Painting the Kitchen

May 10th, 2011

A few weeks ago I got a note from a very good writer, one who sells a lot more copies than I do.

She was stuck in her current book and wanted an opinion, so she asked me to read the first 15 chapters of the novel she’d been working on for months and months and couldn’t move forward.

I said yes because I know her work and admire it, but what with my own commitments and post-non-Edgar fallout, it took me two weeks to get around to it.  In that time she sent me a possible prologue, a new possible prologue, two new drafts that polished those same fifteen chapters, and then — as I started to read — another, more polished, draft.

When I read the chapters I found them, as you might expect, quite polished.  But they were also very, very good: the track of the story had been laid down skilfully, the characters were lively and interesting, the sense of place was vivid.  The writing walked that fine line between being good and too good — the too good that pulls the reader out of the story and makes him or her think about the writing.  No showoff writing, in other words, but some stuff that was really out of the ordinary.

In short, the whole thing worked.  And she was having trouble moving it forward so instead she was making these chapters, which she’d had for some time, better.

I wrote back, “It seems to me that you’re painting the kitchen a third and fourth color when what you probably need to do is build the bedroom.”  The point being, at some point it’s more important to get more down than it is to improve what you’ve got.  I know a lot of writers (including myself) who,  having no idea where to take the book next, put hours into polishing what’s already there.

And it’s a trap.  It FEELS like writing but it’s actually an avoidance activity.  You know what?  When you’ve got the whole story down, those scenes are going to need to be revised anyway, just to make them consistent with the book’s total arc.

There are times, in other words, when the only thing that matters is moving the story forward.  Even if it’s bad.  You can make it better later, but you can’t improve what you haven’t got. You’re never going to find the perfect curtains for the bedroom if you haven’t built the damn bedroom.

I find I do this same thing in my approach to life, at least that minute portion of my life that’s not spent writing.  On the verge of taking a step into something new and somewhat unknown, I get obsessively analytical.  Some of this — much of it — is just anxiety frittering itself out, delaying the moment when I’ll have to live with a decision. Since I seem to be stuck with this interior decorating metaphor, I’m waxing the floor before I lay the carpet.

Do you do this, or are she and I alone in the world?  And if you do anything similar, what is it?  And how do you get past it?

Oh, the writer sent me an e-mail thanking me, so I guess we’re still friends.

25 Responses to “Painting the Kitchen”

  1. Pat Browning Says:

    Paralysis by analysis — I know it well. I once tried to do the Novel in a Month thing that comes around every year but I could never find the box where I was supposed to post my day’s total number of words.

    And I’m so easily distracted — oh, look, my Oriental Lilies are about to bloom!

    Meanwhile — oh heck, I could be working on my book. Good post, Tim. Thanks for the reminder.

    Pat Browning

  2. EverettK Says:

    Oh, yes, I think most activities share some similarity to what you describe.

    My gig is programming, and in the “creation process” (thinking up ideas, refining them, defining them and defecating them) there usually comes a moment when you THINK the concept might work, but you’re not sure, and you could spend weeks or months playing with the idea on paper and still not be completely sure, and until the idea meets the computer display, you’re just spinning your wheels. Eventually, you have to make that leap and just start TYPING and TYPING and TYPING until you have something you can compile and debug and run and SEE on the screen… and all of a sudden it comes to life and everything starts to fall together and you start to see things you hadn’t even thought of until you got that initial foundation laid down, and sometimes the house you build on that foundation is exactly what you dreamed of, and sometimes it’s an entirely different building, and on rare occasions it’s a house of horrors.

    But you can’t pore the foundation for one wall, build that wall, then pore another wall’s foundation and build that wall, and…

    I find that I almost always reach a point where I just have to TRUST that whatever foundation I pore, I’ll be able to adjust “on the fly” and end up with a habitable home.

    It’s just that there’s a FEAR, you see, that you’ll put ALL that work in, and then it won’t pan out, and you’ll have wasted time, and energy, and brain waves, and lifetime, and…

    Fear is the mind-killer. Trust, believe in yourself, persevere, and when that little fear monster raises it’s skanky little head, shoot the f*cker, drive over it’s dead body with a Sherman tank, fart in what’s left of it’s face, kick a little dirt over what remains, and then get back to doing what you sat down to do!

    Yes, some of what you’ll do will be wasted effort (or so it will seem). But NO effort is wasted, for it carries you forward. You can rarely get to the end of the rainbow by walking in a straight line.

    Okay, that’s my month’s quota of metaphors.

