Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Robert J Ray

Robert J. Ray has taught literature and writing in college, inner game tennis in California, and workshops at writing conferences. He has published more than a dozen books, fiction and non-fiction—plus articles and short stories. His latest writing how-to – The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel – first published in England, has just been published in America. He has partnered a blog with Jack Remick.  Weekendnovelist.com

Tuesdays and Fridays, Ray writes at Louisa’s Café on Eastlake in Seattle. Writers are welcome.

books by robert j ray (Click link for books on Amazon)
The Weekend Novelist,
The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery,
The Weekend Novelist Redrafts the Novel (London),
The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel (New York),
Bloody Murdock,
Murdock Cracks Ice,
Dial “M” for Murdock,
Murdock for Hire,
Merry Christmas, Murdock,
Murdock Tackles Taos
The Hitman Cometh,
The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing,

Small Business: An Entrepreneur’s Plan (5 editions).

The Interview with Author Robert J Ray -- Part II

Scroll Down For Part I

How did your concepts in the Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery evolve?
The short answer:
To write a mystery, you cram four key characters (Sleuth, Killer, Victim, Catalyst) into the right Modular Scene—the Killing Scene, Discovery of the Corpse, Reporting the Crime, Crime Scene, Sleuth Onstage, etc.—and then you arrange the Modular Scenes in the best possible sequence.

A publishing success story: after more than a dozen years, The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery is still in print. In contrast, Dell dropped The WeekendNovelist after 7 years.

How we wrote the book:
We got a contract and a hot young Ivy League editor and Jack read 1,000 mysteries and I thought a lot about writing, waiting for him to finish reading, so he could tell me what to write.

We made a list of recurring characters: Sleuth, Killer, Victim, Sleuth’s Helper, Victim’s Friend, Killer’s Accomplice, Witnesses, Cops, Scapegoats and Fall Guys, Femmes Fatale—but there was something missing, some character type who lurks behind the scenes, a shadowy dude who pulls strings and makes things happen. This character could be the archetypal Mr. Big or the Evil Sorceress. We called it the Catalyst.

Our first example sprang came from the movies, Sidney Greenstreet’s role in The Maltese Falcon. He plays Caspar Gutman, the tubby evil master-mind who kills to gain possession of the black bird. On the film’s cast credit list, Catalyst Gutman is way down below the Sleuth (Humphrey Bogart) and the Femme Fatale (Mary Astor) and the Fall Guy (Peter Lorre), but when you write a mystery, you’d be smart to build the Catalyst first.

Jack’s favorite mystery writer is Dame Agatha Christie—he really admires the British aristocracy, the split worlds of Upstairs and Downstairs and Downton Abbey—so he assigned me to analyze the structure of Christie’s The Body in the Library, where we found our second Catalyst, a rich old man named Conway Jefferson, a wounded man in a wheelchair, who falls for a go-go dancer—he’s got money, she dies because he wants to adopt her, the killers don’t want her to inherit.

We opened the mystery how-to book with four chapters on Character: Killer first, then Victim followed by the Sleuth and the Catalyst. Creating the Killer first got us close to motive, which was buried with the wound in the back story. Digging up the killer’s past forced us to cozy up to evil—the killer kills because—and it led us to marking the killer, a tag the reader could follow—like Hannibal Lecter, who has six fingers on one hand.

Jack got really accurate at marking the killer—his years of reading in evolutionary biology, Levi-Strauss, structural anthropology, signs and symbols and ritual icons—and when we analyzed the killer in Gorky Park, Jack was the first to see the gold wrist-watch of killer John Osborne, American fur trader, and to link gold with Osborne’s deep Upper World tan in the middle of winter—his entrance in the steam bath room of the posh Moscow big-wig club—marking Osborne as the evil sun god.

Our biggest discovery about mystery writing (how to solve the problem of structure) was the modular scene—Crime Scene, Sleuth Onstage, Discovery of the Corpse, Reporting the Crime, Witness Interview, Victim’s Lair, Brush with Authority, Suspect Interrogation, Killer Onstage, Object Link, First Encounter (Killer and Sleuth, Osborne and Renko in the stream room was perfect), Lab Report, Recreation of the Crime, Torrid Sex (cop and femme fatale—not found in Cozies, alas).

