Monday, April 9, 2012

Following Heinlein's Rules for Writers

Science-fiction legend Robert A. Heinlein once codified five "rules" for writers who wish to improve their chances of success at publication. My favorite source for these rules is Robert J. Sawyer's page where he expands on all five and adds a sixth.

In brief, the rules are:
  1. Write
  2. Finish What You Start
  3. Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
  4. Put Your Story on the Market
  5. Keep it on the Market Until it Has Sold
  6. (Sawyer's Addition) Start Working On Something Else (To which I would add "And Try To Work At Improving Your Craft"

I wanted to take a quick look at these rules, both to help boost their signal for anyone who hasn't heard of them before, and to do a quick check of how well I succeed at following them.

Rule 1: I've written (not necessarily fiction) every day since September 1st of last year. I think I can say I'm meeting this rule.
Rule 2: I'm rather good about this one but not perfect. In fact, this rule is the one that got me thinking about doing a personal analysis. If my counting is correct, I've gotten 43 stories to a state that I was satisfied enough with them to submit them since August 2011. But I also have 10 stories which are not finished. Those are in various states, some are brand new things which are close to being submission ready. Others are ones that are sort of mental "ugly ducklings" for me that I'm not satisfied with and haven't figured out how to fix them yet. On the whole, I'm over 80% here, but I should be better.
Rule 3: This rule generates some debate. Sawyer softens it to something more like "don't tinker endlessly with a story." I'm good at that. Maybe even a bit too good. I think that there are times where I could be a bit more patient with a story before shoving it out into the world. I also think I'm better at making the decision about when to be done now than I was six months ago, in part because I'm better able to tell when something isn't "right" yet and also due to help from critique partners. I occasionally will "bend" this rule if a story has racked up some rejections and I want to trim words to get to another market's length requirements. I, personally, think that's a "good" form of tinkering as long as it doesn't overwhelm the process of writing new work.
Rule 4: Yeah, I don't have trouble with this one as my 200+ rejections in the last eight months prove.
Rule 5: I haven't trunked a story yet. There are a few early ones that I can imagine trunking, though, after they've hit a large percentage of the reasonable markets to try them at.
Rule 6: Loops back to Rule 1.

On the whole, I think I do well when judged against these rules, though I could definitely use some refining around my processes for Rule 2. Too many hours of work have gone into unfinished stories.

Are you interested in trying to follow these "rules"?

In my opinion a fantastic mechanism and community which can help you move towards these goals (at least in terms of short fiction) is Write 1 Sub 1. W1S1 follows another writing legend, Ray Bradbury, who is said to have aimed to finish a story every week, at least at one point in his career. While I don't personally aim for a weekly W1S1 goal, since some weeks are more chaotic than others, I can say that I've kept up an average of getting one new story out on the market per week since returning to writing in August of last year. I absolutely think that this has been key to what modest success I've experienced so far and believe it will continue to be key to my future aspirations.


  1. #1 is definitely and surprisingly underrated. I heard a quote that said, "writers will do anything in the world to get published--except write."

    1. Good quote! And, sadly for many, there's a lot of truth to it. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I like these points - good advice.

  3. eh, failing miserably at #3 at the moment, though I hope as I start my anthologies this summer that will change too. Thanks again Michael

    1. You're welcome, good luck with the anthologies!

  4. I fail at number 2. I've got many, many story fragments. But I do manage a story a week-ish. And I do sub like a fool.

    These rules have helped me a lot.

    1. I *think* I'd feel less bad about story fragments sitting around than things that were basically complete stories that just need some work to actually be "finished."

      Still, if we're managing about a story a week and getting subs out there, it can't be all bad...

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I've never seen these before, but I really like them. They put things in perspective - in the vein of: These are the things you need to do and only these things. All else is extraneous.

    Good post!

  6. I've never seen these before. I like them. I've done pretty good #1-4. #5 I've slacked off on after receive 12 rejections for the 2 of my stories I've submitted. They might need some more tweaking, but I'm more focused on my novel right now. I do plan on revisiting them in the future. #6 I have been actively doing since January.

    Awesome post. I'm going to have to print those rules off and stick them where I will see them often. :D

    1. If you haven't lost faith in the story--generally by identifying a major flaw in it--don't stop submitting. I've found that sometimes it will take 15-20 submissions to find a home. I average nearly 5 submissions per story before finding success, and this isn't unusual, even for established pro writers. Target your markets and submit, submit, submit...

    2. Good comment, DTM.

      In fact, two of my most recent sales were for stories which were on their 10th and 11th markets. It only takes one editor for whom your story resonates to make a sale!

  7. I'd heard of the rules before and try to follow them. Lately, I've been having trouble carving out time to write, and when I do write, it's mostly rewriting and incomplete story in the hopes of being able to finish it. I'm trying to focus myself on writing every day, no matter what.

  8. Thanks for the comments, Becca, Andrew and wordboy!

    I would have replied sooner but blogger was being difficult last night...

  9. Great post, Micheal. I'm a strong believer in Heinlein's Rules; it's a mantra for me: write, submit (submit again, submit again), write, submit (submit again, submit again), write....