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





17 comments to “Always”

  • Great post, David, and right on the money. I am the same. It never ends. When my fortunes as a writer have been bad (and there were a lot of years when they were) I often considered quitting, but I don’t think I would know how. It would be like severing a limb, something you use all the time without thinking about it. Being a writer is a way of seeing, a way of thinking, a way of life.

    I might add that I sometimes bridle at that question because to me (paranoid, defensive and desperate to be loved) I hear an implicit critique in it. They say “Working on a new book?” but I hear “Haven’t you given that up yet? Making up stories? What are you eight years old…?” Like it’s a hobby, something mildly diverting but not serious, something anyone could do but most are too Grown Up to keep fooling with.

    Like I said, paranoid, defensive and desperate to be loved 🙂

  • David, thanks again for sharing another point of common ground authors share in an often isolated career. People ask me if I’m done my book yet, or if I’m still working on my novel? Like AJ, I sometimes hear the negative in the question and imagine the person snickering. “Still not finished?” becomes “This guy will never finish, what a loser.”

    Of course, when the book is done, and finds its way to the agents and editors, I’m sure there will be no shortage of questions about rejections and if I’m writing another or given up on writing.

    Knowing that other authors get asked these questions will make it a little easier, and I’ll try to stay positive along the way and leave the schizo-paranoia to my characters.

  • In the words of poet Delmore Schwartz, “Even paranoids have real enemies.” It may be that I’m just too naive in assuming that there isn’t some more critical intent behind the question. But that’s fine, too. Let them ask. Let them look down their noses at what I do. They have to go to an office every day and work for The Man. Suckers. I stay home and write stories, and I get paid to do it. That’s the ultimate revenge. And yeah, AJ, “Being a writer is a way of seeing, a way of thinking, a way of life.” Nicely put. Wish I’d written that.

    Dave, yes, the questions never end, no matter whether they’re asked out of curiosity or jealousy or a lack of respect for what we do. Answer them politely and get back to writing, which is what you love to do. That’s the best answer for whatever questions they’re asking.

  • Morning David. Great post and started my day off with a grin. Remembering my current faves —
    1. Q. So. How do you write a book?
    A. (How *do* we answer that one???)Uhhhhh. Mmmmm. On a PC. (with a straight face)
    2. Q. Soooo, when you write a book, do you like, just, sit down for five minutes a day and write a page?
    A. (trying to keep a straight face, not laugh or gasp, and BTW — I was not successful at that part) Um…. 8 – 12 hours a day every day. It’s just like a *real* job. (In case you missed it — faint sarcasm, but delivered with a sweet smile.)
    3. Q. Will you give me a book?
    A. No. I buy mine from my local bookstore so it counts toward my numbers. I can sell you one. (I’ve never had a taker)
    4. Q. You wrote a book??? Why are you still working here????
    (with the underlying thought that I won the powerball lottery and should / could quit, and therefore am quite stupid)
    A. Benefits. (lightbulb moments. you can see it on their faces. Then I add,) And writing doesn’t *always* pay as well as you might think. (I’ve thought about saying: Vegas cleaned me out.)
    5. Q. Will you put me in your book?
    A. Sure. Do you want to be a rapist, murderer, child molester, my character’s dog? You’ll have to sign a release so if your character does something unsavory you can’t sue.
    6. Q. I have a sister who wants to be a writer. I keep telling her she is stupid.
    A. (Raised eyebrows) Really? I’m a millionaire. I support my brothers in a life of luxury. (Okay, I write fiction. So sure me, y’all.)
    7. Q. What do you do when you’re not writing?
    A. I procrastinate. Like now. I guess I need to get back to the grindstone.

  • “Vegas cleaned me out.” Okay, I LOVE that one…. And in keeping with today’s post, “What do you do when you’re not writing?” A. “Mostly sleep and eat.”

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Of course writers don’t ask that. We ask “So, what are you working on now?” I don’t think it would occur to us that another writer would not be working on something. 😉

    Nice article, David. Though I do think it is important to remember that often, what people are really saying, is “A writer! Cool. Tell me more.” but they don’t know how to ask it.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    >but I hear “Haven’t you given that up yet? Making up stories? What are you eight years old…?”

    While one sees this occationally, I don’t think it’s normally the case. Mostly, people think writing is interesting and they are curious about the process…but they don’t know enough to ask the right questions.

    I would take it as friendly…unless there’s a clear and obvious sneer. 😉

  • I sometimes feel like there’s that slight, “why don’t you get a real job” vibe going on, but it’s lessened and I think will even more once something sells. I see getting something sold as justification for doing it, a sort of vindication, if you will.

