Sometimes, I Just Start Writing

By John Gilstrap

Imagine a classroom filled with creative writing students. They have just finished their semester on poetry and studying the text, “Understanding Poetry” by Dr. Evans Pritchard, once made famous by Professor John Keating in “Dead Poets Society.” Now they have moved on to my unit on writing novels.

A student raises his hand. “I want to write a story but I don’t know where to start.”

“Sure you do,” I say. “You pick up a pen or put your fingers on the keyboard and you start writing. It’s really that simple. Ba-da-bing! You’ve started your novel.”

“But what about my outline? My character journals? My story web? Those aren’t done yet.”

“What a relief!” I say. “Think of all the extra time you have to play with your imaginary friends. They’re ready to go. They’ve been waiting for you all this time.”

The student looks confused. Maybe a little panicky. “They’re not ready. I don’t even know who they are yet.”

“You’ve got an idea for a story, right?” I ask.

“Yeah. Well, I have a premise.”

“If you’ve got a premise, then you’ve got a compass point to head toward. Just start walking. Your imaginary friends will find you. They have to. Otherwise there’s no story. You know what they say about necessity and inventions, right?”

“But I don’t know where the story is going to go.”

“How could you?” I ask. “You haven’t started playing with your imaginary friends yet. Once you get in their heads and in their space, things will happen. Trust me on this.”

“Suppose it’s no good?” the student asks.

“Who cares? If you’ve come this far in your writing journey–Lord, I hate that phrase–you’ve got all the basics. Everything else is subjective. Just sit down, try to ignore everything you’ve learned in classes before this one, and try having fun with your characters.”

The student’s face is a mask of confusion. “One of my problems is structural. My critique group tells me I can’t have a prologue.”

“Do you like your prologue?”


“Is it a good prologue? Necessary to the story?”

“They think it’s not.”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s both good and necessary.”

“Then tell your critique group to kiss your hind quarters. They can do it individually or together with one giant pucker.”

Another hand goes up. It belongs to a young lady with purple hair and a pound of steel hanging out her ears and nose. “Excuse me, Professor Gilstrap,” she says. “You seem to think that anyone can write a story.”


“You mean anyone who’s trained for creative writing, right?”

“Nope. I mean anyone. Just as anyone can sing Irish ballads on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Purple Hair scoffs, “A drunk on a bar stool isn’t exactly Pavarotti.”

“Fair enough,” I say. “Maybe he’s only Frank Sinatra. I’ll bet Little Boy Frankie started off singing because it was fun. I’ll bet he was singing even before he knew what an F sharp or B flat were. I’ll bet he sang because it gave him pleasure. Just like the guy on the barstool.”

“I call bull fritters on that,” Purple declares. “There’s only one Frank Sinatra.”

“There’s only one you,” I say. “And only one me. Only one Michael Bublé, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand or Justin Bieber. In each case, I’ll bet that their fame and fortune began with the simple enjoyment of their art.”

Another hand. Given the curve in his nose, I’m betting its owner plays rugby. “Most of us could sing all day and study our butts off in music class and we’d never be a Pavarotti or a Sinatra.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because they were born with a gift.”

“What gift?” I ask. “I’ve got a larynx and a set of lungs just like they do. If I wanted to, why couldn’t I go to music school, learn breath control and diction and be a gifted singer? I did a lot of musical theater in high school.”

“It’s not that kind of gift,” Rugby Boy says. Crooners like Sinatra made the words of a song come alive. It’s like he lived the songs he wrote.”

“Kind of like he saw the world in a different way?” I ask. “A unique way?”

“Exactly,” Rugby Boy says.

“Suppose I went to Julliard and studied the performances of the masters of music?” I ask. “Couldn’t I do just like them?”

“A paint by numbers Rembrandt will never be a real Rembrandt,” says the student who started this.

“You make a good point,” I say. I’m enjoying the Socratic exercise. “Now, remind me which music schools Sinatra and Streisand went to. Did they even have art schools when young Rembrandt was causing trouble?”

The class stares back at me.

“Here’s the thing,” I say. “While anyone can write, not everyone can capture the hearts of readers. The mechanics of writing can be taught, but the soul of the story must flow from the soul of the writer, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call talent. So it is with all of the arts–acting, singing, painting, sculpting, and, yes, writing. Writers born with talent can be coached to hone it and improve it. But no amount of training and schooling can create talent where none exists.”

“Are you saying that some of us are wasting our time here at school?” Purple Hair asks.

“Only you can answer that question,” I say. “But you’ll never have that answer unless you write, and you’ll never have the stamina to produce the required number of words to make it matter unless you write because you love the process.”

Okay, TKZers, I know there’s red meat here for some of you. Have at it, but please be polite. And as an aside, I am on vacation as you read this, living in Zulu time. Maybe Zulu+1. I’ll be monitoring the responses, but my own responses will be oddly timed, I’m sure.





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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.

15 thoughts on “Sometimes, I Just Start Writing

  1. I love this.

    Jimmy Buffett sailed away from this world. He had another Labor Day weekend show in heaven. He didn’t learn to play guitar until he was in college. He went to high school with my big brother. He had a drink with my hubby the night before we got married and never let on who he was. He went on Johnny Carson and sang Stars Fell on Alabama for his mom and dad’s 39th anniversary.

    He wrote songs from his heart to ours and we loved him for it.

