>"On the Writing of Speculative Fiction"

>Last weekend, I posted Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing fiction. In the course of discussion, I admitted that I didn’t look at them so much as rules as guidelines. In fact, most of the so-called rules of writing we see populating blogs and how-to books are, in my opinion, nothing but guidelines. When writing, you have to consider the rhythm of your prose, the type of book you’re writing, your audience and, most importantly, your narrator or point of view character. You have to choose which rules to follow and which to break. That said, I came across a piece by Robert A. Heinlein last night that I highly recommend for every writer, especially those of us who write science fiction or speculative fiction.

Heinlein wrote “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” in 1947. It was reprinted in Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction (ed. Damon Knight, Harper & Row, 19770. It’s not a long essay, only about 5 pages. But those 5 pages contain a lot to think about and I highly recommend you go find it. I could spend too much time discussing everything included in the essay — so I’m going to focus only on the last bit: his rules for writing speculative fiction. I may come back to other parts of the essay later.

These rules are, according to RAH, “a group of practical, tested rules which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.” He starts by assuming, rightfully so, that anyone reading the rules and considering them can type (or keyboard now), knows the standard manuscript form or can at least look it up, and that they can spell, punctuate and know enough grammar to get by.

(Before going any further, let me add my two cents worth here. Don’t rely on spellcheck for spelling. It is a good tool to get you started but it won’t tell you if you’ve used “to” or “tow” properly in a sentence because they are both words. Turn off the grammar check utility and get yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White. A good dictionary and thesaurus are musts as well.)

Now for the rules:

  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.

For the most part, I agree with everything he says. I also submit that these rules apply to any form of writing, be it speculative fiction or romance or westerns or non-fic. I wholeheartedly agree with rules 1, 4 and 5. To be a writer, you must write. But you must also put what you write on the market. It doesn’t do any good sitting in a drawer or under your bed or as bonfire fodder (No, Sarah, I swear. I haven’t had a bonfire recently.) That said, I’m not sure everything I have is marketable so, no, things don’t always stay out there. Although, at the moment, I have three short stories making the rounds, looking for the right fit.

Where I do disagree, at least on a very minor scale, with RAH are rules 2 and 3. I’m not sure everything can be written to conclusion. I admit I haven’t always finished what I’ve started. Yes, a lot of the time it’s because I’ve lost interest in it or haven’t had the discipline to continue. Other reasons are because the piece was nothing but fanfic or so close as not to be distinguishable. That said, I do try to finish everything now — except for that one, on-going and never to be ended fluff that I do for decompression and is never to be seen by anyone else but me. In fact, I must figure out a way that it will self-destruct upon my death so no one sees it then. Hmmmm.

I also have issues with not rewriting except to editorial order. What I wish is that RAH had explained this a bit more. Does he mean only when an editor tells you to, or does he mean to clean up the manuscript to make it marketable? Sarah, you’re our resident RAH expert. Any thoughts?

So, what are your thoughts? Does Heinlein have it right with these general “rules”? Do these rules still hold true 60 years after they were first written? Why or why not?


  1. >Now them's be rules I can get behind.However, I also share your reservations regarding 2 and 3. I, like most new writers I suspect, have had difficulty getting things through to conclusion. I lacked the discipline to push through the hard stuff, and had so many ideas buzzing through my head that I was easily sidetracked. But sometimes things will wither, and to demand of yourself to finish something which you know a) isn't going to sell, or b) isn't that good, is not in my view a useful exercise in discipline – its wasting time.And I have a beef with rule 3, primarily my "method" seems to have evolved counter to it. As it stands, I am trying to write 800-1000 words a day, sneaked in breaks at work and at home, Monday to Friday. Over the weekend, I am editting and polishing, and without this time, I am certain that what I am churning out will not represent my best work. And its not just a case of polishing language – substansive changes are made which, if I left it until an entire draft was completed, would be an utter nightmare to alter and ensure the right elements of the story reflect the editted changes. If it works for some people to hammer through and then edit, great, but t'ain't a rule for me.Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly with the rules. Thanks for the tip on the collected work regarding writing sci-fi, I will track it down 🙂

  2. >That's a nice bunch of rules.Like Jonathan, I have trouble with so many ideas buzzing around that, well, for me they end up being an excuse to not get around to finishing a novel.Keeping it on the market is difficult right now. Reserving some stuff for when the publishing industry recovers or remodels or whatever is sensible, right now, IMO. Put your best two or three out there in the hope of attracting the attention of an editor, but there's little point in having everything floating around out there.

