When it comes to writing advice, and writing rules, my advice would be to pick out the tips and tricks that resonate with you and leaving the rest. There’s a lot of writing advice out there, and much of it is conflicting. If you find inspiration in another author’s routine or if you come across an interesting literary technique, then by all means, give it a go! If a particular tool or practice doesn’t work for you, simply revert back to your old habit, preference or style. All writers have their opinions and viewpoints on how to best get things done, and today I’m tackling one of my favourites: Heinlein’s Five Rule for Writing.
Robert Heinlein was an American writer who broke into the science fiction community in the 1940 and his controversial works continue to influence the genre today. Along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein is known as one of the “Big Three” authors in the science fiction community. Heinlein developed his five rules because aspiring writers constantly asked him how they too could have a successful career as a writer. Of his rules, Heinlein said, “The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction […] they are amazingly hard to follow – which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket!”
To reiterate, though these five rules may seem simple – even basic – they are incredibly difficult to follow.
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Rule number one: You must write
Don’t roll your eyeballs at me; I told you these rules were simple! And yet, how often have you heard a fellow writer harp on about the brilliant premise of their novel only to discover that they haven’t actually written a single word? It’s all fine and dandy to have a fully formed manuscript in your head, but if that story isn’t on paper, then it doesn’t exist. You can’t edit an imaginary story and you certainly can’t get it published.
Writers are people who write. You don’t have to write every day and what you write doesn’t have to be perfect (especially if it’s the first draft) but if you want to be a published writer, then you must write.
Rule number two: You must finish what you write
And you thought number one was hard. It’s one thing to start a project and an entirely different thing to finish it. If you’ve never completed a manuscript or short story, be patient with yourself. Plan for success by managing your time, outlining (if applicable to you) and setting small regular goals. Rather than thinking, “I have to write a book,” break the project into smaller more manageable chunks. By viewing your book as a series of scenes or chapters, the project becomes far less overwhelming. You can’t write a book in a day or even a week unless you’re Stephen King and you’ve just snorted some great coke which is how he wrote Dolores Claiborne.
You won’t know what it takes to write a novel until you have written one. You won’t know what level of discipline or time management is required. You won’t know how to maintain a consistent voice or characterisation. You won’t know how to construct a plot or maintain narrative drive. You can read all the blogs on the internet and you can watch all the videos on YouTube, but the only way you’re going to know how to write your novel is to write it.
Rule number three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
Rules one and two are applicable to all writers, but this rule is a little more controversial. Remember, Heinlein was a science fiction writer whose stories were generally geared towards the pulp magazines of the 1940s. The world is a different place, but there is value in this rule depending on the type of writer that you are, and what your definition of success is.
If your aim is to win the Vogel, the Pulitzer-prize or some other literary award, this rule is not applicable to you. If your aim is to produce a literary novel that is carefully constructed, then this rule is not for you. If your aim is to be traditional published, then this rule is not for you. If you want to produce a high-quality self-published novel, this rule is not for you. If these are your goals, then you should be rewriting and editing your work long before you submit it to an industry professional, whether that be an agent, editor or publisher.
However, if your goal is to have a short story published through an online magazine, small press or your own blog, step three could work for you. This rule is especially applicable if:
- you write genre fiction (particularly formulaic stories like Mills and Boon Romances)
- are submitting to a publisher who specialises in pulp fiction
- payment is not your main concern publication is.
Perhaps a better way to phrase this rule, especially in today’s marketplace is, “Edit your work, but don’t edit forever.” A novel is never truly done; it’s just worked to a level that the author and other parties involved can live with…ideally!
If your story is close to a publishable standard and if the editor at a publishing house likes your work, then they will take the time to provide feedback with the intent that you resubmit.
Rule number four: You must put your story on the market
If you never hit the send button, then you’re never going to get published. Emailing a story to an editor is nerve-wracking. It’s an incredibly brave and courageous act to let someone read your work, but if you want your story to find an audience, then this step is a must. You can’t get published if you don’t submit your work to publishers. So be brave. Do your research and find the online magazines and publishing houses that might be interested in your story and submit to them. The worst outcome is that they say no, but if you don’t at least try, then you’ll never know.
Rule number five: You must keep it on the market until it has sold
Don’t let rejections stop you! Thanks to the internet, there is a slew of online publications for you to submit to. Just because your story has been rejected doesn’t mean that the story is bad. There are many reasons why an editor may say no:
- your story is too similar to something they’ve already published
- the story isn’t to their taste
- your story isn’t a good fit for their magazine
- they’re over budget
- the content for the next few months is already scheduled.
If you receive a rejection email with feedback you agree with, revise your story and either resubmit to that magazine (if the editor has indicated that it is okay to do so) or try submitting to another publication. If you don’t receive any feedback, simply send it out to someone else. Keep going! Personally, I get 10-20 rejections before a story or article is accepted. Writing is a business, so don’t take it personally.
There you have it! Those are Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing. Though these steps may seem disturbingly easy, they are incredibly difficult to follow. If you enjoyed this blog, feel free to subscribe or follow me on social media. My Instagram, Facebook and Twitter links can be found below the archive section of this page. If you enjoyed the content of this week’s blog or if you connected with Heinlein’s rules feel free to leave a comment below!
Consider jotting these rules down on a post-it and keeping it near your desk for those days when the writing game is feeling a little too hard or complicated. Remember, writing may not always be easy, but it’s always worth it.