I had an occasion a few days ago to revisit on the web Robert Heinlein’s rules of writing, and to reconsider as to how I felt about them. For those who are not familiar with the rules, laid down by the iconic sci-fi author, here they are.
- You must write. (Of course.)
- You must finish what you start. (Obviously.)
- You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order. (What?)
- You must put your story on the market. (How else will it get published?)
- You must keep it on the market until it has sold. (Again . . . )
All sound worthwhile, don’t they? Well, let’s see.
I like the rules, and don’t have any real problem with them, with the exception of Rule No. 3. Many other writers have also commented on these rules, and I invite you to search the web with your favorite search engine (there are other search engines than Google out there; I use Ixquick a lot) to find commentaries on these rules. Some of my comments here are reflected in these other commentaries.
Basically, the rules are common sense. If you want to be a published author, you have to write something to begin with, finish it, and send it out. It almost certainly will be rejected, so send it out again. And again. And so forth. The real problem I have with the rules comes in the third one.
I’m not sure exactly what Heinlein meant by refraining from writing “except to editorial order,” and it seems to be open to interpretation. Some authors, notably Dean Wesley Smith, interpret it literally. Smith, for example, writes a particular piece straight through without any outline or other helpful device, then goes through it once to check minor things such as spelling, punctuation, and so forth. Then he sends it out. It works for him. Others, such as Robert J. Sawyer, suggest Heinlein meant to not “tinker endlessly with your story,” but it is acceptable to go through it to polish and refine. Others, such as J.W. Alden, will tell you to smash the rule “into pieces.”
I’m not so sure I feel like Mr. Alden, but it is clear to me that rule #3 is either unworkable, or at best, misleading. Especially to a novice such as myself. I’ve written several novels and short stories, and every one has been revised and polished many times. Okay, perhaps that’s no good. Perhaps I’m tinkering too much with it. Smith would tell me so. But for the beginning writer who comes upon those rules and attempts to follow them to the letter, I think the third rule will be their downfall. For someone just starting out, no matter how many times they send out a piece after following Rule No. 3, it’s likely to never get published. Rules four and five, then, will be useless. Writing is revising, and a piece has to be well done in order to get published.
Rule No. 3 is especially true after NaNoWriMo. If you’re coming off an intense November with a “finished” novel, expecting to send it out and get it published just because you read through it once, you’re very likely way off the mark. Unless you are Dean Wesley Smith or someone else experienced enough to actually pull it off. I’m sure as hell not.
Even these blog posts are not just typed and posted. After I finish each one I read through them four or five times or more (yes, Mr. Smith, 4 or 5 times) before I hit the “Publish” button in the upper right hand corner of the screen. I look at spelling, punctuation, sentence order and structure, phrasing, paragraph order, references, imagery, concept generation, total word count, and anything else I can spot. I don’t just pop it up there. I want it to make sure it says what I want it to say, and says it well. Even then, when I look at some of the older posts I’ve made, I still find things I could change.
All of my works have been similarly evaluated. They’ve got to be absolutely perfect before I send them out. Perhaps that’ll be my downfall, but I don’t think so. Everyone who has read anything I’ve written has commented on how “clean” the manuscript is (i.e., free of errors). Maybe they didn’t like the work (that’s a matter of opinion) but it certainly wasn’t because of simple mistakes that can easily be corrected. It is true that works of art, especially written works, are never finished, only abandoned. But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon a work after a simple cursory inspection. I think you can do better than that. Make it good. (See my blog on good vs. best.)
Now if you will excuse me, I have to re-read this blog post to make it better.
In today’s all-or-nothing society, where everything has to be the absolute best there is, where every day has to be totally awesome and worthy of inclusion in the history books, where everyone is expected to perform at maximum intensity all day long, and where multi-tasking is not simply an uncommon though admirable character trait but an absolute job requirement, I believe we have begun to confuse the distinction between what is “best,” and what is merely “good.” So often we are expected to be “the best,” or produce “the best” or see “the best.” Good is, so often, not good enough. We have ultimate expectations on our hands. Much of what we read, see, hear and experience is touted as “the best,” as though nothing else is acceptable. Like the character of Barney in the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” every day has to be exceptionally awesome to the point of nauseous exhaustion. Almost weekly, award shows give out awards for the best of this, that, or the other. As I write this, the Cincinnati Bengals have just beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers to move to a season record of 7-0, and they are being considered as Super Bowl contenders. The winner of the Super Bowl is, and rightly so, the best in the NFL for that year. But will the Bengals be “the best?” Everyone waits, breathless. (Note in passing, I used to live in Cincinnati, and so still follow the Bengals during football season.)
