Heinlein’s Business Rules

My recently departed friend Bill Trojan one day about ten years ago handed me a book and said, “You want to know where Heinlein’s Rules came from that you are always quoting, here it is.”

In my hands I found a copy of the Fantasy Press small hardback (in nice dust jacket) called Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing. It was the 1947 edition First Printing.

Now Advent Publishing did a cheaper edition of the book in 1964 that can be bought for around $10.00 on most used sites, but this Fantasy Press edition was more like a $50.00 book. It might be higher now. I was stunned. Not something Bill usually did. Just one of the many thousands of kind things he did.

So tonight I found it and was thinking about Bill and looking at the gift.

There are articles in the book from John Taine, Jack Williamson, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, E.E. “Doc” Smith, John Campbell, Jr., and Robert A. Heinlein and it was edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. A great read for any writer. And considering it was written in 1947, most of the information is still stunningly on-the-money, especially in this new indie publishing world.

So tonight I was cleaning up a shelf in my office and found myself looking at the book again. And reading it again. So I figured for fun and to make a few of you angry at the advice because I’m in a Bill mood (grin), I might as well just give you all of what Heinlein said 64 years ago.

Heinlein got near the end of the article and then said,

“I’m told that these articles are supposed to be of some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.”

(He then put a paragraph about assuming each reader can type, follow manuscript format, can spell and punctuate and can “use grammar well enough to get by.”)

He goes on to say, “These things are merely the word-carpenter’s sharp tools. He must add to them these business habits.

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you start.

3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

4. You must put it on the market.

5. You must keep it on the market until sold.”

Then he said, “The above five rules really have more to do with how to write fiction than anything said above them. But 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!”

I found these rules and followed them when I got serious about writing in 1982. So did my wife before I knew her. So did so many more of my successful writer friends.

As Heinlein said, the rules are amazingly hard to follow.

And for those of you who are looking for a secret to making it as a professional writer, Heinlein put it right out there in 1947. And it hasn’t changed, unlike most everything else in this business.

Just some Friday night ramblings…

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63 Responses to Heinlein’s Business Rules

  1. Yep. I’d posted those over my writing desk a week or two before hearing you and Kris do your show at the Denver Worldcon, which reaffirmed my intention to follow them. Sold my first story less than six months later, my first pro sale (to Analog) within a year.

    Robert Sawyer adds a rule 6 (which Heinlein may have felt was self-evident): Start writing something else.

  2. JW Manus says:

    I used to own a copy of that book. It got lost in transit somewhere (or my rotten kid purged it to help me out!). Now I want to find a copy again.

    Thanks for the reminder from the late greats, Dean.

  3. Lynn Swayze says:

    Good advice. Thanks. :)

  4. Er. What about any of that would make anyone angry?

    I’m not trying to be stupid, and it could be I just hang out with the wrong crowd, but I don’t see what could possibly be enraging over “you should know how to spell and finish what you start.”

  5. John says:

    Rules #1,2,4, and 5 (and Robert Sawyer’s #6) make complete sense to me. I know one can over-rewrite, but how many professional authors truly submit first drafts to editors? And does it make sense to encourage beginning authors to submit first drafts?

    Of course…if one expands ‘editorial order’ to include the editorial suggestions of your ‘first reader’ or group of “first readers’ which every author should cultivate, I think I can go along with it, but it’s an important clause to add, as I’m not sure everyone would grok that without it being there.

    • dwsmith says:

      John, I know it hurts to think about it, but most long-term professional writers follow Heinlein’s Rules, especially rule #3. Sorry. And giving your work to a group is just deadly. Trust your own voice, trust your own talent, and stop looking for safety nets. There are none. Honest, and it’s better that way.

  6. John Walters says:

    That book sounds great. Think I’ll search for it.

    Harlan Ellison added a bit on to rule three – and I am paraphrasing here as I don’t have the exact quote available: and then only if you agree with the editor.

  7. Eric Cline says:

    Dean, thanks for providing the Ur-source of The Five Rules. I posted a version of them in my office a couple of years back. Your wording differs slightly from mine (“…till it sells”), but the intent is the same.

    I have made two professional sales, three semi-pro sales, and currently have two stories being held for further consideration by publishers who pay pro rates. It’s all because I followed the rules.

    They can be hard, especially #1. I write on the train during my daily commute, which is about my only free time during the work week. Yet there are people who take endless seminars, subscribe to Writers Digest, read books about writing, and yet don’t actually do much, if any, actual writing. (I was one of these when I was a college student). It’s amazing, really; are there people standing around patches of untilled, unplanted ground who say, “Gee, I really want to be a gardener”?

    In George R. R. Martin’s collection of short stories DREAMSONGS, his inter-story introductory essays mention specifically that he realized he needed to write more stories, and that he needed completed works, rather than fragments. The collection (which I think has been sold in both omnibus and two-volume versions) is worth the price just for those parts alone.

  8. K. W. Jeter says:

    My own corollary to Heinlein’s Rule #2, based on the principle that anything on paper is better than nothing on paper: A badly completed piece is better than an uncompleted piece.

  9. Sam Lee says:

    Great addendum, Dean. Investing is like that, too: amazingly simple, and for many people, amazingly hard to follow.

    The rules really make it clear that writers write, no exceptions.

    Finding and following Heinlein’s Rules means that I’ve produced more fiction this year than I did in the past ten years before this, and have more fun at it.

  10. Whoever owns the rights to the book “Of Worlds Beyond” should publish an ebook edition.

  11. Ramon Terrell says:

    I must confess. I broke one of the rules. After I pulled my book down from a previous self pub company to re release it with new artwork under my publishing company, I started to read it and cringed. It was the first book I’d written and although generally well received, I felt compelled to put the benefit of five years of writing to use and polish it up. This has turned into a semi rewrite. I know, I know, shame on me. I couldn’t help it. The next two books are so much better written that I felt this first one needed to be up to par.

