I am so excited to have my immensely talented friend Tim Hallinan here today!
Tim's novels in the
Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thriller series, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART and THE FOURTH WATCHER, have received adulation and acclaim, for good reason, and he runs a great blog on his site called THE BLOG CABIN. (I'll have a guest blog on there Sunday if you're interested.) A dear friend of mine, JB Thompson, turned me on to Tim's work, raving about how good he was. Then I was lucky enough to meet Tim at Thrillerfest last year, and found he's as fascinating as his books foretell, and a great guy to boot. Well, heck, I'll shut up and let him show you himself. I give you… Tim Hallinan!
There are three things
that tell me when I'm in trouble on a book:
decide to spend long amounts of time sitting around and talking
amusingly to each other, usually about things that have nothing to
do with the story. Dialog is the easiest part of writing for me,
and when it gets out of control, I've come to recognize it as an
multiply magically over the page. It's not a sky, it's a lambent,
faded-denim sky, diffused to a thin water-color wash at the horizon.
People on the sidewalk – people we will never see again
– straggle by in overwritten paragraphs, dragging adjectives
like Marley's chains. It usually takes me three or four pages of
feeling lyrical to realize that what I'm really doing is writing fat
because writing lean would take me someplace and I don't know where
I wake up at 3 AM
in a cold sweat. I can't write, I could never write, I'll never
write again. Those other books were some sort of demonic possession
in reverse: I was temporarily taken over by someone who could write.
And who won't be back. Ever.
And whoever he was (it
was definitely a he), he took with him the knowledge of what to do
and what not to do when the inspiration tank is suddenly empty and I
have to push my book uphill. With, to prolong the metaphor, no
steering wheel. As a result, every time I hit my head on the wall
for more than four or five days in a row, I turn unerringly to the
list of Things Not To Do.
The first of these is
the cheap trick. I have nothing against cheap tricks – I use
them all the time. It was, after all, Raymond Chandler who said,
“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in
his hand.” Any thriller writer who says he or she never
descends to the occasional cheap trick is probably not a truthful
thriller writer – or, to put it another way, he or she is a
thriller writer whose thrillers I've never read. But the
impossible-to-anticipate plot twist, the stunning character reversal,
the, um, identical twin, the revelatory journal scrawled on the back
of the wallpaper (hmmmm . . . naahh), the sudden touch of cold steel
at the back of the neck – these are things I want to use
sparingly. If I don't, my
deeply felt novel of love and betrayal turns into a bad treatment for
“Terminator 137,” and I sit there, six months later,
wondering where I went wrong.
Second Thing Not to Do (for me, anyway) is to launch a new plot
strand. Suddenly discovering a deeply moving, compelling parallel
story that demands to be told
is often an advanced form of the same kind of dithering that produces
all those adjectives and all that dismally witty conversation. This
is dangerous territory, though, because sometimes a new plot strand
is exactly what you
need. I never reject one out of hand when it materializes in front
of me, because some of the best material in my books has come in the
form of late-breaking story strands. (An example: The book I'm now
writing, The Rocks,
culminates in an act of vengeance on three barren stones in the
Andaman Sea – an enchanted island, basically – and
features a human monster, or the closest thing to a human monster
I've written yet. I suddenly realized that Miaow – the little
girl whom my protagonist, Poke, has adopted – has been cast as
Ariel in a school production of Shakespeare's “The Tempest,”
and Poke has volunteered to cut the play to 90 minutes so the kids
can act it. This recognition has transformed the entire book.)
I'll play with a new story strand and see where it might take me, but
I won't cling to it like a life preserver. If it reinforces and
illuminates the other threads, great, but if it threatens to replace
them – well, I need to think about that. The new material may
seem more interesting than the strands I've already got going, but I
always need to remember that they're uninteresting because
I'm not having fun writing them. Once
I regain my footing, they'll be interesting again. Usually.
Third Thing Not to Do is to walk away. Give myself a break. Learn
to whittle. Decide I need a few days off. Start to fool with that
fascinating idea I had about a revelatory journal scrawled on the
back of the wallpaper, or the used car that, unknown to its buyer,
has a tracking device on it that's being watched with unwholesome
interest by someone who . . .
