Writing, Asian Style

January 9th, 2007

Phnom Penh — Why do I prefer to write in Asia?

Well, first, of course, my books are set in Asia. It’s much easier to bring that setting to life when I’m surrounded by it. The key, for me, to making a setting real is in the details. It’s not enough to say it’s hot. There’s a specific kind of Southeast Asian heat, and I experience it differently than I do, say, the heat in the American South. The heat affects the pace of life here, the way people plan their day, the way they dress, even the way they walk.

People in cooler climates put a lot more energy into going up and down than people do here. If you attached a light to the top of a New Yorker’s head and took a long, long exposure, you’d see a jagged line as he or she moved forward — up, down, up, down. People here devote all their energy to moving forward — it’s a kind of glide, as much like ice skating as walking. Just a couple of days ago I wrote a scene in which a non-Asian tries to follow someone in Bangkok, and it’s the contrast in his walk — especially as he hurries or slows to keep his target in sight — that gives him away. If I hadn’t written that scene here, I don’t think I would have thought of that.

So, writing here helps me keep the setting real. It also makes it much easier for me to concentrate. I’m fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles and twelve hours ahead of New York, so people don’t just pick up the phone and call often. And nobody just drops by, not when a 24-hour trip, much of it stuck in airplanes, is necessary. When I wrote at home in the States, there was a constant stream of visitors and phone calls, any one of which gave me good reason to abandon the work, especially on a day when it wasn’t fun. Here there’s none of that.

Here’s my Asian writing routine, for anyone who might be interested.

I get up around nine and grind some amazingly strong Vietnamese coffee, then read a novel and swill the coffee until I get to the right caffeine high — able to think in more or less complete sentences, but not actually vibrating. Then I shower, dress, grab my laptop, and walk to the nearest coffee shop or restaurant. I’m in Phnom Penh at the moment, and that means the Pose Cafe, a great little place with good coffee, a very nice staff, and the best mango smoothies in the world. I get set up, order my first cup of their coffee, and review and rewrite what I did in the past three or four days. By the time I get to the blank page, I’m usually ready to move the story along.

I stay there for a minimum of two hours or 1,000 words, although usually it’s more like five hours and 2,500 words. When I want more coffee, I hold up one finger. When I want a mango smoothie, I hold up two. When I’m hungry, I take a break and go to the counter to order. Once every couple of hours I get up and wander the enormous outdoor market that’s next to the cafe, looking at all the food I have no idea how to cook and letting the story or characters percolate in my head. After 20 minutes, I’m back at the table and writing again.

I like to write in public places. I like the energy of having people around, and whenever I need a face I can just look up and steal one. (The face of a very unpleasant guy named Pak in A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART was borrowed from one of the sweetest men I ever met, a regular customer at the Pose.) If I need a Southeast Asian hand gesture, I just wait until somebody makes one.

When I’m finished, I pack up and go home and print out the new pages and the ones I’ve revised. This is a tremendous waste of paper because I’ll revise almost all of this material the next day, but I like watching the manuscript get thicker. It’s one of the ways I convince myself that I’m actually working, actually making progress.

Then I save everything six ways from Sunday. I once dropped into the Andaman Sea a laptop that had about 80% of a new book on it, and it took me ten days of working feverishly to recreate it while it was still fresh. ( I have to admit, this process also improved the book, but it’s a little too high-adrenaline to recommend it as a technique). What I do now is save to an external drive (I use a one-gigabyte flash memory camera card with a little SanDisk reader) and then I e-mail the entire manuscript to myself. I strongly recommend that you do the same — if your place gets burglarized, or even burns down, your latest work is over on Google’s or Yahoo’s server.

This is my routine six or seven days a week. Once a week I vary things by taking all the week’s new pages and going over them with a red pencil while I caffeinate. Things look different on the page than on the screen, for some reason; I catch things I missed before during my regular onscreen review of the past three or four day’s work. My formal writing session on the days I do the pencil edits begins by entering those edits. This still has the effect of getting me involved in the story before I hit the blank page, and it gives me a chance to identify things that otherwise might not be improved.

After three or four weeks of this routine, I am completely inside the book. I dream about the book. When I’m not writing, everything seems to relate to the book. I’m wide open to any material the Universe might see fit to toss my way — bits of conversation, something I read, the sight of an apartment house that’s just what I need for some scene or another — you name it.

And, of course, by being in Asia, I’m someplace where there’s lots of relevant detail. All I have to do is work daily and remain open to it, and (usually) the book will come.

4 Responses to “Writing, Asian Style”

  1. Thais Says:

    I have just discovered you. i have not read any of your books. Your infisc on finishing is very helpful. i am a bit stopped by your process on writting on a computer; i have not had good luck with this. i write long hand. i read a lot and what/how i write i have not come across but it does interest me. You said write what is intesting to you. Am i only writing for myself or are there people that would be interested? Thanking you in advance for any comment you may have. ~Thais~

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, there —

    Thanks for the comment. It’s nice to know someone is finding this material useful.

    I write with a computer for two reasons: 1) I can’t read my handwriting. 2) I revise constantly as I write — I’m forever going up and fixing something in the paragraph above, or a couple of pages back, and that’s hard to do in longhand.

    As to whether what you’re writing about will be interesting to anyone else, I have no way of knowing — but it’s absolutely certain that you will NOT interest anyone else if what you write doesn’t interest you. You’re exactly right to be writing something that interests (or better still, fascinates) you. Part of the challenge of writing is doing it in a way that includes the reader in the process. It’s one thing to stand in a corner and mumble about something that interests you, and another to lean across a campfire (figuratively speaking, of course) and TELL someone about what interests you, working to make sure it interests him or her, too.

    And the only way to find out whether it interests other people is to write it and get it to a point where you can show it to people you trust. And then listen to what they say and, if necessary, rewrite it.


  3. Brynne Sissom Says:

    Hello Mr. Hallinan,

    Just yesterday Ms. Carol Okstel shared your site and latest title with me. I scrambled to the library and found the 4th Watcher…this is good because tomorrow I will be at work where I can read for a good long while.
    Ms.Okstel and I are on the same page as regards consciousness and the development of economic systems that allow for everyone to prosper…ridding the earth of the abject poverty the wealthy seem to ignore.

    I too, am writing a novel, Journey to Venus; a story my granddad gave me a few years back. I am reading much in your site about the finishing part. I need the regular routine, but I wish I could print off your pieces on down from there so I could read them off-line at work tomorrow. I look forward to reading “Heart”; it was checked out at the library, but I put my name on the list to be called when it is turned in. People are reading you. You make a difference. Warmest regards—Brynne in North Texas

  4. Bereji Says:


    I just found your website when googling “how to finish a novel” (I guess that speaks for itself). 😀 Thank you for all the advice you give on that particular issue.

    I was then excited to stumble across this particular blog post here because I’m also Western and temporarily in SEA (Vietnam), writing on a novel. I realize that your post is quite old but it’s still nice to read about your writing experiences here, experiences I can relate to. While I’m technically not in SEA to work on my novel but to work in the legal profession, I try to write as much as possible in my free time. And sometimes I find it difficult to write in this more chaotic and unfamiliar environment. So thank you for reminding me of the positives and the potential of my current environment!

    Warm regards from Hanoi!

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