To make our case for writing with modular scenes, we compared the first 19 scenes from a Christie cozy (the fragile tea-cup universe of the peaceful British countryside) and a police procedural (the frozen-corpse Metropolitan setting, snow and ice-skates) in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Both books open with the same modular scene: Discovery of the Corpse by an Innocent. The first four scenes are in the same order. Here’s a chart showing the first four scenes:

Body in the Library – Cozy
Gorky Park – Police Procedural
Discovery of Corpse
Discovery of Corpse
Reporting Crime
Reporting Crime
Sleuth Onstage (Marple)
Sleuth Onstage (Renko)
Crime Scene – Library
Crime Scene – Gorky Park

You might not know you’re writing in modular scenes—in Bloody Murdock, for example,  I opened with the victim, a pretty would-be starlet in a party dress. The killer pressures her, she exits with a rising film star, the killer sends his henchmen. The henchmen kill the girl, which brings Murdock into the case.

The modular scenes that open Bloody Murdock:
·      Victim Onstage
·      Killer Onstage
·      The Killing
·      Sleuth Onstage

How would you define yourself as a writer?
The short answer: Old.
Still going.
Still grasping at the Brass Ring.
Still suffering from the Writer-Needs-Love disease: Love Me, Love my Words.

This question gave me a chance to look back over my shoulder—the road to writing.

I came from a family of artists. My mother and grandmother painted. My sister painted and did clay sculpture. My brother can draw and do math and play musical instruments. My dad was an editor of a local newspaper who wrote taglines for cartoon writers. Cartoonists loved his work. These were big-time guys, syndicated, under time pressure. They begged for more. The cartoonists could draw, but my dad could write. He laid down a clear path to follow.

I grew up reading comic books—Batman, Daredevil, Terry and the Pirates—where I saw action contained in boxes on the page, with short snappy dialogue lines enclosed in bubbles over the speaker’s head. Monologues were rare in comics. Given the chance today, I choose dialogue over monologue. Action over narration and exposition. To me, good writing is word-pictures.

I am a writer today because writing was what I could do back then. My first short stories were bad. My first attempts at novels were lower than amateurish. My essays stank. I loved reading novels (The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew) but I had no clue about how to build one. Writing courses were grim back then.

My first published book was not a novel, it came out in 1963.
The book was called The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing.
The core action of the Handbook was circling key words—nouns in red, verbs in green, pronouns in purple—because the physical act of enclosing a word in an elliptical bubble forces you to slow down and look at the words, the patterns they make, the weight of clusters on the page. It was like comic books without pictorial action.

But curses upon curses, my prose was stilted and academic. I was a neophyte college professor at a small college in Wisconsin—in the arcane world of academic writing, one apes one’s betters, hoping to survive.

But there was hope in cause-and-effect: the students who circled key words wrote better, with more confidence, and when they read aloud the classroom rang with poetry and song—because they had seen the pattern of words in a paragraph, because they had heard the deep throbbing pulse of language.

Circling words made me a deeper reader. Analyzing movies made me see subplots in layers. The novel is a story told with one plot and at least two subplots. I am a writer who sees the bones of the novel. I am a guy who loves using words on paper. I want to be loved for my words.
What are you working on now?
The short answer: It feels like a graphic novel—a space-age Pilgrim’s Progress laced with accidental allegory, with a cast of outsize archetypal characters.

It reads with the spare speed of a tight film-script, leaping from one scene to the next, using the CUT-TO—a writing tool that came from teaching screenwriting with Jack at the UW.

My hero is an Altar Boy, sixteen years old in Warpp-Time.
Some 200 Moons in Moon-time.
He’s been abused, he wants revenge.
He gets recruited into a secret female army—powerful heroic women seeking to restore the Matriarchy.
He falls in love with an Older Woman.

The myth-base comes from Oedipus, Rex—where the son kills the father.
The action is a Quest for Dad, a tale of mythic adventure that borrows from the voyage of Ulysses/Odysseus and Sir Parsifal’s Quest for the Holy Grail.

The Altar Boy’s Quest starts at the Heptagram, a seven-tubed octopoid portal which coughs our hero through a zipper in a tinted membrane (each tint is a Chakra Color) that targets the father as he comes of age (conception, birth, naughty boy, preacher, governor, Satan on the road to the Presidency).

Writer at Work.
At my advanced age, I still do Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice. I write. I take what comes. The words forming this new book came from writing twice a week at Louisa’s Bakery and Café. The first line was something like: “The President was impotent.” That line set up the problem. President of what? Was the impotence sexual? Intellectual? Political? Where was the President when he had this notion? Who else is impotent? Was this opening line drawn from the Sick King-Sick Kingdom ritual from mythic times?

