Jim Ringel writes the Lama Rinzen Mystery novels, a series of crime mysteries wrapped inside Buddhist mysteries.
In each Lama Rinzen mystery, the lama is reborn into one of the six Buddhist realms and must solve a crime to learn the realm’s lesson and proceed down the path to Enlightenment. The books mix philosophy, spirituality, and noir, and are set in locations throughout Colorado.
Jim’s first book in the series, 49 Buddhas: Lama Rinzen in the Hell Realm, received awards for Best Visionary Fiction, Best Cross Genre Fiction, and Best Religious Fiction. The second book, Hidden Buddha: Lama Rinzen in the Hungry Ghost Realm, is due for release in October 2022.
Ringel is a Buddhist practitioner who lives, skis, hikes, and bikes Colorado. He writes in pursuit of his own lessons that might guide him along his path. Jim can be reached at www.jimringel.com.
Do you have preparational practices to help you get in the proper headspace to write?
Writing for me is discovery. Discovery of both how to write and what to say. Writing Buddhist mystery novels is supplemental to my meditation and study practice. Before I write, I meditate. Most days I meditate upon waking and I begin writing about an hour after that. Meditation helps me clear my mind.
Sometimes writing students ask wouldn’t it be better to meditate with the goal of filling our minds with thoughts and ideas to write about. Maybe that’s a good idea, but I find the simple act of sitting in stillness opens my receptivity so my imagination flows more freely. The writing magic doesn’t happen sitting on the cushion. The magic happens at the desk as a result of sitting on the cushion.
At least that’s what I tell myself. It is an interesting question students ask, can’t meditation be a conduit for developing ideas. Often I will say if they’re stuck for ideas, they should try meditating. The surest way to come up with fresh thoughts is to try not having any. The act of meditation is the act of thoughts arising. We are told not to attach to them and to just let them go like a breeze floating past. But sometimes I attach to what I’m thinking because I like it. My meditation is not always perfect or pure. Often, I sit there and imagine plot solutions and character develop ideas, and these things I hold onto.
Of course, these solutions and ideas are not always worth holding onto, but I still allow myself that openness. Because in the end, that’s what meditation is all about. Opening the mind to experience. Maybe that makes me a bad Buddhist. Maybe the great ideas I have while meditating fall flat when I try to write them. Or maybe they blossom. Not everything is as it appears. That’s another Buddhist lesson. Go with it. That’s the only way to find out what it is.
Keeping my mind open is a way of focusing without expectation. Some ideas are bad. Some are good. Many I simply let go of. Some meditation sessions are mind relaxing and leave me with the vigor for an active writing session. Some are thought provoking and inspire that day’s session with what to write. Others, not so productive. I don’t judge it. I let it happen. Writing is a lot like meditation. It’s an exercise of finding out without knowing what you’re finding until it’s right there in front of you.
What is it that helps you stay focused when you sit down to write?
I may turn to sitting meditation for inspiration, but when I write I am very active. I’m a big one for acting out the scene or bit of dialogue that I’m working on. I find myself popping up out of my chair and walking the house acting out what I’m trying to get on paper, and then acting it out again and again to hone it down to exactly what I want to say. It’s a form of experiential engagement that helps me critique how to be true to the voice of the novel.
Of course, experiential engagement is just another teaching the Buddha gives us. We don’t really understand anything strictly by intellectually processing it. I find a lot of fiction these days remains flat by focusing on language only while failing to invite the reader into the novel’s experience. I don’t just mean emotional engagement. I mean the special concoction that fiction has done for me since I first starting reading as a boy. The way it opens me into a world not my own. I am not a pirate, but I have read great books about pirates. And, you know, if you take out all the boats and the time at sea and the gnarly language and bad teeth, there’s something there that speaks directly to my life. That’s experiential writing.
And that’s what keeps me focused when writing. The audience. I focus on the audience. I don’t expect them to have my beliefs and viewpoints. But I do strive to open some universal truths we can share. I don’t know how else to say it. Maybe it can’t be said. Maybe putting it in words just turns it into a vague abstraction. But that’s the trick for writers, and the challenge. Rendering experience into words.
Are there certain writing exercises you find helpful?
I think writing exercises can be very personal to each writer, but I do have one that I tout whenever I get the chance.
I am a big fan of Jennie Nash’s Inside Outline approach to developing a novel. It’s a simple approach not just for mapping out the overall arc and flow of a story, but also for analyzing those little sticking points (dare I say Writer’s Block) that mire us down and keep us from moving on with a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter.
