The Original Heinlein’s Rules

Hey Folks,

In recent years, say about the last 40 or 50, many would-be writers have gotten away from writing. They set out to write, but then allow themselves to be trapped in a vicious circle.

Some don’t even actually write. Instead, they meet with writers and other would-be writers in groups and rehash all the same old advice that hasn’t worked for them thus far. They attend conferences and conventions. They strive to meet writers and ask advice.

Some write, maybe. But those who write then rewrite ad nauseam. They read books on writing, whose authors often are not successful professional writers. They take courses on writing, again, often from folks who are not professional writers. Often, they seek out and take advice from other would-be writers who are no farther along the path than they are.

The blind leading the blind. And a ditch right there, waiting for a misstep.

Writing is the only art form in which the artists (writers) “hover” over a current work rather than advancing their craft by repeated practice. Instead of writing the next story or novel, they hover, rewriting, receiving critiques, and rewriting some more.

If the stuff above applies to you, and if you really do want to be a professional fiction writer, maybe it’s time to check in with yourself and get back to actually writing. What follows is a foolproof way to do just that.

Heinlein’s Rules, which he originally called his “business habits,” first appeared as the last bit of an essay Robert A. Heinlein wrote in response to an invitation from Lloyd Arthur Eshbach.

Eshbach wanted to collect and publish a book of essays from some of the era’s shining stars. He did so, and put them in a small book titled Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (c. 1947 Fantasy Press). The title is still available as a collector’s item. (My copy cost $35.)

The book was edited by Eshbach, and it contains essays by Robert A. Heinlein, John Taine, Jack Williamson, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Edward E. Smith and John W. Campbell. It is a treasure trove of information, not only on writing science fiction, but on writing fiction, period.

Oddly enough, Heinlein’s 7-page essay, titled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” is mostly unremarkable. Per his tone, I personally suspect he took on the whole idea as a lark.

Until you draw near to the end. There lies the gold that has fashioned the work habits of professional fiction writers in genres across the board ever since. He wrote

“I’m 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.

“I shall assumed that you can tpe, that you know the accepted commercial format or can be trusted to look it up and follow it, and that you always use new ribbons and clean type. Also, that you can spell and punctuate and can use grammar well enough to get by. These things are merely the word-carpenter’s sharp tools. He must add to them these business habits:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must remain from rewriting except to editorial order.¹
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

“The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction² 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! But, if you will follow them, it matters not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buythe worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at him.”

I love his smug sense of humor. (grin) Now a couple of notes from yours truly:

1. In later years, to Rule 3, Harlan Ellison added “And only if you agree.”

2. I wish Heinlein had omitted “speculative” and just wrote “fiction.” I can’t tell you how many times writers have refused even to read these five business habits because they “don’t write science fiction.” Sigh.

Many will argue that times have changed, that writing and publishing has changed, since Heinlein’s day.

They’re right, of course. It has changed. But it’s easier now, not harder.

With the advent of personal word processors and then computers, there no longer exists the necessity to type a clean copy of the manuscript one time through on a typewriter like those luminaries did.

And with the advent of electronic publishing, you have a direct connection to the most important critiquers of all: the buying, reading public.

In the old days, writers wrote under several pen names mostly because “traditional publishing” (which stood up only in the late ’40s and early ’50s) limited them to no more than one novel per year.

Nothing limits you now. Today you can tell the stories you want to tell as quickly as you want to tell them. Writing is putting new words on the page. Today, most importantly, you can set aside all the nonsense that is not writing (rewriting, receiving critiques, etc.) and do the work you want to do.

So what are you waiting for? Come on in. The water’s fine and there’s a whole ocean to swim in. No sharks.

If you’d like a copy of the annotated (by me) rules, click It will download a PDF file directly to you.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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