Heinlein’s Rules

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein stated five rules for writing fiction.  Here they are:

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.

He went on to say that he didn’t much fear the new competition he’d face from putting these rules out in the open, since he figured half of those who claim they want to write won’t complete step 1, and half of the remainder wouldn’t finish step 2, and so on.  Those of you working out the math should forget it–all those halves are just approximate.

Heinlein’s rules are repeated all over the web and there has been much criticism of them.  Some have said they sound too harsh, like Drill Sergeant Heinlein is shouting all those “MUSTs.”  To those folks I’d ask–If your aim is to get your work published, which of those steps do you think you could skip, or kinda half-do?  Really.  Look back over them and tell me which rule could be softened in its wording.

The main criticisms target rule 3, “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Some assume Heinlein is telling writers to send their first draft out on the market.  I doubt Mr. Heinlein meant that.  I think rewriting the first draft until it’s acceptable is implicit in rule 2: “You must finish what you write.”  It’s not likely to be really finished after a very rough, rapidly-scribbled first draft, even though you’ve reached “The End.”  Heinlein means that you must declare the work finished and then refrain from the temptation to waste time endlessly trying to perfect the work, unless an editor has asked for revisions and you agree to them.  As Heinlein also said elsewhere, “They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday.”

My own quibble with the rules concerns their order.  As written, they are single steps to be executed in sequential order.  The only loop in the process is within the final two steps, which basically say to send the manuscript out, and when you get a rejection, send the work–unchanged–to another market that same day.  So if all the other steps are in sequential order, Rule 3 makes no sense as written. You haven’t sent the work out yet, so how could you have received a request from an editor for a rewrite?  I say Rules 3 and 4 should be swapped.

The great writer Robert J. Sawyer has suggested adding a 6th rule, “Start Working on Something Else.”  This is likely aimed at those who think their first story will make them famous and so wait breathlessly for word from the editor about acceptance or rejection.  If you’re truly a writer, you can hardly wait to tackle the next project, so that’s when you start it.  Unfortunately, Rule 6 would then be the only one focused on some other, next work while the rest of the rules concern a single story.  Still, I concur with the intent, though I might have phrased it as, “Think of another story to write and go to step 1.”

I like Heinlein’s Rules.  I think their commanding tone is a stentorian call summoning you to action and perhaps to greatness.  Don’t think of them as overly harsh commandments that doom you to misery for the slightest deviation.  They’re an invitation; get out there; don’t talk about it–do it!  And they’re also a promise; follow these rules and you will get published.  It’s hard to think of more inspiring words for a beginning writer.

Please let me know what you think.  Also, remember that Heinlein wrote his rules about 65 years ago.  Perhaps 65 years from now people will still be debating words written by–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe


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January 29, 2012Permalink

2 Indispensable Sites for All Short Story Writers

Well, I’ve found these two sites to be a great help to me over the years.  It would have been a great deal more difficult to find markets for my first short stories without them.  I’m talking about Duotrope and Ralan.

Duotrope is a dynamic, online database of fiction and poetry markets.  You’ve written a story and need to find out who might be looking for stories of your type.  Go to Duotrope, enter search terms such as genre, subgenre, number of words, payscale (pro, semi-pro, token, or non-paying) and your choice of a few others to narrow your search, then click Search.  You’ll see a list of potential markets for your story.  Clicking on any of the markets takes you to a Duotrope page with details about the market, with links to the market’s website, any restrictions on submissions, and statistics such as response time and acceptance rate.  Those statistics come from regular writers submitting their experiences to Duotrope, not from the markets themselves.

Before Duotrope, writers would go to the library to look at a reference book called Writer’s Market, published annually.  I do recommend the book, but Duotrope is online and free.  If you find Duotrope helps you connect with a market, you should contribute some money to them to help sustain their operation.

Using Duotrope, you can come up with a prioritized list of where you’ll send your story.  That list is tailored to your story so you’re not wasting your time, or some editor’s, with sending a story not suited to that market.

One more thing.  Duotrope is not just for short story writers, like me.  It’s also for novelists and poets too.

The other site I recommend is Ralan.  It’s operated by an author writing under the name Ralan Conley.  The full name of the site is Ralan’s SpecFic and Humor Webstravaganza.  SpecFic is Speculative Fiction.

