D.B. Jackson: The Writing Life, part I — Say What?

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D.B. JacksonPlunder Of Souls blog tour buttonThis week, in my continuing gig as “guest” on this site, I’m supposed to write about “The Writing Life.”  First of all, it’s just weird being a guest here — I mean, this place has been my literary home for six years.  I feel a little like I went off to college and then returned home, only to find that my room was being used as a bed and breakfast.  I guess now I know how my older daughter feels . . .  (That’s a little joke.  I promise.)  But I also wonder if, after all these years, there is anything I could tell you about my writing life that you don’t already know.

And so I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction . . .

Being a writer can be a little weird.  By which I mean, that people sometimes treat writers in odd ways.  This is true no matter where one lives, but in my tiny little town it is especially so.  Examples?  Oh, yeah, I’ve got examples. (And just in case you think I’m the only one with examples, check out this article, brought to my attention by Tamsin Silver, after I wrote the first draft of this post.)

Some of these are pretty much things you’d expect.  Just yesterday, for about the one millionth time, give or take a few hundred thousand, someone I know — an acquaintance — asked if I would be willing to read her book.  I told her what I tell everyone:  I make it a policy not to read manuscripts unless I have asked for them to be sent to me, or unless the request comes from an editor/publisher asking for a blurb.  Why?  Because if I honored every one of these requests I would never have time to write my own work, or read for pleasure.  That said, I have, at this point, considered setting up my own editing/manuscript consultation service here in town.  To this woman’s credit, when I told her that I would have to say no for now, she was incredibly gracious.  And when I mentioned that I had been thinking of setting up a service, she said that she would gladly pay to have me read her book.

So why is this particular request weird?  Well, if you were to talk to a lawyer, for instance, would you ask her to draw up a will for you, gratis?  Probably not.  But people think nothing of asking writers to read their manuscripts for free.  Given the amount of time it takes to read through an unedited manuscript, that strikes me as odd.  Of course few of the folks making such requests understand exactly what it is they’re asking.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had people say to me, “You know, I’ve always thought that I have a book in me.”  Hmmm, that must be uncomfortable; you should probably see a doctor about that.  No, I’ve never actually said it, but I’ve thought it.  Really, though, I’m always amazed at the number of people who think that writing a book is a simple task that they could do themselves if only they had the time.   I would love to reply with, “Yeah, I know just what you mean.  I’ve always thought that I have a thoracic surgery in me.  I mean, I don’t want to be a doctor, or go to med school or anything like that.  But I’ve always thought that a thoracic surgery was something I could do, if only I could spare the time, you know?”

A Plunder of Souls, by D.B. JacksonOr this gem:  “I have a great idea for a book!  Really.  And I was thinking that I could give you the idea and you could write it, and then we could split the royalties.”  Yes, I have had people say this to me.  People; plural.  Okay, first of all, I have plenty of ideas on my own.  Honest.  I’ll probably die before I have time to write them all.  So, no thanks.  And if you think that coming up with an idea constitutes half the work in producing a book, you have no notion of what you’re talking about.  And finally, if your idea is anything like the others people have tried to “share” with me, it’s not nearly as good as you think it is.  Trust me on this.

“So, are you working on a book right now?”  I get that one all the time.  And I understand that it’s a nice way of opening a conversation, of expressing interest in what I do, and I really do appreciate the effort.  I can’t help thinking, though, that it’s an odd way to phrase it.  Why not just, “What are you working on right now?”  But no, it’s usually, “Are you working on a book?”  My standard answer is, “Always.”  Because that’s the truth.  I could just as easily say, “To be honest, I’m working on about four.”  Because that’s often true as well.  This year alone, I will do at least some work — revising, polishing, proofing, promoting, conceptualizing, outlining, actual writing — on no fewer than six different novels and nearly as many short stories.  That’s the only way to be successful in this business.  Writers don’t have the luxury of ever NOT writing.  So, yeah, I’m working on a book.  Right now.

