Monday, October 4, 2010

Timothy Hallinan Weighs in on Plot vs "Pantsing"

As part of an ongoing debate, I've invited Timothy Hallinan to weigh in on the Plot vs "Pantsing" issue. Timothy Hallinan has written ten published novels under his own name and half a dozen more in disguise. His books have made Ten Best lists here and abroad, been translated into half a dozen languages, received starred reviews from all the publishing trade papers, and gotten remarkably enthusiastic critical reactions all across the country. The Denver Post called his current series of Poke Rafferty thrillers set in Bangkok "Extraordinary," and Deadly Pleasures Magazine said, "The Poke Rafferty books have become my very favorite series." Hallinan is the only writer ever to write the Mystery of the Month in BookPage for three years running, and all four of the Rafferty novels have been picks in BookSense.

Thanks, Mike for allowing me to have a say.

There may be dozens of ways for writers to depict character, create settings, preserve tension, increase stakes, draw the reader in, make a story readable, but there are only two ways to plot -- in advance, or by the seat of one's pants. I'm a pantser, pure and simple. I love the exhilaration of saying, in essence, "Let me tell you a story," with no idea whatsoever what that story will be.

I need a character who interests me in a situation that has potential to become more complex as it develops. That's pretty much all I need. The rest of it -- the actual writing, the discovery of the story I'm telling -- a story that seems to present itself to me in bolts, like fabric -- that's the part I love.

I even love it when I'm completely lost, as I am right now in my current book. I know something is happening here, as Bob Dylan once wrote, but I don't know what it is. And that's fine with me. I don't want to know. When the time is right, a character will do something, a door will open, a secret will be revealed, a lie will be penetrated -- whatever form it may take, the magic will happen.

In my most recent Bangkok thriller, The Queen of Patpong, I have a character, a teenage girl, who's being pitched to go down to Bangkok and work in the bars. I had absolutely no idea how to tell that story, until the bar girl who's making the pitch reached up and removed a sapphire earring and tossed it to the teenager. The moment that earring flashed through the air, it brought with it the first 3-4 weeks in Bangkok -- the amount of time it would take for the teenager to learn, first, that she's been lied to in almost every regard; and second, that her new "sapphire" earrings have turned her ears green.

It's a kind of magic, I suppose, although I'm not all woo-woo about it. It's just the way my process works. I frequently have the impression that the story I'm struggling to tell already exists, perfect and complete, somewhere in my brain, and my job is to tease it out without forcing it into the wrong shape. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I can do that by listening to the characters. (Not "my" characters -- the characters. If I think of them as mine and try to move them around, they turn into hand puppets and all the life goes out of the world they inhabit. And, perhaps most sadly, they become no fun to write.)

In all, I've had ten novels published (and by Big Five publishers, too) without ever knowing how the story was going to turn out. Six mysteries and four thrillers have brought themselves into being one writing session at a time, each day with its own little (or big) revelation. And sure, when you write like this, you end up with a mess -- but it's a specific kind of mess that's very easy to fix. I always have plot lines that are carefully established and then abandoned in favor of something more interesting, and also the somethings-more-interesting that are completely missing from the beginning of the book because they didn't present themselves until later. So it's a matter of going back and yanking the threads that were dropped while weaving in the ones that emerged partway through.

By the way, the six mysteries that I wrote in the 90s are now becoming available on Kindle and iBooks for $2.99 each. I had to look at them for the first time in 15 or 20 years before they went online, and I did it with a certain amount of dread, but I'm really happy with the way they've held up. The titles, if you'd like to try one, are THE FOUR LAST THINGS, EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and SKIN DEEP.

I'm so addicted to writing by the seat of my pants that I've just started what I call THE STUPID 365 PROJECT, on my blog at -- it's a commitment to write a new blog with a minimum length of 300 words, every single day for a year. Today is October 3, and the third one went up this morning, and I'm already beginning to feel the pressure. Things should start to get desperate in a few weeks, since I have no idea how I'm going to sustain this for 365 consecutive days.

But I know what I'm going to write about tomorrow (maybe), and that's enough for now. It's just as E.L. Doctorow said about writing a novel: It is, he said, “ . . . like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And that's the way I like to do it.

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