Are You A Phil Or A Doug?

By John Gilstrap

I dedicated most of my high school years to the pursuit of nerdhood. I was editor of the Valor Dictus, our school newspaper, I sang 1st tenor in the choir and I was a district champion debater. Home life was a bit odd, so I spent as much time away from it as I could, and despite doing crazy stuff that would get teens thrown in jail these days, I managed to stay mostly out of trouble.

During my senior year, I decided it was time to shift gears, so I threw my hat into the ring of the musical theater. I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of Godspell. The show was so popular that it sold out its initial weekend run and we extended to a second weekend of sold-out shows. Quite the head rush.

One of my fellow cast members was a guy named Phil. For whatever reason, we never crossed paths outside of rehearsals and performances, but I was fascinated by his skills on the piano. He could play anything, including a rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” that rivaled the great Jerry Lee Lewis. After he heard a song once–whether Beatles or Beethoven–he could make the ivories sing. But he couldn’t read a lick of music. Didn’t know a quarter note from a crescendo. I have no idea what happened to him or where he went after high school, but he expressed no interest in studying music.

By contrast, my brother knew a guy in his high school–Doug–who could read a symphonic score the way you or I would read a book. The staves on the page transformed into music in his head as he read them. Some years later, I learned that he was a teenager before he understood that not everyone could do that. He went on to Julliard and later earned two PhDs in music. He recently retired from being the artistic director for one of the premier choral organizations in the DC area.

Unlike Phil, Doug has never enjoyed being the guy at the party hammering out show tunes and Beatles favorites while people sing around the piano. I don’t know why, and I won’t presume to guess. I have a number of friends who love to play their instruments of choice, but need to have the music in front of them to make it happen, and so would likely sell an unimportant body part to be able to play anything anywhere.

There’s an analogy here to writing prose. We have our own Dougs and Phils. On one end of the spectrum you have that set of MFAs and PhD grad school professors who know everything there is to know about literature and writing theory, yet are unable to publish works that appeal to the masses. On the other end, you have the lawyers (or safety engineers) whose study of literature begins and ends with what they like to read and somehow are able to hammer out stories that find an audience. Most writers toil somewhere in the middle.

I’m a Phil. I’m not especially proud of that, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. Early on in my writing career, when the inevitable question came up about what authors most influenced me, I would lie to avoid the dismissive looks and talk about Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. To be sure, those were wonderful authors and I have enjoyed their works, but none of them carried the clout of Alistair MacLean, Stephen King or even Franklin W. Dixon. These days, I tell the truth and endure the dismissive eyerolls. A few years ago, I was introduced to an MFA class as “only a commercial fiction writer”, but with the modifier that I had some thoughts worth listening to. Boy howdy, did I! Curiously, I have not been invited back. Must be the pandemic.

I have always read to be entertained, and have always written to return the favor. My job begins and ends with taking readers on a great pretend adventure. I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.

I’m being completely honest when I tell you that of the few implements I recognize in my writer’s tool box, I use precious few of them. I understand the major parts of speech like nouns and verbs and adjectives, but don’t ask me what a participle is, dangling or otherwise. That knowledge is of no use to me. If you groove on that stuff, then God bless you. It’s certainly not harmful, but it’s stuff I just don’t need to know. Ditto the three act structure, which to me means a beginning, a middle and an end.

I understand very little about the process of writing stories. I don’t know how I know that action and dialogue drive character development, but that’s how it works for me. I often tell people that I don’t want to think too hard about the creative process for fear of breaking a machine that I don’t know how to fix. If it ain’t broke . . .

Remember the motto of the famed Faber College: Knowledge is good. My preference is to learn craft by reading books that I wish I’d written, but I would never discourage anyone from studying craft. We all learn differently and we all follow divergent paths.

But formal study is not for everyone. For some, it can be harmful. Remember always that the voice in your head is unique to you. Even a well-meaning teacher can ruin that voice if you’re not steadfast in your defense of it. Any creative advice that includes the phrases “you must” or “you cannot” is wrong. Hard stop. If you’re in school and such is the opinion of your teacher, then earn the A by giving him or her what they’re looking for, but then erase the rules from your brain. If something inside you is driving you to create–if something inside you won’t let you not create–then trust that the same driving force will help you find your own way, whether through schooling or sheer force of will.

Irrespective of which route(s) you follow, the one constant is that your early efforts are going to suck. Everyone you ask to help you un-suck it will have bits of advice that vary from others’ bits of advice. That’s a lot of well-meaning voices in your head. At the end of the day, you’ll still be stuck with the task of choosing on your own which is the best path to take.

What say you, TKZ family? Are you a Phil, a Doug, or somewhere in between?

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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.

36 thoughts on “Are You A Phil Or A Doug?

