On Writing,  publishing

Heinlein’s Rules: Chapter One & Chapter Two


Five Simple Business Rules for Writing



For lack of a better way of putting it, Heinlein’s Rules allow you to get to the fun of being a writer.

They also help us all remember we are entertainers.

About a decade or so ago, I was asked by a professor of English at the University of Oregon to come talk to one of his advanced creative writing classes about the reality of being a full-time fiction writer.

I had a hunch I was going to not do nice things to their brains. And I looked on that possibility as my sacred job description.

But it turned out I was the one shocked. Before I even had a chance to start to tell them about the fun of writing, about making a living, about writing Star Trek or Men in Black, one of the students said basically, Mr. Smith, did you know you put such-and-such theme in your story?

I could barely remember the story he was asking about, and I had zero idea that theme was even in there. I know for a fact I didn’t layer that in on purpose.

As I sort of sat there facing them, three of them got into an argument about what one of my stories really meant. The poor professor had to stop them to let me talk.

I had no clue any of the stuff they were talking about was even in the story. Clearly it was, but their attitude about it and how important that was to them shocked me down to my little toes, let me tell you.

I’m an entertainer.

It never occurs to me to add that literary stuff in purposely. But clearly it is there.

Kris had a similar experience back in the Midwest with a college class.

And then another time I got this same lesson is a different way. About twenty years ago, Kris and I were walking along and I asked her which magazine she thought a story I had finished the night before should go. She suggested a market and then said, “It’s one of your wonderful prison stories.”

“I don’t write prison stories,” I said.

I think it took her ten minutes to stop laughing.

It seems, after she explained it to me, that all of my stories, in one fashion or another, are about real people being trapped in some form or another.

Could have fooled me.

I just write to entertain myself.

I guess I have some issues that are deep-seated (or deep-seeded which makes more sense in this case) about being trapped.

But it clearly seems that when I get out of my own way with my writing, my subconscious layers in all sorts of deep and meaningful stuff I don’t even think about.

Go figure.

And, of course, that’s how it has always been with writers.

We write to entertain. It is up to others to figure out what we wrote.

And Heinlein’s five business rules help us get to the point where we are just writing and letting the art stuff happen.

Would I have ever gotten to that point of putting that cool stuff (without knowing) in my stories without Heinlein’s Rules?


Would I have made a living with my fiction for the last numbers of decades without Heinlein’s Rules?


Would I be enjoying writing as much as I do without Heinlein’s Rules?

Not a chance.

Here is my attitude in clear form.

— I never look back. I am always focused on the story and then the next story.

— Others can look back for me, either as readers or in some university class. I don’t care.

— I write to entertain, first myself, then readers. That is my focus.

— I write because it’s the most fun I can have at this age. (No jokes please.)

I think that understanding my attitude will help all readers of this book color how I look at these five simple rules.


One Thing Heinlein’s Rules Does Not Talk About

Heinlein’s Rules say nothing about typing fast.

They say nothing about speed or anything associated with being prolific.

So many people think they do, but they do not.

For some reason this gets confused and mixed into the rules, but please, if you catch yourself thinking about speed or productivity in association with these five rules, stop and step back.

Heinlein’s Rules are business rules.

So with all that said, onward into the rules.




Rule #1… You must write.

How simple.

On the surface, this sounds so easy. Of course, just write. Duh.

Well, how about some reality?

Say you have one million people who say they want to be writers, who have a book in them they really want to write, who have a dream about writing stories and maybe getting published.

One million. There are a lot more than that, of course, but for this example that number is round.

In my opinion, of that one million, nine hundred thousand will never find the time.

That’s just my rough and more than likely conservative guess. But it is a guess on my part from decades of watching.

Nine out of ten people can’t find the time to write, even though they say they want to.

Or another way to look at this, in my opinion over 90% of all people who say they would like to write, who say they want to write someday, are wiped out by Heinlein’s Rule #1.

Yeah, the first rule sounds so, so, so simple, doesn’t it?

You must write.


Yet it is the most deadly of all the rules.

Writer vs Author

My definition of a writer is a person who writes.