I don’t mean for this to sound quite as snide as it probably sounds.  Most of the folks who ask or say these things are trying to be friendly, and are genuinely interested in learning more about the writing profession.  And for the record, I am ALWAYS happy to talk about writing in general, and to answer questions or offer advice.  It’s just when people start wanting to enlist me as their ghost writer that I begin to get a little snippy . . .

The truth is that writing is an oddity to many people.  It’s something that we are taught to do early in life — unlike, say, thoracic surgery.  As school kids, we write stories, we create characters and plots and settings.  And so the assumption that “anyone can do it” lingers in our minds, because at one point in our lives, when we weren’t really skilled at anything, all of us DID do it.  Indeed, all of the arts are like this.  As children, we all drew and painted and sculpted, we all wrote stories and poems, we all made music of one sort or another.  That’s a good thing; I think such early exposure instills in most of us an elemental appreciation for the arts.  But it also conveys the erroneous notion that these are simple endeavors that require little training and that can be mastered by anyone at all.

Writing, as I will discuss again next week, is hard.  It takes work, dedication, perseverance, patience, imagination, a certain arrogance, a bit of luck, and, yes, some talent as well.  Not everyone can do it. Which is good, because the world also needs lawyers and thoracic surgeons, not to mention teachers, scholars, chefs, janitors, police officers, fire fighters, CPAs, politicians (yes, we really do need them), train engineers, and a few gazillion other professions.  So, to those in my town, I would say, let’s make a deal.  Find a friend who will read your manuscript, write your own ideas, and trust me when I tell you that a writer is always writing, and I will leave the teaching and professional cooking and firefighting to you.  

But if there’s a thoracic surgery that you need done, and no one else is around, give me a call . . .

*****
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

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25 comments to D.B. Jackson: The Writing Life, part I — Say What?

  • D B, this is a great post. I am fortunate that I got an idea of what writing is about before I knew anyone to ask. But I think I probably would have if given the opportunity. Thanks to MW for most of that education.

  • When I worked in the middle school library, I got the “Will you read my book?” request on a regular basis…from my students. At first I tried, but it didn’t take long for me to realize what a dumb thing I’d done to myself by saying ‘yes’.

    Nowadays the answer is always ‘no’, regardless of how old the writer is.

  • Vyton, thanks. Like you, I’m sure I would have been the one asking these questions had I not taken this career path. Which is why I really ought not to be too obnoxious about all of this . . . Thanks for the commment.

    Misty, I’m the same way. I almost ALWAYS say no to such requests, to protect myself, my time, my sanity.

  • David, I came up with new response for when I get the whole, “I have an idea for a book and I want you to write it and split the money.”

    I hold up a hand and say, “STOP! Ideas are not copyright-able. If you tell me your idea, it’s mine. I may take it and run with it and work for a year or two on it. Or I may drop it. But if you tell your idea, it is not yours anymore. It’s mine. MINE. You gave it to me. So. Still want to share?” I tried it and he walked away. Saved me listening a half hour of chatter. Think I’ll try it again.

  • Chris Branch

    Hey David, looking forward to reading A Plunder of Souls! A couple of comments…

    Regarding time. I’m sure you’re right that when most people say they “have a book in them” that they’d write if only they had the time, they haven’t thought through what it really takes to write a book. But some have! Some are well aware of the amount of research, writing, editing, and revising that are necessary, and time is absolutely a major limiting factor! Of course, there are choices to be made and many of us prioritize higher paying employment and family obligations over full time writing, but “if only I could spare the time” – there is at least a grain of truth to that for some!

    And regarding “will you read my book” – again, I’m sure you’re right that most people just don’t stop to think that they’re asking for a significant amount of time and effort applying your hard earned knowledge without pay. But again, some do – and I’m sure you realize that people like you and Misty are sought out precisely because your feedback will be helpful! If you remember ever asking a friend or family member to read your manuscripts, you probably remember getting a response like: “yeah, it was pretty good!” That’s it? Or else a copy with all the typos marked up if you know someone who’s attentive to such things. Comments on plot, character, structure… Unless your friends are accomplished writers or editors, good luck with that.

    Just another perspective on the subject.

    Oh yeah, regarding the “are you working on a book” and “would you write my idea” questions… No dispute on those.