  1. I’m somewhere in between. Definitely not a Doug even though grammar came easy to me in school, but I never went beyond English Comp 2 in college. I read craft books but they often don’t make sense to me until somewhere down the road I’m writing and I’m near the mid-point in the story. JSB’s words about a mirror pop in my mind and I think…oh, that’s what he was talking about. 🙂

  2. I never had any aspirations to become a writer until I was well into my 50s, and then it was more of a fun thing to do because I didn’t have room on my walls for more needlepoint. I still don’t care about the differences between metaphors, similes and idioms, much less anything more sophisticated. I do know what an Oxford comma is (and I use them), but that’s about it.
    I enjoy the learning and the creative process, but the only writing classes I’ve taken have been workshops (yours and JSBs included–thanks). A few how-to books, but mostly I write, see how it works or doesn’t, try to fix things and grow along the way.
    Guess I’m a Philippa.

    • I so appreciate your response Terry 🥰 I struggle with the feeling of “being late to the game.” My birthday is next week and I’m far from 40 – the age I gave myself to make it as an author.

      I guess it doesn’t matter when you join the race as long as you finish it. (and enjoy it as well)

      Thank you for your unintentional encouragement!

  3. Ha! That “dismissive eye roll” has been around forever. It really took off after WWII and the mass market paperback explosion. Mickey Spillane became, for a time, the bestselling writer in the world (nose to nose with Erle Stanley Gardner). He not only got eye rolls, he got spitting anger…and famously said, “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

    Anyway, I was never a Phil, and was told (in college) in no uncertain terms that if you’re not born a Phil, you’ll never make it as a writer. Also that Dougs essentially don’t exist, i.e. you can’t learn, by studying, how to write quality fiction. I call that The Big Lie, and believed it for ten years. When I finally decided I had to write I went into intense study. I bought craft books and read Writer’s Digest religiously. And wrote and wrote. It took me a few years, but it all started to click. I guess that makes me a Doug who was finally invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City to play some show tunes.

  4. Great post, John.

    I started out a Phil and now am more a Doug. I was always a nerd in school. I read like crazy as a youngster, and in high school could easily crank out a short story that the English teachers liked. But I turned to science and medicine, where I was a slow learner. I worked and studied, read and reread. I was eventually successful, but I always envied those guys who could read something once and never forget it. Now that I am writing again, I’m trying to unleash my Phil, writing stories for my grandchildren. I want them (and great grandchildren, and future generations) to learn what their grandpa was like, and hopefully learn a few important lessons about life along the way. I’m studying the craft diligently, reading widely, but striving to hang on to my voice.

    Thanks for sharing your story and your advice!

  5. In betweener.

    I was always a writer but not a storyteller, if that makes sense. Took me 20+ years of craft study and a dozen unpublished novels before I finally began to grasp story structure. And I’m still learning.

    Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain would have been considered “only” commercial fiction writers in their day. I expect you’re enjoying the last laugh, John.

  6. I knew there were good reasons I liked you and your writing, John. This is one of them. I am so much closer to a Phil. Seat of the pants, I know what I like, “the thing I write will be the thing I write,” take it or leave it, yada yada. I’m overwhelmed by what we’re told are the skills we need to write decent stories, so I take what little I think I know and hope it keeps me honest enough to get me through the process. Here is the novel that I quote most often when asked who influenced my fiction writing the most, from a novelist that probably few have run across: CHANCE, by Steve Shilstone, sports fiction about “the greatest baseball shortstop of all time,” from Breakaway Books, 2000. Out of print. I read it every once in a few years. Steve has apparently written only one non-fantasy novel, and this was it. If you pull it up on Amazon there are only two reviews. One of them is mine, and it took me until 2016 to post it. The novel gave me the okay to use a voice similar to the one he used in CHANCE. It spoke to me, was so direct, so captivating, so comfortable. Excellent post, John.

  7. “I have always read to be entertained, and have always written to return the favor.”

    I think you could sell t-shirts with this on the front at writing conferences. After years of insecurity, I’m now embracing the Doug life. Looks like I have plenty of company here. Thanks John!

  8. Tweener here! Great post, John. Always enjoy yours.

    I love to learn, but when I sit down to start the next story or dreamzone the next act, I kick the craft books (yours, too, JSB!), the grammar rules, and the voices of teachers in my head to the curb, and shove my heart and brain into first gear and stomp on the gas. It’s fun when the tires break loose.

    Then I go back and pick up the pieces of rubber and open the door to the rules as I edit.

  9. I’m with Phil, John. I think we were drinking buddies back in the day, although I can’t play a musical instrument for the life of me. Best writing compliment I ever got was from a Supreme Court Judge who said, “I like reading your affidavits (search warrant and wiretap authorizations). They’re very clear, and I understand everything you’re saying. You must be very well educated.” “No, M’Lord,” I answered. “I barely made it through grade twelve.” He replied with a smile, “There may be a good lesson in that.”

