What Heinlein’s Rules Mean to Me: An Excerpt

Today’s guest post is from longtime Kill Zone supporter and frequent commenter, Harvey Stanbrough. Harvey is a prolific (now that’s an understatement) writer and publisher who’s here to share his thoughts and experiences on Heinlein’s Rules for Writers and other interesting things… like writing Into the dark and cycling.

When Garry Rodgers invited me to write a guest post about Heinlein’s Rules for TKZ, as an adherent of the Rules and a long-time follower of TKZ, I was flattered. I considered simply offering up my annotated Heinlein’s Business Habits for Writers, but that didn’t feel like enough. It’s more of a what-to-do updated for the 21st century. It says nothing about why-to-do.

What follows is an excerpt from a compilation of five posts from my instructive almost-daily Journal. These posts comprise a would-be interview about Heinlein’s Business Habits for Writers and why, as a professional fiction writer, I personally find them essential.

This series was first published on my instructive from March 8 ­– March 12, 2021 at https://hestanbrough.com. You can download the entire article in PDF, free, by clicking https://harveystanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/What-Heinleins-Rules-Mean-to-Me.pdf.

Topic: Awhile Back: An Introduction to a Series on Heinlein’s Rules

Awhile back, I received a note from a writer who wanted to interview me about my adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. The purpose was so the writer could put up a blog post on the topic.

Later, the writer decided the post would be too long for their format. I agreed.

But the questions the writer asked, and the incidental comments the writer made, were absolutely typical (usually even word for word) of the questions and comments I’ve heard from writers at conferences and conventions for the past thirty years.

So I decided to use that writer’s questions and comments to post a series of topics here for the benefit of the few who read this Journal. Note: If the writer emails me to ask me to take this post down, I will do so. Then I will paraphrase the questions and comments and continue the series.

Some of this will hit home. Some of it might make you angry. Some of it will sound repetitious. I don’t mean any harm. In fact, I’ve added a disclaimer to the very end of every post now to maybe help satisfy detractors.

In my own experience, I’ve often found I had to hear something more than once or hear it said in a different way before I finally got it. It is in that spirit that I offer this and the following few posts on Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark, which really do go hand in hand.

First, here are Heinlein’s Rules so we’re all starting from the same place. As I’ve said many times, you can download a free PDF copy of Heinlein’s Rules (annotated) by clicking https://harveystanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Heinleins-Business-Habits-Annotated-2.pdf.

Heinlein first outlined his rules in Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing. Largely as an afterthought to his article, he wrote the following:

“I’m told that these articles are supposed to be some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.”

Then he lists what he calls his Business Habits:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

Note: Heinlein also add that if you follow these rules, eventually you would find some editor (reader) somewhere who would buy your work. Nothing could be more spot-on the money.

Here are some excerpts from the rest of the writer’s introduction, which contain some of those “typical” questions and comments I alluded to earlier and my responses:

Q: “It stands to reason that if we, as writers, spend the bulk of our time writing, we’re only going to improve. And if, instead of hopping from unfinished project to unfinished project or obsessing over a work to the point of ridiculousness, we move on to the next story, we’re going to spend more time writing. Which is the one thing we all need to do a lot of to succeed.”

Harvey: I agree in principle with this point. Instead of “hopping from unfinished project to unfinished project or obsessing over a work” at all, we should write the current story (even the very first) to the best of our ability, then publish it and move on to the next story.

But this isn’t only so we’ll “spend more time” writing. Writing a lot without learning and practice will not help you succeed. Practice (vs. hovering via revisions and rewrites) is what will help you succeed. To practice, you learn and then apply what you learned in the next story.

Never look back. Always look forward to the next technique to learn and the next story to write.

Q: “I have a few concerns with some of the rules to the point that I’ve never been able to embrace the process. … I’ve always wished I knew someone personally who follows Heinlein Rules so I could talk to them and see what they would say about my concerns.”