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    It’s funny that you write about this. I just was committed to writing a review, and I kept nattering about how to do it, without giving too much away. Finally, I just said to myself, “Sit down and write it, it will come.” And it did. Some is just nattering, but some of it is rehearsal. When I have to do reports and stuff, I will “cook” it in the car or while eating dinner, and eventually it would come together. But sooner or later, you do have to build the bedroom-I like your metaphor.

  4. Sylvia Says:

    “It seems to me that you’re painting the kitchen a third and fourth color when what you probably need to do is build the bedroom.”

    I *love* this. And it was true for me in the revision process too (how many times can I move a comma rather than move onto the next scene which actually has a structural problem).

    It’s recognising that I am doing it that’s the real problem. And then once I spot that and move on, it’s the realisation that I have *no idea* how to fix the actual problem. So that’s a bit of an issue.

  5. micael hallinan Says:

    Painters often suffer from painter’s block. I teach my students a system or methodology that deals almost exclusively with the technical side of painting. The idea being that even when the muse fails you the system wont; for example, blue and yellow will always make green.Its something you can count on. Although your painting may not be an emotional success it will be successful on a technical level. And most days I even believe this. However there are days when nothing goes right on either level but you perservere because that is what is what you do. You are after all an artist. This leads me to the piece of shit I’ve been working on the last six days-destined for the dumpster. That happens too. I guess those are the rehearsals that were mentioned earlier. All I know for sure is that when you quit on a piece the only thing you learn is that quiting is easy.

  6. Pat Browning Says:


    What a helpful post and helpful comments! I like Everett’s quote: “Fear is the mind-killer.” Who wants to admit being afraid, but who isn’t?

    And I like Sylvia’s comment: — “How many times can I move a comma rather than move onto the next scene which actually has a structural problem … ”

    She puts her finger on the sticking point in my WIP. I just unstuck it by eliminating an entire mid-point chapter that I couldn’t seem to write and couldn’t seem to get past. In fact, I don’t even need it. The characters, which I want to keep, can be slipped into another chapter with a few lines and I’ll get the same result — which has to do with what happens to the protagonist, not what happens to a couple of very nice walk-on characters.

    Sheesh — it seems so simple when you know what you’re doing. (:

    Many thanks for this discussion.

    Pat Browning

  7. Laren Bright Says:

    No real writer ever does this. You are obviously broken. Real writers sharpen pencils (even though they write on a computer) straighten the desk, and gaze out the window, a known method for attracting inspiration. And, of course, there are always important emails to read and respond to, and we especially need to know the latest on male enhancement.

    So, no Tim, you’re the only one.

  8. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Tim – This blog is so timely for me. I’m working on a chamber orchestra piece. This a different ball game from writing chamber music for small ensembles – the possibilities for orchestra are virtually limitless and there is a need to justify the use of all the instruments, not to mention a very intimidating legacy of how they’ve been used. I’ve written plenty of orchestral music in the past but it’s been a while and I have new standards for myself since the recent premiers of chamber music this spring.

    In this new endeavor, I started with many writing sessions coming up with adequate craft that was completely lacking that je ne sais quoi. I had to keep kicking myself in the butt while continuing to write uninspired, passionless stuff until, finally, very recently I started to get a feel for the ensemble and began to come up with some decent ideas…so it is clear, since the material keeps getting better, that I should continue to move forward and create new sections of music. However, it’s more comfortable to, as you said, go back and tweak the stuff I like – it’s a combination of wallowing in it and doing some improving and re-orchestrating. So reading your advice and seeing the universality of it in the creative process to it is very helpful – Thank you!

  9. Gary Says:


    I’ve been avoidancing all my life. Still don’t know how I ever got anything done.

    Absolutely spot on, Tim. But much too hard to follow. (So now I’ve retired rather than face the problem.)

  10. Usman Says:

    Thanks for this post, Tim. I’m just back from Bangkok so missed out on the others.
    First, thanks to you, (you’d never guess what an inspiration you are) I’ve started writing again.
    Last night, stuck with my new novel, I decided to start a different POV to get the story moving. Don’t know if it’ll be any help in moving the story, at least it has me thinking. I conceived the character from my BKK hotel, and there is a story behind it, but not the time to tell.