    *hangs head in shame*

  12. G R Colorado says:

    I forgot about Heinlein’s rules, though I have read them often enough. My first finished novel was passed around a crit group and was totally killed. I lost everything (I was just too new at writing to know better) style, voice etc. I rewrote, researched, rewrote, then started over because I didn’t want to leave the project unfinished.

    It took time to realise there is something to learn from receiving editor’s rejection.

    • dwsmith says:

      G.R., just trust yourself. Trust your own voice. And keep learning for the next book and next story. That’s the important part. And along the way you will find what works for you.

      Folks, Heinlein’s Rules work for many of us, but Steve Perry is right. Everyone and every story is different. As an editor, I know how to edit and how to rewrite now, after all these decades. Do I often do it? Not unless an editor wants me to. I see no point otherwise. And honestly, that’s becoming very rare these days as well. My last four novels have gone in with only copyedits needed. Wild, but fun for me.

      Could I make a story slightly more perfect if I spent hours rewriting it before putting it up here in the challenge? Maybe, or I might just as easily kill it even with my skill. So I don’t take the chance. You guys who read my stories on the challenge are seeing pure Heinlein’s Rules. Pure.

      You might find a few typos, you might not like a story. But I have already moved on to new stories, new novels, new writing.

      And to be honest, I looked back at the tab above called “Challenge” as I am gearing up again to make a run at this and couldn’t remember over half of the stories up there. I know to those of you out there who think everything you write is pure art, but for me, I’m a storyteller. I just tell stories and move on and trust me, this way is a blast.

  13. Tori Minard says:

    “It’s amazing, really; are there people standing around patches of untilled, unplanted ground who say, “Gee, I really want to be a gardener”?” Yes, there are, believe it or not. My husband is one of them. He’d rather read Mother Earth News articles than actually get out there and break ground. I’ve studied a couple of odd-ball subjects in my life, and I’ve met a lot of people who say “Golly, I’ve always wanted to do that!” but when given a chance to learn they suddenly don’t have the time. I think it’s a common behavior. It’s a lot easier to take classes and subscribe to a magazine than it is to put yourself out and maybe fail. And feel foolish because, at first, you don’t know what you’re doing and you know that, but you don’t know how to fix it. That makes a lot of people hellishly uncomfortable.

  14. Ken says:

    Nice to see you back in action.

    What is a good rule of thumb for the “until it sells” rule in this new world?

    What I mean is: when to epub versus keep mailing to pro markets? Right now I have about 20 stories out from this year and none have more than 5-6 rejections. Yet I am also eager to do more e-pub to learn more about that.

    I took 4 stories out of circulation and epubbed them just to get started, and one (that I wrote for Kris’s short story workshop) has sold a half dozen copies in a month — but the others 1 copy between the lot of ‘em, (grin).

    I am in no big rush and also at the stage where a pro writing credit or two would do me way more good than a few dollars from e-pub.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks and condolences on the loss of your friend.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ken, thanks!

      My attitude is that you keep the story out to paying markets above 5 cents per word that have good circulation (thus good advertising for your indie published work) until the markets are fairly exhausted in the genre you are working in. Then indie publish it.

      And remember, go and read how numbers are tracked. You only have the numbers from Kindle and maybe Pubit(B&N) is the stories are from June. A good average over all your short fiction after you have over thirty things up is about five sales ACROSS ALL WORLD SITES per story. Some will sell none, other stories will have dozens of sales. Not a clue why. And if anyone knew, they would be really, really rich. (grin) But you won’t know that “across all world sites” sales number for about six months thanks to the weirdness of quarterly reporting through some of the sites and the quarterly reporting by Smashwords. (And even then still hard to track.)

      So no big rush. Better to sell stories to major markets to advertise your indie published work and get some money at the same time. And the key is having more and more inventory indie published.

  15. Steve Perry says:

    I’m pretty sure that a second draft (draft-and-a-half) is not the same as rewriting once you are done with a piece. Heinlein did more than one draft of a lot of his stuff.

    And even so, there’s a reason there are erasers on the ends of pencils.

    My first story — first one I submitted — was rejected fourteen times. Along the way, I figured out what was wrong with and rewrote it. Fifteenth time was the charm.

    Once you have achieved a certain level of skill, you can feel more comfortable in your presentation; however, as a beginner, you are apt to make some common beginner’s mistakes, and some of these will get your story rejected. If you have a come-to-realize moment about a piece you wrote, there’s no reason you can’t fix it, and plenty of reasons you better.

    Heinlein was a helluva writer. His rules are pretty good, but like any rules about writing, subject to judicial review.

    If you are going to trust your own voice and talent, that will include learning when to break the rules …

    • dwsmith says:

      Steve said, “If you are going to trust your own voice and talent, that will include learning when to break the rules …”

      Spot on the money.

      Every writer is different. If you are writing and it is selling and you are getting better and your stuff keeps selling, don’t change anything.

      But if you are polishing something to death every time because an English teacher told you that was the way to do it, and you are not selling, then maybe following Heinlein’s Rules might help you.

      I sold two stories in 1975 to a semi-pro magazine, a good one it turns out, but I didn’t know that at the time. I managed from 1975-1982 to write two or three short stories a year, polishing and rewriting and making them awful because my rewriting skills were awful. And I didn’t trust my own voice and my own ability to just tell a story. In other words, I had bought into the rewriting myth full bore. Then in late 1981 I found Heinlein’s Rules and on January 1st, 1982 starting using them in combination of some things that Brabury said about speed and never looked back. Rewriting and “polishing” did not work for me. Writing one draft, fixing typos and mistakes, and mailing it got me an almost three decade career now.