My definition of an author is a person who has written.

Yeah, I agree, sort of a nasty distinction. I have no respect for authors. I have a ton of respect for writers.

(And right there a massive herd of authors just left this book. Ahhh, well, they had promotion to do, after all.)

In this modern world of indie publishing, we see a ton of authors out there pushing their one or two or three books, promoting them to death, annoying their two hundred Twitter followers and their family on Facebook.

Promotion is not writing. That’s just being an author.

Writers are people who write.

Also, Heinlein did not say, You must research.

Research is not writing.

Also, Heinlein did not say, You must promote.

Promotion of your last novel is not writing.

Talking with your friends in a workshop about your future book is not writing.

Outlining your novel is not writing.

And on and on.

Back to Rule #1: You must write.

So simple.

So hard for so many.

My friend, Kevin J. Anderson, sent me a wonderful card when I sold my first novel. I sold my first novel about a year ahead of his first novel sale, yet he clearly understood what was going on better than I did at that point.

The card was priceless and I still have it.

On the front the card was divided into six panels. Each panel showed this mouse sweating to push this huge elephant up a hill.

And with each panel the elephant got higher on the hill.

I opened the card and there, inside, was the elephant sitting at the top of the hill and the mouse looking down at a herd of elephants in valley below.

The caption on the card said, “Congratulations! Now, do it again.”


Now, almost thirty years later (I sold that first novel in May of 1987) I am still having a great time moving those elephants to the top of the hill, one right after another.

Writers are people who write.

I am a writer.

And thanks to Heinlein’s Rules, especially Rule #1, I make my living writing fiction.

And I have since 1988.


  • Kate Pavelle

    (And right there a massive herd of authors just left this book. Ahhh, well, they had promotion to do, after all.)
    Bwhahahahaha! Coffee-on-my-keyboard alert! You’re such a wise guy. (Is that the right expression? My English, you know. Second language and all).

    But about having fun. I HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW. What you write, it really speaks to the ability to not give a flying fuck. (I said a bad word just to practice the concept.) Two days ago I was rooting through my file structure, looking for something, and I found 2 old fan fictions I had ever published for some reason. They sounded okay, so I published them, updated my profile (lots of FF fans are my readers now), and I indulged myself in rereading a fan fic I’d never finished. (I’d been writing it for a dear friend, but she went on a heroin bender, and I quit writing in protest. She’s clean now, so I figured I’d finish it in honor of her most excellent and ongoing effort.) But anyway. That fanfic – it was good. It had funny parts and angsty parts, and I remember what I had been feeling back then. Strong feelings. One must have those, and not be afraid to show them. Despite some craft issues, it was better than a lot of stuff I write now. It was better because I had fun writing it, and I didn’t care at all what people would think. I was writing for a self-selected, limited audience of people who kept cheering me on, and there were absolutely no financial pressures. I knew it would never sell, so why worry?

    In order to follow Rule #1 and write, I have to have fun doing so. And in order to have fun and get out of my way, I have to reclaim that wild, giddy feeling of excitement. Every book should be as though I was writing a fan fiction with no care in the world. No commercial considerations, no writing to the market. Easier said than done, but I’m working on it.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Kate. All the “important” stuff just sort of takes care of itself when you have fun writing.

      That’s why I call my job description: “I sit alone in a room and make shit up.”

      Hard to not keep that job description in exactly the right place to have fun. (grin)

  • Anita Cooper

    Thanks, Dean.

    “You Must Write” – easy to say, hard to do, right? If it were that easy, everyone who said they wanted to write would do exactly that.

    One thing I’m still learning is how to quiet my inner editor. I’ve discovered that if I simply ignore her, sit down and start writing, she’ll eventually shut up and leave me be.

    Thanks again, and keep your powder dry…;-)

  • Dane Tyler

    *Applause!* W00t!

    Rule 1: So simple. Yet so hard. So very hard, for so many. It’s a great winnowing tool though. I’m working hard to figure out how to stay out of that 900K portion of the herd, about to go over the cliff. 🙂

    I also love the card Kevin sent you. Great motivator!

