Tuesday, December 6, 2011

So Happy to Host Tim Hallinan Today!

Stone Walls

Once in a very great while, which is to say three or four times per book, I find myself facing a stone wall.

Now, there are several kinds of stone walls. Some are only a few feet high, and can be vaulted with a middling leap of imagination. Some are considerably higher but have possible hand- and foot-holds that might get you up and down again with your neck and your self-regard unbroken. These usually seem to be a prompt for a methodical review of where I am in the manuscript, and how (and why) I got there. Often, the process of going through the story, up to the point where I hit the wall, will tell me where I went wrong and/or what direction to pursue next.

And then there are the stone walls that are polished smooth as glass and stretch into the clouds. Like the one I'm facing right now.

These walls often require something I almost never recommend to anyone. They require that I quit writing.

It's probably obvious by this point, but maybe I should have started this piece by telling you that I write by the seat of my pants. Since I think that plot is what characters do I discover my story by following my characters. There is much to recommend this method, but security isn't one of them.

When that stone wall looms and the process collapses, so do forward momentum and confidence, and I have the dizzying sensation of a first-time rope walker when they decide, far below, to take down the safety net.

I think anyone who wants to write a book should work seven, or—at the very least—six days a week. I have dozens of reasons for this, but the one that's probably most relevant here is that it keeps the world of the book tended, irrigated, and ready to welcome you back. Annie Dillard once compared writing a book with taming a lion; the longer you stay out of the cage, the more dangerous it is to go back in.

But when the smooth, apparently infinitely high stone wall looms in front of me, it's usually time for me to get away from the book, long enough to develop a 20,000-foot view.

I find most of the time that the worst wall is telling me I have a potentially lethal disconnect, which is to say that the book as it's written is incompatible with the unwritten portion, as I'm imagining it. In other words, there's a breakdown of character or logic or both. And the only way I know to find my way through the wall—since there's no going over it—is to take a last long look at the story thus far, and then close the computer.

Just live my life. Be aware when something that happens, or something that someone says, nudges me and says, “bookbookbook,” because that's a little gleam of light. I write down whatever it was and then whatever is triggered by the act of writing it down, and then I close the notebook and move on. Sometimes, I'll talk about the problem very broadly to a sympathetic listener. This can be very valuable—not so much because of what the listener says, but because I get to hear myself stating the issue. Sometimes, the solution presents itself instantly, either whole or in pieces.

If I do these things, sooner or later—most of the time—a new path will open, and it usually involves reconceiving where I'd thought the book was going. This can be disorienting, but in the end, it's a lot easier to reconsider an as-yet-unwritten portion of the book than it is to toss the written part. And I know, because I've done both.

So the message I hope I'm conveying is that stone walls are actually a prompt. Depending on which one you hit, you need to make a minor imaginative adjustment, or review your story in detail to figure out what's gone wrong, or pull out of the whole thing for a while, keeping your mind wide open to whatever the universe throws your way or whatever emerges, waving a tiny white flag, while you're describing the problem to someone.

And once you're over the obstacle—or through it if it was one of those—write like there's no tomorrow, and with the awareness that you've hit (and managed to overcome) a stone wall.


Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the traditionally-published Poke Rafferty series of Bangkok thrillers, the most recent of which is The Queen of Patpong, and the Junior Bender Los Angeles mysteries, which are ebook originals. The most recent Junior Bender adventure is Little Elvises. Earlier this year Hallinan conceived and edited an ebook of original short stories by twenty top-ranked mystery writers, Shaken: Stories for Japan, which is available from Amazon for $3.99. He lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia and is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy. His website is www.timothyhallinan.com, and the largest area of it is devoted to helping writers finish their first novel.


Alice Duncan said...

Thanks for joining me today, Tim!

Anonymous said...

Tim's take on writing (all of them) is always fascinating -- and helpful. Thanks to you both for this blog.
Pat Browning

Mike Orenduff said...

I love the analogy with lion taming, and I agree that you have to write as often as possible to stay in a book. When I do that, I can't wait to get back to writing; the story doesn't leave me just because I'm not writing.

I start a book knowing only who is murdered, why, and one clue. I don't have an outline or even a plot, just a victim, a reason, and a clue. Some people say I don't have a clue, but they mean that in another sense. Anyway, the clue can change, the reason for the murder can change, and the victim can change. I need them to get started, but I'm not hesitant to throw them out if it helps me with one of those walls Tim describes so well. I always learn from his posts.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Tim, that was great. And I agree about staying with the book as often as possible--at my age I forget too much if I'm not writing nearly every day.


