Monday, January 27, 2014

Heinlein's Rules for Writing & Getting Published

I've heard a lot about Heinlein's Rules for Writing lately, and there's a good reason. If you want to get published, this simple set of rules if a formula for success.

First, what are Heinlein's Rules for Writing? As published in the 1947 essay "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction:"

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Robert A. Heinlein autographing at the 1976 WorldCon.
Courtesy of user Dd-b, Wikimedia Commons

Let's look at them one-by-one.

1. You must write.

This one is absurdly obvious, yet it's not as easy to do as it sounds. People run into time issues. They get distracted by the life events that HAVE to be done (or that, at the very least, FEEL like the things that have to be done.) I need to write, but first I need to do the dishes, check my email, call the dentist, run to the grocery store, make a snack for my kids, pack their lunches for tomorrow, check Facebook, vacuum the living room floor, work my day job, ...

Wow, there are a lot of excuses for why we can't write, aren't there? And many of them are completely valid (work and parenting come to mind). But you're not a writer if you aren't writing. Make the time. Make a date. Schedule it on your calendar. Steal five minutes here, five minutes there. Write on napkins. In short, find what helps you get to writing and then continue doing that something.

2. You must finish what you write.

Again, obvious. Again, easier said than done.

It's easier to start a project than to finish it. We get distracted in the lulls between the exciting parts. We get new ideas. We forget to make time to write. There are probably as many reasons to not finish as there are reasons to not write in the first place, but you have to finish or there was no point in starting. Don't let that turn you off. Make whatever plans you need to be able to write, just as above, and stick to it. If you get a new idea, jot it down in a notebook or make a document on your computer (phone/tablet/what have you) to keep new ideas in. That way, they can continue to evolve in your mind while you finish writing what you've already started.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

Now, this one I have a bit of a problem with, so I'm going to change the meaning for me. You can take it as you want. I've known quite a few writers who get lost in the editing--they never stop. You have to get your manuscript to a good point and let it go. If it gets accepted, the editor will discuss changes. Now, if you self-publish, you should still be hiring a professional editor. At the very least, find someone else to look your work over for some line edits and story flow issues.

If you're submitting to traditional markets and they're asking you to use spell-check, you obviously need to do more editing. But you can't spend the rest of your life editing and never reaching the next step.

4. You must put the work on the market. 

You've written your story. You've edited it to a stopping point. Don't just file it now. Start submitting! If it's a short story, find short story markets, like magazines, anthologies, etc. If it's a novel, start hunting for an agent (if that's the way you choose to go). If you plan to self-publish, get the formatting done and get your book to market, whether that's POD and/or e-book, Create Space and/or Amazon. Nook and/or Kindle. Get your book (or short story!) out there.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold. 

Do it.

Okay, I should expand on that more. If you submit to an agent and get rejected, send it to another agent. Even better, as soon as you submit, have the information for the next agent in line. That way, when your rejection comes back, you don't have to hesitate or wallow, you just have to re-label that envelope (or re-write that email), and send it out again.

If you're submitting short stories (or other short works), do the exact same thing. If you submit to a market, know where you're sending it next. If they take simultaneous submissions, by all means submit to multiple places at once. Just be sure to mention this is a simultaneous submission, and to notify them if one market picks up your piece. You don't want to piss off markets you may want to submit to again in the future. And, in my experience, they're super nice when you let them know someone else purchased it. Given, that's limited experience, so don't hold me to it.

6. Shannon's Rule: Continue 1 & 2, even as you do 4 & 5.

While you're shopping those books/stories, you should be writing new ones. Set aside x amount of market research time, submit during that time, then write, write, write. And finish what you're writing. Number 5 is not a good place to stop. If you could see these rules as an image, they'd be the infinity snake, eating its own tail. Always keep writing.

By Elizabeth,

And, yeah, I need to follow my own advice.

What rule would you add? What do you think of these rules? How do you interpret number 3?

