Heinlein’s Rules: Chapter Four
Five Simple Business Rules for Writing
Moving now to the second rule.
Rule #2: You Must Finish What You Write.
Say 9 out of 10 people who claim they want to write are wiped out by Rule #1 because they “just can’t find the time.”
If that is the case, then my guess is that another half of the remaining writers are stopped cold by Rule #2.
Now, I have to be honest, I never had an issue with this rule, so I mostly just ignored it. I always finished what I wrote. Part of that was the early challenge to mail a story per week, but mostly I just hate leaving things unfinished.
So until Kris and I started teaching workshops, I had no idea how really deadly this not-finishing-projects was to many, many writers. I just had no idea, because it is not my problem.
So I talked with a lot of writers over the last fifteen years about various aspects of this problem of not finishing.
And I started watching all the excuses people give for not finishing, and it became clear how really deadly this rule is for many.
At first I thought it was a craft problem writers had. I thought maybe writers didn’t understand the ending structure, or how to build to an end, or even how to see an ending.
Sure, there were minor aspects of that, but when that was scraped away, it boiled down to a few common problems I’ll detail below.
HOW IT WORKS
The feeling of this problem goes like this for many:
Step one… Excitement about a story or an idea.
Step two… Excitement carries the writer a distance into the story or novel or an outline.
Step three… Excitement wears off, critical voice plows in, story looks like crap and too much work to keep going.
Step four… Writer makes up some excuse to stop and go find a project that is exciting again.
Step five… Repeat the first four steps without ever finishing anything.
Outlines do not help this problem.
Finishing has been made into an “important event” and thus almost impossible to actually get to. Like that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
As long as you are working on something, you can call yourself a writer. But when you finish, you aren’t writing, so it is better to stay a writer and just keep working on it.
You can’t fail if you just keep working on a project.
Writers with this problem can’t see not finishing as failure.
TWO MAJOR AREAS
To put it simply, finishing something risks that what you finished will fail.
In my early days, failure was the story not selling to an editor. In this modern world, it can still be that, or it can be that you put it out indie and no one buys it.
If you keep working on something to make it better, rewriting it for the fifth time, reworking that plot you don’t think works, and so on and so on, you won’t risk the failure of no readers in the end.
To writers with this problem, a story must be some imaginary image of “perfect” before it can be released. And no story ever attains that.
For any of us, actually.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch did an entire book on this called “The Pursuit of Perfection.” That book deals with this problem and so much more and worth your time and money if you have this problem.
Fear of failure is real and if it has become the dominating force in your writing, you need to go get professional help to get past the problem. It is that serious. Not kidding.
Rule #3 coming up also works into this rule.
Finishing a sloppy first draft that you must rewrite is not finishing. Sorry.
As long as you are working on a story in some fashion or another, it is not finished, and thus you don’t have to risk the fear of failure.
And a small slice of writers have this issue because of fear of success. Not kidding here either. They don’t finish because their ego tells them their work is so wonderful, it will be an instant bestseller and they don’t want to be famous.
I have met a couple of these writers. I managed to not laugh until I walked out of the room.
Also, finishing brings in another fear.
Fear of mailing.
I have been an editor off and on for over thirty years. Not once do I remember a story that didn’t work. Why?
Because editors don’t read stories that don’t work.
I can’t even remember the thousands of stories I have bought at various magazines over the years, let alone any story I didn’t read.
But yet the fear of mailing to an editor scares some writers beyond words. So they are better off not finishing than to have to face that fear.
And now the fear of learning how to indie publish scares writers, so better to not finish than have to learn all the new stuff.
On and on.
Excuse after excuse.
2… Love of a Project.
This is also fear based, but in a different way. It goes like this:
“If I finish this project, what do I do next?”
This boils down to the early fear all writers have of not finding another idea. I do a six-week online workshop called “Ideas to Story” that helps writers fix that issue completely.
And as you write more and more, you quickly come to realize that ideas are everywhere and far too many for you to ever get to.
I used to write ideas down in notebooks because of this fear. But after a few years I stopped because if I couldn’t remember the idea in a week, it wouldn’t be worth my time to write it.
And now I never even come up with ideas.
I don’t. Honest.