But there’s a profound difference between “the best,” and “good.” As a writer, I am expected to produce written material that is not only good, but “the best.” Contests for writers abound. For short stories, for poetry, for first novels, etc. Submit and win, they say, as though that were a simple matter. Winning a contest can boost your career. Sure, but only one person wins a contest. And if you lose, does that mean you weren’t “the best?” Horrors.
Take the Oscars, or the Emmys, for example. These are two of the best known “best” shows. Always the emphasis is on what is the best: the best show or movie or song or performer or director or producer of special effects, or whatnot. It’s always “the best,” as though good has nothing to do with it. It’s vitally important to keep in mind that those awards are simply for what was best during the previous season. Nothing is ever said about how “good” the show or movie or actor or director really is. Was the winner of the Oscar for the Best Movie of 20-whatever really any “good” to begin with? Now, to be sure, so many movies are made and so many TV shows are produced each year that by the law of averages, one or a few are almost certain to be “good.” Maybe even excellent. But let us never lose sight of the real question we should ask of any award. Was it really any good in the first place?
As a writer, I look to the book awards perhaps more critically than the movie awards. The Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and many others. I particularly like the fact that a Pulitzer award may not always be given out if the judges can’t agree on a winner. That happened for fiction in 2012, in 1977, 1971, 1964, 1957, and several times earlier. This happens when they can’t agree on a winner, though we generally make the assumption that the finalists for that year were very good to begin with.
In my opinion, good trumps best in most cases. I try to write a good novel or short story. It may be the best I can do, but did I make it any good, regardless of whether it wins a prize? The fact that so many agents and publishers have rejected my novels makes me wonder if what I wrote was any good at all, but I persevere with an eye toward eventual publication. This is one reason I don’t want to self-publish. There’s no way to really know if what I wrote is any good or not without some form of validation in the broader publishing world. I would certainly hate to write a lousy novel and put it out there.
Over the past several years, I’ve read a few manuscripts from friends and fellow authors (published as well as unpublished) in a situation where I’ve been asked to comment on the writing and give feedback. Some have been good, some not so good. Of the manuscripts I’ve read, two general mistakes seem to be more common than others. I’m referring specifically to the incorrect use of “lie” vs. “lay,” and the use of an unclear antecedent for a pronoun. I’m going to concentrate on the former in this post, and leave the latter for another day.
It’s entirely possible my comments here about “lie” vs. “lay” won’t be any different than a lot of others you may have read, because trying to describe the difference between them comes down to their basic definition. Perhaps, though, by sheer constant repetition writers will come to learn the difference between the two. So here’s my take on the distinction.
The verb “to lie” (ignoring it’s use in telling a fib) is intransitive. That is, it does not require a direct object to complete the action. (Remember all those direct objects you learned in high school English?) A transitive verb does. The “trans-” part means a going across, or movement. Like transport, or translation, or something similar. In other words, the action of the verb is being carried across. That means a transitive verb implies some sort of action is being carried out, and the direct object completes that action. So, “to lie,” being intransitive, doesn’t have that object. An intransitive verb is complete by itself. “I lie on the bed,” is present tense. “I lay on the bed,” past tense. In these cases, “the bed” is the object of the preposition “on”, and not a direct object. It doesn’t matter what I lie on, the action is complete in itself. I’m simply lying there. The past participle of “lie” is “lain.” For example, “By tomorrow at 4PM, I will have lain on the bed.” That’s future perfect.
The verb “to lay,” on the other hand, is transitive. It requires a direct object to complete the action. “To lay” implies that some object is placed somewhere. “I lay the umbrella on the bed,” present tense. “I lay on the bed,” used alone in its present tense meaning is, strictly, incorrect. Any form of “lay” requires an object to complete the action. The past tense of “lay” is “laid.” “I laid the umbrella on the bed yesterday.” The past participle is also “laid.” “By tomorrow at 4 PM, I will have laid the umbrella on the bed.”
