December 2, 2011

Mystery We Write Winter 2011 Blog Tour Presents Tim Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the traditionally-published Poke Rafferty series of Bangkok thrillers, the most recent of which is The Queen of Patpong, and the Junior Bender Los Angeles mysteries, which are e-book originals. The most recent Junior Bender adventure is Little Elvises. Earlier this year Hallinan conceived and edited an e-book of
original short stories by twenty top-ranked mystery writers, Shaken: Stories for Japan, which is available from Amazon for $3.99. He lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia and is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy.  His website is , and
the largest area of it is devoted to helping writers finish their first novel.


Not for Attribution by Tim Hallinan

When I started to write, my learning curve was almost vertical.

I made every beginner’s mistake. I began the books with long prologues, usually in italics, to make them even harder to read. I “enhanced” my verbs with adverbs, so that we’d know not only that Joanne gasped the line, “It was you,” but that she gasped it raggedly. I got fancy-schmancy with my prose, so that “It was the kind of hot that makes you doubt summer will ever end” became “The heat radiated from the road in liquid ripples, scoured the sky a pale and bleached blue, and gathered in the corners of the day, waiting to ambush the unwary.”

You get it.

But the big one was attribution. I couldn’t get comfortable with it. “He said” and “she said” felt like a ping-pong game. More active verbs to replace “said” seemed to call attention to themselves and actually pull the reader from the story.

“I’m not going,” Joanne snapped.

“Oh, yes, you are,” Dwight insisted. “This was your idea.”

“It was not,” Joanne demurred.

“You’re going,” Dwight commanded.

See? It’s awful. Those verbs speckle the page like someonesneezed on it.

Finally, reading something, I realized I’d just seen an attribution with no attributing verb at all. I don’t remember what it was, but it could have been something like, “Joanne turned her back on Dwight and looked out the window. “You’ve never understood.”

And then a paragraph break. Hooooooooooo. You could show a character doing something and then give him/her a line or even a whole speech, and everybody would know who was talking. This is especially useful for scenes in which there are three or more characters, so you’re not continually reciting names—and you’re advancing the scene at the same time.

I know, I know—this is as fundamental as breathing out after breathing in, but to me it was a revelation. No Joanne-Dwight-Howard rotating through the scene, no attribution verbs adding uselessly to the word count.  (When tightening, I always cut the useless words first, so why put them in?) It solved, if not everything, quite a lot.

And another thing: it forced me to visualize what my characters were doing. That, in turn, forced me to imagine them a little more deeply and ask myself how I might show them as individuals by something as simple as the way they played a hand of cards. I could get rid of all those verbs and clarify my characters at the same time.

Oh, and one more thing: I gradually junked all attributing verbs except “said.” My characters no longer gasp, whimper, aver, claim, or snivel. The exception is when a different word is actually needed. If I have two characters tied together on a conveyor belt being carried inexorably into
the ravening maw of a machine that’s presently tearing a Chevrolet to shreds, I might write the line, “’I love you,’ he shouted.”

But it would take something like that.

Thanks, folks, for stopping by.  Be sure and leave a comment and come back tomorrow for another of fourteen extremely talented writers and what they have to say about writing.

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17 Responses | TrackBack URL | Comments Feed

  1. Tim: Great post. I was just like you until I found a great critic partner who showed me how to layer attribution with action. Best advice ever. Thanks for sharing.
    W.S. Gager on Writing


  2. Oh, Tim, only you could write a lesson as valuable as that one and end it by making us laugh (and at the most gory part of a scene yet!) You are truly Junior Bender’s creator and alter ego, or else he’s yours. 😉
    Great post! Bravo!



  3. An entertaining and informative post, Tim.

    One of my pet peeves as a reader and editor is the scene in which only two people are talking but the writer insists on putting an attribution after every line of dialogue or a bit of business before it to indicate who the speaker is. Sometimes it’s all right to let the dialogue stand by itself. If the conversation is an extended one, the writer should *occasionally* add the attribution or activity to make clear to the reader who is saying what.


  4. Nicely put, Tim, short, to the point, succinct and crystal clear. Almost like your attributionless conversations!

    One of my favorite parts of a well-written story is when two characters are having a fast-moving conversation that is almost nothing but dialogue, with no attributions and very little scenery, just a couple of pages of witty dialogue in which it’s always perfectly clear who is talking simply because of the WAY they talk and the things they say.


  5. Wonderful post, Tim! But how come I love your work and got tired of Parker’s? Maybe it’s because you don’t put “he said” or “she said” on every, single, solitary line of dialog?


