Heinlein’s Rules vs. Amazon’s game

While I am tilting at windmills, I am minded to try a joust with that famous contraption called ‘Heinlein’s Rules of Writing’. What moves me to do this, chiefly, is the tub-thumping in favour of those rules performed a while ago by Dean Wesley Smith, who delivers himself of windmills and giants in roughly equal proportions. Someone ought to do the public a service and tilt at them all, and sort them, because it is not always easy at first sight to tell t’other from which. I have neither the time nor the stamina, nor probably the skill, to do them all, but I am willing to pitch in and take on a share of them if others will do the same. Since Mr. Smith is a great devotee of Heinlein’s Rules, and often repeats them with greater force than clarity, it occurs to me that they would be a good place to begin.

My peculiar taxonomy of windmill-tilting is, of course, one of the essential tools of human thought, an age-old distinction as famous as the sun, and has been universally recognized as such ever since I thought of it the other day. One part of the preceding sentence is true. In case it is the last part, I shall recapitulate, so that those of you who are new on the job may know what I am blithering about:

One of the jobs an essayist or a thinker can do is to play Don Quixote and tilt at windmills. Don Quixote did this because he imagined that the windmills were giants, which naturally needed slaying. Nowadays we have a tendency to take ideas as if they were expressions of unalterable natural law — predictable, automatic, and virtually infallible, like windmills; when they may only be expressions of personal opinion — capricious, organic, and mortal, like giants. So we tilt at them; we try to kill them, to see if they can be killed.

So let us sharpen up our lances and see if we can score a hit on Heinlein’s rules. Here they are, as first formulated in a short piece ‘On the Writing of Speculative Fiction’, written in 1947:

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.

The First Rule is non-negotiable; the only way to get things written is to write them. Frederik Pohl, in The Way the Future Was, tells a lovely-naughty story about a rich and cultured young Italian contessa who wanted to be a writer, and asked him for advice. She had the marketing and the byline all down pat, but whom, she wanted to know, should she hire to do the actual writing? The story is almost, but not quite, too good to be true. If you are William Shatner, or even Newt Gingrich, you can get a publishing contract on the strength of your name, and then hire a ghostwriter to do the heavy lifting. But the heavy lifting has got to be done by someone.

The Second Rule is one of those interesting things, a tautology that is not a truism. If a piece of writing isn’t finished, it can’t be sold; if it has been sold, it is finished as of that moment — with rare exceptions. (The Hobbit provides a good counterexample. The confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum, in its present form, was written ten years after the first edition was published; but it was so great an improvement, and so necessary to the sequel, that it completely ousted the original version from the canon.) But that does not shed as much light on real literature as we might hope.

When Mark Twain wrote The Mysterious Stranger, he hung fire a couple of times in the writing process; the last time, he was about two-thirds of the way through the projected story, and he never touched it again before his death. Yet just as it stands, the work ends at exactly the right place; no other ending could better emphasize its horrible and inhuman unity. Illusion after illusion is stripped away, and then the illusion of reality itself is stripped away: the narrator is left alone for ever with his own solipsism. When the story was published, several years after Twain’s death, hardly anybody knew that the author himself had considered it unfinished. He was finished with it; and it was finished enough to make its point. It is not always obvious even to the writer when he finishes what he started.

Still, there is such a thing as an obviously unfinished story, and cases like Twain’s don’t come along very often. We can accept the second rule as it stands.

The Third Rule is where nearly everyone objects. On the face of it, it looks like a commandment to send out your first drafts and never revise them. This was poor advice in 1947; it was poor advice even in 1939, when the pulps were in their autumnal glory and Heinlein first broke in.

(By the way, it is remarkable that so many people were inclined to take as gospel the advice of a man with less than ten years’ experience in the field, however successful those years had been. It is far more remarkable that people still take it so now. Dean Wesley Smith, who regards Heinlein’s rules as a fount of wisdom, has been a working professional writer for nearly three times as long as Heinlein had been when he wrote them. One wonders that he holds them in such awe.)

A lot of ink has been shed in vain to explain away Heinlein’s Third Rule. One school of thought holds that what he meant by ‘rewriting’ was not redrafting and polishing, but tearing up a story and redoing it from scratch. Another says that he meant excessive rewriting, beyond the point at which the writer (somehow) knows that the story is ready to send out. Another — but it is pointless to multiply examples. The mere fact that so many people feel the need to explain the rule away shows that it needs some explaining. And it is nearly always on the Third Rule that Heinlein is attacked; though, as I shall try to show later, it is on safer ground nowadays than the Fourth and Fifth.

