Lesson One: How To Avoid Being Nice
The Thorn and Pustule School of Fiction Writing
©2010 by Jack Remick and Robert J Ray
We want you to suspend your niceness. Being nice is wonderful. Being nice makes the world go so smoothly, while all known pro-social human relationships benefit from nice. But nice, because it trains you to avoid conflict, doesn’t make for very good fiction.
If you have a tendency to be nice, and if you bring that tendency to your writing, you can float along writing stories in which the characters never do anything except smile at one another and look adoringly into one another’s eyes. Let’s call that Zero Conflict Fiction. We don’t want you to stop being nice altogether ‑‑ you can still hug your sweetie and kiss your kids good night and call your aging mom ‑‑ but we do want you to stop being nice when you write. Later on you can learn how to sugar‑coat viciousness with heavy layers of niceness until the irony is so thick it drips off the doilies and onto the de Haviland china where the poison in the teacups is as pungent as bitter almonds.
We want you to become an early adherent to the Thorn Under the Thumbnail School of Writing. For now, as you learn to bring the Intruder into your work, we encourage you to approach each writing session as though you had a thorn under your thumbnail. That thorn, the intruder, will make you cranky and irritable. Every time you pick up your pencil between your thumb and your forefinger the thumbnail hurts. And that makes you mad. So, you can leave it there and do nothing and let it fester, or you can dig at the thorn with a needle. It’s the hurt that makes you want to dig out the thorn. If you don’t do something to the thorn, you’ll feel helpless and the thorn will get infected and you will die when the infection turns to blood poisoning so it’s a good idea to get that thorn out of there. Think of your writing as a needle. With the needle, you dig at the thorn. Digging makes you just a little bit nasty and mean. But you’re doing something. Your choice. Do nothing – Die. Dig it out — Hurt, but you live.
So goes the thorn, so goes the Intruder in fiction. If you are mean you will have no trouble yanking your intruder‑as‑thorn from under the thumbnail of the nice people in the quiet sacred circle. If the intruder is a thorn under the thumbnail, sooner or later something has to happen. Carrying a heavy load of bacteria, the thorn will eventually infect the thumb, and the thumb tells the rest of the body to fight back. That’s when things get real sticky. The intruder is surrounded by a pustule and the pustule has to pop and as it pops it flushes the intruder out. The bigger the thorn, the heavier its load of bacteria, the more the body gangs up to reject it. When it pops it gets messy and gory and you have lots of drama and lots of blood and it is so satisfying when it finally stops hurting. If this is too disgusting for you to read right now, take a minute to think about why. Are you too nice? Are you afraid you’ll hurt your Intruder’s feelings? That thorn who wants to kill you? Are you afraid to make your Intruder into a high contrast invader? You’re writing fiction and the freedom hides in your mind like the scab under a bandage. In fiction, the more drama your characters have the better the story.
To get drama into your story you develop your characters so the differences between them are big and fat and juicy. You want Intruders who know what they want and who know how they are going to get what they want. To balance these high contrast bad guys, you also want polar opposite good guys whose main goal in life is to frustrate the nasty intruders. This means that sometimes your protagonists will have to undergo character transformation. After all, because they are nice they open the door and let the intruder in and the intruder wants to take control and in taking control infects the house with a disease and the disease gets out of hand. As the Intruder runs wild, the formerly nice protagonist gets up off the floor, picks up a needle and begins to dig at the infection, to scratch the itch, to pop the pustule. Out goes the intruder, warts and black boots and all. It really works only if you get a little bit mean and can dig into that festering thumb.
Your story will benefit from the contrast between the niceness of the people in the sacred circle and the meanness of the intruder who invades that circle. For maximum contrast between the circle and the intruder, your intruder should have arms and legs. Get an intruder who walks and talks and opens doorways into the demonic underworld. The more demonic the more gratifying the expulsion. It’s like hitting yourself in the hand with a hammer – it hurts, but it feels good when you stop. Demonic intruders leave out a lot of possible intruders, such as cats and dogs and ideas. Ideas don’t sweat, ideas don’t come dressed in black like Satan and ideas don’t put the make on your spouse.
Fiction works from a deep pool of drama. Drama means conflict. To have conflict you need characters who are at polar extremes in their wants and needs. When you juxtapose characters who want different things, you create tension, and in tension you get suspense. Suspense leads you, holding your breath and biting your fingernails, up to the edge of the abyss. The essence of your dramatic writing will be in the resolution of conflict between characters when you hurl the intruder into the dark pit and listen to that sucker scream all the way to the rocks below.
If violent metaphors bother you ‑‑ not nice ‑‑ you might think of the conflict as door‑guarding. Your protagonist guards a door that the Intruder wants to go through. To get what he or she wants, your intruder first has to get through the threshold guardian and this means doing something: talking, pushing, shoving, cajoling, killing (not nice) or bribing. As the intruder pokes around, the threshold guardian stiffens up and refuses to open the door. What kind of a story do you have if the intruder just pushes on through and rolls over your threshold guardian?
Learning to write high contrast character situations early on in your writing career, you get control over your writing. Control makes it easier later when you write scenes that don’t have as much high conflict in them. If you start out writing floppy, if you avoid conflict now, in ten years you’ll say, damn it (or dang, if you’re still being nice) why didn’t I listen to Jack and Bob? If you avoid conflict in your writing now, you will continue to avoid it later and your writing will not be as sharp. You are a 90 Minute Amazon, not a 19th century cream‑puff. Learn to write tough. Pop the pustule.
