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began reading science fiction for enjoyment in 1956, at the age of ten.
For the next 18 years I read voraciously in a variety of fields, but
science fiction was always my first love. Then, in 1974, something happened.
I began to enjoy my reading less and less.
The things I read began to irritate me.
I could no longer willingly suspend my disbelief.
I kept catching the authors in mistakes, or in what I considered to be
poorly executed passages in their stories and books.
I bored the people around me by telling them how much better the stories
would have been if the author had just . . .
In other words, I was feeling the first stirrings of the
urge to write myself.
Nearly every writer will tell you the same.
You know someone is coming down with the writing bug when they begin to
carp and criticize everything they read. Generally,
this phase ends with the poor victim throwing a book or magazine across the room
and yelling loudly, ďAny idiot can write better than this!Ē
Itís a scary feeling the first time you realize that you
might possibly be able to compete with the masters whom you have enjoyed reading
all those years. The feeling is
similar to when you first tried to dance. You watched others gyrate the night
away, you saw how they moved their arms and legs in time to the music, but your
brain just wasnít sure how to start everything flapping in the proper rhythm.
toyed seriously with the idea of becoming a writer throughout the spring of
1974. Iím not sure what set me to
thinking along those lines, but I remember clearly the event that convinced me
that I ought to try my luck. Analog Science Fiction
magazine printed the text of a speech that Robert Heinlein gave at the Naval
Academy in 1973. Robert Heinlein
was the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived (even his enemies agree
on that). He was a graduate of
Annapolis whose naval career was shortened by tuberculosis. The subject of Mr. Heinleinís speech was what it takes to
be a writer. I read the article
with great interest, comparing his requirements for writers with my own
experience. To my surprise, I found
that I met many of the qualifications.
was in his Annapolis speech that Mr. Heinlein listed his four rules for being a
First, you must write!
Second, you must submit what you write.
Third, you must never rewrite except to editorial
Fourth, you must continue doing this until you are
all great wisdom, the rules are remarkably simple, but also very subtle.
Letís take them one at a time and explore the ramifications of each:
are probably fewer than 10,000 professional writers in the entire world.
This is a remarkable statistic when you consider that virtually everyone
alive sooner or later gets the urge to write.
The primary reason that very few people are writers (compared to the huge
number who would like to be) lies in a violation of Heinleinís First Rule.
Quite simply, having the desire to be a writer isnít enough.
To be a writer, you must sit down and actually write!
Fully 99% of those who think they might want to write one day never do.
They talk endlessly about writing the great American novel, but they never
manage to commit even a single word to paper.
ďI donít know how!Ē you say. ďI havenít taken any courses in it. Someone has to teach me.Ē
Iím sorry, but nothing could be more wrong.
There are classes that can educate you about writing, but there are none
that teach you how to write. If the
point seems excessively subtle, then consider what it takes to be a painter.
All of the art classes in the world wonít help if you donít have an
aptitude for painting. The same is
true for writing, and for the same reason.
Writing is an art, not
a science. There are quite a
number of techniques that will make you a better writer, but telling a story is
something for which you must have an innate feel.
If you have a basic aptitude for stringing words together,
then you can sharpen your technique by reading voraciously and writing
voluminously. However, no one can
really teach you the technique out of a book.
The sad truth is that successful writers donít really know how they do
it. That is why you so often see a
movie that clicks with the public and makes hundreds of millions of dollars,
immediately followed by a sequel that is so bad that it dies at the box office.
Often, the same screenwriter writes both the original and the sequel.
So how come he couldnít produce a blockbuster the second time?
Because he doesnít know how he did it the first time. He sat for long
hours in front of typewriter or computer screen and worked on the plot until the
elements just sort of fell into place.
Almost any author who has written a masterpiece would give his right arm
to be able to do it again. This is
why so many writers turn out to be one-book sensations.
(Joseph Heller, Catch 22, comes
immediately to mind.)