May you find your Muse.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Smart to point out that you should continue writing new stories.
And over-editing can kill a good story.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I find being a member of Write 1 Sub 1 really helps me focus on finishing a piece and getting it out in the world. Otherwise, I'd dither with the story forever! :)

Jan Newman said...

This is good advice I've heard in one form or another all my writing life, and, yes, it's easier to give this advice than to follow it. Unfortunately. I'd interpret #3 as getting your story to a point where you are happy with it, then leaving it alone until a professional editor suggests changes before publication. That requires trust -- in yourself and your skills as a writer. It also suggests you practice those skills to the utmost of your ability.

A Beer For The Shower said...

I also disagree with #3 a little, and hope that they mean not to over edit. Because you definitely need to know when to remove something instead of being a "word hoarder" and keeping something in your story that really just needs an overhaul.

Also, I would strongly discourage a self-published author from hiring a professional editor unless you have money falling out of your behind. Because unless you sell $1-2,000 worth of books, you're never going to recoup what you spent, which is typically $1-2,000. Like you suggested, just find someone who's very adept with spelling/grammar and buy them dinner if they comb it over for you. Much more cost effective.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Shannon's rule is the most important one.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Not sure about #3 either. I'll be doing some major edits over the next few weeks.

mooderino said...

I always found no.3 a bit baffling. I guess it helps if you write good first drafts(unlike me).

Moody Writing

mooderino said...

I always found no.3 a bit baffling. I guess it helps if you write good first drafts(unlike me).

Moody Writing

Andrew Leon said...

I think there are a few things to consider about #3:
1. There was no pantsing culture at the time. Pantsing requires rigorous re-writing in almost all circumstances. I imagine that Heinlein had a good idea about what his story was going to be in total before he started it.
2. Re-writing is often caused by over-thinking and self-doubt. I think what's he's saying here is "don't second guess yourself." Write your story and hand it to your editor. Don't change anything unless the editor says, "Hey, this bit is unclear" or whatever.
3. With point two in mind, you'd have to have a story editor for that. Since most of us don't have those, we have to figure that stuff out on our own.

So, yeah, I agree with him.

shelly said...

Sometimes has to take a break and peruse craft stores to find their muse.

Lisa Claro said...

All good advice, especially finishing what we write. (I have an awful lot of half-finished projects under the bed.) The best writing rule I know was dictated by author Cherry Adair: Finish the Damn Book!

J.L. Campbell said...

Hi, Shannon,

Good post. It's as you say. I keep getting distracted by other projects so it's that much harder to finish anything. Then too, there's the urge to edit things to death.

Kimberly said...

It is easy to want to keep editing.... even after the editor does their work. :) Great points, great post.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Alex, it struck me as being an important oversight.

Madeline, I've pondered officially joining, but wasn't able to stick with it when I tried it unofficially first. I REALLY need to do it, though.

Jan, trust, yes. Well put. I like your take on it.

B&B, good point on #3 and editors. Professional editing and covers are two things I've seen mentioned as things to pay for if you can, but $2000 is certainly prohibitive if you don't have a good idea you'll sell more than that.

Maurice, woo-hoo! But yes, I think it's important unless someone just wants to write one.

Susan, I imagine there are very few who can write completely clean the first time through, and of those few, at least the majority would be serious plotters (IMO).

Moody, I tend to write clean as has to do with language, grammar, etc., the first time through, but I usually discover a part of the plot or character I need to edit as I write.

Andrew, good way to look at it. I guess I didn't realize there was no pantsing culture before.

Shelley, aw, what do you like at the craft stores?

Lisa, that's a good rule, too! And, yes, I have a collection of unfinished stories I'm slowly working my way through right now.

Joy, yes, both of those are hard! I'm also easily distracted.

Kimberly, Oo, I haven't gotten to that point yet, but I'm betting that is hard. I've seen a lot of people who keep wanting to edit even after it's published!