Dean Wesley Smith is posting chapters of a new book on his website. Entitled HEINLEIN’S RULES, it’s about the rules of the business of writing that the SF master postulated back in 1947. Smith says he’s been following those rules since 1982, and hasn’t looked back since. That kind of writing career makes one heck of a testimonial.
I read all of his posts about The Rules, and kept smacking myself in the forehead. I said, “Well, duh!” a lot, too. None of the rules are complicated. It’s very basic common sense, and maybe that’s the beauty of it. But taken as a whole, these five rules are a simple but very powerful strategy to create or power a writing career. I thought so much of them, I made this image my desktop background, so I get reminded of the rules every day.
You Must Write
This seems obvious, but how many people sit around and say “I want to be a writer, but I can’t find the time?” You’ll never find the time. You’ve got the same 24-hour day that King, Hemingway, Cussler, Crichton, Clancy and Child have. You need to make the time to write. I have 7 kids in the home, and I write every day. Some days it’s only a couple of hundred words, but even at 250 words a day, that’s over 78,000 words in a year, writing six days a week. If you can do that every day, you’ll break 91,000 in one year, and that’s a pretty decent novel right there.
I carry a notebook with me any time I’m taking the kids somewhere. Dance class and piano lessons are about forty minutes of writing time. I don’t do research during this time. I just write. If I need a name for the guy at the bar than Susie just met, I write GUYATBAR until I can work out a proper name later (I usually do that when I transcribe). Just get the words down. Worry about finesse and polish later. Any creative person makes multiple passes at their art before they pronounce it complete.
If you go the notebook route, transcribe it regularly. I do so either first or last thing of the day. Remember to make regular back-ups of your computer files as well!
Yes, there will be sacrifices. But if your dream is to have a writing career, is it really a sacrifice to trade Angry Birds for writing time?
You must make the time to write, and then you must write.If your dream is to write a novel, is it really a sacrifice to trade Angry Birds for #writing time? Click To Tweet
You Must Finish What You Start
Another no-brainer, really. How can you sell something you haven’t finished? That doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore other opportunities or story ideas. Even though I’m still working on the third book in The Sad Girl series, I’ve got a directory on my hard drive with almost a dozen story idea for my next series, and another directory with ideas for another three or four stand-alone stories. These ideas come to me at irregular and sometimes inopportune times, but I don’t want to forget them, so I’ll open a new Word doc or Notepad file, write down a few notes about the idea, and save it for later. About half of the ideas for the new series are like that. Others are more fleshed out, with some cast members created and so forth.
But I’m not going to start those until I finish In Plain Sight. If I’m stuck on that book, I might take fifteen or twenty minutes and elaborate on the plot of one of the other stories a little, or give some substance to one of the characters. I find doing that helps me get unstuck from whatever else it was that I’m working on.
The only exception I’ll make to that is if I come up with an idea for a short story that supports what I’m already working on. Say for instance that I need more backstory for a character. As I’m working on that, I might realize that it’d make a good short story for later. Again, I’ll start a new file, but I’ll put more effort into this one than I would for a new story idea, because this stuff goes right along with what I’m working on, so it’ll help in the long run.
You Must Refrain From Rewriting Except to Editorial Order
And even then, resist it, Smith says. There are some people saying “Well, that’s a stupid idea. Why should I turn out a crappy story and let it go?”
Don’t turn out a crappy story.
Don’t say, “I’ll fix that in the next draft.” If you keep writing multiple drafts, you’re never finishing the story. See Rule #2.
Michelangelo didn’t create multiple versions of David or Pietà. At some point, you have to say a story is done.
Smith explains this isn’t about proofreading and fixing spelling and grammar errors, or changing GUYATBAR to Mike Wilkinson. This is about changing that quick fistfight to a drawn out gun and knife extravaganza with blood spattering across the room by the quart. This is about adding a love scene that doesn’t really advance the story beyond giving it that gratuitous sex scene so you can pretend it’s a romance. This is about someone saying, “I don’t like what you created. I think you should do it my way.” Smith says in essence, “Good for you. Go write it your way. This is my book.” Rewriting is usually saying, “I didn’t mean what I said the first time.”
I wrote a fight scene in Finding Angie. I actually stood up and made some of Danny’s motions to figure out how to write them. But Danny was in prison, and he learned how to fight there. I’ve never been in a fistfight, and I’ve never been to prison. I’ve watched a bunch of movie fight scenes, but I had no idea what parts of those were realistic. So I wrote the scene, then asked a writer I knew who really gets fight scenes right to look at that scene for me. I was prepared to do a major rewrite if my expert told me I got it all wrong. But I wasn’t going to make any changes just for someone’s personal preference. Neither should you.
You Must Put It On The Market
Again, something obvious here. I’m beginning to sense a pattern.
How can you sell a story if you don’t try to sell the story? If you’re doing short fiction, and the first magazine doesn’t buy it, send it on to someone else. There are plenty of markets out there for short fiction, even today. Don’t believe all the naysayers. Choose a market, submit it, and then start writing your next story. Rule #1.
If you’ve written a novel, submit it to an agent, then go back to Rule #1.
You Must Keep It On The Market Until Sold
You’ve written the perfect story of love, jealousy, money, murder and mayhem. You finished it. It’s ready to go. You send it out to the first agent or market on your list.
And they pass.
Move on. Take a day to figure out the next two or three or five markets or agents or small presses, and send it to the next on the list.
While that’s going on, remember the first two rules: write, and finish what you start. Keep writing, and keep putting stuff out on the market. Keep trying to sell.
But what if I’ve sent the story out to six magazines and nobody wants it? What if no one buys the next five either?
That’s the beauty of doing this in today’s world. If you end up writing half a dozen novellas that no online site has bought, then put them together in your own anthology, have a cover made, and sell it yourself.
There’s always a way to sell a story. And in today’s world, you don’t have to stop selling a story. You’ll eventually get your rights back, after six months or a year. Then you can sell it again. You obviously can’t sell first rights again; there’s only one set of first rights. But there are markets that take reprints. There’s also that whole anthology idea I mentioned above. Maybe you sell a single story on Amazon for $0.99, and you bundle it with five others for $1.99. There’s no reason you can’t do both. This is your writing career. Make it whatever you want it to be.
Wrapping It Up
It’s a short book, only eight chapters, and Smith says he’ll keep them up until the book is published. I’ve already read it online, and I’m going to be working on applying them to my own writing career. I’ll be buying the book when it’s released, and I think if you’re serious about writing as a career, you should too.