The fact is, I am afraid, that Heinlein did mean for writers to send out their first drafts, with the proviso that they should be corrected for obvious errors and cut to an appropriate length. The kind of rewriting Heinlein tended to do, at that stage of his career, really was rewriting and not revising; and he did it, for the most part, when he had reached a dead end in the story and had no idea how to get his characters out of their predicament. Then he would toss out the last part of the manuscript and cast back, a bit at a time, until he came to a point from which he could branch off and take the story in a different direction. But this, for him, was all in the course of writing the first draft.

He once allowed (approximately; I paraphrase from memory) that Stranger in a Strange Land took him eleven years and sixty-two days to write: eleven years of making false starts and then abandoning them, time and again, until he figured out how to tell his yarn about a Man from Mars; then sixty-two days of lightning work to write the draft. Once that was done, he sweated a good deal longer to cut it to 160,083 words (‘and I am tempted to type those extra eighty-three words on a postcard’), knowing that it would be extremely difficult to sell at its original length.

This was Heinlein’s normal method, exaggerated to the point of self-parody: write one draft, throwing away as many false starts and blind alleys as necessary; then correct it for grammar, factual errors, and stylistic infelicities; then cut it to suit the market. That is very little revision by the standards of most commercial writers; but even so, Heinlein was more fastidious than most writers for the pulps. I have heard of pulp writers who typed their first drafts with carbon paper — one copy for submission, one for the files. You don’t do that unless you have the perfectly serious intention of submitting that first draft exactly as it stands. Sometimes, of course, one of these pulpsters would have to throw out a page and do it over; but not so often that it would have been quicker or cheaper to do a complete second draft and save the carbon paper for that. Some pulp writers schooled themselves to turn out 10,000 words a day, five or six days a week, for years on end; and that meant doing everything in one draft. Not many writers could put out 10,000 words in a day without degenerating into dada; hardly any could maintain that speed whilst writing two drafts, which (in the days when each succeeding version had to be typed out from scratch) meant doubling the work.

The pulps, you must remember, were the absolute bottom rung on the ladder of a writer’s career. Good writers got themselves out of pulp writing if they could; or, at most, indulged it now and then as an outlet for stuff that they could not sell to a better-paying market. (In just this way, Heinlein himself sold occasional short stories to Astounding and Galaxy in later years, if none of the slick magazines would buy them.) Pulp editors were keenly aware of this, and many of them were willing to make extraordinary efforts to salvage stories. When Fred Pohl edited Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, his starting salary was a princely ten dollars a week; he paid his writers, as a general thing, half a cent per word. At that price, he had to buy a fair number of stories from amateurs, which meant choosing stories that were almost publishable and bringing them the rest of the way himself. Even John W. Campbell, Jr., though working with a much larger budget, used to brainstorm stories with his writers and then send them away to come up with a working draft, which he would then edit closely. Indeed, Campbell’s relationship with his writers was much more like James Patterson’s relationship with his numerous co-authors than anything you will find a magazine editor doing today.

Once Heinlein found the range with Astounding, he immediately became two of the magazine’s star writers — Robert A. Heinlein and Anson MacDonald — with one appearance under the name Caleb Saunders. (Campbell didn’t like to use the same byline twice in an issue; he also had a thing about Scottish names.) His stories routinely took top place in the ‘Analytical Laboratory’, the monthly readers’ poll, earning him the magazine’s top rate of a cent and a half per word. Anything that Campbell rejected — often for ‘moral reasons’, meaning that Kay Tarrant, his assistant, thought it was smut and would not let him print it — sold readily to other magazines at lower rates, under the name of Lyle Monroe. (Kay Tarrant was a force of nature. One of Fred Pohl’s anecdotes: Every writer in the Astounding stable was engaged in an informal competition to see who could sneak ‘something bawdy’ past her. Nobody succeeded until George O. Smith referred to a tomcat as ‘a ball-bearing mousetrap’. This should give you an idea how tightly the pulps could be censored.)

Heinlein was too good a writer to need editing at the pulp level; once he learnt to avoid the faults of his earliest stories, not even Campbell could improve his stories in any unambiguous and cost-effective way. And the truth was that he was getting bored. He wanted to be up and doing, getting strenuous exercise, not sitting at a typewriter all day and worrying about his weight. He could have set himself to climb out of the pulps, but in 1941, respectable book and magazine publishers did not print science fiction and pretended never to have heard of the stuff. H. G. Wells, officially, was a Fabian Socialist writer and nothing else; Aldous Huxley, officially, was a kind of offbeat satirist. There was nowhere to go, as Heinlein himself said, but down.

