Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Tiptoe

I'm going to pontificate.

“Write what you know,” right?

Absolutely, if you want to write boring stuff.

I think “Write what you know” is one of the worst pieces of advice you can give an aspiring writer. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers. Every decade brings its crop of young novelists whose books sound like they all grew up on the same block and took the same drugs. Their authors wrote what they knew, and guess what? In this highly interconnected world, they all knew the same things. And a few years later, nobody cares much about those things.

Okay, I think we should start with what we know. Learn how to structure a novel or a story with material that's familiar, easy to write about. Everyone who's not David Mitchell should write at least one, and probably two or three, drawer books – books that will be finished, read proudly once or twice, and then buried forever in the bottom of a drawer. My first drawer book was called The Wrong End of the Rainbow, and that was the best thing about it. But, boy, was it about things I knew.

And it taught me a lot about what a novel is.

By the time I'd written my second book, which was also all about things I knew, I realized that I was never going to get any better, and that I was going to get very bored with writing, unless I started writing about things I didn't know – things I had to imagine. Kinds of people who'd never intruded into my safe, middle-class world. Opinions, biases, outright bigotry I never could share in a million years, around which whole world views had been built. New places, where basic assumptions are different, where the conventional wisdom we honor here is almost unrecognizable.

I think that once we've gained a sense of how a novel or a story works by writing about what we know – stuff we're comfortable with emotionally or geographically or behaviorally – then we need  to get up on tiptoe. Ransack  the imagination for things we really have to stretch to reach. It's harder, and there's probably a bigger chance that we'll fail, but we'll be getting an aerobic workout and hoisting free weights at the same time.  We're going to get stronger faster. We'll probably be able to handle more things, harder things, new kinds of situations and characters. New kinds of language, too, if we also stretch our prose.

Like many thriller writers, I started with the bad guys. Bad guys are the opera of thrillers; they have the most extravagant personalities, they do the most out-of-the-ordinary things. The goal I set for myself in my first few published books was to come up with bad guys (they were mostly guys) I had never read before, who had a sufficiently strong gravitational field to curve the world of the book around them.

Los Angeles got too comfortable, so I decided to write about another culture, complete with another language and a radically different perspective on life. The four Bangkok thrillers have made me work on tiptoe every inch of the way, just trying to keep the Thai characters true. (I have a couple of helpful Thai readers who point out the most egregious errors.) And the moral climate of Bangkok, which is unusually rich in gray areas, was also a rewarding stretch. I think seeing the world in black-and-white is a luxury of the well-fed, so it's energizing to explore the spaces in between “good” and “evil.”

My point here isn't that I'm cool or that I'm a particularly good writer. It's just that I'm handling material now that I wouldn't have dreamed of touching eight or ten years ago, and it's because I made a conscious decision to write on tiptoe. Everyone has read series that went stale, that turned into dioramas of familiar characters and settings. The writers of those books weren't stretching themselves. They were writing what they knew. It's the quickest way I know to mummify your writing.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. Tim,

    I couldn't agree with you more, on every level--though I would like some more room back for socks in my drawer.

    I passed your (and Leighton's) regards on to Ed at M is For Mystery. We also picked out a spot for the simply inscribed plaque "Selected as a National Treasure by Tim Hallinan." He thanks you.

  2. Spot on!

    In one of my Danish manuscripts I made the ginormous mistake of making the protagonist a bit like me - small wonder no publisher wants her, she is soooo boring! Not that I mind my own, quiet reading & writing life, but read about it? Nope.

  3. My bottom of the drawer mystery is about Baltimore, where I lived at the time. Maybe not boring, but really Dull. And Derivative. And Dust-covered. I can't remember now why I set the next in Morocco, but I had a blast learning about Morocco and Moroccan culture. I even have a couple of first-rate Moroccan recipes. It's not dull or derivative, and I hope it won't end up dust-covered, but the current work is set in Dubai, and THAT place is seriously unreal.

    You should mention the fun it is to go somewhere outside your comfort zone.

  4. Hi, Jeffrey - but socks don't teach you how to write and bad manuscripts do. The most valuable lesson in learning how to write a decent book is to write a bad one.

    Dorte -- see? You're halfway there. I doubt that your protagonist is as boring as you think she is, but there have been lots and lots of quiet, bookish thriller heroines and heroes. In fact, I think those are great qualifications for someone who's going to get dropped into an ocean full of great whites that's already been liberally chummed with fish parts and blood. Much more interesting to me than someone who's already got super powers.

    Hi, Marilynn -- writing outside the comfort zone is fun (to me) in the same way roller coasters are. Moments of exhilaration in between screams of terror. And brave you, setting a book in Dubai. Talk about working on tiptoe.

  5. Last weekend, I found myself pondering what to write for my daily writing practice and, coming away empty-handed (or empty-headed), decided to indulge in a self-pitying rant about the woes of being an unknown, unpublished and uninspired writer. The first sentence of the second paragraph goes as follows: "One of the worst pieces of advice I have ever received with regards to writing is: write what you know." How uncanny for me to head over to this blog just a couple of days later and realize that my private thought was echoed in your latest entry! The things I know are, for the most part, the very same things I do every single day of my life, so why on earth would I want to relive them through my writings in a kind of self-imposed Groundhog Day? Thank you so much, Tim, for confirming something that I have suspected for a long time, yet never dared express outloud (or out of the safe confines of my own private ramblings)!