I write from triggers, an advanced way of telling stories, granted. But given enough time, every writer can get there.
But I do understand this excuse to not finish. I have a number of worlds I love to play inside. But I write and finish stories and novels inside the worlds. I never just work on one thing for years.
But I have seen more writers than I want to admit that are working on “their novel.” When they say that, you know this is their problem and Rule #2 is going to kill them.
Writers like this will finish a draft, maybe, then go into major rewrites, even though they have no idea how to rewrite or how to tell a better story, they still need to stir the words around.
Then they give it to some “editor” that they pay a vast amount of money to (called a scam) and the editor has them work on it some more.
And on and on.
Sadly, I have never seen a writer find a solution to this. They can’t even admit the problem to themselves so they just cycle in the same world, same characters.
These writers will never finish because if they finished, all the people around them who had watched them work on “their novel” for years might actually have a chance to read it.
Far, far too dangerous to allow to happen.
You also see this with most of the sloppy-drafted NaNoWriMo novels. They will never be fixed and no one will ever read them because it’s too dangerous for the writer to let their supportive family who sacrificed time so they could write to see how really bad the book might be.
If Writing Is Not Fun
Writers who can’t seem to finish much, if anything, believe in the tortured “artist” myth, that writing must be hard and only years of working in the salt mines can make a novel brilliant.
Nope. That’s a myth.
So two major reasons why this simple Rule #2 stops so many writers.
1… Fear of failure.
2… Fear of moving on to something new.
Notice fear is the major word in both.
If a fear of any kind is crippling you and stopping you from finishing a novel or story, don’t fight the story through. You won’t beat the fear that way.
Step outside of that one novel, that one story, and deal with the fear outside of any one story.
What are you afraid will happen?
And is that worse than never finishing anything?
Heinlein’s Rules are so simple. Remember, even he said that.
So let me lay out clearly what he meant with the first two rules in relationship to failure and fear of failure.
Think of the rules this way:
Rule #1… You Must Write. Not writing is failure.
Rule #2… You Must Finish What You Write. Not finishing is failure.
So if you are having fear issues, move the fear over to not writing and not finishing.
I can tell you this for a fact: The idea of not writing and not finishing what I write scares hell out of me.
Get help with your fears, move the fear to a fear of not writing.
And move the fear to a fear of not finishing.
Because not writing and not finishing are true failures.
I hate to tell you this folks: Every time you claim you want to write and then don’t write or don’t finish, everyone around you knows you are failing.
That should scare you more than anything.
The fear of showing to other people what I’d been working on all that time and them thinking it sucked kept me from finishing for quite a long time. I’m proud that I got over that–finally the desire to have something “fixed” in my narrative universe, that I had to write around in future if it turned out to be inconvenient, that was an awkward real “fact” going forward, forced me to say “done.” I knew I really was done when all of a sudden oodles of story ideas came bursting into existence. And now I am eager to finish projects to get onto the next one–though there have still been some major blocks over the past couple of years. Am very nearly done book #2 (I’ve written a few short stories since I published that first book last year–though only three are out …), which is the beginning of a series, and am excited about getting to the next book.
I’m going to credit reading this blog and Kris’ with helping me over the hump of not finishing, though! Prior to reading your blogs, I had thought the desirable top speed was one book a year, as that’s what I saw the more successful (so far as I could tell) authors were doing. The idea one could write significantly faster than that came as a revelation. My writing speed hasn’t miraculously improved, but at least now I know it’s largely a butt-in-chair problem.
I used to have this problem with my writing, but I finally beat it back with my short stories, but I still struggle with my longer works. It’s usually the last ten thousand words which should be a breeze, but once I know how something ends I really come full stop. Knowing I do this makes even beginning longer projects a bit anxiety ridden. I don’t know maybe I am making the end too important, as you say,. I don’t have problems with ideas, I always have more ideas than I could ever write (at least for novel-length stories).
I think, also, by the time I finish longer stories I can see all the gaps in it, even if written clean, and I pull up short on the ending.
Do you really just finish a novel (full stop, except for typos) even when you know it’s not as good as you hoped?
I know I’ve been here for ever, but every time I think I understand the full extent of one of these rules, I am stunned that I didn’t see the full implication of it until I work on it for myself.