Harvey: You came to the right place. I was exactly the same way. Exactly. Which is to say I was filled with unreasoning fear. Unreasoning because there are no real consequences to writing a “bad” (in your opinon) story. The truth is, the world won’t stop if you write a “bad” story and not that much good will happen if you write a “good” (again, in your opinion) story. Your opinion of your work is still only one opinion.

To you, your original voice is boring because it’s with you 24/7. But to others, your original voice is unique and fresh. Given the chance to read your story, some will love it, some will hate it, and the majority will enjoy it—if you don’t polish your original voice off it.

Topic: Post 2 in the Heinlein’s Rules Series

Actually, more introductory stuff today, with some specifics on Heinlein’s Rules mixed in.

Q: To provide context, how long have you been using this process, how many books/stories have you been able to write, and what kind of success have you achieved?

Harvey: I first discovered Heinlein’s Rules and a technique called Writing Into the Dark in February 2014. I made the conscious decision to pull up my big boy pants and give it an honest try. And frankly I was amazed. Since then I’ve written over 220 short stories, 8 novellas and 70 novels. (And I didn’t write for almost 2 years of that time.)

That’s the real secret to Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark, if there is a secret: You have to dedicate yourself to pushing down your fears and really trying it for yourself. It helps to realize you have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain. You can always go back to writing the “old” way: outlining, revising, critique grouping, rewriting however many times, etc.

I started with short stories (one a week) and ended that streak with 72 short stories in 72 weeks, all written in accordance with Heinlein’s Rules, all written into the dark.

If you look at a mean average, that’s just over 8 novels per year for 7 years and just over 28 short stories per year in that same time period, plus 8 novellas scattered in.

But I expect to produce a lot more this year. I finished my 58th novel on March 2, but it was also the 4th novel I started and completed this year. So on average, I’m on track to write 20 novels this year alone. All because I found Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark, pushed my fears down and really tried them. The trust in the process came quickly after that.

My success is because I learn and then I write. I don’t hover. I use a process called “cycling” as I write. Some call it revision, but revision is a conscious-mind process and cycling is a creative-mind process. That’s the big difference, and it’s all-important.

Q: And what is “cycling”?

Harvey: When I return for the next writing session, I read what I wrote during the previous session. But I read as a reader, just enjoying the story, not critically as a writer. And I allow myself and my characters to touch the story as I go. When I get back to the blank space, I’m back into the flow of the story and I just keep writing.

I mentioned that I finished my 58th novel on March 2. On March 3 I started my 59th. I’m not quite 27,000 words into that one. My daily word count goal is 4,000 words of publishable fiction per day, but that’s only 4 hours out of the 24 that we are given in each day. In that regard, and measured against the old pulp writers (who wrote on manual typewriters) I am a total slacker.

Q: I’ve heard many (not all) writers who adhere religiously to Heinlein’s Rules poo-poo the things writers often do to improve their craft, such as attending conferences, reading books and blogs, taking courses, etc. I understand, I think, the principle here, that if you spend too much time doing those things, you’re not doing the actual writing. But there are some things that writing alone can’t fix; sometimes we need direct instruction from people who’ve been there to identify what’s wrong and learn how to address those issues. What are your thoughts on continuing education as an author?

Harvey: Not to be contrary, but on this point I have to disagree. I’ve never heard a writer who adheres to Heinlein’s Rules “poo-poo” doing anything to improve their craft. In fact, all of them stress learning as only a very close second in importance to actually writing.

That said, even a decade or so before the CovID panic, actual physical conferences were falling by the wayside, leaving only large, often unaffordable conferences. But I personally have always urged writers to attend conferences and even the much more affordable conventions that interested them, for networking opportunities if nothing else.

Today most of those opportunities are virtual, a concept I have trouble grasping. I need the physicality and the immediate back and forth between actual people. That said, I still recommend even virtual conferences if that’s something the writer is interested in.

Re reading books and blogs on writing, of course I recommend those and I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t. In fact, I often provide links to other resources in my Journal. And my author website at HarveyStanbrough.com is rich with writer resources.

My own personal caveat is that the writer should exercise due caution and check out the author of the book or blog. For example, if that person doesn’t write novels, s/he has no business teaching others how to write novels. Would you go to a car mechanic to learn the finer points of carpentry or medicine? And re taking courses, I urge writers to do so, again after investing the time to do due diligence.

