Loose Lips Sink Careers

By John Gilstrap

Back around the turn of the century (that would be 1999, give or take), I had the honor and distinct pleasure of splitting a bottle of good Italian wine with Thomas Harris.  For those who don’t recall, he is the brilliant writer who created Hannibal Lecter on the page.  I was writing the screenplay for reboot of Red Dragon at the time.  (No, my name is not on the film, and yes, I think I was screwed.  Royally so.)

Tom was (and is, I suppose) famously reclusive.  For the trade press back in the day, he was the get of all gets.  I asked him why he so vigorously avoided the press, and he told me that among other reasons, it was good for a thriller writer to be mysterious. I took that to mean that the fame should be about the work, not about the author.

Truthfully, I’m not sure that was ever the case, but it’s interesting to think about against today’s backdrop of social media and the narcissism it breeds.  And yes, I am a practitioner.  (Have I mentioned my YouTube channel or my Facebook page yet?) I don’t think it’s possible to go to a writers’ conference anywhere where the effective flogging of social media is not a main event.

That genie is out of the bottle now, and there’s no putting it back.  The question I grapple with is, where does the public Gilstrap end and the private Gilstrap begin?  Because let’s face it: As players in the entertainment business, we are all one Twitter shaming campaign away from being ruined. And there’s the fact that some things simply are nobody’s business.

I interact freely and openly with readers and watchers of my channel.  I encourage them to ask questions, and I promise honest answers.  If a question crosses the line, I don’t make a big deal of it; I just delete it and pretend it was never there.  And here’s why: There’s no point in engaging in any form of negative discourse in a public venue.  Ever.  I’ve build several successful careers around the inviolable rule that you always praise in public and correct in private.  That’s just simple respect.

I know several authors who paste copies of negative Amazon reviews on Facebook and then go on to excoriate the author of the review, presumably for the purpose of public humiliation.  What follows, of course, is a torrent of praise from his fans.  I don’t get it.  As longtime TKZers know, I am not a finger cymbals and incense kind of guy, but that kind of negative energy would exhaust me.

So, I thought I present my [until now, unwritten] rules about public discourse:

  1. Never post politics. Sometimes my flesh is weaker than my spirit on this one.  We all know that I’m a gun guy and that gushy feel-goodism makes my teeth hurt, but I hope that comes out more as charming curmudgeonliness than political.  (Just stay off my lawn.) I can’t count the number of author buddies who post ill-considered, un-researched broadsides against the team they hate.  They get praise from their respective echo chambers, but they’ll never know the number of readers, followers, or would-be agents or publishers they turn off in the process.  Angry, insulted people rarely speak up.  They just quietly go away forever.
  2. Never insult anyone for any reason. It’s fine to rail on about “the idiot who ran me off the road and then gave me the finger,” but I think it’s a mistake to say “Harriet Jones, my idiot neighbor ran me off the road . . .”  First of all, the part of the complaint that is relevant to a social media post is the act of being run off the road.  Mentioning Harriet’s name has no use other than to humiliate her–and in the process perhaps trigger some legal action against you in the future.
    1. And if you must insult someone, make sure it is never someone in the industry. The rumor mill in the publishing biz is swift and brutal.  Notwithstanding the power they wield over writers’ futures, agents and editors are notoriously thin-skinned.  Ditto movie producers.  Bottom line: they don’t need to take any crap from a newbie or a mid-lister, so many of them just won’t.
  3. I never forget that mine is probably the bigger soapbox. This plays into #2 above.  As one’s social media presence grows, so does the need to recognize the responsibility that comes with it.  It would be a form of bullying for me to call out a freshman book that I thought was awful.  First of all, what the hell do I know?  Second, I remember how fragile a first book is.  Third, I may want a blurb from that author in a few years.
  4. I never forget that lots of people have bigger soapboxes than mine. And that their rules may very well be different than mine.  There are issues that I simply won’t engage for fear of becoming chum for Twitter-hate.
  5. I keep it positive. First of all, this resonates with my overall world view.  I’m a pretty optimistic guy.  There’s another reason why I keep things positive and I confess that I’m conflicted on my rationale.  Being part of the entertainment business, my business is to entertain.  People turn to fiction–and by extension to its creators–to find a release from the stresses of the day.  They neither want nor need the burden of my life’s stresses.  I’m blessed to have a great family and many wonderful and supportive friends, all of whom I can turn to for support in the dark times that we all face from time to time.  I don’t see a need to strong-arm people I’ve never met into giving me happy thoughts and supportive words.
    1. Health issues affect us all, whether directly or indirectly through those who are close to us.  I’ve been known to post about these things after-the-fact, but mostly to look at the funnier side and, more importantly, the hopeful side, as I did just about nine years ago exactly, when I posted Way Too Much Information, a journal of my gallbladder surgery.  After receiving some positive comments about that piece, I re-titled it My Cholesystectomy Adventure, and posted it on my website.  Every year, I get a dozen or so letters from patients who are facing that scary operation and find some comfort in my blunt, informative and pretty funny peek into the operating room.  And my urethra.
  6. I keep my family out of it.  Everybody knows that I’m married to Joy, my best friend, and that we do a lot of things together.  She’s a huge part of my journey through life.  But she has her own business, and we both have extended families that are totally out of bounds for social media.
  7. When I’m off-duty, I’m off-line. When night falls and the alarm is set, the social media machine is turned off.  Social media is part of my job, and my job requires me to be sociable and accessible.  But like any job, there’s a workday.  When I leave my office, I’m home.  And I never talk about what I do at home.

