Follow Heinlein’s Rules every week. His rules are simple.
1) You must write.
2) You must finish what you write.
3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.
4) You must mail your story to an editor who will pay you money.
5) You must keep it in the mail until someone buys it.
Simple rules, very simple rules. Yet I get a ton of comments about how the writer making the comment knows more than Heinlein about writing and needs to change these rules for themselves. And these comments always come from newer writers, mostly unsold writers.
What these writers are saying to me simply is this: My belief system does not allow me to follow Heinlein’s Rules.
Belief Systems. I call them “Myths.” They are very, very powerful things in all of us, especially when it comes to writing and the process around writing and even more the mailing and marketing of stories to editors.
Some of these simple, but wrong belief systems are:
“I need more practice. My work isn’t good enough yet to send to editors.”
“I need to polish my work before I dare send it out.”
“An editor will hate me if I write a bad story.”
…and so on and so on. Plug in your own personal myth or belief system into this discussion. But every one of them, without fail, are designed to make sure you don’t succeed, don’t write, rewrite to excess, and then don’t mail your work to editors.
Heinlein told you simply how to do it. Most long-term professional writers I know follow those rules and did follow those rules almost from the beginning. There are exceptions in short term professional writers with five or six books out, but none that I know of in long term careers.
So why are the five simple rules so difficult to follow. Easy answer. They all fly into the face of myths around publishing.
1) You must write. (Myth that this rule jumps right into the face of is the myth of being creative, being hit by the stroke of genius from the creative fairy. I must STRUGGLE for my art, make every story perfect, only write a page or maybe two per day to keep myself clean and pure and fresh. Crap, all crap. Long term professional writers sit down and write, when they feel bad, when they can’t think of a thing, when the process hurts, when they would rather be out in the sun. This is a job, a great job, but still a job.)
2) You must finish what you write. (This rule hits in just about every story when the brain switches over in the middle of the story to “I’m writing crap, what’s the point, I should just stop this pile of crap and move to something new and better. This will never sell. It’s just stupid.” Well, professional writers have learned to just power through the mind issue, which never goes away and is with us all every project. We finish what we write because that’s what we do.)
3) You must never rewrite unless to editorial demand. (This smacks right into the biggest myth of all. Long term professional writers do a clean-up run-through of a manuscript to fix details and such, do a spelling draft and mail it. Understanding how the creative side of your brain works vs. the critical side of your brain helps with getting past this myth. But every beginning writer I know rewrites their manuscripts to death and never sell. Agents take young writers and force them to rewrite a manuscript until the voice is gone. Workshops tell you how to “fix” a story so that you end up writing to group think and we all know how that kills anything original, dangerous, and voice-filled, which is what editors are looking for. I could write a hundred posts about this myth and you beginning writers would still never believe me. Your fifth grade English teacher is just too deep in there, along with your college profs. But another way to get around this is to find out how long it took a favorite writer of old, before this myth gained hold, to write something. For example, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol overnight to hit a magazine deadline. Learning stuff like that helps.)
4) You must mail what you write to an editor who will buy it. (Not an agent, agents don’t write checks. And this rule hits the fear myth the hardest. I wrote crap, I didn’t even “polish” it, how could I send this out to an editor? The editor will hate me. I will ruin my career (when you don’t have a career because you never mail anything) and so on. If you follow #3 on the rules, this one really hits home hard into the myth world and stops some great writers.
5) You must keep your story in the mail until someone buys it. (This hits the “rejection myth” really hard. Some editor bounced my story, so it must be flawed and I had better look at it and rewrite it to “fix” it. No, never look back. If you follow Heinlein’s Rules, you are not going to rewrite it anyhow, so why look at it again. Just mail it to another editor. Fantastically hard to do at times because it hits the “what’s the point” button in all of us after five or six rejections. Following Heinlein’s Rules and never looking back or rewriting, I sold a story on the 34th time out in the middle 1980′s and got 10 cents per word for it.
So, one more post on Heinlein’s Rules because of a few private e-mails and a workshop coming up this week with Sheila Williams of Asimov’s. She and Kris and I are going to be going over stories together for this workshop, helping authors with craft issues and so on. But what I am noticing so far is that some of the stories have been rewritten into mush. It’s always easy to tell when all voice just has vanished from a manuscript.
Voice is something you can’t see as an author and what you get rid of in rewriting.
The writers coming don’t have problems with finishing manuscripts, and they are all great professional level writers who are putting their work on the line to learn. It’s going to be an interesting week. And a fun one, that’s for sure.