How many books do you have in you?

by Tess Gerritsen

Today, my new Jane Rizzoli thriller, THE KEEPSAKE, goes on sale.

It’s my twenty-first published novel.  You’d think that after going through this twenty-one times, the publication of a new book would feel routine to me now.  But no, watching a new book hit the stands is every bit as exciting and scary as it’s always been.  I find myself doing the same obsessive things I did with my last five books.  I check my Amazon index every hour, thereby guaranteeing lithium-league mood swings.  I Google myself several times a day, looking for new reviews.  I slip into bookstores unannounced to see if the books have arrived, and where they’re displayed.  Every Wednesday evening (when the New York Times bestseller list is announced) I wait by the phone, hands sweating.  I know this behavior is unhealthy.  I know that obsessing won’t make the books sell faster.  I know that this is wasted effort and it’s sapping my energy.

I wonder how many more years I’ll be doing this, and how many more books I’ll write before I kick the bucket.

It’s a morbid question, but every writer has probably asked it: What will my obituary say about my writing career?  "Prolific author of fifty bestsellers"?  or: "Was working on her second novel"?  Life itself is full of too many variables, so you just don’t know.  You could get hit by a truck tomorrow, ending your budding career at age thirty.  Or you could keep on turning out a book a year until you’re ninety nine and you finally get that Mystery Writers of America award, if only because you’re the oldest guy in the room.

Or (and this is one of my nightmares) you’ll find the quality of your work slowly deteriorating as you endure ever-crueler reviews, until suddenly it’s announced that you’re suffering from Alzheimers.  And suddenly everyone is nice to you again.

A baby girl is born with only so many eggs in her ovaries.  That’s it, that’s all she gets.  Throughout her lifetime, she will not make any new eggs.  Once she grows into womanhood and reaches menopause, all her eggs are used up, and her childbearing days are over.  She simply cannot produce any more babies.

Do authors have a similar limit?  Is there such a thing as artistic menopause?  Is there a point in life when a writer finally sets down his pen and says, "That’s it.  All my ideas are used up.  I have no more books left inside me"?

I know I haven’t reached that point yet, because I can still feel those future books lined up in my imagination, like eggs waiting their turn to gestate.  But I also know that I’m not a prolific writer like Isaac Asimov or Georges Simenon or Nora Roberts, who together have written enough books to fill a library.  I’m capable of writing, at most, one book a year.  If I keep up that schedule of one book a year, until the demographics predict I’ll keel over from old age, I could theoretically produce another thirty books.

Thirty more books to write!  So far I’ve only written a measly twenty-one.  Which means I haven’t yet reached the halfway point in my lifetime oeuvre.

Egads, I’d better get back to work.

16 thoughts on “How many books do you have in you?

  1. Catherine

    I’m not sure in a text driven creative sense whether authors have a limit, but in a parallel world of visual creation I just saw a Renoir painted late in his 60 year career, that blew me away. This work was part of Picasso’s own collection that he used for inspiration.

    Monet also worked on his Water-lilies series up till his death at 86. The last 30 years producing something like 250 works devoted to water lilies.

    Monet himself said to a friend that “It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”

    I think as long as you have the desire to transcribe what you feel and imagine Tess, I’ll still be reading your work in 30 years time.

  2. Jude Hardin

    Congrats on the new release, Tess! I’ll be looking for it at BAM later today.

    As far as how many books we have in us, I like to think that quality trumps quantity. Harper Lee only had one book in her, but what a book.

  3. Wilfred Bereswill

    Congrats on the release Tess. SInce I don’t see your name among the attendees, I assume you won’t be at Bouchercon. Bad for me.

    So is your analogy about eggs holds true, does that mean us guys have unlimited potential?

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Congratulations on the release of your new book, Tess. It’s nice to know that after twenty-one books that you can still have that same kind of excitement as you did with previous books. Artistic menopause you say? Perhaps there might be a medication for that. Let’s hope the FDA will approve it. 🙂

    Though they weren’t Books, Edward Hoch seemed to have an endless fountain of ideas, as was evident in his unprecedented number of stories that appeared in EQMM and AHMM over the years.

  5. Dave Zeltserman

    Congrats on the new book!