  3. >Well, about rule 3. I have a semi-vague recollection of an essay written by Asimov, that basically talked about how proud he was that he only ever wrote a first draft, and then the finished product. Until he talked to Heinlein. Who asked him, "Why do you have to write it twice?" I have the sense Asimov was a little bitter about that. ;)So he may actually have meant once and only once until the editors say otherwise. Of course, we're not all Heinlein… ;)That having been said, I love his guidelines. 🙂

  4. >Jonathan, I understand perfectly that wither and die. However, I have also learned not to throw those abandoned projects out because sometimes some, if not all, of them can be recycled into something that is workable. As for the editing as you write, I know several people who do it just as you described. I can't. When I try it that way, I tend to wind up redoing the same section over and over again until I edit it to death or I give up on the project. However, as with my current WIP, when I hit a snag, I will go back and see if I can identify what the issue is and fix it so I can move the story forward.Despite my reservations on a couple of the "rules", this list is the best one I've come across so far — especially the preamble about assuming you can type, find and follow submission guidelines and know the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation.

  5. >Matapam, I like the rules quite a bit myself. [VBG]Those ideas buzzing around are a distraction. I finally had to start a file with opening lines, general plot ideas and odd research results I've come across. For me, at least, when I get the first couple of paragraphs, or pages, written down, I can usually back off and finish the current WIP. Then I have something to go back to and jar the memory and, hopefully, the creative juices.You're right about keeping things on the market. Not only because no one knows where the market is going to be six months from now, much less in a couple of years, but also because the market isn't what it used to be. At least not for short fiction. I was looking for markets for a couple of stories just this week and was amazed at the number of magazines — both hard copy and e-mags — that have disappeared over the last few years. That makes it hard. So I did exactly what you suggested. I put my best three out and am now waiting to hear back.

  6. >Ellyll, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation. ;-)My general rule — and I really do try to live by it, although fail more often then not — is to write it, edit once and then send to beta readers or my crit group and then edit and proof once more before sending it out. Of course, it's never quite that simple. However, Sarah has worked long and hard to keep me for over-editing and, I hope, I'm finally learning that lesson. Still, it would be so nice to be able to write it one time and have it be publishable then. Sigh, I can dream.

  7. >I would be in trouble indeed if I wasn't allowed to rewrite. Writing things to completion is an imperitive, but sometimes I physically cannot do it. This makes it a big deal when I sit down and, in one sitting, draft a short story all the way through to completion.Usually the thing that gets in my way of completion is all those other stories that, once I'm about 3/4 finished with one story, decide that they – the NEW BIGGER FASTER – short story get written. Who cares about that story that is almost complete? VBGAs for bonfires… I'm tempted. Sorely tempted.

  8. >I'd say rule 1 is the most important. Followed by 2 – if you can refrain from getting sandbagged by something that fizzles out. (We won't go into all the false starts I've accumulated. Oh no. That would not be good.)Rule 3 assumes the ability to produce a good, sellable story in a first draft, which isn't something everyone can do. I would say that once it hits "sellable", leave off editing unless someone tells you they'll buy it but you need to fix X.4 & 5… Not too good at this. I tend to loop back to 1 and stay there. Aside from which, RAH was writing at a time when there was a heck of a lot more market than there is now – and a lot more tolerance for differing viewpoints. These days… It's not pretty. I don't see any point wasting wordage on it, since it's been discussed to death, but… I doubt Heinlein would make the cut nowadays. Make of that what you will.

