Sunday, November 3, 2013

Invisible Ink by Tim Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the traditionally-published Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers (most recently THE QUEEN OF PATPONG), and the Junior Bender mysteries, which are ebook originals. The newest Junior book is LITTLE ELVISES. Earlier this year, Hallinan conceived and edited a volume of original short stories by twenty first-rate mystery writers, SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, which is available for the Kindle at $3.99, with every penny of the price going to the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. (Please buy it.) He lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia, and he is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy. His website is

Jean asked for a short piece on “the craft of writing,” and the first thing I did was summon up the questions people ask most often at fan events and bookstores.  And then I thought, no, let's write about the thing nobody asks about: prose style.

Much of the time, I think people confuse fine writing with fancy writing.  (I know I do.)  The phrase that stops the reader in her tracks, the perfectly structured paragraph, the word used in such a striking way the reader thinks, “I want to remember that.”

Well, I'm a contrarian.  I don't like that stuff very much.  I think the ideal prose is pretty much invisible; it's a clean, transparent window through which the reader sees the characters and the action.  Enjoying a book, I believe, is a one-on-one relationship: reader and book.  When the prose calls attention to itself, I think it reminds the reader that there's a third person present, a writer, and that reminds the reader that this world she's caught up in is actually something that someone, probably caffeinated to the gills, sat down and made up for hours and hours.

In other words, these people are just marks on paper.

This was brought home forcefully to me when I heard someone—a professional actor—read the audiobook of my first Poke Rafferty thriller, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART.  In the first chapter, just as all heck breaks loose on a crowded Bangkok sidewalk and and Rafferty realizes his adopted daughter has disappeared after bolting across the street, he pauses and takes stock, and this is what I wrote.

“When in doubt, Rafferty thinks, stop.

“The sky is low enough to scrape a nail against, that peculiar sullen gray that usually precedes one of Bangkok’s frequent rainstorms.”
When the actor got to the line about the sky, he became Orson Welles:  “The sky is low enough to scrape-a-nail-against . . .” and I winced with shame.  The sky was gray and low, okay?  It was gonna rain.  The rest of it is all showing off.
This kind of stuff comes easily to me.  I'm Irish.  I can turn anything into greeting-card poetry, and I do, if I'm not careful.

That's not to say that writing should read like assembly instructions for a barbecue.  It needs to have energy, I think, and personality—but it should be the characters' personality, not the writer's.  When I'm reading something in third person and there's a really snappy description in the narrative, I always think, “Who said that?”  And you know what?  It's not that difficult for the writer to attribute the thought to a character:  “The sky looked to Rafferty as though it were low enough to scrape a nail against.”  It's still not good, but at least we know where it comes from, and the perspective tells us something about Rafferty.

I'm not going to beat this to death.  I think the best prose in fiction is prose that stays out of the way.  The author may be able to turn handstands, but I'm actually interested in the characters, not the author, and the last thing I want when I'm enjoying a book is some five-year-old with an inferiority complex continually yelling, “Look at me.”

When I want to look at you, Mr. or Ms. Author, I'll check out your photo on the back of the book.
I'm appearing today at Mike Orenduff's site:
I'm appearing


  1. Tim, it's great to have you join us here, and I couldn't agree with you more about "fancy" writing. :)

  2. Tim, I think this is one of the best pieces of advice on writing that I've ever read. I totally agree, AND I'm going to do my best to follow your instructions. (It's hard, though. I have a bit of Irish blood myself.)

  3. If you haven't read the Queen of Patpong yet, please do, it's a wonderful book. Hi, Tim, this was a great post.


  4. "Stays out of the way" is so right! (I'm working on it...)

    Good thoughtful post.


  5. Good advice, Tim. There's nothing so annoying or so transparent as an author waving a flag that says "Writer at Work."

  6. Thanks so much for hosting me, Jean. The air is so clear and crisp up here. And Brrrrrrr, while I'm at it.

    Thanks for the nice response, Jackie; like you, I can hit the "Irish button" without even knowing it; it's not till I read it out loud that I realize it's blarney. Or my wife, to whom I read everything, will say, "That's nice" because she's so good-natured, and I draw a big question-mark in the margin.

    Marilyn, so glad to know you liked QUEEN. I could read that sentence in your comment all day, and probably will.

    Thanks to you, Madeline. When the muse of poetry seizes hold of me, I write a sonnet. Although I have to admit I intentionally let some of it get by. I preach better than I practice.

    And thanks to you, John, and sorry if I maligned you slightly over at Wendy's site. (It's nuthin' -- don't look.)

    Great to see you all here.

  7. As with all 'rules,' there are exceptions, but I think you're relatively absolutely right. :-) I have never been particularly fond of flowery language in books, and if there's going to be a cute turn-of-phrase, I want it to come from the mouth of a character and usually in the course of a conversation. But then, that's just what you said, isn't it? :-) I guess that makes mine a great mind, since we think alike.

  8. I once heard an actor describing Shakespeare's language as so hypnotic that the speaker can forget that he is actually saying something. That is not good acting. I suppose that applies to flowery language as well. It's fun to read, but takes you right out of the story. Fun to see you here.

  9. Interesting discussion and not sure that it is so black and white, though I say that particularly because I have just finished reading and reviewing today Italo Calvino's 'If on a winter's night a traveller' where both the author and the reader (through his use of the second person narrative) are very present between stories.

    I found it strange to begin with but approached it with an open mind and while it's not a style I will be copying and I understand why it isn't at the forefront in the 21st century, I don't think we need to be closed to any form of literary style, there are niches for all.

    Thank you for the interesting discussion.

  10. Hi, Clairmca -- I would exempt Calvino and many other literary writers from the responsibility to focus on character and story rather than words, although to tell you the truth, my favorite literary writers also tend to favor clear, clean prose over the baroque. I think you're right in understanding why 2nd person isn't more common; it belongs to an age of artifice that we've long abandoned and to which, I think, Calvino intentionally alludes.

  11. Tim, I think there are a lot of people who are good writers, but can't tell a good story because they can't keep themselves out of it. When I sense the author's presence, I'm pulled out of the story.

  12. Great post, Tim. I once heard someone describe an author's ability to write well as being like a pane of glass. You know it's there, but you can't see it.

  13. Earl and Anne, exactly what I think. Prose should be a window through which we see the action, and the author intruding into the story is every bit as bothersome to me as the actor who's playing a villain but insists on showing us that he/she isn't "really" like that.

  14. So much food for thought here today. (Okay, I still have the big dinner on my mind) This is really interesting and I agree with Tim but never thought about it like that before. Maybe that is why Mitch is so forceful to block me out completely. Hmmm.
    W.S. Gager on Writing

  15. Good point about "fancy" writing, Tim, but I think you're being a little too hard on yourself. There's a difference between vivid writing and self-consciously fancy writing, and to me "low enough to scrape a nail against" falls just across the boundary into vivid.

    I can identify with the wince - in my case they're usually fragments that I wrote down one time because they sounded good, and then looked for a suitable spot in later writing to insert them. They stand out like sore thumbs, and need to be amputated accordingly.

    But I think your example falls outside that category.

  16. Hi, Gary -- well, when I heard it read aloud, it was like part of a perfectly normal sentence suddenly went all fuschia and it clashed with the paper. I think it slowed a scene that shouldn't have slowed for anything.

    But I've written much, much worse, and I appreciate the sentiment.

  17. Thanks, Prentiss. I really appreciate that.