Heinlein’s Rules: Introduction
Five Simple Business Rules for Writing
In almost 150 published novels (over one hundred with traditional publishers), I have always followed Heinleins Business Rules. And in hundreds and hundreds of short stories, I have followed the five rules as well.
For well over thirty years now, actually, I have done my best to stay on Heinleins Rules. I must admit, I slipped at times, but Ill explain why later on in the book. And how I climbed back on.
So how did I get to these rules? A little about my personal story first.
I started writing at the age of 24 in 1974.
I had hated writing up until that point, but I had to take some English credits to get my degree in architecture, so I took a poetry class for non-majors.
My poems were pretty much hated and the professor called them commercial. At that point, I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded insulting and I was getting a C in the class.
Commercial seemed very, very bad.
Then as an assignment, she had her entire class mail a poem to a major national college poetry competition. One of my commercial poems won second place and paid me one hundred bucks. The professor had never had a student even get into the book let alone win.
And I had just made more money than she had total with all of her poetry sales.
Oh, oh… To say I was not popular in the English Department would be an understatement.
But I found writing poems fun and started mailing them out and selling them to top literary journals around the country. Great fun. Seemed major literary magazines liked commercial.
Sold around fifty or so in one year.
And along the way, I thought it would be a lark to write a short story.
So on my trusty electric typewriter, I banged out a 1,000 word story, and didnt rewrite it, just sent it to a horror semi-pro magazine.
They bought it.
I did it again.
They bought the second one.
Spring of 1975 was when things went really wrong. I figured since I was having fun with writing stories, I should learn more about how to write stories, even though I had sold my first two.
So down I went into the myths of writing. (Add bubbling sounds of a person going underwater for the last time.)
I heard I needed to rewrite at least three or four times, so I did, even though I hated to type.
I heard I had to write slow to make it good, so I did, producing exactly two short stories a year for the next seven years.
And every story I thought was gold, a perfect masterpiece of fine art.
All of them were form rejected. And I made it worse by sending each story out only once or twice.
I was convinced the editors were too stupid to see my brilliance.
The two stories I had not touched or rewritten and wrote fast had sold, but the reality was I was too stupid to understand that. I believed in the myths and would defend them, by golly.
But after seven years, by the fall of 1981, I was very, very discouraged. I started looking around at how the writers I admired did what they did.
Bradbury, Silverberg, Ellison, all wrote fast, one draft, and never rewrote past a few minor corrections. And I studied the old pulp writers I admired. Same thing. And I dug through the stories of the literary writers like Hemingway and others. Same thing.
Then by chance, I ran across an edition of Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing.
Edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, published in 1947, the book had articles in it by John Taine, Jack Williamson, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, E. E. Doc Smith, John W. Campbell, Jr., and Robert A Heinlein.
All of the articles are forgettable, sadly, including Heinleins article, except for the last four paragraphs.
He starts the last four paragraphs with this:
Im told that these articles are supposed to be some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.
Then in one more paragraph he lists his Business habits.
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
- You must put it on the market.
- You must keep it on the market until sold.
Then Heinlein said this:
The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction than anything said above them. But they are amazingly hard to follow which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket!…
I finally understood completely what I had been doing wrong for seven long years. And why my first two stories had sold.
So on January 1st, 1982, I made a resolution to write a story per week, following Heinleins Rules, and mail the story and keep it in the mail.
I wrote 44 stories that first year and started selling regularly in early 1983 and have never looked back.
And stayed focused on those five rules to this day.
WHY SO DIFFICULT?
The reason these rules are so hard is that they fly into the face, solidly, of what every English teacher on the planet teaches. And has taught from even before Heinlein wrote the rules down.
But remember, English teachers are there to do the almost impossible job of helping students gather knowledge about the language.
They are not there to help a student become a professional fiction writer.
So these simple five business rules smash right into all that learning and teaching we all had as regular English students.
And with the modern world of computers, rewriting is easy, much easier, let me tell you, than it was on a typewriter. So not doing it is even more difficult.
