Beware Of The Throw-Away Line

By John Gilstrap

One of the most onerous tasks of this writing gig for me is the review of page proofs. The developmental edit is done, and the copy edits are done, often just a few weeks before the arrival of the final typeset pages. Page proofs provide the absolute final opportunity to catch any errors on the page. The problem for me is that the always arrive when I’m deeply into the flow of the next book–so I’m distracted to begin with–and I just finished reading the damn thing (for the scumpti-fourth time) a few weeks before. The stakes are high, and yet I have a hard time focusing.

Just yesterday, I finished the page proofs for Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my new series featuring Victoria Emerson, an unlikely leader in the aftermath of a devastating attack on the United States. (Pub date: February 23, 2021) It’s about 95,000 words long, and I love it, but I’ve pretty much memorized it. I allotted two days to the page proofs–not much time for me because I am a slow reader.

I’d plowed all the way through and thought I was done last night. I was going to scan the pages and send them back to my publisher this morning, and then, while in the shower, a thought popped into my head from nowhere. Luke’s father couldn’t have died when Luke was a baby. I know that doesn’t make any sense out of context, but the timing I’d set up in the narrative would make much of what follows impossible. Thank heavens I found the error. Readers notice that little stuff.

(SIDEBAR: What is it about showers that triggers creativity? Perhaps it’s just me, but I cannot count the number of times that plot issues have resolved spontaneously under the flow of hot water.)

Back to the error. Here’s the thing: The timing of Luke’s father’s death really has no affirmative impact on the plot. In this case, Victoria is talking to another character about the boys’ father, and she says, “he never got to meet Luke.” That’s it. It’s a throw-away line that could have derailed the entire timeline of the book.

And this isn’t my first time. Some horrible errors have made it all the way into print, thanks to throw-aways. Probably the most egregious in my case occurs in Hostage Zero, the second book in the Jonathan Grave series. Harvey Rodriguez is an important secondary character who suffers from some serious PTSD issues. For the plot to work, he needed to be a former military field medical guy. An Army medic. In a monologue that I’m still very proud of, he expounds on the horrors of fighting in Iraq during the battle for Fallujah. Then, I realized that I’d been an idiot. Fallujah was a Marine Corps operation, not an Army one. No problem. I just changed Army to Marine and made a few other references to the Corps and Semper Fi.

But I didn’t change the word, “medic.” The Marine Corps does not have medics. They have U.S. Navy corpsmen assigned to their operational units. Tens of thousands of copies of the book went out to the world with the phrase “Marine Corps medic” repeated several times. I must have written over 100 letters of apology to Marines and Navy corpsman over the years. Given the audience for that series–and the fact that I grew up a Navy brat who was frequently stitched up by Navy corpsman–the barefoot walk across broken glass is good for me. We were able to change the error in the eBook versions, but there’s no pulling back the print and audio editions.

In Scorpion Strike, there’s a throw-away line where Jesse Montgomery drops his ditty bag into the back seat of his father’s convertible Corvette. My goodness, there are a lot of Corvette owners out there, and many are anxious to inform me that the Corvette has no back seat. Again, that’s on me, but I’m far less embarrassed by that mistake.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that it’s not the stuff you research that bites you. It’s the stuff that you’re sure you know. Or, even more often, it’s the stuff you throw in without thought just to add a little spice to a character or a visual.

What say you, TKZ family? Got any cringe-worthy mistakes you’d like to talk about? C’mon, it’s just between us. . .


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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.

26 thoughts on “Beware Of The Throw-Away Line

  1. I’ve just finished my “final” editing pass on my new release, but I’m waiting to read the print proof before I hit “publish.” And yes, I caught stupid glitches. Like when my character calls another’s hotel room, but she doesn’t know what room he’s in, and he’s registered under a different name so calling the desk wouldn’t work (and would reveal his deception far too early.) Believe it or not, that came to me in the shower, too.

    Or the throwaway line in my first Blackthorne, Inc. book where Ryan says “I told Grinch not to use his kid’s birthday as his password.” When I went to write book 4, I went back and reviewed what readers might already know about Grinch and discovered I had to write a romantic suspense where my hero had a kid.

    John Sandford tells a story where he’d referred to the characters handgun as a “pistol” throughout the book and decided he needed it to be more specific, so he changed it to Glock. Of course, prior to the change, he had his character thumbing off the safety, and he didn’t catch that. Readers let him have it. He replied to them with “He installed an after-market safety.”

  2. “Stuff that you’re sure you know” is absolutely true!

    Generally, the throwaway lines in my books are small details I didn’t even realize I’d written. When I reread later, looking for a place to drop in a hint for a later plot development, it’s already there, thanks to my subconscious

    However my trusty subconscious does not do math–nor does my conscious mind! In the first book of my series, several nefarious cash transactions took place that were supposed to total $100,000. My editor thankfully added up the amounts and informed me that I was off by $40K. An “F” in math!

  3. SIDEBAR: What is it about showers that triggers creativity? Perhaps it’s just me, but I cannot count the number of times that plot issues have resolved spontaneously under the flow of hot water.

    I have no idea, but it’s definitely “a thing.”