  6. Tim, What wonderful advice for writers! I was lucky enough to stumble into a class at our local community college with a dynamite teacher named Peggy Fielding. She shared this information with me and her other lucky students. Yet I still had trouble letting go of some of my fancy attribution verbs. She mentored me (and others) and patiently edited my work. But even now I have to go back a number of times and edit out the garbage.

    Excellent post!


  7. Good post. Keep ’em coming, Tim and Beth. Tour is great.



  8. Hi, everybody. I’m going to go all Sally Field here if I’m not careful. I’m glad you all liked this. I liked writing it. I read beginners’ manuscripts (infrequently) and almost all of them stumble over attribution. The whole point of it is, it should be invisible. We only need it because we can’t actually see the characters, and in that regard, it’s the most “writerly” aspect of a scene, and the less visible it is, the better.

    Thank you, Wendy. Whoever shows us the way deserves our undying gratitude.

    And thank you, Beth. Your line about my creating Junior, or vice-versa, makes me start to go deedledeedledeedle about a story in which a character forces his creation on a writer and then emerges to enter the world by taking the writer over. Surely, this has been done. If not, what’s stopping me? Could even be funny, since the only thing the character really knows about the “real” world would be what the writer knows, and maybe he’s a total screw-up. I’m going to fool with this unless someone tells me it’s been written half a dozen times already.

    Thanks, Everett, and thanks, Barry — I agree. Long stretches of good dialogue are among the greatest pleasures of reading, and they’re better without all the mechanics on display. The constant “said” where it’s totally unnecessary (when it’s a two-character scene and the characters aren’t conversational identical twins, we really don’t need much attribution) takes us into Robert B. Parker territory . . .

    . . . As Alice points out. I’m incredibly flattered that I’m less boring than Parker, whom I think is a wonderful writer, but the constant attributions do sometimes flatten his scenes. There was a period in the 80s when he was turning in books so short they were printed on linoleum to make them look thick enough, and I used to wonder whether all the unnecessary “saids” were a desperation move to get the word count up. But I do actually love his work and have read every single book, except the Westerns. (Sorry, Jean Henry.)

    Jackie, thank you so much. I’m thinking a lot about all of this right now, since I’m writing a writing book, and it amazes me how many things we (or I, anyway) have learned to do without ever identifying them — instead, taking them for granted, especially if they solved what we saw as a small problem. That might be a huge problem for someone else, so I’m sort of keeping an eye out as I read (or even write) for these so-called little things that could be really valuable to someone who’s just starting out.


  9. Tim. Write the story. I haven’t heard of it being done and even if it was, you’d still put your own wonderful spin on it. XOXO


  10. Thank you, Tim, for this thoughtful review of my first drawer novel. You nailed it. Now, if you’d be kind enough to lend me your hammer I think I’m ready to inter dear old novel #1 within its drawer alongside a parcel of nostalgic thoughts that somehow, someday, I could actually make it work.


  11. Jeffrey, don’t trash it. Put it away. One of my books, Second Generation, was the one for me that I was ready to annhialate it. I put it away and never looked at it again for ten years. You’ll be amazed how much better you can be in ten years, and also, how easily you can spot the mistakes that baffled you at the beginning. Takes work to correct them, but at least you have something besides a blank computer to guide you along. I’m sure there’s plenty worth saving in there. Never, ever toss anything you’ve written. Save it all. Someday you’ll use it, or maybe one of your heirs will find it and sell it on auction, like a few of Hemmingway’s old letters were just recently.


  12. Wonderful post, Tim. Fine advice that can never be heard too often. My favorite howler of an attribution tag is the one by Ring Lardner: “Shut up,” he explained. Lardner got away with that one because it was so outrageous.


  13. Thanks again to everyone.

    John, the Lardner quote mad me laugh out loud.

    Beth, right you are–material we may not have handled well in the past, if the idea is good, can get a LOT better in the present.

    Jeff, I have never been in your drawers. Umm, I mean, well, never mind.


  14. I literally cannot imagine Tim Hallinan writing like that.

    End o’ comment.


  15. Wait, no, not end o’ comment!

    “I literally cannot imagine Tim Hallinan writing like that,” I snapped decisively.


  16. Thanks, Beth, I know you’re right. In fact, parts of #! have found their way into several of my published works, and my treatment of #1 is still the off and on subject of potential movie deals. Everything in which we invest serious effort proves to have its worth in some fashion, even if not as originally envisioned.

    And yes, Tim, “never mind” works for me:).


  17. So you are writing a writing book. I’m looking forward to adding that to my collection. Did I get that right? Are you considering a book where the characters take over the novel? I know of two Irishmen who have done that; one more would be nice.


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