There are several interesting features of this website to explore, but the part I used most is Antho.  That section can keep you up to date on what short story anthologies are looking for submissions.  You’ll see each open anthology listed, a general description, any limitations on submissions, pay scale, and a link to the market’s website about the anthology.

I’ve blogged about writing for anthologies before, and now you know where to find the information to get you started.  It’s fun, every now and then, to check the Antho list at Ralan to see what the anthology markets are looking for.  Every so often, this exercise will spark an idea for a story.  So in that sense this site can help at both ends of the writing process, both before and after the story is written.

Duotrope and Ralan are crucial resources for a beginning writer in providing guidance about where to market your stories, and even getting a sense of market trends.  Have you used them and have an experience to share, or are there other sites you’ve found helpful?  Send comments to–

                                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe


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January 22, 2012Permalink

Book Review – Command and Control: Great Military Leaders from Washington to the Twenty-First Century

I enjoy books that address historical questions.  Historians often take the long view and explore enduring facets of human nature that are present in any age.  Such books are a reminder of what a snapshot a human lifespan really is.

So I just finished listening to another book on CD:  Command and Control:  Great Military Leaders from Washington to the Twenty-First Century, by Professor Mark R. Polelle.  It was put out by Recorded Books as part of The Modern Scholar series, and was read by the author.

The book sets out to discover what makes a good leader.  It focuses on Washington, Napoleon, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Moltke, Pershing, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, LeMay, and Schwarzkopf.  Not all of these generals were American, of course, but Napoleon and Moltke did have important influences on the American way of war.

With so many generals to discuss, Professor Polelle doesn’t go into great depth on any of them, but that keeps the book from getting dull.  It is not overly academic in tone, and it was certainly interesting to this particular layman.  We learn some differences between each of the studied generals, and some common traits, as well as some developing trends over time.

If you’re looking for the direct answer to what makes a good leader, I don’t think you’ll find it here.  You’ll find much discussion about leadership, but it’s my opinion that great leadership can’t be spotted in advance, or even taught in any sort of effective way. Great leadership emerges, and can be identified only during or after the fact, never before.  That’s not a meant as a criticism of the book; I just think the author went after an unanswerable question.

Also, this isn’t the sort of history book where the author makes a bold or controversial contention and then proves it with historical evidence.  It is simply a review of influential generals with some discussion of leadership traits.  It performs that service very well; I just wanted you to know what to expect.

There was one annoying fact about the CDs I listened to–for four or five of the lessons, the narrator introduced the wrong lesson.  That is, the narrator would state the next lesson would be about Grant, and the professor would discuss Sherman. Very strange.

Lastly, most books I listen to on CD are read word-for-word from a text. However, this book sounded like the professor was referring to notes rather than reading.  He never seemed at a loss for words, but I got the sense he was making up his sentences as he went along.  That may well be a characteristic of all the books in The Modern Scholar series, for all I know.

In accordance with my book review rating system, I’ll award this book four seahorses.  I do recommend it; you’re likely to find out more about various American generals than you knew before.  If you’ve read it and think otherwise, please leave a comment for–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe


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January 19, 2012Permalink

What Happens Next?

Back in May, I promised to discuss suspense, and I’ve kept you in it long enough.  First, in defining the term, we learn that it means (1) the state of being suspended, (2) a mental uncertainty or anxiety, and (3) the state of being undecided or doubtful.

Definitions (2) and (3) may seem to have the most significance for us here, but I like the image of definition (1).  Imagine a character who is physically suspended over the ground at some great height.  There is a danger he may fall and get hurt or killed.  Neither the reader nor the character knows if the fall will happen or not.  However, at the moment there exists both the danger that he will fall and the hope that he will either not fall or that the fall will somehow not harm him.

The danger leads to the character feeling fear.  If the character has been previously introduced to the reader as a sympathetic one and the reader has come to care about him, then the reader will share both the uncertainty and the character’s fear of the fall.

The danger need not involve falling from a height, of course, but can be any real danger to the character, including emotional danger.  The feeling of suspense arises from not knowing whether the outcome will be good or bad and the feeling is more intense if the reader sympathizes with or pities the character.

In his book Poetics, Aristotle explained suspense the same way we have, with the concepts of a looming danger, a ray of hope, an uncertainty of outcome, and the audience’s (reader’s) caring about the character.  We’re not exactly plowing new ground here; suspense is a timeless idea.

