Monday, December 5, 2011


Today’s post on this whirlwind tour we’re taking will be something different. Instead of the usual interview, Q&A, and BSP, we’re fortunate to have a creative essay by one of the most talented and entertaining writers in the field of mystery fiction. I feel honored to have Tim Hallinan visit my blog, and I know you’ll get a lot out of what he has to say.

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of thirteen widely praised books—twelve novels and a work of nonfiction—including the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, most recently The Queen of Patpong.  The others in the series, in order, are A Nail Through the Heart, The Fourth Watcher, and Breathing Water.  In 2012, Soho/Random House will publish The Fear Artist.

He also writes the popular Junior Bender comic thrillers in ebook form, the latest of which is Little Elvises.  In 2011, Hallinan conceived and edited an ebook of original short stories by twenty mystery writers, Shaken:  Stories for Japan, with 100% of the proceeds going to Japanese disaster relief, and contributed to the collection Bangkok Noir, which raises money for organizations that work to feed and educate Bangkok street children.  He lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia, and he is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy.   His website is

Now, with no further introduction needed, here’s what Tim Hallinan has to say about writing in general and the art and science of blurbing in particular:


John asked for something that might communicate the joy I take in writing, but I've just finished a book The Fear Artist, that tried to kill me half a dozen times while I was writing it, and the joy of writing is something I barely remember.  It's like something I saw years ago in somebody else's home movie.

Still, every book has its lessons to teach, and from The Fear Artist I learned that it is possible to write with clenched teeth and a sheen of flop sweat for months on end and still produce a decent book.  It reinforces something I already knew but didn't keep in mind: I never know, when I'm writing, whether I'm writing well or badly. It takes a few weeks for the dust to settle and the fat to rise to the surface before I can get any kind of fix on the quality of the work I've done.  Sometimes the material that came most easily, and seemed most blessed, looks flat and facile later, while the stuff that felt like building a wall, one heavy brick at a time, is – well, solid.

When I say “I” in the paragraph above, I really mean “we,” because I think it's true of most of us.  And it has a corollary that many people ignore—don't stop writing because it's not fun.  You have no idea whether the material you're grinding out, word after agonizing word, is any good.  If you quit, you may lose a good book.

Anyway, isn't that the difference between a professional and an amateur?  The professional shows up no matter what?

So, to my topic for the day: blurbs.  Those often misleading quotations from famous or not-so-famous writers that speckle the covers of books, trying to mislead—sorry, entice—you into buying the thing. 

I've benefited from some very generous blurbs by writers I admire, including T. Jefferson Parker, Gregg Hurwitz, Brett Battles, Adrian McKinty, Laura Joh Rowland, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Larry Beinhart, Steve Martini, James Church, Gar Anthony Haywood, and many others. 

Two examples from my most recent Bangkok thriller, The Queen of PatpongJohn Lescroart said, “You won't read a better thriller this year,” and Ken Bruen said, “John Burdett writes about Bangkok, but Timothy Hallinan is Bangkok.”  I'm hoping they sincerely meant these things, because they gave me a great lift and sometimes even sold some books.

But blurbing isn't always sincere.  There are some bestselling novelists who are too generous and whose names appear, it seems, on the covers of half the mysteries and thrillers published that year.  It's very doubtful that they actually read all these books, and, in the case of some of them, much more doubtful that they found them “compelling” or “dazzling” or (here's a tip-off the blurber probably hasn't read the book) “a roller-coaster ride.”

Why would writers write blurbs they don't believe?

Several reasons.  Probably the most frequent is that the blurb is a favor for the publisher who publishes both the blurber and the blurbee.  This produces a lot of blurbs of the “Don't start this one late at night” and “It wouldn't let go of me” type – blurbs that, like “a roller-coaster ride.” could be applied safely to any mystery or thriller, read or (more likely) unread.

Another reason is that the writer is a nicer person than I am and can't bear to hurt another writer's feelings.  This attitude frequently expresses itself in blurbs that focus on the author rather than the book: “Darius Whipsnade is a genuine talent,” for example.  Once again, there's nothing in the blurb about the actual content of the book.

