My mechanic Steve

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*

96 thoughts on “My mechanic Steve

  1. Mike MacLean

    Damn it, now I have yet another book to buy.

    I hate to admit it, but many of the books on writing I’ve read (years ago) have been the cheesy “how-to” varieties. Most are either too vague or too insistent on one way of doing things (as if there was only one way to write a book). But I guess if you take away a single gem of advice, it’s worth it.

    I’ll check King’s out. Like you said, we all need a tune up.

    Thanks Paul.

    Reply
  2. David J. Montgomery

    I had a conversation about how-to writing books with Warren Murphy once. Despite the fact that he’d written hundreds of books, sold millions, and won (I think) 3 Edgar Awards, he still read writing books. Still visited the mechanic.

    Warren said you could always find at least one thing in a how-to book that would teach you something — and even if it were just one thing, that could be a valuable tool to add to your arsenal.

    I’ll second Paul’s recommendations of Stephen King’s ON WRITING and David Morrell’s LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING. I learned from both of them.

    Reply
  3. Alex Sokoloff

    Hah – over on Backspace I just posted a long rant about MY personal mechanic, John Truby, whose Story Structure class (available on CD and DVD on his website, truby.com) is the best I’ve ever taken, ever. And I’ve taken a lot.

    And at LCC Boyd Morrison reminded me of how useful Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES is, especially for the mythic kinds of stories I love to read and write.

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  4. Naomi

    Haven’t picked up Stephen King’s book yet, but I did read half of it in Borders one afternoon. (The story behind the writing and publishing of CARRIE is fascinating.) I’m a BIRD BY BIRD fan and use it in my writing workshops. Also helpful to me personally was John Braine’s WRITING A NOVEL (I think that the title has since changed). It’s an old book; I’m not sure how I acquired it, but Braine’s approach was very constructive during the writing of my first book.

    I’ll pick up ON WRITING. I’m so excited that King will be participating so actively during Edgar Week. Did y’all notice that he’ll be doing a Q & A with Charles Ardai during the Wednesday symposium? That in itself will be worth the $90!

    Glad you did some male bonding at LCC–that’s very cool. Didn’t get a chance to meet Sean, but I love talking to Brett and Rob and teasing them about their husband/wife relationship (now who’s the wife again?).

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  5. Swierczynski

    I agree–the King and Morrell books are great. The coolest thing about the King book, for me, was the idea that writing is telepathy, and good writing is essentially how skilled a telepath you are.

    When I need a good mechanic, I also scour writer biographies and writer Q&A collections. Some of the best that come to mind: CAIN by Roy Hoopes, ART IN THE BLOOD by Craig McDonald, BACK TO THE BADLANDS by John Williams, SAVAGE ART by Robert Polito, FIRST YOU DREAM, THEN YOU DIE by Francis Nevins, DARK DREAMERS by Stanley Wiater, HARDBOILED AMERICA by Geoffrey O’Brien… oh, I could go on.

    But I dip into these fairly often, mostly when I want reassurance that I’m not a Martian, and that other writers have gone through the same shit, too.

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  6. Ray Banks

    Like Duane, I dip into the biographies, mostly because I don’t like being told what to do. ON WRITING is terrific, and so is Derek Raymond’s HIDDEN FILES (though that’s pretty specific to noir). As well as everything he mentioned, apart from the Williams book.

    What I’ve found also gets the blood going is Peter Biskind’s EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS. Having a good sloppy gossipy dose of 70s Hollywood is enough to get me back believing in fighting for the story. And that goes for anything about personal film-makers. Guess I’m just a frustrated auteur.

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  7. Bill Peschel

    I’d like to know more about why you don’t like McKee. I remember being enthralled by it, although I’ll have to go back to my notes now and see why.

    King’s book is very good. I still use his “closed door / open door” metaphor when I’m writing. “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” was the first book I came across that gave me a nuts-and-bolts lesson in revision.

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  8. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Years ago, I was a regular reader of Larry Block’s monthly column in WRITERS DIGEST, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to reading an actual book on the subject of writing. Though I did read William Goldman’s ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, which I found more entertaining than anything else.

    Some of the books mentioned here pique my interest, however, so I think I’ll give one or two a try. Anything that can teach Guyot how to write must have something to offer an amateur like me, right?

