Archive for May, 2014

The Writing Process (my version, anyway)

May 25th, 2014

Michael W. Sherer, a very fine thriller writer who deservedly sells a lot of books, suggested that I join in on something called a “blog hop” in which various writers take turns blogging about a common theme — in this case, their writing process — linking forward and backward in the hope that readers will click their way merrily along, being exposed to writers and books they might enjoy. You can find his blog at

night blind 2

I can tell you right now that you’ll enjoy Sherer.  The two books featuring Blake Sanders, a necessarily nocturnal hero (he has some issues that make him more comfortable at night) who can literally find his way around Seattle blindfolded, especially hit me.  The first is Night Blind, and I recommend it. Both it and Night Tide, the second, are free for the Kindle at the time of this writing.

As Michael told me, a  blog hop is sort of a blog chain letter.  I have unmixed feelings, all negative, about chain letters, and yet here I am, participating in one.  Two wonderful writers, Catriona McPherson and Jeri Westerson have agreed to play, so at the bottom of this post you’ll find something about each of them, along with a link to their respective blogs, where their version of this thing will appear on Monday, June 2.

Is anybody still reading?  Okay, the question-and-answer portion:

1. What are you working on?

I’m currently in the schizophrenic position of being in pre-publication mode on two books while trying to write two more. The ones that are coming out are the fourth Junior Bender, Herbie’s Game, which Soho will release on July 15, and the sixth Poke Rafferty, For the Dead, which will appear in better stores everywhere, as they say, in November.  I don’t usually make this claim, but I think they’re both pretty good.


The books I’m trying to write are the seventh Poke, The Hot Countries, and the fifth Junior, King Maybe.  The Hot Countries has the potential of being quite different if I can finish it; I’m trying to do something I’ve never done before, and it seems to be working out. Oddly, it’s the more familiar elements of the book that are giving me trouble, but I guess something has to, or it wouldn’t be my writing process, which has trouble built into it.

King Maybe has two great (I think) plots, and the primary challenges are how to braid them together and how to get Junior out of a corner into which I have very effectively painted him. There are times I wonder why I don’t just get a job as a crossing guard.

2. How does your work differ from others in this genre?



Oh, boy.  Does it differ?  Is there even such a thing as “this genre?” Taking the four writers whom I’ve named here–Michael, Catriona, Jeri, and Pat–they all write books that are very different from each other’s and from mine.  The whole genre thing really pushes my buttons.

But okay, here’s an answer of sorts.  I think I try to do what most good writers try to do, which is to put character first, last, and always. Novels are about characters, regardless of the “genre.” Plot is what characters do, dialogue is what characters say, narrative is the prism through which we see characters’ perspectives.  Setting is a place, as experienced by characters.  When I said above that I had what I think are two good plots for King Maybe, what I meant was that two characters came to me, each pulling a story behind him/her.

But it seems to me that my books are–like pretty much everyone else’s–the story of a person who.  That’s always seemed to me to be the basic definition of a novel (or a play, for that matter): it’s the story of a person who.  The hell with genres.

ftd from soho

3.  Why do you write what you do?

Like (I think) every other writer, I write books I would like to read.  Whenever I start a book, my goal is to write something that, if someone else wrote it, it would land on the top of my to-be-read pile.  (That’s purely figurative because my TBR “pile” currently has more than 300 books in it and I have no room with a high enough ceiling to allow them to be stacked singly on top of each other.)

So I start out hoping to write one for the top of the stack. Then, as the book gets longer and all that shiny, perfect abstraction turns into actual words, many of which are not the right words, I lower my sights.  By the end, I’m hoping for a story that makes sense and means something to someone somewhere.

But however imperfectly I may render them, they’re all stories I would like to read.  I think we all have an instinctive grasp of the dos and don’ts of the kind of story we like best.  It would be silly, I think, to try to write anything else.

