Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
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I Can't Stop Writing

by Cary Semar

The nameplate on the door said "Dale Cowley, Editor," so I went in and introduced myself.

For a moment, the young man stared at me, then said, "Wynn Markhem is dead."

"No," I said. "I am still alive."

"But it isn't possible..." then he realized it was possible. "You have been traveling, all this time?"

I nodded. "I wanted to see some of the galaxy before I died, so I signed on as an ordinary tech."

"It must have been quite an adventure."

"Yes, it was good for awhile," I told him. "Those of my generation saw the beginning of interstellar travel and there are still a few of us around."

"But this is wonderful!" the young man said. "And your return to Earth could not have happened at a better time."


"Your early novels have been rediscovered. They are selling like... like..."

"Hot cakes?" I suggested.

He laughed. "You certainly have a quaint way with words, Mr. Markham. Yes, they are selling like hotcakes. What are hotcakes, anyway?"

I told him.

"What brings you to our offices?" he said, getting down to business at last. "I hope you have a script to show us."

I pulled the flash drive out of my pocket and handed it over. "This is my latest novel," I said.

He studied the rectangular chip for a moment, turning it over in his hand. "I am afraid these units are obsolete," he said. "No one has ports for them anymore."

"It's all right," I said. "I have a hard copy." I picked up my briefcase and laid it on my lap. "I have brought the first two hundred pages with me."

"Excellent," he said, putting out his hand. "Let me have a look at them" He glanced at the title. "The Forgotten Stars. Not bad."

He read the first page, flipped over a few pages, then read a paragraph or two. He lay the script down on his desk and gave me a troubled look. "This is not what I was hoping for," he said.

There was a pause, and I reached for the manuscript, feeling a burning sensation. "I understand," he said. "My work is not for everybody."

"You don't understand," he said. "I do like your work, it's just that, well, I was hoping for something like your earlier stuff. The exciting, primal feel of the frontier type of thing."

I shook my head. "That was another time," I said. "That frontier doesn't exist anymore."

He reached into his desk and pulled out a small volume. "Here is the sort of thing I am looking for," he said, handing it to me.

It was one of my early juveniles, Star Ranger's Honor. "That brings back memories," I said. "Not all of them pleasant ones."

"That is a great young peoples book," he said. "Like hotcakes, they sell. It is optimistic, wholesome, and witty. That is what we need now."

I laid the book down on his desk. "I was twenty-four when I wrote that," I said. "I am not interested in that sort of thing anymore."

"Of course," he said, nodding. "But you are a professional. You can work to order, can't you?"

"Do you take me for a hack?"

The editor guffawed and slapped his desk. "Another quaint Markhamism," he said. "A walking treasure chest of verbal antiquities, you are." He picked up the old book and pressed it into my hand. "Read it. There are hundreds of Markham imitators out there getting rich. You will make them all look silly. Who, might I say, can do Markham better than Markham?"

"What about this?" I said, holding up the novel I had struggled over for five years while plying the stars. "I had something to say."

He grabbed the manuscript out of my hand. "All right, give it to me. I'll take it, but only if you promise me two Star Rangers books, eighty thousand words each by September."

Blackmail, I thought. I would have to do two complete novels in six months. In returned for one hundred sixty thousand words of trash, they would grudgingly publish my most important work, the work I will be remembered for. "I need an advance," I said. "I haven't any money."

Dale wrote reached into his desk drawer and took out a small plastic card which he shoved toward me. "That should hold you until the first book is done."

I looked at the card and noted the numbers on the front. "Yes, that will do."

* * *

When I took the advance, I intended to deliver the promised manuscripts. I walked out of that office with plot ideas buzzing through my head, but six months later, the money was all gone and I had nothing to hand in. I walked out of my apartment, owing a month's rent and signed onto a star freighter.

On a fully manned starship, you are on watch four hours and off watch eight hours. When off watch and not asleep or eating or bathing, you can play cards or watch videos, or you can write. That is what I did, and I had plenty of time to do it.

The funny thing is, on the trip, the old ideas began to flow again. Stuff that I had not thought about in years began to flow out of my keyboard. I did the two Star Rangers novels and a couple of young people's thrillers about a brother and sister exploring a frontier world.

The next time my ship called at Earth, Dale was still alive and still editor at Green Mountain Press. His hair was gray and he had grown a mustache, also gray, but I recognized him. "Wynn Markham!" he said, and smiled as I walked into his office. "I can't believe you are still alive!" Then he guffawed in a familiar way and added, "I have this sudden feeling of ... uh..."

"Deja Vu," I suggested.

"Right! Deja Vu all over again! You don't look a day older than you did way back in ... how long ago was it?"

"Five years for me," I said. "Twenty five for you."

"Twenty five years," said Dale, and scratched his gray head. "So you have been star traveling again?"

