This 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?”
Or 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.