Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Heinlein's Rules for Writing

Robert A. Heinlein was one of the "grand-daddy's" of science fiction. He lived from 1907 to 1988. In that time, he had a prolific writing career, with one of his most well-known works being Starship Troopers.

When someone like Heinlein gives writing advice, one should listen. While many others have called out these rules, I thought I'd list them here for my own benefit if nothing else. Here they are.

1.) You must write.

I'm reminded of similar advice given by Mur Lafferty of the I Should Be Writing podcast. Her first rule is "Butt in chair." It's as simple as that. Getting your butt in the chair is the first step to writing. Another way to look at it is that you must write if you want to be a writer.

2.) You must finish what you write.

If you don't, you're wasting time and effort. Sure, some writing is practice. The general rule on first novels is to shove it in a drawer and forget about it; most first novels are crap, so consider it practice and move on to the next one. However, if you never finish that first novel you'll never get to the second. It's not done until it's done, and you can't do anything with it until you've finished it.

3.) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

This one is tough. I aspire to greatness. You probably do, too. My editing process involves several passes of the entire novel, then a chapter-by-chapter review. I hammer away at each and every chapter for as long as it takes. I risk exhaustion with this process, but it's what works for me. But at some point you have say, "I'm done", and resist all further temptations to re-write any more. If you think about it, a piece of writing is never really "done". There's always something to change or add or remove. But if you aspire to becoming a professional writer, then at some point you have to get your writing in front of someone who will pay you for it. That's not going to happen if you enter into a never ending rewrite cycle.

4.) You must put the work on the market.

You have to get your writing in front of someone who will pay you for it. Don't fear rejection. Embrace it and make yourself stronger from it. Or something like that. Bottom line: when you finish something, send it out.

5.) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Once something is finished, send it out. If (or when) it comes back rejected, already have your next destination for it in mind. Only when all possible outlets have been exhausted should you consider stuffing it into a drawer or, if you're sure it's of high quality and representative of the kind of work you want people to read, put it on your web site or blog as a freebie.

Those are Heinlein's Rules of Writing. Robert J. Sawyer, author of Flash Forward and many other science fiction novels, adds a sixth rule to Heinlein's five:

6.) Start Working on Something Else

Once something is shipped, start working on the next story or novel. Not always easy, but it is essential to always have something in the pipeline. You might even find yourself juggling multiple, simultaneous projects. Some writers do this to keep from getting "stuck" when working on just a single project. The change in story or characters can really help keep the writing process flowing.

How long should it take to write a novel?

How long would it take to write a novel if you wrote 1,000 words/day? 500? 100? How about three sentences per day? How long would that take?

I'm going to figure out some answers here. I'll start with the basic assumption that the length of a complete novel is 100,000 words. At 250 words/page, that's a 400 page book.

Let's see how long it would take to complete the first draft, sans edits, given varying rates of words put down on paper per day. I'll assume a completely arbitrary 20 words per sentence and, from that, 12.5 sentences/page (250 words/page divided by 20 words/sentence).

  Words to
How Long
in Days
How Long
in Years
1 word 1 100,000.00 273.97
5 words 5 20,000.00 54.79
20 words/1 sentence 20 5,000.00 13.70
2 sentences 40 2,500.00 6.85
3 sentences 60 1,666.67 4.57
5 sentences 100 1,000.00 2.74
10 sentences 200 500.00 1.37
1 page/12.5 sentences/250 words 250 400.00 1.10
2 pages 500 200.00 0.55
3 pages 750 133.33 0.37
4 pages 1000 100.00 0.27
5 pages 1250 80.00 0.22
10 pages 2500 40.00 0.11
20 pages 5000 20.00 0.05
40 pages 10000 10.00 0.03
50 pages 12500 8.00 0.02

Starting at the ridiculous and ending with, well, the ridiculous again, you can see that were you to only write 1 word/day it would take 100,000 days or 274 years to finish a novel length manuscript. Something a little more realistic—3 sentences/day, of which I've heard of writers doing—and you're at 4.5 years. If you strive for the more often recommended 1,000 words/day, it will take you .27 years or just over 3 months. Pause for a second and think about that. My first reaction was: What?! Why has it taken me so long then to finish this bleep'in novel then? That just can't be right…

But it is.