I nodded. "I think I owe you a couple of books. I am sorry I missed the deadline, but I suppose it is better late than never." I opened my bag and took out two manuscripts: Star Ranger's Glory and Star Ranger's Revenge.

Dale hefted the typescripts and stared at them in confusion. "Funny, I do seem to remember asking you for something. Hmm." He opened the wrappings and glanced at the opening pages of each book. Then he pushed them aside and looked at me with a frown. "Look, Wynn, I am afraid that sort of thing is out of style right now. In fact, nobody has marketed anything like that in twenty years."

I nodded. "I understand. But you did ask for them."

Dale leaned back in his chair and looked at me over the top of his glasses. "What we are interested in right now is exploring the angst of middle age. People coming to the latter part of their lives are asking themselves: What is is all about? What does it all mean? What we want are books that seem to answer those questions. Why don't you do something like that? God knows at your age and with all the traveling you have done and all you have seen, you must have some insights to offer us."

"Yes I do," I said and laid my hand on the two Star Rangers novels. "They are all in here."

Cowley smiled. "I don't mean to belittle your juveniles, Mr. Markham, but I am talking about serious literature. I am talking about something that speaks to the soul."

"It is not form or genre that makes literature," I said. "It is content. Read my books, Mr. Cowley, and learn something about the indomitable human spirit. I have learned that is possible to entertain without feeding the reader on false emotion and trite solutions."

"I am sure you accomplished what you set out to do," he said. "But believe me, the publishing business is a lot different than it was when I was a young man. When you published your first novels, it was still possible for a manuscript to come in over the transom and be read. Well, those days are gone. Today, it is a dynamic market and you to be on top of the latest trends to survive. All of our stuff is done to order, now."

"I never worried about the trends," I said. "If something is good, it will find its audience."

Cowley nodded. "Exactly, but it also has to find it's time. Well, you are here at the right time, Mr. Markham." He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a plastic card. "I loaded this credit card while my secretary was having you cool your heels in the outer office."

I looked at the balance and gasped. "Another advance? How much is this worth, in constant dollars?"

"That is your royalties for The Forgotten Stars." Cowley grinned. "You are a rich man."

"Then you published my book after all?"

"It was just a fluke," he said. "When you disappeared, we didn't know what to do with the manuscript, so it lay in our files for almost twenty years. About six years ago, an editorial assistant came across it and brought it to me. One look and I knew I had dynamite in my hands."

"You didn't think much of it when I brought it to you," I said.

He shrugged," I was kid then," he said. "I didn't know anything. I have changed. We have all changed."

"Some of us have changed more than others," I said.

Cowley grinned. "Just give me another Forgotten Stars," he said. "There will be a lot more money where that came from."

* * *

I tried. Oh, I tried hard. But I was a rich man with the royalties from Forgotten Stars. Money takes hold of you, there were parties I had to attend, people I had to meet. They brought out a new edition of Forgotten Stars and I hawked the thing all over the planet. I started work on another serious novel, I bought a house, a boat, and I got married.

Getting married was a mistake; she was too young for me. The sales of Forgotten Stars had begun to fade even before I signed the royalties over in the divorce settlement. I needed another book, a blockbuster, but I could not write another Forgotten Stars. It would take years.

I shipped out again.

* * *

That was my third trip and now I am nearly sixty, so I guess I won't be able to get another ship. But I finished another book; this one is going to be the one they'll remember me for.

* * *

The woman across the desk placed the manuscript gently down and placed her hand upon the brown cover. "I loved your book, Mr. Markham. But I am afraid we can't use it."

"In Dale Cowley's time, he tried to make this house into a home for serious literature," I said. "I hope you haven't moved away from that policy in the last twenty seven years."

"Not at all," she said. "But today's readers are mostly women. They are not interested in adventure stories."

"Lost Dreams is not an adventure story," I said. "It is about the spiritual questioning that a man faces in his later years. Byron Taggart is a powerful man who learns the futility of power when used for selfish purposes."

"I can see that," she said. "But our readers are demanding books about turning inward. Our readers are interested in getting close to the earth and nature. Exploding suns and interstellar trade wars are not what they are buying right now."

I stood up and walked out of the office, leaving my manuscript behind. I headed straight for the spaceport, but I only got as far as the bar outside the gate.

Now I am sitting in a bar where the space hands hang out and I am hoping to snag a berth on an outbound ship. There aren't many jobs for a starman of my age, but something is bound to turn up.

It is never too late to seek a newer world. And I can't stop writing.


2015 Cary Semar

Bio: Cary Semar is a retired aerospace engineer living in Galveston County Texas. He contributed four short stories to Aphelion Webzine and served as our Short Story Editor for seven years.

E-mail: Cary Semar

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