Jes, many artists have said that no project is ever finished in the artist’s mind, only abandoned. I agree completely. I fix typos and slight problems my first reader finds and otherwise I move on. Always.
As I said earlier in a chapter, I believe every story or novel I write is flawed and crap. But I release because I know I have done the best I can do and going back and messing with it will only ruin what I do have and stop me from writing the next book. I proved that to myself with seven wasted years of rewriting and ruining stories. Seven years.
Actually, one of my great fears is that I will spend time fixing an old book and not get to the book that I really want to write. Time is a force in this business and my fear rotates around time. If I stop or go back and waste time rewriting or not finishing, I won’t get to the next book. And it’s always the next book that might be the important one.
So to answer your question, every novel I abandon when finished, full stop (besides fixing typos) even though my critical brain tells me I could do better if I just “rewrote it a few dozen times.” I have learned to ignore that critical brain and trust the storyteller in me.
Writing from triggers.
Hmm. Sounds, at least, like enough for a “Topic of the Night.” 🙂
Six week workshop called Ideas to Story. (grin) In July, in the Stories from July, you all watched me start every story from a trigger.
Just after I sent that comment, I remembered the Stories from July. Also, I took the Ideas to Story workshop, but it was ages ago. I’ll have to dig up my notes.
I can so relate to the fears you talk about here because that used to be me. I started as a non-fiction writer, writing articles to accompany my wildlife photography. Then the bottom fell out of the photography market when digital came along (yeah, I’m a senior citizen). 🙂
But I found that I missed writing, so I tried a fiction novel.Took me five years and umpteen rewrites (I was following the myths) to finish it. I’d learn about dialogue, and rewrite it, metaphors and rewrite, on and on–until one day I heard about Kris and bought her book, The Pursuit of Perfection.
How freeing that was! And then I found your blogs and never looked back. Now I am having a blast writing, and I have only you and Kris to blame. I thank you both from the bottom of my heart.
Finally, this morning after reading your blog — I start every day with you — I realized that I need to support you so you will continue to help those of us who are climbing this writing/publishing curve. I have finally become a Patreon supporter. It is the one substantial way I can thank you for all you’ve done for me. Cheers!
Wow, thanks, Marsha. And really glad you are having fun with the writing. That really is the key to all this. Having fun can shove so many fears away by the very nature of the enjoyment of the process. It’s like a magic spell. (grin) And thanks for the support on the Patreon side. I hope I can give you some fun in the stories I write and send as well.
“If you keep working on something to make it better, rewriting it for the fifth time, reworking that plot you don’t think works, and so on and so on, you won’t risk the failure of no readers in the end.”
I have a book series, and I wanted so much to finish book ONE because I just finished book TWO and can’t reverse the order. I’ve asked you about it before and you gave me REALLY solid advice, but I thought I should just rewrite from “Once upon a time” all over again because the story was weaker and I wanted to shore it up. When I originally wrote it, I did finish it. And I’ve never been able to finish a rewrite of it, though I’ve started three times.
And I’ve have a HORRIBLE time getting started on another project, probably because I was making writing important and putting pressure on it to be able to support me and my family financially, if I just work at it. I lost sight completely of having fun, and enjoying the writing, and letting my creative voice play. Instead I had so much riding on every word, I bet that’s why I’ve got three unfinished projects started.
But… Rule #2.
I’ve got to figure this one out, because I think I’ve always agreed with what you’re saying here today – NOT finishing is greater failure than never starting.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience in this, Dean. Even though it isn’t something you’ve gone through, you’ve helped plenty of people who have. Maybe I’ll be one more. 🙂
I really understand the fear of success thing. For me it wasn’t about being famous, it was about being visible at all. Far, far safer to be invisible. I struggled with that (and wanting my work to be perfect) for years when I first began writing. I used to bounce back and forth between fear of failing and fear of succeeding. Yeah, I know, young and foolish. Sure glad I worked my way out of that one. It’s hard to believe I actually managed to finish anything way back then. I still have files of unfinished, mostly dead for me, stories.
Edward M. Grant
‘How it works’ is exactly how it works for me, at least when writing novels. I have to burn through the ‘this is all crap’ step three to reach the point where the ending is in sight, then writing becomes easy again.
