Saturday, May 5, 2012

Heinlein's Five Commandments

They say that hacks copy, but geniuses steal.

So, here's some things about writing to keep in mind. Make a point to steal these ideas and make them part of yourself as a writer.
  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.
This is Robert Heinlein's advice. You should Google him and find the cheesy scan of the article that I copied stole this from. He envisioned these ideas reflecting a winnowing process that separates the masses from published novelists.

The process can be defeated if you have the will to keep on going and not stopping despite being sorely tempted to stop before you finish step number five.

It is easy to go for decades thinking, "I'd like to write a novel someday." I know, I have. It's something else to force yourself to actually do it. That's where NaNoWriMo shines. It forces a dilettante like myself to put his butt in a chair and start composing deathless prose. If you talk to many people who say they have a novel in them, only a few will actually sit down to write it.

It's also easy to start work on a project and get distracted. I've got a directory full of projects I've started but not finished. If you talk to many people who say they've started the Great American Novel, only a few will actually stick with the project to The End. For me, there's always something shiny to distract me, or a cool idea I'd like to explore. Wrong. It's a sad thing to hear one of my writer friends describe a project s/he's excited about, but years later it's been abandoned. It's sad to say you'll probably never get to meet Arthur Keyes or his protege Damien Washington. Other projects must be completed first.

When Heinlein was writing, the world was different. Jerry Pournelle hadn't invented the word processor yet and writing meant quality time with a typewriter, foolscap, and carbon paper. Yes, carbon paper. I can't imagine the tedium. NO, actually I can. When I was in college and grad school I got exactly ONE C. That was in Historiography. Everything I handed in to Dr. McGoldrick was graded an A. Except my course paper at the end of the term. He handed it back saying, "It has more than two typos. Retype it." And he gave me an incomplete. In the crush of the end of the term, I lost the paper and my incomplete became a C. No, I'm not bitter.

Heinlein's typewriter use probably skewed his thinking to make #3 a firm commandment. Rewriting at that time involved a lot of low-power brainwork. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to try to get your prose as close to perfect on the first pass. There's nothing so tempting as the urge to just rewrite a sentence here or rephrase something there. No, wait, I can improve that last sentence again. And you come back later and change it back. This is an infinite-capacity time sink. Though I'm not good enough to get things perfect on the first draft, I think I should aspire to make the first draft as clean as possible.

You'll never read my first novel. It's safely kept in a desk drawer. It's got some interesting, likeable characters and some neat ideas. Trouble is that I know my prose-quality today is a lot better than it was then. I understand story-telling much better and I know that putting it on the market would be a Bad Idea because it would give you gentle readers a false impression of the quality of prose you can expect from me.

But I hope you've seen The Aristotelian. It is a darned good story and I am not ashamed of that prose.

It's easy to finish writing a story and then never take it out of the desk drawer. It is easy because you use one set of skills to write a story, and a completely different set of skills to send it around to literary agents and/or editors. Heinlein could put his manuscript and a self-addressed stamped envelope in the mail with a cover letter then wait for a reply weeks later. Nowadays, you have to understand how to attach a file to an email message. Simple stuff, but lots of people never take that step.

Finally, let me tell you about the day after Thanksgiving many years ago: I went to my mailbox and I found 14 self-addressed stamped envelopes: replies from literary agents who said in different words: "Sorry, not for us." A week before I had sent query letters to a couple dozen literary agents offering the deathless prose of my first novel.

A finished novel must be sold and sales is a numbers game. Heinlein knew this and his prose was good enough that if he kept sending it around, there would be someone out there who'd buy it. The thing is to keep on trying. I quit after a couple dozen queries. With a better novel, I'd have sent more dozens. Or I'd have reworked the novel to make it better then sent more queries.


  1. Robert Heinlein is probably my most cherished author. I have always dreamed of becoming an author like him, at least in the vein of his Young Adult fiction. For inspiration, I read his book published after his death called "Grumbles From The Grave". It is not short stories at all, but just letters he wrote and received throughout his career. I am not sure why, but it gives me great confidence and enthusiasm to write reading through his old correspondence.

  2. Heinlein--read him in college, in a class on science fiction. He had some interesting ideas--but honestly, he could have used a bit of editing, some polish. Maybe more than "some."

    It's fun, and possibly useful, to have heroes--but no reason to let it drag you off course. Butt in chair is the best overall piece of advice for writers. Unless you've found a way to write while on an Exercycle.

    Nice place you have here. Glad to meet you.

  3. Love Heinlein! But, then again, I am a sci-fi junkie. I like the list here of completing the work. Thank the heavens and Silicon Valley for the word processor. With a typewriter I would even dream of trying to write my eBook. Thanks for the post!

  4. I love the bit about rewriting. I know that you should edit, but I think the constant rewrite is not needed. Work tends to lose voice when you go over and over it :)


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