By A.C. James
After publishing a kinky little scene as an experiment in indie publishing, I had an old friend and fellow nerd ask me how this writing thing works. Since they knew me for many years, I shortened their learning curve exponentially by sharing what I have gleaned from my own experience or learned from other authors at workshops and conferences. However, there are countless blog posts and articles on how to publish your manuscript. If you read my blog there are even a few blogs that I find exceptionally helpful or inspiring listed under ‘Blogs for Writers’ on the right-hand side. Just scroll down to the bottom, click, and start reading. We’ve moved beyond the basic dial-up BBS. This is the twenty-first century and everyone now knows how to use Google. I won’t begin to bore you or waste my time on information that if you’re truly serious about this writing thing, you will find infinite sources that vary in degrees of helpfulness, often cranking out conflicting points of view.
Nevertheless, for anyone born in my decade or close approximation to it, you may remember the great philosopher of film—the character Doug in Cocktail with his Coughlin’s Laws. “Never show surprise, never lose your cool,” a rather suitable piece of advice for aspiring writers. But I prefer five simple rules that every writer should follow—Heinlein’s Rules. These five rules coined by the late, great Robert A. Heinlein have been my guidepost through the ever changing sea of publishing. Statistically, if we start each rule with one hundred people who say they want to be writers, only half will remain after each rule because they fail to follow it. And I’ll share all five of Heinlein’s Rules with you and add two addendums of my own.
Rule One: You Must Write
Duh. Sounds incredibly simple, right? It’s a lot harder than one might think. I’ve given up many nights that could be wasted in front of the television, or sitting beside my fire pit with a glass of wine, and gaming… forget it. Then again I’m a cord cutter and I depend on my Winegard 7696 in combination with direct streaming from my computer being hooked up to my plasma TV via HDMI hookup. Ok, yeah… I’m a geek. But I’ll take Heinlein one step further. If you want to write—read. That usually doesn’t need to be said because most writers are avid readers. Then again you wouldn’t think that you need to tell someone who is aspiring to be a writer to write. Usually, I aim for about 2000 words per day. With two children that are under the age of five this isn’t always manageable. Still I plug away at it, day by day, and usually write anywhere from 500 to 1,500 words on any given day. Once I managed to write 4K one afternoon while sitting on the patio with my laptop, sipping merlot. Generally speaking that’s not the case. The one thing you can invest in above all else is time. Make time to write and make writing part of your life. Be patient with yourself and give yourself the time to be a better writer. Rome wasn’t built in a day and a book wasn’t written in one either! Now out of our imaginary one hundred aspiring writers, half will never actually get around to writing a damn thing.
Rule Two: Finish What You Start
You cannot learn how to write, if you don’t see a story through to its end. A story is not a story without a beginning, middle, and ending. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about outlining, discovery writing, editing as you go, or the snowflake method but until you’ve actually done the thing it is you’re trying to learn to do, you will not learn how to do it. We all learned how to ride a bike. We didn’t learn how to do it by simply watching. When we first drove a car it was with jerking and jarring motion that left our parents grinding their teeth in the passenger seat. Over time driving became smooth and second nature. Writing is a skill. When learning any new skill it takes practice and commitment to master that skill. A messy first draft is better than a half-finished pile of rubbish that sits in a file on your computer collecting digital dust. First drafts can be revised to develop plot twists, add suspense or tension, and character growth. These cannot be accomplished or mastered without completing an entire story arc. For heaven’s sake, if you belong to a critique group only listen to comments that are reoccurring themes. Those comments that are repeated or murmured unanimously can signal a weakness or problem with your writing that needs to be addressed. If only a chapter is critiqued there may be instances that ‘helpful’ advice might simply be readers viewing information as unnecessary that very well might be relevant fifty pages down the line. Not all critique groups are created equal. Some feel like support groups for failed writers. Yet others are endless social hours with stale coffee filled with writers that are only superficially interested in publishing their manuscripts. They’re a lot of fun but you won’t become a better writer by attending these social soirees. Now out of our fifty imaginary aspiring writers, half will never finish a manuscript—leaving only twenty five hopefuls 😉
Rule Three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
Being a parent I’ve watched my fair share of Mister Rogers, Sesame Street, and Reading Rainbow. My kids get the old school because in my opinion it’s the last time children’s programming was half way decent. However, in a moment of weakness I caved to my four year old daughter’s puppy dog eyes when she saw Tinker Bell on the cover of a dvd lodged in a five dollar bin. After watching this dvd with my daughter I discovered that Tinker Bell became a ‘tinker’ because she liked to endlessly take things apart. Don’t screw with your story to no end. Yes, you must polish a story but eventually a story needs completion. Well how do I know my story is complete? When you find you’re rewriting your story to previous stages it’s time to put it to rest. If your story is close to publishable and you’re seeking traditional publishing, an agent or editor that’s interested in your genre will tell you what it needs to be salable. If you find yourself constantly meddling with your story and you intend to pursue indie publishing, now would be a good time to enlist a freelance editor. Enlisting a freelance editor is a project within itself. It would require an entire blog post, so I won’t delve into it here. Of our remaining twenty-five aspiring writers, twelve will continue to screw endlessly with their story. They will become bitter self-proclaimed perfectionists that thrive on pointing out the inadequacies of other writers in unhelpful critiques—calling other writers retarded gerbils that are trying to eat their own heads. Twelve more will actually declare their story complete while the twenty-fifth writer that we halved with a machete is dragging themselves along by their arms and trying to locate their ass.
