What Would A Famous Writer Tell You?

by James Scott Bell

Here’s a fun little exercise I’ve used from time to time to jumpstart the ol’ creative battery. It only takes about 90 seconds. 

Begin by finding a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted. Sit in a comfortable chair, feet on the floor. Relax. Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. 

Now imagine that you are walking through a beautiful meadow. Take time to smell the flowers. (Note: there are no cows in this meadow.) 

Up ahead you see a cabin with a bit of smoke curling out of the chimney. Vividly imagine this cabin. Notice the materials and the colors. Smell the smoke. 

You walk up to the door and find it slightly open. You step into the cabin and see a famous writer—or one of your personal favorites—tapping away at a keyboard. (Note: The writer can be deceased, but try not to pre-choose who it is. Let your right brain hop in and provide the answer.)

The writer looks at you, slightly annoyed at being interrupted, and you tell said writer that you have come for one piece of writing advice that you desperately need. The writer, who is somehow familiar with your work, thinks for a moment, and says, “_______.”

Here’s what happened when I did this a few days ago. The writer was John D. MacDonald. He was writing on an electric typewriter with his ever-present pipe in his mouth. 

He finished typing a sentence and looked at me.

I said, “Sorry to interrupt, but I really need a piece of advice for my writing. Would you mind?”

MacDonald took a couple of thoughtful puffs, then said, “Work harder on your sentences.”

I wanted to pull up a chair and ask him to elaborate. But he waved me off. “I have to get back to work,” he said and started typing again. 

I walked back through the meadow, pondering his advice. I remembered something he once said about his own style. He wanted it to have “a bit of unobtrusive poetry.”

The key word is unobtrusive. He didn’t want readers noticing the poetry, just feeling it as it served the story. 

I had to admit I wasn’t taking enough time lately to think about my sentences. I determined to do more light editing after I’ve written a scene to see if I can add just a touch of unobtrusive poetry. I started to think about how. I can:

  • search for more active verbs.
  • freshen an adjective.
  • come up with a metaphor.
  • put the strongest part of the sentence at the end. For example, instead of He was holding a gun when he came through the door I can arrange it this way: He came through the door holding a gun.

You can do this exercise whenever you need some inspiration. In the past I’ve received advice from Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Raymond Chandler.

Then I let them get back to work. 

Care to try it? Don’t make something up on the spot. You want your subconscious to participate. Follow the steps for at least a minute and a half. 

Who did you find in the cabin, and what did that writer tell you? What will you do with the advice?

30 thoughts on “What Would A Famous Writer Tell You?

  1. Erma Bombeck was in my cabin. She was delighted to see me and I was excited to see her. “It’s been a while,” she said. Back when I was a columnist she was the person I wanted to be. I haven’t read her or thought of her in years. I asked her for advice on my writing.

    “Have fun with it,” she said. “You used to. I think you’ve forgotten that.”

    I think she’s right. I’ve been so caught up in all the “You have to” dictates and trying to follow every one of them that I haven’t had fun with it. And the less fun I have, the less I do it.

    My best columns were always the ones I had the most fun writing. (An Anaconda in the Living Room was my favorite).

    I think I’ll go play today and see what happens.

    • Fantastic advice, Cynthia. Erma Bombeck was truly one of the great American humorists. I just looked, and I can’t believe she died all the way back in 1996. She’s missed.

    • Synchronicity. One of the YouTube channels I subscribe to is “Hollywood Graveyards” where the host walks through graveyards to find the graves of the famous and not so famous and gives a brief look into this person’s life and career. I find it oddly fascinating even though I do not like graveyards. Lately, he’s been posting fans’ visits to graves outside of California. Last night, I watched his most recent video which included Erma Bombeck’s grave. It reminded me of one of her stories.

      She was on a book tour, and she turned down dessert on a plane. The plane hit really bad turbulence and everyone around her was screaming and praying. Her first thought was “I should have had the chocolate cake.” Words to remember.

  2. In the cabin, Ann Rule smiled and then morphed into Edgar Allan Poe.

    He said, “While writing, love your story. Long for it when you’re away. Once it’s finished, never forget the journey and the joys of writing it.”

    Interesting exercise, Jim. It’s exactly what I needed to hear today.