    Up until now, my idea of getting a “tune-up” has been reading a book by an author who could kick my ass with one hand tied behind his or her back. The aforementioned Mr. Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Richard Price, (early) Elmore Leonard. Four pages in, and I’m seeing things great writers do that I still haven’t gotten the hang of yet. Writer, heal thyself.

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  9. Dave White

    On Writing is one of my favorite books and I really tuned into it about the time I wrote my second short story. It really helped me believe in my own stuff and I loved knowing that even though King didn’t know what the end of some of his stories were, he knew they were “in him.”

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  10. Al Guthrie

    I learned to write by reading dozens of books on the craft. I’m addicted now. I rarely read one and don’t take something from it (it happens, but less often than you’d think).

    I’m a big fan of Sol Stein. Any of his books on writing are well worth seeking out.

    McKee’s STORY. I’m too stupid to understand it.

    Robert Olen Butler’s FROM WHERE YOU DREAM blew my head off. Insane and brilliant in equal measures. A dangerous book if you’re looking to learn how to plot, but a work of breathtaking genius if you want pragmatic examples of how to write ‘in the moment’.

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  11. Guyot

    Bill,My problems with McKee…

    First, any writing teacher who tells you that it’s their way or the wrong way loses all credibility for me right there. Is there a more important rule in writing than “Whatever works for you” ??? Like, I said, I know a pair of very good writers who love McKee, so there you go. But for him to tell you that if you don’t do it his way, you’re a bad writer is just stupid.

    McKee is the most arrogant prick in the how-to biz, and if you aren’t on board what HE preaches, then you don’t know shit about writing. He also uses his seminars to take potshots at all the people in Hollywood he’s pissed at for never hiring him to write. He LOVES trashing famous, well thought of screenplays by writers he hates.

    My other problem, if that weren’t enough, is that I’m always skeptical of anyone who is teaching something that they have never succeeded at.

    McKee never bothers telling the real story of how STORY was created: He failed for years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and his ego blamed his failure on the fact that nobody knew as much as he did about writing. So he started his whole snake oil act as a vengeful F-you to Hollywood.

    If you ever meet him (which I have) you’d be hardpressed to find a more bitter, more spiteful human being, despite all his success.

    I tried reading STORY a couple of different times and found it just like his seminars – McKee just loving his own voice. Trying way too hard to sound like he knows everything – literally everything.

    But again, this is just me. If a writer can get something out of McKee, or anyone else for that matter, good on ya.

    Reply
  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Guyot,Both King’s and LaMott’s works shimmer with honesty and that’s what I love about them.

    I’m curious about Morrell. He was a keynote speaker at a conference I attended. What I got from his talk was that extroverts couldn’t be *real* writers. This, and other blanket statements, turned me right off.

    Can anyone give me more info on his book? Is is filled with the same kind of attitude?

    I love my mechanics — but would like to broaden the tool kit.

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  13. Jim Born

    I loved King’s book. Another I’m fond of is The Lie That Tells the Truth by John Dufrense. It is more of the writer’s journey than basics of writing but I liked it.

    I would have to confess that I learned a few things from Story by McKee. Not that is was a masterpiece but it has helped me with characters and their actions.

    Jim Born

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  14. Guyot

    Pari,I agree there were some black-or-white statements in Morrell’s book that I found quite McKeeish.

    But I’d say it was maybe 10% of the entire book. The rest was, for me, very useful.

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  15. Brett Battles

    ON WRITING is one of my all time favorite books, let alone how-to books. Love, love, love it. But haven’t picked it up in a while. Think I’m going to have to do that…maybe tonight.

    Thanks for the mention. The absolute best part of the conference was hanging out with you, Rob, Sean and a few others. And that moment in the Seattle Mystery Bookstore…PRICELESS!!!!

    Oh…Naomi…Rob would be the wife. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… HA!

    Reply
  16. David J. Montgomery

    I don’t recall Morrell making any statements of that sort that turned me off to his advice — so they must be at a minimum. Either that or I must have agreed with them! 🙂

    It’s been a while since I read the book, but I particularly remember a lot of good advice about dialogue.

    He also has an interesting technique for dealing with writers block (and similar problems), in which he talks out the work in a dialogue with himself.

