Shut Up And Write Stories

By John Gilstrap

These are interesting times to be a writer. Last night, I was chatting with four other writers when one took another to task for including the phrase “had no dog in this fight” in the body of his story. The one who called the other out worried that because the phrase traced its origins to the practice of siccing dogs on one another to watch them fight to the death, the reference was likely trigger pushback from sensitive readers.

I had two thoughts on this in rapid succession. First: You’ve got to be kidding. Second: Okay, so what? My squint on the world is such that the harder an individual searches for a reason to be offended, the more responsibility the offended must take for his own discomfort.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a live two-hour Zoom seminar for a writer’s group in the Midwest. My topic was a craft-oriented one that focused on some of the granular elements of writing a tight, tense story. During the final Q&A, an attendee (whose camera was turned off, of course) asked me what efforts I take in my stories to make sure I include a cast of characters that is widely inclusive of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

I confess I was not ready for that one, but I was fully aware that my camera was on, and I was in closeup. I defaulted to the truth: I don’t do anything along those lines. I don’t write sex scenes, so what difference does their orientation make? And I rarely–rarely–describe the ethnicity of even my primary series characters. If an ethnic reference does not directly affect the story, then I see no reason to include it. Obviously, when Chechen terrorists are the bad guys, we can conclude the ethnicity, but I see no reason to mention if they are Muslim or Christian. It doesn’t affect the story, so I don’t care. My answer seemed to work because there was no follow-up.

As an interesting side note, one of the primary characters in my Jonathan Grave series (Stealth Attack will hit the stands on June 29) goes by the codename Boxers. He’s close to 7 feet tall, bends the needle on most household scales, and is deeply lethal. I’ve never described his ethnicity, but I was surprised to learn that everyone–including my editor and my agent–assumes that Boxers is black. He is not. Do I mind that people see him as they do? Not a bit.

Last week, I received this email from a fan:

Hi John,

I just purchased “Against All Enemies” and am looking foreword to reading it. Tell me, what are your views on the 2nd amendment?

That was the entirety of the email. I smelled a trap. I considered ignoring the email, but I promise on my website to reply personally to every email I receive, and, well, a deal’s a deal. Here’s my reply:

Hi, [Name].

I hope you enjoy the book. Thanks for the support. As for the Second Amendment, I have little respect for entertainers who expound on political issues. I just tell stories and try never to write politics. My characters have strong feelings about many issues. I agree with some, disagree with others. I figure I’m doing my job if readers can’t tell one from the other.
This is the new standard I wish to set for anyone in the entertainment business. For the life of me, I do not understand why a non-expert with a readership (or viewership) would consider his or her views as more relevant or nuanced than a non-expert who has no “platform”. I cannot count the number of writer colleagues whom I’ve watched commit professional suicide during the weirdness of the past 15 months by posting diatribes that are guaranteed to anger 50% of their potential audiences.
It’s interesting that the focus of an audience on a writer or presenter is called a “bully pulpit” because too many people use it to bully others. It’s a gift to enjoy a facility with words and images, but by definition, anything on the page is a one-sided conversation. Sure, there are comments sections tagged to the end of op-ed screeds, but we all know that’s not the same. Readers with huge hearts and different world views often do not have that same gift to express their thoughts in writing or to gain the attention of others. All to often, such people feel aggrieved and silenced. And angry.
I think that the bullying is especially pernicious when it blindsides the audience. When someone opens one of my books–or reads blog posts like this–they have certain expectations. With the books, they expect an exciting, entertaining ride through fictional thrills. Here, I presume they expect to be given something to think about. In neither case do I think they want to hear about my half-baked thoughts on social or political issues.
Now, as I write this conclusion, I feel that I must apologize if I inadvertently did that very thing.
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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.

28 thoughts on “Shut Up And Write Stories

  1. John, almost all of the posts here at TKZ (with the possible and occasional exception of my own) are informative but yours this morning made me want to stand up and cheer. It also prompted me to do cartwheels up and down my street. I should have gotten dressed first but that is not your fault. Thank you. This one is a keeper.

  2. John, your wise words remind of the famous advice delivered by Samuel Goldwyn, paraphrased as “All I want is a story. If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

    As you say, fictional characters have their own political beliefs which the author may or may not disagree with.

    Writers are mirrors of society. I strive to show what’s there–good, evil, joy, sorrow, kindness, cruelty, justice, injustice, etc. Readers are smart enough to draw their own conclusions.

  3. John,
    I loved this. Thank you. For the record, because Boxers has a real name that identifies him as European, it never occurred to me that he could be black.

    I read for entertainment, and hope I write for the same reason. I don’t need political views distracting from the story. Even in your Crimson Phoenix, a political thriller, I didn’t think about politics. Loved it, by the way.

    In my mind, people are just people. I don’t think a lot about skin color or ethnicity. A lot of people have a need to be angry about something, about anything, and will jump half-cocked into the latest issue. Not impressed. In fact, I might go completely against these people just to prove a point.

    I sincerely hope you keep writing the way you have. The readers who, like me, enjoy shoot-em-up, take-out-the-bad-guys books will keep reading.

    • Thank you so much, Becky. Yeah, Boxers’ real name is Brian Van de Muelebroecke, a wee bit Dutch. I’ll keep writing if you keep reading! Seriously, thanks for the kind words.

