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The 5 or so Rules of Writing

January 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The speculative fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein had five rules for writing. Really, they’re more like the four things you must do to honestly call yourself a writer.

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.

If you’re like me, you’ve wanted to be a writer for far longer than you’ve actually been writing. And if you’re like me, you started thinking like a writer before you started writing seriously. The point being:

it can take a long time just to get to step one.

So don’t regress and stop writing. You must constantly be writing, whether in your head, on your computer, in your notebook, or even on a typewriter. Even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, exercise the muscles and keep them sharp.

And don’t get sidetracked. A lot of times when you’re trying to finish a piece, and I’ve heard this from a lot of writers, you get all sorts of “great ideas” that you have got to get started on immediately.

You don’t. Really.

Just jot them down our dictate them into a voice recorder and get on with what you were writing. When you come back to those ideas later, you might find they weren’t so good. We tend to get excited about anything else while we’re trying to write and our mind convinces us that everything else is better, even really crappy ideas.

The more complicated part of that 3rd rule is knowing when a piece is done. I’ve had instructors say that a piece is done when you can’t think of a single way to make it better without ruining everything. I’ve heard from other writers that a piece is done when it’s not worth the time that you’re putting into it. Some writers say that they finish a sentence and involuntarily take a deep breath, and then they just realize it.

It probably depends on the piece really. Those murderously difficult ones that just hate being written never feel done, and at some point we have to cut ties. And those ones that seem to write themselves in a flurry might need just a single revision before they’re done. But at some point you’ve got to let go and say it’s done.

And then send it in immediately. Email it out. Print a copy onto some high quality paper and stick it in a manila envelope and send it out so you can start on something new. There’s a lot more involved of course–letters of inquiry, scouting editors, agents (oh god)–but we’re going to leave it at that for now.

Now, while you’re doing those first two rules over and over again, there’s a few modern updates you need to work on.

1. Get web wise.

One of the best ways to get visibility and market yourself as a writer is to have a website. Editors of magazines have told me that when they are introduced to a writer or their interest is piqued by something they have pitched, the first thing they do is check them out on the web. Having a nice website makes you look more established and professional. You can include a bio so that they can get to know you quickly, a nice picture of yourself, and even some samples of your work so they can get a quick idea of how you write.

And maybe the editor doesn’t think you’re a good fit at the moment, but knows somewhere that might be good for you. It is a lot easier for them to spread the word about you or pass you on to another person in the industry if they can just give their associate a link.

Just make sure that you make yourself look professional. If you include a blog and are posting about your weekend and a party you went to or anything along those lines, well, I wouldn’t be as interested. Reputations are involved.

2. Twitter and Social Networking

Social networking can be a great way to create a buzz or make yourself visible. Create a page on facebook so people can become fans. Even if it’s just your friends and family at first, someone else might get there and go to your site and next thing you know they have read your work. You’re going to have to prove you can deliver a readership if you’re going to try to sell a book in the future, so start building a base now.

Twitter works really well if you want to just keep reminding people about your name.

The first editor I met visited my site and saw my twitter. She started following me, and whenever I updated she saw my name. Well, maybe some editor doesn’t have a spot for your piece just then, but a few months down the line there’s a space in the magazine and because you just tweeted an update about your new story idea, he or she knows it’s really a you-shaped hole and gets in touch.

Even if nothing amazing happens, it’s always good to have as many lines in the water as possible.

3. Emails

Starting a writing career alone is hard, never mind if you’re a poor college student. George R.R. Martin, New York Times bestselling author of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, used to typewrite a story and send out the manuscript with return postage to magazine, and the day he got it back he sent it right out to another magazine and so forth until someone bought it or told him to change something.

Fortunately, today we have email, so there is less expense involved, and you can send your work out to as many places as you want, provided they don’t have a “No Simultaneous Submissions” clause. Always check. (Some writers choose to ignore that, and it wouldn’t be a problem unless you got accepted to two or more places, but it can give you a bad reputation if you have to pull out of one place or if word gets around.)

And lastly, I just want to chuck a few more general rules at you. These are things that I will post in depth more on later.

1. Be organized. Save everything. You might need work as records, or because you want to go back and look at a previous draft to see how something changed, or just to see how you made progress and how you can do things better in the future. This means keeping all your paper copies, detailed notes, and backing up electronic drafts.

2. Be efficient. If you want to do your best work and be at your most productive as soon as possible, you’ve got to take your writing seriously and find out how you do your most efficient writing. For some of us, it’s the second you wake up in the morning when your mind is clear. For others, it’s right before a deadline. If you know you have motivation and slacking problems, you might have to figure out some tricks to get you going; simulated stress.

3. Mine your resources. Whether you’re at college, attending workshops, or just know someone at the local coffeeshop, everyone knows some people with expertise. They don’t have to be Pulitzer winners, but almost everyone can teach you something, from bookstore owners to professors to the folks at your local newspaper. Talk to them and try to learn from their experience how to do things right so you don’t have to make the mistakes for yourself. Write to all your favorite writers and anyone you look up to. Chances are they like to procrastinate as much as you and would be completely willing to send you a detailed email answering all your questions. And interactions with fans are a good way for them to show they have a readship to sell books to. Yes, they will mine the business angle, so mine them as a resource in exchange.

Until next time, keep your pen at the ready.

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