Heinlein’s Rules #2: Finish What You Start.

Last night, I put down the last few words on No Time for the Killing Floor, the sequel to last year’s No Time. I should, by all rights, have finished it back on November 30. It’s fifteen thousand words short and has issues with irregular subplots, underwritten characters, and big steaming piles of infodump.

Doesn’t matter!

Finished the draft!

I’ve got two more unfinished projects (an Ian Brown story I owe Lachlan Atcliffe and a sea-tale of the future entitled “Fire Marengo”), and they’re next on the block. The drafts will be finished.

Because you really can’t figure out what you’re doing, writing-wise, until you finish. Once you have that first draft done, you can see how it all fits (or doesn’t fit) together. Entire scenes, characters, or subplots may need to be eliminated or changed. The bit you tossed in way back in Act I may suddenly make perfect sense in Act III (I call this a Blue Sun*). You really can’t know until you type in the two magic words -THE END-.

Those two words are the most important words. You cannot start editing until you write them.

I’ve seen more books killed from trying to edit and lay down new wordcount at the same time than from any other cause. You cannot edit a story or a book that isn’t there yet. As you write on, you may have to change some of the things you already wrote (when you realize, for instance, that the plot in Act II works so much better if the protagonist drives a truck instead of a Prius like you said in Act I). Good. Fine. Mark them. I use brackets [] and [tk] and what I call “the scaffolding”:

[Alison should be more important in this scene – she comes up later. Merge Charmian into her.]

That’s fine. But unless you are compelled by something you are currently adding to the story to change something already there, do not edit. You will finish your first draft and you will be so goddamn pleased.

The other thing is that, especially on long projects, you will feel dejection and even hatred. I was wallowed down in literally the last two or three scenes of No Time for the Killing Floor for three months and there were weeks where it was a long, hard slog to get a dozen words down.

For some problems, such as what Jim Butcher calls the Great Swampy Middle, there are methods of working around or through it. This is where reading the likes of King’s On Writing and Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones help – these writers explain how they get around these problems. This is also where reading great works will help you. Every time I have trouble with a crowd scene, I go back and reread the dinner scene from Dune, because Herbert absolutely masters how to have a dozen people talking and still tell a single story. I turn to Jack London for muscular prose, Bradbury for lyricism, Hugo for passion (and how to do interesting digressions), LeGuin for a very Taoist implication-without-saying-so, and Heinlein for exposition.

Sometimes, though, you just have to shoulder through it. Get to the end of the scene, the chapter, the book. I’ll sometimes skip to the next scene (which I’m usually eagerly anticipating) and then go back and take out the scaffolding and write connective tissue. Don’t make these leaps too far, though, or you’ll never be able to make the connection – just a scene or two down the line. Other times I’ll take it in a different direction than planned, or write several versions of the scene and label the alternatives as fanfic and “DVD bonus material.” Just get to the end…it’s the only way you can learn.

This also ties into my additional rule to Admiral Heinlein’s five…but that’s another day…

For now, remember this:

  1. Write.
  2. Finish what you start.

*In the commentary to Firefly, Joss Whedon noted that he dropped in the Blue Sun corporation in the first episode (specifically, written on the side of a packing crate) “just in case I wanted to do something with it later.” I realized here this was basically how Whedon makes it seem like he’s had it all planned out – he has these elements that he tosses in early, trusting  he’ll find a use for them later. Sometimes I get an impulse to throw in a telling detail, like the urchin children who dive the lost city of New Orleans for treasures, and later on I come back to it. “Oh, that’s what that was for!”

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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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