Also, these five rules smash into so many writing myths, it will take most of this book to just detail out how each rule will cause many people to be uncomfortable.
Or even angry.
If one of these rules make you angry, you need to check in with yourself. Your critical voice is really, really having issues and trying to stop you.
So over the course of this book, Im going to work through each of the five rules, explaining why the rule is important to becoming a professional fiction writer, how missing a rule stops millions of writers, and how to use the rule in this modern world to access your creative voice and bring fun into your fiction writing.
One note: This is a book about fiction writing. This book is designed to help you on the road to being a professional fiction writer. This does not apply to nonfiction writers or writers of critical essays and the like.
Heinlein was talking about fiction writing. Please keep that clearly in mind.
In 1947, Robert A. Heinlein gave away the racket!
But also, as he said, almost no one can follow these five business rules.
I hope to help you become one of the few who can.
And thus have a long fiction-writing career and fun with your writing.
I am so pleased you’re doing a book on these! I had a major life roll this year and am just surfacing now and ready to move to the next level of commitment with my writing. The life roll a good one–I bought a house on an acreage, one half of my dream to have a small holding and write–but wow, did I feel swallowed up by it. Now that it’s winter in eastern Canada, it’s time to focus on the second half of the dream and get going with the writing!
The annotated Heinlein’s rules will definitely be a help. After many years of not writing as much as I talked about writing, and then on not finishing things, I am now stuck more on the getting-to-market portion. I am also working on revision. My creative process involves a lot of writing around to get to the point, though, and I actually really like editing–up to a point, which is where I think the critical voice takes over. The more I write, however, the less that creative editing seems necessary … go figure! 🙂
This is already epic. I can’t wait for the rest. If I were a girl, and like, twenty or thirty years younger, I’d SQUEE here. So, y’know – insert old fat guy squee here.
Lol! Dane, too funny! Thanks for the laugh. =)
Michael W Lucas
Glad to see you’re doing this. I gotta take exception to one thing you say, though. As someone who pays the mortgage writing highly researched, highly technical nonfiction:
Heinlein’s rules ABSOLUTELY apply to nonfiction too.
You CAN sell things that have been rewritten, especially if you work in a field without much competition. But once I stopped rewriting except to correct errors, publishers became much more likely to buy my work. They complimented me on how clean the text was, even though it was full of sentence fragments and run-on sentence and all sorts of English teacher no-nos.
When I started working under Heinlein’s Rules, my work started attracting more attention. People I never expected to notice me suddenly pointed out my work. Most love it. Some REALLY hate me. (As far as I can tell, they hate me because unlike most of my field, I have a clear and distinct voice. Once you’ve learned to read dust-dry prose, my books come as a shock.)
There are many different types of nonfiction, so I can see your reluctance to say these rules apply there, but: they really do.
And knowing that these rules were correct when I’d started would have cut the time needed for me to go pro in half.
And I bet you’re writing this nonfiction book with Heinlein’s Rules, too. 😉
Michael, caught me. (grin) But since I know so little about fields like what you do, I wanted to just make it clear I was talking about fiction. But honestly, I use it for all writing as well. (grin)
Wow, I needed to read that. Thanks, Michael. I might actually write some nonfiction again then.
Miguel Angel Alonso Pulido
Thank you, Dean, once again, for sharing your wisdom and experience with all of us aspiring writers. I know the rules (because of you), I even own a copy of ‘Of Worlds Beyond’ that I bought only to read Heinlein’s article, and I already know I’m going to learn a lot with this series. Sincerely, thank you.
Dean, I was thinking about you as I wrote my last book. It was very hard to write, mostly because it crosses genres and as far as I know, there are no stories quite like it. I had no idea how it would end, or if I even could end it.
You say all books write differently. You say don’t rewrite. And you say write fast (which has a sort of complicated meaning)
So here’s what frequently happened. I’d be sailing along, writing a few thousand words each day. Then I hit a wall. I couldn’t go forward. The story wouldn’t work. I had no idea what to do. So I looped back and realized I had to make changes before I could go forward. The changes would take several days. Then I’d move forward again, and within a few days, hit another wall. I couldn’t go forward. I mulled things over, and realized I needed stuff to happen earlier. So I went back and rewrote putting the stuff in. This repeated until at long last, I reached the end. Once I got to the end, yes, only minor corrections. I had to fix inconsistencies. The book took so long to write I’d forget things I said earlier, or repeated things. All that needed fixing.