 4.  How does your writing process work?

Since I start from character, I can’t outline.  I begin with a person, or three or four, and a sense of the situation, and then it’s as though I drop those characters, like a lot of little ball bearings, onto the surface of my desk and watch them roll around.  Because some of those ball bearings represent people who are in relationships, groupings tend to form and re-form.  As the characters develop and as new characters stroll in, they get all ideas of their own, and I almost always follow them. I am occasionally praised in reviews for my plotting skills, but the fact is that I have no idea what the plot will actually be until the characters take me there.


At some point, usually about 60% of the way in, I make an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline.  For each chapter I list the chapter title and number; the day in the story (1, 2, 3, etc,. plus day of the week); the primary location(s); and a summary of what happens.  This is partly to remind me where I am, but the main objective is to find balls I instinctively left in the air–loose ends, something unresolved or ambiguous or misunderstood.  It’s amazing how often these tickle my brain, giving me exactly the prompts I need for the final sequences.

A friend of mine, an Oscar-winning songwriter named Robb Royer, once said that writing isn’t actually like architecture, in which you construct something; it’s more like archaeology, in which you uncover something that was already there.  The trick is to have the patience to uncover it without forcing it into a new shape, or, even worse, breaking it.

By the time I’ve done this retroactive outline, I usually have an idea of where the book is going.  Bits and pieces of it come to me as I do whatever I’m doing, and I write them all down in a file called WHERE WE’RE GOING.  Most of that material finds its way into the book, although there’s always also a major surprise or two at the last minute.

So that’s my process, and I’m stuck with it.

Playing it Forward

When Michael slogged this off on me, it was on the condition that I rope more writers into sharing their own process and then passing it on to yet more writers.  Here are the two writers who came out to play.  The pieces will appear on their sites on Monday, June 2.

IMG_0308 (1)

Catriona McPherson is the Agatha, Bruce Alexander, and Macavity winning author of eight preposterous 1920s mysteries, set in her native Scotland and featuring the gently-born but rather kick-ass Dandy Gilver. The latest – DANDY GILVER AND A BOTHERSOME NUMBER OF CORPSES (Minotaur) – won a second Bruce Alexander award for best historical novel at Left Coast Crime. Her first contemporary stand-alone – AS SHE LEFT IT (Midnight Ink) – was a Kirkus top 20 pick for 2013, was shortlisted for the Calamari at Left Coast, and is currently on the shortlist for the Anthonys and a Foreword Reviews BOTYA. The second – THE DAY SHE DIED – came out in May, and Kirkus called it “a tour de force, a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.”  Catriona is the current vice-president of Sisters in Crime and lives in northern California with two black cats and a scientist. She is also great, great company. You can find her online at 


L.A. native Jeri Westerson combined the medieval with the hard-boiled and came up with her own brand of medieval mystery she calls Medieval Noir. Her brooding protagonist, Crispin Guest, is a disgraced knight turned detective on the mean streets of fourteenth century London. Her latest, Shadow of the Alchemist, was named the Best of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, and the newest, Cup of Blood, will be released in July. Jeri’s Crispin Guest books have been nominated for a variety of industry awards, from the Agatha to the Shamus. She is president of the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and former VP for Sisters in Crime Los Angeles. Jeri speaks all over the Southland about medieval history, including as a guest lecturer at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, CA. See more at

That’s all, folks — but check these blogs out on Monday.  All these writers have something great to say.



posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 3:15 PM


May 18th, 2014

Grueddhism (noun) (derivation: Gruesome + Buddhism): tenuous form of Buddhism adopted by the wealthy of the West as a fashion accessory and status symbol. Usage: See the woman in the five-inch heels and the Buddha T-shirt? She’s a Grueddhist.

grueddhist 1

Snapshots from the practice of Grueddhism:

A heavily pregnant woman is pushing her shopping basket toward her car in a Whole Foods parking lot when a Prius (the automotive choice of those who treasure the earth and all who abide there) cruises noiselessly up behind her, and the woman driving it leans on her horn.  The pregnant woman leaps aside and the driver of the Prius slows as she passes to shout something. Her license plate frame reads Namaste, which means the spirit in me honors the spirit in you.  The Buddha didn’t have a license plate and, so far as we know, never yelled at a pregnant woman who was too slow getting out of his way.

