I’ve been thinking a lot about Heinlein’s rules and how they apply to my own writing career. While a lot of newer writers like to debate Heinlein, all of the long-time professionals tend to agree with him. For that reason, I think it’s worth taking a serious look at his rules and doing my best to follow them.
The trouble is that Heinlein formulated his rules before the digital age, when self-publishing was non-viable and writers sold to editors, not to readers. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say his rules are outdated, I do think that they need to be tweaked a little in order to apply to today’s aspiring professionals.
As a disclaimer, I should say that I’m only a beginning writer without much authority or experience. However, my goal is not to debate Heinlein, but to explore ways in which his advice can be adapted to myself and writers in my position. If any of you have any thoughts or input, I would very much like to hear it.
So anyhow, here we go:
Rule One: You Must Write.
Pretty straightforward: if you want to write for a living, then the bulk of your time should be spent writing. Too many indie writers spend all their time and energy promoting their one book when they should be writing others. If promotion gets in the way of writing, then you should stop promoting and just go write.
Personally, I could probably spend a lot more time writing new material as opposed to revising stuff I’ve previously written (yes, that’s the infamous third rule; I’ll get to it in a minute). I tend to spend a month writing something new, then take a couple of months to revise old works without producing new material. If I want to be strict about following Heinlein’s rules, I should probably change that.
Rule Two: You Must Finish What You Write.
Another straightforward rule, but you’d be surprised how hard it is when you know you can publish whatever you write. Kris Rusch calls these ideas “popcorn kittens,” after a popular youtube video that embodies what goes on in our minds when we have the freedom to create anything. The problem with too much freedom is that it’s a struggle not to flit from one idea to another, dabbling in all of them but carrying none to completion.
I myself had this problem over the summer, and to some extent I’m struggling with it now. The key is just to buckle down and have the discipline to finish what you start. Pretty straightforward.
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order.
This is Heinlein’s most controversial rule, especially for new writers. However, I think he has a good point. If a story is fundamentally broken, revising it is no more effective than stirring around a pile of crap; and if the story works, revising it without first getting a trusted second opinion could actually make it worse. After all, writers are often the worst judges of their own work.
The key question, then, is where to go for that second opinion. In the old days, money flowed from the editors to the writers (or at least from the publishers, who employed the editors), but in the new world of publishing, it’s exactly the opposite. Most of us can’t afford to hire editors for extensive developmental edits, especially when we’re just starting out, and while it’s possible to publish a rough draft, for most of us it’s probably not a good idea.
My approach is to share my unpolished work with a network of trusted first readers, and use their feedback to guide me in the revision process. I don’t always adopt all of their suggestions, but I carefully consider each one. Most of the time, I use them to see where the problems are, then use my creative mind to come up with a solution, sometimes taking the book in an entirely new direction. And if something works well for some but doesn’t for others, I figure it’s not a problem but a judgment call that requires my attention.
Using this method, it currently takes me about four or five drafts before I feel confident enough to publish something. If I really wanted to follow Heinlein’s rules, I would probably try harder to nail it on the first draft, but I’ve found that my creative process works better in revision mode than while writing new material. So long as I can revise efficiently enough to produce at least two novels each year, I think I’ll be in good shape.
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market.
In the old days, this meant submitting your manuscript to contests, magazines, and publishing houses, not self-publishing. For short stories, contests and magazines are probably still the best place to start. However, with novels, indie publishing is generally much better.
The trouble is that publishing your own work is as scary as hell, especially when it’s close to your heart. This is probably the main thing keeping most new writers from going indie: the need for external validation which grows out of a lack of much needed self-confidence.
The key, I believe, is to get some emotional distance between yourself and your work. As a rule, I don’t respond to reviews, good or bad. As for external validation, I don’t seek it at all. I only publish the stories that I believe in, and even if I’m nervous about sending them out into the world, I figure it’s better to suck it up and do it anyway. It was the same with writing queries; the only difference is that the market is now the readers, not the editors.
Rule Five: You Must Keep It On The Market Until It Has Sold.
This is especially challenging for indie writers. When weeks go by without a single sale, it’s easy to believe that your work is crap and that you should just take it down. It’s even worse when your book isn’t selling and you get a bad review.
Just like with queries, however, the key is to keep your work out there until it finds its natural audience. With indie publishing, you have all the time in the world, provided you don’t lose confidence.
The key question in my mind is whether to take down your old, crappy stuff as your writing improves, or to leave it up alongside your newer, better work. Personally, I think it should come down to the readers; if the old stuff is consistently getting bad reviews, it’s probably better to take it down, but if not, might as well keep it up.
So there you have it. From Heinlein’s rules, I’ve more or less crystalized the following approach:
- Always make time to write, even at the expense of promotion.
- Only chase new ideas if you know you can finish what you start.
- Don’t revise without first getting feedback from trusted readers.
- Don’t wait for external validation before you publish.
- Keep your work up, even if it doesn’t sell.
Not quite as pithy as Heinlein’s rules, but they seem pretty reasonable. I don’t have the experience to say whether they follow his, however, so if you have any comments or suggestions, please chime in.