Recently over at the Arlington Writers Group, we did a workshop session on “beginnings.” We each brought along the beginning to some novel or story that had been published (not our own) and then we read the first few paragraphs and discussed why the beginning worked or failed to work. It was an interesting exercise, but what was missing from it were all of the failed beginnings that never made it into print.
In this discussion of beginnings, I am sticking to what I know: short stories. It is possible that there are similarities between how short stories start and how novels start, but I am not a good judge of that since I don’t write the latter. Of course, this is based on my own experience, writing and selling science fiction short stories. With respect to beginnings, I think there are just a couple of things to keep in mind:
First, we always hear about the strong opening to a short story. You need to capture the reader’s attention quickly in order to keep them reading. This often leads to fantastic opening lines that simply can’t be sustained for the rest of the story. Before I ever sold a story, I was pretty good about coming up with opening lines, but I found it difficult to carry out what I started through the rest of the story. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d written a story, the beginning of which was praised by Algis Budrys when I submitted it to him–but, as he said, the ending flagged. I just couldn’t sustain what I’d done.
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:
- You must write
- Finish what you start
- Refrain from rewriting except to editorial order
- Put your story on the market
- 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:
- If you don’t write something, you can’t submit
- If you don’t submit, you can’t be rejected
- If you aren’t rejected, you can’t learn
- If you can’t learn, you can’t improve
- If you can’t improve, then why bother?
Let me touch on each of these points.
My friend, and fellow Arlington Writers Group member, Michael J. Sullivan has been writing a series of posts on writing advice for writers who are just getting their start. Michael knows what he is talking about. He is a best-selling e-book author of the Riyria Revelations series, which later this year will be re-released by Orbit Books. He’s written two posts in the series so far:
- Writing Advice, which provides an introduction to his series of posts
- Before the basics, which covers the more commons tools you might need as a writer.
I wish I’d has some of this advice when I was getting my start. Go check it out and keep an eye out for new posts in the series.
Wendy Wagner, one of the smart and savvy people over at Inkpunks has posted an excellent guide for beginners who want to write science fiction and fantasy. Go read it, and pay close attention to what she has to say because it is the truth and it works. I know, because that’s almost exactly how I went about becoming a science fiction writer.