From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.
Dean Wesley Smith is an extremely prolific author with over a hundred novels under his belt. He’s recently gone all-in on independent publishing, including a monthly magazine, Smith’s Monthly, devoted to only his own stories—a feat I don’t believe any other author has ever accomplished. Along with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself an accomplished author of science fiction and fantasy, he runs WMG Publishing, which blurs the line between self- and small press publishing—a distinction that’s gotten a bit blurry around the edges of late across the board.
Published this year by WMG, Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing is one of a number of similar titles by Dean Wesley Smith offering advice to authors in and out of the science fiction and fantasy genres. With the wealth of experience he has to draw from, his is advice is well worth a read, but as I’ll put forward as we go, not necessarily to be accepted without question.
But then, no advice should ever be accepted without question, and of course that includes my own. Even if I’m critical of certain of this book’s assertions, I hope you’ll read it, and as with everything, take from it what’s useful to you, and . . . well, you get the idea.
As the title makes quite clear, this book begins with five “business rules” first set down by science fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein, in a part of an essay included in the 1947 book Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing:
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.
Sounds like good advice—simple advice—and from this starting point, Smith digs a bit deeper, though really just a bit.
I bought the paper book—I’m like that, being old and everything—and it weighs in at only 55 pages (not including the excerpt from his book Writing Into the Dark. I’m a notoriously slow reader, but I knocked this out in a single sitting—barely an hour, and I was stopping to make notes. But then, brevity is the soul of wit. If he says what he needs to say in 55 pages, then 55 is exactly the right number of pages. I would contend that he doesn’t say everything he needs to say in that many pages, and the book left me wanting for detail, but for what it’s worth, the book is an easy read, and Smith’s style is conversational, maybe a tad condescending (but that can happen to the best of us), and does seem to come from a good place. I felt he truly believes in these rules, believes in the positive effect they’ve had on his own career, and believes they will be of similar use to any and every other author who adopts them. And in that he and I are in almost total agreement.
It might be in that passion for the rules that he gets into a bit of trouble, especially in his assertion that there’s some novelty to the advice itself: “Also, these five rules smash into so many writing myths.” Do they? I’m definitely not the first or only person ever to say things like “writers write” or “write fast” and so on—I’m not even the first person to offer that advice today. But then, let’s get back to Heinlein’s original intention, which was to provide business rules—advice for how to conduct your career as a writer, and not necessarily how to write better fiction.
I was immediately onboard with Smith in the first lines of Chapter One:
For lack of a better way of putting it, Heinlein’s Rules allow you to get to the fun of being a writer.
They also help us all remember we are entertainers.
Indeed we are, and there isn’t the slightest thing wrong with that. But then:
I’m an entertainer.
It never occurs to me to add that literary stuff in purposely. But clearly it is there.
And by “that literary stuff” Smith means theme—any deeper meaning to the story, some political or social comment.
This bugs me. I’ve made the point in the past that every story is about something, and I stand by that. That doesn’t mean you have to be a “political author” in the vein of George Orwell, but it does mean that every story communicates something. If Dean Wesley Smith prefers that message to come by accident, okay, though I doubt that’s universally true of his own work. If any particular reader then interprets that story in some way the author hadn’t consciously intended—great. But this thread of didacticism begins early in this book and worms its way throughout—and really doesn’t serve Dean Wesley Smith, or his readers, very well. It seems to indicate that he’s purposely, joyfully writing meaningless fluff that someone might later misinterpret to have any greater meaning, and if they do, he’d rather not hear about it.
You can entertain and make a point, and you can do that consciously. You can also do that subtly. Point of disagreement number one.
But then Smith does remind us that these are business rules—advice more for what to do with the story once it’s written than how, exactly, to write it or whether or not it’s all for fun or might be a society-altering polemic for all time.
I’ll save his distinction between writer and author for another time, and dive into the rules themselves, and Dean Wesley Smith’s interpretation of them.
Rule #1: You Must Write
How could anyone possibly disagree with this? I sure as hell don’t.
Unless you’re actually writing, you aren’t a writer you’re an “Idea Man,” and as I’ve said before, no one cares about your great idea.
Write it down.
With each rule, Smith concentrates on why people don’t follow that rule, or why that rule is more difficult to follow than it may sound:
What stops most people isn’t lack of time, it’s fear.
Committing words to paper means you might have to show them to someone. The words might fail: you might be found wanting.
And again, I couldn’t agree more. If Heinlein’s first business rule is to be followed you have to write for the sake of writing, then toss it out there to sell or not to sell . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. He even ends Chapter Three with:
Dare to be Bad.
You might discover along the way just how good a storyteller your subconscious really is.
Rule #2: You Must Finish What You Write
Of course. Just like no one cares about your Big Idea, no one cares about your Work in Progress. Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what a story is.
Fear is a recurring theme throughout Smith’s interpretation of Heinlein’s Rules, and I think he’s hit the nail on the head with that. We’re afraid to start writing, we’re afraid to continue writing, we’re afraid to finish writing, we’re afraid the send our writing out into the world, we’re afraid of criticism of our writing, we’re afraid we’ll fail as writers, we’re afraid we’ll succeed as writers . . . and on and on.