It helps me correct or get rid of those parts of the novel that get flat and ho-hum-ish. The best thing about Jennie Nash’s Inside Outline is its simplicity. I have been through many convoluted exercises writing a story’s arc that span a multi-page spreadsheet. It takes a lot of rigor to write that way, but often creates confusion.
Confusion is not the point. Simplicity is. At its simplest, the Inside Outline works like this. Imagine a scene. Focus on its exterior action. A child kidnapped from its parent’s parked car, for instance. Then imagine the interior reaction to that external scene. Is the child scared? Does the child muster up his or her favorite superhero and jump into action? Does the child see the kidnapper as a better alternative to his or her actual parents?
Once you know what’s at stake internally for the child, then ask what’s the next external action that internal reaction leads to. Maybe the child beats the kidnapper up. Maybe she tells the kidnapper, “Come on. Drive. Let’s get out of her while we have the chance.”
That’s the next external action, which in turn causes internal reaction, which in turn leads to the next external action. This leads to that, which then leads to what’s next. Over and over again.
It anchors you right away into knowing whose story you’re telling. Is it the child’s story to tell? The kidnapper’s? The parent’s? The cop called to the scene? This is all helpful. But the best thing is that it creates flow.
Jennie might tell you when starting a novel, to do this for all the story’s big scenes. The pivotal scenes. Each external action and internal reaction should be described in no more than two or three sentences. Keep it bare-boned and focused. Then go back and start filling in the in-between scenes. The scenes that intercede and build between one pivotal scene to the next.
That’s how you create an Inside Outline for the novel. But also use the same method when stuck on a scene. The parent calls with the ransom money. What’s the kidnapper’s internal reaction. Is he spending it before he even has it in hand? Or is he considering maybe the parent’s willingness to pay means he settled this deal too cheaply and he should ask for more. Or maybe no money can ever be enough money because the kidnapper loves the child and wants her as his own.
The Inside Outside is a nuts-and-bolts analysis tool for writing scenes that maintain tension and create story flow. So, yes, I am big proponent of the Inside Outline.
What in your opinion are the elements of good writing?
Good writing is honest writing. Honest writing is experiential and universal. It’s unique to the scene. But it’s also unique to the reader, and although it might sound contradictory, it’s unique to the reader because it’s universal.
Good writing is twisted writing. It twists and turns and takes the writer and the reader places she or he does not expect to be. Good writing is daring enough to touch the untouchable. To lend credence to the verboten. To explore the culturally incorrect.
Good writing is surprise at every step along the way. A surprisingly revealing sentence, or a surprisingly sympathetic villain, or a surprisingly new and challenging way for a reader to view the world.
I don’t like that word Cozy Mysteries. I don’t care much for those mysteries that aren’t all that mysterious. Cozy Mysteries succeed at eliciting some well-placed Oh mys from the reader, but always with the intent to assure that in the end everything will be perfectly fine and orderly.
Mysteries should not be orderly. They should inspire questioning. They should leave us a little afraid of what they say about us, the readers.
What are the biggest challenges in the publishing industry?
Today’s publishing industry’s biggest challenge is that they don’t like challenge.
I worked in television for 20 years. It was an independent station whose bread-and-butter was covering professional sports events, but whose independence showed up in some offbeat programing and promotional spots we’d create. All that’s changed now in broadcasting. It’s been homogenized by deregulation. As this happened my fellow broadcasters and I would commiserate how it’s become an industry of very few typewriters but lots and lots of copying machines. Everybody striving to create the last best thing.
That’s today publishing world.
Maybe it’s just me, but didn’t books used to be better? Like broadcasting, publishing has corporatized larger and shrunk itself smaller in its offerings. It’s squeezed the daring out of itself.
I independently publish my books. I like independent publishing because it keeps me in control, both artistically and during the book’s production. Of course, that’s the challenge. Independent publishing is not easy and it demands that the writer/publisher wear many hats and enlist the proper support to create a quality product. Too often the support professionals independent writers and publishers depend upon are too easily influenced by the stodginess of the publishing establishment.
As a writer who writes fiction, the challenge is even bigger. There’s a small niche for self-published nonfiction, but fiction writers struggle to find their place in the independent publishing world. And yet I know this is the path for me.
There is a strong tradition of really great books coming out of small press and independent publishers ever since publications first started being produced for the masses. Much of America’s great literature came from small presses producing new voices for new audiences.
I believe independent publishing is the biggest promise in today’s challenging literary world.