    Also wanted to notify you, I have restarted Dilbar, again thanks to you.
    Now if only I could get the house completed for once.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Pat — All those mechanisms — distraction, obsessive rewrite, the sudden vital importance of checking the renewal date on the dog’s license — are all fear playing itself out, just the mind trying to figure out how not to open the door that might have a lion behind it. I know this because I go through it daily. I’m going through it right now. And as many times as I’ve gone through it, and as deeply as I know that the only thing to do is open the damn door, it still feels real to me. And today, I’ll open the door even if, once I go through it, I head in the wrong direction. Because I don’t have any choice.

    Everett, I’ll match you metaphor for metaphor, my man. I agree witcha completely, especially with the point that the house you end up with is often (in my case, almost never) the one you set out to build. And I agree about building regardless of the fear and MOST OF ALL, I agree with you that no effort is ever wasted. Even terrible writing (or programming) teaches you something, even if it’s only one way not to approach that problem. It WILL move you closer to a solution than not writing, and that’s from my lips to God’s ears with no fear He’ll/She’ll contradict me.

    Hi, Lil — I think you’re right – it’s all process as long as you’re not doing whatever you’re doing in order to avoid engaging the issue. Writers write in their heads all the time; I’ve had so many ideas driving that I carry a micro-cassette recorder (Munyin’s idea) and what I need most is a waterproof recorder I can use in the shower. A lot of the time, I think we work around an idea while we’re puttering, even sometimes (memorably for me in BREATHING WATER) while we’re asleep. I woke up at 3 AM with the solution to the book’s big problem. But you know what? I wouldn’t have dreamed that if I hadn’t been working on the book six hours a day.

    Sylvia, for me having no idea how to solve the actual problem is pretty much a constant state. And, like you, I sometimes move commas around when I should be solving a structural problem, or even creating a structure that has a problem to solve. So I do what I always do: I dither, I practice work-avoidance for a few hours, until I get anxiety cramps, and then I choose music, sit down, and start swinging. I sometimes think I’m the sole member of the Pinata School of Writing — I have no idea where the damn thing is, and I can’t see it, but if I don’t keep swinging I’ll never find it. And every time I swing and miss, I’ve learned one more place it isn’t.

    But we’re leaving out character in this discussion. Much of the time, maybe even most of the time, if we’ve hit a brick wall it’s because we’ve turned our characters into hand puppets, and we need to listen to them – not just the protagonist, but also the protagonist’s friend, that interesting person who popped up in the liquor-store scene, and (most of all) the antagonist, if your book has one.

    miceal, I always love your and Stephen’s reactions because they come from different disciplines, where words aren’t the problem. And still, every word you say could be applied to the writing process, especially the idea of technique being something we can rely on, something that’s always there, something that sometimes leads us someplace interesting, and sometimes results in a piece of shit. One thing I think is worth mentioning is that when it leads us to something interesting and it’s not at all what we had in mind, it’s a good idea to look at that very hard because it might be what we SHOULD have had in mind.

    These are amazing responses, and I’m doing half my daily word quota in thinking out loud about them, but I have to take a break for real life now. Back in an hour.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Welcome back, Pat — great to read your comment. Now all I need is to get to that point myself sometime during today’s 4-6 hour session. As Raymond Chandler says, you need to set aside time to write. During that time you don’t actually have to write, but you can’t do anything else. Not wash the dishes, deadhead the roses, make a Costco list, fool around on the internet. Nothing.

    Laren, those e-mails are one of the real killers. One of the reasons I write so well (or, anyway, so fast) in Southeast Asia is that it’s easy to find small coffee houses where there’s no internet access. Makes a HUGE difference. Instead of doing a quick Google on, say, “use of platinum in jewelry” and winding up 90 minutes later an expert on the “liberation jewelry” Cartier made and sold under the noses of the Nazis during the German occupation — no, you can’t use that, I’m building a story around it — instead of all that, you write down “platinum” on a piece of paper and keep writing. Quelle difference!

    Stephen, how exciting. I can only imagine the amount of sheer opportunity there must be, and how paralyzing it might become. My favorite Joni Mitchell line is, “The craziness that comes with too much choice,” and that sounds like what you’re facing now. Still, just as we writers have our characters to focus on when making choices about plot, setting, style, voice, tense, etc., you have the basic musical thematic material, and maybe composing this kind of a piece is a little like finding the voice for each of your characters, which are often a mix of two or three voices we hear in our heads. I really envy you and miceal the experience of working in your media. Makes me crazy that I can’t paint or read (much less write) music. Can’t wait to hear it.

    Gary, we can meet up in Phnom Penh later this year and avoidance together. Maybe if we practice avoidancing enough we’ll get it right.