And then I asked the next question—If the President is impotent, then who in this dead land is virile? Who can re-charge the world?—and the camera in my head shifted to this Altar Boy with the shaved head, on his knees in the Prefectory at Vatican Ost, the very definition of Submissive—this kid is a prisoner, he’s given up, his hands are cuffed to a ballet barre, there’s evil brewing behind him, pig-like oinks from a jowly fat man, a thin whistling of air from flared nostrils, and if you want to read more, please let me know on Facebook, because I need the love of my readers.

And please send me a title.
If I don’t use it, I’ll send it right back.

Final Words of Wisdom:
Jack says that 200 million Americans have a novel stuck inside, waiting to get out.
I hope that’s where they stay.
The internet is glutted with crappy fiction.
Don’t augment the awful cyber-crap by adding 200 million bad novels.

The novel is a work of art.
You want yours to be brilliant, not hum-drum everyday.

Writing the novel takes infinite dedication, infinite patience, lots of training, and at least one super-nova break-through—that artistic, quasi-religious epiphany that seldom manifests when you need it most.

Herman Melville was halfway through Moby-Dick when he glimpsed the whalebone tiller—the magical object that breathed life into his book, the symbolic object onstage that fashioned the boat that Ahab destroyed seeking the whale.

Writer, hone your craft.
Honor your words.
Craft each sentence.
Use strong verbs and concrete nouns.
Avoid the paragraph—the box of words that never ends.
A paragraph can be one word.
A paragraph can be 20,000 words.
Don’t write chapters—they are moody, seductive, they can go on forever.
Instead, write scenes.
A scene has a time-limit.
And a structure.
A two-person scene (Character A vs. Character B) is a power-struggle.
A three-person scene is your chance for drama—the intruder enters, piercing the relationship bubble of A and B, tilting the balance, raising the question: Which character gets the assistance of Character C? Try this intruder-thing for yourself. See what gives.

Work at your writing.
Teach yourself the rudiments of rhetoric—anaphora, polysyndeton, anadiplosis, epizeuxis, apostrophe—and forge a link to the Greeks who wrote before you were born.
Do not harbor the delusion that the world waits for your novel.

There was this lady in fiction class. She did not do the timed writing. She sat there, her smile was bored, all-knowing. At the break, she raised her hand. Why all the fuss? she said. Why tire out your hand doing this silly timed writing—when she herself had five novels completed and number six half done?
So we asked was anything published?
Publication is imminent, she said.
So we asked how many pages?
The way she wrote, she said. She could not be bothered with pesky page numbers.

Then we asked where she stored her novels for safe-keeping, and here came the smile—bright, smug, triumphant. What was going on? What was she thinking? What was her big secret?

Maybe she was weary of being alone with her work. Maybe she had registered for the class to share the news of her success, and to rub shoulders with her fellow novelists.
Her smile beamed, like a beacon through the dark. She pointed to her head and nodded.
They’re right up here, she said. Right inside my head.

The Interview -- Part I

What has gotten easier and what has gotten harder over the years of your writing career?
The short answer: Writing that first draft.

The reason the first draft got easier is Natalie Goldberg in Taos, where I went for help in mid-career, after I had published a couple of Matt Murdock PI books, because I had a bad case of writer’s block—and she initiated me into writing practice, writing under the clock, no crossing out, going deep. Spend it all, Natalie said. Don’t hold back.

I was frozen, I was dead, my career was zip. I’d left a full-time teaching position. My wife was on the verge of being an Ex. I had met Margot, we were good. I’d stopped teaching tennis, more time to write.

And I remember that first day at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, waiting for Natalie. I had read her book, Writing Down the Bones, but I had not tried writing practice. The New Mexico connection was perfect. My Mom, Miss Lillian, was 30 miles away, at the family cabin in Eagle Nest, an easy drive through Taos Canyon. I was stalled out on writing, and Natalie was not famous yet, and then she walked in.

She did not say good morning. She did not smile. She laid out the rules for Writing Practice. Keep the hand moving. Don’t cross out. Go deep. She gave us a startline: “I remember….” Then she said go, write for five minutes.

Emotions burbled up, my writing hand trembled. I felt a cramp lurking. But that first day, writing for a puny five-minutes, showed me the way out of writer’s block—the solution was writing practice.

That first class with Natalie met in the Rainbow Room, directly under Tony Luhan’s bedroom. Our class had 19 women and 6 men. From the first reading, the women took charge. They wrote better, they read with fierce emotion, charging the room with electricity. I was out-classed, I was cowed, this was not working. Maybe I should split, rush back to Mom. On Thursday morning, I was roused from sleep by the ghost of Tony Luhan—Hey you, he said, roll over and write—and I wrote ten minutes using the startline “I Am Not a Woman,” and when I read it to the group, I saw smiles, nods, approval, and women came up asking if I’d like to meet a sister, a friend, someone to connect with.

