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.

Banning Obscenity

By John Gilstrap

The West Virginia House of Delegates is making news by passing a bill that removes an exemption for schools and libraries from long-existing laws that punish the intentional distribution of obscene materials to minors. Under the law, adults who willfully and knowingly distribute “obscene” materials to minors can be held criminally liable for up to $25,000 in fines and up to five years’ imprisonment. The justification behind the bill that has forwarded to the West Virginia Senate lies in the question of why would adults whose job description is teacher or librarian be treated differently than any other adult in the state?

To be clear, nothing in the new law in any way prohibits parents from buying “obscene” materials for their children, and the definition of obscenity (see link above) is clear enough and graphic enough that it is not suitable for presentation here in this post. This is not the pornography that Justice Stewart would famously know when he saw it. The definition is really pretty clear. Libraries in West Virginia will be free to have in their stacks as many lascivious materials as they wish; they just have to make sure that minors can’t get their hands on it.

As the author of Nathan’s Run, one of the 100 most banned books in America, I feel that I have a dog in this fight, but I’m not sure who I want the dog to bite. To be honest, while the story features a 12-year-old boy, I never intended that it be considered a book that was appropriate for children. It wasn’t until the American Library Association bestowed the book with an Alex Award that school librarians placed orders for their shelves. Many, many parents were offended by some of the plot points and dialogue, and I understand why.

That said, we’re not talking American Psycho here. There’s graphic violence and bad language (409 bad words according to one letter I received) but there’s no gore porn. Still, I would never question the choices parents make on behalf of their children’s book shelves–or those of the libraries in the schools their children attend.

What I don’t understand is the perceived harm of kids seeing pictures or reading stories that Mommy and Daddy don’t want them to see–presuming that the materials are themselves legal to possess. I learned a lot when my next door neighbor, Sharon, showed me her father’s Playboys behind the hedges in front of their house. Would my mom have been upset if she found out? Oh, yeah, but how would she have found out? And where was the harm?

Reading is one of the finest ways to discover the world, and reading some of my mother’s romance novels during my adolescence cleared up a few important details while raising lots of new questions which I dared not ever ask. That was an essential part of my childhood.

The recent societal emphasis on inclusion and diversity has catapulted new angles on behavior and sexuality that has left many of my generation stunned and dizzy. “Why on earth should we be talking about that in third grade? What happened to innocence?” Change the timeframe to sixth grade, and I’m confident that that’s what Mom would have wondered if she’d found out about Sharon and I behind the hedges, and what happened was the kind of frightened fumbling nothingness that is the very definition of innocence.

The imagery and angry discourse of social media has, I believe, done more to shatter the old notions of childhood innocence than any library could possibly do. Instead of scouring literature to hunt down and identify racial stereotypes and gender roles that offend us, perhaps we should accept the notion that being offended is a part of life that each of us has to work through. Rather than getting wrapped around the axle about the epithets Huck Finn uses to refer to Jim, we should learn from the adventures these great friends shared together.

My question to you, dear Killzone family, is where do we find the balance between parental authority and librarian responsibility? Please keep politics out of it.

 

 

 

The Choreography Of Violence

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, Sue Coletta wrote a wonderful piece on how to write a dance scene. As I read it, I realized that a) I’ve never written a dance scene, and b) what a daunting challenge it would be to try. The page is an inanimate thing. There’s no music to hear, no rhythm to feel. All of that–and the romance that it triggers–must be borne solely by word on the page. The more I think about it, the less likely it becomes that I will ever write a dance scene.

I do, however, write my fair share of violence, and it shares at least one requirement with dance scenes: choreography. Whether it’s mano a mano fisticuffs or a major armed conflict with firearms and explosives, it’s our job as writers to bring readers into the middle of the action in a way that makes them feel involved.

It all boils down to point of view.

