Monday, August 27, 2012

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Rhythm of Writing: 12 Songs That Inspire and Motivate

Brace yourselves; I have a confession to make. Ready? Alright, here goes.

Writing hasn't always been my primary aspiration. Shocking, right? I know, I know. Simply unbelievable! But the truth is, if you'd met me between the ages of fifteen and nineteen and asked me what my future career would be, I'd have told you I wanted to be a successful musician. I fell in love with music at a young age, eventually picking up a guitar and trying my own hand at it. Unfortunately, my rock star dreams never came true. After tasting a couple doses of the cold, hard realities of the music world (and more than a couple frustrating experiences with bandmates), I ultimately decided to cash my chips in and relegate the trusty guitar back to the hobby corner. Such is life, they say.

Of course, they also say that everything happens for a reason. Had I not realized music wasn't for me, I may never have found my true calling. So, as much as I would have loved a life of record deals and rock tours, I'm glad things turned out the way they did. One thing I can say, however, is that music has stayed with me. It's still one of the foremost loves of my life, and it's become a vital part of my creative process. At the very least, every writing session begins and ends with music, and often there will be a tune of some kind accompanying the clacking of my keyboard when I'm in the thick of things, as well.

Since music is still so important to me, today I thought I'd follow the example of a few other writerly blogs I've seen (like this one and that one) and give you a glimpse at the soundtrack to my writing sessions. What follows is just a small sample (about an album's worth) of the songs and artists that inspire and motivate me when it's time to put my nose to the grindstone. Some of them are good, some of them are great, some of them are downright cheesy, but all of them have helped me get words on the slate in some capacity.

One small disclaimer: a couple of these are dripping with foul language, so maybe don't crank them up if the nuns are about.

The Build Up

These are the songs that get my gears turning. I listen to one of these as the coffee's brewing and I'm getting ready to sit down and commence, so I need a song that will get me amped and ready to put hammer to steel.

"A Moment of Silence" by Streetlight Manifesto

"You Alone" by Street Dogs

"Zero" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

"Never Le Nkemise" by Die Antwoord

The Zone

During this phase, I'm already in the tender grip of the Muse, hammering away and hoping I'll like what's left in the morning. Sometimes I prefer complete silence during this part of the process, but often I'll put some music on to keep the gears lubricated. When that's the case, I usually listen to songs without lyrics of any kind, as I tend to get distracted if someone's singing to me.

"I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead" by Mogwai

"Remember Me As a Time of Day" by Explosions in the Sky

"Heart of Courage" by Two Steps From Hell

"In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth" by Vitamin String Quartet (Coheed & Cambria cover)

The Come Down

As I said, my sessions begin and end with music. When the smoke has cleared and I'm recovering from the throes of creativity, I'll usually play a song or two to ease the come down and bring me back to reality. These songs run the gamut depending how the session went, but they're often sharp and celebratory.

"Hijack" by mc chris

"Here's to Life" by Streetlight Manifesto

"Red Hot Moon" by Rancid

"Roll With the Changes" by REO Speedwagon (shut up)

photo credit: Jarod Carruthers via cc

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sold: "The Dragon Weeps" to Kazka Press

When I took my vacation a couple of weeks ago, I left home with the knowledge that I had a handful of stories out on editors' desks (so to speak), so I was hoping to get some good news while I was gone. The news for my last sale came in while I was on a different vacation trip, so I was hoping for a repeat in circumstances. Unfortunately, the whole trip went by without a peep until the very end--when I received two rejections. Don't worry, I'm no stranger to rejection. It happens. I didn't let it ruin my trip.

After we got home, my girlfriend and I capped our good time off with a lunch date that weekend. While I was perusing the menu and contemplating the gluttony to come, my phone started blinking at me. I checked it out and sure enough there was good news in my inbox.

I Am Pleased to Announce . . .

The Dragon Weeps, a fantasy story by Yours Truly, has been sold to Kazka Press. You'll be able to read it for free on their website as a part of the September 1 issue. If you're unfamiliar with Kazka, they're an independent publisher of short stories, flash fiction, flash novels, and anthologies, mostly in the fantasy genre (with a little sci-fi occasionally thrown in for good measure). Be sure to check them out if they sound like your cup of tea.

The Dragon Weeps is a story that I'm very happy to have out in the wild. It's the first story I wrote in my "Forged World" universe, a fantasy world that I have great plans for. I hope you'll give it a read on the first of the month, and I hope you enjoy it. I'll be sure to post a reminder when the day comes.

In the mean time, hopefully the good news will keep pouring in. I do love bragging about it.

photo credit: Gene Wilburn via cc

Monday, August 6, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The Dark Lord

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for an entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be treading under the cold, oppressive shadow of the dark lord.