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  17. Bryon Quertermous

    Like Ray and Duane, I find biographies inspiring and refreshing, but I also love books about the craft. That’s probably why ON WRITING works so well for me. I also love Lawrence Block’s TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT because it also mixes sage advice with biographical info and whatnot.

    By far though, the bets writing book for me was Sol Stein’s SCREENPLAY. While I never ended up writing a screenplay, his simple break down of the 4 act structure and use of plot points gave me the structure I needed to be able to finally finish my first novel.

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  18. JT Ellison

    I’m going to go out and get King’s book tonight. I’ve heard too many endorsements, and Lord knows I’m not above a tune-up.

    I’ve read two how to’s — Betsy Lerner’s FOREST FOR THE TREES and Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. I took away from both of them. George’s book gave a really good perspective on building characters at a time I was struggling with secondary and tertiaries.

    When I really need inspiration, I turn to my masters. J. Connolly especially gets me on the right track. Reading what I’m trying to accomplish in a literary sense helps fine tune my prose.

    Nice topic, G, as always!

    Reply
  19. Louise Ure

    I regularly take my ride back the the King garage.

    But if you’re looking for laugh out loud, Get-Over-Your-Own-Bad-Self advice on writing, try John Warner’s “Fondling Your Muse.

    Reply
  20. Rob Gregory Browne

    Uh, thanks for that Naomi. Brett, I think we need to talk…

    Paul, one of the best moments of LCC was seeing your face go white at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I wish I’d had a camera.

    And, yes, it was great to break bread with you and Sean and Bill and Phil and… who am I missing? Oh, yeah, Brett — not so much. 🙂

    Anyway, I agree, King’s book is one of the best. I especially love the part where he talks about writing being a form of mental telepathy. I’d never thought of it that way before — and it’s true.

    Now, finish that book.

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  21. JLW

    I don’t read books or articles about writing, although I’ve written a little on the subject, usually when asked. My advice is always technical. To me, reading about writing is like reading about playing the piano. It doesn’t really help you play.

    Some of them are nothing more than that scourge of the bookseller, the self-help pop psychology text. Julie Cameron, I mean you.

    Somewhere I have a couple books on the subject of novel writing. I think one of them is by Robert Graves. My wife read them and thought they were very good, and she’s the more gifted writer in the family. I’ll try to find them and report back to you.

    Years ago, before the advent of Windows, I once had Sol Stein’s Writer Pro software, which I thought was quite clever and useful for establishing a sense of discipline, but mainly because it was directly interactive. I don’t think it would have helped anybody who wasn’t already self-motivated, though, and I never went beyond lesson three once I got rolling.

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  22. AlnAndrsn

    RE: McKee. I couldn’t agree with you more about McKee. I went to his STORY seminar in LA a few years back. He was nothing but a bitter, long-winded, pissed off, angry prick.

    And not only is he unreadable, he’s unlistenable. Check out the audio book on STORY (Warning: Do NOT do this while operating a motor vehicle).

    If you do go to his seminar (after having the privilege of paying $575), go in knowing that it is an honor to be in his presence.

    The only highlights of that weekend experience was I got to sit next to Betty Thomas and David Faustino (“Bud Bundy” from Married with Children).

    Reply
  23. Mark Terry

    I like Lawrence Block’s “Telling Lies For Fun & PRofit” and “Spider, Spin Me A Web,” but my all-time most-recommended, you-really-need-to-track-this-book-down book on writing is Gary Provost’s “Make Your Words Work.”

    I think Gary’s book is a must-read for writers.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.markterrybooks.com

    Reply
  24. Guyot

    RGB,

    You are so right – I LOVE the audiobook. To hear King expressing his prose exactly as he intended is priceless.

    And yes, that moment in the bookstore is forever etched in my brain.

    Reply
  25. Mark Terry

    I like Lawrence Block’s “Telling Lies For Fun & PRofit” and “Spider, Spin Me A Web,” but my all-time most-recommended, you-really-need-to-track-this-book-down book on writing is Gary Provost’s “Make Your Words Work.”

    I think Gary’s book is a must-read for writers.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.markterrybooks.com

    Reply
  26. G. T. Karber

    Who are you to say what is or isn’t a word? I’m not trying to be rude (though it sounds like I am, I mean you the greatest of respect), but no one decides what’s a word or not in American society. If you want to say it’s not formal, then that’s perfectly acceptable, but the English language is an evolving entity. If someone uses a word, and someone else understands it, it’s a word.