When Campbell rejected Heinlein’s story ‘Goldfish Bowl’, Heinlein took that as his cue to exit. Campbell panicked: his best and most prolific writer had just quit without notice. It took a good deal of pump-priming and feather-smoothing before he could cajole Heinlein into returning; and part of that process meant working out the minimum amount of revision that would make ‘Goldfish Bowl’ an acceptable story for Astounding. This was one of the few cases where the rider to the Third Rule — ‘except to editorial order’ — had applied to Heinlein himself before 1947. (He would do a good deal of rewriting to suit Alice Dalgliesh, his editor at Scribner’s, compared with whom Kay Tarrant was a painted libertine.)

When he began selling to the ‘slicks’ after the Second World War, Heinlein found himself moving in a different circle — and one in which he was a great deal less important. He was famous partly for being the first pulp SF writer to sell to the Saturday Evening Post; yet he sold only four stories to that market all told, and had to work hard to do it. ‘Space Jockey’, his second story for the Post, was 12,000 words long in draft form. Heinlein took enormous trouble sweating it down to 6,000 words, the average length of a Post story, before submitting it. He then wrote humbly to his agent: ‘I am beginning to understand the improvement in style that comes from economy in words.’ He knew that if he had submitted the story at its original length, the Post would have rejected it for that reason alone; he had to rewrite without an editorial order, because the editor would not have bothered to issue such an order.

Nowadays, nearly all writers are in this position, which neatly destroys the usefulness of the Third Rule. You will occasionally, in some of the short-story markets, find an editor who likes a story but wants something fixed; and if you are an established pro, you may find yourself dealing with a book editor who dislikes your latest book too much to publish it as is, but cannot justify cutting you loose altogether. In those borderline cases, you may get an order to rewrite. Most of the time, you’re on your own; most editors are far too overworked, in these idiotic times, to actually edit anything. Sometimes they are too busy even to read the books they are publishing: that work is left to assistants, or even left undone. And of course if you are your own publisher, as an increasing number of us are, an editor is a hired technician who goes over your work and suggests improvements for you to take or leave as you see fit. In such a case, there is no such thing as an editorial order.

What, then, is the self-publisher to do about revision? There is nobody to make us do it; nobody with the authority to withhold the longed-for imprimatur. Heinlein’s Rules would then have us do no revision at all; and not even Dean Wesley Smith is quite that rash. I used to puzzle over this myself a good deal, until I found an answer that suited me. It comes straight out of the tradition that Heinlein wrote in; comes, in fact, from one of Heinlein’s own heroes and role-models; and I am morally certain that Heinlein himself employed it in cutting down ‘Space Jockey’ for the Post.

A good number of Heinlein’s letters, including the one I quoted above, were published after his death under the title Grumbles From the Grave. The letters are grouped into chapters roughly by topic; and it was one of the chapter titles that pointed my way through the conundrum of the Third Rule. That chapter was called ‘On Writing Methods and Cutting’. Not rewriting, you will observe; not even revision; but cutting. Heinlein was an engineer, and surely knew the rule of thumb that used to be called the ‘RCA Principle’, but is nowadays known as ‘designing to manufacture’: First build the best product you know how; then see how many parts you can eliminate before it stops working to specification. It is that elimination of superfluous parts that distinguishes a superior design from a merely adequate one, not only in engineering, but in art and literature as well. In this necessary skill, Heinlein’s preceptor and mine was the immortal Rudyard Kipling. This is from his autobiography, Something of Myself:

This leads me to the Higher Editing. Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly. The magic lies in the Brush and the Ink. For the Pen, when it is writing, can only scratch; and bottled ink is not to compare with the ground Chinese stick. Experto crede.

Writers nowadays are notoriously sloppy and prolix compared to those of fifty or a hundred years ago. Partly this can be attributed to the modern tools of the trade, which do not lend themselves to ‘Higher Editing’ with ink and brush. Even a pulp writer of the 1930s, as I mentioned, generally had to type his second draft from scratch before submitting; and that meant that every word passed individually through his brain a second time, giving him ample opportunity to repent. Writing on a cast-iron Underwood typewriter (I have done it myself) was heavy work; and at every word of the retyping, the writer’s aching fingers would ask him desperately, ‘Is this trip really necessary?’ I believe it was Edison who said, ‘There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labour of thinking.’ But this is not so. A man will do the labour of thinking to save himself  the deadly drudgery of retyping. Few things make me happier than thinking of ten clever words to take the place of fifty dull ones: a thing that often happens when I have to retype a manuscript from scratch. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but Sloth is the father, and he is more prolific than his wife.