The process I recommend is this: The aspiring or beginning or experienced fiction writer should

  1. write every story to the best of their current ability, not revise and rewrite their original voice off it, then publish it.
  2. take time to attend a class or lecture (online is fine) and then stick one technique they want to practice in the back of their mind when they start writing the next story and practice it as they write that story.
  3. then write that story to the best of their current ability, not revise and rewrite their original voice off it, then publish it.

Q: How easy is it for you to follow the rules?

Harvey: I find it extremely easy to follow HR1, 2, and 3. I’m dedicated to a daily word count goal of 4,000 words of publishable fiction (no drivel). Re HR1 and 2, I’m a fiction writer, so I write as part of my daily routine.

Re HR3, I don’t even allow my own critical, conscious mind into my work, so even the thought of allowing someone else to tell me how to “fix” the story that came out of my mind is ludicrous to me. As I’ve alluded to before, Rule 4 is the most difficult for me to follow because I’d much rather be writing the next story.

# # #

To read the rest of this article, download the free PDF: https://harveystanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/What-Heinleins-Rules-Mean-to-Me.pdf.

 # # #


Harvey Stanbrough was born in New Mexico, seasoned in Texas and baked in Arizona, so he’s pretty well done. For a time, Harvey wrote under five personas and several pseudonyms, but he takes a pill for that now and writes only under his own name. Mostly.

Harvey is a prolific professional fiction writer by pretty much any standard. In just over 6 years he’s written over 70 novels, 8 novellas, and around 220 short stories across several genres.

He’s also compiled around 30 short story collections and several lauded, major-prize-nominated poetry collections and nonfiction books on the craft of writing. That is in addition to his hundreds of articles, essays and blog posts.

To see Harvey’s work visit StoneThreadPublishing.com or his author website at HarveyStanbrough.com. If you’re a writer and would like to increase your productivity, visit his instructive daily Journal on writing at HEStanbrough.com. You can contact Harvey directly at harveystanbrough@gmail.com.

Oh, as a bonus, you can read about Harvey’s personas at https://harveystanbrough.com/my-personas/. Each has his or her own brief bio

26 thoughts on “What Heinlein’s Rules Mean to Me: An Excerpt

  1. Thank you, Harvey. I enjoyed this (and I read the downloaded version).

    I wish I had learned all of this earlier. This is the way I used to write and was pretty successful with my newspaper columns years ago. Then somewhere along the line I let people convince me I was doing it wrong. I tried to adopt their methods and it frustrated me so much I quit writing entirely (except in my journal). For years. That didn’t work either. I missed it. Then I heard about Heinlein’s Rules and realized that’s the way I used to write when I was publishing stuff. Then I kicked myself for giving it up for so long. Now I’m unearthing old manuscripts I abandoned (but still love) and finishing them. I have my favorite screenplay out at a contest (and will send it out even if it doesn’t win because I love it).

    I’m annoyed with myself that I wasted so much time trying to please other people, but I’m back now.

    • Thanks, Cynthia. Glad you enjoyed it. Took awhile for me too, to realized I didn’t owe anything to anyone other than my characters. And to them I owe their authentic story, not something I construct.

  2. Thanks so much for guesting today, Harvey, Much appreciated and I know I can speak for all the regular contributors as well as the many folks who follow the Kill Zone blog.

    Like you, I find rules 1,2 & 3 easy. It’s the marketing end, 4 & 5, that I find a chore.

  3. Nice to see you on the other side, Harvey! Your output is just incredible. I hadn’t heard about Heinlein’s rules before this post. Like you, I have no problem with the writing part. It’s the marketing end that I need to work on. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing lately…at the end of the day. Writing comes first. 🙂

    • Hi Sue. Yep, marketing is a PITA. At one point last year, I even set publishing aside for awhile (Rule 4) and ended up publishing and five novels in one day, scheduling them for different release dates of course.

