Heinlein's Rules for Writing (and How to Break Them)


Robert A. Heinlein is undoubtedly an eminent and influential name in the world of science fiction, and with good reason. While a certain level of controversy surrounds much of his work due to the contentious nature of the themes he often explored, the literary prowess on display within is virtually inarguable. Along with Asimov and Clarke, he eventually came to be known as one of the "Big Three" of literary sci-fi. Award-winning works such as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land have influenced countless writers and in some cases displayed defining examples of prominent science fiction concepts still in use today.

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.

Photo credit: Dd-b via CC

Comments

  1. I admire Heinlein, but no way I could write without a ton of revisions!

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    1. Me neither! I just sent out a story today that I had probably four drafts on.

      Thanks for reading, Alex!

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  2. I'm with Alex. I just finished 50k for Camp NaNoWriMo, still another 10-15 before the book is done. I've done less than 1% editing and hubby is reading behind me telling me about all my typos and missing words. Then factor in awkward sentences, misplaced participles and too much info-blab....yup, gotta edit.

    PS. He is a favorite author of mine, too. I've worn out copies of several books he wrote.

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    1. Even my best first drafts need a good once over at the very least. Sometimes I think I have gold at the time, then I come back with a fresh mind and realize a certain phrasing or even an entire scene just doesn't work as well as my first muse-drunk impression. I'm with you guys, revisions are absolutely necessary!

      Thanks for the comment, Donna.

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  3. Great point Alden. It's easy to get caught in an editing cycle....No wait. Let me rewrite that...

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    1. Haha, yep! Sorry it took so long to reply, you're comment got ate by the spam monster and I just caught it.

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. You had me cheering and woot-ing at the screen with your statements on Heinlein's rule #1. Spoken right from the core of all my writing-related beliefs.

    Writers write, as simple and brutal as that is, as assiduous, stubborn and bone grinding as it sometimes feels like, as cathartic and uplifting it ultimately becomes. Writers write, because "at the end of the day you have to grit your teeth and get to work or you're just a pretender", and keep writing, come hell or high water, because "there can be no success without honest attempt."

    Your spirit is right on track, James. Your stories are sharp and memorable and your writing voice is crystal clear. I hope you'll keep going no matter what you encounter along the road. Look and learn and walk right past it, because the target's yours and your back is covered. :)

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    1. Thanks so much, Vero! I have no plans on stopping anytime soon, that's for sure. The more work I put in, the more I think there might just be something to this crazy writing thing. I still love that great feeling you get upon finishing a piece of work and sending it out into the wild to be pawed and poked by strangers.

      Sorry about the cheering and wooting. I hope your neighbors don't think you're too crazy. ;)

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  5. Oh and, heh, about those revisions... I'd be crying in a ditch if I wouldn't be allowed to revise the sh*t out of my story...

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  6. Yes, write we do!

    "Heinlein's Fourth Rule: You must put your story on the market."

    So true about unbreakable. :)

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    1. Definitely! Sometimes it's the toughest step to take, but it's necessary if you're serious about being a writer instead of just playing at one.

      Thanks for reading, Diane!

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  7. #1 is a definite must. Even if I don't have a lot of time, it is important to remember writing a couple hundred words is better than not writing at all. And sometimes I'm bad about remembering that.

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    1. Absolutely. It's easy to tell ourselves we don't have the time or give in to some other kind of self-defeating resistance, but you're right; something is always better than nothing! Even if it's not much.

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  8. Also, I'd like to let you know I shared your post on my blog. :)

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    1. Thanks, Charity! Much appreciated. :)

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  9. JW, you are my kind of writing blogger. Very little irritates me more than to read blogs of writing advice that is nothing but a regurgitation of what the blogger read elsewhere.

    This post, specifically, is not one of those. It's a thoughtful breakdown of his 'rules' along with practical advice on when to shuffle them around, bend them, break them.

    (followed you from AW; bearilou over there *wave*)

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    1. Thanks so much! I agree wholeheartedly with your opinion on "regurgitated" content. The blogosphere is chock full of it. I do my best to hurl something original into it with my posts, even if I'm giving my take on something that's already been discussed to death. I figure if I'm just going to phone it in, it's not worth doing.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

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  10. I like that you injected your own opinion on these rules.

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  11. Sorry, but this is one of the worst posts I've ever read on writing. If you want to remain an amateur, break Heinlein's rules. If you want to be a professional writer, follow them. Period. I write about 1000 polished words per hour. You have to learn to trust your subconscious mind and get past the English teacher and all the others who have said you "must" rewrite. Author Alden obviously will continue along this path, and that's fine. Those of you who want to be saved, I recommend you go to DeanWesleySmith.com (has made a very good living as a professional fiction writer since the early 1980s) and look around. Won't affect my career either way, but it will greatly enhance yours.

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    1. Thanks for reading, HStanbrough, and for offering your opinion.

      As you may have noticed, I posted this article on August 27th, 2012. Since then, I've quit my day job to write full-time, been published professionally six times, been accepted to (and graduated from) one of the most prestigious SFF writing workshops in the world, joined Codex and SFWA, and been invited to participate in the programming for this year's WorldCon. In other words, "this path" is treating me just fine, though it winds ever forward.

      You may also have noticed (though perhaps not, since you're posting on such an old article) that I don't offer much in the way of writing advice on my blog these days. The truth is, the more I learn, the more uncomfortable I feel about publishing pieces like this one, as I'm afraid I'll look back on an old post one day and cringe at the thought that Little Baby Me dared speak with a tone of authority on this deep art of ours. Upon rereading this article, I was relieved to find that this is not such a case. Little Baby Me and Slightly Older and Wiser Me agree wholeheartedly when it comes to Heinlein's Rules.

      Also, I think you'll find there are many, many professional authors, many of whom have done a far sight better than I have thus far, who agree with my take on these rules (especially the one you've singled out above). My take on revision and rewriting did not come from English teachers. It came from the advice of editors, agents, bestsellers, and award-winners. And it came from my own hard won experience, relatively infantile as it may yet be when compared to Dean Wesley Smith.

      Still, I do mean it when I thank you for offering your opinion. If you're prolific enough to write 1000 polished words in an hour, then I hope you have or will publish widely and successfully. Perhaps, like Mr. Heinlein, your first drafts are flawless and publishable. Mine are not. So I revise until they are. But if there's anything I'm certain of when it comes to writing, it's that there is no One True Way. If anyone tells you there is, he's a fool, a liar, or trying to sell you something.

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