it to your wife, your husband, or your buddy, why not an editor? Why not an agent? The worst that can happen is that you get your first taste of rejection, and that's something you'll have to get down and dirty with at some point anyway. There can be no success without honest attempt.
Heinlein's Fifth Rule: Keep it on the market until it has sold.
Alden's Verdict: Breakable
This is another tough one, but Mr. Heinlein and I disagree. As I said above, the simple fact of the matter is that not every story is a publishable one. Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself and decide that a story has had more than its fair share of chances to become someone's darling, and it's time to take it out to pasture. If you made that bold step that rule number four required of you and saw nothing but rejection after rejection, it might indeed be time to trunk it and get on with the next one. I'd rather keep a story to myself than be forced to publish it somewhere that I felt wasn't up to my standard as a reader simply because no one else would take it.
However, as with rule number three, I think it's still possible to adhere to the spirit of this one. The underlying message here is not "be stubborn as an ox with your submissions." What Heinlein is really saying is, "don't give up," and you shouldn't. When I say this rule is breakable, I'm not saying you should give up after the first rejection or even the first few rejections. Be tenacious. If there are other respectable markets out there that you honestly feel would be a good fit for your story, by all means keep sending it out and keep letting those R's roll off your shoulders. But when you reach the bottom of the barrel, be honest with yourself and learn from the experience. Ask yourself why you're having trouble placing the story and put that knowledge to use the next time around.
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