Tips from the Masters: John Gilstrap

Author Lin Robinson

John Gilstrap has an unusual characteristic for a multi NYT best-selling author: he’s known online as very approachable and forthcoming individual, open and willing to connect. Maybe that has something to do with his kind of thriller, the kind that are less about whizbang, agency name-dropping, and international scare-shows, and more about human beings coping with hairy situations.

He’s always shown up heavily in the audio book market, with major sales to listeners and bling like The Copper Bracelet being #1 at Audible.com, with Audiobook Of They Year and Audie Award honors for The Chopin Manuscript.

But my personal favorites of his books is an early one, Nathan’s Run, a excellent example of what I mean by his human scale. There’s no huge world-shaking threat, no blazing action sequences; just a 12 year-old boy on the run from death with nobody to protect or care for him. In fact, a scan of his work shows that many show similar themes, as much so as his more typical investigators and assassin thrillers: church camp teens held hostage, a son lost in a frozen wilderness, a couple protect a hunted waif, criminal parents fleeing capture with their teen-aged son. It’s suspense in the real world, the world you know and depend on–fear and action in your own size and idiom.

John’s work made me notice that works like that constitute a sub-genre of thrillers. Michael Crichton’s Next it might be about genetic perils to the earth, but it’s more powerfully about a soccer mom fleeing and fighting to keep them from vivisecting her kid. Harlan Coben’s family-centered books like Promise Me and No Second Chance strike to the gut and eclipse the impact of his flashier books with their menagerie of crime pros. I like the feel and concept of these “family centered” small-scale thrills and terror, and read them, while generally ignoring the more global antics of post Cold Warriors, serial killers, and espionage. The idea is something like, Sure the world is going to be obliterated by this Commie, Jihadi virus if the CIA renegade doesn’t shape up, but what’s more important is this suburban mother fighting uneven odds to protect her children.

The tip John sent me is longish and fun, so I won’t attempt any introduction or comments. What he has to say is, “There’s No Woo-Woo in Writing” (he had me at “no rules”).


Author John Gilstrap

I’ve been thinking recently about the process of writing; specifically about how little of it I truly understand. I’ve seen some reasonable success over the years, but I’ll be damned if I know anything about the process.
There’s a lot of talk in writing forums and in the Blogosphere about the woo-woo of writing—that romantic crap about muses and attitude and characters talking to us and taking over the story. In my experience, that’s all bullshit. Writing is about tying your butt in a chair and letting fly with the story that’s screaming to come out. Motivation doesn’t matter, and neither does background music. If you’re a professional, you produce solid work to the deadlines that are assigned. The rest doesn’t matter.

I teach a few writing courses every year to reasonable acclaim, but I start every one of those courses with a PowerPoint slide that reads, “No one can teach you to write.” I put that up so as not to be a fraud. One learns the principles of writing the same way one learns the principles of reading or golf: You practice. As you read material that you love, you become a better reader, and if you’re wired to be a writer, you instinctively try to decode what the writer did to get into your head.

Can a pro help? Absolutely. Where there’s basic skill and a desire to learn, a teacher can help you hone. A teacher can coax you from the 80th percentile that you earned on your own, and maybe bring you to the 90th percentile. But from there, you’re on your own again. The last ten percent is about storytelling skill and voice and pacing and all that stuff that I believe you either get by birth or through osmosis or you don’t ever get it at all.

This writing gig is a game without rules. Read that again: no rules. There are things that work for me that would never work for you because you and I are different people sifting different imaginations through different filters. I’ve learned what I think I know about writing the hard way: by writing crap and rewriting it till it’s less crappy. It took me four books to get it right. The first three I wrote sucked and I knew it. But I also knew that each succeeding effort sucked less than its predecessor. I sought input, listened to it, and then rejected most of it because I thought it was misguided. I knew what I was trying to do, and when I finally got there, I recognized it for what it was. I don’t know how, but I did.

I think that every successful writer has a handful of “light bulb moments” when something clicks in his head and his writing turns a corner. Those moments don’t come from studying, they don’t come from talking about writing, and they don’t even come from reading blogs about writing. They come from writing and rewriting.

Remember: No rules.

There’s a famous screenwriting teacher who blathers in his classes about how the secret to a successful screenplay is to have the first turning point occur before page X, and for the turning point for the second act to happen by page Y. Students eat this madness up with spoons the size of shovels. Do you think that Ernest Hemingway or John Grisham or Tom Clancy or Stephen King or Danielle Steel or God knows how many other wildly successful writers gave a rat’s patootie about someone else’s formula? I suspect that they started out to tell good stories well, and didn’t stop till they got to where they were going.

As I write this, Damage Control is about to be released (June, 2012), and I am hip-deep in my next book (High Treason, June, 2013). I think I know where it’s going, but I’ll never know for sure until I’m on the other side of it. The flip side of no rules is no guarantees.

