Reigniting The Passion

By John Gilstrap

Let me get this out of the way first: I love what I do. I am privileged and honored to make my living by entertaining people with stories. People ask me if or when I intend to retire someday, and I don’t even know what that means. When a novelist “retires”, do the stories just go away? Do characters somehow stop appearing in his head? I’ve always figured that as long as readers keep reading what I write, I’ll continue to feed them with stories.

That said, 2020 has been a helluva year. Beyond all the other weirdness that’s been inflicted on all of us, this is also the year that I signed on to write two full-length thrillers. As always, my next Jonathan Grave thriller will hit the stands in July, but before that, February 23, 2021, will see the release of Crimson Phoenix, the first book in a new series that I’m confident I’ll hawk in a post that is closer to the publication date.

A few weeks ago, our buddy James Scott Bell wrote a post here on TKZ about how Erle Stanley Gardner churned out 100,000 words per month for fifty years. I’m not that guy. If I can pound out 2,500 words in a day, I’m thrilled. My record for one day was 8,000 words and that left me exhausted. I’m not cut out for that kind of production.

So, here we are, in the middle of the pandemic stuff, and as stress rose, avenues for relaxation were shut down.

As a relief valve, I got myself a Zoom account. Every Wednesday evening, I gather with two author buddies at a virtual bar for virtual happy hour. These are folks I’ve known for decades. Every meeting starts with a toast, and then we shoot the sh*t for a couple of hours. It’s surprisingly refreshing.

Because we’re writers, we complain a lot. There’s life, a little bit of politics, the state of the industry, and the ups and downs of daily life.

Sooner or later, we inevitably come to the subject of movies. We talk about some of the contemporary stuff that’s out there (thank God for Amazon Prime and Netflix!), but the real passion for all of us turns out to be Westerns. Tombstone is, of course, the greatest Western of all time–argue this point at your own peril–and there is considerable disagreement about The Wild Bunch being a close second. Shane is a favorite of one of the revelers, but I must confess that I don’t agree. I mean, Alan Ladd? Really?

Then it happened. I said, “We should write a serial Western.”

In that instant, a new project was born. Over the course of 30 minutes, we worked out the only rules: The story will be set in 1880, and each of us will write from the point of view of our own characters. My character is Jake Bristow, a grieving farmer from Virginia. Somehow, for reasons yet unknown, we will all end up in an Oklahoma town on the same date for what will be an epic and legendary gunfight against bad guys we have yet to determine.

Logistically, we each write a chapter in turn. I started the effort and passed it on to the next author in the line, who put brilliance on the page, and then Author #3 took his turn. The ball is back in my court now. In only 9,500 word, we now know who the characters are, what their motivations are, and they’ve already crossed paths. Hint: They don’t like each other very much yet. But we do know why they’re headed to Oklahoma.

At our most recent happy hour, we all revealed that individually, we haven’t had this much fun at the keyboard in a long, long time. The project is liberating. I’m writing in a completely new, different voice and I’m getting lost in new lines of research. Perhaps most refreshing is the element that is inherently missing in writing: the thrill of teamwork among friends. What I find most fascinating is how our vastly different writing styles work in a single stitched-together narrative.

And yes, I’m being deliberately circumspect about mentioning the other authors’ names. That’s not my place.

Now, to the point of this post. The cooperative Western project has reignited the passion for writing in all of us. It’s as if by shifting to another project that is strictly for fun, if only for a few thousand words at a time, the elements that stir creativity get a fresh swirl. That inures to the benefit of every other project on our plates.

I’ve stated in this space more than a few times that half of being a professional writer (a professional anything, really) is showing up to work every day. During the dark days of summer, I confess that showing up had become a drag. Now, I can’t wait. I’m getting up earlier, spending more time at the keyboard. I’m enjoying the process again.

So what about you folks? What are your tricks for reigniting the passion for writing that you know is there, but sometimes dwindles?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of 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 Fairfax, VA.

22 thoughts on “Reigniting The Passion

  1. I was just talking about this with one of my writing buddies. I’m writing a book in my Mapleton series, but to my surprise, my protagonist received a reason to visit the world of another one of my series. Will it fly? Will it go beyond what’s noodling in my head? I don’t know. What I do know, is the writing became fun again. I’ll see where it takes me.

    Your Western sounds like great fun. You’ll have to share it once it’s done.

  2. Yeah! I’m all for westerns!

    Collaborative writing is hard work. I hope you will do a post in the future on how that experience worked for you and the way you accomplished it (as well as what you’d do the same again, and what you’d do differently). To some degree, it’s probably easier for a team of experienced writers, but as a relative newbie, I find it quite stressful and at times bewildering.

  3. Go, John! Let’s raise a toast to collaboration. There is nothing like several creative brains shooting idea sparks at each other to reignite enthusiasm.

    I’ve co-written with a number of other authors, mostly nonfiction articles. My favorite writing partner and I used to joke that working together was half the money but twice the fun.