    I agree with quality vs. quantity as what writers should strive for. Hammett wrote five novels, but they’re arguably the five greatest crime novels written. Jonathan Latimer also had a relatively small output (8 books), but they’re great books. Of course, every once in a while, you find someone rare like Donald Westlake or Lawrence Block who writes a lot of books, and they’re all great.

  6. pari

    Congrats on the new book, Tess. Well done.

    As to drying up, you would have to use the menopause image, wouldn’t you?

    Wasn’t it Kurt Vonnegut who did just what you said? He felt he’d done enough and stopped.

    Though I’ve imagined that obit as well, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t have ideas I want to explore through fiction. It may happen, but I sure as hell hope not.

  7. Stacey Cochran

    I think it’s interesting that no matter the level of success of a writer, we all deal with the same fundamental worries and fears… the same highs and lows.

    I’m currently working on novel #11, and while I think it’s one of my best yet, I feel just like you, Tess. I’m wondering if this might be it, and they’re all downhill from here.

    We’ve all heard how JK Rowling suffered tremendous writers block working on her series, and she’s the bestselling author in the world.

    So the realization is somewhat comforting in that we’re all in this together… no matter the level of success, we still have to wake up each day and believe in ourselves.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    This is definitely something I’ve thought about, too. It seems as though there are a great many bestselling authors who essentially churn out variation after variation of the same book (I won’t name names, but I’m sure you could think of one). There are others who continue to push the envelopes of their own writing ability and to produce great stories. And then there are the Harper Lees of the world, who produce one masterpiece in a lifetime, tell the story they want to tell, and are done.

    Is any one of these necessarily better than the others? I don’t think so, but neither do I think we use up our store of ideas. The way I look at it, ideas are like air — they’re everywhere, we writers need them to survive, and you could stack a hundred of them in a wicker basket and it wouldn’t weigh very much. The question isn’t whether we use up our store of ideas, but whether we use up our drive to turn them into words on a page. And, like they say about insanity, I think that if you’re asking the question about whether you have, it means you haven’t.

  9. Louise Ure

    Oh, Tess, you are a joy! It pleases me greatly to know that a NY Times best-selling author of 21 novels still has both a feeling of excitement at launch, and a feeling of uncertainty about more books/the next book.

    Maybe I’m not so weird after all.

  10. Mary

    Whenever I get in a productivity funk and think of Georges Simenon and his 200 novels, I recall that he also claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, including 8,000 prostitutes.

    My 1000 words a day (and one husband) don’t seem so bad.

  11. James Reasoner

    Congratulations on the new book, Tess. We’ll be looking for it.

    I once heard an author declare in a lofty tone that no writer had more than seven good books in him. (Why seven instead of six or eight or some other number, I have no idea.) But if this is true, then I was either washed up more than 200 books ago, or (more likely) I just haven’t written my seven good ones yet. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    Many congrats on the new book!

    I think every writer knows, deep down, when they’ve had enough. When I honestly don’t feel I can make the next book better than the last, that’s the time to call it a day.

    I think you have many more in you yet ;-]

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yay, i have THE KEEPSAKE to read this weekend!!

    I assume that authors slow down a bit in later years not because they’re less capable but because they become less attached to temporal things. I would think the writing would be better, if you still thought it necessary to write it down.

    Until then, barring the unforeseen… thirty books to go sounds about like it.

    It does make you think!

  14. Allison Brennan

    My mom gave me THE APPRENTICE a few years ago and said, “You’ll like this book.” I was a Tess Gerritsen fan ever since. I’ll be eagerly awaiting my UPS guy tomorrow . . .

    I stress too about Wednesdays, Amazon numbers, reviews but fortunately when you’re in mass market you don’t get oodles of reviews, good or bad . . . but you know, there’s this great thing called Google Alerts. You can set it up so that you get an email whenever someone posts your name online . . . . yeah, I know, it’s a sickness. But I’d rather know in the privacy of my own home than not know and have a well-meaning friend come up to me at an RWA meeting and say, “I’m so sorry that so-and-so was so nasty about your book, I really liked it and didn’t think it was shallow, boring and obtuse.”

  15. Becky Hutchison

    Tess, congratulations on the new book. I’m glad to know even great writers like you, and the other bloggers today, ask the same questions as I do. Even though I have lots of ideas brewing for books, I sure wouldn’t mind authoring one great book a la Harper Lee.

    (And Allison, I’ve never found your books “…shallow, boring and obtuse…”) 😉


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