07 February 2018

No Fun Aloud

When my first novel was published I went to a regional booksellers conference to explain to those fine people why they needed to stock thousands of copies of my masterpiece.  Among the other naïfs in attendance was Steve Hockensmith, promoting his first comic-western-mystery.  We hit it off.  Steve has gone on to write fifteen more novels, receive two Edgar nominations, and has been spotted in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, as well as the New York Times Bestseller List.  Recently I asked Steve to write something for SleuthSayers about the importance of riboflavin in the human diet.  He countered by offering to discuss the writing process.  Since neither of us was sure what riboflavin is (is it better than regular flavin?), that seemed the better approach.  You can read more of his wisdom at stevehockensmith.com.
— Robert Lopresti



No Fun Aloud
by Steve Hockensmith

I think I might be a good writer partly because I'm bad at it. Not "bad" in the sense that my writing's turgid or confusing or cliched or wrong-headed. I'm not [AUTHOR NAME REDACTED IN THE INTEREST OF KEEPING THE PEACE...HEY, SOME PEOPLE LIKE TURGID, CONFUSING, CLICHED AND WRONG-HEADED]. It's just that writing's so damn hard.

Words don't come pouring out of me. They drip. Slowly. Like...like...aw, hell. I don't feel like spending 20 minutes trying to work out the right simile, so just take my word for it. They drip. Even the smallest project -- writing a tweet, say, or adding a message to a birthday card -- requires brainstorming, outlining, two pots of coffee and long, long stretches of absolute silence. And even then I'm going to lose my confidence half-way through and come close to quitting. ("'Enjoy your special day'? I can't believe I actually wrote that. I'd tear this card up and get another if it didn't cost me four bucks. Stupid Hallmark…")

The only thing that's more painful than writing is rewriting. Fortunately, I usually don't have to do much of it: Most of the needed rewriting already took place in my head while the writing was going on. Spend 10 minutes on one sentence, and there's a good chance it'll come out right. (Warning: There's also a good chance you'll lose your mind.) Rewriting can feel like taking a perfectly good cake and trying to turn it into a plate of cookies. Sometimes, of course, the cake actually sucks, and sometimes you have a contract calling for a plate of cookies. So you do what you gotta do. But I agonize in the hope that I don't gotta.

I think I know where a lot of that agony comes from, too. Fellow writers: Do you write out loud? Do you actually speak every sentence you're trying to construct? Do you test words by listening to them together?

Those are rhetorical questions, by the way. If every writer answered "Yes, yes, yes," none of us would ever be allowed in Starbucks again. Too many customers would be complaining about the weirdos muttering into their laptops.

And lots of writers do write in coffee shops. Which I've never understood. You know where I want to write? A closet. An isolation tank. The Batcave (when Batman and Robin are off POW-ing and ZOK-ing the Riddler's henchmen in a jigsaw puzzle factory and Alfred's upstairs baking bat-pizza).

I need to be somewhere I can hear the words and not get glared at by latte-slurpers for doing it.
Because writing isn't just stringing words together on a screen. It's speaking to readers. It's standing up and telling them a story the way we used to do it around the fire at night. Out loud. When we talk about a writer's "voice," it shouldn't just be a fancy way to say "style." For truly good writing, IMHO, it should be literal.

Not MHO at all, because it's a damn fact: That can make writing a lot harder. I think it's worth the extra effort and aggravation, though. In the end, it's the voice of your story people will hear, not all the mumbling, grumbling and cursing it took to find it.

Unless you’re one of those nuts who writes in Starbucks…

17 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Steve - I've read your cool storie in AHMM and EQMM. Nice to see a face attached to your writing. As for, "Do you write out loud?" I do in my head mostly, but sometimes I do it aloud, which draws the cats into my home office. They line up and watch - I get a little animated. "Hey, everybody, come see. The human's at it again."

Art Taylor said...

Great post here--and yes, I do find that reading aloud helps in so many ways. In our writing group (five of us), we actually read our submissions aloud to one another (all of us have copied to follow along), and it's amazing how quickly we hear--literally--the problems with the prose. Great seeing you here, and congrats on all your fine work!

janice law said...

Glad you paid a visit.

I can't imagine writing in public either but clearly a lot of people can, including almost all journalists.

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Steve.

I revise constantly because I'm too dumb to get it right the first time. I could never write at Starbucks or anywhere else public. It would become the guy in the corner trying to look like a writer instead of really writing.

But aloud? Yes, absolutely. Every word of the final draft. I think if Shakespeare had read some of his work aloud, actors wouldn't be stuck with lines like "What foolish boldness brought thee to their mercies whom thou in terms so bloody and so dear hast made thine enemies?"