  4. Good morning, Harvey! Thank you for your insightful post today, and thanks to Garry for inviting you.

    You and I exchanged emails about Heinlein’s rules a while back. I’m with you and Heinlein on #1&#2. But I have to part company on #3. I do a lot of revising. A whole lot. I wonder if it’s because I write mysteries, and I want to create the plot like a puzzle for the reader. If I get an idea mid-stream that makes the story better, I’ll make even major revisions to incorporate it. Also, I’ve noticed some of my best lines come to me after I’ve finished the first draft of a novel.

    On the other hand, I have a copy of Writing Into the Dark sitting on my desk, and I’ll be reading it as soon as I finish the 2nd draft of my WIP. 🙂

    You’re the gold standard of productivity. Thanks again for a wonderful addition to the TKZ posts.

  5. Good morning, Harvey. Good to see you doing a post here.

    Great post, great article. Thanks for the PDF of the entire article. I downloaded it and plan to reread and study it. Your productivity is amazing and inspiring. Like so many others, I dislike rule #4 and #5, necessary as they may be.

    Thanks for your contributions here at TKZ!

    • Thanks, Steve. Good to hear from you. Yeah, Rule 4 and I don’t get along at all. I currently have probably 20+ short stories that have yet to see the light of day. 🙂

  6. Hi Kay. Per the current ad slogan, you do you. Whatever works, right? Of course, like most of you I agreed to guest for Garry more for the writers who read TKZ than for you who write for it. (grin)

    For me, that I write is extremely important, because I’m a professional fiction writer. So it’s my job. But WHAT I write, the individual story or novel, isn’t important in the slightest, and it definitely isn’t important enough to agonize over.

    For me it’s easy. My novel really is nothing more than few hours’ entertainment for the eventual reader. The reader him/herself assigns any importance beyond that.

    Why it’s easy is because it’s the characters’ story, not my construct. Like King, I race through the story with the characters and write down what happens and what the characters say and do. (He calls himself his characters’ stenographer. I consider myself their recorder, or their friend with fingertips and a keyboard. (grin))

  7. Hi, Harvey, great to see you as a poster here at TKZ. I’m familiar with Heinlein’s Rules, your interview was an excellent device to have a conversation about them. Like Kay, I’m with you on Rules 1 and 2, but number 3 doesn’t work for me. I need to revise after drafting, rather than cycling. Rules 4 and 5 are crucial. Of course, as an indie author, these two rules are much easier to implement, once you get past self-doubt.

    Incidentally a year ago, at a writer’s retreat, I did make a make a concerted effort to change up my process and write by cycling. I tried writing several short stories that way. The process was slow and didn’t work for my brain. When I switched to straight drafting I wrote a 9K novelette in the same amount of time as the cycled 2.5K story, and it worked much better as a piece of fiction.. I know of writers who do cycle and it works well for them. Definitely a case of YMMV 🙂

    Thanks for today’s post, and thanks, Garry, for having Harvey as a guest!

    • Hi Dale,

      Your comment that you “need to revise after drafting, rather than cycling” makes me wonder how you define “cycling.” Of course, whatever works for you….

      But for others who might read these comments, I’ll clarify.

      Revising and cycling are not the same thing regardless of when you do them. Revising is a function of the conscious, critical mind whereas cycling is a function of the creative subconscious.

      When I talk about cycling, I simply mean reading (as a reader for pleasure, not critically) what I wrote in the previous session and allowing the characters to touch the story if necessary as I go. So cycling, like writing, is done with the creative subconscious.

      I don’t advocate revising either as you go or after the fact. The conscious, critical mind is excellent for learning, but I never allow it to second-guess what my characters have passed along via my creative subconscious.

      In submitting or publishing (Heinlein’s Rule 4), for me self-doubt isn’t a factor. I often forget to submit or publish what I’ve finished because I’m so anxious to move on to the next story or novel. 🙂

      • FWIW, I define cycling as looping back through the story as needed to make changes to earlier sections as a result of discovering things later in the narrative you are spinning. This can include facts, character names, characters as whole–adding or subtracting them, etc, and may also include revision in creative mode. It’s my impression of how John Scalzi writes when he talked about his one draft looping process.