The trouble nowadays is that we can be lazy without taking shortcuts; we are flooded with technological conveniences to help us achieve it; we can buy prepackaged sloth. The word processor is one of these conveniences. We no longer have to retype every word of a story in order to produce a letter-perfect copy for the printers (or the ebook file). What is worse, there is no visual cue to tell us whether we have even read a passage after writing it. The errors, infelicities, and excess verbiage of the first draft look just as clean and tidy as the niggling changes of the fourth revision. This tempts us to write in a sloppy, slapdash style, telling our story in the first words that come to mind and never bothering to improve them.

Our friend Mr. Smith recently informed the world that he has written 745,175 words of original fiction in the last twelve months. I am tempted to ask him: ‘How much was that before cutting?’ It would not surprise me to learn that he had omitted that step, as Heinlein used to do in the bumptious days when he wrote his Rules. If so, he is robbing himself of the very best effects that his writing could produce. I will let Kipling deliver the sales pitch:

I forget who started the notion of my writing a series of Anglo-Indian tales, but I remember our council over the naming of the series. They were originally much longer than when they appeared, but the shortening of them, first to my own fancy after rapturous re-readings, and next to the space available, taught me that a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect. Note, though, that the excised stuff must have been honestly written for inclusion. I found that when, to save trouble, I ‘wrote short’ ab initio much salt went out of the work.

Most Heinlein fans will agree, I think, that the period when his fire burnt hottest was precisely when he had learnt the art of cutting, and his publishers had not yet learnt that his books would sell by the million whether he cut them or not. Nearly all of his fiction from ‘Space Jockey’ (1947) through The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) qualifies as vintage Heinlein, a cut above what went before, and at least two cuts above what came after. It was the cutting that made the difference.

If you feel yourself moved to try this salutary technique, I may be able to give you some pointers; at any rate, I can describe the way that I go about it, in the absence of camel-hair brushes and India ink. After the first draft, I open two windows in my word processor, side by side, taking up the screen. On the left I have the completed first draft of my story; on the right, a blank document in manuscript format. I retype the story in its entirety; and as I go along, I invariably find improvements creeping in – better phrases, more vivid descriptions, quicker ways of moving the plot from A to B. If there is comic relief in the story, this is an excellent time to sharpen up the jokes and insert new ones. After that, following Kipling’s advice, I let the new draft lie by for a while.

When I reopen it (by itself this time), I go along, using the ‘Track Changes’ feature in Microsoft Word, or its equivalent in whatever program I am using, and mark passages for deletion without actually deleting them. One pass will generally do for a novel, two or three for a short story; for it usually takes more than one pass to get a short piece down to the length that will work best. Then I make one last pass, deleting the marked passages, and making whatever small changes are required to button up the sentences so that the cut version flows smoothly and grammatically. At least that is the Platonic ideal of my method; I do not always apply it consistently, and with some kinds of work I scarcely apply it at all. These essais of mine, for instance, are dashed off almost exactly as they stand, and I do not cut them much, unless I find that an entire paragraph or section can come out.

Heinlein’s last two rules are conceivable only within a solid framework of survivorship bias. The number of stories completed each year by writers in any given field has always been vastly greater than the number of publishing slots that exist in all the available markets. For most of those who conscientiously tried to apply the rules, it was not a question of keeping a story on the market until it sold; the most you could do was keep it there until you ran out of places to send it. Thousands of writers lived and died without ever making a single sale; thousands more sold only one story, and gave up writing before they figured out how to repeat the trick. Indeed, the ‘man of one book’ is a cliché in literary history. For every writer like Heinlein, who kept on selling original work for fifty years, there are scores like Daniel Keyes, who wrote an instant classic in Flowers for Algernon, and never came close to matching that success in the remaining half century of his life. Isaac Asimov, in his last volume of autobiography (I. Asimov), tells an unusually poignant anecdote:

When I was handing out Hugos in Pittsburgh in 1960, one of the winners was ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes, which I had loved. It was surely one of the best science fiction stories ever written, and as I announced the winner, I grew very eloquent over its excellence. ‘How did Dan do it?’ I demanded of the world. ‘How did Dan do it?’

At which I felt a tug on my jacket and there was Daniel Keyes waiting for his Hugo. ‘Listen, Isaac,’ he said, ‘if you find out how I did it, let me know. I want to do it again.’

But he never did. Keyes caught lightning in a bottle; and you can never count on doing that twice, no matter how perfectly your bottle is prepared.

