HEINLEIN’S RULES

Five Simple Business Rules for Writing

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Moving now to the second rule.

Rule #2: You Must Finish What You Write.

Say 9 out of 10 people who claim they want to write are wiped out by Rule #1 because they “just can’t find the time.”

If that is the case, then my guess is that another half of the remaining writers are stopped cold by Rule #2.

Now, I have to be honest, I never had an issue with this rule, so I mostly just ignored it. I always finished what I wrote. Part of that was the early challenge to mail a story per week, but mostly I just hate leaving things unfinished.

So until Kris and I started teaching workshops, I had no idea how really deadly this not-finishing-projects was to many, many writers. I just had no idea, because it is not my problem.

So I talked with a lot of writers over the last fifteen years about various aspects of this problem of not finishing.

And I started watching all the excuses people give for not finishing, and it became clear how really deadly this rule is for many.

At first I thought it was a craft problem writers had. I thought maybe writers didn’t understand the ending structure, or how to build to an end, or even how to see an ending.

Sure, there were minor aspects of that, but when that was scraped away, it boiled down to a few common problems I’ll detail below.

HOW IT WORKS

The feeling of this problem goes like this for many:

Step one… Excitement about a story or an idea.

Step two… Excitement carries the writer a distance into the story or novel or an outline.

Step three… Excitement wears off, critical voice plows in, story looks like crap and too much work to keep going.

Step four… Writer makes up some excuse to stop and go find a project that is exciting again.

Step five… Repeat the first four steps without ever finishing anything.

 

Outlines do not help this problem.

Finishing has been made into an “important event” and thus almost impossible to actually get to. Like that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

As long as you are working on something, you can call yourself a writer. But when you finish, you aren’t writing, so it is better to stay a writer and just keep working on it.

You can’t fail if you just keep working on a project.

Writers with this problem can’t see not finishing as failure.

TWO MAJOR AREAS

1… Fear.

To put it simply, finishing something risks that what you finished will fail.

In my early days, failure was the story not selling to an editor. In this modern world, it can still be that, or it can be that you put it out indie and no one buys it.

If you keep working on something to make it better, rewriting it for the fifth time, reworking that plot you don’t think works, and so on and so on, you won’t risk the failure of no readers in the end.

To writers with this problem, a story must be some imaginary image of “perfect” before it can be released. And no story ever attains that.

For any of us, actually.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch did an entire book on this called “The Pursuit of Perfection.” That book deals with this problem and so much more and worth your time and money if you have this problem.

Fear of failure is real and if it has become the dominating force in your writing, you need to go get professional help to get past the problem. It is that serious. Not kidding.

Rule #3 coming up also works into this rule.

Finishing a sloppy first draft that you must rewrite is not finishing. Sorry.

As long as you are working on a story in some fashion or another, it is not finished, and thus you don’t have to risk the fear of failure.

And a small slice of writers have this issue because of fear of success. Not kidding here either. They don’t finish because their ego tells them their work is so wonderful, it will be an instant bestseller and they don’t want to be famous.

I have met a couple of these writers. I managed to not laugh until I walked out of the room.

Also, finishing brings in another fear.

Fear of mailing.

I have been an editor off and on for over thirty years. Not once do I remember a story that didn’t work. Why?

Because editors don’t read stories that don’t work.

Duh.

I can’t even remember the thousands of stories I have bought at various magazines over the years, let alone any story I didn’t read.

Duh.

But yet the fear of mailing to an editor scares some writers beyond words. So they are better off not finishing than to have to face that fear.

And now the fear of learning how to indie publish scares writers, so better to not finish than have to learn all the new stuff.

Fear.

On and on.

Excuse after excuse.

 

2… Love of a Project.

This is also fear based, but in a different way. It goes like this:

“If I finish this project, what do I do next?”

This boils down to the early fear all writers have of not finding another idea. I do a six-week online workshop called “Ideas to Story” that helps writers fix that issue completely.

And as you write more and more, you quickly come to realize that ideas are everywhere and far too many for you to ever get to.

I used to write ideas down in notebooks because of this fear. But after a few years I stopped because if I couldn’t remember the idea in a week, it wouldn’t be worth my time to write it.

And now I never even come up with ideas.

I don’t. Honest.

I write from triggers, an advanced way of telling stories, granted. But given enough time, every writer can get there.

But I do understand this excuse to not finish. I have a number of worlds I love to play inside. But I write and finish stories and novels inside the worlds. I never just work on one thing for years.

But I have seen more writers than I want to admit that are working on “their novel.” When they say that, you know this is their problem and Rule #2 is going to kill them.

Writers like this will finish a draft, maybe, then go into major rewrites, even though they have no idea how to rewrite or how to tell a better story, they still need to stir the words around.

Then they give it to some “editor” that they pay a vast amount of money to (called a scam) and the editor has them work on it some more.

And on and on.

Never finishing.

Sadly, I have never seen a writer find a solution to this. They can’t even admit the problem to themselves so they just cycle in the same world, same characters.

These writers will never finish because if they finished, all the people around them who had watched them work on “their novel” for years might actually have a chance to read it.

Far, far too dangerous to allow to happen.

You also see this with most of the sloppy-drafted NaNoWriMo novels. They will never be fixed and no one will ever read them because it’s too dangerous for the writer to let their supportive family who sacrificed time so they could write to see how really bad the book might be.

 

If Writing Is Not Fun

Writers who can’t seem to finish much, if anything, believe in the tortured “artist” myth, that writing must be hard and only years of working in the salt mines can make a novel brilliant.

Nope. That’s a myth.

Thankfully.

 

So two major reasons why this simple Rule #2 stops so many writers.

1… Fear of failure.

2… Fear of moving on to something new.

 

Notice fear is the major word in both.

If a fear of any kind is crippling you and stopping you from finishing a novel or story, don’t fight the story through. You won’t beat the fear that way.

Step outside of that one novel, that one story, and deal with the fear outside of any one story.

What are you afraid will happen?

And is that worse than never finishing anything?

Heinlein’s Rules are so simple. Remember, even he said that.

So let me lay out clearly what he meant with the first two rules in relationship to failure and fear of failure.

Think of the rules this way:

Rule #1… You Must Write. Not writing is failure.

Rule #2… You Must Finish What You Write. Not finishing is failure.

So if you are having fear issues, move the fear over to not writing and not finishing.

I can tell you this for a fact: The idea of not writing and not finishing what I write scares hell out of me.

Get help with your fears, move the fear to a fear of not writing.

And move the fear to a fear of not finishing.

Because not writing and not finishing are true failures.

I hate to tell you this folks: Every time you claim you want to write and then don’t write or don’t finish, everyone around you knows you are failing.

That should scare you more than anything.