In the same article in which he promulgated his four rules
for writing, Robert Heinlein also commented that ďCreative writing classes
have ruined more writers than anything else I know.Ē In other words, itís a skill that can be learned, but not
one that can be taught.
Donít let me discourage you from taking creative writing
courses. Just remember that they
are no substitute for actually writing. The
one thing all successful writers have in common is the ability to make the words
flow smoothly, and it takes a lot of practice to learn how to do that. The rule
of thumb is that you have to write a million words before you write the first
word that sells.
In my case, I knew I couldnít possibly write a story.
Instead of writing a story, I set out to fake
writing a story. That is, since it
was a skill I knew I couldnít possibly master, I decided to counterfeit a
short story. So, beginning on July
15, 1974, I typed my counterfeit story, ďMorrisonís Mountain.Ē Six weeks later, when I had written 7500 words, I discovered
that my fake short story sounded just like the real thing!
It wasnít of professional quality, of course.
I was too inexperienced for that. The
narrative was choppy, the subject matter was too lightweight, and the
punctuation was poor, but at least it had the feel
of a real work of fiction.
The night I finally finished, I had a revelation.
I discovered that writing a story was mostly a matter of putting one word
down after the other, and doing so in the same way as all those stories Iíd
read. Even though I started out to
fake a story, what I had actually produced was a primitive, but very real, piece
Having discovered that I could write, I set out to prove
that I was better than those I had criticized so often.
Three and a half years and 20 attempts later, I finally became adept
enough to actually sell a story. (My
first published piece of fiction, ďDuty, Honor, Planet,Ē is available for
free download from Sci Fi - Arizona.)
Must Submit What You Write
An interesting phenomenon occurs after youíve agonized for
dozens of hours over a story or article. What
started out as merely a collection of words has suddenly taken on a life of its
own. It has become your baby!
And like most parents, you are very protective of your newborn offspring,
so much so that it will break your heart if anyone criticizes it.
So, rather than send it to an editor and risk rejection, you put it in
the drawer and never show it to anyone but your family and a few close friends.
They, of course, tell you how talented a writer you are.
Sorry, but it doesnít work that way.
It does no good to have your deathless prose parked in a drawer in your
desk. It doesnít count unless
strangers read your work. After
all, they arenít related to you. In
fact, you canít claim to be a professional
writer until someone has actually paid money to read your work!
If you are going to be a writer, then you must suffer the slings and
arrows of rejection. No one likes to be rejected; there just isnít any other way
to get into the business.
So, when you have produced the best piece of writing you
can, you must stuff it into an envelope (donít forget to include the
self-addressed-stamped-envelope for the inevitable rejection), and mail it to
someone who might actually buy your words from you.
That someone is called an editor. Editors are very busy people who get tired of reading
manuscripts in the slush pile. But
they also have magazines or books to fill with prose.
This makes them desperate to find people who can write.
So, despite your fear that an editor will reject your work, there is
always the slim possibility that they will buy your submission.
They certainly arenít going to buy it if you donít send it in.
Must Never Rewrite Except To Editorial Prescription
One must be careful about Heinleinís Third Rule for
Writers. Itís dangerous!
By not understanding its proper application, I put back the date of my
first professional sale by one full year.
As Heinlein pointed out in his speech to the midshipmen, a
writerís only capital is his or her time.
The number of words you can write in a lifetime is finite.
For some of us, that total is relatively low, while for others (such as
Isaac Asimov), the words flow copiously for decades.
Whether you write quickly or slowly, however, each day that passes is a
day you can never recover. So
donít waste your days going over something you have already finished.
Retracing old steps is wasteful. Once a story or article is done, mail it
out, start another one, and donít look back Ė unless an editor asks you to,
Writing new words is hard work, but polishing old words is
fairly easy. This simple reality is
often a trap for new writers. They
polish, and polish, and polish again, working to get everything just so!
It is a temptation that you should avoid.