That's the problem. Any of us can come up with a dozen things like
that in a minute and a half, and they all sound interesting. More
interesting, anyway, than the idea that's giving us indigestion and
keeping us up at night. And any one of them, if you pick it up and
play with it long enough, will
Dillard once said that writing a book was like taming a lion –
every day you stay out of the cage, it's more dangerous to step
inside. So the third Thing Not to Do is the most perilous of them
what should I do when
everything goes south? It's so simple that I can't understand why
it's not always the first thing I think of.
need to look at the book's interior landscape.
need to ask myself about the emotional world of the book.
How do the characters feel about what's happening? How does it
affect their attitudes and actions toward each other? How confident
are they about being able to cope with what's happening? What
reserves do they have? What are they hoping for? What are they most
afraid of? And this applies to ALL the characters, not just the
sympathetic ones. Stephen J. Cannell supposedly has a sign on his
desk that says, “Ask yourself what the bad guy is doing.”
I'd widen that to include what the bad guy (or girl) is feeling,
because, let's face it, an antagonist without an inner life is just a
plot device. A cheap trick, more or less.
me, 90 percent of the time, I can't work through a problem by
thinking about exteriors – plot developments, mechanics,
structure, even language. All those things may need (probably need)
work, but what stops a book from coming to me is that I lose touch
with the emotional lives of the characters. And that's what I need
to think about.
why is that so damn hard to remember?
Timothy Hallinan has lived, on and off, in Southeast
Asia for more than 25 years. He wrote songs and sang in a rock band
while in college, and many of his songs were recorded by by well-known
artists who included the platinum-selling group Bread. He began
writing books while enjoying a successful career in the television
industry. Over the past fourteen years he has been responsible for a
number of well-reviewed novels and a nonfiction book on Charles
Dickens. For years he has taught a course on “Finishing the Novel”
with remarkable results – more than half his students complete their
first novel and go on to a second, and several have been, or are about
to be, published. Tim currently maintains a house in Santa Monica,
California, and apartments in Bangkok, Thailand; and Phnom Penh,
Cambodia. He is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy-Hallinan.
Hi Tim – welcome to Murderati!
Great post. I need to write down that checklist of Things Not To Do, because I’m sure I do a lot of them.
I would respectfully disagree that writing a book is like trying to tame a lion, though.
Writing a book is more like trying to fight a lion inside a phone booth ;-]
Hi Tim- WOW! Carbon units and trees be damned, I have printed your post and will snap it in my handy-dandy writing binder. Thanks for sharing your warning signs, and tips, that any writer can certainly use.
Midway through my most recent project, I hit the doldrums and considered shelving it. My protagonist was boring, I was in-between suspense scenes, and all the lusty scenes had played out. There were other things to write–right? I had shelved others before, and you are right, the manuscript never comes back to life. Instead, I changed my personal scenery and plowed through the dead spot. The result: in my opinion (and one beta’s thus far), it’s my best work to date. It may not be publishable, but at least it raised my personal bar.
Again, thank you for a useful post. Happy Friday!
Terrific post, Tim, and welcome to Murderati! And what a great list.
My own list would include multiple metaphors per paragraph. When everything has to be illuminated by something else, then I’m not focused on where I’m going with the story, I’m stalling. [edited to add: because metaphors are not my strength and if I’m hyper focused on adding a bunch of them, I’m in serious trouble.]
Ironically, time away almost always works for me. (I am obsessive about finishing projects, though.) I sometimes need the down time because when I’m trying to force it, it’s not working, and it’s generally not working for a reason I’ve yet to see. Walking away from the book for a couple of days generally gives me perspective and enough other stimuli to shake loose whatever it was my subconscious was trying to tell me. That, and the down time reminds me that if I don’t go write, I’d have to be doing something else that I will never love as much as writing, so getting my butt back in my chair is pretty enticing.
You are a renaissance man of the highest order, Tim! Especially if that “renaissance” includes your resumé and your tricks for resurrecting creativity.