grueddhist 2, SUV

A billonaire tycoon known internationally for his explosive temper and massive ego builds himself houses centered on the minimalist stillness of Zen rock gardens to give him, you know, perspective, and goes on “spiritual retreats” when he’s not skimming the oceans on one of the world’s biggest personal yachts, which he’ll soon be sailing to his own private Hawaiian Island, purchased to give him a peaceful environment.  When the Buddha needed peace, he closed his eyes.

grueddhist 4 zen garden

A Hollywood uber-agent, once the most powerful man in the entertainment industry, who accumulated a huge collection of Buddhist art and put up an office building largely to house it, told a screenwriter who had decided to seek representation elsewhere, “My soldiers will hunt you down and kill you.”  The Buddha never had a soldier.

Grueddhist 5, painting

Grueddhism is one of the fastest-growing belief systems/status symbols among a certain population, largely West Coast-based members of the one percent.  As a lifetime left-leaner I’m somewhat ashamed to say they’re mostly west side liberals who believe fervently in the achievement of justice and social equality through the redistribution of everyone’s wealth but theirs.

Okay, these folks already have nicer cars, bigger houses, hipper friends, better drugs, more accomplished plastic surgeons, and tonier ZIP codes than we do.  So why do they need Grueddhism?  It’s very simple: by demonstrating publicly that they have all these things but don’t really care about them, they’re practicing spiritual one-upmanship. Some of them trained for this by being among the first to renounce fur or to campaign for veganism among the poor.  But those bold stands of principle, personally satisfying as they might have been, weren’t visible.  Grueddhism announces itself: it says, I can afford this designer coat with the Buddha on it in (ahem) rainforest green, and you can’t.

grueddhist jacket

Would the Buddha have worn this?  No?

It’s religion as a shawl or a hairstyle or a new accent, an announcement of a superiority so absolute that it would be visible on an X-ray.  The deity that actually inspires it, of course, isn’t the Buddha, not some long-dead Indian with (probably) brown skin, but rather Mario Prada and/or Louis Vuitton.  Can a brown purse festooned with little mustard-yellow Buddhas be far behind?  Not when this attractive clutch is already available for those who attend enlightened but exclusive events.

Grueddist two clutch

Wouldn’t this have have been a beautiful accent to the Buddha’s saffron robe?

Of course, every religion has its backsliders and hypocrites.  Thailand has among its enormous population of Buddhist monks several who mess prominently in politics, throwing their support to one worldly faction or another in exchange for who knows what, or who trade in amulets that confer dubiously miraculous powers.  It has politicians who preach rectitude and steal like pashas.  It has business tycoons who believe that Asanga’s Fivefold path comprises acquisition, consolidation, domination, cost-shaving, and branding.

But it’s one thing to believe in a religion and be unable to live up to it, and another thing to wrap yourself in one because mink has become unfashionable.  As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about Grueddhism is that it makes radical Islam look a little better.  I think we non-Grueddhists should go out of our way to present every Grueddhist we meet with an opportunity for spiritual growth. Egg his or her Bentley or Mercedes.  Give them something to transcend.

Grueddist Buddha

And make sure you remind them to have a nice day.

posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 11:14 AM

The Writer’s, uhhh, Friend

May 8th, 2014

I think that people who don’t write sometimes envy those who do, and I think it’s time to set them straight.

I’ve had people in bookstores and at writing conferences tell me they can’t imagine how amazing it must feel to sit down and have the story transmit itself through me, to see vistas unrolling beneath my fingertips, populated with attractive, fascinating people doing memorable things.

Usually, I lie to these people.  I say it’s all in the sitting. That the only way to inspiration is via drudgery. Inspiration, I tell them, is a result of gruntwork.

But as true as that answer is, it avoids what they actually said, which was about what it must feel like.  So this is what it feels like.