We can bring in definition (3) of the word “suspense” by giving our character a choice of actions to take.  He does not know which choice will make the danger greater or which will cause a hoped-for positive outcome.  Since he does not know, he is uncertain and doubtful about which choice to make.

Most fiction involves suspense to some degree, but so-called suspense novels are chock full of that emotion.  What techniques does a writer of such novels use to ratchet up suspense?

  • Create in the reader’s mind an intense sympathy for the character.  Establish the character as real, human, and vulnerable.
  • Introduce a danger with high stakes.  It must be plausible and full of dire consequences for the character should the danger be realized.
  • Set up the situation so the negative outcome is far more likely than the positive one.  Make the odds nearly (but not) impossible.  Ensure Aristotle’s “ray of hope” is laser-thin.
  • Give the character a set of choices that all seem bad.
  • Provide the reader with knowledge of some fact the character doesn’t know, perhaps some fact about one or more of the choices being faced.  You might think this would lessen uncertainty and doubt, and thus reduce suspense.  But note that it doesn’t lessen the character’s uncertainty and it actually increases the reader’s sympathy for the character; it makes the reader want to shout, “No!  Don’t do that!”
  • Introduce a time limit, a race against the clock.  This forces the character to make one of the choices without enough time to fully analyze chances and consequences.
  • Conclude each chapter (or short story break) with some enticement to keep reading.
  • Bring in unexpected complications that worsen the danger, tighten the timeline, or narrow the ray of hope still further.
  • Keep the tension high for as long as possible.  In other words, delay the events that will resolve the suspenseful situation as long as you can, but stop short of the point where the reader gets bored and stops caring.

Do you think you can write in a suspenseful way?  What difficulties do you see in doing so?  I welcome comments on the topic. And for those of you wondering who wrote this blog entry, you may call me…I’m known as…(suspense building)…wait for it…

                                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

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January 15, 2012Permalink

Book Review — Soulless

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Soulless by Gail Carriger put out by Recorded Books, and performed by Emily Gray.  I’m not a regular reader of romance novels, but I do enjoy steampunk so I thought I’d give this one a try.

The book is set in an alternate version of Victorian London in a world that has come to accept the co-existence of werewolves and vampires with humans.  In fact there is a Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR) to keep track of all the supernatural creatures.  Alexia Tarabotti is not supernatural, but is a rare breed of human born without a soul.  However, this status as a “preternatural” allows her to turn any werewolf or vampire into its human form at her mere touch.

The book begins with a vampire trying to attack her, and dying in the process.  How could a London vampire not know she was a preternatural?  Thus the investigation begins, which requires the services of Lord Conall Maccon, head of the BUR.  Soon we learn about Alexia’s overbearing mother, catty sisters, best friend Ivy Hisselpenny (she of the always outlandish hats), and flamboyantly gay vampire Lord Akeldama.

Oh, yes, and Alexia falls in love.  I am not the best judge of romance novels, but I did enjoy many aspects of this book.  Carriger captured the sense of the time and locale well.  The characters were well-drawn and had a few complexities and interesting quirks.  The love relationship was, for the most part, believable and well-paced, and I think the book’s target audience should be well able to identify with Alexia.  The reading by Emily Gray was excellent; she made the characters come alive and her accent helped transport me to the novel’s world.

However, there is a long stretch of very little action between the opening scene and the final confrontation.  A long epilogue follows the final actions, perhaps in order to set up the later books in the series (of which this is the first).  There are frequent character point-of-view switches, but in general they are executed in a clear manner.

Using my book review rating system, I’m going to give this book 3 seahorses.  I recommend it if you enjoy quirky romances, or supernatural fantasies.  It’s teetering on the edge of what I’d call steampunk though.  If you’ve read it and have a different view, please leave a comment for–

                                                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe



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January 10, 2012Permalink

Coming to Your Senses (in Your Writing)

If Poseidon’s Scribe suggests you incorporate an appeal to all five senses in your writing, that’s not exactly original advice.  But why are writers told to do this?  And how do you go about it?

The reason for using all the senses is to make your scenes more vivid, distinct, and real for the reader.  You’re trying to take your reader away from her world where she is sitting and reading a book, just sweep her away to your made-up world.  We speak of “painting a picture” in writing, but it should be more than that.  It should be a multi-sensory experience.  It’s like a Star Trek transporter machine that can move a person in an instant to a different location for a full immersion experience.

