Monday, October 18, 2010

Heinlein's Rule Number 3 - You Must Refrain From Rewriting Except to Editorial Order

(NOTE: The Insane Marathon that is my "real" life has continued to have an impact. After a big family crisis today, I have no mindspace for anything - not writing, not editing, maybe drooling. I had this post written already, so I simply refrained from rewriting it. Seems appropriate somehow.... Oh, and you can find the beginning of the series on Heinlein's Rules of Writing here.)

Yes, Heinlein's third rule tells you not to rewrite.

This rule really bothers most writers - and it especially bothers editors and writing teachers. I hear a lot of people to go elaborate lengths to explain how he didn't really mean it, or he was talking about some other thing. I can't say that I myself completely agree with it, but....

I think he meant exactly what he said.

So (at the risk of turning this into another apology for this rule) let's take a look at the context in which he said it:

Heinlein wrote during the pulp era. It was a time when there was a lot of fiction being published, and the range of quality was very wide. Very wide. An awful lot of writers learned by simple trial and error - by writing all night every night for penny a word. And an awful lot of writing was simply awful, too. Even the stuff that got published.

(Which sounds a little like today, actually, with this new wave of indie publishing. Learning on the job, as it were.)

The difference is that today we have writing schools and classes and clubs and all sorts of ways to learn your craft. But the great ones - Heinlein, Westlake, Stout, Asimov, Ellison, Dahl and many others - learned by writing. A lot. Endlessly. Writing terribly and wonderfully and crazily and rationally.

They figured out pretty quickly that rewriting was a waste of time, unless it really was requested by an editor with money in hand. If a story didn't sell, pay attention to why (if a reason is given) and write something NEW to suit the editor's needs. Learn from your mistakes not by fussing over an imperfect story, but rather by writing something else even better.

And these guys learned to write brilliantly, so don't tell me this isn't a good way to learn your craft. For one thing, if you keep working on old stories, you will be stuck with a few immature ideas. If you have to keep coming up with new ideas all the time - rather than rewrite the old - you force yourself to become original and fresh.

Writing forward is a part of writing more. It's one of the best things you can do for yourself.

That said, I think in the modern publishing climate, you can't afford to learn on the job the way the pulp writers did. Even with pulp fiction, there were still rejection slips. They had editors. With self-publishing, you need to be the editor. Be the person who slows you down and makes sure the work is good. Rewriting is not going to kill you.

But I think we still have a lesson to learn from this. We need to write forward, keep going, get better at not just writing, but also at finishing. And when we rewrite, we need to have a purpose. We need to give ourselves those "editorial orders," and then carry them out.

But if there isn't a specific purpose, we need to keep going, push that envelope and become more brilliant and less perfectly ordinary.

Set to writing with more knowledge and skills in the first place, and you won't need to do as much rewriting anyway. But just be prepared that it will take a lot of writing to get those skills - so maybe do some rewriting in the meantime. But not too much.

Next we deal with Rule Four - You must put it on the market!


Anonymous said...

of course the reverse philosophy was expressed by Hemmingway: "There are no good writers, only good rewriters."

I had to read this because my initial reaction to it was "That can't be true!" -- And I've learned when I have that reaction, I need more investigation.

Dean Koontz rewrites each page 50 times before moving to the next...and then rewrites no more. I think Heinlien's comments are applicable to experienced writers, writing for a deadline moreso than newbie writers churning out a novel in a month.

There's something to be said though for continuing onward without working on Chapter 1 for years...most writers I meet fall into that catagory.

Thanks for this!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks for commenting, Steve.

I do have to say that somebody on Joe's blog hit the nail on the head as to my practice: I rewrite as I go. By the time the story is complete, it has been revised quite a lot.

I always try to give it a little drawer time, and then the once over. Some stories I know need more, and if the once over isn't enough, it goes back into a drawer for a while.

But when I read about all my favorite writers, they were deadline guys. They learned the business writing pulp. So I want to move in that direction more.