To the Stars

Astounding Science Fiction August 1940 cover for Lester Del Rey’s “The Stars Look Down”

Non est ad astra mollis e terris via.

The sentence translates to “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” It is line 437 of Seneca’s play Hercules Furens, and is spoken by Megara, the wife of Hercules, to Lycus, the tyrant who usurped her father’s throne.

The meaning is clear: there is no easy path to fame, to glory.

Recently Jackson Dean Chase posted a link to a blog article, “Stop ‘trying hard’ and produce more if you want to smash it as a writer”. The article could not have come at a more appropriate time for me.

In brief, the article notes that creative people have no concept of the quality or value of their own work. In fact, a creative’s own estimation is often at odds with that of the public.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hatred of Sherlock Holmes immediately comes to mind. He thought the great detective frivolous and the stories not at all great literature. Yet history has proven him wrong. Of the vast number of novels and stories that Doyle wrote, it is Holmes who is associated with Doyle’s name and by which he’s remembered.

George Frederic Handel loved Italian opera and continued to write and produce operas for a London audience that no longer wanted them. He ended up bankrupt and in ill health. Forced by circumstances, he turned to English oratorio and wrote Messiah. Which by the way was hated by the librettist because Handel produced the sacred drama in concert halls!

Handel did learn his lesson and milked Messiah for every shilling and pound he could get from it.

HG Wells thought his greatest work was the world history he wrote. Today, no one knows he wrote one.

I observe my fellow writers frantically following one success guru after another in the attempt to become bestselling authors. They look like sheep in search of a shepherd. Like parrots, they repeat the supposed mantras of success over and over. Usually without giving them any thoughtful consideration.

Every now and then, I find myself caught up in the stampede until a friend graciously pulls me back to reality. It’s easy to follow the crowd. After all that’s what lemmings do when they run over the cliff into the sea.

Seneca is right. The path to the stars is not an easy one. Why? Because there is no easy formula to follow. There is no one how-to manual that works for everyone.

No one knows how a bestseller is born. No one.

What does that mean for us writers? Quite simply, it means we must write. And write a lot. Write until that bestseller is discovered.

Margaret Mitchell is very much the exception and not the rule. In spite of us writers wanting to make her the rule.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and probably had a hand in at least 10 others. But how many can we even name? Let alone the number that are regularly produced?

Because there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success, there is no external help for us writers. As Rainer Maria Rilke noted, there is no one outside of ourselves who can give us strength, encouragement, and support. It is all inside. We must look inside ourselves for what we need to succeed.

Of all that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote (and he wrote a lot), the one character that stands out is Tarzan. The same for Lester Dent. He wrote hundreds of books and stories. His name, however, is forever tied to Doc Savage.

Handel wrote 42 operas and 29 oratorios (amongst many other works). Mention his name and everyone says, Messiah.

Burroughs did not set out to become famous by writing Tarzan. Nor Dent, Doc Savage. Nor Handel, Messiah. It was the public who decided what would be their claim to fame.

Because we writers, and creatives in general, are very bad at predicting our own greatest work, our only recourse is to write lots and give it to the public and let them decide.

In my own case, I expected Festival Of Death, with my private detective Justinia Wright (who I dearly love), to be my “bestseller”. Imagine my surprise when The Morning Star, the initial book in my post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe series, has to date, outsold Festival of Death by an almost 5 to 1 margin.

Never in a million years would I have guessed that to have happened. So my writer friends, keep writing. The public will find your best book for you. That is one thing you don’t have to worry about. Just write and trust your public.

Comments are always welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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Robert E Howard: A Writer For All Seasons

Robert_E_Howard_suit

 

In the early 1970s there was a brief revival of Weird Tales magazine. Because of a letter to the editor I wrote, I made contact with a group of Lovecraftian and pulp-era aficionados in Minneapolis. And through that group became acquainted with Robert E Howard’s work. The writer who invented sword and sorcery fantasy. Howard’s best known creation is Conan the Cimmerian (or Barbarian), but there were many other characters that came from Howard’s typewriter who set the stage for Conan.

Lovecraft and Howard were clearly the two giants of the ‘20s and ‘30s pulp fiction era who have had a lasting impact on the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres. Which, to my mind, makes them great writers. And of the two, I think Howard was the greater.

I know I stand in the minority with that opinion, but I do think it true. Of course, what constitutes “greatness” is always up for debate.

