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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4 thoughts on “To the Stars”

  1. Very good post and true on so many levels. Even authors who’ve “made it” need to keep writing. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling is still producing content and working on projects like the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. If she stops, there’s a risk Harry Potter could eventually become that thing your grandparents read and is otherwise forgotten. And she might yet stumble on something even bigger and more long-lasting than Potter. At the other end of the spectrum, I know people who stick their toes in the publishing waters, get a poor review or two and stop altogether, thinking their reputation is forever tarnished. In fact, that’s the surest way to be a forgotten author. The best thing to do is figure out what didn’t work for people and crank another story or novel. Odds are, the next one will be better!

    1. I agree 100%, David. Anthony Trollope had 3 complete “duds” before The Warden was published, which had only mild critical recognition and few sales. The next book, number 5, Barchester Towers, finally did it for him. And his story isn’t the only one like that. Yes, we must keep on writing. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Keep up this subversive talk, and you’ll wind up a hobbyist! We write, I write what’s of interest to me, and don’t much care who likes it, but guess what. People find it and like it. Just not enough to land me on a best-seller list, though one month my royalties did pay for my internet bill!

    I grew up enjoying a certain style of books that people had stopped writing by the time I was 20, and I finally decided that if no one was going to write them for me, I would write them myself. Fans of Tarzan and Doc Savage would recognize them. That decision has cut me off from fame and fortune, but my small, loyal following provides me with a great deal of enjoyment. It’s hard to put a price on that.

    Best of luck to you, C.W. You’re a fine human being, an excellent writer, and a good friend. I sincerely hope you arrive at whatever destination you’re journeying toward, but don’t forget to have the fun along the way; the journey is part of the experience as well!

    1. LOL! I’m probably a hobbyist already!

      I’m with you: I write what I like to read. I, too, grew up reading those books that were pretty much passé by the time I got to them. But that’s okay, because they were good books and there still are those folks who like them and there are those who are discovering them.

      I’m coming to the opinion that it isn’t really covers, or blurbs, or free books, or mailing lists, or any of the other things the gurus are proposing at the moment. Sure, a good cover helps. As Crispian Thurlborn noted, a good cover is reader flypaper. As is a good blurb. A strong mailing list isn’t going to hurt any of us. But in the end, it is a good story that ultimately sells the book.

      Michael Anderle and TS Paul, to name two, are living proof of that. They’ve succeeded handsomely and didn’t follow any of the pseudo-rules. They followed the ones that really count: know your audience and write to their expectations. In the end, it’s readers who buy the books. And there are more readers than there are gurus.

      I know what destination I’d like to reach, but I also know that there are no road signs. All of us who wish to be full-time authors, must first of all write the best stories we can. Then I think what is most important is marketing. Only by marketing can we get the word out about our tales.

      We’re lucky. Today there are no publishing gatekeepers. I’d like it to remain that way. We won’t all become millionaires. But we will all be able to tell our stories and send them out for the public to read them. And there has never really been a time like that before. We need to keep independent author-publishers free. Free to connect with the reader. Free of the gatekeepers.

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