I’m a subscriber to David Farland’s Daily Kick, a delightfully informative newsletter he sends out every day without fail. Many times his advice coincides with something Wendi and I are working on at any given moment. Kinda spooky, but the validation that we’re doing something right is always welcome.
In the past two emails he mentioned how Heinlin’s Rules for Writing didn’t work for 99% of the writing population. The first time I read it, I didn’t think much of it. One of those “Hm, I’ll have to go look that one up later” things—which I promptly forgot as I moved on to something else. But today he mentioned it again and that made my Writer perk up and poke me to go look it up now.
Robert A. Heinlin was a very prominent Science Fiction writer. I remember seeing his book covers growing up. Not being a sci-fi fan, I really didn’t read him.
Heinlin had five rules for writing:
- You Must Write
- Finish What You Start
- You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order.
- You Must Put Your Story On The Market
- You Must Keep It There Until It Has Sold.
On the surface, these look like great rules to follow, don’t they? And if you do follow them, you will make some progress. Write everyday? Check. Finish? Yuppers, did that too. Rewriting….what? Yes and no (which I’ll explain in a few). Put story on market…got it. Has it sold? Most definitely.
Having thought about these rules I can see why a writer will fail if they follow these rules and these rules alone. Let’s take them one by one in more detail.
You Must Write
Yes, you must write. You must write every day. This is called practice.
But what the rules don’t say is: You have to understand how to tell a story. You need to learn what good story structure is. You have to have an awareness of character development and arc. You need to have a feel for pacing. And of course, you absolutely have to understand the rules of grammar and spelling. Oddly enough, a lot of those basic mechanical skills get tossed out the window if you’re writing fiction or blogging. HOWEVER…knowing which ones to break and for what reasons is uber important.
In short, learn your basics then practice them everyday.
Finish What You Start
Fine advice for anything, really. Constantly not finishing leads to frustration and a sense of chaos. You also get stuck in the belief that you’ll never finish anything. Not a good place to be.
Books are funny beasts. The caveat to this is, finish what you start, yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start another writing project if the mood strikes you. Sometimes the inspiration hits so hard and fast you have to stop what you’re working on and start another project—even if it’s to jot down a few ideas. You may be inspired to write a whole chapter, or ten. It’s happened to us. Then we stop and go back to the original project, usually because we’re writing a series and we need to get over the thrill of the new bright shiny and haven’t considered all the details.
Keep this in mind though, words are never wasted. So what if half of that new idea ends up on the cutting room floor? That could be potential fodder for something else. The point is, you got the idea out of your head and you can focus again.
You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order.
This, I had a knee-jerk reaction to. No rewrites? Shakespeare never rewrote anything. And some argue he could have been even better than he was if he had. My interpretation of this is: Refrain from rewriting when you’re in the initial stage of getting that first draft out.
For example: Wendi and I can’t edit one book and start another. Our Editor Hats are on and we find we self-edit when we should just be telling the story.
See the difference? That first draft is an info-dump. Get it out, get it on paper and worry about the technicalities in the rewrites.
You Must Put Your Story On The Market
What this says to me is don’t keep that story locked away in the sock drawer. Get it out there into the world after you have polished it, edited it, had a cover made for it, had it professionally laid out so your product is the best it can possibly be. After all, you are writing this for other people, not to sit around and collect dust.
You Must Keep It There Until It Has Sold
Maybe in Heinlin’s day this made sense, but in this age of Print on Demand and digital books, authors have much more control over their books. We have instant access to all kinds of analytics that tell us how well our books are doing on the market. We’re no longer at the mercy of some publishing company who simply tells us “Hey, your book isn’t selling.”
We can figure out why. We have our own stable of beta readers, we get instant feedback from fans all over the web. Most importantly, if something isn’t working, we can go back into our files, make the changes and put the book back up for another try.
Writing rules are in some cases, like opinions, everybody has their own. And while the new writer is prone to take these guidelines as law because they came from a successful writer they respect and admire, that doesn’t mean those rules will work for every individual. The trick is to look at them more deeply, find the underlying message, use what applies and works for you.
What works for Wendi and I may not work for the solitary writer. What works for solitary writers doesn’t always work for us. They’re guidelines, sign posts on the path to writing success. When I used to do Tarot readings I would tell my clients, “These are only suggestions. Take what you need and leave the rest. Nothing is set in stone.”
Rather, it’s written on a first draft and half of it will end up on the cutting room floor.