The Mercenary Writing of Robin Wayne Bailey

Last Friday, I attended the Longview Literary Festival in Lee’s Summit. I took part in panels on critique groups and monsters in society. I had a lot of fun and the audience was enthusiastic, though sometimes small thanks to student class schedules. The featured speaker was Robin Wayne Bailey, who gave a lecture about his “rules” for commercial writing, which he admits are a bit mercenary. He credits them to Robert Heinlein. If it worked for Heinlein, then it is worth a shot. Bailey is no slouch himself. For those unfamiliar with his work, Bailey has had a career worth imitating. He’s a prolific writer in both short and long-form fiction and has been very successful in sustaining a long-term writing career.

Bailey’s (or Heinlein’s) rules are three points:

1. Write every day.

2. Finish everything.

3. Submit everything.

These rules are very appealing. They are similar to my approach to writing, and his points are worth examining a bit further. Writing every day is important, particularly if you are hoping to make some a living as a writer. This is a job, though admittedly an odd one. No one is going to pay you for the things that you didn’t write. Some of us work day jobs and don’t rely upon writing as our sole means of financial survival, but if we are going to take a shot at writing as a profession, writing every day is important.

Time is literally money, and if you aren’t going to get paid per hour, then it is vital that you finish things and submit them. Most of us could stand to focus more upon finishing our work. It’s easy to write first drafts. You have all this forward momentum and just spit it out on to the page. You are in love with it. It’s fresh. You are discovering the story as you go. It’s like a new relationship. Rewriting is the long-term relationship. You know the work. You’ve heard all its jokes and its flaws seem to glare at you every day. Being a writer is hard, we always say. But really, it’s the rewriting that makes it that way.

Of course, finishing things on its own is not going to get you paid. The money comes from publication, and in order to get published, you have to submit. One of the things that I have found is that what I may consider strong work can be rejected more often than my weaker stories. It’s not that I am not proud of the stories, but I didn’t consider them my best work. Yet there they are printed in literary magazines for all the world to see. I might think I was a terrible judge of quality, but I know other writers who have told me similar things. You don’t know what will sell and what won’t until you submit it. Write the best story that you can. When you have done all you can with it, throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.

I don’t write anything that I don’t expect to be read. I write for publication. Because of that, the mercenary-style rules of Heinlein and Bailey appeal to me. That being said, there is nothing wrong with writing for yourself, for your family, or even just for distraction. It’s not the way I work, but it’s valid. If you are like me and the even more mercenary writers out there, you might keep those three rules in mind. The first seems self-evident. The other two make more than a few writers a bit uncomfortable. But hey, if you are a certain type of writer, it could be worth a shot.

I, for one, am going to keep Bailey’s rules in mind going forward, and I am thankful to Bailey for sharing them with the crowd at the Longview Literary Festival. His approach re-energized me heading forward in to NaNoWriMo and the first draft of Very Dangerous People.

2 thoughts on “The Mercenary Writing of Robin Wayne Bailey

  1. I was sorry to miss the Longview Lit Fest this year, but I was busy herding a wonderful group of would-be writers and biologists across the hills of Konza Prairie (part of a course I’m teaching this semester at Avila). It sounds like you had a wonderful time & got some great advice besides. I’m afraid I’ll never quite get away from writing for sheer self-indulgence, but Robin is right: if we ever plan to make a little money off of this, we have to write for our audience, too.

    Hope you’re in for a good week, Jack. Thanks for an interesting post!

    • Sorry you had to miss it, but it was for a good cause. I think Robin’s approach is comforting to a certain type of writer. I enjoy writing, so I don’t want people to think I don’t. However, I tend to be more productive when I think of it as a job. I’m a very blue-collar writer, and I’ve always been more successful when I approach it with a clock-in, clock-out mentality than when I approach it as a hobby for personal enjoyment. Hope to see you there next year.

Leave a Comment