Here at MW, we often write (whine? gripe?) about the questions people ask us upon learning that we’re authors. The questions range from the pragmatic — “Really? Ever been published?” — to the crass — “Interesting. What do you get paid for that?” — to the sublimely ridiculous — “I’ve always wanted to write but never found the time. I’ve got some great story ideas, though. How about if I tell you my ideas and you write the books? We can split the money fifty-fifty…” (I’m sure many of you have certain favorite stupid questions you’ve gotten — feel free to share.) These questions mostly come from strangers, people we meet at parties or in some other social setting.
But there’s another question I get all the time. This one often comes from people who already know me, who know that I write and that I’m published, people who are too circumspect to ask what I make or if I’ll ghost write their memoirs. These are people who mean well and have no idea that I find their question a bit silly.
The question they ask is, “Working on another book?” And every time, my response is the same. “Always.”
It’s an answer that works on several levels. At it’s most basic, the answer is literally true nine times out of ten. I am almost always writing a book. I write a couple of books a year at this point — sometimes more — and each one takes several months. So, chances are that any time you see me, I’m writing a book. Sure, every now and then someone will catch me in between novels, but that’s where the next level kicks in.
What does it mean to be working on a book? If I’m not actually writing a novel, chances are I’m outlining one. If I’m not to that point yet, I’m probably working on character background or worldbuilding. If I’m not there yet, then probably I’m doing research that will help me as I move to that next stage. Several times a year I have to stop writing (or outlining or researching) to work on revisions or copyedits or proofs of a book I’ve already “finished.” (A corollary to this entire post: Not only am I ALWAYS working on a book, but a book is almost NEVER really done. Even if a book has been released in hardcover, chances are I’ll eventually have to proof the galleys for the paperback version. And even if it’s out in paperback, there may come a time when the book is reissued, in which case I’ll get another chance to go over it.)
What about those rare occasions when I’m a) not writing; b) not doing prep work; and c) not working on production? Well, then I’m almost certainly working on publicity: updating my website, doing guest blogging appearances at other people’s web sites, going to conferences and signings. All of this is designed to raise my profile, to spur sales of the newest release (and all the books that came before — did I mention that a book is NEVER finished….?) If I’m trying to sell a book, doesn’t that mean I’m working on it?
But really, all of what I’ve written thus far is beside the point. I am always — ALWAYS — thinking about my next project, my next idea, a new character or world or story line. There is never a time when I’m not writing something in my head, even if I have yet to sit down at my computer to compose the next novel. Put another way, my creative process never stops. Something is always percolating inside of me. And at an even more basic level, every time I go to the store, or go for a walk, or carry on a conversation, I am gathering material for some future work. That isn’t as insensitive as it sounds — it’s not like I take notes during conversations with friends or anything like that. But writers draw upon every experience, every emotion, every memory. As another friend has said, “Everything is grist for the mill.” I am always gathering “material” for another book or story.
And I would bet my lucky piece of blue Tiger’s Eye, all the money in my wallet, and my entire collection of vintage baseball cards that this is true of every writer reading this post. That’s why I find that question — “Hi David! Working on another book?” — so amusing. It is not a question that any writer has ever asked me. Writers know that this isn’t an endeavor you can turn on and off. You might sit at your computer for a set number of hours each day, but that’s not the same thing. And I believe this is true of all sorts of artists. My brother paints. I have a friend here in town who is a professional photographer. They never ask me this either. They know that even if they’re not at the easel or carrying a camera, they are always looking and seeing, gathering ideas. People who create understand that the creative process has no beginning or end. It is constant; that’s part of its glory and perhaps part of its challenge, too.
David B. Coe