Undoubtedly the confusion comes from the fact that the word “lay” occurs in both meanings. I’ve seen “lay” in such a construction as “I decided to lay on the bed and take a nap,” several times, and although it’s not correct, it is fairly common. I’ve heard it in speech as well. If I can offer any way of distinguishing between the two, it would be to look for some sort of object that is the recipient of the action. If you’re just going to recline on the bed, use “lie.” If you’re going to put something on the bed, use “lay.”
Now I think I’ll go take a nap.
I went to see the movie “The Martian” about a week ago and was impressed. I thought it well done, well-acted within limits, and all around a good show. I’m not ready to add it to my list of favorite movies (which you can access on this blogsite), but I liked it. Some reviewers have said they felt Matt Damon was miscast as the astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars when all his buddies leave the surface because of a tremendous wind and sand storm that threatens to blow over their ascent vehicle, but I disagree. I felt he did a good job. To continue the plot line, his comrades have to make a decision whether to go or not. If they don’t , the vehicle could be tipped over and everyone will be stranded. So the thrust of the story is to get the one stranded astronaut off the surface alive, and get him back to Earth. An interesting concept.
I’m putting aside here the one glaring mistake in the movie (and in the book) that a wind/sand storm on Mars could blow over a spaceship. In reality, it wouldn’t have enough force to do that because the atmosphere is so thin that even at one hundred miles an hour, there’s too little air to move. If you suspend belief in that one fact, the movie becomes logical and reasonable, and I highly recommend it. What I want to focus on for the sake of this post is the relationship between the book and the movie.
During the movie, I found myself thinking about the detail in the book that wasn’t in the movie. Movies are great, as I’ve stated before, for doing special effects. And “The Martian” was no different. I was impressed by the spaceships, the habitat on the Martian surface, the Martian landscape, and so forth. But the book is so much more detailed than the movie. Many things that were just glossed over in the movie were treated in considerable detail in the book. The author, Andy Weir, goes into a lot of detail in many places. Especially, I remember, about how Watney was going to travel from the habitat where he’d been living, to an ascent vehicle that would get him off the surface. He had to travel several hundred kilometers and Weir went into considerable detail about the trip, working out the details, how much energy it would take, loading the rover vehicle that would take him there, and so forth. In the movie, Watney simply did it, and left much to the viewers to figure out for themselves. It works, and you can handle the situation that way, but the book is better.
Additionally, Watney in the book expresses himself more. Rarely does Watney in the movie lose his cool, yet he did several times in the book. This, I feel, is the one real drawback to the movie. Watney is almost too cool.
All this reveals the real drawbacks about translating a book onto the screen. Detail can be lost, and this kept bothering me. Perhaps it’s my scientific training, but I would have liked to hear more about what Watney was going to do as the movie went along. I realize, of course, that that would make the movie horribly long, and the producers had to cut something. As it was, the movie was 141 minutes anyway. That’s 2 hours and 21 minutes, long for a movie. Any more detail would certainly have been boring and interminable, and the producers did the best they could. If you want detail, read the book. This is another reason why I feel that if any of my sci-fi books ever get published I will not let a movie be made from them (assuming someone wants to in the first place). Books are more detailed, and in that detail lies the essentials of the plot. Read the book. Make up your own mind. Savor the detail. That’s what a book is for.
The post I put up last week—just below this one—had to do with not describing everything in a piece of writing. I generally write fiction (novels and short stories) but that admonition applies to non-fiction as well. Keep description short, I said, just enough to allow the story line to flow from the page into the reader’s mind. Let the reader imagine everything else in his/her mind’s eye. Let the reader fill in the details. Keep it simple, stupid. (That’s the KISS philosophy.) In short, never tell the reader what to think. Now I want to take that concept in a slightly different direction.
