Holiday weekend writing series #1: Getting started writing

I’ve seen a number of friends do posts recently geared toward new writers with tips for helping them along. Science fiction is a pay-it-forward field and I’ve kind of felt a desire to do something like this as well. The problem with posts such as these is that they very often cover the same ground. That is also their benefit. Every writer’s experience is different. What works for one writer doesn’t always work for another.  But if you look at enough of these posts, you’ll start to see some practices that are pretty common. Some of these practices have been around for a long time.

One of these “practices” is Heinlein’s Rules for writing. In this first post in the series this weekend, I am going to talk about my own approach to Heinlein’s rules and how that worked for me. Of course, your mileage may vary. In their briefest form, his rules are:

  1. You must write
  2. Finish what you start
  3. Refrain from rewriting except to editorial order
  4. Put your story on the market
  5. Keep it on the market until it has sold

Well, not everyone is Heinlein and I have found that while, in principle, his approach is good, there are other ways of looking at this. What I discovered for me is that if looked at Heinlein’s rules through a lens, one that bent the light and altered them slightly, they worked a little bit better for me. Thus, my approach has been roughly this:

  1. If you don’t write something, you can’t submit
  2. If you don’t submit, you can’t be rejected
  3. If you aren’t rejected, you can’t learn
  4. If you can’t learn, you can’t improve
  5. If you can’t improve, then why bother?

Let me touch on each of these points.

If you don’t write something, you can’t submit

Of all these rules, I think this is the one that applies universally to everyone. It is also the one closest to Heinlein’s first rule. Even if you are a famous person, who can be virtually guaranteed being published, you still have to send something in. And in order to send something in, something has to be written. Writers like to talk about writing. Those who are the more successful writers that I know (and by “successful”, I mean they sell more stories or books) are the ones who actually sit down and write. Talk is one thing, writing is another. Writing is the single most difficult part of becoming a writer. This is why you have to love to write, not just to talk about writing or to dream about writing. You have to be able to create something, even if the process is sometimes painful. You have to be able to finish it, look at it, think about it, get feedback on it, be willing to accept criticism, edit it, fix it up, clean up all the typos, prepare a manuscript. You have to be able and willing to do all of that if you are going to submit somthing.

But I’ll tell you that while the hardest part of the process is writing, it is also the most rewarding. You are telling a story, hopefully a good one. That’s what it is all about for me: trying to tell the best possible story that you can.

If you don’t submit, you can’t be rejected

I have discovered that while some people can write (and finish) stories, those same people find it very difficult to send a story off to a market. They either write and rewrite endlessly trying to produce something “perfect”. Or they are afraid of rejection. If you are going to be a writer–at least a science fiction writer–you have to learn to deal with rejection because it plays a crucial role in becoming a writer. And if you never submit your stories: if you rework them to death; if you are afraid to send them in, well, then you’ll never be rejected. And that would be a very sad thing.

People who have never sent in a story before might fear that their story will be torn to shreds by an editor. That’s simply not true. Unless the story is extraordinary, you will most likely get an impersonal rejection slip that reads something like this:

Dear Mr. Rubin,

Thank you for showing us, “In the Cloud”. Unfortunately we cannot use it at this time. Given the high volume of submissions we receive, we cannot respond personally to each piece. Good luck with this story elsewhere.

Sincerely,

The Editor

Seriously. That’s all. Pretty painless. Just about every writer I know has a vast collection of these letters. Over time, hopefully, the content of the rejection slips will change–as I will discuss in the next section. But just getting your stories out there is key to progressing. Remember  also that it is the story that is being rejected, not the writer.

There may be writers out there who never received a rejection in their life but I can think of only two kinds: (1) prodigies; and (2) those who never submit.

If you aren’t rejected, you can’t learn

Why do you want to be rejected? Because if you aren’t rejected, you can’t learn. This will be hard at first, because if your experience is anything like mine, your early rejections will be mostly form letters. (Check out the litany of rejection slips that Scott Edelman has been posting.) But every once in a while, something about the story will strike the editor and you’ll get some valuable feedback. Those rejection letters are like gold nuggets: you can learn a lot from them. Even if you don’t agree with the editor’s reasoning for rejecting the story, you can learn a little bit about how they think. And remember, editors do have experience in knowing what makes a good story (what sells) and what doesn’t, so this is some valuable information. One of the earliest rejection letters of this kind (“the personal rejection” we call them) I ever received was for a story I sent to Algis Budrys at TOMORROW. This was back in 1995 when I had been writing with the intent to sell for about 2 years:

Dear Jamie:

Thank you for showing me “[Story Title]”. Although it was generally consistent, and often clever, it was not quite right for Tomorrow’s audience. Working for that audience can, sometimes, be pretty tricky.

I’m sorry. I’m very sorry; the front part of the story is extraordinary, and the introduction of the fact that it’s not Earth is very effective. But after that, the invention flags.

Best,

Algis Budrys

You can learn quite a bit from a letter like that if you are willing to put in some work. I learned two things from that rejection. First, I felt like I was getting better at writing the opening of a story. This letter confirmed that. (I’ll talk more about beginnings tomorrow.) Second, my endings were weak and I needed to work on ways to carry through what was “extraordinary” all the way to the end. How? At the time I didn’t know, but it was something I kept consciously in mind while I wrote new stories.

If you can’t learn, you can’t improve

Which all comes down to: if you can’t learn from your rejections, you can’t improve. Rejections are how most writers learn to become better writers. You can read books on how to write bestselling novels, or screenplays or short stories. You can read blogs posts like this one until you are blue in the face. But when it comes down to it, the best feedback you can get it from an editor in your field telling you what works and what doesn’t work in a story.

And you want to improve. Because the more you improve, the more personal the rejections will become, the more helpful. This is because editors remember things. They remember writers who submit. If you submit something, get a rejection with some feedback, and submit something else, that editor might recognize improvements in your writing, see that you are trying, and continue to offer you feedback and encouragement.

This happened to me. I always wanted to write for Analog. It was one of the first magazines I submitted to when I started out writing (and before I really knew how to write) way back in 1993. I collected a nice stack of form-letter rejections from that magazine for many years. Three years ago, however, I sent a story to Analog and received back a page long rejection slip from Stan Schmidt, editor over there. It contained good feedback both on the content of the story and ven the grammar. I could learn from all of it. But most importantly, he told me he liked my writing and wanted me to submit again. I did submit again, and got back another page-long letter with more critical feedback. This one focused on some of the science, what worked and what didn’t, as well as what Analog readers were looking for. Eventually, I submitted another story, one in which I felt I kept in mind the various issues I’d learned from Stan.

I sold that story. It was my third professional sale, but my first to Analog.

If you can’t improve, why bother?

Writers differ in their goals, but I am always trying to improve. I want to write the best possible stories I can write, and I want each one to be better than the last. In part this is because I believe in doing the best I can possibly do in anything I try. But it is also because as a writer you have an audience and I want the audience for whom I write to get the best from me that they can get.

I think that all writers, regardless of where they are in their career, should keep this question in mind. You constantly strive to better yourself, to hone your skill set, to try new things. If you are not trying to improve than why bother writing at all?

Tomorrow, I’ll talk specifically about story beginnings. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. If you are another writer, what advice do you have for writers who are starting out? If you are just starting out, what are your concerns? Your fears? What has worked for you and what hasn’t?