Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tim Hallinan's Writing Resolutions

The following Writing Resolutions were written by Timothy Hallinan, author of a series of Bangkok thrillers featuring an expatriate travel writer named Poke Rafferty and published by William Morrow. The most recent was THE FOURTH WATCHER. Coming next, in August, is BREATHING WATER, which Adrian McKinty has called "Another masterpiece of crime fiction from Hallinan." Tim bides his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, where he is now hard at work on his next book. I thought these worthy of repeating for those who (like me) call themselves writers.

Writing Resolutions

Okay, I know that resolutions are made primarily for the brief flush of accomplishment that always accompanies good intentions, however remote the possibility of their being carried out. I make a new set every New Year and watch them recede behind me, forlorn and abandoned, by the middle of January. But I made the resolutions that follow in August of last year, and I'm still following most of them most of the time. And, for me, they work, which is to say that pages actually do emerge from wherever they come from, and pile up on my desk in an extremely satisfying fashion. And I also find that keeping these resolutions active does two important things: It actually makes me write a little better, if only because it keeps the world of my book open to me from day to day, and it reduces the anxiety that (for me, at least) always accompanies creative work.

So here are my August 2008 writing resolutions. I promised myself that I would:

1. Write daily, and by that I mean seven days a week. I will take a day off only when it’s absolutely unavoidable and never, under any circumstances, take two days off in a row.

2. Read widely, not just the kinds of books I write, but classics, science, history, biography, poetry, drama — remembering, as Nero Wolfe says, “The more you put into a brain, the more it can hold.”

3. Live consciously, remembering that everything in the world, even the things that are most unpleasant (and maybe especially those things) are all material.

4. Take chances every time I write. Try to write things I haven’t written before and don’t know how to write. Take myself off the map of the familiar.

5. Avoid glibness and try instead to bring the words from the heart. Remember that clever isn’t the same thing as smart.

6. Follow my characters rather than trying to push them around like chess pieces. Remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to jam them into.

7. Remember that the book I eventually write will not be the book I thought I was going to write. Have the courage to take off in new directions as they present themselves, and to discover, as you do when you travel, that it's possible to get on the wrong bus and then discover it's the right bus after all.

8. Be grateful that I’m allowed to take part in this internal miracle, in which whole worlds appear inside my head, usually one vivid glimpse or one turn of phrase at a time, and I have the freedom to chase them down and try to get them on the page.

9. Be open to criticism from my circle of first readers, without getting defensive; remember, if nobody likes it, it’s just barely possible that there’s something I didn’t get on the page.

10. Write hot, edit cold: when I am writing, keep the thermostat on high; be open, fecund, and grateful for everything that comes through. Rewrite only when something obviously better presents itself. When I am editing, be cold, assessing, and gimlet-eyed, willing to sacrifice even the most precious of my babies in the cause of the book’s greater good.

I could easily list ten more, but ten is the tradition. So I'll add an eleventh in the guise of a closing paragraph. In the first chapter of his new memoir, What I Think About When I Think About Running, the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami quotes a marathon runner as saying, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I need to keep that in mind whenever I write.

What that means to me is that there are going to be times when writing hurts: when the words won't come, when the story seems to end in a blind alley, when your characters all turn into people so awful that you would come back from the dead just to prevent them from attending your funeral. All of that is inevitable. What's optional is internalizing that, handing it to the writing demons so they can make me doubt my idea, my characters, my talent. The trick to writing (for me, at least) is the same as the trick for running: keep going anyway. The pain may be there, but I can run (or write) through it as long as I don't turn it into suffering.

And get the next word on the page, which is all that really matters.

Thanks for that sage advice, Tim. And just to show that I have followed it somewhat, here's a link to the opening chapters of my new book, The Surest Poison.


Anonymous said...

Those are excellent suggestions.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

These resolutions are filled with great advice. Thanks for sharing them.

Jane Kennedy Sutton
Author of The Ride

Chester Campbell said...

Brooke and Jane, I agree. Now if I can just convince myself to follow them.