Heinlein could speak glibly of keeping every finished story on the market until it sold; but he was, so far as I know, the only regular professional writer in the history of science fiction who actually did so. At one time in 1941, as he proudly announced, he had managed to sell every story he had written since he first tried his hand at professional writing – though he had to sell some of the stories at low rates to inferior markets. (Some of these stories, such as ‘My Object All Sublime’, he called stinkeroos, and never allowed them to be reprinted.) Nobody else that I know of ever managed it. Even Asimov died with seven of his earliest stories unpublished – and permanently so, as the manuscripts had been destroyed. If there were an infinite number of slots for stories in the SF magazines, or if writers lived for ever, it would be possible for every writer to keep every story on the market until it sold. But the magazines are finite, and the writers die; and so it is mathematically impossible to keep Heinlein’s Fifth Rule.

There is, nowadays, a clever workaround that appears to keep the rule. That is to self-publish your own stories. Magazines are finite, but the storage on Amazon’s servers is effectively infinite: they can always buy more, and they never refuse an ebook unless they have grounds to think that selling it will get them in trouble with the law. If there is one thing Jeff Bezos hates, it is turning away a customer. So he will gladly sell your book, no matter how bad, even if the only person who would ever buy a copy is your own mother; for there are a lot of mothers in this world, and he does not want to see them take their business elsewhere.

But this is only an apparent workaround. ‘On the market’ and ‘sold’, for self-published work, do not mean what they mean in traditional publishing; they do not mean anything that even translates into traditional publishing terms. Traditional publishers accept a small number of manuscripts, and reject everything else. Retailers like Amazon and Kobo accept virtually everything, and then help their customers find things they like in the cornucopia. When you sold a novel to a book publisher in the old days, it meant that the publisher was confident of selling several thousand copies at the least; when you sold a story to a magazine, it meant that the editor believed the majority of his subscribers would be interested in reading it. (At least this was usually the case. Sometimes it meant that one of the magazine’s regular contributors had blown a hard deadline, and the editor needed something plausible to fill up the blank pages.) But you can publish your own story without any assurance that anybody will want to read it; and in fact there are thousands of published ebooks that no one has ever bought.

It is this difference, I believe, that really points up the irrelevance of Heinlein’s Rules today. The Rules merely described how Heinlein himself extracted the maximum amount of money and fame from the pulp magazine industry of his day. His system did not work for anyone else; was mathematically certain to fail for most of those who tried it. What it did do was give each one of his stories the maximum possible exposure, the best chance to make it past the gatekeepers and into the city of published fiction. Nowadays the gatekeepers are still there, but the walls have fallen down; the city is wide open, and we can stroll in whenever we choose – but that does not guarantee that we will do any business once we get there. The nature of the game has changed, and we cannot hope to play the new game by the old rules.

At best, Heinlein had the right answer to a question that nobody asks any longer. At worst, he had a wrong answer that happened to work for him, simply because he was too talented to fail at the game of pulp fiction. But that game does not exist anymore, and we will waste our time if we try to play it. That remains true even if a well-known writing guru refuses to admit it, and invokes the holy name of Heinlein in his defence.


  1. Thanks for the essai– I appreciate the amount of thought and detail.

    This is an excellent example of something I had to figure out to my cost– when someone offers advice, it’s generally at best based on what they figured out based on their desires, capacities, and circumstances. (At worst, they just made up some stuff that sounds plausible. If you’re extraordinarily lucky, they’ve taught a lot of people and their advice is based on substantial knowledge of the range of students.)

    Examples of advice at its worst: For Your Own Good, a description of popular German books on child-rearing which recommended extremely harsh methods to the generation that included Hitler’s parents.

    Advice at its best: T5T: Discover a Teacher’s Insider Secrets— the results of a teacher who taught the Five Tibetans Rites (sort of a cross between yoga and calesthenics) to over 700 students.

    Unfortunately, advice is typically given as generalized imperatives.

    I’ve wondered what Heinlein did that made him so good at sounding right.

    As for self-publishing and editing: some self-published writers have first readers– as circle of folks who will give their work a first pass and advice. I’ve been told that for the most part first readers are extremely valuable if they give their reactions (that bit was really exciting, this other bit was boring, and I couldn’t tell who was talking over there) rather than advice on how to fix the problem.

    First readers may also do copy-editing. Britpickers specialize in giving American writers how to get British details right.

    • I’ve wondered what Heinlein did that made him so good at sounding right.

      Spent several years in the Navy, learning to give orders (and justify them to his superiors afterwards). Then he spent several years in politics, learning how to sound plausible to the Great Unwashed. Those two things combined, I imagine, would just about do it.

      • I was wondering about the rhetorical methods for sounding right rather than the life history.

        • Ah, I take your meaning.

