I Don’t Ask The Dangerous Questions

By John Gilstrap

Last week, in her debut post here on TKZ, Kay DiBianca asked why we write. As I was typing my response, I realized that she’d inspired me to write a longer bit about writing and motivation.

I avoid asking myself dangerous questions.

Where do my ideas come from?

I have no idea. Where does air come from? Where does emotion come from? Love? Desire? Anger? All of those things are just there. I’m sure there are those who can reduce it all to elements of the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems, but I worry that too much knowledge would take away the specialness. I will say this, though: I am not one who is awash with novel-worthy ideas. They arrive more or less when I need them, but never when I’m trying to think of one.

Why do I write?

I have no idea. It’s certainly not because I have to, in the sense that I would explode if I didn’t. In fact, not writing is a lot like relaxation. Like a vacation. For the past 25 years, writing has been an important part of the family’s income stream, but that’s not why I write. It might be why I sign contracts to produce books, but the actual stories have to come from different folds in my brain. When the time comes, I sit down, and the imaginary friends clock in to go to work.

Is writing fiction an important job?

I have no idea. Having spent thirty-five years of my life as an emergency responder and a safety engineer, I can point to a few specific instances where people didn’t die because I was there to help them, and I can reasonably imagine that systems I engineered prevented harm from befalling people who never knew that the systems were in place. I can talk myself into believing that those things were more important than making up stories and romping with my imaginary friends.

Then, I hear from readers who credit me for making their time in a war zone more enjoyable, or for making their time at a loved one’s bedside more endurable, and I think that this storytelling gig is more than a mere treacle. Maybe entertainment in itself is as noble a profession as any other.

It doesn’t hurt if I don’t think about it.

A few years ago, I had some surgery in my cervical spine that left (very) minor nerve damage in my left thumb. Day to day, I don’t notice it, but when someone asks, or I mention the surgery, the tingling thumb is truly annoying. Along the same lines, I never learned to touch type. I don’t even use all my fingers. When I’m in the zone, I can churn out ten or twelve pages in a few hours, with surprisingly few typos. Until I realize how well I’m typing, and then the virtual strikers get all jammed up at the virtual platen.

For me, the witchcraft that is writing rarely rises to the front of my mind. When it does, I seem to screw up. I go to work, pound out words and pages, and somehow, when it’s all over, I’ve got a finished manuscript. I don’t want to think about my process because I’m not entirely sure I even have one. I worry that asking the dangerous questions might trigger intellectual constipation.

I don’t worry about why what I do works for me as much as I worry that it continues to do so.

When I need a breath, the air will be there. When it’s time to go to work, the imaginary friends will show up.

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About John Gilstrap

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

33 thoughts on “I Don’t Ask The Dangerous Questions

  1. I’m with you, John. The less I worry about process the more I get done.

    I recently entered a screenplay in Final Draft’s Big Break contest. I mostly marathoned on Sundays. It worked for that project. Everything mostly happens in one day and I needed that feeling.

    This week I entered a short short story in Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Story Contest. For that one (a Revolutionary War time travel) I researched a bit, wrote a bit most days and chilled on Sunday.

    This week I’m picking up a screenplay I started on before I decided to enter the one I entered. Right now I’m looking at what I’ve got so far (this one is an Out of the Bottle Body Switch for you Save the Cat fans) think Freaky Friday Meets 9 to 5 at Christmas – and working on structure. It’s complicated, but it makes me laugh.

    Maybe it’s because the rest of my life is so scheduled down to the minute (day job, rehearsals, laundry, cooking) I need my playground. The less I think about it and the more freedom I allow myself, the more I get done.

  2. Thanks for allowing us to see your introspection, John. It’s healthy for everyone to slow down and contemplate occasionally. Life is too hectic. We need to pause and look where we’re going, so we can make course adjustments if necessary.

    If I may comment on “Is Writing Fiction an Important Job?” I would say YES. Your stories of Jonathan and Resurrection House, the value of protecting children, the satisfaction that justice will be served, are all important to give us hope in a world where just the opposite is happening.

    Write on John. We need your stories!

    • How very kind. Thank you. I just signed a contract for two more Jonathans and one more Victoria, so I’ll be in the game for at least three more years!

  3. I am not one who is awash with novel-worthy ideas. They arrive more or less when I need them, but never when I’m trying to think of one.

    I intentionally generate ideas…what ifs… first lines… concepts… titles… characters… and when one of these “clicks” I’ll do more development. I’ve always felt the best way to get great ideas is to come up with lots of them, then throw out the ones that don’t hum.

    Maybe entertainment in itself is as noble a profession as any other.