I agree on those factors that contribute to lack of finishing, but if may I suggest another one: inability to finish something because you’re not psychologically ready to go there YET.
By that, I don’t mean “ready to finish the writing” itself. What I speak of is irrelevant to the actual writing craft and is separate from the fear of finishing.
No, I speak to the PTSD/psychological effects that come from having been injured/traumatized. Even after a victim gets over her fear of putting the writing out there (which is not insignificant and can involve many panic attacks), there are still the effects that certain topics have on her in and of themselves, even when she knows she needs to work through it.
I can write a lot of things, but someone being actually trapped in a legitimate no-win situation where the victim cannot win? [shudders] Been there. Am taking years to recover and will always have some side effects.
I’m also the leapfrog kinda writer (working on more than one project at a time—I usually get more done like this; I’ve checked), and pretty much all 3 of my WiPs hit a situation like this at the exact same time. I don’t have the fear of finishing them—I WANT to finish them and get ’em out there—but it’s taken me months (and more than one night of tackling the nightmares and emotional aftermath) to have the mental/emotional health to pick them back up again.
I suppose you could consider it a life roll, but it’s one that lasts years and affects things for a long time. I have multiple incomplete projects due to that leapfrog + trauma kicking me in the head and causing certain things to give me panic attacks—and I didn’t even realize I was having panic attacks until about two years ago. I’m told I’m making amazing progress, but I’m still affected by so much that it doesn’t really feel that way.
I’m gradually learning more about how I work and about what’s up with me psychologically to be able to balance those for maximum efficiency. I only recently figured out that I need to make sure my leapfrogging keeps at least 1 nonfiction and 1 fiction project in there, but there’s more to it that I know I haven’t identified yet. Item #3 might actually need to be formatting or programming rather than writing. Part of my problem is that routine has always been dangerous for me. (It’s a target that someone else can take advantage of and use to hurt you.) It’s annoying.
I’m not calling myself a special snowflake exception to Heinlein’s rules, and I do notice that you called the fear of finishing and love of project the two major areas and not the only two areas. I’m just suggesting that this particular item might be more common than is acknowledged. I’ve found that a lot of folks from my kind of background end up writers. Perhaps it’s the circles I’ve run in, but folks like me seem more common than is generally realized or admitted.
Carradee, in situations such as you describe, I always suggest the person get real professional help to get through and find ways of dealing with the issues. I am not sure why so many writers are afraid of counseling but it often does amazing things to help. I did four years, weekly, actually, and would not have made it in writing without it. As you said, issues that create some of these forms of fear are real and the only way to get through them is with help, professional help. Nothing at all wrong with that.
From what I’ve both experienced and observed, fear of counseling can come from being raised in situations where “professional help” was either abused, defined as something bad/terrible/wicked/evil, or never an option to begin with (so how is the victim to know when it applies or where to look for it?), and “help” itself is…not exactly a good thing, in some folks’ experience, so the thought that some folks are professional givers of “help” (when “help” has been redefined by, for example, someone with NPD) can be particularly terrifying.
(And for anyone else reading this who needs help and is afraid to get it: Help is something others choose to offer you. Doing so is their choice. It isn’t something you have to earn. Help is used against you later is not actually help.)
Um, I was raised in a hard-boiled European environment that seriously frowned on people getting “help.” It was considered a flaky thing to do, and at the expense of getting work done. Only once my stress level started to interfere with my quality of life and my health did I bring it up with my MD, who gave me 3 names, and did so in a very non-judgmental way. I did the once-a-week thing for about 4 years, on and off, until I decided I’d rather spend the time and money horseback riding. It did me a lot of good. Counselors are a neutral bouncing boards and they have seen patterns before, so they can point out a direction or have you reevaluate this or that. Regarding PTSD, ask about “rapid eye movement therapy.” It’s a non -invasive, non-talking technique pioneered on (and for) our returning vets, and something very similar helped me out a great deal. It took just 3 sessions.
Thank you very much for this chapter. It’s so relatable, and gave me a lot to think about.
I have a question: what does it mean to “write from triggers”?
Trigger is what starts the typing. For example, I tend to come up with a title (usually a half of two titles smashed together to create something strange) and then I start typing without any idea of a story at all or character, just letting my subconscious create what it wants as I go along off the trigger of a title.