This post is fantastic. It speaks directly to something I am currently doing. Walking away. I walked away and now I’m having trouble getting back in the cage. And now that I’ve heard my behavior so accurately described, I’m flinging open the door and charging in. Thank you!
Tim,Welcome to Murderati! What a fine and useful post.
Thank you for exposing many of those destructive behaviors so honestly.
And Toni? Yeah, I’m a metaphor slut too. That’s when I know something’s really, realy wrong.
Thanks so much for sitting in for me today, Tim! I think this post is wonderful, and will be printing it out for my personal use too…
Tim, this was great, and so helpful. I’m deep in “everyone’s sitting around having witty conversation” land right now, and looking for the map out.
As a regular reader of TIm’s blog, I can attest to his high standards for such posts; this, however, is excellent even by his high standards.
I find myself slipping into all of the above, especially the “sitting around having witty banter” because it allows me to amuse myself while pretending to be working. Writing is, and should be, fun, but t still requires a certain amount of ruthless self-discipline.
It always surprises me when writers, whom seem to have a natural and lyrical flow of words (Tim!), say they are sometimes paralyzed with doubt. But it also inspires me to work past my own daily crisis of confidence. Thanks for sharing.
What Cornelia just mentioned sort of segues into what I’ve been wondering..but as I’m operating on minimal sleep I may not make it directly there.
As a reader I think Cornelia’s characters witty conversations are a major strength. It so strongly underwrites the characters and explains without being hit over the head with it, the motivations of said characters.
So does witty conversation become dark side stuff if it’s not propelling action or movement in the story?
It seems a bloody thin line.
Thanks to all who have responded and to all the warm welcomes. I’m thinking about homesteading a patch of cyberspace here and settling in with my virtual sleeping bag and reading light.
I’m especially happy if what I wrote has some value to some of you. I know we all have our own ways of getting into, and out of, trouble, but the ones that occurred to me seemed not to be uniquely mine. In fact, I’ve read published books where it’s evident (to me, at least) that the writer spends a substantial chunk of time circling the drain, so to speak — doing practically anything to keep writing while s/he gets closer and closer to where the story should go. (And allows that to survive the editing process.) And I’ve been in the agonizing position of having one of my “darlings” pop into existence during exactly that kind of writing, and then having to cut it loose when it was time to pare away the fat.
Multiple metaphors? Absolutely. (And why is it that they come with such fluency when they’re actually the last thing you need?) Also, minor characters who suddenly get a LOT more vivid than they need to be, developing an encyclopedia of quirks when all they really have to do is deliver a piece of information and then retreat to The Land of Turned Pages for the rest of the book.
Special thanks to Louise Ure for the “renaissance man” tag. When I think back on all the things I’ve done in my life, I tend to see them as a long chain of near misses, so it’s great to be given a more positive perspective.
And for Catherine — for me, conversation of any kind that doesn’t either move the story along or get the reader closer to the characters is deadwood. But what I was talking about is letting the characters rattle on because I don’t know where to take them next and nothing is easier for me than just letting them yack until sunrise.
Come to my site, http://www.timothyhallinan.com tomorrow (Sunday) to read JT Ellison’s “Creative Living” post — it’s killer.
Fantastic post, Tim, and I’ll definitely visit the Cabin tomorrow. I’m not a metaphor slut like Toni and Pari, but I could definitely call myself a dialogue slut. I have this thing about having people TALK to each other. Incessantly. (Just ask JT – she’s red-penned a lot of extraneous dialogue from my work!) But your post has me thinking about all the things I’ve done with the latest WIP that really do need to be fixed, and find I’m checking off the Don’t-Do List one item at a time. Sigh.
Good to hear from you again, and we’re waiting patiently for Poke #3 (my parents bought me A Nail Through the Heart for Christmas – yay!). =)
Hi, J. B. — Boy, do you have nice parents. Could they maybe adopt eight or ten thousand young adults and just give them all my latest book? That’d get the numbers up.
Poke #3 is called BREATHING WATER and will officially escape into the world in September, although it’s supposed to actually land in better stores everywhere on August 18. If your local store doesn’t have it, it’s not a better store.