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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