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. [Read more…]