      So what Steve said. But the key is understanding where your own belief system comes from and finding what allows you to write stories that readers, including editors, love.

  16. Ah, Dear Mr. Smith,

    You are so generous and wise. Thank you for this. I’ve been floundering for months; and yet, every time I come back to your blog, my writing spirit is renewed.

    Thank you!

  17. Ramon Terrell says:

    I wish I could relate how helpful your articles are, Dean. To be honest, it started bugging me that I was spending so much time on ‘polishing’ this book up for republishing, and not preparing my other two and starting my new work. I’ve kicked myself back on track and am typo and spelling hunting only; no extra work to kill the book. I hate not writing, and I’ve been not writing for about three weeks now getting these three books ready to publish. Thanks so much for your posts.

  18. K. W. Jeter says:

    Quoting Steve: “Along the way, I figured out what was wrong with and rewrote it.” The operative word there is “I”. To my mind, there are two varieties of rewriting and polishing — the first and productive one is jumping through the hoops you hold up for yourself, the other and far less productive one is jumping through the hoops that other people hold up for you. There’s a limit to the number of hoops you’ll put up for yourself to jump through, until you’re satisfied the story is the way it should be. There is *no* limit to the number of hoops that other people (including supposed professionals such as agents and editors) can put up for you to jump through. Worse, those hoops are more often contradictory than not, and would have you jumping back and forth through them until your dying day and you still wouldn’t have made all those people happy.

    True story, and one that comes from just a couple of weeks ago, instead of the distant past where most of my anecdotes come from. I gave a couple of people (an agent and an editor) a look at the first book in a new project (haven’t gone live with it yet; Dean knows the one I’m talking about). One of them essentially responded, “Good book, socko ending, get rid of the first two chapters.” The other responded, “Good book, fabulous beginning, ending needs to be completely reworked.” As I said, true story. I’m just going to ignore them both.

    So jump through as many of your own hoops as you see fit. The other guy’s hoops? Unless they’re paying you for every rewrite, Hollywood style, then screw ‘em. You can’t please everybody — especially for free — so you might as well please yourself.

    • dwsmith says:

      K.W., let me simply give you a third piece of editing for your project. “Don’t touch a word of that. I love it as is.”

      There, now you are balanced. (grin)

      And great points. If you are rewriting to death something, figure out where the need to do that is coming from. If an English teacher or some workshop, stop now. But if you feel, deep down inside, with no outside rules, that you need to mess with it, then mess with it. Just caution as to where the “instructions” to do so are coming from.

  19. Ty Johnston says:

    Actually, and I don’t mean to sound snobby about it or as if I know it all, but I find those five rules pretty easy to follow. I’ve even broken it down to two rules: Write it and put it out there. The rest will follow. It might take a while, sometimes even a good long while, but the rest will follow.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ty, I agree, once you have cleared out the myths, they are easy to follow. For a time. And they are very basic and clear.

  20. I remembeer seeing that book many years ago. The other article were cool too–I’d love to have a copy now.

  21. Louis says:

    I’m surprised no one else has said but can I get a copy of that book? :)

    Yeah, I’ll look for it. Supposedly the internet is good for that type of thing, even though as one person suggested having whoever owns the copyright put it out as an E-book but what if the copyright has aspired?

    And I’ve read the five rules almost enough to quote them by heart. But I must say that the “use grammar well enough to get by” statement before the rules got my attention. I’m still working on that.

    And the statements that say you’re not the only to follow those rules helps with our discussion of the Rules.

    Thanks for the post and the book title.

    • dwsmith says:


      The authors of the articles still own those articles under copyright law. And I wouldn’t mess with any of their estates, especially Heinlien’s estate. You really need to go learn copyright since you are writing. Copyright Handbook from Lolo Press. Critical.

      There are cheap copies of the Advent edition of the book. I think they can be found for under $10.00 online.

  22. K. W. Jeter says:

    Well, duh, Dean — if Agent X says “Change the beginning,” and Editor Y says, “Change the ending,” and *you* say, “It’s fine the way it is,” guess who I’m going with. I consider anybody who agrees with me to be a genius.

  23. Dean, I’m sorry to hear Bill Trojan is gone. He and I had lost touch with each other many years ago, but I did sign at least once at Escape While There’s Still Time, and enjoyed the contact we had then and on other occasions.

    Heinlein’s rules strike me as mostly on the money. There have been times, though, when I got a substantial false start on a book and knew to put it aside and try it anew when I was ready. And there are quite a few books I abandoned forever, and I’m glad I did.

    I’ve always been able to write and publish first drafts, and thank God for that, but not everybody can work that way. For some writers, rewriting is an essential part of their process, and they would be truly lost without it.

    Same token, some of us write fast, some of us don’t. Very hard to change what comes naturally in this respect. I did a Mystery Scene piece on Stanley Ellin, noted his friendship with Evan Hunter. Stan wrote very slowly, rewrote endlessly, and produced some of the finest mystery short stories of the 20th century. Evan wrote sparkling first drafts, 5000+ words a day. Evan, impressed by Stan, tried to slow down. A fool’s errand—he was who he was, and so was Stan, and I can’t imagine how anybody could contend that either of them was doing it wrong.

    As for editors, in my experience they’re not always right. But neither are they always wrong. What I have to do as a writer is remember it’s my book, and it will be my book forever. If I keep that in mind, I’m likely to take advice when it works for me and ignore it when it doesn’t.

