Sci-Fi Icon Robert Heinlein Lists 5 Essential Rules for Making a Living as a Writer


So you want to be a writer? Good, you’ll find plenty of advice from the best here at Open Culture. Oh, you want to be a science fiction writer? The great Ursula K. Le Guin has offered readers a wealth of writing advice, though she won't tell us "how to sell a ship, but how to sail one." But wait, you also want to know how to publish, and make a living? For that, you’d better see Robert Heinlein, one of the acknowledged masters of the Golden Age of science fiction and a hugely prolific author who pioneered both popular hard sci-fi and what he called “speculative fiction,” a more serious, literary form incorporating social and political themes.

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” Heinlein refers to these “two types” of science fiction as “the gadget story and the human interest story.” The latter kind of story, writes Heinlein “stands a better chance with the slicks than a gadget story does” because it has wider appeal. This advice sounds rather utilitarian, doesn’t it? What about passion, inspiration, the muse? Eh, you don’t have time for those things. If you want to be successful like Robert Heinlein, you've got to write stories, lots of ‘em, stories people want to publish and pay for, stories people want to read.

Heinlein spends the bulk of his essay advising us on how to write such stories, with a proviso, in an epigram from Rudyard Kipling, that “there are nine-and-sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays / And every single one of them is right.” After, however, describing in detail how he writes a "human interest" science fiction story, Heinlein then gets down to business. He assumes that we can type, know the right formats or can learn them, and can spell, punctuate, and use grammar as our “wood-carpenter’s sharp tools.” These prerequisites met, all we really need to write speculative fiction are the five rules below:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you start.

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

4. You must put it on the market.

5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

You might think Heinlein has lapsed into the language of the realtor, not the writer, but he is deadly serious about these rules, which “are amazingly hard to follow—which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants.” Anyone who has tried to write and publish fiction knows this to be true. But what did Heinlein mean in giving us such an austere list? For one thing, as he notes many times, there are perhaps as many ways to write sci-fi stories as there are people to write them. What Heinlein aims to give us are the keys to becoming professional writers, not theorists of writing, lovers of writing, dabblers and dilettantes of writing.

Award-winning science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has interpreted Heinlein’s rules with commentary of his own, and added a sixth: “Start Working on Something Else.” Good advice. Heinlein's rule number three, however---“the one that got Heinlein in trouble with creative-writing teachers”---seems to contradict what most every other writer will tell us. Sawyer suggests we take it to mean, “Don’t tinker endlessly with your story.” Writer Patricia C. Wrede agrees, but also suggests that “Heinlein was of the school of thought that felt that ‘good enough’ was all that was necessary, ever.”

Like 19th century writers who churned out novels as serialized stories for the papers and magazines, Heinlein and his fellow Golden Age writers made their living selling story after story to the “pulps” and the “slicks” (preferably the slicks). One had to be prolific, and being “’prolific enough’ often involved not having time to polish and revise much (if at all).” So rule number three may or may not apply, depending on our constraints. The literary market has changed dramatically since 1947, but the rest of Heinlein’s rules still seem nonnegotiable if we intend not only to write---speculative fiction or otherwise---but also to make a career doing so.

via Ken St. Andre

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Master List of 1,250 Free Courses From Top Universities: 40,000 Hours of Audio/Video Lectures

Image by Carlos Delgado, via Wikimedia Commons

For the past ten years, we've been busy rummaging around the internet and adding courses to an ever-growing list of Free Online Courses, which now features 1,250+ courses from top universities. Let's give you the quick overview: The list lets you download audio & video lectures from schools like Stanford, Yale, MIT, Oxford and Harvard. Generally, the courses can be accessed via YouTube, iTunes or university web sites, and you can listen to the lectures anytime, anywhere, on your computer or smart phone. We haven't done a precise calculation, but there's about 40,000 hours of free audio & video lectures here. Enough to keep you busy for a very long time.