        For me, drafting and revision are always a team effort between my conscious and my creative subconscious 🙂

        • Thanks for that clarification, Dale. I appreciate it. Yes, that’s the other part of cycling for me too. Because I’m unstuck in the timeline of my novel, I can “cycle” back as necessary.

          So if Aunt Marge confronts a stranger in her living room at 3 a.m. and unexpectedly produces a .32 caliber revolver from the pocket of her robe, I can cycle back and show her taking it from the drawer of the nightstand and slipping it into the pocket of her robe soon after she got out of bed.

  8. This was just delightful to read, Harvey! Thank you so much. I plan to delve a little deeper into Heinlein when I come up for air today.

    And, I Absolutely. Love. Your I will lie to you. And you will enjoy it. What a great tag for a fiction writer.

    I’m in awe! 🙂

  9. The first book I read on writing was L. Sprague deCamp’s “Science Fiction Handbook,” still an excellent guide after sixty years. I seldom take courses in writing, but seldom is probably enough. I’ve taken courses at USC, Torrance Adult School (where I met my mentor, Edith Battles), Santa Barbara CC Adult Ed, Ventura College, and LA Harbor College (screenwriting). I’ve attended monthly or weekly workshops continuously since 1972. I also took acting classes to improve my screenwriting, and have taken a number of on-line courses at ScreenwritingU and ScreenwritersU. I’ve read most of the screenwriting books at our local library, and bought about a half-dozen others that I use as references.

  10. Thank you, Harvey (and Garry) for this. I had not read Heinlein’s Rules either, so that’s a nice addition. And, as per usual, I will disagree with you and others here about #4. “Putting it on the market”—i.e., publishing— is just as thrilling to me as creating the story. Publishing gets its own timeframe/mindshare for me. That’s why I’m an “author/publisher” and not a “writer.” I enjoy the whole process, from initial concept tickle to seeing the finished product and the reactions of those who consume it. But I really enjoy reading, seeing, and hearing about how others approach this little corner of our spinning world.

    • Thanks, Harald. I wish I had more of a head for business and more of a sense of urgency for publishing and marketing. I do enjoy creating covers (thanks to Affinity Publisher) though I am disgustingly aware of the passing minutes (seconds, minutes, hours I’ll never get back) as I search for just the right cover art.

      And I do submit (short stories) and publish (novels) my work unless I simply forget. I would just much much much rather be writing. I begrudge the publishing process even the couple of hours it take from designing a cover to prepping a promo doc to uploading to D2D, because that couple of hours equates to 2000 to 3000 more words I could have put on the page.

      I’m glad others enjoy the stories as much as I do, but I don’t concern myself with their specific opinions because what others think is none of my business. I just convey the stories, let them be what they are, and let others think of them as they will.

  11. Cue the JAWS music. Just when you thought Marilynn the Contrarian had disappeared. Heinlein lived in a different time and an extremely different marketplace. When he first started writing, science fiction was an extremely insular marketplace with a small population reading and writing. Editors actually edited and were willing to nurture an inexperienced talent along so first draft garbage that showed a hint of talent was cleaned up and published. The writer learned as he went.

    This ain’t happening today. If a manuscript isn’t close to perfect, the editor will send it back with a generic rejection letter. He/she doesn’t have the time to edit the established writers, let alone some nobody’s first draft. Short answer: Edit your garbage until it’s as perfect as you can make it, or it won’t even be looked at beyond the first few pages.

    • Marilynn! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment.

      You wrote, “Edit your garbage until it’s as perfect as you can make it, or it won’t even be looked at beyond the first few pages.”

      Wow. Okay, one, I would never write or publish “garbage,” nor would I ever advocate anyone else doing so. I am not NaNoWriMo.

      Two, be looked at by whom? Most readers seem to love my work, whether it’s “we went there” or “they came here” SF, period westerns, mystery, detective/PI, or action-adventure (all of which contain strong elements of romance and psychological suspense).

      Three, make it perfect by whose standard? Even your (the writer’s) opinion is only one opinion, and it has absolutely NO bearing on what the reader will or will not like.

