Writing the Way I See It
©2013 by Jack Remick
(Note: I wrote this essay for a German e-zine called Haute Culture. They wanted something about the origin of The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery and a little bit about my ideas on why we write. The essay was to be translated into German but it never made it. Haute Culture never got off the ground so I’m posting it here as a caveat.)
Writing, The Way I See It:
The most vexing question writers often get asked isn’t “Where do you get your ideas?” but “Why do you write?” It’s a pretty good question. There are probably as many answers as there are writers.
The way I see it, however, writing is a personal way to participate in the greatest socialist enterprise ever. Writing transcends culture, language, family, tribe, politics. We do it and we do it for any number of reasons with any number of results.
We’ve been writing for thousands of years—we’ve written in mud, on bone, in stone, on parchment, and on paper, and lately we’ve written on screens using binary or hexadecimal code. Before we wrote we told stories by drawing animals on the walls of caves. So far as we know, humans are the only critters that can write their history—tell about our past, capture our present and project our future. Writing, it seems, has grown out of us as we grew out of our primate past. So the answer to the big question why do you write is another question—how can you not?
To me, writing is what makes us human. I love to write. I started out, as did every reader, scrawling something like an alphabet on paper. I graduated to ink, to a typewriter, and then to this computerized, digital universe. (In my novel Blood, this archeology of writing plays an integral part in the story.) In a way, my writing mimics the history of our writing, but deep down, writing is more than keeping a ledger or tracking illuminated manuscripts in a monastery or counting cows in the pasture. Writing for me means telling stories. Writing means invention. I, for one, write to survive. I have a cartoon on the wall of my writing room that says “When not writing, I get weird”.
I started my writing life as a poet. In his rather controversial book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes drew a lot of flak for saying that the first poets were gods. He didn’t mean that poets were gods, but rather that poets believed they were taking dictation from the gods (of the right hemisphere). I wrote poetry long before I ever heard of Julian Jaynes, but something in his work rang a bell.
Fiction was my next stop on the writing road. I wrote short stories, I studied writing, fiction, art, linguistics, etymology, philology, and psychology. The deeper I got into art and the history of language, the more I understood the work of C.G. Jung, Roman Jakobsen, Saussure, Lévi –Strauss, and C.S. Peirce. From these writers, I learned something about the way the human mind works.
In that amalgam of genius that our culture inherits from those minds, I found the way into the archetypes and archetypal language and the deeper I got into that language and the more novels I wrote, the more I realized that I was telling stories that had already been told a hundred thousand times, but with this exception—my heroes wore Levis and drove custom built Ford cars instead of riding warhorses and wearing chain mail. My heroes lived in Kansas and California but they were still on the same Quest that drove Perceval to seek the Grail. Maybe, I thought, there was something to that Jaynesian notion of taking dictation from the gods of the right hemisphere and maybe there was something to that Jungian notion of archetypes and maybe I was a writer along with a million other writers telling the same stories over and over.
But then, I asked myself—did it make any difference?
Isn’t writing the great socialist enterprise? There are no limits to learning to write as long as you have someone to help you. Writing breaks class barriers. There are no privileged positions in the writing world.
As a writer of novels, stories, and poems was I keeping something alive that started with the cave paintings at Chauvet and the oracle bones of China? Isn’t that what writers do? Don’t we keep the traditions alive and carry on? In Darwinian evolutionary thought, it’s not enough to survive, we have to survive and procreate. Our books, our novels, our stories, our poems are our cultural and intellectual progeny. They are our future and our past, they are at the same time our present. They tell us what we were at that time and in that place—be it Japan or China, Egypt or France. Writing is what makes us human. Anyone and everyone can learn to write.
I’ve now written or co-written sixteen books ranging from an epic poem to a handbook on mystery writing. My novels have a variety of female and male protagonists. They track protagonists on their personal Grail Quest. They tell stories about King Replacement (think Tristan and Isolde or, in French Tristan et Iseut). They tell stories of the Coming of Age of young men through ritual combat and of young women through emerging from the Chrysalis (or, that greatest of all female coming of age stories—the Ugly Duckling). They tell stories of l’amour lointain, and they tell the story of Romeo and Juliet (think Piramus et Thisbe when you read Josie Delgado, A Poem of The Central Valley). As I write each new novel, I realize that I am not creating a thing, I am participating, through language, in a long standing cultural event and that makes me very happy to be a writer. As I write each novel, I tell the story of Eddie Itubi (The Deification) or Ricky Edwards (Valley Boy) or Mitch Monroe (The Book of Changes). I tell the story of Olive (Lemon Custard), Gabriela (Gabriela and The Widow) but I am also telling the story of every man and every woman struggling to find value and meaning in a chaotic world where it’s not enough just to survive, but to survive and propagate. My novels detail the struggles of each character to survive and to find love. In that sense my novels are about having babies. Both physical and metaphoric.