There are probably more, but that’s all that come to mind, and this post is running long anyway.  So, speak up, TKZ family.  What am I missing?


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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.

25 thoughts on “Loose Lips Sink Careers

  1. “I don’t see a need to strong-arm people I’ve never met into giving me happy thoughts and supportive words.” A new contender for Best Quote Ever re social media.

    Thanks, John.

    • Glad to be on the contender list, Harvey. I ache for people who are so desperately lonely or in need of affirmation that they post the read-to-the-end-of- this-post-to-prove-you-like-me posts.

      The chain letter posts for a cause just anger me.

  2. I love this.

    There are several authors I once stood in line at midnight to buy their books. Due to nasty Twitter rants (theirs, not mine) I no longer do so. I’m one of the quiet ones who just goes away. I used to buy each hardcover new, plus one for each of the kids, plus several to give as gifts to fellow book lovers. It was about $100 a year, maybe closer to $200. I also tossed their books. I could never read them again without hearing those nasty, condescending words.

  3. Good advice, John. Having just returned from a two-week, off-the-grid bucket list trip where I had no access to social media, I found not only didn’t I miss it, but I’m in no rush to get back to most of it. It’s becoming too much of a ‘ranting place’ and less of an “engage with people” place. Long ago, when I invited people to guest on my blog, my #1 rule was “No politics or religion.” Nobody’s ever had their mind changed via social media rants.

  4. Well put, John. My blog is devoted entirely to writing and I’ve backed way off my political Facebook posts, though I do still feel compelled to make a point. When I do I’m careful in the wording and in the research and try my best to create an environment where my friends can disagree without being disagreeable. I broke that rule for a post last week but with what I felt was good reason, more a matter of right and wrong than politics, which I will not mention here so as not to potentially politicize your post.

    As for the rest, I’m all in. What’s disconcerting is that just about everything you mention here, while it needs to be said, falls under the category of what we used to call “common courtesy.” More’s the shame.

  5. I’m sad to say that I used to be guilty of #1. I would feel such rage when I read the political views of a certain team and want to throw my iPad out the window. I couldn’t grasp how such a large group of people could believe such nonsense. Well, there’s a pill for that. Lol. I was having panic attacks, not about politics just family issues, so my doc prescribed a mild anitanxiety med. Now? I couldn’t care less what other people think about anything. People have the constitutional right to remain stupid.

    • I, too, am a reformed political poster. I stopped when I realized that there was no upside, and that the downside was huge. And to be honest, I still poke the beast from time to time by posting a provocative news item. When I do, I usually post it without comment and then step back to watch the feeding frenzy.

      I think of that as my Methadone as I wean myself away from actual posts. I’ve been known to write the post that’s in my head, and then delete it without posting.

  6. I try to keep religion off, too. Politics and religion used to be private, not for the dinner table, now they are posted everywhere.

  7. The other side of the nasty post coin is the compliment.
    On another writer’s website I was given a wonderful compliment. The topic was openings of stories. I posted the opening paragraph of my work-in-progress. A very prominent literary agent gave me a well done. I’ve lived off that compliment for months.
    Social media gives each of us the opportunity to boost the spirits of our fellow writers.
    So, John Gilstrap, well done again.

  8. I whole heartedly agree. Where ever a person stands politically is sure to alienate potential readers. Likewise with the audiobook narrator side of my life. It was really hard for me to digest this concept at first, having come from a background in political talk-radio, but well worth the lesson learned.
    In the end we want people of all stripes to read/listen to our stories, and maybe even hear whatever, if any, message we are trying to get out. No sense in shutting their eyes and ears before they can even open the books.

  9. Completely agree with the positive posts. In fact, I take it even further and purposely try to just be positive in as many aspects of real life as possible, in addition to social media. My time interacting with people is so limited every day. I value those relationships above everything else. Why waste my time on negative feelings, people, and rants when I could be lifting others up, searching for the good in people, and not worrying about stuff that doesn’t matter. Sorry if it sounds naive. Obviously I don’t succeed all the time but it gives me a goal to strive for.

  10. I check FB once or twice a week to see whether there’s anything important (another high school classmate passing, etc.). I add a cover and link when I put out a new book and occasionally post a pic from a recent camping trip, but that’s about it for me.

    I too am a reformed political poster, John, but eventually I learned, re common sense, what’s common to some is a luxury to others. That was enough to enable me to stop wasting my time. It’s SO much more fun adding another action scene to a novel. (grin)

  11. “Never talk politics or religion.” That used to be the rule everyone was given, but it’s changed. Now it’s, “Never post on social media except the most innocuous things.” Thanks, John, for sharing this one with us.

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