Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Heinlein's Rules

At some point in the past I alluded to Heinlein’s rules for writing. I said I would come back and discuss them, but never got to it. Now I have.

These came from Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), in an essay titled, “On Writing Speculative Fiction” published in 1947. I have never read anything by Heinlein. A little research reveals he wrote science fiction, both short stories and book length. He, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, were considered the top three science fiction writers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

In the referenced article, Heinlein gave his rules for writing. They are:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

This is usually interpreted as: Don’t self-edit; don’t rewrite; trust the instincts that are in force when you are writing your first draft, which comes from the creative side of your brain. Self-editing comes from the critical side of the brain, and will not produce a better result than the first draft. This flies in the face of what is reported to be Hemmingway’s comments, “The first draft of anything is [crap].” (sanitized for a PG website). It flies in the face of the current conventional wisdom, which is write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, etc.

Dean Wesley Smith, on his blog, has made frequent mention of Heinlein’s rules. Smith says he does three drafts of any short story or novel. The first draft comes first (duh), as quickly as the creative processes of the brain can be put on reproducible medium. He then does a typos and grammar edit. At this point it is given to a trusted first reader. When that reader gives comments, Smith has two ways to go. If the comments are minimal, which he says is most of the time), he makes those few changes and submits or publishes the work. If the comments are more substantial, he abandons the story, in the belief it is fatally flawed and no amount of non-creative brain work can fix it.

This may be a bit of oversimplification, both by Smith as he describes his process and me as I’m summarizing it for this blog, but I think I’m pretty close to what Smith writers. He encourages writers to not rewrite. Create the story/book fast, trust your creative instincts, and run with it. At the same time, he acknowledges that not all writers are the same. This might work for some, he says, but not for others. That acknowledgement, however, doesn’t change his recommendation. And he is very critical of any workshop/MFA environment that encourages extensive edits.

For me, I just don’t see how Heinlein’s rules could work. I do tend to write fast, using maximum creative powers without a lot of critical thought or self-editing. But for book-length stuff, the plots are so complex that I don’t see how I could possibly not edit. As an example, in In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People, by the time I came to the final scene I decided to use the point of view of the protagonist’s mother. The protag was not in a position to observe everything going on, nor was his girlfriend, but his mother was. I think the last scene worked well, but that left me with a character making critical observations when she really had a bit role before that. So I really need to go back and review all the scenes she’s in, and see that they are consistent with how she acts toward the end of the book; or, if not consistent, at least produce a reasonable character arc.

No, I don’t see how Heinlein’s rules work for me. An unstated part of Heinlein’s rules is that you have to keep writing. Write creatively and fast, complete it, submit of publish it, and move on immediately to the writing the next piece. In the time you would extensively edit a completed piece you could write one or two more new pieces. You will learn and improve more, Smith et al say, writing more pieces than “improving” completed pieces. Plus, they say, the completed piece is already at its best before the critical brain destroys what the creative brain has done.

Do I agree with Heinlein or with Hemmingway? I have no answer for this. I just throw it out to see if it generates any comments.


storyweaver49 said...

This is going to sound prideful but it isn't mean to be. I just write. I have never rewritten anything. I am too busy telling the story as it unfolds in my head to think about another direction for it to go. I once co-wrote with a man on the internet and he drove me crazy! He added in so much stuff and when I asked him where in the world the story was going, because it was all over the place, his answer was that he adds everything as he writes then goes back and edits out the poor writing. That is crazy to me. My writing just happens. I would probably drive an organized writer nuts. Writing is like taking a walk along a meadowed stream, just start walking. It unfolds as you go. All of a sudden, characters that you never knew were coming, show up. As always, to each their own. I thoroughly agree with the –just write part.

David A. Todd said...

So, you are writing to Heinlein's rules, or at least the part about not letting the critical part of the brain overrule the creative part. Nothing prideful about that.

Dean Wesley Smith does say that each writer needs to find their own way. Of course, his pushing of Heinlein's rules is so strong you have to wonder whether he means that or not.

m. scott veach said...

plus, you never said that you write well. or that you have success with that method.

i have no idea what results you get by not rewriting but whatever they are perhaps they'd be better if you started...

just a thought.

David A. Todd said...

Hi Scott:

[Reposting as I lost it all.]

I'm not sure if you were refering to me or storyweaver, but I'll try answering. One of the hardest things for a writer to do is acurately assess the quality of his own writing. We tend to fall in love with some of our own words, which makes us wonder if it's really any good. I know that some of my prose and some of my poems seem to be great in my mind. Are they so? Only time and history will tell.

As for "...results ...[would] be better if you started", I'm not sure to whom that's addressed. I think both story weaver and I are writers, and keep writing regardless of commercial success.

Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you'll be a regular in this part of the Internet.