  3. Wonderful exercise, Jim. My conscious mind doesn’t like giving up its hold on things easily, so it took a little while to get to the cabin. (Which looks remarkably like the picture at the top of your post. 🙂

    When I walked in I found Agatha Christie sitting at the typewriter. She’s so lovely. She would probably have spent hours talking to me, but I knew I shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. I timed it — I was there for five minutes.

    Ms. Christie told me to always remember to let the joy of life shine through my stories.

  4. Fantastic post and a wonderful exercise, Jim. I sat in my comfy chair, put my feet on the floor, closed my eyes, and began visualizing the scene as you had written it. In under a minute I stood in the cabin, looking at the writer at work. It turned out to be a writer I know personally, Nancy Kress, who is always insightful. She told me, “put yourself into your writing and focus on the story.”

    It was exactly what I needed to hear.

    I’ve been spending too much time thinking about process lately, after even more time spent on plot mechanics and mystery details. I need to relax and visualize the story rather than constantly supervising myself.

    Thanks for a very helpful post!

    • That’s great, Dale. Nancy and I were colleagues at WD, sharing the fiction column. She’s great. Her book on characterization is my favorite on that topic. And her advice to you, as always, is sound!

  5. Wonderful timing, Jim. Great post. I had actually traveled metaphorically through your exercise before I read your post, this morning. Frustrated by the frantic chase for success, I stepped into a well-known theologian’s cabin. He pointed to his shelves, where miraculously my own library now stood. I picked up one of his books, opened it to an old bookmark, where the title stated “The Best Place to Start.” I looked at the writer. He simply said, “Never forget the reason why you began writing.” I walked quietly back to my writing space at the front of the forest, resolved to stop chasing and return to telling stories that need to be told.

    Have a great day!

  6. I entered the cabin via this portal: https://youtu.be/AP9V2auxvdY . Inside, beside one of two Franklin stoves, I found A.E. vanVogt*, typing away. He paused, looked at me over his horn rimmed spectacles, and waited for me to speak. When I told him I needed inspiration, he swiveled his chair around to face me and took a better look at me. He finally spoke:
    “Don’t worry about anything but the writing. Focus on the writing and you’ll be okay.” He turned back to his machine, peered at the page, then went on typing.
    “But the . . .”
    He held up a hand. “Next time. Okay?”
    I left the cabin and trudged back through the glistening snow the way I had come.

    * author of the first science-fiction novel I ever read, The World of Ā

  7. It’s you. We don’t argue but it’s getting to the point after reading your craft books and such I have a personal saying. “What would JSB do?” WWJD. It might not be what you’d say in real life but it’s always good advice nonetheless.

    I’ve done this on occasion – not using the cabin in the woods theme – just to keep me grounded. It works.

  8. My mental journey stopped when I started to sneeze my nose off at the flowers. So, my advice was probably “be careful of what sensory details you use.”

  9. This was fun. I walked into the cabin and William Faulkner sat at his desk typing away on an old Underwood. (He generally wrote by hand and transcribed it with the typewriter while he could still read it) But then he morphed into Hal Phillips who wrote “the Bitterweed Path” and scripts for several movies. He lived near me and I had asked him for advice when I first got serious about writing.
    Today I asked him again, and he replied, “It takes a million words to make a writer.”
    and I replied, “But I’ve written a million words.”
    “Go write another million.”

  10. In the cabin it wasn’t a famous writer. And it wasn’t a typewriter. It was a workbench.

    The man seated at the workbench was Leo Fender.
    He maybe wrote with steel and copper wire and wood and electrical parts and created magic.

    I asked him for one piece of advice.

    He told me “Finish the things that you start. Now let me work.”

  11. My cabin was empty except for the writings left on the wall by various writers. The first said, “If you are going to dawdle among the flowers, make sure you really see them.” The second read, “Find the truth and everything else will fall away.”

    • There are times when graffiti holds wisdom. From a bathroom stall in the 60s:

      “To be is to do”—Socrates.
      “To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
      “Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.

  12. I’m late catching up this weekend but my cabin held Karin Slaughter. She told me, “Stop being so precious. Write raw and let the emotion come through.”

    Just what I needed to hear to set me up for the week. Thanks JSB!

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