If you can write 1,000 words per day, you'll have a 100,000 words in 100 days. A complete first draft, in other words.

It sounds easy. So why isn't it? The reasons are many: life gets in the way, we procrastinate, we edit/rewrite before we should, the writing itself leads us down dead-ends from which we have to back ourselves out. Anyone's who's ever attempted to write a novel, whether you failed or not, knows about these things. It takes a lot of discipline to keep pushing forward, especially when you know what you just wrote is crap and is going to need some serious re-writing.

But therein lies the gist of it: you have to keep moving forward if you want to reach the end. It sounds simple. If only it really were.

How do you spend your time?

clock I was driving home last night contemplating my schedule, where and how I spend my time, and, most importantly, where it all goes. That got me thinking… while I know how and where I spend my time in a general sense, I was curious as to how much time in any given week I devote to the major items in my life. Who knows? Maybe by analyzing this I might be able to make some adjustments and improve my overall time management.

For me, major items include:

  1. Work (my primary, day-time job)
  2. Going to/from work (4 days/week since I usually work at home at least 1 day/week)
  3. Exercise (cycling, running, weight-lifting; this goes up in the warmer months as I'm out on the bike more)
  4. Writing (my current novel, short stories, this blog)
  5. Reading (books, blogs, etc.)
  6. Breaks (TV watching, playing with the dogs, hanging out with my wife; everyone needs some down time)
  7. Outside work (mowing the lawn, etc.; less now but more as it gets warmer)
  8. Personal Technical Projects (various side projects I work on to stay up on programming and technology)
  9. Sleep (almost forgot this one…)

I'm not going to include some things, like listening to podcasts, which I do all the time but which I always do whilst engaged in something else. Which brings up another point: I don't consider the time I spend driving to and from work as wasted because I'm always listening to podcasts or sometimes audio fiction. I'm a fanatic about maximizing every minute.

Given the above items, here's how much time I spend on each per week (my first attempt at this I was 5 hours short; since I'm not working off a super-accurate log here, I just spread those hours out to get to 168):

Work 45 27%
Commuting 8 5%
Exercise 8 5%
Writing 16 10%
Reading 18 11%
Breaks 10 6%
Outside work 6 4%
Technical Projects 8 5%
Sleep 49 29%
TOTAL 168 100%

And, in pie chart format:


Some of these items are immovable: work, sleep (I only get 7 hours/night as it is), commuting. Others could be changed, such as exercise or reading (sometimes I think I spend too much reading blogs). Breaks… I'd have to take a closer look at what I do in those 14 hours. Writing and Technical Projects… if anything, I want to spend more time, not less, in those areas.

Of course, this is a somewhat rough idea where I spend my time as some of the figures are pure estimates. If I wanted to really perform a close analysis I should probably carry a small notepad around with me for a week and write down each activity and time spent on it. Maybe I'll do that at some point, but for now I just wanted to get a general sense where all the time is going.

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Sign-up for your free space nowDropbox has become my cloud storage vendor of choice, replacing Office Live Workspace for those times when I need to synchronize files between multiple machines (think home vs. work; no more sneakernet with USB keys), when I want to make sure files are accessible from anywhere, and when I just need to get a large file (or files) from one place to another. It's also great as a secure backup solution.

Dropbox is free (2GB of storage, 50GB is $10/month, prices/storage go up from there), secure, and fast. One of the best things about it--and what ultimately made me abandon Office Live Workspace--has to do with the way Dropbox works.