If you’ve ever endured the adrenaline dump that is our fight-or-flight instinct, you know that in the moments when your survival is threatened, the world becomes very small. If someone threatens to hurt you or to hurt a family member, there’s a special kind of clarity of purpose. The why of the situation that brought you to that moment could not be less relevant. Survival is all that matters. Sometimes, that means running away, and other times it means defeating the threat.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Experts in managing violent encounters–specifically active shooter situations–tout the strategy of Run-Hide-Fight, in that order. Run away if you can, otherwise hide. Only as a last resort should one attempt to fight back. As a non-expert in such things, however, history all too often has shown that to hide really means to await one’s turn to be be a victim. Something to think about.

When it comes to the fight scene in your story, ask yourself whose is the best point of view from which to present the action, and then stick with it. My 2019 Jonathan Grave thriller, Total Mayhem, opens with a mass shooting at a high school football game:

            Tom Darone had seen a lot of people die in his day, but not like this. The lady in the blue coat—the first to go down—made a barking sound and then folded in on herself.  Tom’s first thought was that she’d suffered a seizure, or maybe a stroke.  She sat two spaces down from him in the bleachers, and one row closer to the football field.  Her emergency happened at the same second when Number 19 of the Custer Cavalrymen intercepted a pass at the end zone, robbing the Hooker Hornets of a go-ahead touchdown.

In all the excitement, nobody saw her collapse.  Then her husband noticed.  “Anita?” he said as he stooped to help her.

Then the crowd erupted with a new kind of cheer.

People pointed, and Tom followed their fingers to see that a player had collapsed on the field.  Was that blood?

Then two more players fell.  A chunk of helmet erupted in a gruesome spray from a third.

The lights went out. In an instant, the field went from the artificial daylight bright that is unique to nighttime football to true darkness.

Anita’s husband shouted, “Oh, my God, she’s been shot!  Help me!”

A ripple of four spectators to Tom’s right fell side-by-side among yelps of pain.

The field was under attack.

Tom watched with a strange sense of detachment as the panic hit.  Home now only two months from his eighth deployment to the Sand Box, and six weeks into his new status as an unemployed vet, the reality of the moment crystalized in an instant. The first survival challenge would be to avoid being trampled in the stampede of humanity.

The panic around him didn’t blossom or bloom.  It erupted.  Those who’d been hit—and the people who loved them—hunkered down, while everyone else fled. In a single instant, hundreds of people decided that personal survival trumped everything. A few were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the swirling action that they simply shut down, but those were the minority.  Most people ran. They had no obvious destination, and they had no apparent plan. Most didn’t even know where the exits were, so they followed the people ahead of them on the assumption that strangers were smarter than they were.

The mayhem grew to critical proportions in mere seconds. Tom realized in a rush that he was in the epicenter of the kill zone.  As the sea of spectators pushed and tumbled past each other—and as bullets continued to find their marks—Tom dropped to his stomach into the foot-trough of the bleachers and rolled to his right.  As he dropped into the matrix of the metal support structure, his boot found a foothold, and then so did his hands.

If I had chosen to write that scene from the point of view of Anita’s husband–the spouse of the first victim–all of the action would have been secondary to his efforts to save Anita’s life and shelter her from further harm. If I’d written it from a football player’s point of view as his teammates are dying, the scene would be different still.

If I’d told this part of the story from the shooter’s point of view, it would have given away too much of the story, so that choice was never in play.

The point here is that while each POV character would observe the same swarm of panicked humanity, the reader’s journey through the scene would be entirely different depending on the author’s writerly choice. Even the narrative voice would be different. Because Tom Darone had recently been in battle, his voice is naturally more observant and less emotional than would be, say, a teenage football player.

Action scenes fail when the author tries to take too big a bite.

The choreography of violence is inherently confusing, so it’s easy to lose the reader. Take the cliched barroom melee from every cowboy movie of the 1960s. On film, a viewer can easily keep track of the different punches thrown by John Wayne and Dean Martin because our brains process imagery at the speed of light. On the page, though, there’s that extra filter in play that translates spots on the paper into words and then those words into images that can be far more vivid than any movie adaptation, but that translation is as fragile as a single misplaced word. Throw in a bunch of different POV characters and the risk of losing your readers grows astronomically.

