By Tim Hallinan
Nothing about writing a book is classified information. There are no secrets of the trade. Writers, like most other artists, are only too happy to share whatever they think they've learned about wrestling a ream of paper and ten miles' worth of unalphabetized words into a novel. I don't know a single writer who hasn't benefited from the example, experience, and direct advice of other writers.
And there's a reason we're constantly turning to each other for help. Writing, while it absolutely requires skill and a certain amount of possibly misplaced confidence, is essentially an amateur's profession. Colleges and universities don't offer a D.TF, a doctorate in thriller fiction. Young writers don't make rounds at huge literary institutions the way young doctors do in hospitals. They don't clerk for judges or work their way toward partnership and a corner office the way young lawyers do.
By the standards of most “real” professions, writers are lifelong duffers. Not only do we lack degrees; not only have we not been seasoned by rigorous apprenticeships; not only do we lack confidence-building initials following our names; but also, we're reduced to first grade, most of us, whenever we begin a book. Every time we stare into the vast and bottomless gap between an idea and a blank page, we're six years old.
We're amateurs. When you see us get up and talk in bookstores, looking so confident, so—authorial—just remember that 90% of the time we have no idea what we're doing. And if you want to see us fall apart, simply wait for the second or third question, which is invariably, “Where do you get your ideas?” What you'll hear is the kind of cloud language a member of the House of Representatives who secretly wants to protect his NRA rating will use to explain why he or she is voting against gun control. It will be mostly grammatical, but meaningless.
That's because the real answer, for most of us, is that it isn't actually the idea that matters, it's what we do with it. How, in other words, we take that riveting notion about a murder on a cruise ship filled with identical twins and, you know, turn it into a book.
Plotting, there's the rub. And that ever-present challenge, plus the basic generosity of writers toward other writers, is the reason there's a book called Making Story: Twenty-One Writers on How They Plot, which is practically an MIE project, since it includes (alphabetically) Cara Black, Lisa Brackmann, Leighton Gage, Jeffrey Siger, Yrsa Sigðardóttir, and little me.
In it, we simply tell the reader how we go about plotting our books. It's not always a pretty picture. Leighton frankly credits alcohol. Cara likens it to Playdough, Lisa to juggling a bowling ball, a flaming torch, and a chainsaw. I say simply that I have no idea how I do it. Jeff starts with an epiphany and goes to a tiny notebook. Yrsa is perhaps the most helpful of us to me personally, because she does everything I ought to. (Every writer on this blog would probably choose a different “most helpful” essay.)
The book is also fun to read, if I do say so myself. And here's the news flash: it's FREE for the Kindle right now, and will remain free through Tuesday the 16th. To get it, you just go here and say, “Gimme,” and it will be yours.
By the way, there's also a lovely paperback edition available all over the place, but it's not free. One way or the other, if you want to know what we do when you're not around, go get one.
Sunday -- Tim
Sunday -- Tim