The writer at work

And that’s a good day.  On a bad day, it feels more like this:


Inspiration on demand 

I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, writing is a product of anxiety.  Every day I get up absolutely certain that I’m going to write all day, that this will be a three thousand-word day.  (At three thousand words per day, assuming that they’re the right words–which they never are–one could conceivably write a 90,000 word novel each and every month of the year.)

As you may have noticed, if you read me, I do not write a book every month.

Instead, I go through the day, answering emails, checking out the decline of Scientology, laughing at John Boehner’s canned tan, and generally persuading myself that these are pleasant pastimes, as opposed to desperate diversions, and that nothing whatsoever stands between me and the first brilliant words of the day.  But when I visualize that nothing whatsoever, this is how I see it.

brick wall

And it’s higher than it looks.

Writing, for me, is a matter of balancing anxieties.  I spend every day in the grip of a pair of almost-identical anxiety twins: on the one hand, anxiety about not writing.  On the other, anxiety about writing.

Anxiety about not writing takes up most of my time.  It’s characterized by sharp self-criticism on a spectrum of issues, from my lack of will power to my lack of courage, plus, at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near (with apologies to Andrew Marvell) and the chariot’s payload is deadlines.

Andrew Marvell

Andrew Marvell, after a couple of Valiums

Anxiety about writing takes over the moment I (finally) open my laptop.  Anxiety about writing is one form of performance anxiety that’s rarely used in a punch line. This is the day nothing will come. This is the day crap will come.  This is the day crap will come and fit perfectly into the manuscript, revealing that it’s all crap.  This is the day I finally learn that I’d be better suited to a life spent in the sun and in pleasant, green surroundings, retrieving golf balls from water traps.  And who thought this idea would work in a book anyway?

The key to my getting anything at all done lies in a careful balancing of those anxieties.  It requires judgment and experience to get it right.  What I have to do, on a daily basis, is wait until my anxiety about not writing outweighs my anxiety about writing.  At that point, I can choose two courses for my day.  If I don’t take the cue to get down to it, this is what I face.


This is not something you want to do in front of children.

If I do get down to it, what I face is a slow, word-by-word beginning, much deletion, many games of Hearts, a moderately interesting middle and, perhaps, total exhilaration for an hour or two as I pour onto the page one absolute keeper after another, the best stuff I’ve ever done, most of which will be rewritten the next day.  But, God willing, it won’t look so awful when I rewrite it that it’ll put me off the session completely.

The only writing session that’s actually a failure is the one you either abandon or don’t begin.

Somehow, I’ve gotten sixteen published books out of this, um, process, and there are even things in some of them I’m proud of. That’s the reason for this blog: if you want to write something and you’re having a hard time of it, remember me, neurotically balancing anxieties to produce 1000-1500 words a day, most of which are the wrong words.  But you know what?  At the end of the road, there’s almost always a book.


posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 9:26 PM

Present, Tense

May 2nd, 2014

Every now and then a reader feels moved to write me to say something helpful like, “I could probably enjoy your books if they weren’t written in present tense.”

present tense sign

Well, okay.  Thanks for the share.

I could respond by pointing out that two of my three series are, in fact, written in the old tried-and-true tense, which is to say past.  But why confuse the issue? The issue is that this person can’t read/doesn’t enjoy narrative fiction in the present tense.

And my basic reaction is, so?

As someone who reads both fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, dramatic and narrative writing, in both modern and archaic English–and manages to enjoy all of them–I have difficulty sympathizing with those who find a switch in tense to be an insurmountable obstacle.  It seems to me it should be simply something one gets used to, as one gets used to a writer’s style or the fact that the last words in some lines of poetry rhyme.  It’s not as though writing a paragraph in the present tense turns the text a bright, unappealing yellow and makes it leap and waver all over the page.  If one were in a frame of mind to push the old envelope, one might even look for reasons to like present-tense storytelling.

