Heinlein’s Rules of Writing: Introduction

This is a story of how to succeed as a writer.

I started writing when I could form coherent words on a typewriter. Ensconced in some damp box in a decrepit trailer on my mother’s property is a one-page detective story I ripped off from Gonzo on Muppet Babies* – the earliest story I can remember writing, on Mother’s Selectric.

My writing career, in terms of getting things out, starts in 1998 – when I first sent “The Remedy” out to Asimov’s Science Fiction. They rejected it, but a year later the Ray Bradbury Contest gave it third place and published it in the annual anthology. Waukegan Library sent me a copy of Yestermorrow signed by Bradbury himself, something I still deeply treasure. That same year, I published my first ‘zine, Rocket Takeoff, starting my love-hate relationship with the publishing world.

In those days, you mailed yourself a copy of the story through the mail for a poor man’s copyright, and mailed another copy to the magazine so you could wait six months or a year for your rejection. Asimov’s was so notoriously behind the times that in 1998 the guidelines included the words “please remove the sides of the paper before submission,” a phrase I struggled with until I remembered the old dot-matrix printers that I hadn’t seen since ’93. You published anything by either coding an HTML website from scratch or by running copies off at Staples and then staying up all night stapling them together.

The market for SF short fiction was tiny then, because the explosion of online and otherwise Internet-enabled new markets, like Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, or anthologies like Blood on the Floor, had yet to happen. By 2001, I had a list of six markets that paid money, which I’d pulled together from checking the Barnes & Noble racks and copying out of the library’s Writer’s Digest.

Six. Total.

Submitting a story to those six markets and collecting rejections would have taken three and a half years, according to the nascent response-time information available at websites like Writer’s Black Hole. I don’t have records from that time any more, so I can’t tell you if I actually shipped one story to all six or not. I did write “Gods of War” and got Honorable Mention in the Cuesta Literary Contest. I flew off to China for a year, and came back.

There were more markets and more opportunities and more information. Duotrope’s Digest had started up, aggregating response-time, payment, and guideline information, and keeping track of which markets were still able to pay. I sold “Gods of War” to MindFlights.com**, sold a few other pieces, and kept on writing. But it was always starting, never finishing (a bit like everything else in my life during the three years wandering in the wilderness). After “Gods of War,” nothing seemed to sell, and “Gods” was just sitting there useless on my hard drive, spent.

I went back to China to finish my degree, and made the acquaintance of Paul Skelding. He was big on new publishing – Amanda Palmer and “the death of traditional publishers” were always on his lips. He introduced me to Smashwords and the concept of selling e-books. He and I concocted an online magazine together that spectacularly failed to sell, before he got married and was transferred north to Beijing.

I despaired, at that point. I’d dropped an old story from 2007 or thereabouts into One Weird Idea, one that had failed to sell, because I had literally not finished anything since. I was exiled from China and spent six weeks meandering around Hong Kong, living out of a matchbox in the Chungking Mansions and alternating between drifting up and down the Kowloon shore and sipping cheap spice coffee in the internet café/hat shop on the first floor. I admitted that One Weird Idea was a failure, and looked at my career to that point. I felt that if SF/F wasn’t spent, I at least was. I plinked at a few stories, both in America and once I’d fast-talked my way back into China, but the spirit was gone.

In December of 2012, when the world failed to end, I discovered Dean Wesley Smith. Specifically, I discovered The New World of Publishing and Think Like a Publisher. Dean doesn’t peddle get-famous-quick or false-hope stories. He praises Amanda Hocking’s grit and her good luck, but doesn’t consider her a pattern to replicate. He laid out the numbers and showed a way to make a living as a writer. Not get rich quick – make a living.

I was inspired. The various starts I had going all the way back to 2008 started getting finished, things like “Home for the Holidays” and “The Short, Strange Life of Comrade Lin” and “Simplified”. I checked the anthology lists, and cranked out pieces like “Bartleby the Clerk” and “Wives are Waiting by the Bank or…” and “The Diction-fairy” for them. I revived the moribund company structure I’d started on my last visit home, dusted it off and made it my publishing house. I put up stories on Smashwords and Amazon, I worked on the blog, I put together a business plan and marketing. I finished my first proper novel, No Time, for 2013’s National Novel Writing Month.

Lachlan Atcliffe commented, at the time, “whatever or whoever you’re doing, keep doing it.

Most importantly, I sat down to write and I kept writing. Dean Wesley Smith incorporated workflow analysis and production goals. Jack London called it his stint and took to it with the same grim determination he used to haul line or shovel coal. But Robert Heinlein formulated probably the most perfect, crystalline version of the process. These are Heinlein’s rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Finish what you start.
  3. Do not rewrite except on an editor’s orders.
  4. Put the story in the mail.
  5. Keep it in the mail until it sells.

It was true for Jack London and Bob Heinlein, it was true for Dean Wesley Smith, it’s true for me and it’s true for you. In traditional blogging style, I’ll be treating all five of these individually over the next few weeks…and presumptuously adding one of my own. But, really, if you sit quietly with Heinlein’s rules and live by them, you, too, will succeed as a writer. It’s not easy. Nobody said it was easy. But it is that simple.

* To be fair, I also ripped off Tiny Toons: How I Spent my Summer Vacation for some bits.

** Yeah, I sold an overtly Buddhist short story to a Christian lit magazine. I was as confused as you are.


About R. Jean Mathieu

They say he speaks five languages, was conceived on a chess board, and once seduced a tong boss' daughter and lived to tell the tale. All we know is, he's called Roscoe. You can find more scurrilous lies at rjeanmathieu.com and buy his books at fedoraarts.com. View all posts by R. Jean Mathieu

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