If you pick a single character from whose point of view to show the scene, you can give the reader a literal blow by blow description of that character’s corner of the fight, while observing flashes of the rest of the activity through peripheral observation. We feel his knuckles hurt when he throws a punch, and we feel the pain in his gut when he takes a body blow.

Greetings From the SHOT Show

By John Gilstrap

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Spoiler alert: I won’t have a useful post for you today, but it’s not for lack of good intentions.

As I write this, I am in Las Vegas at the annual SHOT Show–Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Technology–doing research for my novels and touching base with my technical consultants. My travel plans have been in place for months. I would fly out of Washington Dulles on a direct flight on Sunday afternoon which would deliver me to LAS with plenty of time to pick up my badge and meet some friends for dinner. On Monday, I would go to Range Day in the morning, get back to my hotel in the early afternoon and get this blog post written before the main part of the show started on Tuesday morning. The show, after all, is what this trip is all about.

That long-lasting plan had me returning home on Friday night, and all would be well.

Then reality hit. All of my flights were scheduled on Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft owned by United Airlines. You might have heard about the little problem of 737-9 exit doors exiting unexpectedly last week on an Alaska Air flight. So, wait for it . . . All 737-9s in the United States have been grounded pending FAA inspections.

Now, I’m the first to agree that flight complications are way better than flights falling out of the sky, and my heart goes out to whoever is responsible for rescheduling the thousands of passengers on hundreds of grounded flights. But this is about me. After FIVE iterations of flights being canceled and rebooked only to have the rebooked flights also canceled, my non-stop trip to LAS turned into a two-stop trip that got me to the hotel after the restaurants had closed.

Yesterday, as I was leaving Range Day, United Airlines texted me with the news that all of my rescheduled return flights had been canceled, and that no seats–NO SEATS–were available to get me home before 11pm on SUNDAY night. And that solution came only after 90 minutes of sitting on hold and another 30 minutes of haggling with the UAL customer service people.

Now, I’m not a bitter or vindictive guy. I understand that stuff happens. But can we all agree that the CEOs of Boeing and United should be sent to prison to pay for the thousands of hours of inconvenience thrust upon travelers because of their cutting corners on quality control that could have gotten people killed? At the very least, isn’t it reasonable for the law to require that they must travel exclusively in the last middle seat at the rear of standard aircraft?

Writing is Pretending While Taking Notes

By John Gilstrap

Happy New Year, TKZ family! As much as I love the Holiday Season, with all the parties and the outrageous caloric intake, it’s always nice to return to the normal pace–and to return from our winter hiatus.

Here at the West Virginia compound, we got the first snowfall of the winter, which brings a whole different form of excitement. Last year, we got no snowfall to speak of so this storm served as our dog Kimber’s first experience with the stuff. Her first instinct was to bark at it, but once she stepped outside she became possessed, running full speed in circles, taking bites of it and rolling in it. In the picture, she and I are returning home after a romp in the woods.

Let’s talk about writing. More specifically, let’s talk about imagination.

I belong to a healthy few Facebook groups that focus on various elements of creative writing. Mostly, I lurk but I do post occasionally when I think I have something to offer. A few days ago, the subject of outlining came up. The general theme was that without an outline, a writer will get hopelessly lost in the plot and the book will never amount to anything. <Sigh>

Y’all might recall that I do not outline and I bristle at the mention of anything that sounds remotely like a rule that new writers–or old writers for that matter–must follow. I’m particularly intolerant of rules invoked upon newbies by fellow newbies whose body of knowledge and experience comes from a seminar they attended.

Telling a story to the page is the same process as telling a story to another person. Writing a story is a close cousin to the fantasy role play we used to do as kids. (It’s important to note here that thanks to the heroic efforts of my friends and me, every imaginary Nazi who dared to enter our street was quickly dispatched. You’re welcome.) When we played Army, there was always a story to what we were doing. It’s entirely possible that said story closely resembled that week’s episode of the Rat Patrol, but a story is a story. We didn’t outline and we didn’t pass anything through a panel of beta readers. We acted out our plot, never questioned that our guns never ran out of ammunition and accepted on faith that the kill radius of a hurled pine cone was fifty yards or more.