    Now, I’m not going to use “impactful” in my fiction anytime soon, and I can only assume you meant “yay” wasn’t a word that meant “yes” in formal votes, because I would never, ever write, “We ‘re going to the beach today, Mom?! YEA!” However, to have a congressman answer “yay” to a bill would be equally as dumb.

    But that doesn’t mean they aren’t words, or that “language” has gotten “lazy.” Language has been transforming and changing since its invention. English didn’t appear out of nowhere. It evolved, as all languages do. And to fight that evolution with language conservatism, or to react in a way that the denizens of Language Log would say requires “langer management,” that seems a bit petty.

    That being said, the King book is great, and I’m going to check out a few others that people mentioned. I always wanted to read Story, if only so I could bitch about it honestly.

    Reply
  27. Alex Sokoloff

    G, admint it. You’re just jealous of McKee’s sexual magnetism.

    I took McKee’s class when I first moved to LA and he’s a tremendously inspiring teacher (and was definitely an enormous flirt). I learned a lot from his class, but more in his analysis of movies (and the ones he loves he has true, raw passion for) than in his story structure method. I don’t think it was the best class I ever took in terms of technical knowledge but it was enormously entertaining and certainly hugely inspirational as I was writing my first screenplay (which sold).

    Plus, the man’s just an icon. The great Brian Cox (whom I worship) didn’t even do justice to his bizarre personal charisma in ADAPTATION.

    So there.

    Reply
  28. Guyot

    Um, okay…

    I’ve decided fizzhogg is a word.

    Fizzhogg means to drop something important, usually but not always sports-related.

    “I fizzhogged that pass!”

    There. I used it, and my daughter understands it, so it’s a word now. Cool.

    Can I get an amen?

    Reply
  29. G. T. Karber

    Hey, man, I don’t want to start yelling at each other online. I apologize if I came off as a dick. I don’t mean you any disrespect.

    My question to you is what makes a word a word? Does it have to appear in a dictionary? If so, which dictionary? Or is there some other set of guidelines?

    Reply
  30. Libby

    Thanks for screwing up my blog for next week, Guyot… I was going to talk about ON WRITING also… plus two others that I think are wonderful. (Hint.. check out the Outfit next Monday…) Nancy Pickard used McKee’s theory about “turns” in her CASTS discussion at Love is Murder and it worked well in that context. Funny, though.. when McKee’s name came up, Ann Perry, who was in the audience, made reference to McKee’s attitude as well.

    Great minds….

    Reply
  31. Guyot

    Hey, GT…

    No worries, that’s just me hacking on you, trying to be funny – which I usually fail at.

    But what does make a word a word? By your idea, then fizzhogg is a word. And that means that anyone can make anything a word. If we go with that, how do we teach future generations, and what kind of books will they produce?

    For me, this just goes to my point that people are lazy these days.

    “no one decides what’s a word or not in American society.” – this sounds like the type of thing rampant on college campuses these days. But see, American Society and the language are two different entities, and when a writer feels that anything can be a word, well, that’s lazy. It’s people that don’t want to put the work in, learn the fundamentals of the language, etc. And that writer may be a hit at the local coffee house, but will fail as a professional.

    But again, this is all ONLY my opinion. Which means nothing. I just don’t like ad execs taking the language, or their lack of understanding of it, and forming their own words – because they don’t like the ones that exist. And I don’t like people that spell something however they want to spell it – because they can’t remember the way it is spelled.

    But… like the folks who like McKee – doesn’t mean they’re wrong at all, just that we have different points of view.

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  32. Barry Eisler

    I’ve enjoyed and learned a ton from some of the How To books mentioned here — particularly David Morrell’s On Writing and Stephen King’s On Writing. I also gotten a lot out of Robert McKee’s Story, and liked his screenwriting seminar so much that I also attended his Genre seminar. Certainly reasonable people can differ on substance and style, but I like McKee on both counts and believe all the money I’ve spent on his stuff has been a sound investment. I’ve never felt he’s a “my way is the only way” teacher, although he’s often accused of being such. In fact, he’s at pains to point out that he teaches principles, not rules, a rule being something you have to do, a principle being something that, if you do it, will work. That’s an important distinction in my eyes.