Right now you’ll find 146 free philosophy courses, 88 free history courses, 125 free computer science courses, 78 free physics courses and 55 Free Literature Courses in the collection, and that’s just beginning to scratch the surface. You can peruse sections covering Astronomy, Biology, BusinessChemistry, Economics, Engineering, Math, Political Science, Psychology and Religion.

Here are some highlights from the complete list of Free Online Courses. We've added a few unconventional/vintage courses in the mix just to keep things interesting.

The complete list of courses can be accessed here: 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Watch John Malkovich Portray David Lynch and Lynch’s Famous Characters from Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks & More

John Malkovich's filmography includes not Wild at Heart but Places in the Heart, not Inland Empire but Empire of the Sun, not Mulholland Drive but Mulholland Falls. This respected actor, in short, has never appeared in a David Lynch film, but he recently demonstrated that he could have starred in all of them — and can even portray the director himself. In Psychogenic Fugue, Malkovich slips into a variety of Lynchian personas, from heroes like Eraserhead's iconically pillar-haired Henry Spencer and Twin Peaks' squarely coffee-loving Special Agent Dale Cooper to villains like Blue Velvet's Frank Booth and Lost Highway's Mystery Man, to even the Ladies Log and in the Radiator.

Those names, I assure filmgoers not so up on their Lynch, will mean a great deal to fans, whether of the director or of the actor. Though both are American men of cinema, both of the same generation, Lynch and Malkovich would at first appear to have little in common: the former, who's made ten features in the past forty years, has spent his career diving deeper and deeper into stranger and more personal (but ultimately, somehow, accessible) psychological waters, while the latter, prolific in his screen acting with almost 100 appearances to his credit, hops between hugely disparate personalities, time periods, and intellectual levels without seeming to break a sweat. But both of them do tend to attract the same descriptor: intense.

The versatile Malkovich also knows what it means to look inside himself, having starred in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, which famously includes a scene where every human being has turned into a version of John Malkovich. This minute-long trailer for Psychogenic Fugue may remind you of that unforgettable viewing experience, but if you want the full, twenty-minute version, it comes with only a ten-dollar donation (accompanied by more goodies at higher donation levels) to the David Lynch Foundation, which you can make at The fact that the money won't go to fund another Lynch feature may disappoint some, but at least if he eventually decides to make a not just psychologically but literally autobiographical film, he'll know exactly who to cast in the lead.

via Welcome to Twin Peaks

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the First Recording of Computer Generated Music: Researchers Restore Music Programmed on Alan Turing’s Computer (1951)


However you feel about electronic music, you’ll still find yourself listening to it most places you go. For better or worse, it has become mood music, soothing the jangled nerves of customers in coffee shops and lulling boutique shoppers into a pleasant sense of hip. Some computer music pioneers have moved on from composing their own music to making computers do it for them. It’s precisely the kind of thing I imagine Alan Turing might have pursued had the computer science giant also been a musician.

In fact, Turing did inadvertently create a computer that could play music when he input a sequence of instructions into it, which relayed sound to a loudspeaker Turing called “the hooter.” By varying the “hoot” commands, Turing found that he could make the hooter produce different notes, but he was “not very interested in programming the computer to play conventional pieces of music,” note Jack Copeland and Jason Long at the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog. Turing “used the different notes” as a rudimentary notification system, “to indicate what was going on in the computer.”

Instead, the task fell to schoolteacher, pianist, and future computer scientist Christopher Strachey to create the first computer-generated music, using Turing’s gigantic Mark II, its programming manual, and “the longest computer program ever to be attempted.” After an all-night session, Strachey had taught the computer to hoot out “God Save the Queen." Upon hearing the composition the next morning, Turing exclaimed, "good show," and Strachey received a job offer just a few weeks later.

