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…]

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Morgenstern

At Eastertide or thereabouts, I posted a short piece on ‘Easter’ and related names, in which I mentioned (among other fussy and pedantic things) that the morning star is used in Old English poetry as a symbol of John the Baptist, heralding the sun (and Son) to come.

Of course (and this is a thing that some students of mythology can never get through their heads) every metaphor arises by the conscious decision of a human mind, and every decision could have gone some other way – and frequently does. Men change their minds all the time; it is the saving grace of our species, or rather, the principal element we contribute to our ability to be saved by grace. Those who seem to know most about it assure us that angels do not have the power to change their minds. Not having physical bodies, it would seem, they also lack the emotions, the changes of sensation, the circumstances that lead us to favour sometimes one, sometimes another of the alternatives available to us.

Whether there are any angels or not, this is an elegant bit of reasoning: as good a thought-experiment as anything about aliens in the hardest science fiction. In fact there was a good deal of science in some of the best mediaeval fiction. Peter Nicholls, in the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia, looks upon The Divine Comedy and calls a spade a spade: ‘it is sf in the strict sense, albeit the science is medieval.’ But I digress—

We humans, mortal and therefore changeable as we are, have a childlike fantasy and freedom that the angels can never know: we can not only invent metaphors, we can change them if we choose, as often as our clothes. If angels have metaphors, they grow them like limbs or noses and keep them thereafter, I suppose. So the morning star, which in one poetic tradition ‘was’ John the Baptist, in a closely related tradition ‘was’ Our Lord himself: as his earthly life and career was the bright forerunner of a far brighter dawn, the daybreak of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This delightful idea finds expression in the poetry of the early Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai, when he announces the birth of the Christ child in astronomical terms: ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ – How lovely shines the morning star. The composers of the day ran with the idea (and the verses), and are running still; the principal Bach did great things with it. But I find myself drawn to the musical setting by Michael Praetorius, which seems to me to express the sentiment of Nicolai’s metaphor with a simple and unencumbered joy. I hope you like it.

One problem with writing fast

A lively discussion has erupted at The Passive Voice, in response to a rant by one of the usual suspects telling self-published writers to slow down and not write so much. Fast writing is not necessarily bad, and slow writing, Heaven knows, can be utter crud. Great novels have been written in a span of weeks or even days. But nobody ever wrote great novels at that pace, one after another, and kept it up for a span of years.

People point to Isaac Asimov as an exception. He was a man who wrote 500 books, so Wikipedia tells us, and Wikipedia wouldn’t steer us wrong, would it?

Well, maybe.

If you look up the word prolific in any really good dictionary, you will find a picture of Isaac Asimov sitting at his typewriter. ‘Prolific’ was the adjective most often applied to him as a writer, and the one he was most proud of. But even he had his limits. His average output from 1958, when he became a full-time writer, to about 1989, when illness took away his ability to work regularly, was (by his own reckoning) in the neighbourhood of 500,000 words a year. That’s 15 million words in all, or about enough to fill about 200 paperback books of the size that used to be usual in his younger days – say, 200 to 250 pages. (The average size of paperbacks began to balloon in the 1970s, but that’s another story.) Some of his nonfiction books were quite short, and a number of his stories and essays were published in more than one book; that brings us up well over 300, but it still leaves us far short of the number given by Wikipedia.

So how did he get to 500 books? Simple: he cheated.

[Read more…]

Science fiction or fantasy? A rigorous definition

If there’s a zeppelin, it’s alternate history. If there’s a rocketship, it’s science fiction. If there are swords and/or horses, it’s fantasy. A book with swords and horses in it can be turned into science fiction by adding a rocketship to the mix. If a book has a rocketship in it, the only thing that can turn it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.

—Debra Doyle

Creative discomfort and Star Wars

The fact is that this script feels rushed and not thought out, probably because it was rushed and not thought out.

—‘Harry S. Plinkett’ (Mike Stoklasa)

They’re already building sets. God help me! I’m going to have to start this script pretty soon.

—George Lucas

It is not actually true that ‘all good writing is rewriting’. It would be nearer the truth to say that all good ideas are second ideas — or third, fourth, or 157th ideas. Writers are notoriously divisible into two warring camps, ‘outliners’ and ‘pantsers’. One of the most common triggers for a rewrite happens when you come up with a brilliant new idea halfway through a draft — and that idea makes a hash of everything you have already written. This, in the war of the writers, is a powerful weapon against the pantsers.