          Still, it basically comes down to the same thing. The Navy made an engineer of him, and as an engineer, he was called on to make definitive pronouncements of fact, not tentative statements of opinion. ‘Do this, and it will work’ is what his superiors wanted to hear. The fact that his rules are couched in the no-nonsense language of commands (‘You must do X’) helps to convey conviction; as does Heinlein’s habit of inserting telling details into everything he writes. This latter conveys the idea that he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject, which may, in a given case, be entirely spurious. Somewhere in Grumbles From the Grave, he talks about how one of his early books contains ‘some faked-up mechanical engineering which I could make sound authoritative because I am a mechanical engineer and know the patter’.

          In politics, of course, he learnt to use these talents for evil; that is, to make pronouncements about his political opinions and wrap them in the language of hard-boiled fact. This skill is of great value to a science fiction writer whose fiction is liable to outrun his science. It is of even greater value to a politician or a propagandist, because he can tell the most outrageous lies, and only hardened cynics like myself (and even I get caught fairly often) will stop to ask: ‘But how the hell does he know this?’ They simply assume that he knows, and take him as an authority because he uses the language of authority.

          • Stephen J. says

            The same effect (being taken as authoritative because you act and speak with an authoritative appearance) can be used elsewhere. I have often noticed that it is amazing how seldom you are challenged if you simply walk as if you have a perfect right to be wherever you are.

            It can also have unexpected side-effects. When she was a teenager, my wife was once told by, I believe, her uncle that one reason boys didn’t talk to her was because, and I quote, “You walk like you know where you’re going.” — i.e. fast stride, looking straight ahead rather than around at one’s surroundings, no smile, no-nonsense bearing. In hindsight I can see how that might have seemed offputting, but it was the weirdness of the phrasing which always stuck with me.

            • Bob McMaster says

              Add a clipboard and a frown and it takes a lot of gumption, even for those enjoined to stop and check on strangers, to ask you if you really belong where you are.

          • I suspect there are still some subtleties to be observed. Anyone who has the gall can make definitive statements, but Heinlein’s get remembered and debated for a very long time.

            There might be elements of rhythm, and/or a talent for coming up with claims that sound somewhat plausible.

  2. To pick out one element:
    “For every writer like Heinlein, who kept on selling original work for fifty years, there are scores like Daniel Keyes, who wrote an instant classic in Flowers for Algernon, and never came close to matching that success in the remaining half century of his life.”

    With the isfdb data, it ought to be fairly simple to find out how many writers published just one (or 2, or 3) stories: I wonder what the figures actually are? When I open an old magazine or anthology and see a name I don’t recognize, how often is that because they never wrote anything else?

    Surely Keyes is an outlier too: most of the one-hit-wonders we never hear about because their single hit isn’t really that impressive.

    • It’s true, Keyes is an outlier, but Heinlein is an outlier even among outliers. Keyes and many others caught lightning in a bottle – once. Heinlein caught the whole storm in a bottle and could produce lightning on demand.

  3. Ah, absolute writing advice. Isn’t it delightful? Because, isn’t it, all writers are the same, and write the same, for the same purpose. Because short stories and novels are best approached the same way. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s an entirely original story, or a sequel, or simply set in an existing setting (assuming it’s speculative fiction), which in turn may or may not be shared with other writers.

    And what’s wrong with computers helping us to write more easily? Doesn’t that mean more effort goes into writing *better* rather than writing at all?

    I’m not a professional writer. Not even aspiring to be. Guess that makes my opinion crap, because isn’t it, a writer’s primary purpose should be to sell, sell, sell. (But if that’s true, I ought to write self-improvement books, or maybe about UFOs and Bigfoot; that kind of drivel sells like hot pancakes I hear.) Still, I once banged out an 800-word flash fic before finishing my coffee, because it was based on a dream I’d just woken from and I didn’t want to lose that mood. Wait, no, it was shorter initially; you see, I find it a lot easier to write short and add later as needed, rather than the other way around; me being a programmer might have something to do with it.

    But anyway, I’ve written breathlessly like that. I’ve written blindly, making everything up as I went. I’ve written knowing exactly where I was supposed to end up (and sometimes failed to finish; go figure). I wrote to entertain, to evoke a mood or to make a point, and some day I might write to delight the reader with my literary prowess (yeah, right). And I never once had a reader comment that my writing process felt off. Because, guess what, readers can’t tell what my process was. (Here’s my programming background showing through again.) But they *can* tell if I was angry, or worse, bored while writing, or whether I have anything to say.