We are the same people we were when we were boys and girls playing with our friends. The imagination is still there. As we grow into our roles as adults, society demands that we tone down the time with imaginary friends. Sadly, we all know people who have embraced adulthood in a way that obliterated the free thinking of childhood and I feel sorry for them. For writers, though–all forms of artists, really–the childlike imagination never goes away. We learn to wrangle it, but we never let it die. We can’t let it die.

What we need to do is stop caring about where our Great Pretend will take us, and just go along for the ride. Let your mind take you where it wants to go and take notes along the way. Maybe it will peter out to a dead end, but so what? You’ll have had the mental adventure, and no one will ever be able to take that from you. For me, an outline is like asking permission to start out on the imagination adventure. It’s like trying to manage the fantasy that is the writing and reading experience.

If you’re stressing about the story you’re trying to write, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not suggesting that the process and craft of writing is not work because it very much is work. But letting the story unfold in your mind–and staying out of its way as it does–is pure joy.

 

Radio Redux

By John Gilstrap

I’ve mentioned several times in the Killzone corner of cyberspace that one of the great bits of good fortune I’ve encountered since moving to West Virginia was to nail a regular drive-time co host slot on WRNR/TV10 in Martinsburg. While the primary focus of Eastern Panhandle Talk Radio is on local politics–which are far more abundant than I would have imagined–we frequently feature authors, including our own Debbie Burke and Reavis Wortham.

The format of the interviews is informal and conversational–24 minutes uninterrupted by commercials. With that much radio wave real estate to fill, the interview has to be about more than just the book du jour. Authors of nonfiction have the benefit of being subject matter experts on the topic about which the book is written. It’s trickier with novelists, however, where much of the substance of their story is purely a product of the author’s imagination. It’s incumbent upon the writer to offer up a compelling hook. When Debbie was on to pitch Deep Fake Double Down, the interview was as much about deep fake technology as it was about the book itself. If I were interviewed about the latest Jonathan Grave books, I’d talk about weapons and the Mexican drug cartels.

Remember, the point of a long form interview is to make people interested in you. Of course, you want to hype the book, but the more important takeaway is that you as a person are interesting.

The stark reality of mainstream radio and television is that a relatively low percentage of the audience will be big readers of anything. Of that population of readers, fewer still will be readers of your genre, and a solid percentage will be exclusively fans of nonfiction. Being interesting is the most reliable tool in your kit.

Which brings us to the most critical interview error to avoid.

Those of us who travel to lots of conferences are used to giving presentations that are geared toward other writers. We all have schtick on outlining, character development, techniques to increase suspense and countless other writerly topics about which mainstream broadcast audiences care not one whit.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a local self-proclaimed literary author on the show who literally could not articulate what any of the 23 short stories in his collection were about. He praised his own prose as lyrical and he spoke about the beauty of his language. There was a long riff on synonyms. We know from the interview that the stories in the collection are about “the common struggles we face.” Less clear are what those common struggles might be. Despite multiple attempts to get him to speak about the specifics about the plot or the characters, the author couldn’t turn off his inner MFA-speak to communicate with a mainstream audience. We ended up cutting the interview off after 18 minutes and running the top of the hour commercial set a few minutes early.

My intent with the story above is not to make fun of the author, nor to criticize his book. In fact, I’ll stipulate for the sake of argument that the book is brilliant. It’s a shame that he’d given so little consideration to how to pitch it to strangers.

And here we are at the end of another year. The older I get, it seems the faster the calendar pages turn. As we prepare for our annual hiatus, I think it’s important to impart upon our TKZ family how special a thing we have going here, and how grateful I am to be a part of it. Here’s wishing all of us a glorious Holiday Season and healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

 

 

A Cynical View Of Titles & Cover Art

By John Gilstrap

As I read Reavis Wortham’s excellent post regarding titles and covers last Saturday, my first thought was, Hey, I’ve got a different squint on such matters. I think that’s what my post will be about on Wednesday!