    Eager to see the results of your teamwork.

  4. I felt the same spark while writing true crime. After I finished the project, I jumped back into thrillers with a renewed passion. I know others who turn to flash fiction in between projects to break up the monotony of series writing.

    Your project sounds like fun, John. Have you watched Yellowstone? Love that series.

  5. John, I LOVE IT!!!!! A western. Folks can declare the western dead all they want, but saying it don’t make it so. I hope you and your collaborators share this in the future.

    Don’t get me started on the greatest western movie of all time. You’re all wrong, in my not so humble opinion. 🙂

    I love westerns and most of my writing is devoted to westerns, at least for now. I’m half-way through the second book of a minimum four book contract with a small publisher. The first—and my first which I will shamelessly plug here when the time is right—will come out when the fourth is completed so we can keep the presses rolling so to speak. Just for fun, and to keep my muse on her toes (or mine?), I started working on a modern noir piece I thought would be a short story but is turning in to a novella. I allow myself one day a week to write and a few hours the next to edit, but this respite is surprisingly refreshing as I work on the westerns.

    Good luck on the collaboration. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

  6. Hell yes, Alan Ladd. And while Tombstone is hugely entertaining, Shane is an enduring classic, from the cinematography all the way to the “bad guys.” I mean, come on. Powers Boothe is to Jack Palance as a nail file is to a Bowie knife.

    Glad to hear you’re having fun. As Sue mentioned, I like doing flash fiction for my Patreon community. You have the satisfaction of a finished story, and it doesn’t take that long to do.

    • A point to Brother Bell for Jack Palance being a badass bad guy. Beyond that, the classic-ness of Shane baffles me. Van Heflin’s (sp?) character is 100% milquetoast and young Brandon Dewilde is miscast for his role. It’s not a bad movie, but for the life of me, I can’t find greatness there.

      • Ah Brother Gilstrap, you completely miss the heroic iconography of Van Heflin! When Shane is getting beat up in the bar, and the other ranchers say, “Stay out of this,” Joe Starrett (Heflin) grabs a piece of lumber and charges in to fight alongside Shane. They do to those bad guys what they did to the stump! But he knows the cost. From that point on, Ryker is determined to kill Starrett, who is the one keeping all the ranchers together.

        In the end, Starrett is going to town to finally have it out with Ryker. That takes guts. But Shane knows he’s going into a trap. When he tries to stop him, Starrett fights him…and is about to prevail when Shane knocks him out with his gun. No one can say Starrett backed down from a fight. It’s just that Shane knew the real stakes, and that he was the only one who could take care of Wilson (Palance).

        Starrett is really the hero of the story. Shane is his divine help.

  7. You’re leaving out HIGH NOON and John Ford’s STAGECOACH? Philistine!

    Many years ago, I belonged to an online via email group of authors for a new publisher. We became good friends during the frustrating year or so of the publisher floundering around. For most of us, this was our first sale. When this dumpster fire of a publisher imploded, most of us were so traumatized we couldn’t write.

    To get our mojo back, some of us decided to write a group of short stories around a particular premise for funsies. We ironed out the premise and its parameters, then we each picked a historical period and went to work. Our mojo restored, we shared our stories, really liked them, and turned them into an anthology which we sold to a much better publisher.

    The anthology is still in print, and most of us are still good friends.

  8. How fun!

    My former writing partner and I did something similar on a Civil War novel. He took care of the guys’ viewpoints and all the battles. I took care of the females and fashion. Good times!

  9. I find that writing fanfiction is a way to refresh the mojo. The characters and world are already there, so all you do is play in the sandbox. There’s no pressure to finish, or even write anything good. You can use it to practice a technique or take a risk. I find it really energizes me for my original work. And I’ve developed a few characters in fanfic that I’ve brought over into my original stuff because I liked them so much. 🙂

  10. Can we count City Slickers as a western? It has pretty much everything, including Jack Palance.

    I love the idea of writing with a team. I hope you’ll keep us informed as the project moves forward.

  11. Tombstone! Best western ever. My fave scene is when Virgil (Sam Elliott) hit the bad guy in the bar over his head with a gun. Or, maybe when Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) strolled into the showdown with Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). Or…well I could go on.

    For me, creative ignition happened just the other day, during, of all things, the self-editing process prior to sending my WIP back to my editor. I discovered audio editing…what fun! And I’ve found more typos than just reading it through myself. 🙂

  12. Tombstone is the best western ever??! You bet I’ll take that argument because it is not. Shane is iconic, I’ll give you that. And I love The Wild Bunch. But how can The Searchers not be in your top 3? You need to rethink that. No classic spaghetti western? Come on, sir, the poorly dubbed but absolutely wonderful Once Upon a Time in the West has that unexpected evil performance from Henry Fonda. Just one word: water. Not too long before Tombstone came out Unforgiven was released. IMNSHO Unforgiven wipes the floor with Tombstone in so many ways I can’t even start. My blood is up now. Better go watch the sublime The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to chill.