    That’s what I want to do.

    And I don’t have time any more to fret over what other people think.

  2. Brother Gilstrap—and Reverend Rev—there are points of agreement I have with your jeremiads. Critique groups can be a mixed blessing…or a mixed curse. I’ve never been part of one, but there are too many stories out there featuring critique freeze brought on by uncompromising opinions held by fledgling martinets. I do, however, know some folks who’ve had good experiences, so caveat scriptor when it comes to such gatherings.

    And from the very beginning of my teaching the craft I’ve advised: finish your novel, esp. your first novel, as fast as you comfortably can. You learn the most about yourself and your abilities that way.

    But once you’ve done that, you’ve got to figure out where you are and how you can get better. Anyone can physically put 80k words down paper (or screen) and call it a novel. But if it bores the snot out of readers, and you don’t know why, you better figure it out or you’ll go on to the next one and the one after that without improving your skills or writing toward a career. Sure, you can choose not to care what readers think. You can avoid feedback and study of the craft. You can keep that chip on your shoulder until you’ve got a dozen books out there nobody buys. You can be that drunk on the barstool, warbling like a cement mixer because he loves it. I’ll be finding another tavern, thank you.

    Or you can write, analyze, study, fix, and write some more. Avoid critique freeze by all means. But set your steady pace of writing, studying, fixing, writing…and you may just have a shot at making some lettuce at this gig. Up to you.

  3. I think it’s perfectly fine to just start writing and stop only when your first novel is done. It’ll teach you where your weaknesses are so you can focus your studying.

  4. Reading this post, I didn’t zero in on the theoretical argument about whether all can be good writers or if they have to be gifted, etc. it simply reminds me there are many ways to write a story–no planning, some planning, extensive planning before you write. Whatever. I’ve done it each of these ways and in each case one truth emerges–writing is a continuous learning process. None of these methods are magic bullets. But they all share the one common theme discussed here often–you have to get the story done. Then learn from it & build on that for the next story you write.

  5. I never took writing classes. Never gave a thought about writing. I became a writer by mistake. My first novel began with a writing prompt, “Write a 200 word hook.” Someone said they wanted to keep reading. So I kept writing. And learned a lot along the way.
    I posted my road to writing here at TKZ a while back.

  6. Such a great post! “Just start walking. Your imaginary friends will find you.” LOVE this line and how true it is. But I REALLY LOVE “the soul of the story must flow from the soul of the writer.” That is the goal. Writing is fun, but we need to cultivate a love of the craft whereby we see all of the many parts of writing a worthy story as fun as well. I mean, if I’m only writing the book for myself that can be the fun for me. But if I’m writing this story to be read by others my writing soul better embrace and learn to love the entire process. And it really is fun (keeping in mind that sometimes fun also hurts a little LOL). Gotta go now . . . my imaginary friends have found me.

  7. This brings us back—as seemingly everything in 2023 does—to AI.

    AI has the “mechanics” (maybe) but not “the soul of the story.”

  8. One day, a guy in Maine picked up a yellow pencil and a yellow tablet and wrote:
    Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
    If he had had a critique group, some would have complained about his use of a colon.

  9. Where do you live when you write? In your head, or in your heart? Those students can thank their lucky stars they wound up with Mr. Gilstrap. The very fact that they are in that class is proof there’s a potential writer behind those questions. Some of us learn early, others later on, but eventually with enough wordcrafting and sweat and maybe a little blood, we learn who we are and why the label “novelist” belongs to us.

  10. Great exchange with the students, John. Timidity is not the writer’s friend.

    Walt Disney said it best: “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” There will be lots of obstacles along the way, but problems provide the opportunity to learn and refine. It’s all a part of the writing journey. (I love that phrase. 🙂 )

  11. I’d ask for my money back if all you are doing is giving them permission to write and to fail. Even people with a natural talent for storytelling need some nudges and a skill set.

  12. I like this, John.

    I’m getting from this post, and the comments, that natural talent + hard work + skill-building = production of a novel that my target audience will (maybe) enjoy.

    But there is no maybe to me enjoying what I’m doing. Which just might be the best part of the equation on most writing days.

    A fan waiting for your next book . . . 🙂

  13. The writer’s Unconscious✻ (AKA the Boys in the Basement, Guardienne, etc.) is very fast and is the creative part of the brain, as well as the source of both dreams and actors’ alter egos. Fortunately, most writers’ creative center is capable of taking charge instinctively, without permission. It has no conscience, so you may have to edit its output.
    Did they even have art schools when young Rembrandt was causing trouble?
    Good question. Yes, there were schools or, at least, master teachers. Rembrandt’s masters included: Jacob van Swanenburgh of Leiden, Pieter Lastman of Amsterdam, Jacob Pynas, and possibly Joris van Schooten.
    Unless a singer has the right “pipes,” he/she will be hopeless as an entertainer. No amount of training can compensate for an ill-formed larynx or vocal cords, etc.* Personally, I have two breaks in my range, and am thus unsuited for any vocalizing other than yodeling.

    ✻ a second autonomous part of the brain. Jung said, “The question arises: ‘Does the Unconscious have consciousness of its own.'” Note that this is not the same as Freud’s notion of the “Unconscious.”

    • “Has the painter not always gone to an art school, or at least to an established master, for instruction? And the composer, the sculptor, the architect? Then why not the writer?” –Paul Engle

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