    • dwsmith says:

      Lawrence, thanks for the great comments. I showed my wife (Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kris Nelscott in mystery novels) your post and she said you remembering Bill would have made his day. (I agree.) She remembered clearly how much Bill enjoyed the time with you and the dinner after your signing. And his store was a great store, wasn’t it? He was always a major supporter of your books and I can tell you he has many, many of them in his collection, including many of your pen-name paperbacks. Thanks for the kind comments about Bill.

      I agree completely that each writer has a natural form, a natural way of writing. For many of us (me included) who are able to publish first drafts, we are lucky. I had always heard that Evan Hunter (Ed McBain for those of you who don’t know) also wrote only one draft. (Remember folks, one draft means you fix typos and mistakes but not much else.) Thanks for confirming that about Evan.

      I also bought into the idea of trying to slow down early on, with a novel about number ten or so. Horrid failure for me. If I’m not powering along I get bored and when I get bored I go do something else. I bore very easily. (grin)

      And I, of course, agree with editors often being wrong. I had one novel with a really stupid editor (company or editor not to be named) who gave me pages and pages of rewrite suggestions, all dumb. Just flat stupid, actually. So I waited two weeks (playing into the myth that good writing must be slow), changed a few minor things early on where the editor might see them and did nothing else. Nothing. Didn’t change a word past page twenty. Then I wrote this glowing letter back to the editor praising the editor’s time and all suggestions and how the suggestions made the book better. And I sent the book in and it was published as I sent it back. Editor never noticed I had done nothing.

      So on Heinlein’s Rules, I agree with Harlan’s addition to rule #3 which is “And then only if you agree.” (Harlan writes clean first draft as well.)

      And since I never really outline a novel, I also have started off into the dark and found out I had typed a hundred or more pages of a complete false start and stopped cold. I can’t remember how many novels I’ve had that happen to, but the number is high. I just toss the pages away and if the idea keeps haunting me I try again at another point without ever looking at the failed start. If I can’t remember the book or the original idea after a time, I never go back to it. I think for me that is just a price I pay for keeping myself entertained. If I don’t know where I am going and have that dreaded feeling I am writing myself into a corner, I stay excited. And if I don’t know where the book or story is going, I doubt any reader will either. (grin)

      Thanks a ton for the great comments and for remembering my friend Bill. We had a good time at book collector Dick Wald’s annual party for book dealers yesterday in Portland. So many book dealers and collectors from up and down the west coast were there and telling “Bill” stories. Great fun. Thanks for adding to the memory.

  24. It look like NESFA Press has copies of the Advent edition for sale:


  25. Mark Jones says:

    I’m another “seat of my pants” writer. I’ve tried to plot a story out ahead of time, and I just can’t seem to manage it. I fiddle with the plot and fiddle with it and fiddle with it, until it dissolves like wet tissue paper.

    It’s good to hear Dean say that sometimes he writes himself into a corner with a false start and just moves on to something else. I have a lot of partial stories on my computer. Sometimes I pick them up and finish them. Sometimes I don’t.

    But I just wanted throw in a little math (Dean likes math). If I write 100 pages (25,000 words) of a novel and then crash into a wall, well, at 1,000 words an hour, that’s 25 hours. Less than a week’s work if you spend any time at all at the computer. You could crash into a lot of walls in a year and STILL finish several novels, if that’s what it takes.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yup, that happens, Mark. My wife came out one day and told me she had just tossed away 200 pages of a novel. She said, “I finally found the opening of the book.”

      I have never gone two hundred pages in. I tend to hit walls somewhere between 60-120 pages, and not just the 1/3 wall every writer hits with every book. Stuck on plot wall.

      What this feels like is just a dread growing for pages and pages as the typing pace slows and slows and then just stops. The dread is my internal creative voice telling me I had taken a wrong turn or didn’t have enough plot to support what I was doing or just flat was stuck.

  26. The book I’m working on has been one of those after another. Two days ago I was wondering if I’d need to toss 200 pages and redo from start, buecause the series this one is in is deliberately fast and fairly short, and this was 200 pages that felt to me like it wasn’t going anywhere.

    Last night, in my sleep, I dreamed about a whole aspect of the plot I’d left dangling since it was introduced–and, surprise surprise, it turns out that that dangling thread is exactly what was missing. Today, another 4k words and I’m now into the final act of the story–might even finish the novel tomorrow.

    That grit to hang on and figure out the shape of that project wall is one of the skills I’ve acq

  27. –doh. Accidently hit “post” when I meant to hit space.

    …acquired over the last year of writing at a 4 novel/year pace. And ooh, boy, does it make ALL the difference. You were right, Dean, it IS a sustainable continuing pace :-)

  28. Steve Perry says:

    One size doesn’t fit all, and general rules offer a newbie a direction in which to tend. Yeah, Heinlein, but having your cake and eating it, too? That’s a nice trick. If your voice says Bob was full of hooey? Then what?

    Just because you want to tell a story well doesn’t mean you can.

    Hemingway rewrote his short stories out the wazoo. Supposedly he would get up every day and start over whichever piece he had in the typewriter, and some of them had as many as fifty drafts. He was polishing diamonds. Would they have been better after first draft? Who can say?

    Wm Gibson did at least ten drafts of “Johnny Mnemonic.”

    A lot of pros do a pretty clean first-draft. Some of them rewrite every page, before they move onto the next, and at the end of this, they call it a first draft. Nothing wrong with that, but it ain’t a first draft, save in the most technical sense.

    Some of us spew, throw words onto a page, and then go back and cut away or spackle over. We go back in and lay in stuff for backstory or foreshadowing that we skipped during the sprint. If you are good enough to do that first time through, more power to you. Mostly, I’m not and I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years. If I told you not to rewrite after the first draft, I’d be telling you to do like I say, not like I do. And I’d be wrong to do so.