  • TwilightHero

    David, great post. I never really thought about why the arts are considered eccentric ways to make a living – though I’ve never thought that way about music. With one former professional musician in the family and based on my own experience, I know: making music is hard. But the rest I fully agree with. Knowing everyone can write at a basic level makes it harder to see as a specialized skill. Now I understand why I still feel awkward telling people about my writing ambitions…in the back of my head, I’m thinking that they can do it too.

    I’ll have to remember that I can do it better. 🙂

    And Faith: Best response to that question yet. I hope to use it someday 😀

  • sagablessed

    David, good look at how people abuse writers they might know or even just see on the street. I can relate to the issue of “Will you read my book?” As an LMT, I always had people ask me to do a ‘quick massage’ or similar. It did/does get trying. As to sanity: writer’s have that? I missed the memo. 😉

    People don’t realize authors are human, have jobs (writing being one), and contractual deadlines.

    Misty, good for you learning so quickly.

    Faith, I love your response!! It gave me a giggle.

  • That whole “I’ve got an idea…” my *husband* said that to me. I said pretty much what Faith said. 😀 Though, I admit, his idea(s) are really good, and so I might use them. I also might not, because some really, really good ideas aren’t for me.

    ‘Cause I’m a teacher (and an English and Writing teacher, though I don’t teach creative writing), I do get the “will you read my stuff…” occasionally from students. That makes it a bit hard. Can I say no? Sure. But it’s sort of my job to teach my students, so it is harder to say no. I’ve also had students ask if they can submit stuff when I’m editing anthologies. I always encourage them, but do tell them that it’s in the slush. I’ll read it the whole way through ’cause I know them, and I’ll give them feedback, but it won’t get special treatment. Then I encourage them again. I’ve yet to have a student make the deadline, though. Not really surprised.

  • David: You hit the nail on the head in terms of why people treat writers differently than they do other professionals. “Say, Mr. Rodin, can I show you my sculpture?” Most everyone can write a passable sentence and most people don’t recognize how a well-written book is put together. That results in people thinking they can write when they’ve never tried and that turning out novels is akin to pasttimes like knitting or gardening. The worst is when a relative asks you to read his novel. I couldn’t say no to my wife’s cousin, but had to tell him to withdraw his book from Amazon, and if he really wanted to become a writer, he needed to go to school and/or join a writers’ group.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I don’t talk about my writing to very many people. However, like pea_faerie, I agree that it is interesting to compare some of this stuff to discussions with the spouse. I have one story idea that I talk about with my husband sometimes. Once he supplied, “You should really make sure to write this book!” I reminded him that I have *lots* of story ideas but tend to discuss that one with him because it overlaps with his interests. He was kind of quiet after that…
    At least I was able to long-ago break him of the idea that I could write and hold a conversation at the same time. 😀

  • Thanks so much to all for the comments. I have just returned from my signing tour — 430 miles in the car today — and I’m too tired to respond to every comment. But I have read them all and I appreciate your thoughts. Faith, I love that response; I’m going to try it. And Chris, you’re right of course. There are a few folks who have a firm grasp on just what they’re asking. But I would say that those folks represent a tiny, tiny, tiny minority.

  • quillet

    Very funny post, David. If I ever need thoracic surgery, I’ll……call a thoracic surgeon. 😀 And if someone ever tries that “I have an idea” line on me, I want to steal Faith’s response. No one’s said that one to me yet, I’ve only had the variation that goes, “You should totally write a book about [subject that is interesting to the speaker but completely not the writer’s field].” I never know quite what to say. Without being rude, that is. 😉

  • Razziecat

    Great post and great responses! I think of those questions as similar to those very tone-deaf people who audition for talent shows and are shocked to be told they can’t sing. It all sounds the same to them, so how can they not be able to do it, too? Same thing with writing: “What do you mean I can’t write? Look, I’ve got a 200,000 word manuscript and I whipped it off in a week!” 😉

  • Quillet, thank you. Good call on the surgery . . . And yeah, I had someone suggest a whole plot line for another Thieftaker book the other day. This person seemed pretty excited about it; didn’t do much for me.