My second thought was, Wait. I already wrote that post.

And, as luck would have it, on the day when I should be writing new material for this post, I’m swamped with Life Stuff and don’t have time to pen a whole new post. So, here we go with a post that first appeared on TKZ on November 4, 2020:

Whoever coined the trope that you can’t judge a book by its cover had to have been an academic. Certainly, the trope-coiner was not a reader of novels. Yes, it is true that some great novels come encased in ugly wrappers, but few of them find a broad readership.

What follows is based on zero research and even less science, but it reflects quite a few decades of personal observation.

People buy books in steps.

First, they have to know to look for it. This is the unicorn hair in the mix. I don’t know what drives me to look for a book. Certainly, there’s word of mouth, and I read a lot of books for blurbs, but I don’t remember the last time I went into a bookstore blind–without a target I was looking for–and scoured the shelves, hoping to be attracted to a cover. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in the virtual world, where online bookstores are not, in my opinion, very browsable.

Next, there has to be an instant attraction. Perhaps it’s the author’s name—which highlights the importance of “branding”. But that instant attraction is just that—instant. It’s fleeting. There and gone. This is where the cover comes in, highlighting the reason that genres exist in the first place. The title is important here, too. A thriller has to look and sound like a thriller. Ditto a romance or horror novel. In that brief second of instant attraction, the artwork makes a connection and causes the reader to move to the next step . . .

They read the plot description. In just a few words, the pressure is on to pull the reader into the story. To make them gamble their hard-earned money that the ride you’re going to provide is worth the money. How do they make their final decision?

They read the first pages. Yesterday, PJ Parrish posted a terrific primer on the elements of a good opening. Here’s where that pays off. Boom! Decision made, one way or the other. There’s neither the time nor the real estate to flub the opening and make it better later.

So, where is the cynicism?

Okay, here it is: The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. Some examples from my own work:

Hellfire is the Jonathan Grave book that hit the stands back in July. What does Hellfire even mean? The story is about two kids who are kidnapped to keep their mom from revealing a terrorist plot after she has been arrested. The word itself–Hellfire–is an oblique reference to an air-to-surface missile system. And it sounds cool. It positions the book properly in the minds of readers who generally enjoy the types of books I write.

The red cover makes it distinctive on the shelf–unless or until red becomes the cover du jour for the current crop of cover designers. It also lends itself well as a Facebook cover image. But if you really look at the image and its various elements, it could be for a reprint of All’s Quiet On The Western Front, or it could be a story about Satan.

Other examples from my oeuvre (today is Pretend-I-Know-French Day): The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it. The cover of Friendly Fire features the White House, yet neither the president nor his team are involved in the story. What we wanted to do is establish the book and its author as being “inside Washington”.

My point here is that storytelling and marketing are entirely different skillsets, with only distantly related goals. As an author, my job is to entertain my readers by giving them a helluva ride. To get that chance, I need to convince them (trick them?) into picking out my book from among all the others on the shelf.

Your turn, TKZers. Do you have any tricks you’re willing to share about how you convince readers to take the plunge?

Traditional Publishing is Alive and Thriving and Different

By John Gilstrap

There’s a buzz about the internet that the traditional publishing market is dying, and that the most reliable route to authorial success is through some form of self publishing. In my experience, the rumors are in large measure perpetuated by people and bots who stand to make money from frustrated authors who want to see their words in print and are willing to pay for editing and publishing “services” that suck cash and provide no guarantees.

The argument as I hear it.

The days of Maxwell Perkins and like minded star makers are long gone. No publisher (herein after synonymous with “traditional publisher”) is willing to develop young talent. Either the manuscript arrives at the transom fully formed and ready to publish, or it will be rejected.

Agents are no longer taking on new clients. Instead, they concentrate on their current stable of authors, who make sure that the doors to the publishing industry are closed to newcomers.

