Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stay in the Phone Booth with the Gorilla

Have you ever received writing advice so profound that you wanted to shout, "Aha!"? I've had several of these moments during my writing career. But I think the most valuable advice I ever took away from a conference was from Colonel Jimmie Butler, the founder of the Pikes Peak Writer's Conference. He stood at the podium and said to attendees, "Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla."

Now an odd phrase like that might not mean much at first glance, but Colonel Butler described the scene like this: A young woman out for a stroll turns to see a 500-pound gorilla chasing her. The young lady shrieks and runs for her life. She trips over trash cans, bowls over pedestrians, but with every glance back, the massive ape grows closer.

Breathless, she runs and runs. She looks everywhere for escape, but it's no use. She is about to be devoured whole by this raging primate. Up ahead, however, she spies a phone booth. Seeing it as her only hope, she charges inside. But as she closes the door, the gorilla forces its way inside. Trapped, she studies the beast about to end her life and remembers the time her parents took her to the zoo.

See the problem here? Did that last line stop you and yank you out? That was Colonel Butler's point, too. Back story, e.g. the zoo scene, has no place in an action scene. His invaluable advice to those in his workshop, and one I always remember when writing, is to "Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla."

Another treasured piece of advice came from another colonel as it turns out, Colonel Jim Roper. He looked over my manuscript, and what I thought was fine work. When he returned it to me, however, it was bleeding. Circled beside every cliche he'd penned, "Find your own voice." I remember smarting from all that red. Still, after that comment I find it nearly impossible to use a cliche without thinking, "Find your own voice."

How about you? Have you ever received a piece of writing advice you find invaluable? The Scribes would love it if you would share.


Terry Odell said...

I 'borrowed' one from Robert Crais (who got it from his agent, I believe, or perhaps his editor). "Your words aren't precious."

Of course, we think they are, but as Crais pointed out after he deleted all the words his agent (or editor) had underlined in his first few pages, the writing was better.

We struggle to put words on the page, but we have to remember not all of them are helping the story.

Donnell said...

Terry, I wonder if we weren't sitting in the same conference. I love to listen to Robert Crais speak. Particularly when he does many of you have received rejections... now raise your hands. Talk about unassuming, that's why it's so fun to read his work. Two Minute Rule is still my all time favorite. Although I love Elvis Cole and Joe Pike! Thanks for stopping by.

Keri Ford said...

What about when I discovered advice I'd heard wasn't such good advice? I write in the Regency period, too. Always heard, you gotta get your facts. Know your stuff or you'll be fried.

While that's true, it's also a bit untrue. There's gray in everything, and this is no exception. We are world-building after all. There's somethings about life back then that we just don't know about either.

Today we have commercials that log stuff for us (and are forever stored on YouTube). Things like toliet paper. That's not something you'd write about to your lover or family member, so if not for those bears on tv, people 2 hundred years from now might not know how that worked. Following me?

My first regency I got so bogged down in getting my facts straight, that I got lost in telling a good story. Can't tell you the exact day, but I can tell you my manuscript flew to a finish after I learned it.

Renee Ryan said...

Oh, Donnell,

GREAT topic. My favorite, most profound writing advice came from...well, I don't remember where I heard it first. It's this, "The scene is never about what the scene is about."

Sounds like a Yogi Bear-ism, I know, but that little jewel changed how I write every scene. I'm always asking myself, "What is this scene really about?"

Okay, back to the phone booth and my 500-pound gorilla!

Donnell said...

Hi, Keri, speaking of advice... Lynda Sandoval addressed the research topic. She said never let research slow you down. Use *** and keep going. I'm a research fiend too and it can really stop you. Glad you found a solution.

Renee, goes back to subtext, girlfriend. Exactly. Good luck in that phone booth!

Edie said...

Donnell, great pieces of advice! I have gorilla advice too. When Isabel Sharpe was nervous about speaking at a booksigning, her then 8-year old son put his hand on her shoulder and said, "Mom, you're going to be fine. You won't die, and no gorillas will come in and rip people's heads off."

