Heinlein’s Rules #3: Do Not Rewrite Except on an Editor’s Orders

There are some writers who are like whittlers – once that first draft is done, they have to whittle and whittle like Hell in order to shape the damn thing into the shape they want.

There are some writers who are like cement mixers – the first time it comes out, it comes out perfectly mixed and ready to set in stone.

Guess which one Admiral Bob was. Damn him.

This is easily the most controversial injunction in Heinlein’s Rules. And it’s not hard to see why – I’ve had some real howlers of first drafts (don’t even ask about the first draft of “Hull Down”), as has every writer I’ve known except Admiral Bob and Laurie Bland. Charlie Jane Anders sums it up well here. That said, I disagree with both.

I used to be a chronic rewriter – up until the dawn of 2013. Even when I had it in the mail, I would rewrite. Editing is a bit like Communism and glitter, it’ll expand into everything unless contained. But I know how much my first drafts can suck (speaking again of “Hull Down,” the first draft of this version never even spells out the Big Reveal at the end). So what I’ve done is create a strict editing schedule.

Heinlein said except on an editor‘s orders – i.e., someone who isn’t you.

I’m lucky, damned lucky, to be surrounded by talented and compassionate first readers (you know who you are) who are happy to tell me where something doesn’t work. Equally important, they’re happy not to tell me how to fix it – only how it’s broken. Then I can figure out ways to fix it. I have three or four that I regularly turn to, and write between one and three drafts. I figure out how many revisions to write based on (a) how close together the responses arrive and (b) how consistent the criticism is.

In Ian Brown and the Hand of Fatima, there was supposed to be a scene where Ian is waylaid by outlaws in the Highveld of South Africa, then talks his way out of it. This was based on something that happened to Benedict Cumberbatch. I showed that story to four people, every single one of which hated that scene with a passion. I took it out back, gave it a last cigarette, shot it, and replaced it with a thing about elephants.

If you have a couple of people who can all agree that one scene sucks? Listen.

If you don’t?

CritiqueCircle.com offers a credits-based way to get your work critiqued for improvement. I’m a member, and use Critique Circle when my first readers are sick and tired of reviewing my work for me. I also recommend finding or forming a writer’s group in your local area – but ideally one that Gets what you’re trying to do in your work. I would hesitate to read bits of No Time to a mystery writing circle that mostly focused on cozy Fair Play mysteries.

How many drafts should you go through? Five, maximum, and that’s only if you know there’s something terribly wrong with that first draft but Just Don’t Know What. After five drafts,  that story is either ready for the mail or you should toss it.

And then start critiquing your friends’ stories. If they critique yours, it’s only fair you critique theirs. You’re not Amanda Palmer, you don’t expect people around you to work for nothing.

This is where Heinlein’s admonition comes in: stop fucking fiddling with it. It may not be perfect, but it’s done, and it needs to leave home and make its own way instead of sleeping on your couch and eating out of your fridge.

Which is where we’ll take up next week.


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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