As I’ve often said myself, there is no way to “bowl a perfect game” in creative writing, no sure-fire recipe for success, let alone a single definition of success, and Smith takes this head on:
. . . a story must be some imaginary image of “perfect” before it can be released. And no story ever attains that.
For any of us, actually.
So let’s all try to shed that . . . good luck, right?
I’ve rejected literally thousands of manuscripts in my three decades as an editor but I have never rejected a single author. There is no Bad Manuscript Police. No one will arrest you, beat you, lock you up if your story isn’t exactly right for that publication on that day, or as Smith writes:
But yet the fear of mailing to an editor scares some writers beyond words. So they are better off not finishing than to have to face that fear.
Now we get to what is clearly the most controversial of Heinlein’s Rules, even for Dean Wesley Smith:
Rule #3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting Unless to Editorial Order
Smith’s assertion, whether or not this was Heinlein’s original intent, is that:
You get the story correct the first time, but you can fix typos, spelling, and wrong details.
I’m going to have to go ahead a disagree with Mr. Smith on that one.
Always give yourself permission to have a better idea, and always give yourself a reasonable amount of time to explore it. If as you’re making your pass through for typos, you feel a whole scene could benefit from a rewrite, rewrite it. But okay, do that once.
I think what Smith is going for here is that invisible line between revising just enough and revising too much. Not having any way to determine in advance for writers neither of us have ever met writing stories or novels we’ve never read, that line is impossible to see from a distance. Smith seems to take the fast out, then, which is to say never rewrite, ever.
That’s just too either/or for me. Still, I think Dean Wesley Smith and I agree on this point more than we disagree. I have no magic number in mind for how may drafts is enough except a minimum of one, or how many is too many, though my initial instincts say three. Write it all the way through, then make one revision pass. If it still feels wrong somehow make another. At that point, based on no actual science, you’re probably not going to make it any better—get it out to an editor.
In an iO9 post, Charlie Jane Anders calls Heinlein’s Rules: “The Famous Writing Advice That Could Seriously Mess Up Your Game” and focused in on Rule #3:
The other benefit of rewriting, of course, is that you can have a lot more freedom in your drafts if you know that you’re going to fix them later. Sometimes you can make some intuitive leaps and then figure them out afterwards, or you can push the story forwards and then fill in the little character moments afterwards.
Anders quoted Patricia C. Wrede, who also took a critical view of Rule #3 in her post “Heinlein’s Rules for Writing (Mostly)”:
“Don’t edit unless an editor asks you to,” on the other hand, is about process. Process varies wildly from writer to writer; what works for one, won’t work for someone else. This rule, in particular, will work fine for those writers who, like Heinlein, can produce an almost-perfect first draft (and/or those few who still have professional editors they can rely on to ask for in-depth revisions when needed). It will work not at all for those writers whose first draft is over- or under-written, or which is otherwise deeply flawed.
Late in his career, Heinlein himself admitted that he did, in fact, revise/rewrite his work before sending it out, but he never, to the best of my knowledge, explained why he had laid down this particular rule.
Chapter Six continues Smith’s discussion of Rule #3, after some scathing remarks against agents and editors based on what might be a tragic misapprehension of the current state of the publishing industry that I’ll take on in a future post.
I found this to be particularly useful, though:
I will often get comments from writers in workshops when I say, “Great job. It works fine.” The writer wants to know what is wrong. If I don’t say anything is wrong, nothing is wrong.
That kind of thinking, of always thinking something is broken, comes directly out of this myth that everything must be rewritten because it is clearly broken.
I’ve struggled with this myself in both my pulp fiction and worldbuilding courses. I reverse that misconception back at some of my students, feeling guilty if I don’t have some criticism for them. After all, that’s what they’re paying for, right?
But is it?
If a writer writes something that works, it works, and saying: “I like this—it really works” has just as much value as saying “This doesn’t work—here’s how I think you should fix it.”
Sometimes the best editorial advice is: Leave it the hell alone.
I particularly like Smith’s summary of rule #3:
Always face forward.
But then I’m forced to disagree with him on some advice from his discussion of . . .
Rule #4: You Must Put It on the Market
Though again, I absolutely agree with the rule as Heinlein stated it and as he clearly intended it, Dean Wesley Smith’s contemporary take on it showed his own bias, which, again, I’ll react to separately.
Leaving that aside for now, do heed this advice from Smith:
My only suggestion is to figure out systems that work for you to get the story from your computer and on the way to a magazine editor or a reader who can buy it.
And if your system beaks down, change it, fix it, get the stories out there.
Get past the fear, get past the ego, and just do it.
Exactly! What’s the point of writing it if no one’s ever going to read it?
Rule #5: You Must Keep the Work on the Market Until it is Sold
What can I add? Yup.
As an added bonus, I found elsewhere that Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer added a sixth rule, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree:
Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else
That’s my own rule. I’ve seen too many beginning writers labour for years over a single story or novel. As soon as you’ve finished one piece, start on another. Don’t wait for the first story to come back from the editor you’ve submitted it to; get to work on your next project. (And if you find you’re experiencing writer’s block on your current project, begin writing something new—a real writer can always write something.) You must produce a body of work to count yourself as a real working pro.
So then, some significant disagreements aside in terms of the state of the publishing industry as a whole and an author’s place in it, which I’ll try to tackle separately because I really think he’s giving some terrible and even self-contradictory advice, go read this book and think for yourself.