Donnell said...

Oh my gosh, Edie, :) who knew that gorillas were such a staple of the industry ;)

Julie Rowe said...

My favourite piece of advice came from my dear friend Dianne - revision. Revise your work at least 6 times before you send it out the door.

It's saved me from many an embarrasing spelling mistake, left out word and awkward sentences.

Cheers, Julie

Donnell said...

Julie, Dianne Despain aka Dianne Drake is known for indispensable advice. I have her on speed dial. :)

Annette said...

The bit of advice that has stuck with me came from Nancy Martin when I first met her. I won't try to quote her, but the idea was to finish the book. Too often, we get stuck perfecting the first chapter or two and never get to the end. She said not to worry about the first three chapters. Finish the book THEN throw the first three chapters in the trash and re-write them. The reason being, you won't know your characters or have found your voice until you're into the story a little further. Finish the book and then rewrite the first chapters using what you've learned along the way.

And I still have to remind myself of this when I'm obsessing over the opening scenes.

Donnell said...

Annette, Nancy gives amazing advice. I received advice like that too from Sharon Mignerey. Although I have to say I like your first chapters ;)

Misty Evans said...

Donnell, I enjoyed both posts today. Blogging is an ever growing means of comunication and it can suck away a lot of time from writing. I struggle to find balance! This blog is one of my regulars and so is Chiron O'Keefe's The Write Soul (motivational).

As far as the gorilla...excellent advice. So is find your own voice. One of my favorites is from Laurie Schnebly regarding motivating characters. Every time they do something, you ask why. And then you ask why again. It usually takes me three or four *whys* before I uncover their real motivation. Kind of like my real life kids. :)

Theresa said...

Hi Donnell,
Great topic. Let's see . . . I've been privileged to get so much great advice. Catherine Coulter always said you've got to have a STRONG ego to survive not only the rejections--but the whole industry.

I learned to treat writing like a business and be ultra professional from Debbie Macomber and Joan Johnston.

I had several epiphany moments listening to mega screen-writer Steve Odekerk talk abt the necessity of small short paragraphs, 'cause long ones are too intimidating and encourage skipping--that's why the newspaper is laid out the way it is--for ease in reading.

And when it comes to pitching, ya gotta act as if you're offering the agent/editor a million bucks and they'd be FOOLS to turn you down. FOOLS! You have to KNOW you've got solid gold, 'cause if you don't believe it why should they???

My fairy Godmother, Susan Wiggs, says to stay true to your voice and it's just a matter of finding that one right agent or editor, and then you're off!

And EVERYBODY will tell you not to give up, that persistence is KEY.

That's all I can remember from the top of my head, but I know there's tons more.

KL Grady said...

Advice I live by as a writer:

1. The first draft is meant to be "vomit on the page." Be okay with that. (multiple sources)
2. Kill your darlings. (Was this in On Writing by S. King?)
3. Good writers aren't actually good writers. They're good re-writers. (paraphrased from the awesome Timons Esaias)
4. As a writer, it's your duty to stretch your creativity. Don't hold back. (paraphrased from the awesome Mike Arnzen)

Joe Prentis said...

Good advice doesn't always soak down past the top of our head, and the really good stuff is likely to just drip off into nowhere. I do too much research and fall victim to what Orson Scott Card called 'World builder disease.' We have all heard it a million times, but 'just get the darn thing down on paper' should be etched deeply into the wall over our computer. After reading about na-no, I decided I would finish a 50,000 word manuscript in one month. It ran into 62,000 words before I was finished, and wasn't half-bad on the first read. I like the T-shirts that say, Just Do It! Leap into space, take a chance -- just get the darn thing down.

Joe Prentis

Donnell said...

Joe, thanks for stopping by. My blog partner KL talked about this method as well. I'm still trying to learn the anorexic method :) For some reason I want to get things perfect before I move on. This is an exercise in discipline that I truly admire everyone who does Nano. I tried it once, and ended up purging a whole lot of pages. I'm impressed that you got so much out of it.