Artists, too, often bring the senses into their work.  This is “Still-life with Chessboard (the Five Senses)” by the 17th Century painter Lubin Baugin.

Each of the senses has certain properties.  Although they are obvious from lifelong experience, let’s think about each one from a writer’s point of view.


  • Our primary sense is sight, and that’s usually the first way a character perceives his surroundings.  Human sight is most especially tuned to moving objects, so characters notice them first of all. Depriving a character of sight using darkness or interfering objects can heighten tension.
  • Hearing is our secondary sense, and also has a long range.  Characters can hear things around corners and thus detect them before seeing them at times.
  • Smell has a strong link to mood and memory, and thus can provide a great opportunity for the reader to understand the point-of-view character’s temperament and background.
  • Taste is coupled to the sense of smell.  Letting a character experience food and drink in a scene can enhance the overall impression for the reader.  Remember that characters can learn things by tasting even non-food items, such as deciding whether a liquid is water or oil, for example, when gathering evidence.
  • The sense of touch is probably the most intimate.  It’s the only sense without a specific organ, and the only one we can’t block out except through numbness.

If you open up your writing to appeal to all the senses, you’ll find a wealth of new adjectives at your disposal.  There are many great descriptive words that apply to the non-sight senses.  These sensory descriptions should be used with purposeful ends in mind, though.  You’re trying to advance your plot, reveal character attitudes, or set a scene, not to demonstrate your knowledge of the senses.

Through practice you can improve the perceptiveness and sharpness of your senses as well as your ability to write better sensory descriptions.  It’s just like improving any other skill.  I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog entry.

I should caution you not to overdo it, though.  Modern readers dislike, and often skip, long paragraphs of description.  It’s best to sprinkle your sense-based descriptions in small chunks between and among character thoughts and dialogue throughout the scene.  This avoids overloading and boring the reader, and also gives the reader occasional reminders about where the characters are and the state of their surroundings.

As always, I welcome your comments on this topic.  From what I’ve seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt, this concludes another blog entry by–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

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Just Thinking to Myself

The title of this blog entry is a little joke to remind me not to ever do that in my fiction–state that a character is “thinking to himself.”  How else would he be thinking?

But the broader question facing us today regards how a writer should convey a character’s thoughts.  To get your fiction published these days, it’s important to be able to let your readers know the thoughts of your point-of-view character.  Fiction, as I’ve said before, is about the human condition, and a large part of the human experience requires thinking.  In fiction, we expect to find a protagonist dealing with one or more conflicts, and a large part of understanding her struggle is to know her thoughts.

Thoughts reveal a lot about a character.  Often thoughts are more extreme and emotion-packed than spoken words.  In the cases where a character’s thoughts are just as restrained as his speech, that tells the reader this character has a great degree of self-control.  A character that “speaks his mind” likely does not have much tact in social situations.

It’s rather strange that English has quotation marks to indicate spoken dialogue, but no analogous, standard symbol for a character’s thoughts.  Without such a standard, practices vary:

  • “I sure could go for a hamburger,” Steve thought.
  • I sure could go for a hamburger.
  • Steve thought about how much he wanted a hamburger.

The first example with the quotation marks seems to have fallen out of favor.  It’s potentially confusing, since a reader could assume the character is speaking out loud, until the tag–Steve thought–appears.  Some say the second example with italics has run its course and is not recommended.  It may also lead to potential confusing ambiguity, since italics are also used for emphasis, or sometimes to indicate foreign words.

As for me, I prefer italics.  I like how italicized words leap out and distinguish themselves as different.  When used to indicate thought, they really help the reader separate “dialogue” from thought and narration.  I suppose the knock against italics is they can interrupt flow.

Although the last example reads just like narration, the tag “Steve thought” clues the reader in that the character is thinking.  The use of standard text makes for a smoother read.

In my view, there are three guidelines you should follow:  (1) stick with the publisher’s guidelines, if known; (2) avoid confusing the reader; and (3) be somewhat consistent through your story in the technique you use.

There are some other helpful blog post articles on this topic here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  As you’ll see from reading through them, there is general agreement, but some differences.  What are your thoughts on representing a character’s thoughts?  I welcome comments.

That’s another fine blog post I’ve written, thought–

                                                                               Poseidon’s Scribe


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