As I progress through time, I become interested in passing on to other writers some of the techniques and insights I’ve picked up along the way. To that end, I have taught university courses, run workshops on writing, and mentored dozens of novelists and poets as they search for their own path through the forest (remember Perceval’s quest here—the forest is a metaphor for the descent into the unconscious mind where the truth lies hidden under a dozen impossible tasks.) To pursue my intent to help other writers, I’m the co-author of a book on mystery writing titled “The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery” with Robert J. Ray. We also maintain a website dedicated to writing—Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog. On that website, readers will find biographical information as well as a very thorough set of writing techniques the purpose of which is “to make good writing better.”
Creating The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery:
A few years ago Robert Ray and I formed a writing partnership. We had discovered the power of Timed Writing (which we learned from Natalie Goldberg) and we added a few dimensions to the concept. We now call it Structured Timed Writing. As we developed that idea, we put together a short book on how to write a short story. Our publisher nixed that and said we should write a how-to for mystery writers instead. The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery is the fruit of that collaboration. The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery is a how-to for neophytes and experienced mystery writers looking for new techniques, inspiration or simply a disciplined approach to the chaos of putting a mystery together.
When you write a mystery, what’s the first thing you do? Most writers start with the sleuth or the detective. Get that Sleuth built and away you go. But when Bob and I were creating The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, we had four insights that got us going in the right direction.
Create the Killer first: We discovered that you’re far better off if you create the Killer first. Look at it this way—until the Killer kills, the Sleuth sits around drinking coffee. So, the technique we came up with was a set of writings for the Killer. Here’s the first one:
My name is The Killer. I was born in a city called Lethe. I got my first taste of blood when my brother cut…and I bagged my first kill one day in December…and…
In any mystery, there are three main characters: Killer, Victim, Sleuth. Work them in that order and you get this: The Killer kills because he or she has a problem. The Victim dies because he or she gets too close to the Killer. The Sleuth has to confront the Killer in order to make him pay for being the bad guy.
Modular Scenes: The second insight we had into the mystery process was the Modular Scene. Modular scenes are bread and butter for the mystery novelist. A modular scene is a self-contained unit. It stands alone. It helps the writer to control the bulk of information—physical detail, clues, facts, place names, character bios—that makes up mystery writing. Modular scenes take the mystery out of mystery writing.
These scenes are present in every mystery ever written. You’ve seen them—the Sleuth questions Suspects. The Forensic Scientist gives the sleuth a report. The Sleuth interviews a Witness. The Sleuth visits the Victim’s abode. All of these are Modular Scenes. Here are a few more:
Lab work –
Pathology lab report —
Forensics lab report —
Crime scene –
Recreating the Crime–
Suspect list —
Suspect interrogation —
Sleuth reporting —
Helper reports –
Police reports –
Expert testimony –
In the appendix of The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, you’ll find a complete list of Modular Scenes. For the beginner or the expert, knowing about these scenes lets you plot an entire novel before you write a line of dialogue.
Crime Scene and Backstory: After much study, Bob and I came to our Third insight: the Crime Scene is the result of a Caper or a Murder Plan. The Sleuth has to recreate the Arc of Death (if you’re writing a caper such as Rififi, Topkapi, or The Italian Job, your main focus is on the path to the payoff.). To create the Arc of Death, the sleuth recreates the crime in reverse—Here’s a body. How did it get here? Who wanted the Victim dead? Working back to the moment of death, the Sleuth lays out the story from Present to Past, from Ending to Beginning. This, of course, is Backstory at its finest. Here’s the kicker—and it links back to the idea of creating the Killer first—the writer must know what the reader finds out. That is critical to the success of a mystery. In The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, we suggest that writers spend a lot of time creating the backstory on the main characters because, to repeat, the writer has to know what the reader finds out.
First There are Places: Insight number four came to us when we were in the Rewriting section of the book. All novelists know that the art is in the rewrite and in the rewrite, the question becomes—in a scene, what do you write first? In other words, if you write your mystery in scenes (which we recommend), what’s the first part of a scene? The answer we found isn’t “start at the beginning” but start with place. Start with the setting. First there are places. Characters enter a place and they talk and do stuff. Characters talking and doing stuff creates conflict. In the mystery, conflict leads to murder. Now you’ve got something for your sleuth to do–find the killer.