Saturday, March 24, 2012

Guest Author Timothy Hallinan

One of the great pleasures I discovered on becoming a published author were all the other great authors out there I get to meet. And not just because they are terrific writers, but because they are also really great people. One of those is my guest here today, Tim Hallinan.

Tim's done a lot. He's got three series out there. The Poke Rafferty series, and in fact, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth Poke Rafferty thriller, was nominated for two major awards, the Edgar and the Macavity. He also writes the Simeon Grist Mysteries and the Junior Bender Mysteries. Not only that, but he's also got some short stories up his sleeve with a contribution to BANGKOK NOIR, a collection of stories set in the Big Mango – written by some remarkable storytellers, and for a great cause—taking care of Bangkok's poorest children. And finally, moved by the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, Tim gathered mystery authors--including yours truly--to write Japan-themed original short stories for an ebook collection called SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, with all proceeds--including those collected by Amazon.com, truly unprecedented--going to Japan Earthquake relief.

His newest Poke Rafferty book, THE FEAR ARTIST, will be on its way to bookstores in July. But today, Tim is talking about playing with his words.

AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE WORD

by Timothy Hallinan


How come what I do for a living isn't called playing?

I've always been envious of professional athletes and musicians. When they show up for work, they're turning up to play. Me, when my wife asks me what I'm going to do all day, I say, “Work.”

Okay, I know it's just a word. I know that the pitcher who's just tossed three home-run pitches, or the defensive lineman who spends all Sunday colliding with guys the size of pre-fab houses, doesn't feel like he's frolicking. I've seen how deeply Venus Williams feels a loss. It's real, not just—well, play.

But the word “play” means something, and it's something I need to make a conscious effort to integrate into my writing. Of course, writing is, on at least one level, playing—it's playing make-believe. It's also play in that it involves daydreaming; imaginary friends; fantasies of love, adventure, and getting even; and, of course, wordplay.

And it's a unique form of play, because—if you imagine it as a board game—we're allowed to invent the entire board, one square at a time. No Park Place and Baltic Avenues for us: we've got an unlimited GPS. For that matter, we can make up the rules, within reason, and change them at will, also within reason. (Learning what comprises “within reason” was one of the most exciting things about writing for me, almost as exciting as realizing that I can occasionally move that boundary, as I become more accomplished.) And it's also play in another way: You get better at it by doing it.

I shouldn't even have to remind myself of all this. Who else in the world is as privileged as writers, composers, and artists? Who else is permitted daily to be at the moment of creation? Who but a writer gets to uncover whole segments of story, one word at a time, like using a soft brush to clear the sand from the spine of some long-buried beast? Who else experiences the thrill of realizing that a character has chewed through her leash and lit out in her own chosen direction? Who else gets to laugh out loud several times a day at jokes she didn't know she was going to make? Who else gets to leave the first footprints in the snow every single day? Who else gets to write something trivial on page five and realize on page 270 that it's absolutely essential?

On the second page of the next Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, due for release by Soho in July, a stranger dies in Poke's arms. I needed, obviously, to describe the stranger. (“What are we looking at?” is one of the questions I ask myself most frequently.) This is what I wrote:

He’s a once-tough sixty-five or so, the planes of his face softened by the passage of years, wearing a T-shirt and a photographer’s vest over cargo shorts, both soaked from the rain. The chunky garments emphasize the thirty or thirty-five extra pounds that suggest he might be American or German. His fair, wet hair, vaguely military and brush-cut, all of an inch long, is in retreat from a high, balding forehead. For some reason what draws Rafferty’s attention, as people continue to run past, is that the skin on the top of the man’s head is crimson from sunburn. It’s been raining for days, but the man is sunburned.

When I wrote that, I was on the second page. I was just warming up. I paid no attention to the fact that the man was sunburned; it was just how I saw him. Not until about 65 percent of the way through the book did I have Poke ask himself why the man was sunburned, and the answer pointed him toward an understanding of his problem—and it's a whopper of a problem.

Things like this—mysteries like this—aren't part of the experience people usually have in mind when they use the word “work.”

I'm aware that the writing session isn't always going to be mystical or exhilarating, sometimes it's a slog, when every word weighs five pounds and you have to heave it into place by hand, when at at the end of the day, it feels like you've just built a sagging, uneven, substandard wall around something that wasn't even worth walling off. But the stubborn truth is that frequently, when you go back to those slogs, you find that you managed to strike the vein anyway, that it's pretty good, or—at the very worst—that you've learned one way not to write it.

Athletes and musicians qualify to “play” for a living by hours and hours of practice, thousands upon thousands of repetitions. Some of those sessions, perhaps most of them, are probably pretty boring, drudgery, in fact. But skill comes with drill in sports and the interpretive arts; and in writing, I think that drudgery can be the path to inspiration and inspiration can power the drudgery.

And yet . . . and yet. And yet, knowing all this about my chosen life, I still have a hard time putting my seat in the chair three days out of five. There are days when I would rather safety-pin my socks into pairs than write that first word.

I'd rather do anything, at those times, than go to work. And maybe that's most of the problem. Maybe, from now on, when my wife tells me what I'm going to do, I'll say I'm going to play. The very word lightens the heart. In fact, I've just had an idea about this book I'm working on.

Pardon me. I've got to play now.

For more on Tim's books, go to his site here.

62 comments:

Chester Campbell said...