      Several years ago I wrote a story called “Old Suits.” I didn’t like it at all. Published it anyway. A few months later, a reader wrote to say it was one of the best short stories she’d ever read. She even compared it to Hemingway. Case closed. My opinion didn’t matter.

      Three, the more the writer revises and rewrites, the farther the story gets from the unique, authentic original. The conscious mind cannot create. It can only construct, logically, and build block by block. I personally don’t want to construct stories. I only want to convey the story that unfolds as I run through it with my characters. On the other hand, how others write makes me no difference. It doesn’t affect my bottom line, so what do I care?

      Yes, Heinlein wrote in a different time, but his “rules” are only business habits, and they pertain to fiction, not only SF. I hope you don’t disagree with HR 1 (You must write), 2 (You must finish), or 4 (Submit, or today, Publish).

      Following 3 (Don’t rewrite except to editorial order [and Harlan Ellison later added “And then only if you agree”]) simply means you’ll practice a lot more than your contemporaries, putting new words on the page while they’re inviting others to second-guess their characters. HR 5 (Keep your work on the market) doesn’t even enter in with traditional publishing because they don’t see a book as evergreen. They see it as something that spoils and must be remaindered after a period of time. So nothing specifically about SF in there.

      Everybody comments on my production, but I write only 3-4 hours per day. Not bad considering it’s my “job.” The only difference between me and them is that I don’t second-guess my characters’ story as it unfolds. I “know better” than my characters about their story about as much as I know better than my neighbors about their story, and I’m exactly as unlikely to “correct” them. Not my place.

      Lee Child felt the same way. When his NY editor said over lunch that a particular scene might be better at a different place in the book, Child said, “Yes, you’re right. But that isn’t what happened.”

        • That’s fine. I didn’t take it personally. I have just never cared for blanket advice. I do have a first reader. He is not a writer, but he is an avid reader and he enjoys my work, so it’s a win-win for both of us. He reads purely for pleasure and points out to me anything that pops out at him as he reads. Primarily that consists of wrong words, dropped punctuation and inconsistencies.

  12. Thanks, Harvey and Garry, for sharing your process and Heinlein’s rules.

    Harvey, you’re the most prolific writer I know. How many millions of words have you strung together over 30+ years???

    Like you, I depend on my subconscious to guide the story and have the characters show me what they want to do. But, like a number of other commenters, I gotta edit and rewrite, although the more I write, the more often it’s close to right on the first go round. But as Kay mentioned, clues and misdirection are needed in our genres so that requires rewriting.

    Congratulations on your amazing production!

    • Thanks, Debbie, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I started writing novels in October 2014 and was off for a couple of years during that time. So my novels and novellas and most of my short stories have been written over a six-year period. I haven’t totaled it, but based on an average of around 750,000 words of fiction per year during that time, probably around 4.5 million.

      Of course, that doesn’t include my almost-daily Journal, my nonfiction books on writing, or the articles and essays and poetry I’ve written over the past 50 years. 🙂

      Just a couple of things, if I may: You wrote, “the more I write, the more often it’s close to right on the first go round.” Exactly right. There’s nothing better than practice for improving craft, and practice means putting new words on the page.

      “[A]s Kay mentioned, clues and misdirection are needed in our genres so that requires rewriting.” Just something to think about—the characters in your mysteries are aware clues and misdirection are necessary in the genre. They learned the same thing you did as you learned it, plus it seeped through into your creative subconscious. Just for grins, you might try giving it all over to them in a short story (if you write those), novella or novel and see what happens. I predict it will be amazing.

      Plus, if you prefer to continue consciously thinking your way through clues and misdirection, you might look up Wilhelm’s Law. Kate Wilhelm said (basically) to discard your first three or four ideas because if you can think it up, so can the reader. The farther down the line you get from your original idea for a clue or misdirection, the less likely the reader will have thought of it too.

      This is also why I went the whole distance and let the story unfold as it does. The characters constantly surprise me, and if they can surprise me they will definitely surprise the reader. 🙂

Comments are closed.