Science Fiction! “The Book is the Boss”!

oscillon says he will buy a copy of Null-A Continuum if I write a post about Science Fiction instead of about politics. Fair enough!

Over at SFSignal, they asking SF writers what is the best writing advice they ever received.

You will be fascinated by Robert Silverberg’s answer to the question. Lester del Rey told him not to sell himself short.

Here is Silverberg:

The best piece of advice I ever got came from Lester del Rey, the veteran writer and editor who, when I was in my twenties, had become a sort of Dutch uncle, or perhaps even a second father, to me. At the beginning of my career in the mid-1950s I had trouble selling my most ambitious stories, the ones that I thought were the best in me, whereas the minor, more conventional pieces sold quite easily to the magazines. There were several reasons for this. The main one was that I was competing for slots in those magazines with the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, and other greats of that golden era for the science-fiction short story. What I was writing, at the age of 21 or 22, might have been ambitious but it still wasn’t in a class with what those more mature writers were doing. On the other hand, all the magazines, even the top ones, were constantly in need of conventional 5000-worders for the back of the book. It seemed to make more sense to me to churn out competent potboilers for those magazine editors instead of trying to knock Sturgeon or Leiber or Knight out of the top place in the issue, and very shortly I was earning a nice living indeed writing formula fiction at a fast pace. (I was, in fact, earning more per year than any of my literary heroes by the third year of my career.) By playing it safe this way I was indeed able to pay the monthly rent, and then some. But I wasn’t contributing anything worthwhile to science fiction, and, though I didn’t realize it just yet, I wasn’t even acting in my own best interests.

From Mike Resnick:

Paul Neimark, my first editor and my first collaborator, told me very early on, back in the mid-1960s: you can give up on an editor or a market, but never give up on a good story.

Gene Wolfe:

"The book is the boss." I got it from Alfred Bester.

Kage Baker:

The best writing advice I ever got was from my first editor, Michael Kandel. He suggested that manuscripts should never be mailed off in the "My God, I’m Such a Genius" blaze of euphoria that follows finishing a book or story. Put it on the shelf for maybe six months, he said, and then have a look at it; you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find is wrong with it, and you’ll be sooo grateful you caught the obvious flaws yourself rather than having to have some editor (or, worse, reviewer) point them out for you.

Ben Bova:

I got the best advice about writing that I’ve ever received when I was a teenager working as a copyboy on the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s morning daily newspaper. One of the paper’s elder editors took me for a walk around the Inquirer building. Working men were sitting on the front steps of their row houses, reading the evening paper.

"If you want to write for newspapers," the old man told me, "you’ve got to be able to take the most complicated things happening in the world and write it so that they can understand it."

I never forgot that. Write clearly enough so that anyone who can read can understand your words.

My answer is there too, except I spend most of my time not answering the question: instead I make fun of Robert Heinlein’s writing advise. Like everyone else, I am a contrarian (and I will contradict you if you say I am not).

Heinlein’s rules for writing were professional and simple. "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."
Rule number 1 and 2 are paramount and cannot be over-praised. The Dean of SF is exactly right. Rule 4 and 5 are paramount and cannot be over-emphasized. The Dean of SF speaks words of wisdom more precious than gold, more to be treasured than refined gold.
Rule 3 is just bad advice.
Perhaps if you are a writer who is so tempted to rewrite and rewrite that you will never post your manuscripts in the mail, by all means, obey rule 3; better to send out your first draft than to send out nothing. Perhaps if you are a weak-willed writer who listens to teachers are writer’s workshops that tell you to rewrite and rewrite until all your adjectives, as well as your personal style, are gone, by all means, obey rule 3; better to send out your rough and uncut diamond, provided it sounds like you, than to cut and polish and re-cut and re-polish until there is no stone left.
But if you are a professional, go through as many drafts as you need to create a workmanlike product. Don’t be a perfectionist: that way lies madness. But, by thunder, if you do not rewrite, then you are stuck with whatever your first instinct puts on the page. Heinlein had good first instincts. Do you? Good instincts or not, your first draft is likely to be unpolished, awkward, and gaping with plot holes you forgot to establish in chapter one, and plot threads you forgot to tie up in a knot by chapter twenty.
It is clear enough what comes of following Heinlein’s advice. Reading a Robert Heinlein novel is like reading a first draft.
While he from time to time writes a tight, well-plotted novel (for example, see Door Into Summer or Citizen Of The Galaxy) Heinlein’s typical output is merely a disorganized mess without plot, plot-twists, or character development, and the events in one chapter could have been moved to another with no change in wording. (See, for example, Glory Road or Podkayne of Mars or Farmer in the Sky or Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land). Glory Road comes to a conclusion, and then dribbles on for three or four more chapters. Each chapter is perfectly good, but has no connection to what goes before. Podkayne has a subplot concerning a bomb smuggled onto a spaceship that goes nowhere and means nothing, and ends in a pointless death and a pointless speech by Uncle Tom. Each scene is memorable, and speech is stirring, except that it is irrelevant, if not contradicted, by what the author previously established. Farmer enjoys well-written and interesting scenes that bear no relation to each other. Starship Troopers is preoccupied with speechifying about civic virtue, but there is no plot. Stranger starts out as a police-state thriller and wanders into being a satire against organized religion: it could have made two different and perfectly fine novels. Somewhere in the middle is a scene about art appreciation that goes nowhere and means nothing.
Now, on the other hand, Heinlein not only sold these books, but won plaudits and awards for them, so take my caution with a grain of salt.