As a storyteller, when Lovecraft was good he was very, very good. And when he was bad he was horrid. Quite honestly, Lovecraft wrote some truly hack stories. Awhile back I started re-reading Lovecraft and I found what I was reading to be tedious, melodramatic, and dated.

I’ve never felt that way reading Howard. Which isn’t to say everything he wrote was stupendous, because it wasn’t. However, using consistency as a measure, I’d say Howard was the more consistent of the two. Pick up a Howard story, doesn’t matter the genre, and you’ll find plenty of action and plenty of atmosphere. Howard’s writing flows. Granted it’s not all superb literature — but his intention wasn’t to write superb literature. He was writing popular fiction to make a buck. And make a buck he did.

As a writer/publisher, an indie author, I look to Robert E Howard for inspiration. Why? Because, had he lived today, and I think he would have loved today’s indie revolution, I believe Howard would have been a phenomenal success. He knew how to tell a story and knew how to tell it well — without any training. He was prolific, and he was versatile.

Let’s take a look at each of these aspects.

STORYTELLING

Howard learned the craft of storytelling from sources that are all around us: songs (particularly folks songs and ballads), poetry, and fiction. In other worlds, he was a good listener and an eclectic reader who absorbed the structure of story. Sure he read for entertainment, as all readers do. But Howard, from his reading (and listening to his grandmother’s singing), learned what makes a story tick.

We writers — myself included — generally don’t do that. We are entertained and that’s it. A pity that, because reading and learning storytelling from a great book is about as inexpensive an education as one can get.

Back before YouTube, Artist Workshops, and Master Classes, back before this and the last centuries, and perhaps the one before that, wannabe artists learned how to paint by becoming apprentices to a great master and copying — yes, copying — his work. In that way they learned technique and also their own individual style began to emerge.

Some time, many years ago, I read a book or article on writing that advocated the same approach. Take a novel you like and copy it — by hand — word for word. Why? To feel it.

The majority of us are kinesthetic/tactile learners. That is, we learn by doing. And writing by hand is the most tactile experience you can have when it comes to writing. The pen or pencil in your hand, your hand moving it and forming letters and words, is a far more tactile experience than typing (which is really primarily visual), because more of you is in the writing.

So copying a story or novel by hand helps us to focus on the words and how they flow together to form story.

I’ve read the work of novice writers and I ask the question, “Would you actually read this if someone’s name other than your own was on it?”

We generally love our work or we hate it. We aren’t very objective. Those of us who tend to be haters (we’re probably perfectionists too), aren’t the problem. We throw our writing away — both good and bad.

The problem lies with those of us who love our writing — even if it’s crap. Writing we wouldn’t read if anyone else’s name was on it.

Robert E Howard learned how to tell a story by reading stories, listening to the story in folk songs and ballads, and then imitated the flow, atmosphere, characters, pacing, and showing not telling. He wrote what he liked to read and did it well.

PROLIFIC

Howard, in a letter to H P Lovecraft, wrote he wanted to be a writer because of the freedom it gave him. His schedule was his own and he had no boss. From the beginning, Howard wrote fiction as his job. He had no delusions about being a literary author. He wrote popular fiction to make a buck. That was his sole aim.

To do that, he needed to be prolific. When you’re paid by the word and you only get paid when a story is accepted or published — you have to write a lot of stories and you have to do so quickly. And Howard did.

Today’s author/publisher is no different. We indies cater to a specific reader. Our readers are

  • Genre readers,
  • Voracious readers, and
  • Readers who frequent used bookstores to buy lots of books cheaply.

If you desire to be a successful author, you must know who your audience is — and then write lots of books, preferably in series.

The pulp era was very similar to today’s publishing world. There were the literary giants and then there were the popular fiction writes. Today we have the literary giants and some big name genre writers who are published by the traditional publishing houses. Then there are the indie authors. Today’s indie writer carries the mantle of the pulp fiction writer of 80 and 90 years ago. And being prolific is the name of the game.

VERSATILE

Howard was one of the most successfully versatile, genre-hopping authors of any age. He created the sword and sorcery fantasy sub-genre with characters such as Solomon Kane, King Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and Red Sonja. He created Breckinridge Elkins, that genre-busting hero of many of Howard’s westerns. Elkins is a character much like Conan and just as Conan transcended the fantasy of his day, so Elkins transcended the western. In fact, Elkins is so unique he hasn’t been copied and no name’s been given to the Elkinsesque Western.