    And that, by the way, is why I second the advice about employing beta readers instead of editors. Because it’s my job as a writer to know how to write. Any feedback should pertain to how well I’ve done it. Which a reader will be far more honest about than an editor, because the reader wants to buy the finished work — or not — while the editor wants to sell it. The reader is real; the editor has an imaginary “target audience” in mind. And nothing has made the distinction more clear than self-publishing.

    Oh. and by the way, I re-read my own stories a LOT while writing. Whenever my muse is on coffee break, I go back and re-read. I tweak, clarify and keep things consistent *before* painting myself into a corner. Most importantly, I make sure it all sounds good to me first, because if I don’t like it, who will?

    Pity the writer who bangs out a story at the mad pace of 2000 words a day and then spends long months editing until they forget which plot points went where. But that’s just my opinion; if it works for them…

    It doesn’t work for me.

    Nothing works for everyone.

    Happy writing.

    • And what’s wrong with computers helping us to write more easily? Doesn’t that mean more effort goes into writing *better* rather than writing at all?

      It does; but as I said, it also makes it hard for the writer to tell when he has put that effort into the whole story. The unrevised and uncorrected bits from the first draft look just as polished as the revisions and corrections. In the old days, you could tell when a page of manuscript had been revised, because it was marked all over with red or blue pencil. Electronic revision is invisible and leaves no cue for the eye.

      • It gave Stephen King ‘elephantiasis of the word processor’ for a number of novels and lowered his quality IMHO with gigantic unedited door stoppers.

      • Someplace on my blog I warn of the dangers of the ‘competent first draft’ – publishable as is, correctly formatted, punctuated, and capitalized – and utterly forgettable. But it LOOKS just like the good stuff.

    • “I find it a lot easier to write short and add later as needed, rather than the other way around”

      I do that too. Though I can do a final tightening, sometimes.

  4. Stephen J. says

    I wholly agree with the cutting aspect, even though it is occasionally frustrating. The other night I wrote what I thought was a fairly potent dialogue between two characters, only to reread it and realize that it told the reader absolutely nothing he didn’t already know about the protagonist (it did tell something about the foil character, but she wasn’t important enough to the story to be worth the wordage), nor was it advancing the plot. So I had to go back, throw out most of it, and jump to the end point with a quick explanatory digression.

    The aggravating part wasn’t so much the loss of the far-from-deathless prose in itself, but the feeling that I’d wasted all that time on the first version and wasn’t as far along in my word count as I wanted to be. But as you so eloquently demonstrate here, sometimes you need that first draft to realize what the second has to be.

    • Yes: as Kipling says, the first draft must have been ‘honestly written for inclusion’. If nothing else, you gave your protagonist an opportunity to do a bit of dress rehearsal, which can only help to sharpen that person’s dialogue in future conversations. As for the foil character, now you know something about her that you didn’t before, and it may come out in more economical ways.

      Craft is never wasted. The human brain is the only tool that sharpens itself by being used.

      • “The human brain is the only tool that sharpens itself by being used.”
        Wise proverb. It really ought to find a home in the Octopus or the Orchard, says this First Reader.

    • Clipping file.

      Drop the stuff into a different file. It helps ease the pain because it’s not actually vanishing.

  5. I am not a writer, but speaking simply as a fan I must say I love the Internet and the ability to eavesdrop on writers and their thoughts and approach to their craft. The best (whom I count our host as one, along with John C. Wright) truly seem to treat writing as a craft and not just a bang-it-out exercise in stream-of-consciousness keyboard tapping. So, a toast (decaf Earl Gray at the moment) to all fine writers, whichever alphabetic list/ladder rung position they currently occupy.

  6. Stephen J. says

    Off topic but I hope of interest: I have posted a complimentary review of THE END OF EARTH AND SKY to Amazon.com, and it should be up within the next few days — hopefully that will help contribute to sales.

    • All reviews are gratefully received, but yours (which is in fact live on Amazon already) I take to my heart. It brought me literal tears of delight. I am very glad that you should think so well of my writing, and I hope not to disappoint you with the sequels.

      (You will hear as much as you could wish, I promise you, about Hallin, Håkar, and the insufferable Gram Loris – though perhaps not as quickly as you expect. The best of the supporting cast, however, you have yet to meet.)

      • Stephen J. says

        I lurk a lot on an RPG game forum where one particular property going around as the Hot New Series is a comic called Rat Queens, a heroic-adventurer fantasy distinguished by the unusual quality of an all-female protagonist party. Sharing Mr. Wright’s enjoyment of courageous and well-written female characters, I picked up the first trade paperback of the series in my FLGS and flipped through it. The profanity and sophomoric humour of the dialogue and main characters — embarrassingly accurate as it might be in representing how many gamers actually talk in practice — I found so offputting that I put the book down in tremendous disappointment.