    (In Hollywood, there is a contractural difference between a “draft” and a “polish,” and it is laid out when you do the work. Cleaning up typos and touching up this and late is considered a polish.)

    Most of the short stories I sold during the typewriter days went through three drafts, the last one being for typos. (That’s because I was polishings pebble, not a diamonds, and however bright it was after a draft or three? That’s as shiny as it gets.)

    Computers and spellcheckers allow a clean-up-as-you go ability that would have required a second draft on a typewriter. And if you had more than three errors on a page, editors wanted to see it re-typed.

    Cleanliness mattered.

    I have sold stories that were essentially first draft, done in a single sitting, and I thought they were pretty good. However, I’d been doing it for a while when I got there.

    All of the rules of grammar for Mrs. Cowsar’s English IV class aren’t necessarily those you’ll be using in your space opera, though some of them will apply. Mark Twain’s Rules still mostly work.

    The problem for me comes with the advice to trust your own voice when you haven’t figured out what your voice is yet. When you haven’t developed the critical eye to see your mistakes. If you don’t know what a said-bookism is, or why you ought not to do it? Or when you can’t see why Bulwer-Lytton winners are funny?

    You don’t have to be able to read a single note to play dynamite blues guitar, but you do need to know your instrument and how to make it do what you want. Hand a guitar to somebody who can barely tune it and tell them to do B.B. King, and chances are they can’t. They can’t trust themselves because there’s no there there …

    Those of us who offer advice tell you what has worked for us. Maybe it will work for you. Sometimes, it won’t.

    Everybody has to start somewhere, and those of us who have been doing it since before the first rain came down tend to forget some of how it felt to be a newbie.

    • dwsmith says:

      Steve, I pretty much agree. But I do remember clearly those years from 1975-1982 when I was polishing all the edges off and writing slowly and doing everything I was “supposed” to do. I remember them clearly. In fact, I was so sure back around 1980 that my story I sent in to the Twilight Zone new writer’s contest would win, when it came back with a form, I got so disgusted I stopped for six months and almost threw out my typewriter. Kris also was form rejected in that contest. Dan Simmons won it.

      So I remember clearly, and with all the new professionals coming through the workshops here, I watch and understand what they are going through in this modern world.

      So that said, here is my observation.

      1. In the beginning years you are better served to send off a first draft with mistakes and typos fixed by a single trusted first reader. That allows your true voice to still be in the work. The voice you (all writers) think is dull because it’s our voice.
      2. In the beginning years newer writers don’t have the skills to rewrite, which is a harder skill to master than writing first draft fast story. Fast story we all know because we have been reading since the beginning. Rewriting is a trained skill and early on no new writer has it, so when “polishing” as they say, they take their own voice out and all the energy. (I can’t tell you how many thousands of times I have seen this happen.)
      3. In the beginning years newer writers are better served to have a structure. Later on publishing and making a living gives us old-timers structure, but early on there is no structure, and Heinlein’s Rules combined with some self-imposed deadlines allows structure to form.

      Just three observations that were true for me back before I found Heinlein’s Rules and that seem to remain true with all the newer professional writers I see through the workshops here.

      But I do agree completely, Steve. No one size fits all, and the only correct way for any writer is their way. My goal isn’t to make all writers follow Heinlein’s Rules. My goal is to get writers to try different ways, to actually go out and figure out what works for them, be that a dozen rewriters or no rewrites. But so many young writers in this new world are locked into so many old myths that stop them from finding what works for them.

      Thanks to you and Lawrence Block and K.W. Jeter and Gerald M. Weinberg and James Richie in just this discussion, the newer writers can see a bunch of us longer-termed (about to say “old”…grin) professionals and how we all do it in our own ways.

      No right way, just your way. As long as it is working and selling. Otherwise have the courage to try new ways. That’s my message. And Heinlein’s Rules are just another way that works for many, many of us.

  29. About suggestions from other people:

    1. If you possibly can, find yourself a first reader whose judgment you trust. I my case, it’s my wife, Dani, with over 50 years of experience. From what I’ve heard you say, Dean, your wife, Kris, is such a first reader for you (sometimes). [But, of course, you are relatively newlyweds.]

    2. Ignore the comments of any readers you haven’t had enough experience with to trust. But keep track of how trustworthy they are becoming, or not.

    3. From your trusted first readers (if you have any), taste everything, but swallow only what tastes delicious to you. Spit out the rest.

  30. James A. Ritchie says:

    I’m a firm believer in Heinlein’s Rules, and I try to follow them religiously, but occasionally I do sin.

    My own interpretation is as follows.

    Rule 1. You Must Write.

    Yes, you must write, and when I’m writing, I keep a tight schedule, and I write a bunch. But sometimes, once or twice a year, I need a break. I take a couple of weeks off, and then go back to writing. I also don’t write most Saturdays, and never on Sunday unless it’s an emergency, and it isn’t pro football season.

    Rule 2. You Must Finish What You Write.

    Well, yes, unfinished work gets you nowhere, and not finishing is the second worst habit a writer can have. (Not following rule one is the worst.) But I can think of several times over the last thirty years when I did not finish what I started. An extreme example is a story I started wherein the central character was the white knight in a chess game. (Don’t ask!) Anyway, about halfway through that story, which was getting horrendously long, I thunk to myself, “Okay, I don’t remember doing it, but at some point in the last twelve hours I must have swallowed some combination of LSD and Mr. Clean, and then made dinner of a whole tray of questionable brownies.” I did not finish that story.

    Rule 3. Your Must Refrain From Rewriting Except To Editorial Order.

