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.