Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Guest Post by Timothy Hallinan


Is writing better if it's fun?

I don't mean the obvious question, whether a writing session is more enjoyable if it's fun, but rather does it make any difference to the quality of the work that's being done?

I think, after writing God only knows how many novels (okay, 18), that it actually doesn't.

This comes to mind because last week saw the publication of the book that was more fun for me to write than any other in my career. It's the second in my Junior Bender ebook series, LITTLE ELVISES. The great joy of writing Junior's world is that everybody's bad. He's a burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks, and all the other characters are the crooks—with a few enjoyable exceptions, such as corrupt cops.

Good citizens from the straight world pop up now and then, but most of the characters we follow are bad guys and girls.

I think most writers will tell you that they secretly enjoy writing their villains more than they do their heroes and heroines. Evil has a lot of energy—you need a really strong Othello to keep Iago from walking off with the show. And when I write the Junior books, I'm surrounded by Iagos, even if many of them are, like most career criminals, somewhat stupid Iagos.

The Juniors are intended to be both mysterious and funny, a combination I seem to appreciate more than the great mass of book buyers, who have little difficulty resisting the impulse to buy them. But the books entertain the hell out of me, and I don't think I've ever laughed so loudly while writing as I did on LITTLE ELVISES. Most of the humor comes from the characters just talking to each other.

Here's a snip between Junior and his friend and sometimes-accomplice, Louie the Lost. Louie was a major-league getaway driver until he made a bad in Compton after a diamond robbery, a bunch of jacked-up white gangsters in a Cadillac with a million in ice in the trunk, and half the black population of LA staring in through the windows. Now Louie is a listening-post; people who want to know what's going on in the criminal world of the San Fernando Valley go to him. So anyway, someone's taken a shot at Junior and Junior has called Louie, and the conversation wanders.

I said, “He gave me money.”

“Yeah?” Louie waved the cigar smoke away. “You in the giving vein?”

“You've been going to your extension course. 'Richard III,' right?” Crooks have more time than most people for self-improvement, but Louie was one of the few I knew who took advantage of it.

“Wouldn't miss it. Good old Richard, nothing stopped him.”

“I always had trouble keeping the kings straight,” I said. “All those Richards and Henrys.”

“Naaahhh. They're a snap. Kings are just crooks with better hats.” He leaned forward. “But tell me something, how the hell do you multiply and divide with Roman numerals?” He sucked long and happily on the cigar and then used the little tool he poked the cigar tip with to scratch the surface of the table. “Let's say four Dukes stick up some minor palace, okay? They get, I don't know, CCCMMXXXVIII shillings. Then they gotta divide that by IV.” He scratched the problem, division sign and all, on the table, and regarded it. “I mean, come on. Look at that.”

I said, “It probably came down to who had the biggest gun.”

Okay, it's not “Saturday Night Live,” but writing stuff like this is enormous fun, especially since I never know what anyone is going to say. I laughed pretty much the whole time I wrote the book.

And that made me distrust it. The best-received books I've written (critically, that is) were the two that gave me the hardest time. THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, which has been nominated this year for both an Edgar and a Macavity, gave me so much trouble that I tossed it, twice. The old American Puritan streak in me surfaced and created an equation: difficult = good.

So I actually parked LITTLE ELVISES for a year before I did anything with it, so I could let my enthusiasm cool and allow the fat to rise. And when I went back to it, I loved it.

So this is what I've learned. I have no idea when I'm writing, whether I'm writing well or poorly. I can be having a terrible time and getting good stuff, or I can be loving it and turning out dreck. In the case of LITTLE ELVISES (although I'm not the one who should say it) I turned out a pretty good book while having a lot of fun.

I guess the moral of all this is that, fun or not, I have to write. There's no gift for the reader in an unwritten page.

Timothy Hallinan is the author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thrillers, the Simeon Grist Mysteries, and the Junior Bender Mysteries. His most recent Bangkok book, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG was nominated this year for both the Edgar and the Macavity awards for Best Novel. In 2010 he began to write the Junior Bender books as ebook originals, an experiment he has greatly enjoyed. The first of those is CRASHED and the second is LITTLE ELVISES. Hallinan lives in Los Angeles and Southeast Asia.

1 comment:

Beth said...

The quote about Roman numeral long division is only one of the many stop-reading-to-laugh-out-loud moments in the book. The word problem is another great example of how funny Hallinan is although I think I recognize that particular one from an SAT exam in the 1960's.

Tim has written about his compulsion to write as if we readers should feel sorry for him. We don't. When he is compelled to write, he comes up with books we are compelled to read.

Betcha can't read just one whether it is Simeon, Poke, or Junior.