Five Simple Business Rules for Writing



For lack of a better way of putting it, Heinlein’s Rules allow you to get to the fun of being a writer.

They also help us all remember we are entertainers.

About a decade or so ago, I was asked by a professor of English at the University of Oregon to come talk to one of his advanced creative writing classes about the reality of being a full-time fiction writer.

I had a hunch I was going to not do nice things to their brains. And I looked on that possibility as my sacred job description.

But it turned out I was the one shocked. Before I even had a chance to start to tell them about the fun of writing, about making a living, about writing Star Trek or Men in Black, one of the students said basically, Mr. Smith, did you know you put such-and-such theme in your story?

I could barely remember the story he was asking about, and I had zero idea that theme was even in there. I know for a fact I didn’t layer that in on purpose.

As I sort of sat there facing them, three of them got into an argument about what one of my stories really meant. The poor professor had to stop them to let me talk.

I had no clue any of the stuff they were talking about was even in the story. Clearly it was, but their attitude about it and how important that was to them shocked me down to my little toes, let me tell you.

I’m an entertainer.

It never occurs to me to add that literary stuff in purposely. But clearly it is there.

Kris had a similar experience back in the Midwest with a college class.

And then another time I got this same lesson is a different way. About twenty years ago, Kris and I were walking along and I asked her which magazine she thought a story I had finished the night before should go. She suggested a market and then said, “It’s one of your wonderful prison stories.”

“I don’t write prison stories,” I said.

I think it took her ten minutes to stop laughing.

It seems, after she explained it to me, that all of my stories, in one fashion or another, are about real people being trapped in some form or another.

Could have fooled me.

I just write to entertain myself.

I guess I have some issues that are deep-seated (or deep-seeded which makes more sense in this case) about being trapped.

But it clearly seems that when I get out of my own way with my writing, my subconscious layers in all sorts of deep and meaningful stuff I don’t even think about.

Go figure.

And, of course, that’s how it has always been with writers.

We write to entertain. It is up to others to figure out what we wrote.

And Heinlein’s five business rules help us get to the point where we are just writing and letting the art stuff happen.

Would I have ever gotten to that point of putting that cool stuff (without knowing) in my stories without Heinlein’s Rules?


Would I have made a living with my fiction for the last numbers of decades without Heinlein’s Rules?


Would I be enjoying writing as much as I do without Heinlein’s Rules?

Not a chance.

Here is my attitude in clear form.

— I never look back. I am always focused on the story and then the next story.

— Others can look back for me, either as readers or in some university class. I don’t care.

— I write to entertain, first myself, then readers. That is my focus.

— I write because it’s the most fun I can have at this age. (No jokes please.)

I think that understanding my attitude will help all readers of this book color how I look at these five simple rules.


One Thing Heinlein’s Rules Does Not Talk About

Heinlein’s Rules say nothing about typing fast.

They say nothing about speed or anything associated with being prolific.

So many people think they do, but they do not.

For some reason this gets confused and mixed into the rules, but please, if you catch yourself thinking about speed or productivity in association with these five rules, stop and step back.

Heinlein’s Rules are business rules.

So with all that said, onward into the rules.




Rule #1… You must write.

How simple.

On the surface, this sounds so easy. Of course, just write. Duh.

Well, how about some reality?

Say you have one million people who say they want to be writers, who have a book in them they really want to write, who have a dream about writing stories and maybe getting published.

One million. There are a lot more than that, of course, but for this example that number is round.

In my opinion, of that one million, nine hundred thousand will never find the time.

That’s just my rough and more than likely conservative guess. But it is a guess on my part from decades of watching.

Nine out of ten people can’t find the time to write, even though they say they want to.

Or another way to look at this, in my opinion over 90% of all people who say they would like to write, who say they want to write someday, are wiped out by Heinlein’s Rule #1.

Yeah, the first rule sounds so, so, so simple, doesn’t it?

You must write.


Yet it is the most deadly of all the rules.

Writer vs Author

My definition of a writer is a person who writes.

My definition of an author is a person who has written.

Yeah, I agree, sort of a nasty distinction. I have no respect for authors. I have a ton of respect for writers.

(And right there a massive herd of authors just left this book. Ahhh, well, they had promotion to do, after all.)

In this modern world of indie publishing, we see a ton of authors out there pushing their one or two or three books, promoting them to death, annoying their two hundred Twitter followers and their family on Facebook.

Promotion is not writing. That’s just being an author.

Writers are people who write.

Also, Heinlein did not say, You must research.

Research is not writing.

Also, Heinlein did not say, You must promote.

Promotion of your last novel is not writing.

Talking with your friends in a workshop about your future book is not writing.

Outlining your novel is not writing.

And on and on.

Back to Rule #1: You must write.

So simple.

So hard for so many.

My friend, Kevin J. Anderson, sent me a wonderful card when I sold my first novel. I sold my first novel about a year ahead of his first novel sale, yet he clearly understood what was going on better than I did at that point.

The card was priceless and I still have it.

On the front the card was divided into six panels. Each panel showed this mouse sweating to push this huge elephant up a hill.

And with each panel the elephant got higher on the hill.

I opened the card and there, inside, was the elephant sitting at the top of the hill and the mouse looking down at a herd of elephants in valley below.

The caption on the card said, “Congratulations! Now, do it again.”


Now, almost thirty years later (I sold that first novel in May of 1987) I am still having a great time moving those elephants to the top of the hill, one right after another.

Writers are people who write.

I am a writer.

And thanks to Heinlein’s Rules, especially Rule #1, I make my living writing fiction.

And I have since 1988.