  4. I’ve had a modicum of diversity in my books, but rarely is it the focus of the characters. The current WIP has a plot thread involving Asians (and I’d written more than half the book before attacks on Asians hit the news). I’m not going to change it without strong pushback from my editor. It’s a romantic suspense, so all ends well, and there are Asian characters on both sides of the good-guy/bad-guy line.
    I recall a day, driving the carpool to preschool, when my three-year-old son chimed up from the backseat. “Mom. Do you know why some people have dark skin?”
    “No, why?” I said.
    I braced myself for his answer, planning all the proper responses.
    His answer: “Because they have more melanin.”

  5. I read an article that disparaged the TV show “Friends” for the lack of diversity among the cast. The argument was, “How can they live in New York and have no black friends?”

    I’m a black man in Ghana who has seen Friends many times over and never once have I wondered why they didn’t have any black friends. Or Asian or Arab or Martian.

    I watch the show because it’s hilarious and well-written. That’s it.

    There’s something weird going on in the West.

  6. Amen. You handled that Zoom question (and the email) beautifully. Hope I never I have the same experience. 🙂

    I have some diversity in my thrillers, but I didn’t do it on purpose. The characters fit the story.

  7. Great post, John. Perfect answers. When we feel that we must change our behavior, speech, or writing, or even defend our position, because of someone else’s illogical thinking, we are allowing them to set the agenda. Continue writing as you have!

  8. John,

    I am a longtime reader of this blog (thanks to James Scott Bell) and an aspiring author. I recently finished my first book in a thriller series. This post has been printed and pinned to my bulletin board as I’ve been hesitant to even attempt to find an agent because of the weirdness of the last fifteen months. Everywhere I turn I’m disheartened by the cruelty people foist on each other. The book business is difficult enough without all this “new world equity.”

    In my opinion, People are people and we are all members of the human race. I only wish to send readers on an entertaining ride and maybe ease the stress of these crazy times, if only for a few hours.

    Thank you for your thoughts and keep writing the way you do. I certainly enjoy it! And, yes, I am off in search of an agent!

    P.S. This is one of my favorite blogs and every one of you inspire me to continue chasing my dreams. Thank you.

    • “P.S. This is one of my favorite blogs and every one of you inspire me to continue chasing my dreams. Thank you.”

      You’re welcome. And thank YOU for making my day! Good hunting!

  9. Some people’s complaints are valid, others just pick at things for the sake of picking. I do agree that there should be more diverse characters in our media, but should we pick at the past for it. No. And honestly, there is no good answer to your zoom question. It’ll either be super political, the answer you gave, or “I just want to.”

  10. John, you post rings true to me. I worked a long time in government authority positions, and the political correctness got to the absurdly stupid level by the time I quit. You got me thinking this morning about what the current term is for those who are easily offended, so I slipped over to the Urban Dictionary and found it’s “trigtard”. I’d post the UrbDic definition but it would definitely offend some china-hide and you’d end up having to apologize for me. Enjoy your day.

    • “Trigtard” is the word I’ve been looking for for ages. I wish I’d thought of it. Thanks.

  11. Amen! Thanks for reminding us that there still are people in the world with some common sense, and a lot of those people are on this blog.

    I write mysteries that I hope are entertaining and thought-provoking. Nary a soap box in sight.

  12. Welcome to the wonderful world of “trigger warnings.” I get it, I really do. But, dang, do we have to spend our days treading a minefield of possible upsets? And trigger warnings are so weird. I have a weakness for Reddit/YouTube stories about human trainwrecks. Before one story, the narrator gave a trigger warning about the term “menstral blood,” then a jerk casually murdered a kitten! Really? I sure as heck would have wanted a warning about that. I still can’t get that image out of my head.

    I learned a new with-it slang term, courtesy of those stories, a few days ago. “Fee-fees” are the feelings of someone who pretends such emotionally fragility that a simple mention of something sends them into drama queen meltdown. So we not only have to worry about genuine triggers like miscarriage, but the fee-fees of someone who doesn’t want a mention of anyone who resembles the guy who dumped her last week. I do not envy the minefield world young folks live in today.

  13. Bravo, well said! There’s nothing worse than coming to a book for entertainment, and then having an author’s social consciousness shoved down your throat.

    I really admire Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London series. The stories are told in first person by a young, mixed-race (magic-capable) police officer who describes the race of everyone he meets, including the Whites. While the books aren’t written in the style of police reports (they’re way too funny for that), the listing of race comes across as the main character trying to catalogue details that might later end up in a report. It is completely organic, and it works.

  14. Thank you for writing down what so many of us think. Brother Gilstrap (if I may borrow JSB’s appellation) the truth sparkles with its own light and you are a star in my sky, again,

  15. Hey John – I just started to read your series, (at book 3) and Boxers is my favorite character – hands down. One of the things I thought I’d share is how easy I can use my memories to build images of your characters. You make it easy to relate those characters so I could reflect back to people who have been in my life.

    Boxers is extra-special. With Boxers, there’s a strong connection that you were able to develop based on loyalty and fearlessness. I believe that there’s people like that out there today, and if readers have that similar connection, then perhaps they’re filling in the blanks with what/who they know.

    BTW – Thanks for entertainment, Boxers and Jonathan Grave.

    • Thanks, Ben. That kind of praise means a lot. I’m fortunate to have had a few Boxerses in my life. None quite as large or as lethal, but we would do anything for each other. We still would, actually. I’m thrilled you’re enjoying the books.

  16. Logging in late due to a trip, but thanks for a great post, John. This is what we in the USMC used to call a silent butt-chewing for those who need it. (grin) Keep swingin’.

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