Bricklaying Mode

March 21st, 2008

It’s a word at a time, and that’s what it’s been for eight or nine days now.

The third Poke Rafferty Bangkok novel, tentatively titled Misdirection, is insisting on arriving at its own pace. Unlike Bad Money, the book that shoved its way into existence in five and a half weeks between the end of November and the beginning of January, Misdirection is peeking around the corner at me, a little bit at a time.

When my dog wants a walk, which is all the time, she does what my wife and I call her half-face act: she stands in a doorway or around a corner and stares steadily at us with only half of her face showing. That’s what this book is doing.

The problem is not that I don’t know where I’m going with the story. I never know where I’m going with a story. The problem here is that I seem to be wearing one of those cones around my head like the ones you put on dogs (back to dogs) so they won’t chew themselves. As a result, I have no peripheral vision. I can’t see what’s happening on either side, so to speak, of the scenes I’m writing, much less where they’re going to take me next. All I can do at this point is write one scene at a time, as well as I can, and then go back over it and make it better, while I try to figure out what comes next. I don’t seem to be able to sustain what I think of as the 5,000-foot view, where I can see the landscape of the book — or, at least, the parts of the book that have been written — laid out below me.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is in trouble. I’ve written entire novels this way, and at least one of them, Everything But the Squeal, is on my short list of favorites among the things I’ve written. The problem is that this isn’t as much fun as I like to have when I write. Fun is an important component of writing for me — it’s one of the main reasons I do it. And fun, at the moment, is in short supply.

Of course, writing is a job as well as an amusement. I’ve had eight novels and a work of nonfiction published, with two more in the chute. That makes me, I suppose, a professional. As a professional, I should be able to continue to spin stories on cloudy days as well as sunny ones.

In the back of my mind, I think the material is trying to tell me I’m missing a bet — there’s something important, some major opportunity — I haven’t discovered yet. The only way I know how to discover it is to sit down every single day, seven days a week, and do my 1,000-2,000 words. One word at a time.  Like laying bricks.  Don’t get up until they’re finished.

Eventually, it’ll stop playing half-face with me.

10 Responses to “Bricklaying Mode”

  1. Mitch Says:

    Hang in there Tim. As wrong as this sounds, it makes me feel a bit better about my own writing when I read that a professional writer, such as yourself, can sometimes have a hard time getting the words to show themselves. I find it courageous of you to even admit that you’re having difficulties, because I can’t think of too many writers who are humble enough to “stoop down” to us normal folk. Anyways, I hope that my groveling doesn’t come off as weird. Just some honest thoughts. I’m about 20,000 words into my very first novel, and I’ve built up a nice 6-7 day writing routine, getting roughly 1,200 words done in a session. I must say that there are many days when things just don’t flow, but I’m pushing through. It’s become an exciting challenge to just finish the damn thing, let alone try to publish it. I still have a lot to learn before I even think about attempting the latter, but your writing guides on your website are still a reliably valuable asset to my discovery process. Thanks for all the wisdom Tim, and I know your book will stop hiding from you soon enough.

  2. Steve Wylder Says:

    Everything But the Squeal has a very Chicago sound to it. Since it’s a Simeon Grist novel, I assume it’s set in southern California.

    I’m amazed that you can write a novel without knowing where it’s going. I know how mine is going to end. I’m just not sure how it will get there. In my last chapter, Timothy and Helena are kissing in Lincoln Park and are interrupted by a couple who call themselves “metaphysicians in training.” They just showed up and have already prevented T. and H. from being trampled by a crowd.

    With your track record, I’m sure Misdirection will emerge, with or without its current title.

  3. Usman Says:

    Writing is fun.
    Writing to get published…I have my doubts about that being fun. It seems like a grueling business where you force yourself onwards.

    That is why DC is so much fun.

  4. muns Says:

    Colleen wrote to wish us Happy Easter and mentioned that you wrote about Ralphe so, of course, I had to go into your blog asap!

    I love reading about your process. And I am impressed with your readers’ comments–I bet they sustain you when you are all by yourself all the way in Cambodia. Set some dream intentions about the book and see what shows up. And Happy day after Easter–

  5. Lisa Kenney Says:

    “Laying Bricks” is exactly the expression Scott and I have been using lately to describe what’s happening with his painting. He gets through it when he needs to paint something traditional because he’s a professional and it’s how he makes his living, but it isn’t fun for him right now. Hopefully, he moves into doing more of the abstracts that he does have fun creating and eventually some of the fun will come back into painting figures too.

