Writing Fiction: Heinlein’s Five Rules & Your Author Efficiency
How to improve your speed and quality as an author by writing less than more…
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Of course, Robert A. Heinlein (yes that classic pulp fiction writer known for “Stranger in a Strange Land” and others) was wrong. But he was right at the same time.
He authored an essay, first published in 1947, titled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”. It’s been republished often and is available in many formats across the Internet.
It’s not his best work, but if you split it into four parts, it tends to read pretty well. He talks about 1. Writing and Placing Speculative Fiction, 2. Plots, Stories, Characters, 3. Successful Science Fiction, 4. Five Rules of the Writing Business.
The last section seems an after-thought, although the entire essay is a pastiche without real theme. And usually, this is where people only quote (partially) that last section and nit-pick it to death.
Here’s what 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 assume that you can type, 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 start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
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 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! But, if you will follow them, it matters not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at him.
Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri and grew up in Kansas City. He got an education at the U. S. Naval Academy in Anapolis, and after discharge, along with trying other work, he turned to writing. He published his first work in 1939. WWII interrupted this after 1942, but he returned to writing full time in 1945, next published in 1946.
His first full novel was published in 1947 (same as that essay.) Before that, he was writing short stories and short works which were quite popular. Very popular. So, on only three years of writing experience, we now have these rules for running a writing business that even he says are hard to follow.
That is the core problem people who have left their comments online don’t understand about this. In three years, he was at the top of his profession. Show me anyone of these critics have done the same. Thought so. “Those who can’t do, criticize.”
With this, you can see Heinlein had a unique view of things. Unlike other pulp fiction writers, he actually didn’t grow up in the pulp fiction era. He started writing short science fiction, which wasn’t even a genre until after the first World War. The pulp magazines were actually in a decline and being replaced by paperbacks.
So this was an author who had stumbled onto his particular talent for writing. He wrote about real humans, not machines. Heinlein knew how to write about the main character as someone who evolved during the story, who “learned better.” And that is where he differed from many of the Sci-Fi authors, where the plot defined the character, rather than the character defining how the problem is solved due to their own internal strengths and weaknesses. The phrase for a plot-defined character is “melodrama.” (Which comes from the silent movie days where the accompanist provided the melody for the drama.)
Back to his business rules. Yes, he wrote in a day where people were paid for being prolific. But according to his Wikipedia bibliography, he was only a middling-prolific author, as many authors wrote more, and many (lots and lots) wrote much less.
The key point of discussion is where he recommends only re-writing to editor’s order. Re-writing is not the same as revising or editing. It is, in fact, rewriting the story from scratch. A second draft or third (or more, for modern novelists.) One author, (Tom Simon – https://bondwine.com/2014/08/05/heinleins-rules-vs-amazons-game/) with all of his research to hand, said that Heinlein did in fact re-write “Strangers in a Strange Land.” Practically, he wrote the book several times, completely starting over when the story wasn’t going the way he wanted. When he got the right approach, he went ahead and finished it (something to do with placing the setting on Mars.) And then had to cut his story to fit them to publishable length (Strangers ended up a hair over 160K words, which makes all but Romance stories pale in comparison.)
Simon also took DW Smith (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/tag/heinleins-rules/) to task on this. But he hasn’t apparently taken what Smith says with any serious study. Smith “cycles” through his writing, editing/revising/polishing as he goes. And by the end, they are very clean of errors. Smith says this is only possible with our modern computers. Before this time, many pulp fiction writers typed, used a carbon between two sheets, keeping a copy of their story for records.
Simon tells that Heinlein had trouble keeping his own rules. And illustrates these with many examples. The problem presented is in focusing on the errors instead of the ideal.
Smith points out with his own personal method of “cycling” he can keep Heinlein’s rules. That is his solution, change the method of writing and achieve the ideal. Smith also points out that very often, he will write before where the story should start and write after it should end. Then go back and delete those hundreds of words.
The point here is that every writer will have to develop their own styles and methods of writing. Smith is simply holding up an ideal so a person can align their efforts toward it.