    Cheers,Barry

    Reply
  33. JLW

    Ho-hum, G.T. Karber: the same old tired arguments about how English evolves and if any two people agree on a word between them, it’s a word, ain’t it grand, that I have had to tolerate for the last forty years. Shame on you for intellectual laziness. You won’t find “impactful” in the OED, not yet, anyway, and it’s a descriptive dictionary.

    In any case, PG isn’t making ajudgment he’s making an observation. But what if he is setting himself up as an arbiter?

    Yes, of course “impactful” is a word. So is fizzhogg. Joyce invented quark, Carroll invented chortle. I myself have recently contributed “bibulophile” and “bibulotheque” (intentionally pompous, in case you wondered, or they would serve no purpose not met by “dipsomaniac” and “gin mill”). Words are invented all the time. Words drop out of the vocabulary all the time, too–when was the last time you heard about anybody hanging out at the drugstore down at the carfax? But change in language is only positive if a new word adds something to the spectrum of meaning embraced by the vocabulary, or if an old word has grown obsolete. “Impactful” does not add anything, to begin with, and to make things much worse, it is poorly formed. Would you consider “collideful” a legitimate word, too?

    I first heard “impactful” in the early 80s in a management seminar. (That’s a warning sign right there.) The context was “impactful act”, or doing something dramatic to get someone’s attention. It was invented by some MBA weenie whose vocabulary was so anorexic he just cobbled together a word to mean what he wanted it to mean, just like Humprty Dumpty. Lots of times words get perverted, too–computer scientists who talk of “synchronous processes” have no idea what the actual definition in English of “synchronous” is–they think it means “synchronized”–and when they call putting millions of transistors on a tiny chip and call it Very Large Scale Integration, they’re turned the phrase “large scale” on its very head.

    It is up to us writers to protect the single most powerful method ever devised to communicate, viz., English. Show a little backbone and take an uncompromising stand (unless you prefer the sickly MBA-driven alternative, “zero tolerance approach”) against crappy neologisms.

    Pauses. Steps off soapbox.

    I found the writers’ books: BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothy Brande, ON BECOMING A NOVELIST by John Gardner (the American, author of GRENDEL, not the British fellow who was Rob Benson’s Bondish percursor), and ONE WRITER’S BEGINNINGS by Eudora Welty. Bound together in trade paperback. I don’t where Robert Graves came from. At first scan, they all look quite wonderful.

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  34. Guyot

    Barry is one of the writers I spoke of that has gotten a lot from McKee. And obviously, Barry can write. Certainly better than I can.

    McKee likes to muck with us using semantics – “I don’t teach rules, I teach principles – rules being something you have to do, a principle being something that, if you do it, it will work.”

    What he is saying there is that if you don’t do what he says, it won’t work. I have an issue with that.

    I mean, if a writer who uses his “principles” and they don’t work for that writer, does that mean that writer is bad? Not at all. But that’s what McKee is telling us.

    And for me personally, I’m just always going to pay more attention to someone who has actually done what they’re talking about, as opposed to have failed at it. If McKee had succeeded as a writer, he would have probably never created the STORY franchise.

    Again, though, if a writer gets one helpful thing from a book or seminar, then that works for them. And that’s my point here – USE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU, THROW AWAY WHAT DOESN’T.

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  35. JLW

    Of course, I meant to write, “In any case, PG isn’t making a judgment. He’s making an observation.” Just to let you know that I care deeply about punctuation, too. You can ask Evil E about that.

    And I misspelled “precursor”, but it was a typo. I swear.

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  36. Cornelia Read

    Love the King, love Lamott, and highly recommend IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland–an oldie but a goodie.

    On the other hand, I really like to spell “yea” as “yay,” because it just looks more festive to me. Whenever I see “yea,” I expect it to be followed by “verily.” But that’s just me. Most other “modern” spellings drive me up a wall.

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  37. G. T. Karber

    I’m not arguing that words should be invented and then used in books arbitrarily. It happens, and when it does, there’s usual a use for it. With the risk (no, the certainty) of sounding horribly cliche, I will state the obvious by saying that Shakespeare himself coined a whole number of new words, many of which we still use today.

    I just believe that if a wide portion of people are going to understand a word, there’s no reason not to use it. Same with spelling. Is “Okay” not appropriate because it should be “OK,” or is neither appropriate because they were invented in the 19th century? I can’t imagine that “homoerotic” has been around for very long (relatively speaking), especially seeing as how homosexual didn’t come along until almost the twentieth century. What about “blog”?