Perhaps most prevalent in works of fantasy, the dark lord (or lady) is exactly what it sounds like: an evil overlord bent on dominating the world (and/or galaxy) who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He rules his forces with an iron fist of terror and his reign means oppression and misery for the freedom-loving denizens of the realm.

Often the protagonist of a story will be tasked with preventing this rise to power, or toppling the cruel regime if he's already secured the throne. This task usually proves beyond daunting due to the seemingly infinite power and military might at the dark lord's command.

It's not hard to see where this trope likely comes from. Our history books are filled to the brim with the names of conquerorskings, emperors, and dictators that made their marks on the world via brutal, tyrannical means--marching armies across the countryside in bloody campaigns of conquest, stifling the liberty of the very citizens they swore to serve, and plunging the world into war. It's only logical to conclude that these larger-than-life figures have influenced the stories we've been telling each other over the years, from the fables and folklore of centuries past to modern bestsellers.

The dark lord is such an obvious metaphor for real world despotism that some authors have actually had to go out of their way to deny seemingly overt symbolism in their work, including fantasy titan J.R.R. Tolkien, whose use of the trope has undeniably influenced countless works that followed.

In Tolkien's seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, a humble halfling must prevent the return of the titular character, the dark lord Sauron, who had previously brought war to Middle-earth in his quest for dominance.

The story seems (by some) to be a metaphor for the Second World War, with Sauron standing in for Hitler, and other characters or groups in the book symbolizing various players in the war depending on who you ask (my personal favorite has the Ents playing the role of America). Tolkien firmly denied this theory in the foreword to the second edition, leaving history aficionados wanting.

The primary universe that my own fantasy stories have taken place in thus far (one of which will be seeing publication soon--stay tuned) definitely has its own share of tyrant kings and crooked emperors. My two biggest influences when it comes to fantasy are probably Tolkien and George R.R. Martin. However, the power struggles and political machinations in my "forged realm" are definitely more akin to Martin's War of the Roses-inspired Game of Thrones than to Tolkien's mold, so I don't think I have any genuine dark lords to my name just yet.

That isn't to say that I don't enjoy a good old fashioned evil overlord. I've never been one to balk at the use of tropes like this one (as this series has no doubt shown by now), in fact, I quite enjoy them when handled well. And there's nothing quite so compelling for a sympathetic hero as a nigh unstoppable foe bent on world domination. So keep the dark lords coming, I say.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind

Recommended Viewing:
Star Wars
Harry Potter

Recommended Gaming:
Final Fantasy VI
The Legend of Zelda

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

IWSG: Beyond Currency

I'm back from a nice, long vacation just in time for the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities these posts are going to start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement. Each of my IWSG entries will be themed on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

Today's quote comes from another author whose work made an imprint on my fragile young psyche when I was a kid, Stephen King. I began reading his books after seeing the 1990 television-movie adaptation of It, a film that likely scarred the minds of thousands of clown-loving children who were unfortunate enough to stumble upon its primetime showing. Since then, I've been devouring his fiction off and on well into adulthood.

His name tends to be divisive in the literary world (though perhaps less so these days than it used to be), but whether you love him or hate him, there's no arguing with his success. Stephen King is a speculative powerhouse. When he speaks on the subject of writing, my ears perk up like a hound dog. The following quote comes from the introductory note to Four Past Midnight:

Like anything else that happens on its own, the act of writing is beyond currency. Money is great stuff to have, but when it comes to the act of creation, the best thing is not to think of money too much. It constipates the whole process. 

This quote has particular relevance for me right now. I recently made a decision that completely altered my work schedule and lifestyle, chiefly to afford myself more writing time. It was something that had been floating around my head and heart for a very long time, and the part that made it most difficult was the financial cost involved.

Issues like this one have served as a constant reminder that as much as I love writing, it just ain't quite paying the bills yet. I've moaned more than once in this very blog about how I long to be able to do this for a living (preferably a respectful one), and I know I'm not the only one out there. In a perfect world, none of us would have day jobs. But one thing we mustn't do is bring the looming shadow of the almighty dollar to the writing desk with us. The muse has no interest in balancing your check book for you.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with fueling your work with hopes and dreams--that's a positive. Let your desire for success motivate and compel you. But if you're still thinking about figures and decimals by the time you're pounding away at the keyboard, chances are you're not writing anything I'll ever want to read (unless it's because you're calculating escape velocities and time dilation scenarios--in that case, I love you).

When it comes to art, I don't think success happens by design. You'll drive yourself crazy trying to blueprint your future in an industry as tumultuous as publishing. That doesn't mean planning your approach to the game is bad, just remember that success is ultimately a by-product of talent and hard work. If you have both, and you persist to the bitter end, there's no reason to believe that your time won't come. I've said it before and I'll say it again. We writers have quite enough barriers to break through without setting up our own. So leave the money worries for the bill collectors and focus on your writing, at least until the end of your session. Chances are your story and your mental health will be better for it.