It All Counts

By John Gilstrap

You experienced writers out there please talk quietly among yourselves while I address the rookies for a few minutes.

I’ve mentioned here before that I frequent Facebook pages that cater to young, new or upcoming writers. I consider it a form of paying forward, and I try to help in ways that I reasonably can. Those pages also serve to give me ideas for this blog and well as for my YouTube channel.

What I want to talk about here today is less about writing, per se, than it is about fulfilling dreams of pursuing a writing career. Cutting to the chase: If you’re posting online, you’re in a public forum. Every item you post, every comment you make, is part of a truly permanent record. Before you click that “Post” button, ask yourself if you’re about to do something good and helpful, or are you about to do something you might have to apologize for sometime in the future.

I belong to one Facebook fiction writing group that boasts over 120,000 members. I’m not sure if its possible to know what the demographics are of that group, but judging from the posts and responses, many are young, the majority are inexperienced, and for a substantial number, English is not the members’ first language. As with all virtual groups of that size, trolls are common.

What’s less common–in fact, what’s damn difficult to find–is good advice. Most of the “wisdom” from members feels like advice we’ve all heard over the years presented as inviolable rules. Those of you who have hung around TKZ for a while know my opinion on the rules of writing: There aren’t any. Fiction writers need only to entertain their audience. If they can do that while including a prologue that’s all about waking up from a dream in the middle of a thunderstorm and wondering who they are, then Godspeed.

Posting Stories Online

I know you’re new to all of this, and I know that it’s hard to get feedback on your writing from real people in the real world, but do yourself a favor before you post a work in progress: Ask yourself what you hope to achieve by posting what is essentially a rough draft in a public forum.

What will you do with anonymous feedback from largely unqualified critics? Clearly, you will share the glowing praise when it happens, but what about the less glowing yet honest critiques? Worse, how are you going to handle the slashing troll attacks? All too often, feelings get bruised and wounded submitters engage in ad hominem broadsides with their gloating trolls.

What about that exchange seems helpful? I submit that every bit of it is 100% harmful. What’s the sense in seeking feedback that can never be trusted?

And to make it even worse, the submissions, responses, and arguments reside in that public forum forever, where deans of admissions, employers, security clearance analysts, editors and agents can all see them and learn from them.

TKZ First Page Critiques Are Different

My intent is not to shill for our First Page Critique program, but I do want to differentiate it from what I discuss above. Three key differences come to mind:

First, the critiques come from writers who have walked the walk in their own lives and have enjoyed some success in the fiction writing biz. That doesn’t mean we know what we’re talking about, necessarily, but at least our opinions come from an earned place.

Second, submissions here are anonymous for a reason. If a critique is harsh (they should never be mean-spirited), the author need never step forward and take responsibility for the piece. Hopefully, they will learn from the experience, but there’s no embarrassment. In fact, as the designated critics (critiquers?) we never know whose work we’ve analyzed.

Third, submissions to the First Page Critique program are curated at the beginning. Occasionally, submissions are so immature or undercooked that it would be unkind to expose them to public critique. We will never savage anyone here.

Spelling and Grammar Count

I recognize that I am now strolling on very thin ice. I find that it is the rare TKZ post with my name attached that does not have at least a couple of typos in it. It ain’t for lack of trying, but if there’s one truth I’ve learned over the past decades, it’s that I suck at finding little things, whether it be a typo or the milk that is right in front of me in the refrigerator.

That said, if you’re part of my targeted audience with this post–the new, upcoming, young, struggling writer–you have to be more careful than I do. I’ve earned a Mulligan or two, while your Mulligan bank is empty. Every word you post in a public forum is part of an ongoing audition for your future as a writer. Don’t squander marvelous opportunities to make good impressions.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t destroy a history of well-thought, well-constructed posts with an ill-considered rant about anything.

Writing is a craft, and crafts need to be practiced. Just as golf and tennis swings require muscle memory that repeats good habits, so does writing. If u r in da habit uv riting in internet-speak, I urge you to stop. Immediately. When bad form and bad syntax start feeling normal, it has to affect the quality of other written communication. It has to.

Your turn TKZ family. Am I all wet here? Have I missed anything?


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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.

24 thoughts on “It All Counts

  1. Good morning, John. What Harvey said, and doubly so with regard to the advice concerning posting on Facebook. That applies whether you are a teenager or have reached the age where you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Thanks for the reminder, which needs to be made daily and repeatedly.

  2. Great post, John. Good warnings, and excellent advice.

    Thanks for the link to your You Tube channel. I always enjoy the opportunity to link a voice to a face. I plan to subscribe and check out your videos. Has anyone ever done a post here on setting up and running a You tube channel (for writers)?

    Thanks for your teaching. Have a great day!

  3. Great advice, John. Forever is a long, long time. Rash words posted in haste will come back to bite one in the butt.

    A wise lawyer once told me (pre-internet days) never to put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to be read in open court. Even truer now.

  4. Great advice, John. I agree one hundred percent. My additional advice for new writes is: try to add value to a discussion, and help others by sharing their posts, cheering on their writing and publishing endeavors, boosting their “signal” when they have a new book out and so forth–pay it forward as you can, rather than just expecting others to help you.