You really hit the nail on the head (or through the heart) with this one, Tim. As soon as I get finished with my taxes, I'm back to playing writer. Those little gems we pick up in retrospect make the game worthwhile. I wish I had your dedication to keep my rear in the chair. Life keeps getting in the way.

lil Gluckstern said...

Someone once told me it is better to play at your work, than to work at your play. It's a hard concept to follow, but I think all that hard practice is satisfying when Poke figures out the sunburn, or when something goes right, and the pieces fall into place. It's nice to see you here. Thank you for another fun piece, and I am impatiently awaiting The Fear Artist.

Anonymous said...

"There are days when I would rather safety-pin my socks into pairs than write that first word."

Singing my song, Tim. lol Glad, or sorry, or both, to hear it afflicts such an accomplished writer as you are.

Pat Browning

Judy D said...

You give us comfort and courage, Tim. As always, you have a wonderful way with words.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Well, thanks to all of you, and thanks to Jeri for agreeing to let me vent.

Chester, "playing writer" is exactly right. All our lives we wanted to be writers, and now we are. So why do we keep turning it into work? (And "we" definitely includes me.) How privileged can we be?

Hi, Lil -- Noel Coward said, "Work is more fun than fun," and that's the way we really ought to feel, those of us who are lucky enough to be able to do what we love. I'm revising the galleys for THE FEAR ARTIST right now, and it's much better than I feared it would be. I really need some time between reading and writing to get past the sense of failure I almost always have when I finish a book. The imagined book was so much more perfect than the actual one.

Hi, Pat, I actually take comfort from knowing that other writers go through the same things I do. Wouldn't it be awful if they didn't?

Judy, thank you for that. I need comfort and courage on a regular basis, so it's nice to extend some once in a while. And thanks also for the compliment about my writing style. Like most of us, I think, I go back and forth between thinking I'm over-writing and worrying that I'm under-writing.

Julia Buckley said...

Great point, Tim!! It's all in the attitude, and the attitude has to be cultivated on a daily basis.

Karen Emanuelson said...

Awesome, thought-provoking essay. Many thanks. I, too, understand how some days I'd rather safety pin my socks together in pairs than sit down to write. But to play with words? Another perspective all together.

Neil Plakcy said...

I love the point you made about the sunburned head, Tim. I love it when the subconscious drops in a clue like that-- and then when I find it and realize what I can do with it!

Warren Bull said...

Once in a while an author, like an athlete gets into "the zone" when the ideas come tumbling so fast its hard to write one down before the next one pops up. That is, of course, after previous hours mental sweat. Thanks for reminding me of those times.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thanks, Julia -- Attitude certainly makes a difference as we start out, and starting well can postpone (or at least delay) the day going sour. I think I underestimate the importance of attitude.

And thank you, Karen. Words are much better building blocks than anything Lego ever manufactured, so how come on some days they won't fit together? But when they do, it feels like play of the highest nature.

Neil, it's probably my favorite part of writing -- realizing that the useless piece you stuck in for color on page 31 is the key to everything. How does it happen? All I can think is that the story exists, complete and perfect, somewhere in our consciousness when we start to tell it, and our job is not to screw it up.

Ahh, Warren, the zone. There's nothing like it in the world. I think it's what hitters and fielders are describing in baseball when they talk about "seeing the ball." You get there by playing hard until it's all natural and even effortless.

FrankW said...

Tim: Your comment about working musicians is gloriously perceptive. When I was one such it came as a complete surprise to discover that while the contract guys (like me) did endless practice; the stars did not. They collected the big bucks, not us. Are there parallels in your view of the scribbly world?

Sandra Parshall said...

Wonderful post, Tim. I always dread starting a new book -- what is that all-important first sentence going to look like as it rolls out on the screen? -- and the first draft fells like trying to pull teeth with tweezers, but after that it's all play. And a lot like cooking too. I have this big unsightly lump of story (which no one but me will ever see), and I get to knead it into shape, toss in a few raisins here, some nuts there (mysteries need nuts, after all), and watch it turn into something pretty and fresh.

After the first draft, writing is more fun than any sport could be, and I don't get pushed around and bruised while I'm doing it.

Thanks for joining us this weekend!

Timothy Hallinan said...

Frank, I don't know. It seems to me that all the writers I know (and read) write the best book they can every time out, as opposed to just sort of getting up and taking a slap at it on the basis of personality or razzle-dazzle as some stars sometimes due. Maybe it's just the nature of a book -- it's a marathon rather than a sprint, and you have to do it day after day, and sooner or later you run out of tricks and glibness, and you have to start working from someplace that matters to you or you'll never finish. So I think there are very few novelists who can get away with doing it on a flash level, as opposed to trying for something real and substantial. That's a really good question, and I'm not sure I answered it.

Sandra, you and I are opposites. I love NOTHING more than beginning a book -- at that point, it's perfect, and I haven't made any mistakes yet. Things get much rougher for me about a third of the way in and stay that way until the last 20% or so, when I suddenly have an idea where I'm going. And I also prefer drafting -- the first draft, actually -- to rewrite. I revise endlessly while I'm writing, but once I've gotten to the end I rarely do much large-scale revision. The idea is not so fresh to me by then, and I'm usually itching to start something else. I'd love to be on a panel sometime with you and other writers who work differently from each other, and talk about it.

And thanks to Jeri and you and all the other deadly daughters for letting me barge in.

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