    “In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.” — Dean Koontz

    • If I may, Mr. B… I keep all manner of similar flotsam and jotsam in various notebooks, tossing out what doesn’t work in whatever I’m working on, but keeping for perhaps another day – you never know what might be the missing piece to another puzzle…

      (And I copy-pasted both of Mr. G’s lines and added them to an entirely different notebook reserved for such inspirational purpose… great minds? [Scary for you if true… 🙄 ] )

  4. I agree with Steve on your Jonathan Grave series, and if Crimson Phoenix is any indication, your next one will help people cope with what’s happening in the world. Please keep writing and not thinking about it. 😉

    As for where ideas come from, I have no idea, either. My sister asked once, and I said, “You know. The stories that are in your head.” She said, “Becky, I don’t have any stories in my head.” That was incomprehensible for me. It was also the first time I realized why I write. It certainly isn’t because I publish, but because there are all those characters in my head, demanding that their stories be told.

  5. Good morning, John, and thank you for the compliment that I inspired you to write this post.

    I envy you. Your imaginary friends show up when you need them. I have to go hunting for mine with a club. (Apologies to Jack London for appropriating and changing his quote.) Although I have moments, even days, when I’m in the zone, more often I’m working hard like a manual laborer putting the house together.

    Is writing fiction an important job? You say you “have no idea,” but in the next paragraph you show how your writing has touched lives. I can’t imagine a higher calling than to make people think and feel.

    Having said that, you’ve given me an idea for a future post. Thanks!

  6. Good morning, John. I really appreciated your take on Kay’s insightful questions. I think it’s important to understand and respect your own creative magic, and approach it in the fashion that works for you. In my case, initial ideas–simple premises, situations, scenarios etc. are easy, but turning them into novels takes a lot of development. I’ve tried to shortcut that and it doesn’t work. That development can take years. Fortunately, I have lot of those initial ideas in the hopper.

    Thanks for today’s post!

    • Good morning to you, too, Dale. One of the things that fascinates me most about what we do is the fact that while we all use the same alphabet and dictionary to produce a product that looks like every other one, I’ve never met two writer whose processes are the same.

  7. Imaginary friends show up and take charge in my books. I take dictation. It all comes from my subconscious which works 24/7/365.

    We authors should donate our brains to science to figure out how the writing process works.

  8. I have no doubt that ideas come from our imaginary friends, John, but who in the world knows where our imaginary friends come from… they are very, very real.

    Typing. I could cut off five certain fingers and it wouldn’t slow me down one bit from 1,000 wph when in the zone. The thumbs might as well not even be there and, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how kids can thumb-text so fast on their dumb phones.

    • I was at a conference a couple of years ago while a bunch life stuff was swirling around me. I texted nonstop for a couple of hours–until my thumbs developed cramps and a tremor that wouldn’t let me hit the correct keys.

  9. John– Great post that truly resonated with me, although I do have to write to stay (??) sane. I remember the very first time I was asked the “How do you come up with your stories?” question. My reaction, although I didn’t speak it, was “How do you fight them off?” But I don’t like to analyze the process too much, out of fear of breaking it.

    Just recently “met” Mr. Grave, and am delighted to have many books to look forward to. And I do touch type, and the same thing happens to me the moment I realize I’ve been barreling along without typos–the fingers suddenly trip over themselves.

  10. As I read your post, I thought: How awesome is it that writers are all so different? I could relate to many aspects of your “routine.” Especially the fact that if we try to overanalyze our work it can cause mental paralysis.

    John, may your imaginary friends always show up when you need them and your fingers slide across the keyboard without pain. Hand/finger pain is a lot more excruciating than others realize. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

  11. Hey, Mr. Gilstrap…I write because I just like putting words together. Kinda like talking, but nobody would listen to me that long.

    We watched a movie the other day called Flash of Genius. I highly recommend. It’s about Robert Kearns, who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Then, Ford stole his idea. He ended up in a very expensive legal battle, defending himself because no one else believed him.

    He won, because he used a book. The concept of IWWs had been out there, but he’s the one who put all the pieces together, using technology already in the world. Some other stuff happened that I won’t go into.

    At the end of the movie, he brought a classic novel to court, and held it up in front of the jury and his witness, an engineer with Ford.

    Mr. Kearns asked the engineer if the book contained all the letters of the alphabet. The engineer was forced to agree. Then Mr. Kearns asked the engineer if the author should be prosecuted for using tools that were already in existence.

    I will leave you there.

    I love words. That’s why I write. I can put them together and create something wonderful. Maybe others will think so, too. 🙂

  12. I write because these people who live in my head won’t go away if I don’t tell their story. As for is writing an important job, I think anything that gives a reader a few hours of respite in this crazy world is worth doing.

    When terrible things happen in my life like losing a loved one, I turn to fiction, either reading it or creating it. It’s the only thing that blocks the pain.

  13. I like to answer the hard questions, although truth be told I make stuff up a lot.
    That said, in the context of this post and looking back to the last decade and a half, I came to realize a while back that my drive to start writing at about 40. My first four books all starred a recently retired US Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant, who had traveled the world, survived a lot of crazy stuff, and just wanted to settle down to a quiet life again in his Alaskan home. In retrospect, I now see that I wrote those early novels to finish the military career my body failed to carry me through in real life.

    See…I don’t just act crazy … 😉

  14. Thanks, John, for the great post. There is courtroom wisdom to the effect that an attorney at trial should never ask a question if he doesn’t already know the answer. True that.

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