    Like Lawrence Block, I have always been able to sell first drafts. I sold the first drafts of the first three short stories I ever wrote, and of my first novel. But it isn’t always so easy. Now and then I start a story that I’m sure is good, but it keeps turning right when I know it should turn left, things do not flow, and it Needs Serious Work. So my interpretation is get it the way you want it, do so with a minimum of fuss and muss and rewrites, and once it is the way you want it, THEN leave it the hell alone.

    Rule 4. You Must Put It On The Market.

    Definitely, but I’ve broken this rule on extremely rare occasion, as well. I can think of at least four things I wrote, finished, etc., and then decided, for one reason or another, I did not want published, even if it would sell. These I simply discarded.

    Rule 5. You Must Keep It On The Market Until Sold.

    I seldom sin on this rule, and when I do, and I have, it’s usually from oversight, or lost stories. I made my first really big, lucrative short story sale from a short story that had been rejected so many times I lost count. It was rejected by big magazines, medium magazines, and small magazines. It was rejected by penny a word magazines, and by no pay at all magazines. And then it sold to a national glossy, big name, top of the line magazine for $1,000, and, oddly, sold numerous times in reprint form after that magazine published it. Once that big magazine published it, everyone seemed to want it.

    But if I had stopped submitting that story when common sense said I should have, it never would have sold anywhere.

    Anyway, I do believe Heinlein’s Rules are vital, and writers who succeed follow them very closely, even if they’ve never heard of them, but now and again, you’ll probably have to break one or another of them, and this is fine, as long as you follow them all whenever humanly possible.

    • dwsmith says:

      James, I pretty much follow what you said with a few exceptions.

      On Rule #1, I write seven days a week when I am writing, then take longer times off. I am a sprint writer by nature. I sprint, then laze around.

      On Rule #2, I finish everything except for those pesky novels where I write myself into a dead end. Sometimes I go back and finish it, sometimes I just toss them.

      On Rule #3, I’m like the other pros here for the most part. I can sell first drafts and usually do, but every-so-often something just needs work. I have two solutions for this problem. Usually I just toss the story and write it again from what I remember of the idea. That works best for me because as Algis Budrys once said, when you have a pile of steaming crap, stirring it with a stick only creates a bigger mess. If I actually rewrite, which is rare, I follow my first reader’s suggestions carefully and don’t go off track if I trust those suggestions.

      On Rule #4, this is where I fall down the most, or at least used to in the last ten years as I got more and more disgusted with traditional publishing. I would write entire novels and stories just for me and never mail them. I’ve got a number of those books sitting here, including a Poker Boy novel that I actually did make an attempt to sell. I have another book Kris calls my “Dead Body Romance” that I wrote way ahead of the vampire/zombie/death trend in romance fiction. Just the other day after going through a pile of paper looking for a letter I got from Bill Trojan a few years back I found a complete short story I had written, tossed on the pile and just forgot. I have a ton of those. So this rule is my worst. No excuse.

      Rule #5, see rule #4 for me. Early on I sold stories after thirty plus rejections. The last ten-fifteen years I would get a rejection back on a story and just forget to mail the story again. In other words, in the last decade or so, I sucked at this. Mostly my reason was that I had given up on this name and was writing ghost novels or novels under my two major pen names. I sold four or five short stories per year, but all to anthologies. I tended to write about ten per year on average, so I have a ton of inventory if I can just find it. (grin)

      As Heinlein said, easy rules to understand, fantastically hard to follow all the way. I am no exception to that.

  31. Eric says:

    “What this feels like is just a dread growing for pages and pages as the typing pace slows and slows and then just stops. The dread is my internal creative voice telling me I had taken a wrong turn or didn’t have enough plot to support what I was doing or just flat was stuck.”

    I could never toss a story. I am too afraid not to follow Heinlein’s second rule. If I didn’t finish the story I was working on, how could I ever trust myself not to skip out on the next one?
    And I know the feeling. And I know what it’s like to fulfill a 5000 word quota at 400 words per hour. (Pretty fresh memory. That was just yesterday! :D)

    Though it is not a bad feeling per se. Realizing I made a mistake means I am about to learn something new. I went back and changed a character completely into another one (into a Lesbian dragon as a matter of fact, but that is immaterial to this discussion) and I finished the story. Just in time too. I had 1700 words left to write and needed to start working on the next one right away.

    Meg Cabot wrote something about this in her NaNoWriMo pep talk:

  32. K. W. Jeter says:

    Steve — I completely agree with your main points, but as a personal bête noire, the so-called Bulwer-Lytton winners *aren’t* funny. Reginald Bretnor did that sort of thing a lot better, only he called them “feghoots.” The B-L contest is just a bunch of prissy little university English department types ragging on a fine writer whose pencil case they’re not worthy to carry — and by extension, on any working genre writer who knows how to tell a story in the language of his time. Which would include you and me, pal; when those “literary” types sneer at Bulwer-Lytton, it’s really hacks (as they’re happy to call people like us) who write stories people actually enjoying reading who they’re going after. I could find plenty of English dept.-approved “literature” that the prats who run the B-L contest positively adore, the sheer pretentiousness of which would make a dog vomit. But then again, the dog has better taste.

    Just for the record, Bulwer-Lytton was the guy who coined the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which is probably the single finest example of figurative language in the English tongue — I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t able to immediately perceive what it means without having it explained to them. Have any of those sneering B-L contest types ever written anything that comes close to that? Not trying to start up a chapter of the Bulwer-Lytton Anti-Defamation League here (or jump down your throat), but there are pages and pages of his The Coming Race, among his other works, which are really fine prose, even by the standards of a generation of popular writers who for sheer productivity and quality kinda put us to shame.

    Rant over; returning you now to Dean’s regular programming…

  33. “You must finish what you start”

    I read and enjoyed Grumbles From the Grave, and it was obvious that Heinlein didn’t submit first drafts; he usually went over a ms. and did some cutting, at least. It seems to have been part of his usual process.