Howard started out selling stories to Weird Tales magazine. But when the magazine (which paid on publication) got behind on its payments, Howard switched to other markets. Aside from horror, Howard wrote action and adventure, fight stories, mysteries, westerns (both weird and conventional), historical fiction, and he even wrote spicy stories (the erotica of his day) under the pseudonym Sam Walser.

Many of these stories featured serial protagonists: El Borak, Sailor Steve Costigan, Dennis Dorgan, Cormac Mac Art, as well as the above named characters.

Robert E Howard was truly a writer for all seasons. He wrote for money. And to be successful, after numerous rejection slips, he studied each magazine and the stories they accepted. He then tailored his writing to fit the house style, so the editor would send him a check instead of a rejection slip. Of course, his writing had to be good to begin with and it was. Once his work began to find fans, editors started coming to him and asking for stories.

Howard is the writer’s writer. He is my model and my inspiration. I doubt I’ll create any fictional subgenres. Although Howard didn’t intentionally set out to do so either. But what I do hope to learn from REH is his adaptability to the market, his ability to write prolifically, and all the while tell a good story.

As always, comments are welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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Fast Writing: Additional Thoughts

Last week we talked about fast writing. This week I want to riff on some of those points we made.

For years now, I’ve maintained “The First Draft” is a myth. There’s no need for it or the accompanying second, third, fourth, fifth, etc drafts. The multiple draft approach is an Academic Belief System all wannabe writers are taught to believe by people who don’t write for a living. It has no basis in reality. At least the reality of those who write fiction for a living.

The belief system of Academia and the editors in the traditional publishing world believe this formula:

Slow Writing = Good Writing.

Or conversely, Fast Writing = Bad Writing.

This is a belief system. A religion. It is not The Truth. It has no basis in reality. It’s no different than belief in God. No one can prove there is or isn’t a God. One either believes there is a God or believes there isn’t one. Simple as that.

We writers can choose to believe the myth about fast and slow writing or we can choose not to believe it. For myself, I don’t believe it.

In high school and college, as a matter of course, mostly due to time pressure is my guess, I wrote out my papers and essays by hand. Then I typed them, editing as I went along. When I was done, I submitted. No first draft, second draft baloney. There was no time. And I’m pleased to say, I never got poor marks on my papers.

But for some odd reason, I didn’t apply that intuitive course of action to my fiction writing. I struggled trying to make it perfect. To do all of the “right” things. And consequently, I got nothing written.

Nearly 40 years ago now, I read a book on writing advice. I don’t remember the title, author, or anything about it except the summary of how Isaac Asimov wrote and his advice for writers. It went something like this:

  • Write every day — whether or not you feel like it.
  • Write simply.
  • Forget the critics.
  • Don’t rewrite. That’s what editors are for. This point was Asimov’s restatement of Robert Heinlein’s 3rd Rule of Writing, something I learned later. Asimov didn’t rewrite unless his editor demanded it. Asimov followed what, in business, is called the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once. And it does work for writers. I practiced it with my essays for school.
  • Don’t use an agent. Because you make more money if you don’t. I.E., you aren’t paying the agent his or her commission.

That book and the brief bit of information from Isaac Asimov was my first introduction to prolific writing. And I loved the concept!

But for some reason, I still didn’t apply it to my fiction. And nothing got written.

Later on, I learned about the Victorian speed demon, Anthony Trollope. I learned Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing. I was awed by the fabulous production of Robert E Howard in his very short writing career. And I learned one thing about myself: I needed to be like them. I needed to be a fast writer.

In 1989, I wrote a novel. The process took me a year. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I did get it written while working full time and learning the ins and outs of raising a very young child. After a few rejections of my query, I set the work aside. I decided it wasn’t up to standard. And in truth, it wasn’t. I didn’t quite have down how to write a good story. I also came to the decision, I couldn’t write longer works of fiction. They took up too much time. So I turned to poetry. And that worked.

For a span of fifteen or so years I wrote thousands of poems, following Asimov’s advice. I was a prolific poet and got hundreds of poems published. But I tired of poetry and wanted to write what I’d always wanted to write and that was fiction. So once again I turned to novel writing. And once again I stubbed my toe on another myth — that of the outline. And no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get an outline to work. Every time I took my wonderful character or story idea and tried to outline the book, I suddenly lost all inspiration. It vanished.