The-End-Greece short

I’m aware that past tense is traditional for narrative storytelling, and I think there were originally a couple of good reasons for that. First, back when we shared stories in the verbal tradition, as Homer did, the past tense told listeners immediately that the story they were about to hear was complete, that it had both a beginning and an end and that, God willing, if they sat there long enough they might be able to hear both of them.

Second, ancient narratives often told well-known tales of gods and heroines, and it was no secret that those stories had happened in the past, often the very remote past. Present tense would have been confusing.


Novels, when they finally arrived upon the scene, were usually told in past tense, although not those written in the once-very-popular epistolary form, in which the story is told through an exchange of letters (Pamela and Les Liaisons Dangereuses are well-known examples, but there were hundreds of them).  Letters in such novels are written, as letters generally are, in the present tense.

Dickens opens Bleak House, possibly his greatest book, in a marvelously vivid present tense (my favorite opening paragraphs in literature), but when he changes over to the first-person perspective of the narrator, Esther Summerson, she’s telling a story with its roots in the past. From then on the novel is in past tense.

As are most novels.  And I have no problem with that.  My problem is with people who get all willieknocked when they brush up against a story told in the present tense.

Because, you know what?  We live in the present tense. The things that happen to those we love take place in present tense.  And to move away from life and into art, two of the storytelling forms we most enjoy–theater and film–are present-tense media.  When a film or a play wants to move to past tense, it usually creates a framing device: a flashback, a memory, a dissolve through something someone is saying.

present color - bw

A framing device

We’re comfortable with the present tense in daily life, on TV, at sporting events, and in theaters.  So what’s the big deal about finding it in printed narrative?

Actually, I think it’s just habit.  It’s what we’re used to.  To someone who has read hundreds of novels in past tense, the present tense, at first sight, just feels wrong.

But so what?  For fifty years or so, audiences and even film professionals felt that gritty, realistic films were best shot in black and white.  The Civil War was in black and white, the newsreels from both World Wars were in black and white.  There was something trustworthy, something unglossy about it.  No trickery involved.  In black and white, you could believe your eyes.  Black and white was real.


Except, of course, that the world isn’t in black and white, any more than it’s in past tense. It’s in color and it’s in present tense.  As Orson Welles (who knew quite a lot about black and white) pointed out, it was a technological accident that black-and-white film came first and dominated the film industry long enough to train the audience’s eye to the point where it was seen as, somehow, “realistic.”  If the first films had been in color, black-and-white either never would have been developed or would have been viewed as an amusing abstraction – maybe as a way to show us how aliens view the world.

There is no way in which the past tense is inherently superior to the present tense when used to tell a story.  I use both and enjoy writing both.  I read both and enjoy reading both. I think they have different strengths.  If someone isn’t flexible enough to get used to it, he or she shouldn’t read it.  But don’t fulminate about how it never works, or be prepared to argue with, among others, Dickens, John Updike, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Kafka, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger, Andre Dubus III, Walker Percy, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, William Gibson, Lisa See, Ken, Kesey, Michael Chabon, Richard Russo, Jhumpa Lahiri, and hundreds of others who have created fine, even brilliant works of narrative fiction in the present tense.

all quiet

Another promising novel ruined by the present tense

But whatever you do, don’t imitate the English lit-fic novelist and (naturally) professor of creative writing, Philip Hensher.  Apparently put out by the commercial and aesthetic success of Hilary Mantle’s Wolf Hall (which is in present tense), Hensher ranted, “The routine use of present tense in the historical novel is quickly becoming a terrible cliché. There is, too, a spread of appallingly dull novels that run, “I go downstairs and make a cup of tea. On the television, the news is talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I say to my flatmate Baz.”

Well, clearly what’s wrong with this wretched little pastiche is the tense.  Look here:  “I went downstairs and made a cup of tea. On the television, the news was talking about a disaster in India. Got any drugs, I said to my flatmate Baz.” 

See?  Makes all the difference.

Good writing is good writing and bad writing is bad writing, no matter what the tense.

posted by Timothy Hallinan @ 4:24 PM