Writing

Rules for Writers

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 12:51 min

In his rules for writers, Neil talks about striking the right balance between humility and confidence, as well as the need to stay organized and devoted to daily work.

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I remember reading an essay by Harlan Ellison in which he pointed to an essay by Robert Heinlein. And they suggested rules for writers. And the rules were how to get published. And I read them, and I believed them, and I have applied them, and they have worked for me. Rule one. You have to write. If you don't write, nothing will happen. Rule two, you have to finish what you write. If you start it and abandon it, or if you start it and never let it go. You know, I know people who just really want to make something perfect, something never finished. They never let it go. You have to finish. Rule three, having finished it, you have to send it out into the world to somebody who could publish it. These days of internet that actually broadens your scope, there are so many websites that actually want fiction, want things. But there are also publishers out there. There are agents. You send it out. And that bit is important. I was talking earlier with Caroline about bravery. There are a lot of things that people know are brave. You know, standing up to an armed robber, definitely brave. Wild dog attack, dealing with it, absolute act of bravery. People don't normally list sending a story out into the world as one of those acts of bravery up there with standing up to armed robbers or wild dog attacks, but really, they really are. Next rule, Heinlein's was refrain from rewriting except to editorial request. Having sent it out, don't just start it again. Don't keep writing that book, that story, over and over again. Harlan Ellison added a little note on that. He said, unless you feel what the editor has requested would compromise the integrity of your story, in which case, don't touch it, defend it. Also perfectly valid. The next rule is when it comes back-- because it will probably come back-- you have to send it out again. You can't go, I sent it out to this editor, to this publisher, to this agent, it has come back. My heart is broken. I will never write it again. I will put it away. Instead, you have to send it out. Somewhere out there, there is somebody so drunk, so desperate, so confused, that they will buy it, and they will publish it. And so you're trying to reach that person. Or perhaps somebody with good enough taste and somebody smart enough. Whoever it is, keep going. Keep sending it out until you reach that person. And the other rule, which is mine, it wasn't Heinlein's and it wasn't Harlan's, is and then start the next thing. Through this all, start the next thing. When you finish that first thing, and you start the process of sending it out, begin writing the next thing. Because that's the important thing is apart from anything else, when that publisher comes to you and says, we love this novel, but we'd love-- what's the sequel like, you can say, yes. Here is the sequel. I finished that too. And get them even more excited. You need to be writing the next thing. You don't just write something and send it out and ...


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Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.



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Neil's teachings have helped me immensely as a poet who is currently writing an epic poem. His advice is priceless.

I learned that I should write something so great that someone will feel honored to publish it.

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Comments

Mary Jo S.

Mr. Gaiman often addresses inexperience in craft and in life (the more experienced you are, the richer the writing -- meaning, you know a heckuva lot more at age 50 than age 20 that you can bring to your craft). So I'm pleased that he (who I'd give anything to crawl inside his mind) clarified when he constantly uses "young writer" as meaning novice, especially since many of us are starting to write at a much later age. I'll listen to his tapes over and over as each one has many golden nuggets from which even I, as a seasoned editor who's finally finding time to write my own works, find invaluable. Thank you SO much!

A fellow student

I believe that Neil misspoke in this lesson. His additional rule, a wise one, is that while your work is off on submission you should start on the next thing, but he refers to the next thing as "the sequel." Writing a sequel to a book that hasn't sold is not good advice! I believe what he means to say is to start writing "the next thing" while you wait. The next thing could be a different genre or medium, but most importantly it's a different story and a different world. Otherwise, when that editor comes and says, "This isn't for me, but I like you; what else do you have?" You don't have to say, "Oh, I have a sequel to the thing you didn't like."

C.N. S.

"You need to think that you are brilliant. It's okay that you're not." I feel like a person who thought they were brilliant would find this weirdly insulting. (I find this weirdly insulting.)

Ashe W.

Best lesson so far. So personable and feeling like he's talking to just me. The encouragement here is so much of what I think a new writer (or maybe every writer) needs.

Andrea P.

Loved this lesson. My biggest challenge is finishing stuff, I have so much work that is unfinished.

Jonathan H.

this is really helpful Neil, thank you! Btw @Masterclass your videos are so awesome, really feels like Neil is in the room talking to each of us. May I ask which video camera you use?

WILLIAM C.

Neil, my first rule of writing is that you have to have a purpose for writing the book. No purpose, and you will go crazy. And, you have to have a purpose in life. The bad days are easy to get through once you have experienced that with enough rewriting, you can make it better. Further, it is important to have a good grasp on grammar and the grammar tricks like absolutes, because you can't make chicken salad from chicken shit. Keep on Writing. Best William Taliesin St Clair

Heather H.

He's just terrific but this lesson is especially inspirational and timeless.

Sam

This helped make the idea of publishing a lot more manageable. I had a lot of smiles through this lesson. Thank you :)

A fellow student

Humility before honor. When the Bible and Neil agree I know I need to keep on writing.