The entire industry is prejudiced against (depending on the perpetuator of the rumors) white people, people of color, men, women, gays, straight people, old people or young people, and about any other demographic slice that has chosen to feel oppressed on any given day.

For those authors who have found the magic string to pull to gain access to an agent and then on to a publisher, disappointment awaits. Either the selected publisher will pay too much for a book that doesn’t earn out, thus dooming the author to a painfully short career, or they will pay a mere pittance that will have no meaningful impact on the author’s finances.

And oh, the financial abuse! For every book sold, the publisher keeps as much as 90%, and of the paltry 10% given to the author, one-fifth of the amount goes to the author’s agent. When Amazon will let an author keep 70% (?) of the cover price, who would even consider a real publisher?

The evidence is plain and clear: Advances are shrinking for everyone, and the Big Five are getting smaller every day. Clearly, that’s the sign of the industry’s impending death.

One would be a fool to even consider offering their book to a publisher.

Reality as I see it.

First, a brief reminder of where I come from: I sold my first novel, Nathan’s Run, in 1995. By the time it hit the stands, I had already sold pub rights to my second book, At All Costs. Both were sold for astonishing seven-figure advances and neither earned out. Not even close. Since then, there’ve been 26 more books, with at least two more under contract.

The Max Perkins editing model died long before I joined the publishing scene, and I’ve been around since the days when query letters were sent in envelopes that contained an SASE, and manuscripts were shipped via FedEx at something like $25 a pop. That’s when I learned that only bad news came in the SASE. Good news came via phone call. Even then, the burden lay with the writer to submit a near perfect manuscript to agents who requested to see a sample. Then, as today, the easiest answer to a newbie trying to enter the entertainment business, the easiest answer was/is no. Who would want to establish a long-term relationship with someone unprofessional enough to submit flawed work as their first impression?

Then and now, overworked editors depend on agents to serve as gatekeepers at two important levels. First, there’s the quality of the writing. Without a good story that is well told, there’s no good product to mold into a better product. (There’s never been hope for ill-conceived or poorly written stories).

Second, agents make sure that excellent manuscripts go only to editors who are looking for that kind of story. When a trusted agent tells an editor, “I’m giving you a 24-hour exclusive on this story before I submit it wide,” all other work gets shoved aside for the editor to read and make an offer (or not). Publishing continues to be a relationship business.

When a manuscript is accepted by a publisher, editing is less about wordsmithing than it is about project management. Once everyone is happy with the story, the editor champions that manuscript all the way through the cover design, marketing and publicity efforts. For the record, no author in the history of the world has been pleased with their books’ marketing or publicity plans.

NOTE: First novels are in large measure author auditions. Authors who work to promote their own works, make speeches and show an active interest in the advancement of their own career will see their publicity budgets grow with time.

Now, as then, agents and editors are starving for new talent, and champing at the bit to take on new authors. The crippling problem now that didn’t exist in my early days, is email. Back in the day (Good Lord, I can hear my old man voice), the sheer inconvenience and expense of submitting via mail served as a form of natural selection. And before that–as recently as the 1980s–a new draft meant retyping the entire manuscript. Talk about a barrier to entry!

Now, each agenting day reopens the valve for a tsunami of under-cooked, ill-conceived and poorly-executed submissions overloading their email boxes. I’m talking really awful, terrible drek. New authors demonstrate a shocking lack of respect for these professionals’ time. As always, the easiest answer is no. A yes has to be earned.

But according to the interwebs, nobody needs an agent anyway. There are plenty of resources they can pay to publish their terrible work on ebook platforms.

The nightmare of huge advances

I’m not going to pad the truth here. When HarperCollins and Warner Books recognized the magnitude by which they’d overestimated the marketability of Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, my career took took a kick to the doo-dads. But I got to keep the money. Let’s call that a silver lining.

And I kept writing, churning out character-driven thrillers. I was able to build on the various starred reviews of those first books, and I found publishers who were willing to hang in there because I was willing to take advances that hovered around 2% of the news-making paydays. Audiences grew, and as they did, so did the advances.