Jeff Bollow, for instance, in his book Writing FAST, recommends that you get your ideas right first, and write the draft later; but he also tells you never to use the first idea that comes to mind, for that only trains your mind to be lazy. If you do your brainstorming properly, and don’t start actually writing until your ideas are solid, you are much less likely to have to tear up a draft and start over. John Cleese touched on the same point in his 1991 talk on creativity:

Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.

And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’

That creative discomfort can make all the difference between great writing and dreck. One could argue the point endlessly, for there are examples to the contrary — snap decisions that turned out to be brilliant, slowly gestated ideas that still turned out useless. I would maintain that such cases are outliers: so much depends on the talent of the individual writer, and on sheer luck. What we want here is a controlled experiment. We could learn a great deal by taking the same writer and putting him through a series of similar projects. In half of them, he would have all the time he wanted to brainstorm, to throw away ideas when he came up with better ones, to tear up drafts, to indulge his creative discomfort. In the other half, whenever he had to make a decision, he would simply take the first workable idea that came to mind. Unfortunately, we can’t hire a writer to go through such an experiment. Fortunately, the experiment has already been made. The writer’s name was George Lucas. [Read more…]

Heinlein on literary snobs

A small further illustration in support of my thesis in ‘Why are dragons afraid of Americans?’:

In 1949, Robert A. Heinlein’s third juvenile SF novel, Red Planet, was summarily rejected by Alice Dalgliesh, his editor at Scribner’s. The tone of the rejection quite justifiably sent him into a fury. Here is an excerpt from a letter Heinlein wrote to his agent, Lurton Blassingame, on March 4, 1949: [Read more…]

Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet

The eighth essai in a series, following ‘All hats are grey in the dark’. A slightly different version appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


 

Besides the villainous hero, there are several other ways to make a protagonist so unheroic that you rob him of his power to carry the plot. A frequent flaw is the so-called hero who has no character of his own, but exists as a mouth through which the author can make polemical speeches. John Galt’s 70-page speech in Atlas Shrugged is the most infamous example, but sadly, far from unique. The hero as mouthpiece is a recurring phenomenon in science fiction and fantasy; and this sad phenomenon goes back to the very point at which the earlier forms of satire and romance first contributed their genes to that newfangled form, the novel.

We can find that point in the works of Jonathan Swift. [Read more…]

John C. Wright on the Nebula Awards

John C. Wright explains how they pick the Nebula Award winners:

The selection process is relatively simple: the survivors of a Deathball tournament are examined by the Colossus-Skynet system for irregulationary defects, and if found acceptable, are sent to the haunted planet Arisia for mind-to-mind examination by the alien superbeing known as Mentor, and those who return sane are conducted to Wallach IV where the Bene Gesserit Witches test the candidate with a “gom jabbar” and the Box of Pain to distinguish the true humans from the mere human animals. Survivors are taught the Martian Language in order to achieve fourth level consciousness and exposed to the mind-altering rays of the Evolutionary Granolith, and expected to make at least one “drop” in full kit onto a planet controlled by the Klendathu. Then any remaining candidates are sent to Trantor, or maybe some other world covered entirely with buildings, and examined by the Jedi Council and the Psychohistorians to see whether passing the candidate will cause a disturbance in the force or throw off the predictive plan of history. The remaining candidates then cover themselves with walrus grease and wrestle nude with Harlan Ellison, or his evil twin Zebulon Ellison, in the Arena of Death, on a tightrope above a field of radio-active radium-knives. The winner is granted by the Padishah Emperor any space-kingdom on any of the garden-planets accidentally created by the Genesis Machine in the Multiple Green Sun system at the core of the galaxy, and any space princess for his bride, with the one exception (obviously) of the voluptuous yet deadly Princess Venomia, the Black Widow of Outer Space. The year Leigh Brackett won, instead of a space princess, she demanded her beloved World-Wrecker Hamilton be released from his disembodied confinement within the death-asteroid of the limbo dimension. The Padishah Emperor was loathe to set free so dangerous a planet-killer, but he had no choice.

I always thought SFWA was up to something fishier than meets the fishy eye.