    As to your question about future generations: I say that we teach children that they can do whatever they want with the English language, a more beautiful palette than any painter wields, and that they should be encouraged to create and innovate in whatever ways they feel. (They should know that inventing words isn’t likely to get them a job at a newspaper, but we shouldn’t tell children that free speech is a lie because you can’t say whatever you want at work.)

    We would teach them that their words will inspire generations to come, and that there are no limits on what they can do. Invent a word? Sure, if it serves a purpose to do so. If not, then use one of the hundreds of thousands of words already coined.

    Alternatively, we can keep instructing them not to end sentences with prepositions. Or split infinitives. Or use the singular they. Or any of a number of other arbitrary restrictions placed upon our language by the prescriptivists. Neologisms are part of our language.

    PS – I also hate when people misspell words, because you’re right, that almost always is laziness.

    PPS – I almost just misspelled misspell (one s). How embarrassing would that have been?

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  38. G. T. Karber

    JLW, I don’t care about typos, and though I said I hated misspellings, I really don’t. I hate it when people try to excuse misspellings.

    People who correct other people’s use of the language, well, nobody wants to sit next to them in parties. Being a Grammer Nazi is stupid. (Least of which because you’re calling yourself a nazi.)

    And I agree with almost all of what you said. I just don’t like it when people say that something isn’t a word or not.

    For example, I didn’t say that if two people agreed on a word, it was a word. There doesn’t have to be a declared pact for the formation of new words. Simply understanding it makes it a word because it has transmitted information.

    That’s really all I’m talking about.

    (I don’t see the problem with synchronous processes, though. I looked it up to make sure I wasn’t confused, and my dictionary gives one of the definitions as existing or occuring at the same time.

    Reply
  39. Naomi

    Since WM is a regular visitor to this blog :-), I thought I better mention that Walter Mosley will be coming out with a novel writing book in April. I’m looking forward to it.

    Reply
  40. Wally M.

    Thank you, my dear Naomi, for that bit of uneccessary publicity.

    Now, all this cronkidge (a word I created) about language and Bobby McKee, and everything else, is just that – cronkidge.

    I quote the greatest anti-hero of my beloved Los Angeles; “Can we all just get along?”

    Writing is 100% subjective, my children.

    Except for the bad writing.

    Reply
  41. G. T. Karber

    Okay, Walter Mosely’s most recent post just made guarantee that I will be purchasing his writing guide.

    Also, I don’t think I’m going to whine much about this anymore.

    I feel strangely dirty.

    Reply
  42. Guyot

    Okay, I’ve been sitting here remembering McKee and wondering if I missed something, trying to see other’s POV, etc.

    I remember his long-winded discussion of plotting. What’s funny, is that so much of what McKee considers story, King considers plot. And I’m in the King camp that plot is nowhere near as important to good writing as story.

    Yes, the more I think about it, the more I’m sure he’s a goof. Sorry Barry and Alex, but I just remembered (unless I’m screwing this up) that he did this whole thing about structures and acts and inciting incidents. IIRC he said RAIDERS was a seven-act structure for some idiotic reason that an act begins or ends every time a twist happens? WTF???

    And it’s no wonder the term “inciting incident’ has become a joke among today’s screenwriters.

    And it’s no wonder that so many of Hollywood’s best screenwriters agree that McKee is a waste of time (William Goldman lived with McKee for a time, so his blurb doesn’t count).

    Okay, I’m done. And as always – this is just the opinion of a doughy white guy.

    Reply
  43. Patti McCoy Jacob

    I bought On Writing this past November after reading about it on your website, and read it cover to cover over the Thanksgiving weekend. As someone who is new to the whole fiction writing process, I found King’s book fascintating, informative, entertaining, and did I mention fascinating? It, along with Lessons from a Lifetime of Learning and bird by bird – your recommendations as well – are indispensable references for me with my novice mind and aging sieve-like brain. They are always within reach when I’m writing at my desktop computer or wandering around town with my iBook, and are my constant companions in carpool lines, waiting rooms, at the beach… IN BED!

    Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating.

    They really don’t accompany me to the beach.