    This vibe usually comes from some of the older generation that worked hard all their lives and can’t understand how sitting in a chair and telling stories can make any kind of living. I think Dad’s come to understand that what I do is right for me, with an autoimmune disorder and a body that was abused by the pimp-hand of the Kroger machine. Especially when I tell him that it’s well worth it if I’m prolific enough (I’m writing both screenplays and novels). I think he once had a secret desire to do creative work (I’ve seen some of his old sketches, which were awesome), but the real world and mouths to feed kept him from doing it. I think that’s why he’s got his own business now doing a lot of the things he likes to do.

    I think some folks see writing as something you do after you retire.

    This topic goes back to that distinction that I have for myself on whether I’m a writer or not. I can’t not write. As you say, if I’m not actively hitting keys or putting pencil to paper, I’m thinking about characterization or titles or the many issues I’m having with a bit of plot development. I’m always writing or thinking of writing. That, in my mind, makes me a writer. I don’t have a novel published yet, so I’m not a novelist, but I’ll get there.

    And hey, I just rambled. Ah well, got too much in me ol’ brainpan at the moment.

  • AJ said, Like it’s a hobby, something mildly diverting but not serious, something anyone could do but most are too Grown Up to keep fooling with.

    Back when my book first hit the shelves, a family member (who shall remain unnamed here) actually said to me, “What are you going to do next, now that the writing is done?”


  • Sarah

    Thank you! Right on the money as usual. My problem with the question, and I’m particularly touchy at the moment, is that half the people who ask really mean “I want to take an interest in your weirdness because I love you, but I have no idea what else to say.” The other half mean “Aren’t you done YET? Grow up and join the real world already.” (No really – my Dad thinks that my reading fantasy novels is “hiding from reality.” Apparently writing is just another stage in the decline.) So either way, when the question gets asked, I don’t know what to say. I’ve found that the people who get it, whether they create or not tend to ask things like “So how’s it going?” and, best of all, “Can I read it?”

  • Jagi, I think you’re right about some people. There is definitely a level of interest in what I do that I sense from some folks. Professional writers are a relatively rare breed, and some people just want to know what that’s like. But others, I think, are somewhat less charitable. And for them, the sneer is in the question itself. It’s not necessarily malevolent, but it is rooted in a certain skepticism, boarding on disbelief that this is any way for a grown up to make a living.

    Daniel, you certainly sound like a writer to me. As AJ put it, writing is a way of life. It’s a way of viewing the world. Either you live that way or you don’t. Sounds like you do.

    Misty, I remember you telling me that one. My parents were somewhat skeptical about the writing thing, and sadly both of them passed away before my first book appeared in print. I think that would have made some difference to them — actually seeing the book in print. But this person who asked you that AFTER your book hit the shelves? That person just doesn’t get it.

    Sarah, thanks. Glad you liked the post. There are certainly people who ask the question from one of the perspectives you mention up front (“no idea what else to say” or “Aren’t you done yet?”) but I’ll now bring this comment full circle and argue from Jagi’s perspective. Some people are asking because they’re sincerely curious. And I think that we can control how the answer to the question is heard. Take it as a “How’s it going?” and answer it as if the person had asked the question you wanted to hear. Talk about how much you love writing and the challenges you face. Make them hear it all on your terms, rather than theirs. And yes, when they ask to read it, give a big smile and say “Sure!”

  • That was great David. Maybe I’ll get those annoying reactions one day.

  • I hope so, April. It’s a right of passage in a way….

  • David, you didn’t go this direction in your post, but I simply cannot resist. Two more questions I always get asked at signings:
    1. Where are the restrooms?
    2. Where are the Nicholas Sparks books?

  • I’ve been asked similar things during signings — where are the kid’s books, where is the cafe, etc. All of them falling under the heading of “Do you work here?”

    “No, but without me and my ilk this place wouldn’t exist…”

  • I hate the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” I am just tired from hearing it. I know it’s pretty standard, but it drives me insane and also for the few submissions I published in magazines, which I was too young to think better of and sent to none-paying markets, I got the question “How much did you get paid for it?” Which is a fair question, but kind of too personal, asked from somebody I barely know. Others include that “How come you force yourself to writ everyday? Isn’t writing supposed to be come and go with inspiration?” I am lazy and I am an idea guy. I can spin you 100 plots in an hour for both stories and novels, but sitting down and doing the actual writing triggers my anti-commitment mechanism and I struggle, but I have 2 and a half manuscripts under the belt since 2008, so I am content, where this is going. Anyway I am not that far into the whole writing gig to get the diversified range of annoying questions.

  • Sounds like you’ve gotten your share of annoying questions, Harry. Hope you set them straight on the working every day thing. Butt in chair, my friend. Butt. In. Chair. Yeah, I was once asked about money, too, by some guy online who I didn’t know at all. Told him, politely but firmly, that it was none of his business. Good luck with your manuscripts!