Heinleins 5th Law

As you may realize, I’m a fan of Robert A Heinlein who was an SF writer of the last century. He left the planet when I was a young man. One of his legacies was five rules of writing that he set forth in an essay, On The Writing of Speculative Fiction.

  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 your story on the market
  5. You must keep it on the market until it is sold

This list was brought to mind when I encountered a passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. She tells of how she writes a story, then submits it to a market, only to be rejected. Years passed. She becomes famous (Eat, Pray, Love). And her high-powered literary agent shops the same story to the same market. It sells and Gilbert has an occasion to speak with the editor about the story. Editor does not remember the earlier rejection (and Gilbert doesn’t remind her). Gilbert is holding the years-old rejection letter wherein Editor cites a weak ending as the reason why the story was rejected. She asked about the ending. The editor says, “No, that’s fine.”

The lesson Gilbert draws from this is that timing is important and a story rejected at one time/market may be accepted at another. The reasons are unknown and unknowable.

At this point I remembered Heinlein’s 5th rule, “You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold.”

I have my own rejected story story. In my case, I had written, The Mouse That Ate Civilization which rather sarcastically describes the end of the world. It didn’t sell and frankly the story gets bogged down in technical details of Internet protocols.

I didn’t try submitting to one of my favorite markets that I had sold to before, because they were more into Space Opera than apocalyptic tales. Then someone filed a bogus DCMA takedown notice on this market. This false accusation forced them off the Internet for a while. I was furious and I imagine these dear people were even more so.

So I submitted my DMCA-destroys-the-world story to Raygun Revival and they snapped it up in a heartbeat.

The timing and the editor’s passions were right.

While discussing this with a writer who has sold a lot more than me he told me a story. Seems there was an Internet discussion group with an editor and several aspiring writers. The editor told a story of how years earlier he had gotten submissions from a writer who was generating publication-quality prose. But the editor wanted to see more submissions from him before s/he would accept one. Sadly, the editor lamented that the writer had given up. One of the participants in the group checked the calendar and some details and realizes he was the writer in question.

He had obviously neglected Heinlein’s 5th Rule.

My writer friend tells me that Galaxy editor Mike Resnick tells of a story that took 17 years to sell.

I should go through my drawer and see what to send out into the world again.

Steve Poling

Masters degrees in math and computer science. Poet in several computer languages. I write stories about Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, steampunk, and SF.

Grand Rapids, Michigan http://www.catfoodretirement.com