Heinlein’s Rules And Why They’re The Best Writing Advice Ever

Any writer who takes their writing with some amount of  seriousness will know the famous rules laid down by the science fiction author of great renown, Robert A. Heinlein. These rules have been interpreted countless times, they’ve been debated fiercely, but to this day, they remain the most solid advice a writer can hope to live by. I would even venture to say that they are even more relevant now in this day of self/indie publishing than they were during the time of Heinlein.

So . . . what are these rules? Let’s go through them one at a time, shall we?

No, wait. Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the writing life of Heinlein. His writing career spanned 49 years; his works include 32 novels, 59 short stories and 16 collections published during his life. Even if we ignore the number of Hugos he won or the accolades he garnered, just the volume of work he produced by following these rules should be proof enough of how effective they might be.

Now, onto the rules:

1: You Must Write
Who can argue this one? It is a basic tenet of writing. You won’t get any better at writing unless you write. No amount of read about writing, or taking classes, or talking to other writer folks will improve your skills as a writer.

I can attest to this. In 2008, I started writing seriously. Before then, I wrote all right, but technical writing and writing an one-off short story for a school/community publication is not what I’d call serious writing.

When I think about 2008 and now, I see an enormous change in myself as a writer and in my writing. Most of that change has come in the last two years, when I’ve produced non-stop, which means I have written non-stop.

Starting in 2014 and more so this year, I’ve written every single day. In one form or another, I’ve put words to paper. And, I see how it has transformed my skills. Needless to say, one year of writing is nothing. A blip. I have a long way to go. There will always be room to improve and I shouldn’t ever stop as long as I take the job of writing seriously.

2: Finish What You Start
If you thought the first rule was tough, let me tell you, they only get tougher from here.

So you’ve been writing along fine. The words are flowing and each day you’re making 1000 words easy. Cruising through, really. Then comes the roadblock.

Ever had a project that just seems to go on forever? Or that chapter or that scene that never seems to gel?

What do you do? Give up? Take a break?

Sure, you can take a break from it, as long as you come back and finish it. You cannot give up on a project simply because you’ve hit a rough patch.

The more you write, the more you’ll come across projects that make you want to give up. But if you start numerous projects without ever completing them, there’s no point starting them in the first place.

So, gotta hunker down and show that story who’s boss.

3: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Of the five, this rule is the most debated. And for good reason too.

We’ve all heard about how crappy the first draft usually is, right? About how, in our first draft, we’re allowed to be terrible, because we need to get the story out there first. Then we can come back to revise it.

Now this rule says the opposite. Do not rewrite until you’re told by your editor.

Let’s think of the traditional means of publishing for a second. You won’t get an editor’s advice so easily, and you might not even have an editor until you have a polished enough manuscript in the first place. Is it possible to get to that polished manuscript without a single rewrite? Maybe. If the author is a literary genius or is exceptionally lucky.

In the self/indie publishing scenario, it’s a little easier. That’s because one can hire an editor to be a part of their publishing team as and when they choose. Perhaps, if I wrote carefully enough, I could do without rewrites until my editor took a look? Perhaps. But the way I roll, near impossible.

What then? Is Heinlein’s Rule 3 no good? Should I ignore it altogether?

I like to follow the spirit of the rule. Which, to me, simply says that one shouldn’t be obsessed with rewriting. I edit at least two times before I send the manuscript over to my editor. But, what if instead of sending it over after the two revisions which leave me moderately pleased with the condition of my manuscript, I spent days and weeks and months polishing it in the hopes of making it perfect?

I’d be wasting my time. The time I spend on worthless edits could be better spent writing new things. I say worthless because, after the basic revisions, the best editing advice usually comes from someone other the writer. We need eyes other than our own to point out the deficiencies in our writing, that’s why we hire editors.

So, if you produce perfect first draft like Heinlein possibly did given his genius, you’re golden. If you don’t produce the perfect first draft, do this: after the first draft is complete, revise a couple of times. Then move on. Send the manuscript to your editor and find a new project to work on. It’ll do everyone good.

4: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
You’ve now met the toughest of the rules. So, let’s get into it.

The market is everything. It is the proving grounds for everything you’ve worked on. It is the test of how good you are.

Writing is like baring your soul on paper. Taking that writing to market is like putting your soul in the spotlight so perfect strangers can look into it. Tell me that’s easy.

The biggest roadblock to publishing (even when self-pubbing is supposedly SO easy), is actually taking the final step of launching that book. Suddenly, your innermost thoughts are not private anymore.

Scary, right? Heck, yes. I was so darn scared to get my first book out there, that I almost bailed.

But, I didn’t. And, now, even though it still is scary each time I publish something, I know I have to get it done.

Why? Because, the market is what will give me the best feedback. It’ll tell me if my story sucked or if it fell flat on page 89. Sure, editors and beta readers can and will provide candid feedback if they are good, but when someone spends their hard-earned money on a book and comments honestly on it? That’s the true assessment of your product.

5: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
This rule basically says, do not give up.

Once the book is out there, it’s out there. You want it to sell. But even if it doesn’t sell, don’t hit that unpublish button.

On the other hand, don’t spend all day, everyday, marketing that one book that hasn’t sold. Or the three books that haven’t sold. Analyze why they might not have sold and tweak your marketing, but don’t obsess.

The important thing to remember is that your book is now available on the market. It will, in time, do it’s part.

When I launched my first book, Maia and the Xifarian Conspiracy, the first of a planned series of five books, it barely sold any copies. It was a rejection like nothing I’d endured before, and some days, I felt like taking it off the market. Glad I didn’t. Now, after the second in the series is out there and I have a better sales strategy in place, they bring me a steady stream of revenue.

What if I’d decided to pull the first book? I’d have never seen the progress I see today.

There you go. We’ve covered all five rules.

I’ve personally seen all of them work for me. I’ve also seen first hand how writers, some much better writers than I, stumble and fall when they deviate from these.

We have to remember, these are no tricks. Coming from the writer who popularized TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch), how could they be?

They are honest and brutal guidelines that can help you navigate your entire writing/publishing process. They will keep you going, from one book to the next, and then on.

There are no shortcuts, no cheat codes to success. The only way to reach your dreams is through hard work.

You have to sit yourself down every day and start with maybe . . . just 100 words. Then write 200 words. Maybe a week later you’ll be doing 1000. Finally, the story is complete. Then you go put yourself out there.

After that? Rinse and repeat, my friend. Rinse and repeat.

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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