    The part in On Writing that stuck out in my mind was when King talked about unearthing a fossil. Instead of having the beginning, middle and end already outlined in our minds or on paper, he suggested to just start writing and see what might be unearthed. Goes against ever anal-retentive fiber of my being. And I love it. I have to admit it is very freeing.

    Anyway, great recommendation, Mr. Guyot. All I can say is Yay! I mean, Yea!

    Reply
  44. JLW

    “Prescriptivism” is itself a rather unattractive neologism, dating from the 1950s, but the concept behind it is very useful. True, people don’t like to be told what they can’t do, and for some reason don’t mind being told what they can do–they conceive the former as limiting their freedom and the latter as championing it. Unfortunately, that thinking is backwards.

    A prescriptive rule only tells you what should not be allowed, yet is silent on all other activity–you are free to pursue anything and everything not specifically forbidden. In other words, the potential for action is bounded but infinite. A constructive rule, on the other hand, à la McKee, instructs you that there is only one correct way to do anything. That is far more restrictive.

    The term, by the way, is “grammar cop”, and not “grammar nazi”. I like cops. Not too fond of Nazis.

    As far as party conversation goes, though, I guess it depends on who you’re talking to. There is certainly no justification for being rude, and giving any kind of unsolicited correctional advice is always rude, irrespective of the subject. At the bar, though, PG and I are quite likely to talk about grammar and neither one of us would get upset at being corrected by the other. That’s one of the things that makes us writing buddies. And I certainly want my editor to catch my mistakes.

    The saddest words in the English language are the battle cry of the willfully ignorant: “Well, you know what I meant!”

    It’s just not good enough.

    And your idyllic thoughts on teaching kids about the beauty of creative writing made me want to barf. (I mention this with the most friendly intentions possible, since I think you have a sense of humor and can take it. I also do not think you’re a dick.) That’s like starting a kid out on the piano with Beethoven instead of with Hanon, or studying number theory before getting around to basic arithmetic. When you learn a foreign language, you do so through intensive drill until it becomes second nature. English shouldn’t be any different.

    Reply
  45. Rob Gregory Browne

    I like the unearthing a fossil analogy as well. It seems to me that every story is a mystery (or series of mysteries) — no matter the genre — and our job as writers is to slowly reveal the truth behind those mysteries.

    Reply
  46. JLW

    Oh, yeah–“synchronous processes”. In computer science, this refers to a peripheral, like a printer, being driven by the central processing unit. An “asynchronous process” is one in which the peripheral acts independently while the CPU is doing something else. Since an “asynchronous process” occurs when the CPU is off on other adventures, the two processes–the CPU’s and the peripheral’s– are actually synchronous, i.e., occuring at the same time.

    Engineers just love to mangle language.

    Reply
  47. Elaine Flinn

    I see the Absinthe bottle is running low – and the packs of hoarded Gaulouise (so hard to come by these days since the last factory closed last year)are rapidly savaged – but the beret’s are still on and that at least – is a good sign.

    Reply
  48. G. T. Karber

    I meant correcting people in conversation, not in writing.

    Also, I meant prescriptivism as opposed to descriptivism, as to divide between grammar statements that prescribes a particular method of construction (value statements) and those that merely describe them.

    I tend to agree with Elmore Leonard, in that if grammar rules and ease of understanding conflict, ease of understanding should be the victor. Others disagree. That being said, I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate on this one. I’ve got nothing against proper grammar.

    Reply
  49. David J. Montgomery

    Now that we know what Paul thinks of Robert McKee, I’m hoping he’ll discuss Syd Field next.

    I did think GT’s posts had a bit of a tone to them, so I’m glad that she explained herself.

    Part of the problem with a lax attitude about language is that it often results in one being misunderstood.

    As for the person claiming to be Walter Mosley… Is that joke still going on? It’s gotten a little old.

    Reply
  50. Aldo - Mystery Dawg

    I love this thread.

    I have read a few of the books mentioned above and it has helped me gain insight into the act of writing. As a beginner, and someone who is rather reluctant to share what I have written, except for professional articles, etc., I find the act of writing very private. I enjoy the labor of finding my voice and the physical act of putting words of paper. What I haven’t been able to transend is allowing others to read, more precisely, critique my writing. I think the reason why I find this difficult is I’m not sure what to do with the information.