    But when he had a final draft he was satisfied with I’m guessing that he stopped tinkering with it, and I personally believe that’s what he meant by refrain from rewriting.

    But he made at least one exception. At one point he rewrote Methusaleh’s Children, when a new edition was released. He compared it to changing a tire at night in the rain, but he felt it was necessary and he did it.

  34. Tori Minard says:

    Thank you so much, Dean (Lawrence, K.W., Steve, Gerald) for sharing your working habits with us. I think a lot of us newbies go through this “I’m a freak” stage where we think there’s something wrong with the way we work. Or maybe that’s just me. :) Dean, I really appreciate your telling us that you sometimes miss on Heinlein’s rules. Because I beat myself up when I fail on those. The rewrite thing is such a funny subject because different people seem to have different definitions of that word. All I know is, I mess with a story until it feels right to me, but I absolutely hate going back in and moving scenes around, so I do the absolute minimum of that.

    • dwsmith says:

      Tori, the key is are you producing fiction that sells? If so, don’t change anything. If not, try to stop messing with it and just mail the story. (grin) The key is what works.

  35. David Barron says:

    For ‘The New World’, I would add a rule:

    “Only look at your sales numbers once a quarter.”

    Corollary: “If you have time to check your sales numbers, you’re in violation of Rule 1.”

  36. Thomas E says:

    I started trying to follow these rules in April. Since then, I have written just under 200,000 words.

    At the moment I am on a 79 day streak of writing every day, at least 500 words.

    My biggest problem so far is rule no 2. I seem to keep starting and then going ‘squirrel’ and getting distracted by another really interesting story. So I started a challenge in may to finish on short story a week and submit it. Since then I’ve finished and submitted 22 short stories.

    So far, I don’t know whether this is working in a ‘sales’ sense – but I do believe I am writing better than I was a few months ago.

    • dwsmith says:

      Wow, Thomas, congrats! You made the turn. Well done!

      And with that kind of practice, I’ll wager anything you are right that you are writing better. No doubt.

      Keep going!!

  37. Steve Perry wrote: “…The problem for me comes with the advice to trust your own voice when you haven’t figured out what your voice is yet…”

    I’m not sure we ever *know* what our writing voice really is, any more than we can really hear our speaking voice the way others do – it’s just something do without really thinking about it, and lose when we agonize over every word, bit of punctuation, and turn of phrase.

    What I tell very new writers is to “…talk to me on the page…” I encourage them not to worry about the words so much, but to just tell me the story as though they were sitting across the room or putting it into a letter to send in the mail. For those who actually finish the stories they were wishing they could write, it’s amazing how being given permission to not focus on the grammar and the words freed them up to find their voice and tap into their inner storyteller.

  38. The hard part for me on the Rules is keeping stories in the mail that are “between genres.” I’ve got erotica stories that aren’t arousing (but powerful emotionally other ways and sexually explicit). I’ve got a sort-of science fiction story that gets personalized rejections due to ‘not fitting in what we do.’ It’s hard to keep sending those out (or self-pubbing them and picking a genre to label them) instead of just writing the next ones.

  39. K. W. Jeter wrote:

    “There’s a limit to the number of hoops you’ll put up for yourself to jump through, until you’re satisfied the story is the way it should be.”

    On the topic of “Every writer’s different”… There’s no limit to the number of hoops _I_ will put _myself_ through if I don’t consciously apply effort and control. I learned that the hard way on my first book (on software design, not a fiction book). Every day, I would sit down and reread what I had written as a way to “warm up” for the day’s writing. (That’s a bad habit I still can’t shake, though I can now usually restrict it to the prior scene or so.) And every day, I would decide that I needed to rewrite something. To be more specific, I needed to rewrite page 1, paragraph 1, sentence 1. Every day for weeks.

    Eventually I stumbled onto a truth that now makes sense when I read Heinlein’s Rules: the new version on a given day was NOT better than the old version, I was just in a different mood that day; and if I didn’t stop obsessing over that opening, I was never going to finish that book!

  40. Annie Reed says:

    Great post, Dean. I loved reading through all the comments. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that one writer’s process is just that – the process that works for that one writer. The key is to keep writing and then not leave everything that’s been written sitting in a drawer or on a computer, but kick it out the door to make its own way in the world while moving on to the next thing. I’ve been horrible at Heinlein’s Rule #4, but I’m getting better in these days of e-pub. I have higher game numbers these days than I’ve ever had, and I’m more prolific, too.

    I doubt many people would want to emulate my process, which is basically wait until beyond the last minute and then write like crazy. I produce most of my short fiction in one night. I then go back and do a typo/name, hair, and eye color edit, and call it done. My first reader usually gets my short fiction after it’s already out the door one way or another. Otherwise I’m tempted to futz with it too much.

    Oh, and I can’t remember all the 45 stories I’ve written so far for my challenge, either.

    @ Thomas E – congratulations on the streak! The cool thing about writing a story a week is that if you get distracted by squirrels (I’m easily distracted, too), you don’t have to make the squirrels wait long. Every week is a new opportunity to write one of the squirrel stories since the last squirrel story is done and out the door.

    • dwsmith says:

      Annie…45…wow, fantastic!! I’m at 28 with just four months to write the other 72. As my wife laughingly said the other day, “You had better get started. You have pushed this deadline just about as far as you can.”

      Yup, she’s right. I write on big deadlines just like you do with the weekly one. Last moment, all out.

  41. Steve Perry says:

    Yo, K.W. —

    I wasn’t busting Bulwer-Lytton’s chops, I was pointing out that the tortured language entries into the contest bearing his name are sometimes funny.