(That's from Twelfth Night, and I had to say it on stage. Some nights went better than others.)

Steve Hockensmith said...

Thanks for the welcome, O'Neil! I get the opposite reaction from my dogs, by the way. When I start reading my stuff out loud, they tend to get up and leave the room. Maybe it's because the other times I talk out loud at the computer I'm grumbling about the news, and they can sense I don't like what I see!

Thanks for your welcome, too, Art! I definitely find that reading out loud is the best way to catch clunkiness that might have made it through otherwise. Sometimes I stumble across whole stretches where I never really woke up or something, because there'll be a 300-word chunk that just *sucks*. "On the Road with Del & Louise" has been on my "gotta give that a try" list for a couple years, BTW -- I love the "novel in short stories" concept.

I was a journalist for a lot of years, Janice, but I never mastered the art of writing while people are milling around gabbing at each other. I don't think there was ever a scene in "Lou Grant" where one of the background extras in the newsroom suddenly stood up and started shouting, "Shut up! Everyone just shut the hell up!!!" If there had been, that would have been me.

"The guy in the corner trying to look like a writer instead of really writing" is one of my pet peeves, Steve. Dudes like that tempt me to wander by and accidentally (wink wink) spill my grande mocha on their laptop. Thanks for sharing the Shakespeare -- seeing that line helps me feel better about all the stinkers I (hopefully!) catch when I'm reading new stuff out loud!

Eve Fisher said...

Steve H., welcome to our merry band of tics and tremors. Writing - oh, God, the words pour out of me like dripping oil through a pinhole, and I rewrite every single line every single day (or at least that's what it feels like). Meanwhile, love your stories.

BTW, the worst line, Steve L., imho, is from Milton: "Mine ears are opened like a greedy shark to catch the tunings of a voice divine." I've said that aloud, and I can tell you it's stopped a few people in their tracks, which is about all it's good for.

Mary Sutton said...

I'm one of those nuts who writes in coffee shops. =)

Then again, I grew up in a loud house, where I had to do homework and practice piano against a backdrop of the cacophony of younger siblings. I have two kids (now a bit quieter as they're teenagers). My "sacred writing time" is my lunch hour, which used to be taken in an office with associated background noise (now that I work at home, it's different noise).

I learned to tune out the noise and "hear" the words in my head.

Mary/Liz

R.T. Lawton said...

Steve, nice to see you here with the SleuthSayers family. I've enjoyed your Holmes on the Range series and today's blog article.

As I recall, you showed up one year at the Edgars (for your nomination) dressed in a suit or tux with red tennis shoes on your feet. Good show. If I ever have the good fortune to get as far as an Edgar nomination, I'll see if I can find some red cowboy boots so I can follow in your footsteps.

Steve Hockensmith said...

"Writing - oh, God, the words pour out of me like dripping oil through a pinhole...."
Great line, Eve (and so true for me, too). How long did you have to tinker with it to get it just right? That one would've taken me a minute at the least! (Yes, I even agonize over replies to blog posts.)

I grew up in a small, quiet family, Mary/Liz, which is probably one of the reasons I don't handle distractions well. Introverts (like me) also tend to be more sensitive to stimuli and have a more exaggerated startle response, so it's probably a good thing I didn't have a bunch of rambunctious siblings running around when I was young. My nerves couldn't have taken it!

Yo, R.T.! Haven't seen you in forever! As I recall, I attended my first Edgar ceremony wearing a tux and green Chuck Taylors and my second in a tux and *red* Chuck Taylors (because Chuck Taylors never last more than a couple years). If I'm ever lucky enough to get nominated again, I'm planning on going with purple Chucks. Maybe before I die I'll manage to work my way through the whole rainbow....

Leigh Lundin said...

My favorite writing spots are similar to my favorite reading places. I prefer quiet or at least quiet music– baroque, chamber music, ambient, fusion. I like writing on my dock when mosquitoes are in abeyance.

Once in a while, it helps to shift venues and perspectives, and a corner in a restaurant might do. When doing homework, I enjoyed the New York Public Library reading room, but I too seldom made it . I loved reading on the Staten Island Ferry, but I don't think I could write there. I'd sit outside by myself in the most vicious weather sheltered by a bulkhead. The salt mist probably woundn't do either keyboard or curling, whipping paper any good… or concentration.

John Floyd said...

Steve--another of my heroes!! It's great to have you here.

Count me among those who can't write in noisy places. Don't know why.

Keep up the great work!

Robert Reeves said...

Hi cousin Steve!