    Reply
  51. JLW

    G.T., I knew exactly what you meant by prescriptivism. The only proper application of the word is to grammar, anyway. (How’s that for a prescriptivist statement?) It was coined in 1954, as I earlier alluded to. But at its root is the adjective “prescriptive”, which goes back to the mid-1770s, which in turn heralds back to “prescription”, which goes back to the 14th century. The thing that all of these words have in common is the concept of establishing normative rules. (Note also that I described the OED as a “descriptive” dictionary, so I know what that means, too.)

    People badmouth prescriptive approaches to grammar for the very reasons I listed–they feel it limits them. However, even a descriptive grammar (such as Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik, and more recently Huddleston and Pullum) makes distinctions between standard forms and improper constructions, even when such constructions are observed in usage. There is not really much of a debate there, not a substantive one, anyway–the main one being that a descriptive grammar supposedly tells you what the rules actually are, whereas a prescriptive grammar tells you what the rules are supposed to be. Either way, a grammar is a set of rules.

    The problem arises when folks think that there are no rules, or that they can invent them as they go along–hence such barbarisms as “impactful” in lieu of “impactive”, or “normalcy” in lieu of “normality” and so on, or as you observed, the abysmal singular “they” in lieu of the old gender-neutral “he”, which I still prefer, although it marks me as an old fogey–gender in language is not political in origin despite what some folks insist.

    And hey, Monty, you wanna hear a righteous invective against Syd Field, ask John Morgan Wilson.

    Reply
  52. David Montgomery

    Ah, normalcy. God bless Warren Gamaliel Harding, one of my favorite early-20th century presidents. I’ve been hoping for a renaissance for the name Gamaliel, but so far none has been in the offing. Do you suppose that Harding ruined it for everyone?

    Reply
  53. Daniel Hatadi

    This whole hemisphere thing always makes me come in on the tail end of massive comment threads like this.

    Still, I’ll have to second the vote on Gary Provost’s MAKING YOUR WORDS WORK. It’s well structured, immensely readable, and has useful sections on writing non-fiction as well.

    I know it’s already been beaten to death, but I’ll second the complaints on McKee’s STORY: the structure of the book itself is hard to follow and the man’s verbosity is out of control. If you can find a simple word to make your point, I say use it.

    Two concepts were worth noting, though. The gap between a reader’s expectation and what happens next, and the use of any plot structure as valid (as long as it’s well done).

    Reply
  54. Mel

    Damn, Guoyt! You sure know how to scare up a ton o’ comments. I can’t really add to this discussion as I am not familiar with many of the players, but as a former elementary school teacher, I can recommend a great book on what makes a word a word: “Frindle” by Andrew Clements. It’s a keeper for all ages:)

    Reply
  55. Doug Riddle

    As an unpublished writer who is still hacking away I find King’s On Writing a great help on those days when the work is less then inspired.

    Another great book that actually shares a title with King’s book On Writing is by the late George Higgins…..a wonderful book full of practical information. As is Elizabeth George’s Write Away.

    And for a very basic and in some ways simplistic book on writing, check out Evan Marshall’s Marshall Plan for Novel Writing….just the mechanics, plain and simple

    Reply
  56. G. T. Karber

    Singular “they” has been around for so long, and as much as it can be argued that “he” is gender neutral, it’s not. It’s masculine. Let’s be honest. It’s better than “(s)he” (which is just dumb) or “he or she” which is a mouthful, but singular they has been around for so long, in Shakespeare, The Bible, and novels galore, that we should just accept it by now.

    Just like splitting infinities, which often sounds stupid (“to be or to not be”) but which can quite often be the only way to express a concept clearly.

    Reply
  57. _m

    As far as the Frey books go (well, one of them, anyway, I can’t speak to anything but the *How to write a damn good mystery* one), well, yes, he uses a lot of clich&eacutes. He also refers to himself and his other books far too often. But, when I picked up my latest project, I found a quick skim of the beginning of this book an excellent way of grounding myself and focusing on the task at hand.

    Okay, okay, to pick up the car metaphor: I, umm, found them useful as, umm, new fan belts. Or maybe my tires were balanced. Something.

    My only prior “grounding” book was Strunk and White, so I’ll have to add the King book to the list and see how that goes.

    Reply
  58. Keith

    When I’m writing, just about anything I read can remind me of something important about writing.

    When I’m not writing, reading about it is procrastination.

    Reply
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