Thursday, 30 January 2014

Five Rules of 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.

These rules are not new. They are not mine. They were put together by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in 1947 and have been quoted so often they've become infamous in the writing world.

Having a unicorn for a muse, you might have guessed I am not really into rules. I believe every writer has their own way of producing creative work and trying to follow someone else's rules can seriously interfere with that, if not kill it stone dead. But I have time for Heinlein's rules because they aim at the heart of what we do.

Rule 1 is obvious. If you don't write, you will never be a writer. Note Heinlein does not say "you must write every day" or "you must write 2,000 words an hour", or whatever the latest creative writing course tells you to do. These might work for some writers, but will destroy others.

The Unicorn says: Write as much and as often as works for you.

Rule 2 is also obvious. Nobody likes a half finished story. It's difficult, though, because how do you know when your story is finished? If you're anything like me, you'll keep going back to it and tinkering after the last word is written. Or maybe you'll delete half of it and start again. Or maybe, having a deadline for delivery, you're the sort of writer who will send it in anyway, even though it could do with having half of it deleted? Deadlines can encourage you to finish a piece, but if you accept one then you are following another rule - someone else's time limit - which might work for you or might not.

The Unicorn says: Trust your instincts to tell you when a story is finished, not someone else's opinion or an unrealistic deadline.

I've heard Rule 3 has creative writing teachers screaming in horror. But I don't think Heinlein meant "refrain from redrafting" or "refrain from editing your own work". That is all part of finishing a story to your own satisfaction. You might be a first draft writer who plans meticulously beforehand and so only has to do a final proofread when the last word has been written, or you might be someone like me who writes several drafts and lets the story grow organically. But however you work, you'll know when your story is finished. I think Rule 3 really says do not rewrite excessively unless an editor is helping you shape your story for the market once it will definitely be published.

The Unicorn says: Refrain from making changes to your story to please other people (e.g. creative writing teachers, agents or editors who have not given you a contract yet, your friends, your mum, your inner critic) who are really trying to make your story into their story.

Rule 4 only applies if you are seeking publication. In 1947 "on the market" meant sending it to publishers and/or agents in the hope of getting a publishing deal. Today, it might mean putting your story out there for people to read - either on a blog like this one, or as an ebook, or going the whole way and producing a paperback print run yourself. Until you do one of these things, your story will remain unread and unjudged.

The Unicorn says: Don't be scared to send out your work. That's the only way it will ever reach readers.

Rule 5 is a bit redundant today with the ease of self-publishing (see above). But if you are determined to secure a traditional publishing deal, then this can be the toughest one of all. Rejection, for whatever reason, hurts. I sent my first novel SONG QUEST to 16 publishers before it got picked up back in 1999 - I was sending it out to agents too, but an editor picked it off the slush pile first. It took me seven years altogether from writing the first word to seeing it published. I never gave up, but it's not an experience I'd like to repeat.

The Unicorn says: Self publishing is an option now for those who are happy to invest time and money upfront. But publishing deals are still out there. However you decide to publish, remember no rule works for everyone. The important thing is to have fun inventing your own!

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