All week, Natalie had looked through me and said, “I’ve forgotten your name.” That morning, after the reading of “I Am Not a Woman,” Natalie knew who I was. She did not become a friend until later. That next summer, I went back to Taos to write with Natalie. I brought my writing students, I urged Jack to go. When he came back, he typed up his notes on Natalie—it would make a book—and that segues to the next interview question: 

You and Jack Remick have worked together for a very long time. What makes your collaboration work so well?
The short answer: Balance.

Jack has a big brain. He knows math, I do not. He gets angry fast, while I simmer. He acts before I can make a move. He did his Ph.D. work in comparative literature—his dissertation was on Fernando Arrabal, a Spaniard living in France, whose characters are prostitutes, murderers, and torturers. I did my dissertation on the novels of Frank Norris, a late 19th century Naturalist, who used an Octopus to represent the power of American railroads in the early 20th century.

Jack cut his poetic teeth on the Beats—Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. I spent 6 weeks reading Moby-Dick, neglecting my other grad-work, until I figured out (helped by a scholarly essay) that the structure of this great book was built on the 9 ships of the Pequod—marking a trail of increasing destruction as the Pequod got closer to the Great White Whale. Jack found his rhythm in books like Kerouac’s On the Road, which I never finished—I could not name the villain. I found my literary heartbeat in Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren. I found my villains in detective fiction.

We met because my wife Margot knew Jack’s wife Helen. They worked as powerhouse executives at the UW.

One day they were talking about their husbands—Margot said her husband was a lazy bum who worked at home in bathrobe and pajamas and called himself a writer. Helen said that her husband was a lazy bum who worked at home in khakis and an old plaid shirt and called himself a writer.

We met on the phone. Jack sent me a manuscript. He called it a mystery but it was really a philosophical treatment on the nature of existence. We arranged a meeting. On his first trip to my house for a meeting of male writer-minds, Jack got in an accident—not his fault—when his car was rammed by a driver who hated writers, totaling Jack’s beloved VW.

Then I took Jack to writing practice—this was before I knew about Arrabal and the bearded Beats—we wrote in a smoke-filled coffee shop on Capitol Hill and I remember being impressed when Jack read his work. It wasn’t just the topics—gun-running in South America, hitch-hiking outside Yuma, AZ, with the mercury at 114, singing Handel in the choir at Christmas—but Jack’s words sang.

When we taught, we focused not on the subject, not on our vast combined data-bank, but who was in the room. Our main teaching tool was timed writing. We built a big syllabus, packed with charts, lists, key concepts like Aristotle’s Incline, Core Story, and archetype. We had a time-table, no stopping to answer questions, no breaking of the spell cast by writing and reading aloud—a writer must attend to the words of other writers. At the end of a long Saturday, 3:55 PM, the writers would write for 5 minutes, and when they read their voices rang out like children singing in a cathedral.

Jack loves breaking through. He reads evolutionary biology (the street-name is Evo-Bio) because he’s looking for scientific evidence to support his belief—that humans are born with a story-gene.

When we took Natalie’s timed-writing to Centrum, it was like the Jack and Bob show had pitched tents in Port Townsend. We took it to Surrey, the 4-day writing conference in Canada, and gathered more converts. We used timed-writing when we taught fiction, screen-writing, memoir. We used timed-writing in a 2-week workshop in story development at the UW, and the response was so positive that our boss asked for a three-term course. A lot of our stuff on the blog (bobandjackswritingblog.com) came from teaching with writing practice—if you do the work, timed writing takes you deep,

The discoveries we made together—intruder and closed circle, core story, Act Three is the template for Act One—generated numerous book ideas that we have not had time to write. When the teaching was done (Jack could not hear, I got too old), we knew it was time to bear down, to focus on fiction. Jack, speedy as usual, brought out a book a year. His publisher, Camel/Coffeetown Press, unearthed my Murdock back list—which gave me the energy for a new Murdock, which segues to the next question:

What allows your Murdock private eye to sustain over so many books? What keeps his well from going dry?
The short answer is: Other characters besides Murdock.

I created Murdock in the shadow of Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald’s “salvage consultant” protagonist who stars in the popular paperback mystery books with a color in the title—A Deadly Shade ofGold, The Turquoise Lament, etc.—set in touristy Florida, lots of killing and tracking and dalliance with beach babes.

McGee lives on a houseboat. He drives a pickup converted from a Rolls-Royce. He takes fifty per cent of what he salvages. His books are all first person—like Chandler and Robert B. Parker—and McGee does not age. So I used First Person in the first five Murdock books.