Nowadays, I won’t take an advance that I can’t earn out within 8 weeks of publication. That frees up lots of cash to be used in promotion and marketing. Over time, as a backlist grows, it acts as a kind of annuity, rendering the advance as more of a symbolic payment.

Many aspects of the good old days never made sense.

All corners of the entertainment business are driven by significant egos, all of which need stroking. Big name editors are stroked by their own imprints, authors with book tours and big advances. The huge names in this industry never earn back their advances because much of their value lies in being among the authors published by the publishing house. Ninety-nine percent of book tours lose money for the publisher, but the loss is justified by the bragging rights.

Or, so it has been for generations.

I think the most critical element in the slow implosion of the Big Five is the fact that they are now owned and run by people who don’t particularly like books or publishing. Once acquired by mega companies, publishers become another profit center among dozens of other profit centers whose profit margins are much higher than that which is possible in the book biz. The last couple of years has seen countless big-name editors released and replaced by lesser editors who demand lower paychecks. Publicity, distribution and copy editing are routinely sourced out to freelancers who have no emotional tie to the companies who hire them or the authors they edit.

The stage is set for great things.

The ossification of the Big Five is creating tremendous opportunities for new authors and new publishers that exist because they like the business of producing books. My own publisher, Kensington, remains privately owned and thriving. Newcomers like Blackstone and Source Books are making great strides in taking on new and orphaned authors and turning profits at the same time. New publishing companies are opening their doors every week, it seems.

But with new opportunities comes a shift in the author-publisher paradigm. It’s expected now that authors understand that they are small business owners and therefore responsible for a solid percentage of their book’s success in the marketplace. Writing is becoming more of a team endeavor.

You Just Never Know

By John Gilstrap 

WOODBRIDGE, VA–SUMMER, 1995. Nathan’s Run was a done deal and the marketing push to launch it was beginning to spin up. The pressure was on to submit my next book (as yet untitled) before the February, 1996 publication date as a hedge against a reality check that Nathan might not perform up to expectations. (Advances are often higher when reality is not a factor.) I was pounding away on the thriller that would become At All Costs, in which Jake and Carolyn Donovan had been exposed as longtime fugitives and now needed to flee for their lives while finding a way to prove their innocence.

In one of the early chapters, I needed an FBI agent for what I call a utility character–a walk-on that does the job required and then retreats to the literary union hall to await their next gig. I named the character Irene as a nod to my bride’s deceased mother (whom I never met). I gave her the surname Rivers because I needed a name and that was as god as any.

Those were the days when I pretended to outline my books with the result invariably turning out to be rambling, over-complicated plot lines that also invariably straighten themselves out and convinced me that I’m not an outline kind of guy. Irene Rivers ended up with a much larger role than I’d anticipated, and by the end of the story, she’d killed off a deputy director of the FBI. Cool stuff.

FAIRFAX, VA–SUMMER, 2008. With Six Minutes to Freedom in the can, and freshly inspired by all the research into Special Forces operations, I started hammering away on No Mercy, which would become the first of my long-running Jonathan Grave thriller series. I needed Jonathan to interact with a malleable but deeply honest FBI director. This character would know that Jonathan doesn’t play by the rules, but that he always finds himself on the side of the angels, so the FBI director would grease the wheels a bit for him from time to time.

I needed a name until I realized that I already had a name. Irene Rivers had fallen off the page for a decade since At All Costs, so why couldn’t she have become the director of the FBI? So now Irene, call sign Wolverine, spent 16 books lending aid to Jonathan Grave–and receiving considerable aid from him in return. In the novella, Soft Targets, I even show how Jonathan and Irene came to know each other and why they trust each other so much.

BERKELEY COUNTY, WV–SUMMER, 2023. In Jonathan Grave’s world, where time neither advance nor retreats, Anthony Darmond has been president of the United States for all 16 books. He’s beyond corrupt, and when people cross him, people disappear. Irene Rivers can’t take it anymore. Though it will likely cost her the job she loves, she conspires with Jonathan to take the Darmond administration down.

