By Jeanne C. Stein
I know, I know. I, more than anyone else, hate it when someone says there are “rules” to writing, especially since exceptional writer W. Somerset Maugham warns: There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
And of course, for every rule we set there will be an exception that works perfectly well. But the rules I’m setting forth here apply to ALL writing. They are basic, maybe too obvious, but worth mentioning. Think of them as a motivational tool!
First, Robert Heinlein’s Five Rules—
Heinlein (1907-1988) was one of the first authors of bestselling, novel-length science fiction. He was also one of the first to break into mainstream markets and is often called the “dean of science fiction writers.” He freely gave away his five rules because he said almost no one would follow them—hence he was not afraid of competition. What are they?
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. Your must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put your story on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.
Did I mention they were obvious?
Let’s start with rule one. How many people do you know that have either started a novel or said that they plan to write one “someday?” They are not writers. A writer puts his butt in the chair everyday—even if it’s fifteen minutes at lunchtime, during the baby’s nap or an hour before bedtime. If you are serious about writing, you will make time. One of the participants in a past class said she wrote 79,000 words in 28 days writing just two hours a day. Some of you have participated in Write a Novel in a Month challenge held in November of every year. It can be done. It takes desire and discipline.
Rule two—another no-brainer. Yet, there are countless unfinished manuscripts floating around out there waiting for the magic moment when their authors find time to finish them. Refer to Rule one.
Rule three—This does not mean NEVER rewrite. It means don’t keep REwriting Chapter One because you want to make it perfect. If you have a critique group, let them offer suggestions as you go along, but forge ahead. Don’t get hung up on one sentence or page or chapter. When the manuscript is finished and you get an editor or agent, they will tell you what more needs to be done. A note here: I have been told by fans of Heinlein that he really DID NOT ever rewrite! I think that may be a little extreme! One of my favorite authors, though, the late Robert B. Parker also said he never rewrote anything. I wish I could be that confident in my writing!
Rule four—May be the hardest rule of all. It’s scary to launch your baby on the world, but you have to. Research markets, research agents and editors, network at conventions. Get it out there.
Rule five—I take it back. This may be the hardest rule. If you’re lucky, you’ll strike gold right out of the box. If not, take whatever comfort you can from knowing that authors from J. K. Rowling to Stephen King have faced rejection. Many rejections. It’s different when it happens to you. It’s personal and it hurts, especially if it comes in a form letter. On the other hand, sometimes you receive a real letter offering advice and extending an offer to reread the manuscript after you make whatever rewrites are suggested. This is a very GOOD rejection letter. It means you’re on the right track.
Okay—let’s move on to some of my own personal guidelines:
1. You want to write the great genre novel—read that genre. To grab an audience, you need to know what it wants.
2. Now that you are familiar with what that audience wants, write for that audience.
3. Learn about conflict—creating it, resolving it.
4. Structure your story for maximum impact.
5. Beginnings and endings are most important—learn to make them so good, your readers will not be able to put the book down once they start and disappointed when they get to the end because they want more.
Rules three, four and five will be covered in subsequent lessons.
As for rules one and two, I know the popular conception is that since it often takes two years for a book to go from acceptance by a publisher to release, if you write what’s hot in the market NOW, by the time your book is released, the wave has passed. Perhaps. On the other hand, if you write the book you WANT to write, if it’s well written and compelling, it doesn’t matter what’s “hot” in the market. Well-written stories find an audience.
Remember, the best writers are readers. They read everything…fiction and nonfiction, genre and literary works. And they write. Everyday.
One well-known and prolific writer, the late Elmore Leonard, had his own set of rules. But they can be summed up with this: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
Amen to that.
Next month we’ll start looking at developing our characters.