>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:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
- You must put it on the market.
- 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?