Know Thyself – and Thy Goal

Guest Post by Helena Page Schrader

One of my two interns this summer is getting a PhD in English Literature. On a long drive back from a meeting with a solar energy expert, we got to talking about what defined good literature. For someone who has been out of academia for more than two decades, it was a useful “reality check” – and highly motivating.

“Character and character development,” M. replied without hesitation. Not suspense or thrills. Not relevance or trendiness. Not utility to the reader. Not originality of delivery. Not creativity or outlandishness. Not even plot. A piece of literature is not about what happens; it is about the human experience.

I found this motivating because it reminded me of why I write. I write to inspire people to go on living. “The telling of good deeds is like alms and charity; it is never lost labor, but always has its reward,” Chandos’ Herald wrote in roughly 1385 to explain why he was writing a biography of Edward of Woodstock. I identify with this statement and have made it my motto. I too write about people, whose experiences overcoming adversity or discovering spiritual strength, can serve as inspiring examples to others.

However, the answer would have been very different if I had asked what made a “best seller.” Best sellers have to be trendy, have to hit a collective nerve in society, appeal to current tastes, or focus on a current concern. A best seller tells us as much about the society in which it resonated as about the book itself. Today’s best seller is tomorrow’s dud, and few of us would even finish many of the books that were “best sellers” in other generations and cultures.

Thus every author needs to be clear about his/her objective. If the goal is to write a best seller, then it is very important to understand the market: what do people want to read about, how do they like it delivered, what length sells best, what genre is “in.” On the other hand, if the goal is a work of literature, then one can (perhaps should) ignore current trends and follow one’s inner compass. However, if we decide to ignore the market, then we can’t complain if our book doesn’t sell very well!

In short, before starting writing, every author should honestly decide on the goal. Of course we all want be both “literary” and “best-selling,” but trying to serve two masters at the same time is usually a formula for disaster.

Helena Page Schrader is a career diplomat, who earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg with a ground-breaking dissertation about the mastermind behind the Valkyrie Plot against Hitler. She has published non-fiction works on the German Resistance, women in aviation in WWII, and the Berlin Airlift. Her novels on the German Resistance (Hitler’s Demons, the Battle of Britain (Where Eagles Never Flew), and Ancient Greece have won praise and awards. She has just completed the third book in her Leonidas Trilogy, a biographical novel in three parts about the life of Leonidas of Sparta, the hero Thermopylae.  Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King is scheduled for release in September 2012. You can find out more about Helena and her books at her website:


Posted on August 2, 2012, in Publicity & Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hello Helena:This is the second time I read your column and like it! So please count me as a new fan! You are quite right about the perception concerning "literature" as they relate to so-called "best sellers." You're advice to would-be writers is right on the money! I think writers write because they think they have something to say that has not been said. I've been yearning to write my first novel.That is what I'm doing now, between freelance writing assignments.My goal has always been to be a novelist. I chose my grandmother's life as my first book. I'm not aiming for it to be a "best seller" because first-time novels seldom are. Besides, sales and trends also determine if a book garners a "best seller" moniker. My grandmother is an unsung hero in my eyes. That's why she will be the subject of my first book. That said, I will return here to seek more advice from you as I plug away at grandma's book.Thanks for the inspiration, too!

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