Heinlein’s Rules #6: Write a Better Story Tomorrow

Think of this as “Mathieu’s errata to Heinlein’s rules.”

With a couple of exceptions, I hate looking over my old work. The patch-job of an exposition, the research errors, the way society has changed since the story was written…they all make me cringe.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

Because it means I got better in the meantime.

I’m the sort of man who’s only happy in motion. As long as I did better today than yesterday, and will do better tomorrow than today, I’m satisfied. If I’m stuck or idle, it doesn’t matter how much I’m making or how secure I am, I hate life.

Heinlein’s five Rules only apply to the life-cycle of one story, but any cartoonist will tell you that what happens between the panels is as important than what happens inside them. It is absolutely vital that you learn and grow as a writer and a human being from story to story.

This is where Jack London, as much as I admire the man, fell down. From White Fang forward he wrote the same few stories about the Arctic, manly men, seafaring life, boxing, Glen Ellen, Socialism, and the inherent superiority of the white man*. Robert Heinlein, on the other hand, is exemplary in this – yes, Heinlein always writes himself into his books, but it’s never the same man twice.

What do I mean by ‘learning and growing as a writer’? For one, new techniques. I used to be absolutely terrible at writing action sequences and sex scenes. But I learned how to block out the movements of my characters during action sequences, so I knew where and how fast everyone was going. And I learned to focus on the single emotional theme for each sex scene, so they don’t descend into passionless IKEA erotica. I still have issues with exposition…but I’m getting better. Because I’m studying how other writers have handled it (both well and badly) and trying new approaches. Fan-fiction and short stories are wonderful for this kind of thing.

I also mean stretching your limits – I wrote No Time partly because I’d never written a mystery before. Now, when I want to work in some of the things I learned writing a mystery (such as how to conceal or withhold information from the reader) into a romance or a fantasy piece, I have those tools. This is part of why I do write in so many genres – that, and because it’s fun.

I also mean writing characters and situations you find troublesome. I applaud Eliazar Yudkowsky for “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” insofar as he tried to write Voldemort as reasonable…from Voldemort’s point of view. Voldemort’s criticism of liberal philosophy and democracy as a whole is extremely troubling, partly because it sounds like he’s making legitimate points. That required Yudkowsky to climb inside the head of an avowed authoritarian – no easy task for someone who grew up in a liberal democratic republic!

My addendum to Heinlein’s rules is very simple. Rule #6 is “write a better story today than you did yesterday.”

Keep that up, and not only will your fiction get better with time…you’ll get happier.

Now go and lay down a couple thousand words. I want to see your story on my desk by Monday. 😀

*with some exceptions like The Iron Heel, People of the Abyss, Star Rover, The Sea-Wolf, John Barleycorn and Martin Eden. The point still stands.


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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