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 www.timothyhallinan.com.
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:
THE ART OF THE BLURB
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 Patpong: John 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.