The Hardest Writing I’ve Ever Done

By John Gilstrap

Allow me to share the first paragraph of an email I received yesterday from my editor regarding my new book, Crimson Phoenix (March, 2021): “I finished the ms at 1 am.  What a page-turner. It sure was eerie reading about a post-nuclear apocalypse while being held hostage by a global pandemic.”

Tell me about it.

Over a year ago, I signed a two-book contract to create a new thriller series.  This one features Victoria Emerson, a member of the House of Representatives, whose world is turned upside down when U.S. Army Major Joseph McCrea shows up on her doorstep one night and announces that CRIMSON PHOENIX is active.  That means the USA is inches away from nuclear war.  McCrea is there to evacuate Victoria to the United States Government Relocation Center, a bunker in the mountains of West Virginia that is meant to house the entire legislative branch in the event of Armageddon.  She cannot bring her family.

A single mother, Victoria refuses to abandon her three teenage sons. Denied entry to the bunker, they nonetheless survive the nuclear onslaught that devastates the country. The land is nearly uninhabitable. Electronics have been rendered useless. Food is scarce. Millions of scared and ailing people await aid from a government that is unable to regroup, much less organize a rescue from the chaos.

With Major McCrea’s help, Victoria devotes herself to reestablishing order—only to encounter the harsh realities required of a leader dealing with the violence wrought by desperate people . . .

I think the book turned out great, but never have I struggled so hard to put words on paper.  When I pitched the book back in 2019, the economy was booming, people were happy and the idea of citizens reverting to their feral instincts seemed like a fun diversion.  Over the last two months, writing from quarantine, every fictional act of self-preservation and confrontation I wrote felt all too possible–especially in the early days of the madness when the panic was most vibrant and threatening.

Early on in the pandemic–facing an immovable April 15 deadline with 30,000 words to go–it felt as if my imagination had been switched off.  Writing about the collapse of infrastructure and the moral relativism that it triggers really troubled me.  I am not a man prone to pessimism or depression, but for that first week or more, there seemed to be no light in any day.  To make it all worse, even the weather conspired against me in those early weeks, when every morning, it seemed, dawned cold and cloudy.

Then I wrote a bit of dialogue that allowed light back in.  In a discussion with McCrea, who’s worried that Victoria’s children won’t be tough enough for what lies ahead, Victoria says, “Just because every bit of infrastructure is broken, and just because people become desperate is no reason to dismiss kindness and understanding as some kind of a curse. Kindness is a blessing, not a liability.”

I don’t know if this makes sense out of context, but that bit came out of nowhere, and it changed not just the arc of the story, but it lifted my mood.  Victoria and her crew are the lucky ones.  They’ve survived the destruction that killed millions.  From that moment on, Crimson Phoenix ceased being about how they would survive, but rather about how they can help to fix some of what has been broken.  How to work to help make people less miserable.

Forgive me if I am rambling, but I’ve never before experienced the phenomenon of my work lifting my spirit in such a direct manner.  I am not a victim of this pandemic, nor am I a survivor.  I am an author with a job to do who’s living in strange, difficult times.  None of us knows what tomorrow might bring, but I know that today I am healthy.  I started celebrating the weird repetitiveness of each day.  For the first time in a very long time, my wife and I cook every meal together and eat it together at home.  In the evenings, we sit together and binge-watch Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Then we go to bed, get up and do it all over again.  I realize now that when this awfulness lifts, I’m going to miss the relative ease of these days.

As for the book, the words started flowing.  Think fire hydrant–easily ten pages a day.  I had a new focus, and now knowing what the book is really about, I created a story that was substantively different–and, I believe, far better–than the one I set out to write.  It’s not about victimhood, it’s about leadership.  It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s still very much a thriller, and I think it may very well be the best thing I’ve ever written.  Of course, mine is the least important opinion on that last point.

Have y’all ever had your fiction make a profound impact on you like this?


On an unrelated note, I’ve added another video to my YouTube channel.  This one talks about what to look for in a publisher. Just click on the picture.


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

11 thoughts on “The Hardest Writing I’ve Ever Done

  1. Just wow…talk about “ripping from the headlines”…

    As the discussion went yesterday, you have to write the story you were meant to write. Sounds like the story you wrote kinda morphed into the story you were meant to write. My take on it, anyway. Sounds like a good’un, Mr. Gilstrap. Will drum my fingers ’til it’s out. Thanks for sharing this.

    One of my two current WIPs smucked me in the forehead like that a couple of times. I thought I was writing a story about tomorrow, but turns out it’s about today. I’m in the throes of doing a bit of editing and revising on the other current WIP, and working on another project, so for a time that one is on a back grill. But my brain is always thinking about it, adding a spice here and there, stirring. As it simmers and I smell the fragrance of it, I think it just might turn out to be a bigger story than I anticipated.

  2. Amazing. This made me unaccountably happy, not just myself, but for you. Thank you. I hope this novel touches readers everywhere and serves as a light while we start digging out of this darkness. Too bad the darn publishing takes so long; I want to read it today!

  3. I’ve never experienced anything to the degree you describe, Mr. Gilstrap, but I was writing a military SF story just to get my daily word counts in when all of a sudden, it became a story of personal redemption and self-sacrifice for the sake of love. I never expected it to go that way but now it’s one of my favorites (the lead in the story is the clone of William Shakespeare).

    I’m loving your description of Crimson Phoenix and think this might be a rare occasion that I purchase a hardcover!

    • The Great Story Morph is an X factor, that moment when you move from knowing what happens in the plot to knowing what the book is really about. The GSM is the main reason why I stopped doing extensive outlines. I found that the process of writing in earnest–getting to know the characters and their needs–the plot ended up looking very little like the outline.

  4. Sounds a lot like Alas Babylon.

    I quit working on my dystopian novel and am now working on a light-hearted Christmas comedy and revisiting an old screenplay that takes place at Thanksgiving (apparently I am attracted to holidays).

    Those of us at the hospital who have not been redeployed are working reduced hours (and grateful to still be working at all). Some of the nurses have left the country entirely, taking assignments in other countries. Dystopia is a little too close to home these days.

  5. A similar thing happened to me while writing SILENT MAYHEM. We weren’t living with a pandemic at that time, but the storyline cut to such a deep, personal level that I barely remember writing the last half of the book. Words just poured out of me. The next book in that series (my WIP) is tougher due to the particular type of research needed, along with 9M interruptions from bored family/friends, but I do love escaping into fictionland. 🙂

  6. That is why I wrote romance or had a romance as a central part of the plot. Romances are about the future as much as the present and past. The goal is happily ever after, and the characters work as hard toward that goal as they do to solve the mystery and escape the killers after them. (HINT: That’s why romances outsell every other genre. It’s also the number one thing that readers thanked me for in fan letters.)

    I always refused to spend months of my life mired in character misery in a world where happiness isn’t possible. When family members and friends were dropping like flies, and a good year was when only two people died, I burrowed into my books for part of each day to keep sane and continue moving forward for those who needed me.

    Your editor note sounds awesome!

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