First Person is chummy. The reader sees the sleuth as a friend, maybe even a close friend. First Person is very Jane Eyre, with the same problem Bronte had in 1847: with a single POV, you get tone, but it’s harder to create dramatic irony, the key to suspense.

So for the Murdock books, I focused on secrets in the other characters: a nasty Killer dies, good riddance. A Victim with a dark past dies, that starts the book. A Witness dies before she can give evidence, the sleuth digs elsewhere. A Love-Interest with movie-star potential offers herself to Murdock—it’s a trap, she turns into a Femme Fatale. I developed Cops who made the reader laugh, Witnesses who morphed into Suspects, the Old Friend from the Past who’s mixed up with the Mob.

But Murdock did not change. If he got shot, he healed fast. If he fell in love, he got over it in the next book. He was the Eye of Private Eye. In another kind of book, your main character could change by growing up, that’s a Coming of Age story. Or your character could get rich by marrying a prince, that’s a Rags to Riches-Cinderella tale. Or your character can unseat a king and take his place—that’s King Replacement.

But the core story for Murdock is always Revenge Quest. The sleuth acts for Society—punishment delivered in the name of the Omniscient They, what Society wants, what Society deems proper—but if you forget what you’re doing, and if you kill off your sleuth—bowing to statistics, ballistics, and the tyranny of Realism—there goes your series.

My favorite Killer-character is still Philo Waddell, from Bloody Murdock. He’s an import-export drug dealer who staged blood-spattering cock-fights in his basement arena, while Mob Guys from Vegas hustled his party guests. Philo’s back story includes snuff films, he’s nasty and super-confident, but when he goes after Murdock’s lady, this dude is dead. And Society is pleased, now back to shopping, TV, visits to the shrink, and golf.

When Murdock got published, I was a newbie in the writing game. I knew how to write, but not how to write fiction. I got support from local booksellers and the local newspapers. I was the local writer. I felt wanted, and the First Person allowed me to wax poetical.

A reviewer from the NYT said my style was “exhilarating”—music to my needy ears. I didn’t know it at the time, but the First Person POV crunched the story into a strait-jacket—the mind of the narrator—leaving only these four tools to create character depth:

1. The interview—the sleuth does a Q and A with the character.
2. The back story monologue—the character digs up childhood trauma.
3. The physical evidence—old sepia photos, diaries, letters, home movies.
4. The confession—the character confesses, a TV staple.

After publishing five Murdocks, the publisher dropped the series. I switched to non-fiction—three books in the Weekend Novelist series (including The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, with Jack, see below), and then Jack’s publisher brought out my back-list, and that gave me the momentum to write Murdock number six, where I shifted to Third Person, which allowed me to get inside the heads of the other characters.

In Murdock Tackles Taos, for example, the POV shifts from Murdock to Helene Steinbeck, his new lady-friend, and then to the killer, Theo Ulster, a British expat whose fictional grand-daddy is Hannibal Lecter.

The shifting POV gave life to Helene Steinbeck, Murdock’s best sidekick. Like her detective dad, Helene was a cop in New York City. She’s smart, funny, good-looking, and she shoots to kill. She gives Murdock the balance he lacked in First Person. I didn’t know it when I started the Taos book, but Helene Steinbeck marks my departure from writing in the shadow of John D. MacDonald.

In the seventh book, Murdock Rocks Sedona, I created a private equity billionaire who lived in a penthouse atop a hotel called Sedona Landing. His name is Axel Ackerman. He’s seventy-eight, selfish, snappish, over-confident because he buys people. He buys Helene first, $5,000 a day for bodyguard work. Then he buys Murdock. Ackerman’s old friends are dying. The killer’s working up the hit-list. To find motive, Murdock and Helene dig up Ackerman’s back story. As the back story emerges, Ackerman blossoms into a major character. And the main point here is still about POV, where the Murdock books started 20 years ago: with Third Person, you have a better chance at creating memorable characters, who help create suspense. Just like the movies, with quick cuts.


There is a piece of the Jack-and-Bob story missing here: After the NYC publisher dumped Murdock, I toiled over The Weekend Novelist, hoping to seize the magic key to novel-writing. The success of The Weekend Novelist prompted unknown agents to suggest sequels—my non-fiction how-to book was selling better than my fiction—so Jack and I whipped up a book proposal called The Weekend Novelist Writes the 90-Minute Short story. And the publisher wrote back: How about The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery—and that leads to the next question:

Check back on July 15th to read Part II of the Interview