Jack the Liar, Jack the Thief
© 2010 by Jack Remick
All my life I’ve been a story teller. Jack the Liar they called me when I was little, but also Jack the Thief when I stole two bucks from my little sister Beth’s piggy bank—two bucks she earned dancing for my Dad and Rex Heingardner while they played pinochle. They really gave her the money to get rid of her because she was a pest and they were serious pinochle players but to make it look like something they asked her to dance for them and then gave her the cash. She had nearly fifty dollars in her piggy bank and I didn’t think she’d miss two bucks. But she did.
Stories are important to me because, for some reason, when I write them, my head runs very fast and I see all the connections at once and it’s like making a hundred decisions on the fly—does it go this way or that? and there’s this feeling inside when I know it’s headed in the right direction as if the ending is already written and I have to open the right doors or like a train on a fast track running through a switching yard—somehow the right lever gets pulled and the train hits the right side or the left side of the switch and on it goes and this is how I write short stories—full bore, opening switches and doors till at the end the last word ends the thing but if I cheat and don’t do it right I have to write in a jump at the end the way I did in Faun when Charlie kills himself and I’ve written myself into a hole and had to do an abrupt Point of View shift because unless you’re a Frenchman writing in a writing world, you can’t have a dead man talk unless you’re Billy Wilder and make a film called Sunset Boulevard.
So story has been a part of me ever since I told my first lie and stole my first pack of cigarettes from the carton of Chesterfields my Dad kept on a shelf in his closet—high up so the whole closet smelled of tobacco and I could always tell where the smokes were by the odor and later when I start to read books and see how other men lie to us I learned that it isn’t lying if you make it up and say you’re writing literature or a mythic tale or some other bull shit but the fact is we all love to lie and writers love to steal from one another and they do it all the time with no shame and they don’t get put in “jail” the way my Mom put me in “jail” when I stole Beth’s two bucks and was stunned when Mom knew it was me—duh—you dummy who else would steal from his sister? and I had to come home from school and stay in my room for two weeks but later when I’m writing stories they don’t ground me when I steal from William Gibson and write a story about a RAM diver, a tiny electronic being who slides inside the latest biomicrochips to repair the pathways damaged by overloads when the sun flares and solar flares bombard the earth. No one even knew I’d stolen and so this leads me to understand the nature of thievery—do it so they don’t know you’ve done it—so looking back, if I steal the two bucks from my sister but replace the quarters with slugs from the electrical boxes the electricians threw on the ground outside the houses in the sub-division, no one would know I had taken her money because the noise of slugs in the piggy bank is much different from the noise of quarters in a piggy bank and this taught me something about the Gestalt—a psychological construct that I read about later in college and graduate school—give them something that makes them “think” they have what they want—the Concept of all that glitters isn’t gold, but at a distance it looks damn good and so now all of this comes together when I write a story or a poem and all the tricks keep you from getting caught and if you give them a good enough lie they take it for the truth and you get the prize and so now I know not only how to lie but how to steal and to steal with crass irony so the sucker mistakes the mirage for a lake and by the time he gets there you’re already in Paris and then who gives a damn?
So now I’m in Paris and I just checked the clock and this reminds me of the magic and sleight of hand that it takes to be a good thief—the paraphrase—lift it, turn it over in the sun, repaint it in flashy metaphor and no one sees that the RAM diver is a transform of Gibson’s cyberpunk Microsoft hero Case in Neuromancer a man who can jack into the web and pull his consciousness in after him into cyber space and tinker with the molecules of life—transformation is the key—repaint that VW to look like a Cadillac and you’re home free.
So I know a lot about thievery and lying and I am kind of like the cyber punk hacker who breaks into the high security code at Microsoft and so Microsoft hires him to keep the other hackers out—see, stealing already from Hitchcock who stole from David Dodge in It Takes a Thief and I haven’t even finished the thought and am already a thief but now the hard part—
Can you go past stealing and lying into something pure that is yours?
I don’t think so.
Our minds are hard wired to decode metaphor into deep structure and in the mind the deep structure of story is always Archetype and even in Josie Delgado, a 42 page poem I just wrote, the Archetypal Pattern is the ill-fated young lovers which goes back to Piramus and Thisbe which Shakespeare stole for Romeo and Juliet and so here I am trying to be new and creative and me and all I can do is write into the mind where it is already known.
This might discourage me. It might discourage most writers, but it also gives me strange comfort knowing that no matter what I steal, I can only steal what has already been stolen from the HardWiring and so it’s not thievery at all and I’m not really a liar or a thief I’m a Good Guy—see how I transform a thief into a Choir Boy so easily? Archetype shifts into Archetype, Trickster morphs into Con Man who transforms into Puer Eternis and I can’t even stick with one here—they all want a piece of the action or as Terri Tulane told Eddie Iturbi in the Deification of Jack Kerouac, “I’ll sleep with you if you’ll write me into your novel” and so Terri becomes a central character in Odes to a G-String Goddess, the inner novel Eddie writes that earns him the Pullover Prize just before the Vulture Goddess rips him apart—shades of Attis, Adonis, Osiris here—of course nil novi sub sole—nothing new under the sun and what pisses me off is that I don’t have a choice. If you understand where it all comes from you also understand that for the writer there is no free will. You take dictation, you lackey, and you take it from the collective unconscious and then you have a choice of paint colors and a choice of wheel coverings but the car is not up to you to choose—this is what I know about story and about lying and about stealing….