    Usman, how great to hear from you, and how much better to know that you’re writing a book and bringing Dilbar back to life. (For those of you who weren’t around for the Dickens Challenge a few years back, Dilbar is a Pakistani private eye of Usman’s creations and one of the funniest, most persuasive private eyes I’ve ever read.) This is great news. Just keep it up, and if you get lost, think about the characters: what do they want or need right now, and ehat would they do about it? And don’t forget the bad guy.

  13. munyin Says:

    Jeesh, Tim, I can’t imagine what it would be like if you could paint and read/write music. You’ve got so many books queued up to be born that if you were really prolific in these other medias you really wouldn’t have time to do anything else even if you were cloned 5 times. You’re busy enough with how in-depth you go into your characters for the new Poke book,not to mention all your other projects and the new ones that keep knocking on your door. Besides which you have always and still do appreciate art and music in a very much more informed way than many people. Be glad for your breadth and width of interest instead of “crazy” you can’t write music or paint, like Stephen or Micael. End of lecture 😀

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes, but then I wouldn’t bother you so much. You could do whatever you wanted while I painted and composed and wrote books and washed the dishes and fed the dog.

    We’re talking to each other on my BLOG? Okay, try this on: I love you.

  15. EverettK Says:

    oh, man, Igottafindanewblog. It’s just getting ICKY around here.

    Sheesh. Get a room…

  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    We’ve got a room. Some people are just jealous.

  17. John Lindquist Says:

    There’s no fiction in the kitchen
    When we’re cookin’ up the story
    How our life is just so bitchin’
    In our little dormitory.

    (Burma Shave.)

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    John —

    “Bitchin'” in a Burma-Shave sequence?

    Ixnay. You made this up. It is, however, a fine little poem, and one of suitable tattooing length. (So few are.)

    Warning: First of two blogs on the ORIGINS OF THE PLEASURE FAIR tomorrow.

  19. Usman Says:

    Well thank you Tim for the kind words, above.
    Travelling again and will be reading your blog entry tomorrow. Just reading the responses here makes me stop and rethink.

  20. Larissa Says:

    God do I do this. And I’m glad I read this post when I did and that Michael threw in his two cents-because damn I’m stuck on this painting hehe. And yes, blue and yellow still make green but I have to get out of the reassuring mixing of colors stage and figure out what to do next. It’s taken me months of “thought-painting” to get the conceptual sketches down on the canvas. And then there was this great burst of energy where I applying colors and highlights and it was working. And now we’re stuck. Again. And it’s staring at me from the living room.

    I think being trapped in the paralysis of our mind is a universal feeling to anyone who is creative. Sometimes you just have to do something really wrong just to be doing something at all. I had a teacher who said that ideas always come to a moving pencil…so I did a lot of scribbling and it always lead to something. Which is better than just sitting there frozen waiting for the “right” thing to happen.

    All this talk…I should go paint (c:

  21. Sylvia Says:

    I too love the fact that the same problems are approached from different angles. Paintings and chamber music! *swoon*

    My characters – they tend to stay in character. I mean, I know what you mean and there’s always a problem of trying to force someone to do something because it would fit the plot, but that’s one I see very quickly. But I could never write like you do, not knowing where it’s going. I have a … thing … at the moment. I don’t know how long it is and I have no idea how it ends but I know what happens next. I hate it and I’m pretty sure I’ll never finish it. It might not fizzle out completely but I’m not holding my breath. I like to know how things end. I’m trying to treat it as a writing exercise, which makes me panic less.


    Maybe I’ll go look at paintings instead.

  22. Sylvia Says:

    PS: into the final stages of the edits that I mentioned some months ago. That, at least, is no longer panicking me, other than the fact that the story will never be as good as it was in my head. But I’ve just done my last bit of research, which might make you laugh. I descended into London’s sewers:

  23. George Raven Says:

    I have found myself doing this very same thing. I have become better at pushing forward and making “finishing” the most important thing. Getting the first draft complete is crucial and I have you to thanks for that Tim, your “Finish that Novel” section is truly inspiring.

  24. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    That’s great, George, and I thank you for telling me about it. Just keep it up.

    By the way, I’m expanding that material, adding a huge amount of new stuff, and will publish it as a book, WRITING TO FINISH, sometime in the next 4-5 months. It’ll probably be an e-book, and noe expensive — maybe $2.99, maybe $3.99.

  25. George Raven Says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t do it sooner. I think that’s a great idea it’s really a wonderful resource. I’ll be picking it up, that’s for sure. Thanks again.

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