What I Learned from Writing a Killer

Hearse at the SeasideTwo weeks ago, Robert J. Ray—easily the best teacher I’ve had in any subject—told me to start writing my killer’s backstory in first person.

No way, was my knee-jerk response. Hell no.

Last week, Jack Remick told me the same thing.

Goddamn it, boys.

These two men, lifelong writers and teachers now in their seventies, have never steered me wrong. Ever. Time and again, they step up to coach me just when I need a nudge in the right direction.

So today I followed through. I wrote five pages of viewpoint backstory in my killer’s voice, first person.

When I finished, I threw down the pen. I was trembling.

But I also felt powerful. I’d just managed something I didn’t think I was capable of.

And I’d cracked my novel wide open.

I’ve avoided my killer for years because I was scared.

I was scared because I expect death threats if ever I publish this thing. The story’s all about the intersection between religious freedom and human rights. When does one trump the other? And why?

Climbing into the mind of a man willing to kill for religious freedom—human rights be damned—meant climbing into the type of mind that could formulate those threats. The threats I’ve so often silenced myself in order to avoid.

It also meant re-entering the mind of the father I lived with for 20 years, a man who used conservative religious tenets to defend abuse.

And when I finally objected to both the abuse and those tenets that had all too easily supported it, I lost family, community, god, and home.

My high school English teacher once said you can’t ever really lose your family. But I assure you that you can.

And it’s a wound that hardly can be borne—no matter how you came to lose them. Or what sort of family they were.

But I hadn’t realized how afraid I still am. I have nothing left to lose but my “ridiculously naked life” (Frankl). Yet ten years later, the fear’s still there.

Then I got inside this man’s mind and explored why he believes his victims must be killed. And something incredible happened.

He diminished.

All this time, a Death God had loomed over me, whispering that I deserve to die, that I should just keep quiet, stay out of trouble, think how much more I could lose. But pinned to paper, he was just a man.

Jack and Bob knew what they were doing. My antagonist became human. As Charlotte Bronte wrote, “To see and know the worst is to take from Fear her main advantage.”

Try it yourself: Track down what you fear most. Get a pen and paper. Set a timer for 45 minutes. Then, get into the head of your biggest fear. Start, “I am a killer. My name is… I was born in… My first kill was…” And let it rip.

More tips from Bob and Jack here: http://bobandjackswritingblog.com/ 

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned from Writing a Killer

    1. Thanks, Arleen! Yesterday Jack used your opening line from The 39th Victim to exemplify writing from the gut, the rage, the heart. Looking forward to reading your Alki novels!

  1. In my experience Jack and Bob almost always know exactly what they’re talking about regarding writing. Listen to them, they are sage story tellers and teachers of the most generous kind. Bob had me write my killers background a couple o years ago and it changed the trajectory of my novel. Powerful challenge.

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