I get approached for blurbs perhaps forty times a year.  I say no most of the time, especially if I (a) don't know anything about the writer, or (b) know that I don't like the writer's work.  I really don't want to read a book and then decline to blurb it, because that's just a way of saying you don't like it.

Once in a blue moon, the worst possible thing happens.  I agree to blurb a book by a writer whom I know and like personally, and find I don't like the book.  This is a real stinker of a situation.

All I can do is tell the writer, as clearly as I can, what my problem is with the book.  This has not made me any new friends, but it hasn't really cost me any, either.  In the end, the writer gets over his or her injured feelings and I don't have to grimace every time I see the blurb.

The weirdest blurb request of my career came a few months back when HarperCollins wrote to ask me to blurb a book called One, Two, Buckle Your Shoe by an unknown named Agatha Christie.  Now, usually, blurbs are pasted on books in the hope that they'll boost sales, but Dame Agatha, whose books have sold more than 4 billion copies, sells more books before tea time every day than I've sold in my whole career.  I read the book and loved it and wrote what I thought was a nice blurb, and a few days back I got the book, and there I am, on the back cover.

I can only hope it gave the poor dear a little boost in sales.

Thanks to Timothy Hallinan for this insider’s insight into a part of the book business that we all must be aware of but few fully understand.

A final note from John: During the Mystery We Write Blog Tour, I will be keeping track of the comments left for the guests on my blog. After the tour, I'll draw one name out of a hat, and that lucky person will be given a copy of my new book, Behind the Redwood Door, as well as a copy of my short story collection, Generous Helpings. But I'll need to contact the winner, so if you're interested, leave your email address at the end of your comment.


  1. Timothy, blurbing for Agatha--what could top that?!


  2. "Tim Hallinan's BLURB takes you on a roller-coaster ride through the twisted mind of the crime writer impaled on the horns of the blurb dilemma. You won't read a better psychological thriller this year."
    - Mike Orenduff, 2011 Lefty Winner

  3. That was terrific! Tim, you are a master at whatever you write.


  4. Thanks, all. A writer friend, whom I will not name, and I have been trading wretched blurbs back and forth. We have categories like "the insincere blurb," "the hasn't read it blurb," "the under pressure from publisher blurb," "first blurb I've ever written and I'm so excited," "this is actually an excuse to talk about me," etc. My favorite is "the deeply felt, totally sincere blurb that will send readers running all the way out of the bookstore," and he wrote one for QUEEN that won all applicable prizes was, "Brilliant and deeply felt . . . after I finished it, I wept for days."

  5. Tim, Such an honest and true post! And for sure it's true of me. I think that when we write, feeling as though we're in almost-set concrete up to our necks, it proves that we are professionals. This is the only way a writer can consistently finish books. Thanks so much of reminding me of this.

  6. Tim, I enjoyed the post, and plead guilty to writing a couple of insincere blurbs for friends. I wish I had your resolve. I have a hard time saying no.

  7. I loved this post, Tim. AS a publisher who has had to go out harvesting blurbs, I know how to spot the sincere ones and the obligatory ones. Peter Prescott, former book reviewer for Newsweek, once offered an all-purpose blurb and gave every writer permission to use it free of charge: "Very much a book indeed..."

  8. Great topic - writing blurbs for other authors. I admire Tim's honesty and I agree with him in that I certainly wouldn't want to write a blurb for a book I didn't like.

  9. So, Tim, does "The Growing Younger Man" mean you're no longer a professional? :-)

    Two subjects in one blog, you're certainly providing us with ample value for our money (or lack thereof...) I've read before from other authors about the "trials and tribulations" of writing book blurbs, which is one reason why I basically ignore blurbs on books. That, and the fact that I know that everyone's tastes differ, so which are you going to trust, the blurb or the book?

  10. I never post negative reviews. My opinion should not cost a writer a fan or a book sale. The only author blurbs I take into consideration are those of authors whose work I like and respect. If I don't read an author because his books are not to my taste, why would I read a book she liked? (I know, I mixed genders but that is more far than always referring to the unknown person as masculine).