    • Uh-oh, I clearly kicked a hornet’s nest. Might as well keep kickin’, I suppose.

      Full disclosure: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Once Upon A Time in the West. Moving on . . .

      The Spaghetti Westerns all left me baffled. Too much filmmaker in the film. All the shifting eyes, the bizarre choices for the dubbed voices. There are one-off iconic scenes, sure, but as whole entities, they left me cold. We’re getting to Clint’s award-winner below, but far better than the Spaghettis, I think are The Outlaw Josie Wales and Hang ‘Em High.

      Unforgiven suffers from excessive scenery-chewing by Gene Hackman. I didn’t buy the blind gunman wannabe for a moment. The second act sags dreadfully, I think. The whole sickness/recovery/nursing section could have been shortened by half–or excised entirely–without hurting the film a bit. Cudos for the final shootout sequence, though.

      I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance just recently–for the first time. And I think that’s the problem. It does not age well. It’s fun, and it’s engaging, but I think it falls far short of greatness. A MUCH better Jimmy Stewart western (that also features Henry Fonda in a bad-guy role) is Firecreek. Very low budget and atmospheric, it’s a terrific movie.

      True Grit 1 and True Grit 2 are both great, I think. (I didn’t want to like the Cohen Brothers version, but I couldn’t help but love the way they restored the language to that which Charles Portis wrote. Alas, LeBoef continues to be a role that no actor can play.)

      A Western very close to my heart–and one I watch more than I should–is The Cowboys. I grant that maybe it’s not as good as I think it is, but I was the same age as those kids when it came out, and it hooked me young.

      • We’re going to have to disagree on Unforgiven. I love that movie, and I like the nursing sequence you refer to.

        I don’t the The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the greatest western. BUT I really like the whole theme of where a career etc is made off of a misattribution of a certain shooting, spoilers omitted, and that always sticks with me.

        We agree on The Outlaw Josey Wales. I considered naming it above.

        I much prefer the Coen brothers version of True Grit. The Mattie Ross characterization is much stronger, and yes, the Coen brothers bring the more stylized language. The first TG has not worn the test of time well, and while John Wayne may star in The Searchers let’s just say a little JW goes a long way in my book.

        I should probably shut up now. Get me talking (writing) about westerns and I could be here all day…

        (But do get around to Once Upon a Time in the West someday.)

  13. Sounds like an interesting book! I guess it will end up in my house even though I am not a fan of fiction westerns.

    But I can easily see how it would get the juices flowing. A new genre, and by definition then a new set of characters. Fresh, blank back stories. No need to remember that Det. Hallon has a cat named Goldenrod. And there is always a fresh turn from your partners in crime.

    Good luck. It sounds fun.

  14. Yeah, I gotta’ go with High Noon. I love westerns. I wish they weren’t “dead”. I collect the novels of Max Brand – fabulous stuff.
    Personally, I exercise to get my creativity and energy flowing. It takes away all the stress of the day and relaxes me.
    Mr. Gilstrap, I hope you and your fellows will one day publish this book and you’ll come on here to try to sell it to us. I’ll be first in line to grab it.

  15. That is awesome John! Love the idea. If you guys need a narrator let me know, I do a mean cowboy gunfight.
    Interestingly, to me at least, I recently entered into a similar project, albeit this one is “Historical Fiction” about “Werewolves in ancient history”, with each of us writing a chapter about how a character from one of our own series interacts with the Lycanthropic progenitors.
    Okay…so maybe not cowboy gunfights, but mine has Nimrod/Sargon and the Tower of Babel and an “Old Timey” (did I get that hint right as to one of the other writers?) mercenary of first empire.

  16. Oh! Mr. Basil forgot to add that his favourite Western films is these ones:

    2. THE ALAMA
    (okay that one was actually a bunch of books but they was made into movies too, at least of them…cuz I recall Magnum PI was the star of some of them….which is weird, cuz he was like an 1980s detective, but the Sacketts are like 1870s cowboys and such…anyway…)
    4. WAY OUT WEST – the dance scene … Laurel and Hardy
    5. SHOT IN THE FRONTIER – The Stooges Thrice – the alley scene really does it for me.
    6. ROUGH RIDERS – 1991 miniseries with Sam Elliot and the other guy from this next one
    7. RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY – with Tom Berrenger but not that other guy from above
    8. WAGON’S EAST – With John Candy….cuz that was the last one with John Candy
    9. SHOGUN – We could never really figure out how California is east of Alaska, but Tokyo is west of Alaska, and the first is called is the West Coast, and the latter is called the Far East….so this is a western too…James Clavell was a great writer
    he wrote that yes?? I think it was he…
    10. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN / THE SEVEN SAMURAI – two movies, one theme, both well done….and no leprechauns were hurt in either one of them…although Charles Bronson may have been part leprechaun….

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