Once the BBC heard of the achievement, they visited Turing’s Computing Machine Laboratory and made the recordings above in 1951, which include a version of Strachey’s “God Save the Queen” program and renditions of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” The “original 12-inch disc the melodies were recorded on,” writes The Verge, “has been known about for a while, but when Copeland (a professor) and Long (a composer) listened to it, they found the audio was not accurate.” The two describe in their blog post how they went about restoring the audio and how it came to exist in the first place.

While the music Turing’s computer produced sounds painfully primitive, it would be several more years before composers began to really experiment with computer-generated music beyond the rudimentary first steps, and well over a decade before the design of systems that could operate in real time.

Now, although they still require human input (“the singularity isn’t upon us,” writes Spin)computers have begun to compose their own music, like “Daddy’s Car,” a Beatles-esque song generated by a SONY CSL Research Laboratory AI called Flow Machine. Here, a composer mixes and matches different elements, a style, melody, lyrics, etc. from various databases. The machine produces the sounds. SONY labs have been generating computer-made jazz and classical music for some time now—some of which we may have already heard as background music.

As Spin points out, already a new startup called Jukedeck promises to “generate a song in the genre and mood of your choosing…" perhaps as “background music for advertisements or YouTube vlogs.” True to the spirit of the man who inadvertently invented computer music, and who theorized how a computer might demonstrate consciousness, the software will ask you to confirm that you are not a robot.

via The Verge

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu in Anime: A First Glimpse

Mark it on your calendars. 2018 will bring an anime adaptation of the popular card game Force of WillAn omnibus collection of six animations, the film will include one short created by Shuhei Morita, whose 2013 animation "Possessions" already earned him an Academy Award nomination. Morita's next task--to bring to life H.P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu." We've previously highlighted Lovecraft's 1934 drawings of the monster to which he gave literary life in 1928. (See "The Call of Cthulhu.") Above, catch a very first glimpse of Morita's take on the gigantic octopus. Below, in the Relateds, find a good deal of material on Cthulhu--drawings, radio dramatizations and much more.

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via Kotaku

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When L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz Series Was Banned for “Depicting Women in Strong Leadership Roles” (1928)


We’ve reached the final stretch of the most infuriating, unsettling election I’ve ever experienced. And we find the U.S. so polarized  that—as The Wall Street Journal chillingly demonstrates in their “Blue Feed Red Feed” feature—the left and right seem to live in two entirely different realities. Still, one would have to work very hard on either side, I think, to deny the role sexism has played. One candidate, a known and well-documented misogynist, leads millions of supporters calling for his opponent’s death, imprisonment, and humiliation. That opponent, of course, happens to be the first woman to run on a major party ticket in a general election.

Do many Americans still have a problem with accepting women as leaders? I personally don’t think there’s much of an argument there, and people who see the question as redundant marvel at how long archaic attitudes about women in power have persisted. At least these days we can openly have the—often highly inflamed—conversation about sexism in business, entertainment, and government. And we can support a cultural industry thriving on strong female characters in fiction, film, and television. Not so much in 1928, when the Chicago Public Library banned The Wizard of Oz, writes Kristina Rosenthal at the University of Tulsa Department of Special Collections, “arguing that the story was ungodly for ‘depicting women in strong leadership roles.’”

First published in 1900, L. Frank Baum’s fantasy novel initiated a series of 13 Oz-themed sequels, all of which became immensely popular after MGM’s 1939 film adaptation. (You can find them all in text and audio format here.) And yet, “throughout the years the books have been opposed for their positive portrayals of femininity.” Various libraries used similar excuses to ban the books throughout the 50s and 60s. The Detroit public library banned the Oz books in 1957, stating they had “no value for children of today.” The ban remained in place until 1972. One Florida librarian circulated a memo to her colleagues calling the books “unwholesome,” among other things, and causing a run on local bookstores as children desperately tried to find them.

