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5 Rules for Success in Writing

“I can tell you in less than fifty words how to get published…”

So said Robert Heinlein and, whatever you think of his politics, Heinlein knew how to write (and sell) books. Way back in 1973 he gave a talk in which he fulfilled his promise in exactly 39 words and, frankly, nothing’s changed since.

These rules are still valid after the so-called digital revolution, despite the often-predicted imminent collapse of the traditional publishing business model, despite the changing relationship between publishers, agents and authors, and despite the digital democratisation of publishing (in case you’re wondering, that’s just a fancy way of describing self-publishing online).

In other words, people still write words, other people still read them, and somewhere in the middle money changes hands.

Unless, of course, you’re fool enough to give away your hard work free of charge, but that’s another blog post that is yet to be written…

So how did these 5 Rules come about?

It was April 5th, 1973, a Thursday. The weather was slightly chilly for the time of year and it had been raining. (Never let it be said I don’t do my research!) Mr Heinlein had been invited to deliver the James G. Forrestal memorial lecture at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He duly held forth for about an hour and 6,000 words on the subjects of writing, science fiction and his own personal philosophies. But, as noted earlier, we are only interested in 39 of those 6,000 because writers are flighty-minded opportunists who parasitize upon each other at every opportunity, and when one of our number does good, we leap upon the nuggets of wisdom they cast upon the roadside like starving children in a Dickens novel.

And so, hungry reader, here they are.

Five rules for success in writing

First: You must write.

Second: You must finish what you write.

Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

Fourth: You must place it on the market.

Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.

I know I’ve broken all 5 at one time or another, and so have you. But here you go. Copy, paste, print and tack to the wall above your desk. And then do, because blog writers like me can pontificate all day about strategies to write successfully, but in the end it’s you who have to provide the hard work, heartache and hours of solitude required to make it work.

There are no free rides. There are no short cuts. But by following sage advice like this, at least you’ll know you’re on the right road.

Background: Heinlein was invited to speak at Annapolis not least because he was a former naval officer, having graduated from the Academy in 1929. The James Forrestal lecture series commemorates the first US Secretary of Defence, whose name was also given to the world’s first supercarrier. The lecture series grants an opportunity for invited military and political leaders to address officer cadets. A copy of the original lecture as published in Analog can be downloaded as a pdf here, or you can part with money to get a legible copy here. Although why you’d want to is beyond me: I’ve already given you the good bit!

2 comments on 5 Rules for Success in Writing

  1. Just a line sir to say that as well as “The Lucky Ones”, I have just read “Black and White”. Both are brilliant stories, but I thought “Black and White” was absolutely beautiful, so much so it moved my suppressed Catholic persona to tears!

  2. Thank you for your kind words. Every author likes to get feedback, good or bad. (But especially good!) I’m very pleased to hear your enjoyed the experience. It’s very encouraging, particularly in those dismal moments when you wonder whether there’s anyone out there and if they’re reading any of your stuff!

    Second editions of both stories will be available on Amazon Kindle before the end of the year. The Lucky Ones will have the most changes, including a new ending. If this is of interest, please do subscribe for the update.

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