You can access your Dropbox account through their web site, sure. But they also have a client application you install that creates a special "My Dropbox" folder:

My Dropbox folder

You save/copy files into this local folder. The first time you do so, the Dropbox client app will auto-sync with the Dropbox servers, copying those files up into the cloud. Further, if you have Dropbox installed on other machines, those machines will have their individual local Dropbox folder sync'ed as well. In other words, since I have the Dropbox client app installed on my laptop at home and my work machine, anything I copy into my Dropbox folder on either machine is sync'ed with Dropbox's server as well as all machines where I have the client installed. Not only is it excellent redundancy, it's a great way to transfer files (especially when they're large) from one computer to another.

This differs from Office Live Workspace in one very crucial way: With Dropbox, you're in effect saving to your local machine. The Dropbox client software takes it from there, sync'ing automatically in the background when it notices changes. Office Live Workspace, on the other hand, saves files remotely into the cloud exclusively and in the foreground. This is slow. If you're like me and lived through the unreliability of computers in the 80's, you save a lot. Sometimes I add a sentence and hit a quick Ctrl-S. Then I have to watch as Office Live Workspace proceeds to save the document. Twenty seconds, thirty, or longer, and the save is done. I can't deal with that kind of slowness when I'm trying to save my work; I need to keep my thoughts flowing onto the screen.

The Dropbox client is unobtrusive, sitting idle in your tray (in Windows) until it detects a file change:


When it performs a sync it briefly changes the icon.

One of the best features of Dropbox: file versioning. Whenever you do anything with a file, including creation, modification, and deletion, a change event is recorded and a new version of that file generated. A typical file version history might look like this:


In this particular case I actually accidentally deleted this file. The deletion event is at the top. Fortunately, Dropbox created a new version of the file along the way so restoring to the last good version was easy. This saved me a ton of time as otherwise I would have had to re-create that content.

Some other features taken from the Dropbox web site:

  • 2GB of online storage for free, with up to 100GB available to paying customers.
  • Sync files of any size or type.
  • Sync Windows, Mac and Linux computers.
  • Automatically syncs when new files or changes are detected.
  • Work on files in your Dropbox even if you're offline. Your changes sync once your computer has an Internet connection again.
  • Dropbox transfers will correctly resume where they left off if the connection drops.
  • Efficient sync - only the pieces of a file that changed (not the whole file) are synced. This saves you time.
  • Doesn't hog your Internet connection. You can manually set bandwidth limits.

I'm happy with the service and have yet to have any problems.

If you're at all interested in giving the service a try, you can use this link to sign-up. I get 250MB of additional space for the referral. Thanks!

Podcasts for Writers

It took me a while to catch onto podcasts. Even then, in the beginning, I mostly listened only to technical podcasts (I'm a software engineer by day). But then I started thinking about writing podcasts and wondering what was out there…

This then is the list of writing related podcasts I've found thus far. It is by no means comprehensive, but I do actively listen to all of these (I have a long commute to work, so I have plenty of listening time).

Some of these are talk show format, full of interviews with notable writers, advice, current happenings in the publishing industry, and other good information. Others are strictly audio fiction.

Here is my list of podcasts for writers:

  1. Adventures in SciFi Publishing
  2. The Billibub Baddings Podcast
  3. The Creative Penn with Joanna Penn
  4. The Drabblecast
  5. The Dragon Page: Cover to Cover
  6. Escape Pod
  7. I Should Be Writing with Mur Lafferty
  8. Litopia After Dark
  9. Litopia Daily
  10. The Metamor City Podcast
  11. Podcastle
  12. Pseudopod
  13. The Secrets Podcast with Michael Stackpole
  14. SFFaudio
  15. The Sofanauts (archive only)
  16. StarShipSofa
  17. The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy (archive only)
  18. The Time Traveler Show (archive only)
  19. Podcasts (Audio Fiction, The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy)
  20. Writing Excuses with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells
  21. The Writing Show