During those long stalls I thought back an all you’d said . . .
When I finally reached the end, I realized this was pretty much what you say happens (minus the getting stuck part. Maybe someone better than me wouldn’t keep getting stuck . . .)
T.A., I get stuck all the time. And what you are doing is called cycling and I explained it in the Writing into the Dark book. It’s normal for most professional writers. And all of us get stuck all the time. Honest. (grin)
So while I’m stuck, often for a week at a time, I do a lot of writing, which I end up deleting because it doesn’t work.
Is that what you call “writing extra?”
Do you count that in your daily word count?
If so, I look a lot like you — a few thousand words each day. I end up not using a lot of them, though. In fact, being stuck usually means a lot of writing, then deleting, then some handwringing, until I actually start moving forward (which means writing without deleting)
I tend only to count the words I end up using.
T.A., that actually sounds like you let the critical voice lose on the work. That’s a bad thing, to be honest. Critical voice, meaning cutting out stuff while the work is in process is critical. When you hear yourself say, “This sucks.” Or “This doesn’t work.” That’s critical voice. Creative voice is always in positive voice, never negative. So how a lot of professionals do this is we get stuck, cycle back, touching and fixing things and some add things and others take things out, but always in creative build voice, and then move forward.
I never cut anything major until I’m done with a book because I have no idea if it is extra or if my creative voice has a plan for it later.
David Anthony Brown
Heinlein’s rules is what got me to stage two, no doubt about it. I’d have given up by now if not for the rules.
I’d been wondering if the rules apply to analytical and critical essays, too. Thinking back on my brief foray into the sciences, yeah, you have to be passive and objective in tone. Something the creative voice doesn’t so well. Rewriting psych papers is a necessary evil, which makes me glad I didn’t get very far in that career.
Looking forward to the rest of this book.
Karen A. Wyle
When is this book coming out?
I should have it done by the end of the month to help writers with the first of the year starts. More than likely the book will make it through the process at WMG Publishing by mid-March or so.
I love that you found Heinlein’s rules and applied them instantly. I’ve known about them for four years not and am finally starting to apply. I’m really looking forward to this book!
Just curious about the poetry part, do you use these rules for that also? When I write poetry I am never certain how much editing to do. It is where the life really can get sucked out very quickly.
Thanks for this book, and writing it so we can follow along. You are very generous.
On the poems I rewrote and worked on, I never sold. On the poems I wrote one draft, on the fly, those sold. I didn’t learn that lesson either until seven years into wasting time.
J. D. Brink
I actually sat down yesterday with each rule and wrote a little blurb as to what it means to me. Or rather, what it’s telling me specifically. How I need to take this guidance and change what I’m doing to better fall in line with this traditional wisdom. I’m going forward into 2016 with the intention of focusing on better paths and clearing out my own junk and gunk that’s slowing me down and holding me back. (And I have been planning and implementing my “new years resolutions” in writing since October.)
Excited to see a thorough discussion on each rule from someone who has made a career with them.
Lars D. H. Hedbor
I love these rules, and as a nearly lifelong (so far) Heinlein reader, they resonate deeply with me.
The only variation I’ve made to them in my own writing is that I am indie (self) published, so rules 4 & 5 have a slightly different meaning to me — my stuff essentially hits the market as soon as I deem it ready. (This involves an external editor whom I hire to proofread, and she’s excellent about making suggestions for larger changes where they’re called for, as well.)
I was quite pleased in reading Patterson’s recent Heinlein biography to learn that Heinlein often sat down and blasted out major works in a matter of weeks — it made me feel less concerned about my own similar work habits. 🙂
And yes, it works for non-fiction, as well — I regularly place non-fiction articles derived from my fiction research, and written by the same set of rules.