The rest of Heinlein’s points few people object to: 1) Write. (Writers write – that is what they are supposed to do.) 2) Finish what you write. (Don’t leave a bunch of stuff around without endings and so on. 3) Don’t re-write. (Work out a system for clean final copy.) 4) Put it on the Market and 5) Keep it on the market. (Both of which are entirely possible in these days of self-publishing and electronic books that never go out of print.
Revising – a New Model Inspired by Heinlein and Movies
Short stories are the building blocks to novels. Below these are scenes and beats (shots). See this article on Ray Bradbury (https://livesensical.com/writing-fiction-book-movie-shots-scenes/), and this sideways review of C. S. Lakin’s work (https://livesensical.com/writing-fiction-learned-studying-227-craft-texts/). Bradbury said each of his paragraphs was a shot in a scene. Lakin in her “Shoot Your Novel” held that a scene was composed of shots:
This type of realistic behavior is what you want to capture in your fiction writing, and the way to do it is by utilizing various camera angles—the difference being that you have a specific intention in doing so. Rather than show a random encounter with boring dialog and nothing all that interesting happening in the scene—which is what real life often is like—you have an objective in playing this scene out, that high point you are leading to, a moment of revelation or plot twist that is going to deliver with a punch when you reach it. And so every camera angle is used deliberately to give the most punch when needed.
Television producers follow a basic rule that no shot should last more than thirty seconds, and no scene should last longer than three minutes. This is the 30-3 Rule. This is the basic idea of how shot sequences are made. You take one long scene and break it down into a variety of short shots.
How does this translate to fiction? A scene can take much longer than three minutes to read, and sometimes it may cover a number of moments in time, some even separated by days and weeks. But if you break down your scenes and look at the segments that take place, you will find a natural rhythm that feels just right.
Scenes should be mini novels, with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t work to place strict rules on scenes, for they should be as long as they need to be—whatever it takes to effectively reveal the bit of storyline intended while keeping the pacing and tension taut. However, I believe if you lay out your scenes intentionally with a series of camera shots, leaving out excessive narration and backstory, your scenes will “move” like a movie and will feel like concise, succinct movie scenes.
The trick with books that were made into movies is that they always leave out tons of stuff. Because even when spoken aloud through Text to Speech, the book is always longer. By many hours.
Brevity being the Soul of Wit, is also an excellent training process for authors.
We have the average novel chapter (scene) being 2400 words, and divided into 30 paragraphs. While your pacing will change paragraphs from short to long and longer, you can figure that the average of these will be about 80 words long. A few sentences.
The other half of this is that self-published authors no longer have to cut a story down to its essence in order to publish (particularly when Romances will run to 120,000 words or more.)
Simon tells of cutting instead of rewriting, “Heinlein was an engineer, and surely knew the rule of thumb that used to be called the ‘RCA Principle’, but is nowadays known as ‘designing to manufacture’: First build the best product you know how; then see how many parts you can eliminate before it stops working to specification. It is that elimination of superfluous parts that distinguishes a superior design from a merely adequate one, not only in engineering, but in art and literature as well.”
Take your story and cut it down by half and then fit the whole story into a flash fiction of 1000 or even 500 words. Just see if it can be done. Then you’ll give yourself two sets of stories to put on sale. The point of this and the Larkin excerpt above, is to improve your text by self-editing and paring down to the exact point that nothing enters a story unless it either forwards the action or defines the character.
Not that you should routinely write flash fiction and make a living at it (although you could.) More that this can make your own writing so tight that you can quickly improve pacing and depth as you write, with little revising, and no re-writing. Run each of these short-short stories through ProWritingAid.com as a side check and get a further learning out of it. Then record the story you are happy with. Collect a few dozen of these up (and also collect their audios) and you’d have a nice book for sale. Munchable fiction. Perfect for this world of instant this and that. (And our mis-named “short attention spans.”)
After a month of this, your own efficiency will speed up, as well as your writing speed and publishing speed. And that means your income potential will increase exponentially.
Try it. I am.
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Also published on Medium.