Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing for Indies

The other day I was wandering around Dean Wesley Smith’s website and noticed he has an online workshop covering Robert Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing. It had been quite a while since I’d read them (we’re talking decades here), so I refreshed my memory. I found a discussion on Robert J Sawyer’s website.

Both Heinlein and Sawyer direct the rules to those who want to be traditionally published. For Heinlein, he had no option. For Sawyer, he is entrenched in the traditional world and has no need to change them. However, I have little desire to pursue the traditional publishing route and thought I’d adapt them for indie authors. So here they are:

Heinlein’s 5 Rules for Indie Writers

#1-You must write

This should go without saying and yet so many writers don’t ever actually write anything. They talk about writing, take courses, frequent writing forums, or dream of the writer’s life. But when it comes to putting pen to paper or fingers to the keys — they don’t do it. Or if they do, and actually finish something, they are forever rewriting it because it isn’t quite good enough.

To be a writer, YOU MUST WRITE.

#2-Finish what you start

You can’t be a writer or even learn the writing process unless you finish what you start. Weak beginning? Flabby middle? Dull ending? Unless the work is a completed whole, you can’t see what works and what doesn’t.

In my forth coming novel, But Jesus Never Wept, I knew I was having problems in the middle. I resisted the urge to stop and fix them and bulldogged to the end — and then went back and fixed the problem areas, which were fewer than I had thought.

#3-Don’t rewrite, unless your editor says so

Rewriting is not writing. Writing is writing.

When I was submitting and getting my poetry published on a regular basis, I’d watch many poets on various forums rewrite the originality right out of their work. They’d end up with a flabby, lifeless thing done to death by committee.

Resist tinkering. We can tinker endlessly. There is always something that can be improved. But at some point you must resist the urge and say, “It is good enough.” And then move on.

However, if your editor (and all indie writers need an editor, whether paid or volunteer) says something needs to be fixed — pay attention. Ultimately, you are the publisher and may decide to reject your editor’s advice. But if he or she is saying something needs to be fixed, there is a good chance it does. Only then, do you rewrite.

Remember, rewriting is not writing. It’s rewriting. And we are writers, not rewriters.

#4-Put your work up for sale

In the old days, this was submitting your work to editors and gathering rejection slips. Thank God we don’t need to go that route anymore.

Today, the indie version of Heinlein’s point is to offer your work for sale and see if the reading public likes it or not. This is the publishing part of being a writer/publisher. Get the work out there. Promote it. Let the reader decide. Not some biased editor.

And if the public is not enthralled, listen to what they’re saying. But don’t automatically kowtow to their whim. Not everything we write will appeal to everyone. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. If your gut is telling you the work is good, then go with it. Realizing your audience on that particular work may be a small one. Leave the work up for sale and move on. The worst thing you can do is to remove work from sale. Build your backlist.

Which brings us to

#5-Leave your work up for sale

Maybe your book or story isn’t selling today. Or maybe the sales have fallen off. Don’t give in to the temptation to take the work down. That’s the beauty of being a writer/publisher. You can leave your book or story available forever. There is no publisher who is going to remainder it on you. No publisher telling you it isn’t selling enough copies. No editor rejecting your current work because your past work didn’t sell enough.

We can leave our work up for sale for as long as we want. We can market on our own schedule. We are writers and publishers. Our writing career is in our own hands.

Just remember: what isn’t selling today, may very well sell tomorrow.

#6-Start your next work

This is Robert Sawyer’s addition to Heinlein’s rules. And it’s a good one.

You can’t be a writer if you aren’t writing. And rewriting doesn’t count. Because it isn’t writing. It’s rewriting. The prolific authors of the past and those of today, the one’s who are writing to make money from their writing, start a new project upon completion of the old.

Write, publish, and start writing your next work. It is what Anthony Trollope did. When he finished one book, if there was still time left in his morning writing session, he took out a new sheet of paper and started the next book.

Like a mother robin, kick those babies out of the nest to make room for the new ones.

Writer’s write. If you’re stuck on a book or story, start a new one. A writer can always write about something. Don’t let writer’s block be an excuse not to write. I always have several books in progress. If one is giving me trouble, I put it aside and work on a different project. I am always writing. No day goes by that I haven’t written something.

Your mission

Follow these six rules and you will have a steady stream of work coming off our pen and hitting the virtual bookshelves. And with a little bit of luck and marketing handiwork, you may end up earning more money writing than from your day job. That’s my goal.

Happy writing!

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4 thoughts on “Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing for Indies”

  1. Excellent post, CW!

    I especially agree with #3. Editing is fine, but quite often writers will revise until the very marrow of their story has been hollowed and spat out. As I said to another recently, you never want to lose that passion, that rawness, that came through when you first wrote it. For me, perfection is found in the imperfection. The hiss on vinyl compared to the polished emptiness of digital if you will.

    Ha! Not sure about the making money part, though… I’m about to venture off back into the world of regular employment and set my writing to the smaller hours of the day. Gone are the days of wealthy patrons and wineskins of plenty…

    1. Thanks, Crispian! Agree 100% and I like that: “perfection is found in imperfection.” It reminds me of the Japanese wabi-sabi approach. Sorry to hear you must become a wage slave. No fun that. Unfortunately, we do need money in this world.

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