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Heinlein’s Rules of Writing

April 5, 2012

Robert A. Heinlein occupies the top position in my list of hero-writers that includes Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Philip K. Dick.  Heinlein was the one who introduced me to the wonders of speculative fiction.  As a young boy, I read Farmer in the Sky and Have Spacesuit will Travel and was hooked  Heinlein wrote adventures for the young and the young at heart, but he took them off-world, and growing up with Sputnik and the moon landing, he fed my view of the expanding universe as a fresh field for exploration.  Pardon the split infinitive, but Heinlein gave feet to James T. Kirk’s, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

1. You must write – It seems that the hardest habit for many writers is writing on a regular basis.  I addressed this at some length in On Being Prolific.

2. You must finish what you write – There’s nothing wrong with having fourteen projects open and in varying levels of completion, but we need to be finishing what we start and marking things off of our list.  Some only work on one project at a time while others switch between multiple pieces.  No matter how you write, the object is to get the story on the page.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order – Okay.  I’ll admit that I edit.  There.  I said it.  The problem with editing is its tendency to take over the day and ruin a good story.  If a writer edits too much, they lose the spontaneity of the original, and their work takes on a confused voice.  For the most part, I limit my edits to grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  Only rewrite the most disturbing content.  I’ve edited so much that the story returns to its original state, and that was time wasted, time I could have used to complete another project.  I had to learn to call it finished and walk away.  This points back to Rule #2.  You must finish what you write.

4. You must put the work on the market – I attended a workshop several years ago and was challenged by a simple edict.  “Real writers submit.”  That three-word challenge changed my perspective on what I was trying to be as a writer.  Did I want to write for myself or for an audience?  The obvious answer was the latter.  I realized that I had no desire to write stories for my own sick pleasure.  My real goal was to share what I was writing with an appreciative audience.  Submit your work, or in the case of indie authors, publish what you have written.

The exploding world of self-publishing allows first-time authors to get their writing out to the fans.  It is hard work to be an indie author, but the payoffs are incredible.  Seeing people enjoy your stories takes you to the point where you become a writer instead of someone who writes.  I have modified the edict to say, “Real writers self-publish.”

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold – If you are submitting to traditional publishers, you can’t take a rejection notice as the end of the road.  There is a universal truth taken from all sales training courses – “Every no is one step closer to yes.”  Take rejections for what they are.  What you submitted simply isn’t what they were looking for.  A rejection does not mean that what you have submitted is bad.  As soon as that evil notice arrives in your inbox or post, turn right around and submit it to the next  publisher or agent on your list.  You do have a list, right?

For the indie publisher, this translates into patience.  Place your work on the market, and wait.  Don’t take slow sales as a rejection of your writing.  It takes time for people to find your books.  Give them every opportunity to discover your talent.  With persistence, hard work, and patience, every writer will gain fans.

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