Tag Archives: Robert A. Heinlein

Passages: Robert A. Heinlein

Back in my bright college days, when dinosaurs roamed the quads, a girlfriend gave me a copy of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as a birthday present (I was born on Bastille Day) and once I finished the book I went on a Robert A. Heinlein tear. Round about the fifth or sixth book, I came across this passage, which I still think is the most charming thing the man ever wrote:

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it wouldn’t be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining-room had a good north light for my drafting board. The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.

The hero goes on to explain that Petronius hated snow, and whenever there had been a snowfall would insist on having every door opened for him in the hopes of finding summer behind one of them.

The Door into Summer is a fun, quick read, but nothing else in the novel lives up to that opening.   

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The right lessons

You don’t have to be a fan of John Scalzi, Robert A. Heinlein, or science fiction in general to enjoy Scalzi’s piece “Lessons From Heinlein,” especially if you’re a writer in any genre. Heinlein stood the entire SF field on its collective ear in the mid 20th century and his work remains popular for a lot of good reasons, as well as a great many bad ones. As a model for how to construct a fast-moving story in which characters develop and reveal themselves through their actions, Heinlein is one of the best. The trouble is, a great many people of the libertarian stripe see Heinlein as a sage as well as a storyteller — a readable Ayn Rand, if you like.  There’s a line from Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast — “Your father is the worst kind of pain-in-the-neck — a know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” — that applies perfectly to Heinlein. John Scalzi, to his great credit, understands this and has absorbed the right lessons from the man’s work.

Scalzi reposted this essay to mark the tenth anniversary of his novel Old Man’s War, which he wrote with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in mind. Oddly enough, the 1997 film version of Starship Troopers has been all over cable the last few weeks — nothing says Christmas like freshets of human gore and insect goo, I suppose. I wouldn’t argue for Paul Verhoeven’s film as a good movie, though it is one of the most watchable bad movies ever made. It’s also the only film adaptation I can think of that expresses such blatant contempt for its source material. With its propagandistic news broadcasts, Albert Speer-derived sets, and Third Reich haberdashery, Starship Troopers deliberately cocks its leg over everything Heinlein argues for in his novel. Even the casting of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards as Johnny Rico and Carmen Ibanez mocks Heinlein’s deracinated characters, who have Latino names but are interchangeable with Heinlein’s other white mouthpieces. (Hilariously, some Heinlein fans have cited Rico to answer charges of racism arising from his less palatable works, such as Farnham’s Freehold.) The film’s broad satire is fun, but unfair. One may dispute Heinlein’s contention that raw force “has settled more issues in history than has any other factor,” but flipping it off doesn’t really serve as an answer.          

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Robert’s rules

Fred K. reminds us of the five simple rules for writers, as laid down by Robert A. Heinlein. Now, Heinlein was hardly the fount of wisdom too many of his fans take him for — “An armed society is a polite society” is one of the dumbest statements ever made by an apparently intelligent person — but he was invariably shrewd and reliable when he talked about writing. I don’t know when he first laid down his five rules for writers, but they’ve never been bettered:

1) You must write.

2) You must finish what you write.

3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.

4) You must mail your story to an editor who will pay you money.

5) You must keep it in the mail until someone buys it.

Because writing is a process so fraught with ego traps and personal quirks, the utter simplicity of these rules is one of their greatest strengths. “Aspiring writer” is one of the most hilarious contradictions in terms ever framed by the human mind. One does not aspire to write. One simply writes. Until you have written something, you are not a writer. You have to have a completed manuscript of something that emerged from your own mind, put there and shaped by your will and determination. What happens next is another matter.

The third point is the debatable one, for me. I’ve never written anything that wasn’t substantially improved by at least one bout of revision, usually after a cooling-off period of at least a month. If your first-draft ideas have any strength in them, they’ll be able to withstand a bit of rewriting. More to the point, they’ll be all the stronger for the extra work. What you can’t do is let yourself get mired in endless second-guessing and revisions.

The fourth and fifth rules are, like the first two, as self-evident as the existence of gravity. I’m aware that Heinlein wrote in an entirely different commercial era: the mid- to late-twentieth century, when there was a thriving magazine market and it was feasible for a writer to earn a small but comfortable living from short stories. In this straitened commercial environment, you may end up placing a short story with a nonpaying literary magazine simply to get some exposure. I would count that as a paying transaction, of sorts, as long as it’s done with a greater goal in mind.

But keeping an unsold story or a novel manuscript in circulation is simply a practical necessity: if nobody’s getting a chance to look at your work, then you’re not getting a chance to sell it. Believe me, I’m quite familiar with the feeling of futility that comes with too many rejection slips, but you have to shake it off. You’ve already done the hard work of writing the thing. Sticking the manuscript into a fresh envelope is a piece of cake, and doing the research for new editors and magazines to contact can only help you in the long run.

Robert J. Sawyer adds a sixth rule: Start working on something else. Absolutely true. Every finished writing project is training for an even better new project. A work-in-progress makes rejection easier to take, and it means you can answer “Yes” if an editor asks if you have anything else he can look at.

And, just to keep you going, here’s Lynn Viehl’s 25 reasons why you shouldn’t give up writing.

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