Rule 1. You must write.
What can I say other than Duh? Is there more to this, some hidden meaning? No. It’s simple.
If you want to be a car mechanic, you have to fix cars. If you want to be a painter, you have to paint. If you want to be a carpenter, you have to work with wood.
And if you want to be a writer, you must write.
Rule 2. You must finish what you write.
Same thing. Duh.
The most common but unspoken reason you didn’t finish is Fear. After all, if you finish something, you might have to send it off and risk rejection.
So what? Even if editors or readers don’t like it, what’s the worst that will happen? Will they come knocking on your door? Will they hunt you down and beat you?
No. They’ll just stop reading and find something else to do. If it’s an editor, he’ll stop reading and (probably) slip a form rejection note into your SASE and send it back to you.
What do you do then?
Write the next story and send it off. That’s what you do.
Rule 3. You must not rewrite except to editorial demand.
Harlan Ellison added “And then only if you agree.”
In today’s wonderful new world of publishing, There Is No Editorial Demand, unless
- you’re still absolutely dying to give some traditional publisher your copyright for the rest of your life plus 70 years (ahem), or
- you choose to submit your shorter work to magazines and journals to try to make a quick few hundred dollars before you indie publish. Then an editor might request that you make some changes to your manuscript.
In either case, you have a choice to make. As Harlan Ellison wrote, “Only if you agree.” Let your conscience, not your billfold, be your guide.
Write, finish what you write, send it to a first reader for proofing or read it aloud to a friend, and then submit it or publish it. Period.
The important thing for you to notice is that nowhere in that process did I mention the word “rewrite” or “revise” or any of those other backward-looking words.
Rule 4. You must put it on the market.
Okay. Back in the day, when you finished a manuscript, you had only one option if you wanted to seek publication: you mailed it off. Heinlein’s reasoning here is transparent. If you don’t “put it on the market” (mail it), no possible way will it be published. And you won’t have to worry about rejection.
Updated for today’s wonderful new world of indie publishing, this rule would read either “You must submit it” OR “You must publish it.” I most often opt for “You must publish it.”
But whether you ascribe to submitting it or publishing it, if you don’t do one or the other, your work won’t be published.
This rule actually stops a lot of writers who would otherwise have a shot at being professionals, and that’s just silly.
No matter how wonderful your mom said your story is, the truth is that some readers will hate it. Some will think it’s all right. And others will love it.
It’s all a matter of individual reader taste.
Rule 5. You must keep it on the market until it sells.
Again, back in the day, this meant you wrote, finished what you wrote, did not rewrite, and mailed out your work. Then, if it came back with a rejection slip, you would take it out of the envelope, dust it off and mail it right back out to another editor or publisher.
In other words, you’d keep it on the market until it sold.
Today, in our wonderful world of indie publishing, “keep it on the market” means either of two things:
- If you submitted it and it comes back, resubmit elsewhere. Remember, don’t rewrite it. Just submit it again. Editors are just readers. What one editor dislikes, another editor will love.
- If you published it, it means leave it up there so more readers can find it and buy it.
And you know what you do then, right?
Write the next story. Then write the next story. Then write the next story.
As I update this paper (early morning, September 28, 2016) I’ve been following Heinlein’s Rules and what I call Bradbury’s Unwritten Corollary (put your fingers on the keyboard and write whatever comes) for almost three years.
I started following those Rules and that Corollary on April 15, 2014, writing at least one short story per week. I started my first novel on October 19, 2014.
In that time I’ve written 19 novels (I’ll finish number 19 in the next few days), one novella, one novelette, and 152 short stories. I’ll write number 153 this week.
And all of that — all of it — is because of Heinlein’s Rules.
One quick note from me to you: I am almost 64 years old. I’m not complaining. Obviously I’m glad I found Heinlein’s Rules when I did. Today is sooner than tomorrow. That sort of thing.
But had I found them when I was 20 or 30 or 40 years of age, they would have had the same effect on me. I would have been a professional writer from that time on.
The point is this: If you want to write “but” you’re waiting until you retire (or whatever), Stop Waiting. Go back and read Rule One above. Then sit down and write.
A Few Useful Links
For a free copy in PDF of the complete version of these rules, click Heinlein’s Business Habits Annotated.
For more completely free things of interest to writers, click HarveyStanbrough.com/downloads/.
To learn about Writing Off Into the Dark, click HarveyStanbrough.com/lecture-series/ and scroll down to Course 12.
I wish you the same great joy that following Heinlein’s Rules has given me.