Thursday, 3 March 2022

How to write like a pro: the secret formula your writing coach won't teach you.

Image c/o Dean Wesley Smith
In 1947, Fantasy Press released Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction. This was a short collection of essays by various Science Fiction authors. Robert Heinlein was one of those authors, and he concluded his guide with a list of business habits, explaining that they were: “a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.” and became known throughout the writing community as Heinlein’s Rules.

Heinlein’s 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.
Many writers overlook their simplicity, but consider the fact that Robert Heinlein wrote 32 novels and over 50 short stories - perhaps there is something in his method.

Do the rules actually work?

In 1981, Dean Wesley Smith was on the cusp of giving up on his dream to be a writer when he chanced upon Heinlein’s Rules. Having nothing to lose, he decided to follow them to the letter. He went from being unable to sell anything to becoming a multiple-times New York Times bestseller. He currently has over 200 novels to his name and is in demand as a ghost writer because he writes fast and delivers on deadlines.
Treat your writing as a business.

Have you ever heard of a plumber with plumber’s block? Or a builder who can only lay bricks when the muse takes him? What about a car mechanic who has to find the right mental zone before attempting an oil change? This is essentially what Heinlein’s first rule is about. You have a job, so get to work. You must write.

Avoid distractions

For novelists, there is a point around the one-third mark when the honeymoon phase ends and the hard work begins. In his regular YouTube show, Author Level Up, Michael La Ronn gives advice about tackling the dreaded one-third mark and how he, after thirty-seven novels, still experiences that moment in every novel he writes. The only practical solution is to work through it: you must finish what you start.
Refrain from rewriting.

This does not mean do not edit or polish. It ties in more with the second rule where you keep questioning your own ability. Adding extra depth, emotion and details in later drafts is fine – you must do that – but what you should avoid doing is to going back and completely rewriting or deleting previous work. Edit, polish and move on. Stop worrying.

Put Your Work on the market.

Don’t worry that people won’t like it. Even the best of the best get one star reviews. It’s called taste. Besides, your book already has one fan... You!

Don’t treat publishing as a lottery. Be strategic. Don’t send a slasher horror to a children’s publisher, or a Minecraft strategy guide to a romance publisher. If you are targeting agents, the same applies – visit their website, find out who they represent and what they want.

Keep it on the market until sold.

So you sent it out and it got rejected. Welcome to the club. You’re in good company.
  • Carrie by Stephen King - 30 rejections.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert - 23 rejections.
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller - 22 rejections.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding - 21 Rejections.
Even JK Rowling’s original pitch for Harry Potter was rejected twelve times. These authors didn’t give up when editors turned them down. They just moved on, fuelled determination and self belief until they found the right editor.

What if there’s nowhere else to send it? 

There is still another option. Click here to read my blog post on the alternative (and potentially lucrative) route to publication.

For more details on Heinlein's rules, check out Dean Wesley Smith's guide. He goes into much more detail.

post updated: 18/04/22)

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