    In MARRED I had a character who got shot at point-blank range in the CHEST (instead of SHOULDER). Thankfully, my editor caught the error and sent me a note: “He got up with a sucking chest wound? Not buying it.” From that point on I scrutinize every word to the point of obsession. And yet, still some things slip through. *sigh*

    • Sue –
      Your initial take was credible/not in error.
      Gun shot and stab wounds to the chest do not always rule out standing or moving. For example one fellow ran into the ER with his girl friend just as I happened to come to the lobby. The girl yelled “he’s been stabbed” as the guy went down. He had collapsed lung/tension pneumothorax.
      Many other confirmed gunshot/penetrating wounds to chest and upright/ambulating (though likely not for long)

  4. Good post, Mr. Gilstrap. I guess I’m in good company, eh?

    First off, showers. Yes, creativity happens there. I think I’ll start taking more during the day… 🙂

    Second off, the Corvette. I ambled into the living room and told my husband about your guy with the ditty bag, not telling him the context. I just told him the line. Just to see if he would catch it. (I’m bad, I know.) He didn’t even let me get past it by one word. He interrupted me and said something like, “Back seat? What back seat?” He’s pretty astute about cars.

    Third off, your story of medic vs. corpsman clicked a light on for me. In my current (and next to be released MS), there’s a scene where my Marine MC has a PTSD flashback, courtesy of Vietnam. His best friend is wounded and MC calls for a medic. Gonna go back and change that.


    • Yes, it can be the little things. I had a character slamming the trunk of the car, a new Mercedes, and a critique partner pointed out that nowadays, there are (insert correct name for the mechanics) that keep the trunks from slamming. Another time, I assumed any car out there was available with a manual transmission. WRONG. Thank goodness for my crit peeps.

    • As I was reading along I was thinking of a book by a well known author who added a back seat to a very smart sports car so the bad guy could bring his henchmen. BMW makes plenty of very fast four seaters, this wasn’t one of them.

      Readers do catch them.

  5. In one book I talked about a small plane that the characters climbed into via the wing. Last chapter I named the plane…a Cessna 172…for those who don’t know, a Cessna 172 is a high wing plane and no way would anyone climb on the wing to enter the cockpit…I knew that and why I put Cessna instead of Bonanza Beechcraft I’ll never know.

    • Yeah, I’ve gotten into trouble with small aircraft, too. An old fire department buddy now flies for one of the major airlines, so he’s become my aircraft adviser.

  6. Thank you all for sharing your experiences. As the old saying goes, “Misery loves company.” ***Big Grin***

    I can’t remember the specific detail at this point, but in the fourth book of my series, the death of my antagonist in the climax blew up in my face over one small detail. My husband and technical advisor caught it before I finished writing the scene, thank goodness, but it took several hours of brainstorming to fix the issue without rewriting half the book. Ugh. If only I had ran that one little, but oh so important, detail past him first…

  7. Using my Mac’s text-to-speech software on my electronic galleys has always worked for me for that final copyedit. I increase the speed a bit so I have to pay attention, and I increase the font size so those pesky commas disguised as periods jump out, too.

    Either I’ve been dang lucky to get everything right, or my readers aren’t as anal as yours because I’ve never had a you’re-an-idiot fan letter. I did have an agent throw an insulting hissy fit on a submission because he thought he’d caught an error on a boat explosion in my first scene. Nope, it was based on the destruction of my brother’s boat. He survived it and vetted the scene for me, and I didn’t send a you’re-an-idiot letter to the happily-dodged agent although I dearly wanted to.

    • Marilynn, your story of the agent reminds me of a thirty-something editor at a conference who read my novel excerpt. In a tone dripping with condescension, she informed me that AARP membership eligibility doesn’t start age 50.

      Tempting to pat her on the head and say, “Honey, trust me, I have personal experience.” Instead, I was polite and gave thanks that I would never work with her.

          • My husband ignored the letters, but I paid up and we saved more than our membership on our next hotel stay. I remember when my mom took me and my kids to the Queen Mary (long ago) and I told her she should use one of the offered discounts, suggesting AARP. She looked at the list and used AAA.

  8. I also used text-to-speech on the last version of my current work. Like Marilynn, I speed up the rate a little bit so it doesn’t take forever, and I found several grammatical issues.

    I also found a problem I had introduced on a revision. I initially had a character killed in a scene, but in a later version decided I just wanted him to be wounded, so I changed that scene. But I forgot a discussion in the denouement where another character refers to the day the man was killed. Oops. Glad I caught that one. My editor and I had both read the manuscript so many times, we just missed it.

  9. I’m setting myself up for problems like this because I mention a lot of specific little details, which I just KNOW will sensitize my readers. My characters even model this behavior by arguing over whether a Beretta Model 70 uses a “clip” or a “magazine.” (A wise guy resolves this to no one’s satisfaction by claiming that it uses a “caricatore.”) And, yes, throw-away lines play a role here. So, now that you mention it, I’m practically daring my readers to do their worst. That’ll be interesting…

    My previous novel was set in the far future on a different planet, so I had few checkable references. The one I’m working on is set in the 1970s and it’s a whole ‘nother ball game.

  10. The Beretta 70 is an interesting choice to begin with. I have the smaller 21A Bobcat in .22LR. Beretta makes terrific firearms. And I confess you sent me to Google for caricatore.

    • I was thinking about what the well-dressed Mafia hit man would use in 1972 for up-close work. The Model 70 was available with a factory-threaded barrel and silencer. Sure, nobody turns handsprings when they think about .32 ACP, but I figure this adds verisimilitude in a left-handed way.

      • I’ve never been a caliber snob. I have a lot of respect for smaller rounds. A buddy of mine who did close-in wet work back in the day preferred .22LR for killing at bad-breath distance. Another friend of mine carries a palm-size Beretta Tomcat as his everyday gun. Both the .25 ACP and .32 ACP are respected rounds–and aren’t burdened with the issues associated with rimfire cartridges like the .22. If you get a chance, find an excuse to shoot the suppressed .32. You’ll be shocked by how quiet it really is.

  11. Done this many times. I once casually resurrected a character in ch.15 that I’d very much permanently killed off in ch.7. It got through multiple rounds of editing, proof reading etc. and I happened to catch it on one of my final reads before publishing!

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