  10. Love this post, John. Thank you.
    For as long as I can remember, I’ve had stories in my head. I knew my characters better than most of the real people around me, so when I wrote their stories, I didn’t think about stuff like structure. When my husband bought a computer for me, I sat down and wrote a book. We did research on which publishers were putting out books like mine, and I chose an editor because one of my sisters had the same first name. Three weeks to the day that I mailed it, this editor called me and said Berkeley Penguin Putnam wanted to publish my book.
    I sent her a different book in a different genre. She said they weren’t looking for that kind at the time, but she wrote comments like, “You have a good ear for dialogue.” She gave me a list of agents she trusted. I chose one because she had the same name as another of my sisters. The agent wrote back, “I have to be enthralled. I am definitely not enthralled.”
    Thus began my descent into second-guessing my instincts, to begin reading craft books that made me feel overwhelmed instead of empowered because the advice was all different depending on who wrote it. My original editor called to say they were starting a new series and invited me to submit. I’m ashamed to say that by then, I was so unsure about my abilities I wouldn’t have submitted another book to anyone.
    Stories still there, I somehow stumbled on TKZ. Over the couple of years I’ve been reading the wonderful posts, the realization has slowly emerged that each writer is different and has a different process because brains are different. Not right or wrong, just different. The first page I submitted here for critique is the first thing I’ve shown to anyone in decades. So, thank you again, John, and to all of you here on TKZ for sharing your knowledge and encouragement. I’m sure you’ve helped many more like me.

    • What a wonderful, humbling comment. I think that one of the great strengths of a group blog like TKZ is the diversity of opinions and voices. Confidence is such a fragile thing. It doesn’t help that writing is such an intimate, personal process. I think I speak for all of the TKZ regulars when I say the whole point of this place is to help writers realize that there no right way other than the one that works for you.

    • Becky,

      Your sensitive nature probably makes you a good writer, but please don’t let it inhibit you.

      A friend of mine entered a writing contest and shared with me the feedback from several judges. The scores were all over the place. One judge gave him an extraordinarily high score and another one couldn’t find anything to like! There is obviously not one set of criteria to be used to judge success in this field.

      Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

      • Thank you Kay. I’ve enjoyed the first two books in your Watch series. One of the eye-openers from reading books published by the writers on TKZ is how different they are from each other, and if they adhere rigidly to a “formula “ it’s certainly not obvious. I look forward to your next book.

  11. I’m definitely a hybrid. As nerd-girl, I love to study, but I’m an experimentalist at heart. I want to try things just to see if I can do them. I experimented with my first novel until I realized I needed help to turn it into a finished product. That’s when I discovered “Plot and Structure” by JSB. I have a whole shelf of craft books now. They don’t tell me how to create my story, but they help me shape it.

  12. I am Phil’s differently talented brother with what doctors have tried to label with ADHD but the fact is I enjoy the more specific condition of “Bilateral Rapid Uptake Hyper Attentive Hyper Active”, known by its acronym: BRUHAHA.

    Honestly though, I have tried but seriously cannot fit into the MFA shaped boxes I have seen. Writing stiltifying government SOPs, part of my day job, makes me squirm uncomfortably throughout the process. I make up for it by writing short stories in my IT ticket resolution notes and serialized Leprechaun adventures in email correspondences with certain customer groups.

  13. Excellent post and advice!

    I’m a close relative to Phil but really envy Doug. (Grass is always greener…)

    I want to understand and use structure, although it’s like changing from a word processor to a Mac – kind of clunky but you tell yourself that you’ll appreciate all the extras and at the end of the day, you’re looking for a hammer.

    Once I have a basic beginning and ending, the story becomes its own and characters seem to take over.

    This used to scare me. I was trying to fit a square peg (structure) into a round hole (trusting my instincts), which didn’t work. My confidence would plummet.

    The pause button of 2020 allowed me to read more books than I had in a long time. I learn by example and taking the stories apart and asking why I enjoyed them has been a great course on structure.

    Plus I’ve read many how-to’s on the craft this year, several by our very own right here. 😉

    The reason I faithfully read this blog is learning that one size doesn’t fit all writers – many thanks!

  14. I’m a “as you know, Bob.” I nod Bob-wisely and say, “Yes, I do.” (The science fiction fans here will explain that joke.)

    Anyway, I know writing from the intuitive, the intellectual, and cold-blooded craft levels. So, natural writer, graduate-school trained literary critic, and writing teacher and editor of many years.

    For those who need ammunition in the great genre insult debate, click on my name here to go to my writing blog and click on the label “real books.” And pity the fools who have tried to diss a Bob like me.

  15. I am naturally a Phil but was surrounded by Dougs who convinced me I was wrong, that I had to write every day, that I had to outline, etc. Since I couldn’t do any of those things, I quit. My creative side said “Nope, nope, nope, this is boring” and refused to speak to me.

    Not too long ago I went back and looked at my long ago published stuff and realized every one of those successful pieces was written my natural way, before I knew I was doing it wrong.

    Now years later I’m trying to erase the “You have to do it this way” voices and playing the way I want to. I just want to see what happens. I’m a classical girl when I revise, but I’ve learned if I don’t let my jazz side riff first I won’t have anything there to revise (I was originally a music performance major).

    My greatest joy and frustration was finding out qay late the authors I most enjoy write the same way I do. Wish I had known that sooner.

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