Here are my words of advice for frustrated writers whose woo-woos keep evading them: Quit waiting for the muses to inspire you or your characters to lead you. They’re all imaginary, and they reside exclusively in your head. They’re lazy and they’re recalcitrant, and they won’t do a damn thing to help you if you don’t grab them by the nose and tell them what to do.

As for motivation, think like a professional: Show up for work and make it happen.

 

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Tips from the Masters: John Gilstrap”

  1. "There’s a lot of talk in writing forums and in the Blogosphere about the woo-woo of writing—that romantic crap about muses and attitude and characters talking to us and taking over the story. In my experience, that’s all bullshit. Writing is about tying your butt in a chair and letting fly with the story that’s screaming to come out."

    Wow, I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me because the above paragraph describes ME! I just write because I want to and have lots of stories in my head I want to tell — to me it isn't, as you say, the muses and characters talking to me. And I agree, its BS, but if it works for some go for it. Its just not me.

    And your closing statement is so right on:

    As for motivation, think like a professional: Show up for work and make it happen.

    AMEN!

  2. This excellent article very much echoes my own hitherto-inchoate views. Getting lost through the input of highly diverse critics prior to publication was a major danger to me, and other writers, until I put my foot down. Thank you so much for clarifying something extremely important. Shared all over the place.

    1. Well put. While honest critiques can be very useful at some point everyone is writing their own story, not someone else’s.
      I have a couple of friends who unfortunately are blind to any negative criticism and they let their egos get in the way of developing as writers. But as you said, you can get lost in it as well. The most valuable criticism is probably when multiple people independently point out the same flaws or strengths. Too much divergent input is simply distracting.
      In my experience it is that the more I read AND the more I write, the more I am able to honestly assess my own work and learn to address any problems with it. And the narrower that gap between arrogance and staying true to my own vision becomes.

  3. I'll interpret John's "no rules" and "no woo woo" as "no magic beans."

    So many new writers get trapped into the magical thinking that there's an article or seminar or software or "rule" or stunt out there that if they can just find it, the will become "good" and starting getting the income and adulation they deserve.

    I wish people had to read that article before they could push the pay button for a subscription to Writers Digest or webinar.

  4. "I’ve learned what I think I know about writing the hard way: by writing crap and rewriting it till it’s less crappy." This is a confident and professional way to approach the work ethic of writing.

    Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Great advice. I like the screenplay remarks but unfortunately, script readers go to page this or that to check for the formula before reading from the beginning, thanks to Blake Snyder and the likes.

  5. Sure.

    You may or may not remember, but you sent me a 2 page msg on 03 Jan 2010 in reply to a thread 'Mouth of the Beast'.

    I must thank you for that because you enabled me to see so much in just 2 pages of advice.

    I still have it… it's right here on my desk. Thank you.

  6. "As you read material that you love, you become a better reader, and if you’re wired to be a writer, you instinctively try to decode what the writer did to get into your head." This, to me, is the key. We do it instinctively at first, but as we grow into our writing, I think it's possible to learn the ways in, to examine how good writers do it, even guided by others on occasion. Like most things in life, it isn't an either/or — we can bring nature and nurture, instinct and reason, and we can continue to improve.

  7. Wow, great post. Just like cooks have their own unique way of putting the same recipe together, that's how it is with writing.

    Although, I do think you can learn from successful writers and magazines like WD and The Writer. But, there is no substitute for writing, writing, and writing.

  8. At the beginning of my journey to first novels end I was instructed that the craft of writing can be learned but the art of storytelling is instinctive. I think I now believe this. I have attended so many writing groups filled with budding authors with MBA's in Creative Writing and most have no imagination and their novels remain unfinished. I was fortunate to team up with a best selling author who over a four year period taught me the professional skills required. 90% of that was in as Gilstrap said – write and write. My first book was rewritten thirteen times and every rewrite was a lesson learned. But I think I am only 30% of the way there. It will take more books until I am comfortable with the path taken because again as Gilstrap said it was a long journey and I have forgotten many of the pathways. The most valuable discovery I made was the absolute need to find a ruthless critic. Until finding my mentor – who brought me down to earth by telling me my characters were crap and she wanted to drown them in a bath tub – I was busily glowing with the praises from and endless line of (take my money)assessors telling me I was a wonderful writer. The egotistical road to nowhere.

  9. Great post. Seems like all the para-writing professionals (editors, publishers, critics, readers, reviewers and scammers) are all trying to boil success down to a formula, down to a mechanism that anyone can learn and use and it's just hooey. If anyone ever came up with such a formula, don't you think we'd know about it? Being successful at any artistic endeavor is and always will be an elusive mystery, and that's the beauty of it. I just wish more writers would realize that and have confidence in themselves rather than falling for the lines of bs that get pitched at them. Thanks Linton and John for the boost!

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