    Razz, thank you and yes, the responses have been terrific. That’s an interesting comparison; hadn’t thought of it, but I think you’re right.

  • henderson

    Nice post, David.

    As an intellectual property attorney, though, I have been approached by many creative types with questions about trademark, copyright, and contract issues at parties and other social events. I was even asked about drafting a will on more than one occasion, and the person asking wanted done at no charge.

    This phenomenon is not exclusive to writers.

  • Henderson, thanks for the comment. I find that oddly comforting in a way. I’d rather that people of ALL professions were bothered with requests of this sort. I’m an equal opportunity sort of guy that way . . . 😉

  • […] I was also at Magical Words again, with a post about some of the odd things people sometimes say to writers.  You can read that post here. […]

  • […] I was also at Magical Words again, with a post about some of the odd things people sometimes say to writers.  You can read that post here. […]

  • Yeah, I know what you mean about writing a book right now. I’ve got so many I’ve started it’s been hard lately to pick one to focus on. I want to do them all. If I could split myself into five of me, there’d still be three stories that wouldn’t be worked on and then another 25 new ones that I’d have to shelve.

    As for asking for someone to read my work…I have done that lately, but in my defense, I’m looking for reviews so I can get my name out there, as my SFR novella will be out August 1st. Still, I’m gracious about it. I know other writers/reviewers are busy as all get out and may not have the time. It’s always a good thing to be gracious if someone says no. The next time they might remember your attitude and say yes.

    And if you think you have a book in you, you’ll never know for sure until you sit down and write. I started writing a lot in ninth grade, high school. I’d written before that, to be sure. I’d started D&D when I was maybe six years old with the D&D boxed set ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeons_%26_Dragons_Basic_Set#mediaviewer/File:D%26d_original.jpg ). That was…crap…let me get a calculator…thirty seven years ago… I’d write character concepts and adventures, even back then. But it wasn’t until ninth grade when I didn’t have anything to write on journal entries that I started writing about my AD&D character. And sometimes, English teachers are the best. Dr. Macioci. I will never forget him. He took me aside one day and said, “I think you should be a writer.” He’d been reading my entries, and giving me good grades on them. I’d explained that I didn’t have those journal entry experiences, so I just wrote about my character and he understood. He was the one that I think influenced me the most to get into writing fiction. Him and my Aunt. I was happy that she got to read one of my works before she died, even though it’s still not published. She was the one who told me that my characters felt real. I won’t forget that either.

    I started writing solid from ’86 to now. That was 28 years ago. They say you need 10,000 hours to master something. However, writing is always a never ending learning experience. If I could offer any advice to budding authors it’d be, keep going. You’ll get there.

  • Ken

    Oh, I’ve got one “Where do you get your Ideas from?”

    I want to reply that I keep a box of them buried out in the back yard 🙂

  • Ken. My response is this: The idea fairy stuffs them in my ear hole with a tiny plunger.

  • I get my ideas at a really freaky farmer’s market. 😉

  • Razziecat

    The “where do you get your ideas” question always makes me think, “You mean you DON’T have ideas for stories?” 😀

  • Where do I get my ideas? My brain. It sounds like a smartass answer, but it isn’t. I don’t know what else to think. I’m inspired by stuff–a line in a song, a moment at dinner, a movie, something I’m thinking about in my car that’s totally unrelated but somehow makes my brain skip to a story idea… I wish I knew *how* to make my brain spit out ideas. I don’t. I just know that it does.

  • Daniel, asking authors for blurbs for a forthcoming book is something else entirely and fully acceptable. And what you say about mastering writing and telling aspiring writers to keep at it is so, so true.

    Ken, I have a friend who says she has an empty jar that she marks “Ideas” so that she can answer the “Where do you get your ideas?” question with “Why, from my Ideas Jar . . .”

    Daniel, I like that.

    Misty, I like that, too.

    Razz, yeah, that’s what separates writers from the normal population . . .

    Emily, me, too. My brain is always filtering through my perceptions, looking for the next story idea. It’s just how I think, and explaining it to non-writers is really, really hard.