    Good stuff Dean, very good stuff! This is going to be a fantastic learning experience.

    Thanks from an aspirant.

  • Dave Raines

    I have no problem with rules 1 and 2 (conceptually; following them is somewhat different). I’m looking forward to your take on #3. Because for me it’s not an argument between Heinlein and my former English teachers, though I’ve had a lot of them. It’s an argument between Heinlein and Stephen King, or between Heinlein and Ursula Le Guin, who do rewrite. That battle of heavyweights really threw me until I ran across Sawyer’s transformation of #3: don’t tinker endlessly with your story. Because then I realized I am by nature an endless tinkerer. So this is not a challenge to Heinlein (or you) but a hope that #3 could be really helpful for me. (Thought I’d get that in before #3 gets written.)

    • dwsmith

      Ever seen a “rewritten” draft of a King story? Of course not. As I have said a thousand times, most writers at my level and above don’t fight this myth for younger writers. Hell, Hemingway, who was a one-draft writer trained in magazines, often told new writers to do fifty drafts and write standing up. The same questions from beginning writers just annoyed him.

      Writers have public faces to tell readers what they want to hear because it makes the readers feel they have more value in the work they are buying. Writers have a public face to tell beginning writers what they need to hear and not fight the fight.

      I know hundreds and hundreds of major professional writers. In private, most cycle in creative voice, do one draft, fix mistakes, and are done except for copyediting.

      This is different when it comes to people doing collaborations or first drafts into a tape recorder or things like that. Or working in Hollywood.

      I am one of the few out here who just have nothing to lose, so I tell it out publicly and honestly, and even I stopped fighting that rewrite fight a year or so back, just as I stopped fighting the agent fight a year or so back. Just not worth my time anymore. But with this book I will dive into it one more time. Stay tuned.

      As I said, it’s number three that most writers who survived the first two get stuck.

      And as I will talk about shortly on Rule #2, if you rewrite, you are not finishing. Just saying.

  • Kristi N

    The story about the college writing class reminded me of another story…a writer was approached by a fan at a convention and asked if he had deliberately put into his writing (insert brilliant thematic metaphor). The writer stared at the fan for a long moment and then cleverly replied \”Huh?\”

    Amen to letting the creative mind play. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. Chaucer\’s better works (IMHO) were to entertain or from his passion. I would rather read someone who is having fun with the story than someone who is doing drudge work.

  • Edward M. Grant

    Thanks for this, it looks like another interesting series.

    As I’ve pointed out to writers who think they need to rewrite a lot because all the great writers did it… how many rewrites do you really think they did on a typewriter?

    I started to realize this was a myth some years ago when I read a biography of a famous, Nobel-winning British writer, who’d rarely do more than three drafts of his books, and then only because the publisher asked him to make changes to the first draft. Yet they’re classic novels we were given to read in school.

  • Dawn Blair

    Thank you for saying that writers are entertainers! I’ve sat in discussions where “authors” are trying to make some grand literary statement about their world, hemming and hawing about how important they are and for a long time I felt depressed because I just wanted to write to entertain people. We’re humans; we want to be entertained and we love stories. I want people to have an adventure, to forget the problems of their lives for a moment, and maybe in watching my characters struggle, they will find a will within themselves to overcome whatever challenges are in their own lives. But that’s as lofty as I get. I write for me first, always have.

    As for one draft — I’ve come to trust the process. If a story doesn’t feel right, I chuck it and got back to the last place it did feel right and start again. I consider this another draft. Sometimes that’s only a few chapters, other times it’s 20. But over the years, I’ve found that most things are rarely wasted. If the idea wasn’t working in one story, it might work in another. I save each iteration, so I can go back and pull out what I need. In a recent manuscript, I knew that what I was writing wasn’t right. I had the light bulb moment and went back to tear out 15 chapters of the book. It didn’t take me long to see that those 15 chapters actually belonged to another manuscript. But once I have a solid manuscript I’m happy with, then I just edit to make sure there are no gaping plot holes and to cut out the manuscript’s wordy “baby fat.” Seeing how other writers work has always been a fascination of mine, so I hope this helps someone who comes along to read this comment later.