Chapter One

By John Gilstrap

I just submitted the manuscript for Stealth Attack (July, 2021), the 14th installment of my Jonathan Grave series. As I await the copy edits, it’s time to embark on the second book of my new Victoria Emerson thriller series.

Every book I write begins by typing the words, Chapter One, written in bold type, centered on the top of page one. It is the only chapter I number as I write. Subsequent chapters are labeled Chapter with a space next to it, pre-formatted in bold face type. My very last chore before submitting a manuscript is to type in the chapter numbers. And yes, inexplicably, it’s important to me that the number be written out, as in Chapter Thirty-seven.

I also type the phrase, THE END, all in caps at the bottom of the final page. It’s cathartic. And it guarantees the copy editor at least one line to delete–as if there aren’t many, many others.

There is one very practical reason for leaving all but the first chapter unnumbered: The first chapter of the next book appears as a teaser at the end of the most recently published book. And it’s a payment milestone.

Here’s the thing, though: That teaser chapter often does not survive my ongoing writing/editing process. It always changes–sometimes significantly–and if it survives it is often bumped to later in the book. I can’t remember if it was on Amazon or Goodreads, but one reviewer pummeled me for un-shooting a character who was shot in the teaser for Hellfire. A lot can happen in eleven months and 100,000 words.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s sufficient to submit a first chapter for the teaser. It needn’t be the first chapter.

We’ve established here before that I am not an outliner. But I’m not really a pantser, either. Before I type those first two words, I know basically where the story is supposed to go–what the stakes are–but when I start writing, I have no idea how I’m going to make those things happen. This is why that first chapter evolves so much or occasionally doesn’t survive final edits. If I’ve started a story in the wrong spot, I generally won’t realize it until I’m around page fifty or so.

I know going in that Jonathan Grave’s world is populated by four main characters, each of whom has to have something to do by way of progressing the story. Then there are a couple of very popular supporting players that I try to bring into each installment. And the dog. I always get a few emails from concerned readers if JoeDog does not make an appearance.

Chapter One provides limitless opportunity, but it also poses limitless challenges. Yesterday, PJ Parrish wrote about the importance of verbs. (A brilliant piece, by the way.) I concur whole-heartedly, but in the vast emptiness on the far side of those initial opening words, thousands of other words await to be chosen, embracing every part of speech that need to be selected from among what feels like an infinite set of variables. If writing a book were a math problem, it would be unsolvable.

My next move is to step off the cliff. To write something. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the words that spill out are utter crap. That’s part of my process. For me, creativity in general–and writing in particular–is a flow. Typing those first words is like priming a pump. The process will cavitate and make ugly sounds at first, but then we’ll get the bubbles out of the system and good thoughts will start to flow.

Then, on the good days, I’ll be so inside the scenes I’m writing that I’ll merely be channeling thoughts through my fingers. On those days, the spelling is atrocious and words are often dropped, but the story is there. And by story I mean characters I know doing things I understand for reasons that excite me.

As I write this, I realize that I have discovered for the first time why I can write the last one-third of a book in thirty days or so. At that point, I’m no longer writing–I’m merely reporting what I see. And somehow, usually just a day or two before my deadline, it all works out.

And then it’s time to do it again.

What about you, TKZ family? Got any quirky superstitions or must-do habits when launching into a new project?

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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.

13 thoughts on “Chapter One

  1. “As I write this, I realize that I have discovered for the first time why I can write the last one-third of a book in thirty days or so. At that point, I’m no longer writing–I’m merely reporting what I see.”

    Yes! Over all my 50+ novels, I’ve understood it is the characters, not I, who are living the story. While they’re off having wonderful adventures, I’m sitting alone in a dim room with a cigar in the ashtray and my fingers on a keyboard.

    Only thing is, the characters don’t have physical fingers. And that’s where I come in. I am simply the Recorder, the mechanism through which they put down their story as it unfolds. I am also the very fortunate guy who gets to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the story first.

  2. Knowing that my chapter 1 is going to be more for me than the readers, I’ve overcome any fears that it actually has to be good. In my Mapleton series, I know my characters and their overarching goals. So I have them do something, see where it takes them. I also don’t worry that it has to be a big something.
    My romantic suspense series are more connected books than true series, so I have the fun–and challenge–of introducing a new character or two who will carry the series. Sometimes they’ve been in a book before, sometimes they’re brand new. I spend a little–very little–time figuring out their main GMCs, and then I start writing. Give them something to do, see where it takes them.
    (Not much difference in the process, is there?)
    On another note: one of my critique partners is a computer programmer, and he wrote a little program that renumbers his chapters if he moves them around.

