When The Dog Catches The Car

By John Gilstrap

A couple of days ago, Brother Bell posted a compelling piece about the process of writing. It got me to thinking about the strange transition that happens when writing evolves to be more than a passion, and becomes a means to pay some or all of the bills.

NOTE WELL: None of what follows is intended as whining. I am fully aware of how fortunate I have been–and continue to be–to be 23 books into a 25-year career doing the very thing I’d have told you I wanted to do if you’d asked me when I was 12 years old.

But while I have the best job in the world, it’s still a job. There’s a relentlessness to it.

To start, I’ve over-committed. I wrote two novels and a 7,500-word short story last year. I have to deliver another Victoria Emerson thriller on April 15, followed by a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave novel. Plus, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m working on a fun Western novel with two other authors. As I write this, it’s my turn again to write a chapter. Tick tock. I’m also collaborating with another writer and a film producer to develop a very cool idea for a television series.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are building a new house that we’ll be moving to around this time next year. It’s in the West Virginia woods, about 90 minutes from our current house. In addition to the weekly (minimum) visits to the worksite to monitor the details, there are the thousands of decisions to be made from among infinite variables. Exterior stone, interior floors, appliances, design flow, and, and, and . . .

I must confess that the general malaise of the past 12 months worked its way into my soul more deeply than I would have expected. And I’m a news junkie. ‘Nuff said on that.

Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my new Victoria Emerson series drops on February 23, and my publisher is pulling out a lot of stops to promote it, which means lots of emailed interviews and (God help us) Zoom calls. I’ve got a YouTube channel to feed, social media stuff, and the rest of everyday life.

I feel sometimes that every time I sit down to write, another high-priority, time-sensitive thing pops up. My wife and I both work out of the house–our offices are no more than 30 feet from each other–and oftentimes, we won’t see each other until dinnertime, and then we usually go back to work after dinner. We do make it a point to relax and watch TV beginning at 8pm at the latest. Sanity lies in Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Okay, maybe I am whining.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook writers’ groups. (It’s a great way to bring traffic to my YouTube channel.) Those places teem with rookies who maintain that as writers, their sole job is to create stuff, and that marketing, promotion and the rest should be someone else’s responsibility. I don’t engage at that level because I have little to offer to the deeply clueless. We all know the reality that without all that other non-writing activity, success will never happen. (I’ll leave it to you to determine what your definition of success is.)

Then, when success does happen, complete with all the accoutrements, the world changes a bit. Maybe a lot. It feels unearned because you know there are way better writers than you who have not seen the same success. And because it feels unearned, it also feels fragile. Hell, it is fragile. Fragility is the nature of the entertainment business.

The past is the past, pal. What’ve you got for me today?

With success comes the burden of additional opportunities, all of which have a short shelf life. I say “burden” of opportunities with full knowledge that the phrase sounds oxymoronic. You work hard, you create work that resonates. Do it long enough, and it resonates with enough people that the work gets recognized by people higher than you on the creative ladder and they invite you onto their rung.

It’s terrifying, if only because saying no is not an option. You say yes to an invitation to submit to an anthology of stories by franchise names. You say yes to the offer to develop a TV series because if you say no, you may never get another call like that. Every effort for every project has to be the best you can give because anything short of that betrays the reason you were asked in the first place.

You lose sleep because you understand that no matter how much effort you put into those opportunities, they may come to nothing. You realize that your true loyalty must be focused on the longtime readers who helped you achieve your greatest dreams. They, too, perhaps more than any others, also deserve the best you can give. They’ve earned the best you can give.

“Sleep is for the weak,” a fire captain told me one time. I’ve been thinking about him a lot these past few months.

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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.

14 thoughts on “When The Dog Catches The Car

  1. John, congratulations on all of this and more. What happens when the dog catches the car? It needs to keep running even faster!

    I don’t hear any whining at all in your post. What I do hear is an undercurrent to the effect that it is wonderful to have all of the significant problems that success brings. Enjoy!

  2. Great post. Writing is work and a writing career is like any other in terms of the items you spoke about. Success and strong network development breeds opportunities—opportunities which allow you continued success because sometimes opportunities passed on have negative impacts on a career. I feel the same bites as a tax consultant. And for me, each new client I take on diminishes the amount of time I have to write, to try to climb to some modicum of a real career. as an author. As someone just beginning on the writing career, this was a fantastic reminder of what it takes to succeed and stay successful. Thank you!

  3. This post resonated with me, albeit on a smaller scale ;-). With “success” (whatever that means) comes pressure, as you so eloquently stated, and that pressure isn’t always an easy thing to handle.

    Congratulations on the TV series, John! Exciting.

  4. John, thanks for digging deeper than the surface facade of fame.

    Under the glitz and glamour, which tarnishes faster than the gold-plated ring from a childhood merry-go-round, the writer’s duty is to the reader. I’ve quit reading authors I used to enjoy b/c they “went Hollywood.”

