Octavia Butler’s and Robert Heinlein’s Rules of Writing

My most significant alien encounter this year has been in the science fiction of Octavia E. Butler. I have only dipped into her work, enjoying her Xenogenesis Trilogy (1987-89) and a collection of short pieces, Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd ed., 2005). Butler’s work creates space for highly complex conversations about gender, race, slavery, and 20th c. sf’s main questions: what does it mean to be human and can humanity be remade? Recently in the wake of the stunning Marvel Cinematic Universe superhit, The Black Panther, Butler’s name has been associated with Afrofuturism. She might be distinguished as perhaps the only black woman making a living as a science fiction writer in her generation. However, she has won pretty much all the awards–including the Genius Grant–so I think her work speaks for itself.

Butler’s heritage is not incidental to her work. Beyond drawing minority and poor characters into her work, Butler consistently speaks of being a black woman writing in a white man’s worlds. While her brilliantly constructed worlds and elegant prose style might seem to predict success, it was a long time before she found herself in the writing community. Growing up poor–her mother was a maid and her father, dead when she was 7, a shoeshine man–the idea of being a writer seemed almost impossible to everyone around her. From high school through her late 20s, Butler wrote as much as she could while working or studying. She often woke up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning to get some writing done before heading to her shift at the factory or restaurant.

When she was 23 she caught a break, making friends with groundbreaking black sf writer Samuel R. Delany and selling a couple of stories. It was 5 years, though, before her first novel was picked up. Once she broke as a writer, she never stopped, even in the face of difficulties.

Butler was generous as an experienced writer, often sharing advice and anecdotes about the trade in readings and speeches. One of her advice pieces is “Furor Scribendi”–“rage writing” or perhaps “furious scribbling” or “burning to write” might capture the meaning of that. Or maybe “Furor Scribendi” is captured by the title of a companion piece in the Bloodchild collection, “Positive Obsession.” Drafted from her public talks for an L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future volume, Butler shares her “rules for writing” (see below). They are a mix of oft-ignored common sense and the shockingly counterintuitive, and make for a valuable guide to professional writing.

I suspect that they are in some way in conversation with Robert A. Heinlein’s much more famous set of rules. You can read his entire article, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” where he shares his story of writing, these rules, and famously invents the term “speculative fiction.” You may already have heard of Heinlein’s Rules:

  1. You must write
  2. 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 has sold

Heinlein admits in the article that the rules are sculpted for speculative fiction–with its idiosyncratic publishing environment–and terribly difficult to follow. The reason he is “not afraid to give away the racket,” though, is because so few people follow this plan. In Heinlein’s view, that is why there are “so few professional writers and so many aspirants.”

Since I’m in the “aspirant” category and Heinlein is one of the most important sf writers ever, I hate to quibble with the master. However, #3 is a deadly piece of advice for most writers, and a good deal of Stephen King‘s “On Writing” and Butler’s 4th rule are about subverting Heinlein’s advice. I wonder if Heinlein himself could have used a bit more editorial control. In a blog post I never wrote, “Why I Hated Stranger in a Strange Land,” I note that there are 280 uses of “uh…”, “eh?”, or “huh?” and related words in Heinlein’s classic god-alien novel. That’s one on almost every page and undercuts the tone of moral superiority–he is, after all, the all-powerful judge of the solar system in this piece–that he is trying to achieve.

So I think I will leave you with Octavia Butler’s advice. She is a little less influential as a science fiction author than Heinlein, but as a writer and as someone who fought to find a place in a difficult field, she makes for a fine model.  I have blogicized her short piece, “Furor Scribendi,” taking this abridged piece from its paragraph form and giving it this checklist-like shape. But the words are hers, and the most important word is the last one.

1. Read.

  • Read about the art, the craft, and the business of writing.
  • Read the kind of work you’d like to write.
  • Read good literature and bad, fiction and fact.
  • Read every day and learn from what you read.
  • If you commute to work or if you spend part of your day doing relatively mindless work, listen to book tapes…. [Audiobooks] provide a painless way to ponder use of language, the sounds of words, conflict, characterization, plotting, and the multitudes of ideas you can find in history, biography, medicine, the sciences, etc.

2. Take classes and go to writers’ workshops.

Writing is communication. You need other people to let you know whether you’re communicating what you think you are and whether you’re doing it in ways that are not only accessible and entertaining, but as compelling as you can make them. In other words, you need to know that you’re telling a good story. You want to be the writer who keeps readers up late at night, not the one who drives them off to watch television. Workshops and classes are rented readers—rented audiences—for your work. Learn from the comments, questions, and suggestions of both the teacher and the class. These relative strangers are more likely to tell you the truth about your work than are your friends and family who may not want to hurt or offend you.

One tiresome truth they might tell you, for instance, is that you need to take a grammar class. If they say this, listen. Take the class. Vocabulary and grammar are your primary tools. They’re most effectively used, even most effectively abused, by people who understand them. No computer program, no friend or employee can take the place of a sound knowledge of your tools.

3. Write.

  • Write every day.
  • Write whether you feel like writing or not.
  • Choose a time of day. Perhaps you can get up an hour earlier, stay up an hour later, give up an hour of recreation, or even give up your lunch hour.
  • If you can’t think of anything in your chosen genre, keep a journal. You should be keeping one anyway. Journal writing helps you to be more observant of your world, and a journal is a good place to store story ideas for later projects.

4. Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it.

All the reading, the writing, and the classes should help you do this. Check your writing, your research (never neglect your research), and the physical appearance of your manuscript. Let nothing substandard slip through. If you notice something that needs fixing, fix it, no excuses. There will be plenty that’s wrong that you won’t catch. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring flaws that are obvious to you. The moment you find yourself saying, “This doesn’t matter. It’s good enough.” Stop. Go back. Fix the flaw. Make a habit of doing your best.

5. Submit your work for publication.

  1. First research the markets that interest you. Seek out and study the books or magazines of publishers to whom you want to sell.
  2. Then submit your work. If the idea of doing this scares you, fine. Go ahead and be afraid. But send your work out anyway.
  3. If it’s rejected, send it out again, and again. Rejections are painful, but inevitable. They’re every writer’s rite of passage.
  4. Don’t give up on a piece of work that you can’t sell. You may be able to sell it later to new publications or to new editors of old publications. At worst, you should be able to learn from your rejected work. You may even be able to use all or part of it in a new work. One way or another, writers can use, or at least learn from, everything.

6. Here are some potential impediments for you to forget about:

  1. First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.
  2. Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent. Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, changing its direction when necessary. Persistence is essential to any writer—the persistence to finish your work, to keep writing in spite of rejection, to keep reading, studying, submitting work for sale. But stubbornness, the refusal to change unproductive behavior or to revise unsalable work can be lethal to your writing hopes.
  3. Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journal writing, and learning you will be doing will stimulate it. Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong. So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and your imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use. Then the real work of fashioning them into a story begins. Stay with it.


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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26 Responses to Octavia Butler’s and Robert Heinlein’s Rules of Writing

  1. Excellent, and thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Octavia Butler’s and Robert Heinlein’s Rules of Writing — Reblog from A Pilgrim in Narnia – Andrea Lundgren

  4. Quest Quilts says:

    Nice timing! I just finished Kindred not that long ago and was dazzled by it. I’m normally squeamish about 1st person narratives, but hers flowed so naturally! I loved it and am thinking of making it my students’ summer reading next year.


  5. Bookstooge says:

    Glad you like her books…

    Liked by 1 person

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