4 December, 2021

Phillipa Bornikova on Her Favorite Writing Advice

We are honored to host this guest post by Phillipa Bornikova in celebration of her blog tour for ‘Box Office Poison.’ Be sure to check out Sharon’s review of this exciting title and enter for a chance to win a copy of this amazing book!

Thanks for the post, Phillipa!

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

I have to list two pieces of “best advice” because they have defined my writing BoxOfficeButtonever since these gems were bestowed on me by two extraordinary men.

I had actually been writing for some three or four years before the first arrived, and it came as I was on the cusp of making the transition from prose to screenwriting.  My friend George R.R. Martin had gone out to Hollywood a few years before and he called one night and said “Hey, I think you’d be pretty good at this screenwriting stuff.  Want to try?”

To quote CHARADE My mama didn’t raise no stupid children so I said “Sure.”  George told me I needed to write a spec script and he warned me that you never ever, positively never sell your spec script.  It’s just a calling card that will, with luck, get you a meeting with an executive on a television show.  I decided to take a crack at a Star Trek Script.  I had grown up on the old show and loved it so I started watching Next Generation.  George also told me I needed to come up with several possible episodes assuming I was lucky enough to be called in for a pitch based on the strength of that script.

I came up with several ideas, but one in particular I knew was good… very good.  I went to George and said that since I wouldn’t sell this spec script I wanted to hold that really good story in reserve.  Save it for the pitch.  And George gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten.  He pointed out that if my spec script wasn’t great I would never get to make that pitch.  And then he said — as this is the important part —

Never hoard your silver bullet.

Meaning lead with the best thing you’ve got.  Don’t save something until you know more.  Or have a better editor.  Or see how this current book does before you give them the next book that has your really good idea.    So I wrote THE MEASURE OF A MAN.  It was bought, filmed, and landed me my first job in Hollywood.  It also earned me a Writer’s Guild of America Award for outstanding writing on a drama series.

The other best piece of advice I got was from my boss on Star Trek.  Like a lot of novelists trying to make the transition from prose to script I tended to be a bit too clever, too subtle while at the same time too wordy.  There was a particular line of dialogue in a script that my boss, Maurice Hurley didn’t like.  He was giving me notes, and finally in frustration he asked me, “So what the F**k does this mean?”  I told him, and he said “So why didn’t you say that?”  I said it sounded so bald and simple.  He gave me that great grin, leaned across the desk while pounding on the pages of the script and said,

“Just say the words, baby.  Just say the damn words!”

It seems so obvious, but too often as writers we try to echo the turmoil in a character’s soul with opaque language, and sometimes you just need to say the words.  Another very fine writer, Walter Jon Williams, puts it this way, “There is often much to be said for a simple declarative sentence.”

I have a box filled with the tools of my trade — how to hang a lantern on something, how to subvert expectations, but bring the readers to a satisfying ending that still meets their expectations, how to write a hook, and so on and so on.  But those two pieces of advice listed above; those are with me every day on every project, and they’ve never failed me yet.

-Phillipa Bornikova


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