The Before That Led to “In the After”

by John Gilstrap

When I was a kid—actually all the way through high school—I churned out short stories by the dozens, sometimes on command to meet the requirements of English class, but mostly because I loved writing. For me, a short story assignment was as close to a guaranteed A as one could reasonably hope for. I read voraciously in those years, and thanks in large measure to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and their ilk, I grew up steeped in short-form fiction.

I used to read Writers Market in the 1970s and mentally catalog all of the outlets for my stories, preparing myself for the day when I felt that my writing would evolve past high-school good and become professional-writer good. If I recall properly, Playboy was paying $1500 for short stories back then. Who knew that Playboy even had words? All of the big-format magazines carried short stories, too. I was in training to leave my mark on the world.

Unfortunately, when I got to college, my story production sagged precipitously, thanks to my libido and my love of a good party. My attentions were wildly diffused in directions that had nothing to do with academics, and when my grades started to nose dive, something had to go. After careful deliberation, I decided to stay with the dating and the academics and the booze (not necessarily in that order), and stopped my recreational writing.

Meanwhile, the market for short stories evaporated. That was just as well, because by the time I started writing again, my interests had shifted exclusively to long-form fiction. I never looked back—not until my editor at Kensington suggested that I write a short story for my website that would help promote my book, No Mercy, and its main character, Jonathan Grave. That story became “Discipline” and it introduces readers to Jonathan’s bizarre childhood. That was the first short story I’d written in something like thirty years, and I loved the experience.

Just a couple of months after I posted that story to my website, my blog mates came up with the idea of the anthology that became Fresh Kills: Tales from the Killzone (actually, I think it was James Scott Bell’s suggestion, but I can’t swear to it). My initial reaction was twofold: On one hand, I thought it was a great idea, but on the other, I confess that I bristled at the notion of joining the world of “self-published” authors. I worried that it would be read by some as a form of desperation. Let’s face it: self-publishing is not exactly held in the highest regard among my fellow authors, and the last thing I needed was for a good idea to inadvertently harm my career. Call me shallow, but the publishing business is scary these days.

I consulted with both my agent and my editor, and, to my relief, they were both very supportive of the idea. I think it was the uniqueness of the concept as much as anything else. I’m not aware of a similar project out there that combines the talents of established authors in a self-published book, and I think I can speak for the other Killzoners that we won’t complain if we get some positive buzz about this. So, with their approval in my pocket, I signed on.

And what a hoot it turned out to be! Initially, I thought I would do another story of Jonathan Grave in his youth, but that struck me as a conflict of interest—especially since “Discipline” is offered on my website free of charge–a pattern I want to continue. I went mining for ideas, tried a couple of them out, but remained largely uninspired. With our deadline approaching, I found myself with bupkis.

Finally, the muse found me where she often does: in the shower, when my mind was in neutral. I thought it would be really cool to do a story of delayed revenge, a high-tension thriller presented on a tiny canvas. The “feel” of the story hit me before the plot points did. I wanted the reader to feel frightened, and claustrophobic as the victim learns his fate. I wanted the victim in this case to be the protagonist, and I wanted his sense of loss to be enormous.

And because it’s a short story, I wanted it to have a huge twist in the end.

I was on travel on the occasion of this particular inspiration, and because I didn’t know exactly where I wanted it to go, I resorted to pen and paper—ever the best way for me to work through plot points. Twenty-odd handwritten pages later, the story was done. I call it “In The After” because, well . . . Actually, I can’t tell you without giving too much away.

I can tell you this, though: I’m already looking forward to Volume Two.

3 thoughts on “The Before That Led to “In the After”

  1. Outstanding story John! Really makes me want to keep my nose clean.

    Since this is self-published stuff, have any of you thought of the possibility of podcasting an audio version of it?

    If you’re willing to consider, I’m willing to do the work to get it done.

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