Thank you for your helpful response! Your process sounds fascinating, and it’s obviously a good thing to aspire to as a writer. One day I’ll get there. 🙂
Only fear stops you from doing it now, Teresa. Fear and an attachment to critical thinking. Once you clear those out, most writers write from triggers of some sort or another. Nothing magical, just creative without fear and critical voice.
You’re completely right. I’m going to work harder on conquering my fears. Thank you, Dean! I needed this push.
For nearly twenty years, I was afraid to start writing. I had been an English major and I was filled with notions of writers suffering, drinking, dying, living in poverty and so on. It never occurred to me that writing could be fun. Then I finally started writing and I thought nearly every paragraph I wrote was a piece of crap so that scared me. I finished the book though because it scared me too much not to finish. By the time I published the damned thing, I was exhausted from all my fear and I had decided to stop writing.
Then I missed writing. I had had some good days and I’d made some nice memories. Maybe I could try again. So I did. I was somewhat less miserable but it took me nearly two years to finish the second book because I was again beset by fear devils.
I’m working on my third novel now and the fear devils are still there but I’ve become thoroughly bored with them. Instead of screaming at me while I write, they mostly emit sad little whimpers that I can ignore most days. I don’t show the finished manuscript to anyone, not even family, and I write whatever I want. I don’t read my reviews. If I write something and no one seems to be interested in it – I chalk it up to a learning experience.
By most definitions, I have not experienced a great deal of success. But I don’t care. I have never had more fun in my life. I look forward to my writing time. I don’t suffer. I write what I want and I write into the dark so I have a constant supply of stories about Stuff I Like.
I am even enjoying learning about business, something that presents a big challenge to your average recovered English Major, and I have you and Kris to thank for that.
Wow, Cynthia, thank you. You climbed a path I wasn’t sure was possible to climb and took all the myths of majoring in English and tossed them away to have fun with writing. Fantastic! Thank you for letting me know that is even possible. Well done.
That was funny, Dean! I used to have a fear of success. Sometimes, these fears feed into one another in a nonsensical chain of causation. Like, “If I lose enough weight, it will be such a success, my family will expect me to succeed in other areas of my life and I’ll have to go and get that PhD.” Or something similar. I had a fear of success with writing until few books got published. Then I realized it’s not as easy as all that. Now I have a fear of failure. If I could transfer my fears onto something rational, like, say, clowns or lightning, my writing life would be a lot easier.
This being said, I find it’s okay to “fail commercially” at a book. I have a flop or two out there and, so far, people are still buying the ones they like and ignore the ones they don’t like.The only way to get over a fear is to push through it and see what happens on the other side.
Exactly. And sometimes a book that fails commercially at one point in time will be a success if you keep it out in five years. That happens all the time as readers tastes change and books are discovered.
One of my favorite quotes is by W.C. Fields – “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then give up. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”
I don’t take it the way it was probably intended – certainly not in terms of quitting writing. If something looks off to me, a bit of dialogue, a short descriptive passage – whatever – I mull it over a a second, see if something obvious is wrong. If it is, I fix it. If not, I keep going. Staring at it won’t help. I can’t slow down and spend 2 hours on 5 words. I just can’t or I will never see the end of anything.
When i was in school I was always the first guy done with a test – I was a decent student, but hardly top of the class. A teacher would always tell me to slow down and I could go from getting Bs and As to A+. They always assumed if I spent more time on the test my grade would be higher.
I always told them the same thing – if I got 88 of 100 questions right it was because I knew 88 of them. Staring at 12 I didn’t know for an extra hour wasn’t going to beam the damn information into my head. I either knew it or I didn’t.
When I see writing I think is ‘wrong’ I take a quick look. If something jumps out in the first 10 seconds, great. If not? It might be ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ but if I can’t figure out why, how the heck could I fix it?
So i keep going. I finish.
Even when I’m sure it sucks…
For me there’s a subset of “Fear of Failure” – not fear of editors or fear of family (well, not so much) but rather “Fear of this book not being as good as that book I just finished reading, you know, the one that just won the Hugo.” The writer judging his/her own work and against top writing.
Even Shakespeare felt it:
“Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least…”
Dude was a writer.