    You remind us to be careful what we wish for–we might receive it. If/when a writer does, the first obligation remains to the reader who provided that opportunity.

  5. Apt description of what it feels like (“terrifying” etc.) when we bite those tires. Esp. when we reach a certain level of success and competence in what we do…because we don’t want to come up short, give less than our best. But that’s always a danger in overcommitment.

    I would thus take issue with the idea that “saying no is not an option.” It may, in some cases, be the best option. You have to weigh the effort against possible reward. If the added pursuit negatively affects “your true loyalty” (as you put it) then the better course may indeed be a No.

    In any event, John, may you realize both reward and sleep in 2021.

  6. John, great post. And congratulations on your success.

    This post resonated with me. There is a slippery slope between increasing success and burnout. I’m in the process of retiring from 40+ years in medicine. There is no end to increasing demands when you do a job well, and no one will take you aside and remind you that you need some time to live, really live. I had reached the point where there was no time to live. When you begin to resent the price that success requires, that is burnout.

    The answer for me was to live frugally, watch the savings, and consult a financial advisor to help me look for an exit ramp. My wife is supportive, and we will live simply. But we will have time to visit the grandkids, time for dates, time for writing and other creative pursuits, and yes, time to breath again.

    It’s a process, and we’re still on the exit ramp, but I can see the “slow down” sign at the end of the ramp, and I can smell the roses.

    I wish you the best, and especially wisdom, as you look for balance in your career and in living.

    Thanks for all the wonderful posts you have shared here.

  7. Thank you, John, for this wisdom. I wish all new authors could read this post.

    I came to fiction writing after retirement, so I already understood the amount of hard work and determination it takes to build a successful career. I fear some younger writers see a novel as the quick and easy way to fame and fortune. I suspect many become discouraged and give up when it doesn’t happen that way.

    You’ve given us all a good dose of reality with the morning coffee. Thanks!

  8. This reminds me of something my 9th grade science teacher told us in his introduction to a lesson on the six simple machines: “you can never get out of work, you can only make it easier.”

    I think many beginners, in any profession, falsely think there will be a time when your success level is such that you can sit back with your feet up and the work will “take care of itself.” That’s not the case.

    My day job is sales. No matter how successful I am this month, the next month I start at 0. Good prep for the coal mine of slinging fiction, too.

  9. Great look at “success” and the trappings that go with it, John. You’ve earned the right to speak to it. Speaking of speaking, I don’t hear whining in your voice at all. What I hear is a scream of masochism for taking on custom house building. Been there & don’t want to talk about it. What I will talk about is your dog and car catching. With your background, I say your analogy for writers should be a hydrant rather than a car 🙂

  10. This is a great reminder of all the hard work that goes into a writing career. Both the actual writing and all what a friend in my writer’s group calls “writing adjacent” activities, especially marketing and promotion. That reality hit me like a ton of bricks four years ago when I published my first novel, and it’s always there, a necessary part of both getting the word out about your writing and about making those connections with readers and others. Sometimes the best promotion is the best book, but sometimes, it’s saying yes to a number of opportunities.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom this morning!

  11. Eveything you say is very true, John. Over the years, I’ve watched too many friends and authors I enjoy crash and burn over the idiocies within big publishing. (Dirty Big Publishing secret: Everything is the author’s fault. A bad cover, a literal train wreck which wipes out most of the West Coast book deliveries for that month so sale numbers tank, a failed within-house promotion–all the author’s fault.)

    Most authors get back up, reinvent themselves with a new name, and start a new series, a new genre, or a new publisher. I traded updates with a best-selling, award-winning friend at Christmas. She’s reinvented herself or started a new mystery series four times, and her newest very successful series has been cancelled because her publisher has decided to stop publishing fiction. She’s got her rights back so the next book will be self-published because she’s tired of publishers who can’t get their own sh*t together.

    Other friends sold that first book that was their first book and blazed ahead like the golden children they were to finally hit a minor roadblock. They got pissy and promptly quit writing.

    Sometimes, authors stagger up after yet another career hit because of bad luck or a publisher’s ineptitude and walk away. After over 30 years of being hit, I walked away, and I’m okay with that. I decided I was too burned out to bother with self-publishing so I’m watching my publishers die, two in the last year, and my books disappear off the virtual shelves. I’m okay with that, too.

    Publishing isn’t for sissies, and it’s okay to whine or walk away for your own sanity.

  12. What you’ve written is longhand for “With freedom to make choices, comes responsibility to own consequences.”

  13. West Virginia Expat here, John, Welcome to the Mountain State! So, in light of the many great suggestions I’ve received from your posts and YouTube channel, I have one for you. Try to stay on the downhill side of your treadmill. It’s easier where you’re living.

    Congratulations on your successes, too, because you’ve worked hard for them. It’s not just bad things that happen in threes.


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