  9. >Chris, first of all — NO BONFIRES! If I can't have one, neither can you. You can blame Sarah, it's her rule ;-)As for being ambushed near the end by other stories, I hear you. It happens to me all the time. And that is why I now have that file I referred to in my response to Matapam. And, sometimes, you just have to tell the other stories to shut up and let you finish. It's hard. I know. But it's something you have to do. Just like you have to find your own way of writing and your own writing style.

  10. >Kate, I have one thing to say to you — send it out. Oh wait, that's what you were telling me just the other day. Maybe we need to form a support group: Writers Who Don't Submit Enough Anonymous. What do you think?And I agree with you. The market isn't encouraging right now and it would be very easy to fall back into my old habits of writing what I want, throwing it under the bed and moving on to the next story. But I'm stubborn — quit giggling — and now that I'm finally admitting that I'm a writer, I'm determined to prove it. That means traversing the dwindling market and trying to find a home, no matter how discouraging it is.

  11. >For the record, my apparent punishment for finishing a first draft of a story on Friday is to now have six stories in the same universe clammoring for attention.

  12. >Chris Kelsey wrote: For the record, my apparent punishment for finishing a first draft of a story on Friday is to now have six stories in the same universe clammoring for attention.Chris, welcome to the life of a writer. Make notes. File them somewhere you will find them again. And, most of all, make sure they are separate stories and not just parts of a novel. They are evil that way. They tell you one thing, when the truth is really something else, all just to mess with your brain.

  13. >They're definitely parts of a novel, Amanda. How I make them work together to actually be a novel though? No idea. :)I need to work on the JBM story anyway. Problem being I'm not out of ideas for it. 😦 I'm never out of ideas. It's very strange.

  14. >Chris, as long as you don't start talking back to the voices in your head — at least not in public — you're fine. As for the JB contest, I'm in the same boat. But I'm waiting for Powell's to finally get their act together so I can download Doc Travis' Introduction to Planetary Defense so I can check something before moving forward. And, as a side note, having to wait for the ability to download an e-book I've bought makes me really appreciate Arnold and Webscriptions.

  15. >Waiting for an ebook? Wow, epic fail there.I've been thumbing through Doc Travis's Intro to Rocket Science and Engineering for ideas. I'm hoping the section on mission planning will spark something. There has to be *something* in my eclectic collection of books that will spark an idea.

  16. >I've been a major offender on every one of these except 1 & 2. Pleny has lingered for a long time in the bottom draw. Having said that 2 suits me personally. I like to finish things. But I know plenty of very successful writers who write in scenes and snippets a lot of the time and only draw together after a very long process.How are you supposed to improve if you don't rewrite? What about the old classic 'There are no great writers only great re-writers.' I've always lived by that one.I think I know what he is getting at though – you can waste a lot of time rewriting based on critique etc without actually improving your work. In fact you are wasting time. I'm guilty on that one.

  17. >Amanda, as far as I understand it, he means ONCE YOU'VE FINISHED WRITING — however many rewrites that involves for you (and Heinlein did rewrite.) — you shouldn't rewrite except at editorial request when they're going to pay you.A writer we both know and love rewrites his stories everytime an editor makes a throwaway comment "you should kill the pinky character" — say. What that means, because editors make a lot of throwaway comments and some issues are in the eyes of the beholder, is that he KILLS his stories.Oh, I disagree with you both on finishing and keeping things out. You should finish as much as you can, even bits of fluff (except the decompression one. I have that too!) and you should send them out. Why? Oh, dear. Sometimes the things of mine that sold were the ones that make me cringe. I'll grant you my little jewels sold too, eventually, but that wasn't always true in the beginning.

  18. After a lifetime of reading/rereading Heinlein I would bet that when he’s talking about rewriting, he means the endless polish and revision that writers can get hung up on – he certainly rewrote his own stuff and polished and cut (though not so much of this – he certainly got wordier as he went along.)

    I have a friend still on the first few pages of his novel, years after beginning – he sits down an starts at the beginning every time he works on it, and never gets past where he left off due to his endless rewriting of what he already has. You have to start and plow through it, I find, and go back to tidy and tighten it later.

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