    On a different topic, Tim, I don't know if you remember an email exchange we had about eighteen months ago. I reviewed one of your books and I mentioned the perfection of the term you applied to a character - "the growing younger man." In an email, you wrote that you had forgotten you had created the character. So, the blog accomplished something positive.

    I love coming across things that, taken out of context, make me laugh. I have been laughing about a mixed metaphor in today's post: "never know, when I'm writing, whether I'm writing well or badly. It takes a few weeks for the dust to settle and the fat to rise to the surface". Given the amount of cooking I have done over the years, I thought immediately of a pot of soup. Imagine trying to serve that.

  11. I know an author who always says she can't do a blurb or a review because it's "in her contract" that she can't do these things. This seems like an easy way to get out of it witout hurting anyone's feelings. Good blog, and I appreciate your honesty.

  12. Tim: You always make me laugh and am waiting for the photo op of you with Dame Agatha doing the handshake thing. Yes I realize she is in the grave but wouldn't that make it an even better photo? Can you work on that?
    W.S. Gager on Writing

  13. Thank you, Tim, for the reminder "I never know, when I'm writing, whether I'm writing well or badly." Pushing through is vital, as is hindsight. Great post.

  14. Wow, I get into a car and drive eight hours (from LA to Berkeley) and miss all of you. Thanks so much for showing up.

    Jackie, "almost-set in concrete up to our our necks" describes it precisely. And yet, we keep writing. I can't tell you how many talented writers come to me in despair because they can't finish a book, and it's just because they expect the middle to be as much fun as the beginning -- they're not expecting writing to be WORK, and they thing if it feels like work, it's probably not good. Seriously, I was on the phone yesterday for 90 minutes with a 20-year-old girl who can write circles around me, but who has begun and abandoned four novels. I told her my rule, which is that the less I feel like writing, the more I need to.

    Thanks, Jean. I haven't done an insincere blurb yet, although I've been perhaps a bit over-kind in a few Amazon reviews. But I don't think I do anyone a favor if I write an enthusiastic review for a book I don't like. Among other things, declining gives me a chance to try to express to the writer my problems with the book, which probably has about a 40% chance of being productive.

    Thanks,John. The Prescott blurb is really funny. I once told a publisher who wouldn't take no for an answer, that the best I could do would be, "This book contains a great many words neatly laid out in straight lines with an impressively accurate page numbering system to tell the reader how much farther she has to go." I can only hope the editor didn't kick it back to the writer.

    Thank you, Patricia. And I have to admit that as reluctant as I am to write an insincere blurb, I'm still thrilled silly to be asked.

    Everett is referring "The Growing Younger Man," a Poke Rafferty novel that I abandoned 45,000 words in, not because I didn't like it (there were parts I liked a lot) but because it finally became clear to me that even if the book were a million pages long, the two main plot threads would never converge. I thought a million-page book was asking a lot from my publisher, especially if the book wouldn't have an ending, so I finally tossed it and wrote THE FEAR ARTIST. But -- confession -- I bagged a piece of it for THE FEAR ARTIST and I'll probably use one of the plots, one that features Miaow and her boy friend, Andrew, in the next Poke. Maybe.

    Beth -- I agree it benefits no one to post a bad teview. Other people may love the book, so who am I to knock it? And as for the Growing Younger Man, you were partly responsible for my starting the book I abandoned -- I really liked the idea of finding something admirable, some kind of dignity, in an aging sex addict who has been the plastic surgeons' putting green for thirty years in an effort to appeal to 19-year old bar girls who are really only interested in the thickness of his wallet. And the story still interests me, so some time soon . . .

    Hi, Marja -- I love the chance to blurb a book I really admire, and as I said, I'm always flattered to be asked. I have, though, written selective blurbs -- if there's something about a book I really love, even if some of the rest of the book falls flat.

    Wendy, thanks for saying I make you laugh. The picture of me shaking Dame Agatha's hand is being adapted as the new logo for "Tales from the Crypt," but I'm insisting they photoshop sunglasses on me so I'm incognito.

    Thank you, Anne -- that's one of the most valuable things I've learned, and yet when a manuscript is really fighting me, I always forget I've powered through it before.