    Humor is in the eye of the beholder, and much of it thunks, but there a line beyond which it makes me laugh. So sue me.

    R.E. Howard, another hack pulpsmith, (of which I consider myself a proud example of the breed), once had a line to the effect of “‘Look out!l” Conan ejaculated.” With a shift of punctuation, that is a real grinner for me.

    Reaves and I did *Thong the Barbarian Meets the Cycle Sluts of Saturn,* sold originally to our host here and later published as a short book, mostly so we could lay low and nasty with said-bookisms and dreadful metaphors, insulting Howard, Doc Smith, and Lovecraft all at once. It was fun, and when we used to read it aloud, it would break us up.

    I’d guess Bulwer-Lytton isn’t bothered by the digs these days.

    • dwsmith says:

      Going through my friend’s estate, I am noticing something I had forgotten. Almost all writers that we remember wrote tons and tons of books, yet we only remember a few of them. Howard is one example. I’m finding a bunch of his early hardbacks and work that Bill had in his collection and I knew none of the titles. Bulwer-Lytton is the same way. He wrote a ton of highly acclaimed books and was a literary darling as well as bestseller of his time. I honestly have never read a one of his books. Sad, that. I will have to fix that at some point.

  42. K. W. Jeter says:

    Yo, Steve — No problem, I just have a big red button about those snotty tenured university types ragging on working writers — which is their real agenda and they just use Bulwer-Lytton as an example of all the great unwashed writers they look down on, such as you and me.

  43. I found myself quoting Heinlein’s Rules to more than just a few aspirants when I was at WorldCon. That definitely ranks as a milestone: new or beginning writers coming up to me to ask for advice — the vaunted ‘secret’ to the biz! Huh? Me hand out writing advice as if I know what I am talking about??! Gack! When in doubt, punt. Or, in this case, when in doubt, quote Uncle Heinlein. As in all things, mileage may vary. For me it took 17 years and a lot of false starts, self-doubt, and struggling through dry spells. But when applied fastidiously, the rules did in fact work remarkably well.

  44. Todd says:

    Rule #3.

    This seems to be one of the most divisive topics in writing, particularly among those who teach writing. You, Dean, seem to be in the minority by advocating the “Don’t rewrite” approach…

    …and I love you for it!

    Seriously, the vast majority of writing instruction I’ve come across, including most blogs on the subject, promote a “You MUST rewrite” approach: Workshops, mentors, teachers, peers, friends, family… draft after draft after draft. In fact, I’ve often come across the following aphorism:

    “Writing is Rewriting.”


    I hate that. It not only smacks of massive insecurity from a writer perspective, but more importantly from a reader perpective, Ultimate Homogenization.

    This is particularly true in scriptwriting, where rewrites are not only encouraged but EXPECTED at every point in the process, by every development person, studio executive, producer, director, and actor who gets a glance at the script.

    Which not only explains why so much of what we see on TV and at the movies is so dispiritingly similar…

    …but also why “screenwriter” is such a soul-sucking profession.

    So let me add a third voice to Rule #3:

    “Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.” – William Blake

    Here’s to more genius…

    …or, at least, the attempt to get there.


  45. Glynn James says:

    “You’re lazy” is what I was told. If you don’t re-write, you’re lazy. My answer was – “But I don’t enjoy it. I hate it. I like to reread, not rewrite. reread and correct the typos, and done.”

    My last novella took about a week to write, in bits. It took me two hours to edit it. Next!

    I’d never even heard about Heinlein’s rules prior to reading this blog, and they are basically what I’ve been doing for the last year, which, by the way, is first time I’ve actually finished books (4 of them) in 30 years of unfinished stories.

    I’m curious about one thing though.
    You want to rewrite/edit/amend a rule that says “don’t rewrite”?
    (Sorry, I found that quite humorous and had to point that out)

    Thank you Mr Heinlein for saying it was okay for me to carry on being “lazy” and just doing the writing bit that I enjoy and not the rewriting that is a rubbish way to spend time, and thank you Dean for saying the same!

  46. Eric Cline says:

    Steve Perry has a point about computers. These days, we all have a built-in second draft with SpellCheck and the like.

    Dean, do you have a numbering system for your stories and novels? I find that’s a great way to keep track of them, and to make sure that you don’t forget to resubmit a work that is rejected.

    I haven’t written a novel yet, but each of my stories is named by year, then numbered after that, then a tentative descriptive title. So the first story I wrote in 2012 would be “opus 2012-01 The Butler Did It,” the second would be “opus 2012-02, Hound of the Basketballs.” I can sort my titles both on the file index and in a spreadsheet, and know at a glance how much progress I am making, which stories are older, etc. I can also change the title from “The Butler Did It” to “Col. Moustache Did It” without messing up the order.

    The method was used, I think, by a Golden Age SF writer; I can’t recall where I heard about it. (Anyone want to chime in?) It sure does make things easier when you have 43 submissions out (my last count).

    • dwsmith says:


      I’ve tried various systems like that over the decades, all failed because after a time I could never remember my own system. I just went by titles. But that said, I have lost, meaning they are in my files but not ever mailed, never done anything with, tons of short stories. I tend to write them for fun and then forget about them, which makes this write and publish nice. That way I can forget about them and they still earn me money. (grin)

  47. Kerry NZ says:

    I followed a link-to on another site (http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/09/08/thomas-friedman-thinks-you-should-stop-whining-about-your-passion-and-work-harder/) to someone saying pretty much the same as you about what it takes to make it as a writer – ie keep writing – and emphasises the additional role of luck in the same way as Konrath:
    see http://screenrant.com/james-erwin-rome-sweet-rome-interview-movie-reddit-robf-131012/

    The money-quotes are near the end.


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