Monday, May 06, 2013

Grading Myself on the Heinlein Scale

It's getting close to the end of the school year in this country.  The "Dad's & Grads" commercials are about to air.  I thought that an appropriate thing to do would be to give myself a writing grade. 
To do that, I've decided to us the Heinlein Rules of Writing.  Just about every wanna-be science fiction writer has heard of them.  They are the five steps Robert Heinlein, the deceased Grand Master of science fiction, said an aspiring writer has to take to become a published writer.  For anyone not familiar with them, they are:
Rule One - You must write.
Rule Two - You must finish what you write. 
Rule Three - You must refrain from rewriting EXCEPT by editorial order.
Rule Four - You must submit what you finish.
Rule Five - You must keep submitting the story until it is accepted and published. 

If these rules were provided in a college syllabus on writing, I figure they'd each be worth 20 points, for a total score of 100.  A nice, round, evaluation number.  So, how would I grade myself? 
Rule One - You must Write. 
I do pretty well at this rule.  I write pretty much every day.  The only days I missing my writing session are when "Reality," most typically things related to work these days, rears its ugly head to take that time away from me.  This happens most usually on weekends when I have to either 1) go into work on a Saturday to get stuff done or 2) recuperate from having to work too long hours during the work week to get stuff done.  But even then, I'll do my best to put my time in and get some words done. 
I even keep track of them.  Since the beginning of this year, for example, I've written 158,819 words (as of Sunday, May 5th).  That includes words written directly for the scenes and chapters of the projects that I'm working on, plus the words written down in my "word palettes," sort of a verbal sketchpad for the project, as well this blog, plus the tweets used to promote my writing.  It doesn't count the words that I write in my journal, which are written in long hand and are difficult to count, but which lead directly to the ideas for new projects and ways to handle current ones. 
If you take all of the people out there that say that want to write, I would hazard a guess that when it comes to this rule, I'm way ahead of most. 
Score: 20 out of 20 points. 
Rule Two - You must Finish what you Write.
Heinlein believed that you could not develop as a writer unless you actually produced finished drafts of stories.  It was the only way to learn how to develop a plot, build suspense, working on pacing and characterizations, etc.  Starting a bunch of stories and then dropping them to start something else didn't cut it.  It was only after you took an idea and fleshed it out into a completed draft that you gave yourself something to work with. 
This is another area where I think I do pretty well at, though I do have a bit of a caveat to go with that assertion.  I do have a bunch of unfinished stories that in my file.  These are project files where I had "something" that I wanted to see.  An opening scene that appeared in my head.  An opening line that I wanted to find out what it meant, who said it and why.  An idea for something that I wanted to see the implications of.  Sometimes, though, after writing out this little...  "Story seed" I guess I'll call them, I would discover that there wasn't much else there.  Not enough to use to actually complete a story.  
The act of writing for me is as much one of discovery as it is expression, and there are a lot of false starts in my process. 
But I do finish a lot of drafts, too.  And these "story seeds" are not abandoned.  Not completely.  I revisit them from time to time to see if I've discovered something, or have another fragment to add to them that will allow them to become full-fledged stories.  Once that happens, I work on them until I have their finished draft. 
So, if I'm allowed to look at these not-yet-finished stories as seeds germinating in my head until they take root and grow, then I feel comfortable scoring myself pretty well on this rule as well.
Score: 20 out of 20. 
Rule Three - You must Refrain from Rewriting EXCEPT by Editorial Order.
This one is tricky.  The general consensus, from the blogs of other writers commenting on Heinlein's rules, is that he wasn't saying that you should never rewrite period.  But that you shouldn't continue to tinker and change a story forever, never doing anything with it.  Stories, it is said, are never finished, they are merely abandoned.  When you can't make them any better than they are right now, that's when you should give them up to others, specifically the editors buying stories to fill their magazines.  If they ask you to make changes to it, then you do it.  As long as doing so doesn't violate the story you're trying to tell. 
I tend to rewrite a lot.  I tend to rewrite for a long time.  One reason is due to the aforementioned impulse to discover what I'm trying to say.  It sometimes takes me a pass or two through a story to figure that out. 
Another reason, which is more problematic, is a desire to make the story as good as I can make it.  And this is where I may be failing this rule.  I hate rejection.  I know, from experience and an understanding of the situation, that any story I send out is very likely going to be rejected.  I do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen.  Maybe I'm doing too much in that regard.  Maybe 
I should be getting to "the best I can do," as fast as possible and moving on to the next big thing. 
This is an area I know I should improve in.  I'm not really sure how.
Score: 15 out of 20.  I might be a bit generous here, but 10 out of 20 honestly seems too low. 
Rule Four - You must Submit what you Finish.
This is a rule I don't do well.  Getting to that point where I say, "It's time to send this out," is so very, very hard for me to do. 
Right now we're at the beginning of May and I've yet to submit a new story this year.  That is bad.  I can give myself the excuse that I've been working on my novel since the start of the year, which I want to start submitting by the time WorldCon comes around at the end of August.  But there is a feeling that saying that IS an excuse.  I have story drafts that I finished last year and set aside, to give myself some distance I tell myself, that I have yet to rewrite and submit. 
I think this is due mostly to fear.  Submitting a story is like purposefully putting my hand in the flame of an open burner on my stove.  While the hope for success is there, the belief in the worthiness of what I've done is strong, the certainty that it's going to come back rejected makes me hold back.
When I was a freshman in college, I once had a girl laugh in my face when I asked her out on a date.  If having a story rejected stung only that much, it would be so much easier to face.
But I set myself on this path and I need to find a way to do better at this. 
Score: 5 out of 20.  The facts don't lie. 
Rule Five - You must Keep Submitting the Story UNTIL it is Accepted and Published. 
This is also a tricky one, but I'm not sure it's all my fault. 
The market was different in Heinlein's day.  The number of magazines that publish fiction has shrunk, and pay you to do so, has shrunk.  And the rates they pay are almost identical to what they paid back in Heinlein's day. 
I also tend to write fairly big.  My average story is around 7,000 words.  That counts as a large short story or a novelette.  When I read the requirements of most publishers, they are asking for pieces around 5,000 words AT THE MOST.  Their ranges are usually smaller, three to four thousand words. 
I've often heard it said that you should let the story decide how big it needs to be.  But if it needs to be bigger than what most people buying them want, what do you do? 
Once I start submitting a story, I'm pretty good at keeping it out there.  For a while at least.  With a lot of publishers accepting electronic submissions, I'm not even out the cost of postage any more.  But it usually only takes a dozen submissions or so for me to exhaust the markets that accept the type of story I'm submitting, of that size, etc.  Often I'll find a publisher whose requirements match the story I'm trying to submit, but they've announced they are closed for submissions "for the foreseeable future." 
I don't know what to do about this one.  Start submitting to places that have rejected it before?  Not a good idea.
Score: 10 out of 20.  I need to do better, but the environment is what it is.  I need to figure out how to adapt. 
My grade: 70 out of 100.  It's been a while since I've been in school, but I figure that's about a low"C" grade.  Hmm.  Not bad, but not good enough for me. 
I wonder if there is a writer's summer school I can go to.   


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