  5. Thank you Mr. Gilstrap, I appreciate it. Your comment about online posts, “What’s damn difficult to find–is good advice,” was easy for myself to spot a long time ago. That’s why I have made TKZ a daily ritual to learn and I am thankful for it. I thank all the veterans here who have humored me as a commenter—I also apologize for potentially being a pain in the ass—but it is the part of the process of learning at distance.

    As a newbie, if you dive deep into social media, it can be a learning process for building your brand and stamina. I make mistakes along way but I thought I would share some good habits I’ve developed from the newbie perspective.

    For myself, I love Twitter. That’s my social network of choice. I also like the professionalism on LinkedIn. I went with two platforms for different reasons. I invest time into Twitter because of the endless possibilities for connections. In the last six month I have accumulated 8,500 followers. I think this is highly successful and is all about being a good author brand.

    However, you can learn from other people’s mistakes on Twitter, because like you said it’s all out in the open. This might sound selfish, but Twitter has helped with my overall branding. I do not want to be a silly hack and I want to be taken seriously. So when I find valued followers on Twitter, I turn on the notifications for that author so that I can see what they post and share. I also have a few notifications turned on for authors who seem self-destructive in their social media habits. Monitoring this daily helps give me ideas on what to post and what not to post.

    Same with LinkedIn. There is one major difference with LinkedIn, that 98% of the people there are very respectable. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn comments can be more helpful instead of someone blurting out hateful messages. The audience is also different on LinkedIn, which I can link with a different breed of person who is likely not going to be on Twitter or Facebook.

    Have a safe day,

    • Thanks for sharing that, Ben. I believe that our Brother Bell here on TKZ is a big believer in Twitter, as well.

      I don’t understand Twitter as a social media platform myself. It feels too fast, and I don’t have enough interesting items to feed that beast daily. I focus mainly on Facebook and YouTube.

      Now, I’m told that TikTok is all the rage. I’m undoubtedly showing my age here, but I don’t have the patience to learn and re-learn.

      I’m thrilled that your strategy is working for you. And I’m honored that you’re a TKZ regular.

      • I feel my bones cracking with I hear the term TikTok. Strange thing about being 48, too old for some things even if I feel youthful.

        Yes, James Scott Bell on Twitter is a prime example of what to do as an author Twitter. I wish he did Tweet a bit more, but I really like his contributions.

        • Thanks, Ben. I realized early on that the two things never to tweet out are: 1) variations on “buy my book” over and over; and 2) rants about anything. So I only share or RT what I think will help writers, or provide some smiles, because goodness knows we need as much of that as we can get. Which is why I like to pass along quotes from philosophers like Steven Wright. Ha!

  6. Thanks, Mr. Gilstrap, for this sage bit of wisdom. Good manners never go out of style. Who said that, besides my dear mother?

    I use FB, Twitter, LI, and IG. I’m constantly amazed at the posts I see from various online folks, using that space to vent stuff they’d never say out loud at a party unless they’d tipped a few. (Some are my personal friends, and to quote a famous person in these halls…ACK!) I run for my life from those posts.

    As an emerging author, I want my online contacts to see respect, listening ears, authenticity, and teamwork in my posts. Thanks for reminding us to support each other. The author community is the best in the world in my opinion, and some of the best of that best lurk here at TKZ.

  7. Your group sounds like Quora which I’m finding genuinely depressing. So many trolls and people asking deliberately stupid questions over and over again to gain points for some reason I can’t figure out. But I’m a teacher so I teach.

  8. I nodded the whole way through, John. Excellent advice. Just this week I read a rant from someone who should know better. Even worse, she ranted before bothering to find out exactly what she was ranting about. Instead, she formed an opinion from a quick glance at a tweet — my tweet — and ran with it. If she bothered to click the link she would’ve learned it was a blog post written by one of my guests for TKZ. And it was an excellent article.

  9. Late stopping by, but I agree with you 100%, John. I started a Facebook group for BC (Canada) writers in 2015, and we’re at over 1500 members now. Tiny compared to the group you mentioned, but much more manageable. We have a basic set of rules, restrict who we admit, and aren’t afraid to kick out and block obnoxious or nasty people. We have 4 admins and 2 moderators, so the work is spread around. Anyway, yes, I see members shooting themselves in the foot with bitter rants about how nobody appreciates or buys their books, and others who can’t write two sentences without at least 6 spelling and punctuation errors. Also some very talented writers in the group, which is great! I was nodding my head all the way through your post. Thanks!

  10. It bears repeating. Social media can trigger self censorship which I am good at, having taught online for three schools from 2003-2018. You have to be very careful what and how you say things to people you really don’t know very much about, only there you’re accountable to your department chair and dean. I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing for a noob to have on his or her plate-speaking as a noob..
    It also bears pointing out that when something is posted on an online forum in many cases it becomes the intellectual property of the host. Imagine if Stephen King had posted a draft of Carrie on an internet forum.

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