  3. First thing I do is write a title that suggests a theme for the story. Often, the title and theme change as the story progresses, but a working title gives me an initial starting point.

    I’ve always used this ritual, even when I wrote short pieces and nonfiction articles.

  4. Thanks for the peek behind the curtain of what you do, John. I particularly liked the idea of initially numbering only the first chapter. It saves time later.

    I was howling after reading about the reader who took you to task for “unshooting” a character. You never know what’s going to upset someone.

  5. “If writing a book were a math problem, it would be unsolvable.” Love it. Makes me feel good about what we’ve accomplished.

    Great post. I really like the “teaser chapter” concept – a giant cliff-hanger where the reader not only needs to invest more time in reading, but needs to invest some money in the next book. I think I’ll try doing that in my next series book.

    Quirky superstitions or must-do habits: During the brainstorming phase, I carry around a new folder loaded with lots of scrap paper. Whenever I get a new idea in the midst of nonwriting chores, I scribble the idea. Also, the top of the page gets the working title. That way I can see the evolution of the title when I start outlining.

    Thanks for a great post!

  6. That seems scary–having a chapter from your next book as a teaser–for exactly the reason you mentioned–the great liklihood that it will change before the book is done. Yikes!

  7. After thirteen books and three novellas one would think I’d know how to do it, but no. With every book it’s like ‘how do I do this?’

    I know I can because I’ve done it before, but it’s like my brain has been wiped clean. Eventually it will come to me. Maybe after I’ve noodled the story around in my mind a while longer.

  8. Great idea to only chapter number one. One of beta readers tells me I always skip Chapter Nine; I go from Eight to Ten, and it drives her crazy. Although by now, I think she’d miss correcting me if Chapter Nine suddenly appeared. 🙂

    To answer your question, once I slide on the headphones (each book has its own playlist) my focus narrows to my WIP. The funny thing is the music becomes white noise as I write.

  9. It makes perfect sense to have routine steps to get you moving. When I start a new project, I put all my research and backstory notes into one file and begin the narrative in that file. Once the story starts taking shape, I transfer it to a new file with whatever title I’ve decided on and continue from that point. Works for me!

  10. Fascinating post! I was originally a pure panster who moved hard to the outlining side of the writing force several years ago, but now I’m leaning toward the middle way you described.

    My must do habit is to create a novel journal file for each of my books. I brainstorm, do character work, ask myself questions, try out scenes etc before, during, and after drafting. I don’t necessarily journal every day I work on a project, but I do regularly. Without that, I feel adrift.

  11. On another topic, if you use Yahoogroups, it’s being shut down forever on December 15th. I use it to share my writing blog and answer questions so that’s going to be fun to change everything. If anyone needs help figuring out how to port your membership list, I’ll be happy to help.

    I wrote my first 3 books by long hand then typed them with an IBM Selectric. Chapter numbers were important. On the 4th book, I used an Apple IIc where I had to load the computer’s software in from huge floppy disks when you started it. Then the chapter I was working on. Before I cut the computer off, I had to copy each chapter I had finished onto an individual floppy because they held so little content. Each floppy had the book and chapter number written on it. I never got out of that habit as computers improved. It was glorious to be able to have the whole book available on-screen with searching capacity and an easy way to move scenes around although I’ve never needed to do that much. Not the way I work.

    I’ve never had a magical or emotional way to start a book or a day. I tend to have handwritten notes about what I want to do for a scene if it’s complicated and just write.

  12. Great post, Mr. Gilstrap! I always enjoy peering into other authors’ heads and seeing their particular foibles and processes. It’s especially fun when I recognize in myself some of the same quirks and superstitious behavior… 🙂

    I love the idea of only Chapter One-ing. I tend to write long chapters in my first draft, then have to go back and chop it up into smaller chunks. This would save a bit of time. Because when I decide where to divide a chapter into two or three, I can’t remember what chapter number to assign it! And I always, always forget to change one or two. Age-related, I think… 🙁

  13. Excellent insight into your process, John. “Creativity in general–and writing in particular–is a flow. Typing those first words is like priming a pump.” Words to live by, man.

    I have a start-up quirk. Before I begin anything – blog post, commercial web content, novel chapter, or whatever – I set the Word.doc to a blank page, get up, make a loop around the place where I’m at, come back, sit down, and it just flows. I can’t explain why this primes the pump but it does. And, yes, the first bit squeaks like rusty hinge and croaks like a fat frog but then that’s what rewrites are for. Best wishes for Stealth Attack!

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