I saw your link to this on Facebook and thought I'd have a read. While I don't do creative writing (although sometimes I dream of dabbling with this outlet), I do my fair share of writing technical and procedural documentation for my job, and I take it very seriously. I, too, am a "bad" writer in the same sense that you've described. I am a perfectionist, not just in documentation, but in professional emails, and sometimes even text messages (and I occasionally torment over whether or not to use the Oxford comma). Like you, I take a long time to produce final "deliverables" because I repeatedly reread everything and frequently decide to go back and remove/rewrite sentences or entire paragraphs. I even use flowery prose here and there to make it more readable for the audience since the subject matter is often a bit dry. This is rare in my industry unless an organization staffs a dedicated professional technical writer. The documentation I see written by other engineers is typically fraught with typos, spelling mistakes, poor grammar, etc. It's not uncommon for me to just fix the documents myself and send them back to the authors for them to repost to whatever repository I found them on. Fortunately, they've always been very appreciative and not offended.

I have never considered reading anything out loud to myself. Should I consider giving this a try? Would I only torture myself even further? Would I give my hyperactive dog an anxiety attack since he's already starving for attention while I'm working from home each day? Perhaps we'll see!

We must get together again soon. Would love to see you and the fam!
-Rob

PS - This post has been reread several times and heavily edited. I think I've probably spent a good 30 minutes on it. :)

Steve Hockensmith said...

I'm with you on the ferry, Leigh. No way could I write in any commuter-type situation. Too many distractions. I remember hearing years ago how Scott Turow wrote "Presumed Innocent" by hand in notebooks while riding back and forth every day on a train. Yet another reason I'll never be Scott Turow!

When a prolific, talented writer like John M. Floyd calls you one of their heroes, you have arrived. So I guess I'm here...and wherever "here" is, I like it. Thanks, John -- and you keep up the great work, too!

Hey, Cuz -- good to see you here! Sounds like my persnicketiness/perfectionism must have a genetic component, because we've both been blessed (or is it cursed?) with the same anal approach to crafting language. You should definitely try the reading aloud thing when you decide to give creative writing a try. I think most dogs would actually like it (unlike mine). Beer and BBQ soon, I hope -- let's pick a weekend!

Michael Bracken said...

I often read my work aloud, but only when I think I have the final draft. Though I can write in noisy places, I prefer not to. Music or random noise is easiest to deal with, but if I'm in a place where people are talking, I often get distracted by the conversations. (On the plus side, some of the things I've overheard have sparked story ideas.)

DoolinDalton said...

Awww man, Steve, I sure am feeling a keen resemblance to that AUTHOR NAME REDACTED fella!

Great piece. Glad to see you writing something for us Sleuthsayers!

Yer Pal-

Brian

Melodie Campbell said...

Steve, I feel like we must meet over a coffee someday at Bouchercon in a quiet place, because we are kindred spirits. I also don't write fast. I continually edit as I go. I don't understand these people who write a quick first draft, and then write another four drafts after that. Mind you, like you, I also write humorous, and came to fiction after writing comedy. Maybe there's something in that? The continual honing of a couple of lines to make sure they are funny. Okay, the obsessive honing of each little word...I'll stop now. Nuf words.

Steve Hockensmith said...

"Music or random noise is easiest to deal with, but if I'm in a place where people are talking, I often get distracted by the conversations."

It's totally the same for me, Michael. I can't even read on an airplane if the people next to me are talking to each other. I can pretend to read -- and have! -- but my brain simply can't block the conversation out. I don't think I've ever gotten a story idea out of it, but I have encountered some memorable characters. (I'll never forget the young woman who wasn't in a relationship because what she really wished she could do was date Jesus.)

Hey, Brian! It was great to finally write something for the blog after reading it for so long. I was on my best behavior in hopes I'd be invited back....

Getting a coffee in a quite place is my favorite thing to do at Bouchercon, Melodie. (Well, after 3 in the afternoon you can replace "coffee" with "beer.") As Brian can tell you, I used to rush around from meeting to panel to meeting practically the whole time ("Can't stay -- gotta see a guy about a thing!") and I'd always end up completely burned out. That's a great point about comedy. I think you're right: Humor writers are used to agonizing over their writing, because subtle differences in word choice and rhythm can have a huge impact on how funny something is. It's one of the reasons I hate doing inscriptions (and have written some truly terrible ones). You want me to write something pithy and personal in, like, 30 seconds? AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!! (Cut to: Steve running from the bookstore screaming.) See you in Sacramento! (The Bouchercon there is practically in my backyard, so I have no excuse not to go. I'll start scouting out...hey, speaking of word choice, what's the plural of "Starbucks"?)