Heinlein on Writing

The first book I read was Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein.

After that, I read every other book the master of science fiction wrote. I first toyed with the idea of writing as I read one of Heinlein’s novels. More than ten years passed before I completed my first short story and then another ten years slipped away before I attempted a novel.

Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein

As I struggled with that first, still unpublished book, I came across Heinlein’s five rules for writers. Gradually, I set aside that first clumsy novel and went on to finish, and publish, others. Through it all, Heinlein’s simple rules have remained with me.

I present them here with my thoughts and commentary.

Rule one: You must write

Many people tell me they have an idea about a novel. My standard reply is, “You should write it.” Very few ever do. It sounds obvious, but if you’re going to be a writer you need to write. Most never get beyond rule number one.

Rule two: You must finish what you start

The poet and writer Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Most that start a novel never push on to completion and so, never know the joy of “having written.” It’s a struggle to complete that first novel and, while it never gets easy, as you hone your craft, the task becomes less arduous. An author must persevere to completion.

Rule three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order

I know some fantastic writers that never submit their work to agents or publishers. Over and over again they edited and rewrite chapter after chapter. Their work is often spellbindingly beautiful, but few will ever read it. Write the best manuscript you can, submit it to a critique group, perhaps some beta readers and a final rigorous editor—then move on.

Rule four: You must put your story on the market

Another rule that seems obvious, but I know a writer with dozens of completed novels in his office. All of them are ready for the market, but aren’t on it. In today’s digital world there are three viable market options for authors, traditional publishing, indie publishing or a hybrid of both. Learn about all three and keep your books on the market.

Rule five: You must keep it on the market until it has sold.

If you want to be an author, don’t give up. Find a way to get your books to readers and, while continuing to sell your currently completed project, return to rule number one and start the process again.