Other groups decided that the books promoted witchcraft in charges similar to those levied at the Harry Potter series. In 1986, a group of Fundamentalist Christian families in Tennessee came together to remove the The Wizard of Oz from their schools’ curriculum, protesting “the novel’s depiction of benevolent witches.” They argued, writes Rosenthal, “that all witches are bad, therefore it is ‘theologically impossible ‘for good witches to exist.” Many seeking to ban the books since have similarly referred to their positive depictions of magic and “godless supernaturalism,” but the Tennessee case stands as a landmark in the Religious Right’s litigious crusade against the government. The attorney who represented plaintiff Vicki Frost called on “every born-again Christian to get their children out of public schools.”

It’s odd to think of whimsical children’s literature so seemingly innocuous as The Wizard of Oz books as territory in the long culture wars of the 20th century. But as we are reminded every year during Banned Books Week (September 25 − October 1, 2016), literature often arouses the ire of those incensed by change and difference. Yet their attempts to suppress certain books have always backfired, making the targets of their censorship even more popular and sought-after. If you’d like to read Baum’s Oz books now, you needn’t confront a gatekeeping librarian; simply head over to our post on the complete Wizard of Oz series, with free eBooks and audio books of all 14 female-centric fantasy classics.

via The Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

J.G. Ballard’s Experimental Text Collages: His 1958 Foray into Avant-Garde Literature


Image by J. G. Ballard, via the British Library

J.G. Ballard became famous for his 1985 autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (later turned by Steven Spielberg into a major motion picture). Before that, he became well-known for his controversial, car-wreck-eroticizing 1973 novel Crash (later turned by David Cronenberg into a semi-major motion picture). Before that, he made cultural waves with the experimental 1970 collection of "condensed novels" The Atrocity Exhibition and the both post-apocalyptic and psychological Drowned World trilogy of the 1960s. Go just a bit deeper back into the Ballard canon and you find a work, in its way, even more daring still: 1958's Project for a New Novel.

"Ballard formed the ‘novel’ from scientific and technical material cut from professional literature," says the page at the British Library where you can see images of the work, the process of whose composition bears a resemblance to William Burroughs' famous "cut-up writing" technique. "Letters, words and sentence fragments are pasted onto backing sheets with glue. Their design visually references everyday media, with headlines, body text and double-page spreads suggesting a magazine layout. Originally Ballard planned to display the work on billboards, as if it was a public advertisement."

Ballard himself described the Project as "sample pages of a new kind of novel, entirely consisting of magazine-style headlines and layouts, with a deliberately meaningless text, the idea being that the imaginative content could be carried by the headlines and overall design, so making obsolete the need for a traditional text except for virtually decorative purposes."


Image by J. G. Ballard, via the British Library

Employment at a London chemical society journal gave him access not just to photocopying facilities (then a rarity) but the magazine Chemical and Engineering News, which became his basic material: "I liked the stylish typography. I also like the scientific content, and used stories to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them."

That quote comes from an article by Rick McGrath at, who points out that "many of the characters and concerns in Project have resurfaced over the years" in his subsequent writings such as The Atrocity Exhibition and The Terminal Beach: "Ballard’s 'collage of things' spawned such characters as Coma, Kline and Xero, and such phrases as 'the terminal beach', 'Mr F is Mr F', 'thoracic drop' 'intertime' 'T-12' and many more Ballardian tropes now familiar to his readers today."

Though Ballard's work remained imaginative in a way that no other writer has replicated, he never, after the Project for a New Novel and the pieces of 1970s follow-up Advertiser's Announcements ("'ads' in the same sense that Project For A New Novel is a 'novel'"), got so experimental again. "Fascinated with the causality of time, Ballard’s first step is to remove it. Bored with action/reaction, Ballard inverts it," writes McGrath. "Unwilling to accept the fictions of the world, Ballard creates a personal reality. The result is an autopsy report, or a box of tools, or a lineup of service station attendants at a police station. It’s up to you to make a kind of personal sense of it all" — a bit like the modern world itself.

via The Scofield

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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