It’s that word “details” that’s important in writing. Details get filled in by the reader. This has the effect of allowing the reader to stay focused on the action. I know I like to follow the action of a novel I’m reading if the writer hasn’t peppered it with too many details. I like to visualize it on my own. The more details I fill in by myself, the more I enjoy the book I’m reading. I have a difficult time with manuscripts that try to cram in too much detail in the narrative. I can get confused, wondering if the details of the action are those of the author or my own. I don’t want to be told everything, I want to imagine it.
That’s where, as the title of this post demonstrates, movies come in. Movies are great at showing action, but they show everything. Car chases, airplane dogfights, love scenes, you name it and its all there, put on the screen for the audience to see. Movies are a descendent of the stage play, of course. Plays existed for thousands of years before Edison invented the motion picture camera. Playing things out on the screen in all their glory is a time-honored way to provide an exciting and entertaining time for all of us. And motion pictures can do things that would be impossible in a stage play. Can you imagine the chariot race in Ben-Hur on the stage?
But isn’t that the problem with transferring novels to the screen? The novel is, if done correctly, a medium of minimalism. Minimal description that allows the reader the chance of experiencing the action in his mind. Taking a novel to the screen removes that chance. The movie does it all for you. It shows you everything—what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms—in short, everything. These are two different ways of doing the same thing.
I like movies that didn’t come from a book. Star Wars and Star Trek, for example. (Books have been written using the Star Wars and Star Trek characters, but they came after the movie.) When you watch a movie, everything is done for you. The plot may have twists and turns you couldn’t see coming, but the details are spelled out. A novel gives you more chance to immerse yourself into the action. You have to do more. You don’t have the advantage of someone else showing you. And that is why I have decided, provisionally, at least, not to allow my books (if they ever get published) to be optioned or purchased for the screen. Either the big or small screen. I want the reader to imagine what is going on. Not see it as imagined by some movie company. Never tell the reader what to think. And that’s just what a movie does.
I’ve become a proponent over the past few years of taking a minimalistic approach to the description of characters in a story. Whether it be a novel or a short story, or anything in between, the less description an author can give to a character, the better. Within reason, of course. The reason has to do with my favorite admonition to the writer which is not “Show, don’t tell,” but rather, “Never tell the reader what to think.” Let the reader make up his own mind about a character. Allow the reader the opportunity and privilege of devising in his/her own mind’s eye the image of the character. That could extend to almost anything other than people—buildings, terrain and landscapes, interiors, plants, animals, anything that can be described. Minimal is the word. Let’s take the example of Captain Bill.
Captain Bill shows up in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, very early in the book. In the second paragraph of the first page, to be exact. He’s described minimally by Stevenson as “a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man” with a tarry pigtail, and a sabre-cut along one cheek. A few other adjectives complete the description, but that’s all. Captain Bill doesn’t last very long in the story; in my edition of the book, he’s dead by page 30 (and that’s in a book where the text doesn’t begin until page 11). Captain Bill is the figure who owns the map that leads the main character, young Jim Hawkins, and his companions on the trip to recover the treasure. We’re never privileged know Captain Bill’s last name. We’re never even sure if he was really a captain, though Hawkins says he “seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike.” When another character, Black Dog, appears, he calls him “my mate Bill” only. Thus we, as readers, are left with a short description and several limited scenes of Captain Bill interacting with Hawkins, his mother and father, and a few others on which to draw our mental image.
Yet Captain Bill looms large over the story. He introduces us to the general tone of character we see in others who stick around for the rest of the story, including during the voyage to recover the treasure. People like Long John Silver, (the man with one leg), and Israel Hands, the scheming first mate. Stevenson doesn’t bog us down in overbearing description and detail. Our image of the man is based more on what he does and how he acts than on simple description.
I took this concept to mind when composing the description of a character in one of my science-fiction novels. I originally had, in the first few paragraphs of the novel, a detailed description of the main character. I did it because I felt the reader needed to know what he looked like. I also did it because I had read the first couple of paragraphs of a novel by Tom Wolfe (of Right Stuff fame) where he indulged in a long description of his main character right at the front of the book. I figured that since Tom Wolfe is a well-known novelist, then if he can do it, I can too. Not necessarily.
I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that minimal is better. Let the reader supply the details in his mind. Never tell the reader what to think. Get in and get out. This is true even in science fiction. It’s less boring that way.