Heinlein’s First Rule

If you go to workshops– especially SF/F related workshops– or otherwise seek out Writing Advice, sooner or later you’re going to hear Heinlein’s Five Rules for getting published. 

The rules are pretty strong, solid advice, but to a degree they have more bearing on a short-story market than a novel market.  So I’ll go over the five rules over the next few posts, and how I’ve integrated them into my process.


You really can’t argue with this, right?  If you want to be a successful writer, writing is a given.

But what does this mean, in terms of actual action?  Here’s how I see it:

A. You must know what you’re writing.
B. You must know how you write.
C. You must work with discipline.

Now, for the first part, knowing what you’re writing: apply this as broadly as you want, but I think you need to know what your general plans and intentions are.  Of course, things can get away with you: you can start writing a short story and discover a novel.  Or you can start a novel and find it’s only a novella.  But the point is you’ve got to have some sort of plan when you sit down. 

This ties directly to the second part: know how you write.  Which is very different from “know how you think you write”.  For example, I’m a big outliner.  This is what works for me, and I learned that through a process of discovery.  I did a whole lot of, “I’m going to write and see where it goes” and where it went was nowhere slowly.  Another example: I’m not a writer who can do the “just get it written, and then fix it in editing” thing.  That isn’t to say I don’t edit or make a lot of changes when I do, but I see a rough draft as a foundation, and if I’m not building a strong foundation, it doesn’t work for me.   Another point: I get the most creative in later hours, usually after 10pm.  I’ve accepted all these points as how I work best, and I’ve thrived by accepting that.  So the advice I have there is: learn how you write, but look very critically at if that’s really what works best, or if it’s how you think you ought to work best.

Finally: write with discipline.  Once you know what you’re doing and how you do it best, sit down and get on it.  “Write every day” is good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone (see point B).  But this is what I’ve found effective for me:  when I’m working on a project (in rough draft), I set a daily writing goal.  This is a low-balled goal, a minimum quota.*  This is the, “Fine, you’ve earned the right to eat today” amount of writing.  It’s a C-.  Now, many days I will write more than that quota– and going over quota doesn’t give me slack the next day.  But by keeping that quota low, I keep myself from getting in a shame-spiral of failure.  Because I know how I work, and if I “get behind” on even an arbitrarily set quota, part of my brain says, “We can’t do it” and shuts down. 

And before I learned properly how I write, I would do that to myself constantly.  I would set an Unreasonable Writing Goal (I would even call it that to try and spur myself on), and then kick myself for not reaching it, and the whole thing would stall out.

Next time: Rule #2.  But for now, it’s time to get writing.

*- Currently for Banshee**, it’s 500 words a day.
**- Of course, one thing that helps in having a solid outline– I can jump all over the project and write crazily out-of-order, which makes a big difference when one section is stuck.


  1. Excellent advice – I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing the next installments! I came across your blog via a G+ page we have in common: Speculative Fiction Writers.

    As I’m gearing up for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I’m all about gathering good wool ahead of time. I feel like I’m on top of my game, and feeling like this is the year I’m actually going to finish. With four failures already, I’ve learned enough about what not to do. Thanks for taking the time to pass along useful information – I’m a new follower and I’ll definitely be returning to check out the rest.


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