The Under Ground Writing Project

Making writers right since 2008.

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There Are Rules for That

Posted by Jenny Maloney on August 6, 2012 at 7:45 AM

If you are a beginning writer, you’re in luck. Unlike a great many other creative endeavors that breed competition, writers tend to help other writers. It is easy to find advice. It is easy to find the how-tos. As evidence I offer the availability of workshops, MFA offerings, writing blogs (Hi!), and the writing/publishing section of your local bookstore or library. Everywhere you look – including at this screen – you can find a writer willing to tell you what they know.


But the results can be very confusing. How do you know who to listen to? How do you know what’s Right vs. what’s Wrong vs. what’s Sorta Right But Kinda Wrong? Because all that is out there. Right, wrong, and otherwise.


There is no straightforward answer. I’m sorry. The way to sort through all the talky-talk about writing is to read it, and follow your gut. Do what sounds right to you – because you’re the one who is going to have to do the work. Plus it’s always good to try stuff out. You’re not going to know what to do until you’ve experimented. That’s one of the fun things about this job.


For my money, the best writing rule I’ve ever heard is actually a set of five rules from science fiction Robert Heinlein -

-which I found via author Robert Sawyer. To see Sawyer’s take on the rules click here. The rules originally appeared in an essay called “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” in 1947. See? Writers have been talking about writing forever.


#1: You Must Write.

It doesn’t matter what you want to write. Science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, and cookbooks all get written the same way: pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. Or rock to tablet. I’m not saying you have to carry a notebook around everywhere you go, or even that you have to have a set schedule. But the only way to write a book is to accumulate pages. However you can do that, do it. And this rule really should be the fun part. This rule is what National Novel Writing Month is all about – putting stuff down on paper. Whatever you want to write about, write it. No one is judging you. It’s just you and your story. As long as the paper is piling up, you’re doing a good job.


Just be aware – you can’t just be talking about writing. You can’t head into coffee shops, plop your laptop down, and hope the cutie barista will stop her espresso-making duties and come ask you about what you’re writing. At best, you’ll be daydreaming during your writing session and, at worst, she’ll actually interrupt you. Either way, nothing’s getting written. And you’re just a wannabe. Don’t be a wannabe.


#2: You Must Finish What You Write

Let’s face it, some pieces just don’t work. Sometimes it’s because you’re trying something new and legitimately do not possess the skills or experience to pull off what you want to pull off.


However, the only way to gain the skills and experience is to finish pieces. You can’t gain expertise in beginnings, middles, and ends without actually making it to the end. Without an end, all those beginnings and middles are floating in space. You have to finish. This is tied to #1 – If you write from page 1 to page 300 you will have a finished book. Just keep plugging away and soon you’ll see it doesn’t take that long at all. Yes, some things will suck. But not as much as you’d think.


#3: You Must Refrain from Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

I’m pretty much with Robert Sawyer on this one: “This is the one that got Heinlein in trouble with creative-writing teachers. Perhaps a more appropriate wording would have been, ‘Don't tinker endlessly with your story.’” Basically, once a piece is finished, I’ve discovered I need to hit it with one big rewrite – where I fill in the holes and restructure chunks that are falling down. Generally my writing group members are my first readers and they point that stuff out for me. After that I spruce up the ‘pretty’ and play with language bits. Then I call it good. Out it goes.


And I think that’s what Heinlein means. I know more than one writer who has rewritten one book – and even one story – more than five times. Let me tell you something: if you’ve had to rewrite something more than five times, then – in my opinion – it’s time to let it go. Not out to an editor. But under the bed. It’s sucking your time and you, as a writer, do not have the goods to make it work at this particular point in time. Give it a little while and then look over it again. (And when I say a ‘little while’ I mean after at least a year of you working on something else. Publishing is slow…it’ll wait for you.)


However, if it’s pretty-darn-close then it’s time to throw it to the editors. Literary magazines will ask for rewrites if it’s close. Agents will ask for rewrites if it’s close. Through writing and finishing you’ll learn when you’re close without any external help. And you won’t have to rewrite something five times. Be honest with yourself and you’ll know what needs to get fixed before it goes out. So fix it. And send it.


#4: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

There’s something that Justin Halpern said in Sh*t My Dad Says, and I don’t have it in front of me at the moment, but basically Justin wanted to ask a girl out and was hesitating. And his dad says something like: “Don’t say no for them, they’ll say no plenty themselves.”


Every story you don’t send out is you saying no for them.


Editors and agents will say no. Imagine, if you will, a desk piled with manila envelopes. Imagine your email inbox full to capacity. Every day. That’s a lot of stuff to wade through and that’s a lot of competition. Sheer numbers say you won’t get in to every magazine you send to. Your novel will not be wanted by every agent. Suck it up.


But, for heaven’s sake, don’t say no for them. Make them send the rejection letters. Put the ball in their court. You’ve done what you can. Leave it to them to make the play.


#5: You Must Keep it On the Market Until It has Sold

This is the part where you get rejected and say “They don’t understand my genius!” and send it to another magazine that will get your genius. A lot of writers – even Robert Sawyer – say to send out the rejected story the same day you receive the rejection. At least within the same week, okay? Let’s be realistic. Don’t let your story sit there. Thanks to websites like Duotrope you can easily track and send your story out pretty darn quick. Put it back out there. Again, don’t say no for them.


Another thing to bear in mind is simultaneous submissions – the practice in which you can send out one story to multiple markets. Do this as much as possible. At first I was just sending out a story to three or four markets at a time…but you’ve gotta do more or you’ll be shopping the piece for years. Fifteen to twenty magazines at a time. That’s the number to shoot for. And yes, it does lead to some really shitty weekends when six or seven rejections come back at a time.


For those of you worried about having two, or even three magazines, accept your story at the same time: Send simultaneously to magazines that you feel equally happy to be a part of. Pick magazines of the same ‘tier’ to send to. Because the absolute worst thing to have happen is to have the New Yorker and Joe Schmoe’s Magazine accept – and Joe Schmoe got in first. But if you’re super happy to have either Tin House or Glimmer Train pick up your story (and I’d be over the moon, personally, with either one), then by all means send to both. They accept simultaneous submissions; they know some things can slip by.


Same rule applies for novels. Tier your agents. Send simultaneously. Lather, rinse, repeat.


A final note: Very few writers follow all five rules. Some writers can write and write and write. All day long. Happy as clams. And that is perfectly okay.


But if you want to be a published writer, the best thing to do is to look at the five rules and figure out where you are getting tripped up. Did you finish a novel and only send to three agents? Have you been writing the same novel for the past four decades? Have you actually written anything this past week? Sometimes writers are really good at finishing short stories and following these rules…but when they try to write a novel they choke on Rule 1 or 2.


Spot your weak point and blast through it.


How about you? Do these rules resonate with you? Are you already doing all of the above? Do you see a spot you might need to work on?

Categories: Rules, Robert Heinlein, Advice

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