To keep our cars working right we take them in for tune-ups.
MacLean and others like him keep their MA skills sharp by going in for tune-ups. Eddie Van Halen still grabs a guitar and gives his fingers a one hour tune-up every Monday morning.
Why should writing be any different?
I’m not nearly as good a writer as EVH is a guitar player, so it’s no wonder I still drag my writer’s ass to the mechanic.
My mechanic is Stephen King. His book On Writing is a Tour De Force for me. Yes, there’s a smattering of scribes who feel the book is "beneath them" – that it’s too basic for their superior intellect and ability – they can’t get anything out of it. Well, not me. My pants ain’t that fancy.
There are other great writing books in my opinion. Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime…, George’s Write Away, and so on.
And there are some that truly suck – again in my opinion. Story by that blow-hard Robert McKee, though I have met a couple of good writers that love it… a couple, as in 2. The self-indulgent Writing Down the Bones by Goldberg (Natalie, not Lee), and the cliche-ridden How-To’s by Frey. But I should point out here that, just as every writer’s personal process is different, so is what they take or don’t take away from writing books.
Anyway, the King book works for me better than anything. While the first third is a recap of how he became a writer, the rest is the most practical, no-nonsense, black-and-white study on how to write better. It’s about the language (the subject of which – in his now famous conversation with Amy Tan – inspired the book), as well as the process. Something so few books dare to tackle. He gives real world examples, spells things out, and does it all without talking down to the reader.
That’s the kind of mechanic I need. My tendency is to go off on gaseous tangents (from a process point) and it’s my mechanic’s gruff grabbing of my collar and thrusting me back into my chair that I need.
With the possible exception of one guy floating around the ‘Sphere these days, we all believe we are still learning as writers. One of the reasons I loved my recent excursion to Seattle for Left Coast Crime was to sit and talk with other writers. We all have different processes, all write different stories in very different ways, yet we’re all on the same road, trying to get to the same place.
I think my Seattle trip was why I popped my worn out audio tapes of On Writing into my deck this week and just drove and drove. I was seeing my mechanic, getting a tune-up. And it’s worked.
See, though I hate how lazy our society has become with language – "impactful" is NOT a word people, despite its use by Corporate America, and "Yea" is NOT spelled Y-A-Y, good God don’t get me started – I am still in need every now and then of a review of the basics. The foundations that all good, solid writing is based upon. Not only for the literal pen-to-paper writing, but for my writer’s mind and soul.
So, I’m here today to tell you – all of you; from the folks who are still slogging through finishing their first work, to you seasoned and successful pros – that it doesn’t hurt to go see your mechanic every now and then. Get a tune-up. Check under the hood, change the oil, replace the spark plugs. That’s a big one – replacing the spark plugs.
If you haven’t had a tune-up in a while, get one, no matter who your mechanic is. I promise that your motor will run better, cleaner, and faster.
Now, on a personal, somewhat homoerotic note… I mentioned LCC earlier. Well, I have to give a shout out, and throw some props to some new friends I made in Seattle. These folks are not only good writers (they truly are), but they’re good people. So, thank you Sean, Brett, and Rob for helping me have one of the best Cons ever by breaking bread and beer, talking shop and life (and pens!), kicking my ass, and for that surreal combination of joy (my first unofficial signing) and terror (no comment) inside the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.
*sniff* I love you guys! *sniff*