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
This is perhaps the scariest and most liberating step. Unfortunately, some writers never get past it. I still remember the first time someone read what I wrote. My mother had intruded on my personal space and read some poetry I had stashed away. While her words were surprisingly encouraging, my privacy had been invaded and I felt it was a betrayal for her to read something I wasn’t ready to share. If you want to be a writer, you have to put yourself out there. When you put yourself out there, you open yourself up to criticism. Even seasoned authors sometimes have a hard time dealing with reviews.
If you don’t stop being a “paleface mealy-mouth ninny” and indie publish your manuscript or submit it to an agent or editor, you’ll never even get to the point where you want to wig out over a review. You may be a writer but you can’t call yourself an author, unless someone is paying you. My daughter may put a plastic crown on my head and I may feel like a queen, but that doesn’t make it so. If your family and friends are the only ones to validate your writing—it doesn’t count. Every writer has faced rejection. Send your story out. If you receive a rejection letter that actually has specific suggestions rather than a form letter, there might be something to it. Take it or leave it and then send it out again. You won’t learn how to properly query or put together a synopsis and sample pages unless you do it. Fortunately, you no longer have to wait for an agent to take an interest. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit then you can take the leap that so many have taken before you and do it yourself. And this doesn’t mean pay someone else to do it for you! Out of our twelve remaining aspiring writers, only six will actually be brave enough to submit their manuscript or enter the world of indie publishing. Their manuscripts will sit unpublished on their hard drives because of negative self-talk and infinite excuses. This leaves only six.
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it Sells
This goes for those who consider traditional publishing the only valid and acceptable path for their manuscript and as I’ve said many times—there’s lots of different ways to cook an egg. Your writing will face rejection and if you’re like most of us epic word warriors you will hear the word, “No,” a lot. So you’d better damned well get used to hearing it. Eventually, your story will find a home when your story is ready and it hits the right desk. An agent or editor’s view of your writing is very subjective. However, as a rule of thumb if you’ve submitted your writing to a particular agent or editor three times and the answer has been a resounding no—move on. Your name might be synonymous with no. That’s not saying anything about you personally or your writing. It simply means that your particular writing style or voice doesn’t jive with that particular agent or editor. That’s not a bad thing because you want to work with someone who likes what you write and wants to sell it to the best of their ability or work with you to edit it. Make a spread sheet with names, addresses and/or e-mail, notes, and the date of your submission. Life is short. Please simultaneously submit your manuscript, just don’t do it blindly or to multiple agents within the same agency. Keep at it. He who is published “was not the least bit scared to be mashed into pulp, or to have his eyes gouged out, and his elbows broken. To have his kneecaps split, and his body burned away, and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin. His head smashed in and heart cut out, and his liver removed, and his bowels unplugged, and his nostrils raped and his bottom burned off and his penis…” That goes to demonstrate how long it has been since I’ve watched TV. Ok, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration. If you can tell me what that’s from, you’re just as big a nerd as I am. But I promise sending out your manuscript won’t be quite that painful. Although, I suppose I do miss the Walking Dead and I’ll have to catch up on what Sookie’s doing now that season six has started. Out of our imaginary six remaining writers, three will be so dejected by their first rejection it might very well be their last. They will give up and never send it out again. Be one of the other three and keep at it.
Rule Six: Always work on something else.
Edit one story, while writing another, and doing research for the next. That way you’re always producing something for your readers. While you’re doing all that don’t forget to blog, be social, and talk to your readers. Just don’t try to do any of these tasks while your children are awake. It will result in K-Y Jelly being smeared on your bay windows or patchouli oil spilled on your bed spread. No really. I’m not kidding. When your house becomes as quiet as a shadow, there’s chaos that warrants your investigation.
Rule Seven: The Post-It Note
Post-it notes are fabulous. I kept a post-it note attached to my computer screen that read: “I give myself permission to write a shitty first draft. I will fix it on revision.”
That is all. “As for the rest of Coughlin’s Laws, ignore them. The guy was always full of shit.”