11 February 2019

The Unbearable Rightness of Thinking

by Steve Hockensmith

As I wrote last month and the month before that, it was really, really tough deciding what writing project I should focus on now that my newest book is out in the world. It wasn't that I didn't have ideas to move on to. It was that I had five. Which was gradually whittled down to four. Which was gradually whittled down to three. Which was gradually whittled down to two.

Which was where the whittling stopped, and this began.

If you want a soundtrack for that GIF, cue up the appropriate music and read on in your best William Shatner voice.

Mystery! Western! Mystery! Western! Mystery! Western!

You'll be happy to know that the slap-a-thon is over now. (Well, unless you really, really dislike me. In which case all I can do is assure that I'll go through it again and again as long as I keep writing, so just be patient.) One of the slaps finally won out, and I've committed to an idea. Which means the GIF that captures the mode I'm in now looks more like this:

The soundtrack this time, of course:

Think think think. Think think think. Think think think.

I put in at least a month of Think think think every time I start a book.

What is this thing gonna be about? I think.

Who is it gonna be about? I think.

How am I gonna make it surprising? I think.

Where do I start? I think.

How does it end? I think.

Have I put in enough time thinking to justify a Facebook break? I think.

That cat is hilarious! I think.

Alrightback to work, I think.

Think think think, I think.

Not all writers puts themselves through this, of course. If you've ever been to a mystery convention, you've probably seen or participated in (or skipped) the inevitable "pantsers vs. plotters" panel. That's the one where writers who outline talk about why that works for them, while writers who don't outline talk about why that works for them. Which is kind of like having a panel devoted to pineapple on pizza.

"It's good," says one panelist.

"It's not," says another.

"It's delicious," says a third.

"It's disgusting," says a fourth.

Etc. etc. etc. until the moderator announces that it's time for questions from the audience, the first of which is "What kind of crazy person puts pineapple on pizza?"

Me, I like pineapple on pizza. I also outline. But I'm not going to tell anyone that Hawaiian pizza is the best in the world or that a good book requires a plan.

I will do something dangerous here, though. I will express an opinion on the internet. My Twitter pal Jason Heller dared to do that recently, and hoo boy it did not go well. But here goes anyway.

I read a bad book recently. It was bad just about any way you could figure it. Line by line, chapter by chapter, act by act. (Actually, there were no discernible acts, no real building of tension, no climax that brought conflicts and themes to a head. You could tell where the chapters started and stopped thanks to the big numerals, but without those it might have been tough.) This I knew for a certainty as I gritted my teeth and flipped the pages: Here was a writer who didn't think about his book. He just wrote it. And when the bad guys were all dead, he figured it was done.

I'm not saying the book was bad because the dude didn't outline. I'm saying it might have been good if he'd outlined or revised the bejesus out of it. He needed to think think think, in other words, and that could have come before he wrote the first draft (my preference) or after (yours, perhaps?).

I did finish the book, by the way. Yes, it was bad, but it was the kind of thing I was in the mood for and it was extremely easy to read. Which made it the equivalent, I think, of school pizza. You remember.

You want this:

But you get this:

And you eat it anyway because you're 11, and 11-year-olds don't say not to pizza. But what about the cafeteria ladies? Wouldn't they rather be serving this?

Of course, they would.

So, ladies, you know what to do.


  1. Cool posting for a Monday morning. Good to see you committed to an idea and moving along.

    As for posting online "hoo boy it did not go well." Some time ago I posted a piece about removal of confederate monuments here in New Orleans. i took a stand and gave my opinion. My social media profile took a big hit and the sales of my books took a nosedive. Relatives questioned my stand and I lost friends. Although many of my relatives disagreed, we are still blood and blood is thicker than politics in my family, so we're good - mostly.

    As for working from an outline or not, I've done both. Sounds like the writer of the book you read did not go through enough drafts to hammer out the piece. To me, every book and every short story is a piece of sculpture, a block of marble that must be sculptued to reveal the art within. It takes a lot of labor.

  2. Congratulations on finding an idea and - to me, even more importantly - a way to write it. That's where I get stuck thinking, thinking, thinking...
    BTW, I couldn't believe that people went after your friend's mom because of that tweet. Talk about desperate for someone to hate.

  3. O'Neil -- I'm sorry to hear that taking a principled, reasoned stand on a controversial issue cost you so much. That's part of the reason the only stand I take these days (online, anyway) is on pineapple on pizza. And yeah -- that book could've been fixed with some heavy editing, but either they ran out of time, they didn't realize that there were problems or they just didn't care.

    Eve -- It was interesting to see how quickly people jumped to incorrect assumptions about Jason based on that tweet. I took it as a reminder to keep my own vitriol in check whenever I see something online and *think* I know why it's an outrage.

  4. I don't write fiction (although some of the referee reports on my journal article submissions suggest otherwise). But, yeah, 100%, to the think first, then write. I would spend days, weeks, and the occasional months thinking about what my research results meant and how to explain what I did and why and what it meant. (That often took longer than the actual research, and not infrequently forced me to redo some of the research.) I think my record was more than a year for the first draft of a 20 page article...and let's not get into my dissertation...

  5. First of all, you didn't mention the name of your latest novel. It is The Double A Western Detective Agency, and I highly recommend it.

    Taking a firm stand here, pineapple only belongs on pizza with Canadian bacon (i.e. Hawaiian style). My controversy: I love walnuts on pizza.

  6. Don -- a year for the first draft of a 20-page article? That's not "think think think." That's "think think think think think think think think think think think think think think think think think think"! Then again I'm just making stuff up for amusement whereas you're trying to assess data and come to valid conclusions, so I'm sure all that extra thinkin' is totally called for.

    Rob -- thanks for the reminder to do some proper marketing for the new book. Here goes:

    What They're Saying About "The Double-A Western Detective Agency"
    "I highly recommend it!"
    --Robert Lopresti, author of "Such a Killing Crime" and "Greenfellas"

    As for walnuts on pizza...call me nuts (ba-da-bing!) but that sounds good to me.

  7. Some great points Steve, yet when I think of them I keep picturing Kirk slapping himself and I start giggling. These days, when I start a bad book I usually give up in the first 30 pages, so kudos to you for finishing.

  8. I'm usually with you, Lawrence: I recently bailed on a very different book (different genre, different flaws) cuz I was struggling with the meh all through the first four chapters. But this latest one, I must say, was extremely readable for a big pile of poo. I got through it pretty quickly even with the voice in my head saying "No...wrong...uh oh...nope...bad...who let you do this?"

  9. Thanks, Steve. I now have this tune in my head, something like 𝄞♩♫ Think, think, think. Think, think, think. Shake your booty. ♪♫ 𝄇

    I've been known to return an occasional boring book, but I once read a book so awful, I couldn't put it down, a literary train wreck. The squib said the author had written more than 100 novels. I couldn't discern a plot beyond something murdered, awful something secret, something happens, or not. The heroine, a nuclear physicist who owned a 5th Avenue fashion boutique and Amityville-mansion somewhere where horrible somethings happened. Gak. I can't say it didn't leave an impression.

    Think, think, think…

  10. While that tune certainly fits "think think think," thinking and shaking one's booty don't go particularly well together, Leigh. If we're gonna pick a "think" theme I'd say it should be this.


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