Then I stumbled upon Kazuo Ishiguro and Yasujirō Ozu and the plotless novel and movie. To be fair, their books and movies aren’t without plot. The storyline, though, is minor. What is important are the character studies taking place on the page and screen. That was what broke the ice. I liked reading about characters. I could not care less about the story. I want interesting characters.

Suddenly, I felt free. There were no restrictions. Just write. Do what Ray Bradbury advised: create your characters, have them do their thing, and that’s your story. Simple as that. The words have been flowing like a flood from my pen ever since.

But getting back to Asimov, there was one “rule” he didn’t articulate but is clearly implied in his methodology — and which I follow. Namely, write it right the first time.

How does one write it right the first time? Confidence. You must be confident you know the basics of good writing. You must be confident you can tell a reasonably good story.

I’m not referring here to deeply profound writing. Or writing that is symbolic or “literary”, whatever that means. Or writing that is approved by Academia. I’m not referring here to writing that will win you the Pulitzer or Nobel or Booker awards. I’m referring here to good writing that will hopefully earn you a few bucks and maybe a lot of bucks. Straightforward writing that tells a good story.

Shakespeare did not set out to become the doyen of English literature. He was writing to make a buck. He used prefab storylines and created memorable characters and wrote some doggone good dialogue. But his main goal was to make a buck to support his family, mistress, and keep his theatre afloat. Shakespeare had confidence he could tell a good story.

The critics hated Isaac Asimov and ridiculed his very simple and straightforward writing style. However, the readers loved him and Asimov himself undoubtedly laughed at his critics all the way to the bank. Why? Because he told a good story. Was it a perfect story? No. And he would have been the first to admit it. But the story was good. In fact, Asimov wrote once that he tried to follow the multiple draft method and couldn’t. He liked what he wrote on the first draft and didn’t see any way he could improve it. Besides, it was a waste of time — if he wanted to be prolific and make a buck. Asimov had confidence.

Dean Wesley Smith tells an interesting anecdote from back when he was part of the traditional publisher world. He wrote a novel and his editor sent it back with a list of rewrites. Smith agreed with most of them and spent a day making the fixes. He was getting ready to send the typescript back when his wife told him to wait 3 weeks. Why? Because if Smith sent it back right away, following the “Slow Writing = Good Writing” myth, the editor would reject his work. He’d done the rewrites too quickly. So Smith waited. After 3 weeks he sent the typescript back and the editor praised his work and how quickly he’d made the fixes. Smith laughed. In those three weeks he’d almost finished another novel!

So what’s my point here? Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Learn the writing craft. Know your grammar and know the basics of good storytelling. If you don’t know those basics, you will not be able to tell good stories no matter how many rewrites you grind out.
  • Write every day — even if you don’t feel like it. Routine is good. Stick to it.
  • Don’t pot around worrying about outline and plot twists and all the other hoopla. Just write the story. Create your characters, put them in a fix or give them a problem to solve and then start writing. You will learn in the course of writing. We are writers. Not rewriters. When I read of writers who LOVE editing and rewriting… Well, there is something wrong there. IMO.
  • When done, reread to make sure your story is coherent and to catch typos, grammar issues, and any clunky sentences you may have written. But the sake of everything that is of value to you, don’t rewrite the thing. IMO, if you have to rewrite then you don’t know how to tell a story. Yeah, I know, that’s harsh. But it is just my opinion. The choice is yours: pot around rewriting, or get it right the first time and try to make a buck.

I’ve written and/or published in the span of 2 years, 11 novels, 6 novellas, 16 short stories, and a weekly blog. Are there better writers out there than me? Certainly. Are there worse writers? Sure are. But am I a good writer? Like Asimov, when I look at a story or novel I’ve just completed I like it. Do I tweak it? Usually. But I don’t rewrite. I just fix the little things like typos and grammar mistakes and maybe reword a sentence or two if they come off sounding clunky. That’s it. If the beta readers spot a big issue, I’ll fix that. Following Asimov and Heinlein, I only rewrite if my “editors” insist on it. And the so called rewrite is usually only a paragraph or so.

That’s the secret to fast writing. Go out there and tell your stories. Because only YOU can tell YOUR stories.

Comments are always welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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