        I cite this as the most recent example in memory of the general disappearance of aesthetic prose as a worthwhile art in itself, which is why I am incalculably pleased to find writing, like yours, that consciously displays the virtues of craft and elegance; it is much rarer than it used to be. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the only writers I know who still practices it. Much as I can devour an entire novel of Jim Butcher’s plainspoken straight-up style in mere hours and enjoy the story immensely, no one will ever call his prose aesthetically beautiful in its own right.

  7. Fail Burton says

    Given the contrast between Keyes and Heinlein, at some point one must give way to the inevitable fact not everyone is a creative artist and that the dealbreaker is an unknown quantity.

    The things you’re discussing here are tools and they certainly apply, but beyond that not all men are created equal. Perhaps the only generalization one can make in SF is that men like Burroughs, Bradbury, Heinlein and Vance tapped into some part of themselves that was unique and ran with it as an authoritative, consistent and persuasive voice. But then they had to be creative too, didn’t they? No matter what you do you can’t be a Vance or Bradbury, but you can be yourself… if there’s something there. If not, not all the tools in the world will make up for that lack. It’s interesting that Bradbury felt writers should stay away from writing workshops.

    As for editing, a friend of mine had an idea that was the opposite of cutting dialogue/description. Inspired by comments sections, she wrote clipped dialogue with no descriptions or flourishes and added just enough to make it work.

    There is such a thing as work that is too clipped. Reading James Rollins (Subterranean, Amazonia) is like reading a bare bones movie script. Reading Herbert and Anderson’s first Dune prequels was like reading the outline to an actual novel, despite their word length. You can see the real difference there in one of their much later efforts, The Winds of Dune.

    None of this addresses the mystery of best-sellers, a mainstream audience which may range from indifferent to sophisticated, or an editor who is hooked up and savy.

    You’re correct the rules have entirely changed. One of the biggest is your subject: word count. How can you discipline what no one cares about anymore? And where is an editor like Campbell or Pohl to give that tough and smart love? Probably not having an editor is the single biggest barrier to indie publishing in terms of finding stuff worthwhile. Look how bad SF is today that have editors.

    My own sense of the best SF writers of the Golden Age is that apart from what was almost a team effort, they were an odd blend of pragmatic rationalists and heady eccentrics that are rather rare nowadays. You see that blend of very disciplined and reserved people combined with bizarre weirdness over and over again. Burroughs wanted his first story published under the name “Normal Bean” cuz he was apparently afraid people would think he was nuts.

    “Routinely bizarre” is almost an Orwellian sentence but in old SF it worked.

  8. Matt Osterndorf says

    “After the first draft, I open two windows in my word processor, side by side, taking up the screen. On the left I have the completed first draft of my story; on the right, a blank document in manuscript format. I retype the story in its entirety; and as I go along, I invariably find improvements creeping in – better phrases, more vivid descriptions, quicker ways of moving the plot from A to B. If there is comic relief in the story, this is an excellent time to sharpen up the jokes and insert new ones.”

    I am about as far away from an actual writer as you can be while still (occasionally) writing things – a fan fiction writer, and a dilettante even by those standards.

    So I’m mildly surprised that I have stumbled upon the same way of doing things.

    • Matt Osterndorf says

      On the off chance that Mr Simon is reading this, hi! Love your blog.

      Also, I’m seventeen, so, you know, I have an excuse for doing silly things like writing fan fiction.

      • Hi! (And thank you!) No excuse is necessary for writing fan fiction. (Another bit of Heinlein’s advice applies to all writing, as I believe: Do it in private, and wash your hands afterwards.)

        I was about your age when I made the key discovery that led me to my method of redrafting. In those long-gone days, computers were much less reliable (even) than they are now, and the ornery old beast that I used for writing had a habit of crashing and taking my current file along with it. (Frequent backups helped, but were not always feasible – and I often forgot.) I found that when I rewrote the lost work in the white-hot heat of anger, or at least the dull brick-red heat of severe annoyance, it inevitably came out a lot better the second time.

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  11. Thanks for the detailed and well-reasoned corrective to Heinlein’s Rules. It seems to me, though, that they’re not without their good points. Routine and persistence are vital to some types–me, for example. Clear structure and the sense of authority behind it help supply a bit of drive that could otherwise lose focus. Even if I do cheat and not finish everything, and even if I do edit and rewrite and workshop, still the rules, like Commandments, show me the ideal way forward–get those pieces done, get them out, and write another one! The volume of practice will make your improve!

    At least that’s what I tell myself.

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