    The great thing is that you’re experienced enough and have enough of an established process to understand what’s happening. I suspect my WIP is about to start playing half-face with me too. I’ve FINALLY wrapped up Chapter 11 (for the most part) and ended the part of the story that takes place in Germany — now I have to move forward.

    And — I think I might even be able to catch up on reading “Counterclockwise” tonight. I’m really enjoying it and I can’t believe I’ve gotten two chapters behind…the day job is REALLY busy.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everybody —

    Sorry to take so long to respond; the Internet connections here make everything difficult.

    Mitch, glad to know that my misfortune is cheering SOMEONE up. Imagine how awful it would be to slip on a banana peel with no one around to laugh. I’m kidding, of course: any writer who never has a hard day (or week, or month) is either doing something wrong or has low editorial standards. I’m very happy you’re making such good progress on your first novel and that the routine is working for you — and also that some of the stuff on this site is helpful to you. And about my book hiding from me, I had an Easter conversation with my wife (on the phone, since she’s in Santa Monica) and she gave me a few great ideas on how to (a) let the tale unfold as it will and trim it later, and (b) shine a light on some of the stuff that’s not on the page yet. Thanks so much for writing.

    Steve, I usually have a sort of ending in mind — usually very vague — and, like you, no idea how to get to it. But I find that the story rarely winds up there, and one of the games I play with myself as I write is to entertain the idea of new endings and challenge myself to top the previous one. And even with all that effort, the ending is usually a surprise. One of my problems with the present book is that the writing of a fairly detailed book proposal has taken some of the “surprise” out of this process. By the way, I love your metaphysicians in training and they way they just popped up — that’s what I keep hoping for here.

    Usman — good to hear from you. I think all writing should be fun, at least part of the time. I do some of my best work when I’m having the most fun, and I certainly want that work in the stuff that’s published. In fact, I think it’s a mistake to think about publication at all when you’re writing: I think literally the only things that we should be thinking about are character and story. The better the book is, the better its chances of being published.

    Hi, Mun, and thanks for a great talk on the phone today. I wonder whether the pioneers of the Internet ever thought that people would use their websites to communicate with their spouses. I’m trying and/or going to try everything we discussed today, and thanks so much.

    Lisa — I am SO guilty that I haven’t been able to keep up with your book, or anyone else’s while I was here. Interesting that you and Scott are using the same metaphor that I am for work that feels more like assembly than inspiration. The thing I have to keep reminding myself about is that I HAVE NO IDEA WHETHER I’M WRITING WELL OR NOT until much later. Most of what I’ve done on this book is holding up very well under revision. I’m sure the same is true of Scott’s painting — the more traditional work may feel like a pay-the-rent exercise, but I think artists learn something every time they go to work, and the problem may just be that he’s more conscious of the learning experience when he works in a newer style. (By the way, I’d love to see some of the more abstract work — I think I’ve seen one on your site, but I’d love to see more.) And congratulations on mostly wrapping up Ch. 11 — one of the problems with writing this way (in retrospect) is that I’m reluctant to leave a chapter with a glaring weak spot and move along to something I’m dying to write, because the chapter will be “published” all by its little lonesome self, and I can’t just go back a week later and fix it. And it’s great to know that you’re at a landmark point in your book, when the German material ends and everything moves into the present.

    Thanks to all of you for dropping by.

  7. Colleen Says:

    Tim.
    I am actually feeling your homesickness in this writing. I can imagine you are thinking of your lovely wife, dog and home in LA. I have a lot of enjoyment reading your blogs even for a “Bricklaying Mode.” Your writing are getting so rich each time when I read them. I like how you connect your feeling to the readers.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Colleen —

    I AM homesick, much more than usual. But yesterday the book suddenly started to move, and if that keeps up, my emotional state will definitely change. I’ll still miss Munyin and home, but I’ll wake up excited every morning and eager to continue wandering through this story.

    Hope all are well there.

  9. Mitch Says:

    Tim, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad in any way about the progress you’re making with your book! If I did, I am very sorry.

    Good to hear that the book is moving for you now. How many words are you into it?

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Mitch — You didn’t; I was kidding. I’m at about 45,000 words, which means I’ve actually written 120,000, the way it’s going. I write a couple of pages, dump them, write them over, edit them, dump one of them, etc.

    Fortunately, the words I’m keeping seem pretty good, and I’ve got a few characters I like a lot.

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