Endless polishing is bad for two reasons: Not only are you wasting time
that you could more profitably use in writing something new, but there is little
chance that you will make your story better.
The reason Rule Three is dangerous is that it only applies
to finished works. To say that one
should not polish endlessly is not to imply that one shouldnít polish at all.
In fact, rewriting is the secret to good writing.
But like all virtues, this one can be a vice when carried to extreme. I didnít understand this when I began to write.
I took Heinleinís rule at face value and sent my stories out before
they were truly ready.
I learned to write in the days before computers.
I composed on a Smith-Corona portable typewriter, often tap-tap-tapping
well past midnight. My technique in
those days was to do a rough draft of a story in manuscript format (double
space, with big margins all around). I
would then go over my story and edit it with a pencil, marking out words and
sections I didnít like, modifying others, rearranging sentences and
paragraphs, and just basically scribbling all over the typewritten page.
I would then type the final copy from the marked up draft, making sure I
had as few typographical errors as possible.
Then I would send it off with high hopes.
A few months later it would come back rejected, by which time I had
another one ready to go.
My problem was that I wasnít a good enough writer to
produce professional quality work with only a single draft. In fact, I maintain that there arenít many people on Earth
who can. Because of a too
rigorous application of Heinleinís Rule No. 3, I wasnít polishing my stories
I eventually came to realize this and added a second draft
to my working technique. I called
it ďblue typingĒ because the second draft was always typed on blue paper.
To my surprise, I sold my first stories almost immediately after adopting
this new technique!
The reason a second draft is important is fairly simple.
When you start out to write a story, you really donít know how it is
going to end. Thus, the first draft is written with only the most cursory
knowledge of the storyís structure. But
when you do the second draft, you have read the story and know precisely where
you are headed. Now manually
retyping a manuscript is a fairly boring job that takes very little conscious
thought. And while your brain is
bored, it thinks about the story. I
found myself working on passages that seemed dead, only to have my subconscious
provide me with a more exciting way to say the same thing.
Often I became so excited that I couldnít retype fast enough to read
the improved story as it poured out onto the paper.
Since I was now intimately familiar with the story, I often found places
where I could insert hints as to future events, or set up surprises for the
reader to find later.
In fact, upon finishing my second draft, I was amazed at how
much better my stories read. My
fiction began to develop a professional feel.
After the second draft on blue paper, I would then go through with a
pencil and edit everything a second time before doing the final draft.
The advent of word processors has largely made the multiple
draft system obsolete, at least insofar as it was practiced with typewriters.
Now we find changing the words so effortless that we write everything a
dozen times or more.
There comes a point in time, however, when the story is
complete. Youíve polished it the
very best you can, there is nothing left to do. That is the point when
Heinleinís Rule No. 3 kicks in. Do
your best, finish the story, send it out, and then forget about it.
Donít spend the next ten years trying to polish it further.
All you will end up with is a mess.
Continue Doing This Until You Are Successful
rule is the most important. You
have forced yourself to sit down and write, youíve risked rejection by
submitting your work to someone who might actually buy it, and despite
temptation, youíve avoided doing that 103rd rewrite because it
isnít necessary. Now what do you
You persevere. Having finished one story or article, you start a second.
When you have twelve under your belt, you go for thirteen.
You keep writing and submitting, and you never give up.
The sad truth is that you can expect to collect at least 50
rejections before you become skilled enough to sell your first work.
I wish it werenít so, but wishing doesnít carry much weight in the
If you want to be a writer, you must doggedly pursue your
goal through all manner of adversity. Editors
are notoriously unable to see just how brilliant our work is Ö at first.
Later they become more perceptive. (Funny
how that works!) Often the
difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one is simply a
matter of endurance.
As Robert Heinlein told the midshipmen a quarter-century
ago, if you follow his Rules for Writers long enough, you will be successful.
He guaranteed it!
So do I.
This article is Chapter 2 in The Art of Writing, Volume I.
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