Everett Kaser said...

As I was reading this piece, I couldn't help it, Jim Croce's "...stone walls do a prison make..." kept running through my mind. :-)

I find that programming is much the same: I have to work on it 6-7 days a week in order to keep the whole thing in my mind and to keep my forward momentum going... somewhere.

jenny milchman said...

Had to climb a few stone walls lately, Tim--on a forthcoming book. It seems it's even harder if you thought you skirted all the walls--and then you have to climb them in reverse.

To torture your metaphor a bit ;)

Sheri Hart said...

Thanks for this Tim. You always have the best advice.

Your advice in your "Finish Your Book" posts to write ABOUT the book if you get stuck helped drive me through nanowrimo to the tune of 72K words.

Thanks for participating in this tour and introducing me to some new authors.

Alice Duncan said...

Hmm. I'm still contemplating my mountain, Tim. I know, I know. You've given me sound advice. Maybe one of these days, I'll take it ;-)

john M. Daniel said...

Fine post, Tim. "Something there is that does not love a wall." We all bump our noses on such walls, and you've given us some good ways to deal with the obstacles.

WS Gager said...

Tim: Instead of climbing the wall, I often feel like I've fallen off the top of the wall into a dark abyss where no light can penetrate. It's the same problem, I'm just afraid of heights.
W.S. Gager on Writing

Anonymous said...

Love the post, Tim, with great advice. I find days where walls vanish before me, others where they rise high into the sky. I guess we all know which days are the most fun.

M.M. Gornell said...

Really liked your post, Timothy. And I especially like the sentiment that a stone wall is a prompt. And thinking back, you're right-on.


Anonymous said...

I have not been writing 6-7 days a week & I think you are right about the need to do it. Thanks! I'm going to have to read those "finish your book" posts too.


Jackie King said...

I found today's post very helpful. Just when I needed it.

Anne K Albert said...

Tim, our writing styles are indeed very similar. Like you, I've learned when it's impossible to get around, over or under the wall without getting too bloody, the best path is to stop writing.

It may take a day or even a week of non-writing, but eventually I come to realize where the disconnect took place. Going back to correct it, is the only way I can move forward in the book.

Great post!

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi, all --

Please forgive the very late rsponse. I was on the road all day today, for the second day in a row and am now in beautiful Fort Bragg, California, redwood country.

Alice: My pleasure.

Pat: You're too nice, to me, anyway. Maybe you take it out on other people. (That's a joke.)

Mike: I'm with you, except that I don't usually know who did it, and sometimes I don't even know whom it was done to. In the book I'm writing now, the person I thought was going to be the main non-continuing character is suddenly starting to look like the victim. And it's very kind of you to say you learn from my posts, because it works both ways.

Marilyn, thanks, and I'm in total agreement. Books need daily watering and pruning.

Everett, Haruki Murakami's wonderful book WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING has a metaphor I like --all longterm prokects require the doer to get a sort of flywheel spinning in his/her chest. The hardest part is to overcome inertia and get it spinning; after that, all you have to do is keep it spinning with a little daily work. But if you let it run down, you've got to get all that momentum back.

Jenny, you'll get through (or over) those walls. You're a fine writer. But that doesn't make them any less daunting when you're facing one.

Sheri, thank YOU. If I offer good advice, it's because I've made every mistake a writer can make and then had to dig my way out. Congratulations on making it through Nanowrimo!!!

Hi, John, and thanks. But when your students hit one, I'll bet they all think it's the end of the world, don't they? Mine always did.

Wendy, I'm with you. I prefer the deep abyss to the top of the wall. At the bottom of the deep abyss, you can persuade yourself (usually erroneously) that you can't fall any further.

C.K., you're right about which days are the most fun, but (in my experience) those aren't always the days we do the best writing. And that keeps me going through the worst days.

Anonymous Brenda, daily writing isn't the easiest routine to schedule, but it is ABSOLUTELY the best way to write, at least if you're me.

Jackie, thanks so much -- you post on my blog -- the last of the tour -- taught me a lot, too.

Anne, for me that was a hard-learned lesson. I always think I can bull my way through things, but there are times when I just have to shut up, go still, and let the less directive areas of my mind play with a problem for a while.