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Robert’s Rules of Writing: A Review

In 1947 a book titled Of Worlds Beyond: the Science of Science Fiction Writing was published. It was a collection of essays about writing science fiction edited by Lloyd Arthur Eschbach. Among the essays it contained was one entitled “On The Writing of Speculative Fiction” by Robert Heinlein. It is forgettable, generic advice for writing science fiction.

That is, until the last few paragraphs. Towards the end, Heinlein confessed what he wrote up to that point was probably more for his amusement and not useful. He offered five business habits he claimed were the key to success as a writer:

  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 it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on he market until sold.

Writers have been discussing what have come to be known as Heinlein’s Rules ever since. Type Heinlein’s Rules into your favorite search engine to see pages of results. Dean Wesley Smith has a book, a lecture, and a six week workshop with overlapping but different material on them. His book is one of three I can readily find on my shelves.

The newest of those books, Robert’s Rules of Writing by Dan Sawyer, is the best by a great distance. Not only does Sawyer cover much of the same ground he excels in two respects. First, Rule 3, which has lead to more spilt ink than the rest combined, gets the best coverage I’ve seen here while giving it not significantly more than the others. Second, his final chapter looks at the rules as a necessarily but not sufficient outline to a successful career writing fiction. Either alone would have made this the top book on the topic, but the combination puts Sawyer in a class by himself.

What makes Sawyer’s coverage of Rule 3 unique is he is the only person I’ve seen discuss how Heinlein’s writing process worked. This provides a lot of insight into what Heinlein meant by rewriting. Sawyer proposes the following definition of rewriting:

Rewriting is what happens when you return to a book after your creative process has run its course.

I think this is a very useful definition. It provides a heuristic any writer can apply. Simply ask yourself “am I adding to the story?” Do not ask “Am I improving the story?” It might be fair to also ask “am I improving how the story is conveyed” but that risks indulging in the Cult of the Sentence. Sawyer goes on to discuss eight reasons from the artistic to the utterly practical (if you do this forever you can’t sell it and buy food) that you should not rewrite.

Heinlein’s process, at least as presented by Sawyer, shows the idea in action. He did some amount of thinking through the topic, often by longhand writing that today we’d call journaling and by workshopping it with others. Once he was satisfied he had a firm idea of the story he sat down and wrote it. Once it was written both he and his wife would read it for coherence and flow and make notes of needed fixes. Heinlein would also read it for voice and make similar notes. The manuscript would be retyped with the notations fixed and that was that.

I guess you could say Heinlein was a two draft writer.

In contrast, the necessary but not sufficient chapter about the rules at the end is devoid of reference to Heinlein. It is, however, probably more important than the five rules, which have a lot of coverage elsewhere, to the modern indie writer. He makes the strong case writing cannot be your day job.

Note, he is not saying you cannot make your pay your bills your writing. Instead, he argues the long term ability to feed and house your self from your writing cannot come from treating it as employment. You cannot, as he puts it, making a living. He argues the phrase “making a living” carries a the idea of a regular paycheck. Instead Sawyer makes a grand argument that the modern indie writer is an entrepreneur and needs to think as such and as an investor.

Again, this case isn’t unique to Sawyer, but I have not seen it written as succinctly and as bluntly elsewhere. Nor have I seen it combined with the Rules which are the other side of the writing business.

I said before what makes this the best book on Heinlein’s rules is that it includes not just the rules to generate cashflow from writing eventually, but the mindset to live on that cashflow. To that end it is perhaps unfair to just consider this a book on Heinlein’s Rules. I’d say it’s an intense weekend seminar on the basics of the business of, to use Lawrence Block’s excellent phrase, “telling lies for fun and profit.” It doesn’t tell you everything you’ll need to know, but it tells you enough of what the path looks like to scare off the cowards and have those ready gird up their loins for what lies ahead.

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