Heinlein's Rules for Writers

Sunday, April 28, 2013
  1. You Must Write
  2. Finish What You Start
  3. You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
  4. You Must Put Your Story on the Market
  5. You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
Although I read almost everything Robert Heinlein wrote when I was younger, I didn't hear about these rules until recently when I read about them on Dean Wesley Smith's blog. Dean is a strong proponent of Heinlein's Rules. He thinks writers spend way too much time agonizing over how to write and what they've written when what they should be doing is finishing up what they've done and self-publishing it for readers.

As an illustration of how he does it, this week he's started blogging about his process of writing a novel in 9-10 days. This is a ghost written novel and he won't reveal anything about it--not the "author" he's ghosting for, not the genre, not the title, nothing. All we know is that it's contracted for 70,000 words and some unspecified sum of money. Oh, and he also has written into the contract that he will do no rewriting on it. He claims that this will be a bestseller, I'm guessing largely because of the name of the "author." Smith can get these kinds of contracts because he's proven dozens of times that he can write a book quickly and land on the bestseller list.

Writers are fascinated with how other writers write. There are whole sites devoted to what various writer's offices look like, like this one and this one and this one. They hold endless debates about whether it's better to be a plotter (a writer who outlines the whole plot of a book before writing a word) or a pantser (one who writes "by the seat of her pants"). They discuss whether it's better to write a story out longhand with pad and paper or type on a computer or dictate it into a digital recorder or their iPhone. They debate the merits of various writing software, from Word to Scrivener to WriteWay.

The whole reason for all of this, of course, is the feeling that there is some magic key to being a successful writer. If I only had the right office. If I only had the right software. If only I didn't have a day job or kids or some other thing that takes up my time. When the "magic" is in Heinlein's first two rules.

In keeping this online book writing journal, Dean Wesley Smith is trying to debunk what he calls the myths of writing. One of these is that it takes a long time to write a novel. Another is that writing fast equals writing poorly. He doesn't outline, he doesn't do character bios, he doesn't even have a clue what a novel will be about before he starts writing. He just sits down and writes it. If he's struggling, he goes by the rule of "just write the next sentence." He figures that if he keeps writing one more sentence, eventually he'll have a novel.

This, of course, is a timely topic for me. I've been struggling with the plot for the sequel to Faith, Hope, and Murder for a long time. I know who the victim is, I know who the murderer is, I know the opening and the ending, but the middle of the book was a vast emptiness. I even signed up for what I thought was a plotting class, hoping that would get me out of the morass of my no-plan. It worked a little bit, but the instructor doesn't really understand series, so her method was vastly flawed as far as I was concerned. I broke out my copy of "20 Master Plots and How to Build Them" and started reading through that, but it isn't specific to series either. I finally found Joanna Penn's post on writing a series, which led to a big breakthrough for me. I think I can fill in those blanks in my outline now.

Then there's the whole bit about Rule 3. No rewrites? Gah! My first drafts are horrible! As my editor can vouch, my third revision still needs work. I've blogged before about how Margie Lawson's classes have made me a much stronger writer, how what I learned enabled me to go back over what I'd written and rephrase it to the point where it was actually good prose. I can't imagine putting a novel out to the public without revisions and editing.

I started to get frustrated again. Working writers all seem to work like Dean Wesley Smith does. Asimov wrote hundreds of books by "typing very fast." Robert B. Parker worked an eight hour writing day, working on one book in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. He never mentioned outlining as part of his working day. And then I remembered one thing Dean had mentioned in his post on Heinlein's Rules. He said that he believed the myths of writing for seven years before he discovered them. He wished he'd discovered Heinlein's Rules seven years earlier.

I worked as a programmer on IBM midrange computer systems for thirty-five years. The programming language was RPG, a terse language which used a lot of codes in specific columns to specify the instructions the computer was supposed to follow. I'll never forget one of my first days in my first programming job. I was sitting at my desk, filling out coding forms, which have the columns on them, with the instructions for the program I was writing. One of the senior programmers walked by and said incredulously, "Coding forms?"

He kept walking and I kept coding on the forms. That was the way I'd learned it in school and I needed to plan everything ahead of time in order to make sure the logic was right. I frequently had to refer to the manuals to get the right codes in the right columns.

It probably took a year before I totally abandoned the coding forms. I'd learned enough by then that I didn't need them any longer. I'd sketch out the overall logic flow of a program on a piece of paper and start typing directly into the computer. Sometimes, when I reached a section of the program where the logic wasn't clear to me, I'd write the statements on that piece of paper as well before typing them in.

I remember saving printouts of programs that used techniques I'd learned when I changed jobs. (Early on, there was no way to get that code onto a PC disk, let alone a non-existent thumb drive, so paper was the only option.) Over time I got better at my job. I never had to make notes on simple programs because the methods were so ingrained in my brain I didn't need to. By the time I left my last programming job, my hands flew over the keyboard like a concert pianist's and I was looking for advanced techniques to try out just to keep the job interesting. I could write a complex, lengthy program without even thinking about how to do it.

And that's how you write a book like Dean Wesley Smith does. If you spend seven years following the "myths" of writing, I'm sure all of the techniques that you consciously study and use, like character bios and outlining and revisions, become second nature to you. So we're back to rules one and two. It doesn't matter what your office looks like or whether you use a Mac or a PC or a yellow pad and pencil. It doesn't matter whether you spend months planning, like I do, or you write into the mist and spend time on the back end revising what you've written. The important thing is to keep writing on a regular basis.

Or, as Stephen King said when asked how to become a writer:
Read a lot and write a lot.


My Heart Is Broken

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
The act of terrorism in Boston at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Patriot's Day has brought back all those memories of 9-11. Now we're getting the fall-out of ricin-laced letters to Congress, suspicious substances on a letter to President Obama, and all the other sick stuff that goes on after an act of this kind.

I'm trying not to dwell on the events of Monday. I've been unable to work because of the wounds to a city I love. I'm only posting today because I wanted to put up the Boston Strong logo on this page to show support for Boston and our nation.

Prayers for all.
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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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