But as Emerson said, when you come at the king, you must kill him.

Now unemployed and disgraced, Irene Rivers decides to leave the Washington rat race and retire to he family estate in . . . wait for it . . . West Virginia. But she has a past that won’t go away, and she no longer has the security detail that will protect her and her family from retribution.

Which is why I just signed a two-book deal to launch a new series centered on Irene’s efforts to assimilate into her new surroundings and deal with threats that are both old and new.

The funny thing about playing with your imaginary friends is that they don’t always go home when you tell them to. I’m really excited about this. Look for the first Irene Rivers thriller in early 2025.

What about you? Do characters and story lines you thought you’d finished with find their way back into your new stuff?

Writer’s Guilt

By John Gilstrap

We talk about treating the process of writing as if it were a job a job, we talk about quotas, we talk about pressing through to completion on a project. As November approaches, bringing with it the stress of NaNoWriMo to compete with the other stresses of what for many is the most stressful time of year, some of you will be pounding your fingers bloody on the keyboard in effort to produce the 50,000 words that Club Nano has declared to be the goal of the 30-day writing spree.

What we don’t talk about very much is the need to enjoy the ride. It’s important to set goals and achieve them, but it’s also important to cut yourself a break and realize that life happens. If you’re adhering to the adage to treat writing as if it were a job, remember that most desk jobs bring the perquisites of sick leave and vacation time. Meeting a self-imposed deadline is nowhere near as important as attending your kid’s soccer game or giving the puppy a half hour of Frisbee frolic.

If you’re not under a legal contract to produce a work by a date certain, then a date approximate is a fine substitute. Yes, it’s important to plow through the muddled middle to complete your project, but if your February 1 deadline slips to March 15, so what? If you look back on the week and you find that you only wrote 300 words–or no words at all–of your 7,500-word goal, the Earth will remain on its axis. In fact, the world will be a better place if those squandered words paid for a smile from a family member.

I’m not suggesting laziness or sloth. I’m suggesting balance.

Fifteen years ago, more or less, I sat on a panel at Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana, when the rookie writer to my left–a practicing psychologist, no less–told this room full of aspiring scribes that in order to succeed in the publishing business, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything. Specifically, she spoke of missing family events and vacations. Failure awaited any writer who looks away from their publishing goals even for a moment. When she was done, every molecule of happiness had disappeared from the room as the newbies furiously took notes.

Mine was the next turn to speak, and I started with, “For God’s sake, it’s only a story. We’re not curing cancer here, we’re making stuff up and playing with our imaginary friends. It’s not worth sacrificing any of that. The instant that make believe feels more important than real-life relationships is the instant you need to stop writing and re-evaluate your choices.”

It’s no secret that creative types frequently eat shotguns and down piles of pills. I can’t speak to the reasons behind that, but damaged relationships are often contributing factors. If you’re a spouse, you have a commitment to the relationship you chose. If you’re a parent, you have a commitment to a human being you created. Those come first. Hard stop.

If you’re a teenager or young adult, you have an obligation to yourself to live more of your life out in the word than inside your head. Collect experiences that will serve your writing well into the future.

When you do sit down to write, enjoy the experience and celebrate what you accomplished. Don’t get distracted by what you didn’t do on the page, and instead concentrate on what you did do in the world.

A Special Place In Hell

By John Gilstrap

It’s been nearly 45 years since Avram Davidson, writer-in-residence at the College of William and Mary told me at the end of two semesters of toxic mentorship that I had no talent and that I should not bother to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. He was old and cranky then and he didn’t have the decency to stick around on the planet long enough for me to gloat at him.

I wish I could say that I shrugged off his cruel dismissal–well, I did eventually, I suppose–but it took more years than I care to admit. Upon publication of Nathan’s Run, one of my classmates from that workshop gave me a heartwarming plaque that hangs in my office in clear view as I write this.

I’ve written about this experience before, but it was brought back the front of my mind by a fictional confrontation that occurs in the excellent Netflix series, “Sex Education.” (Lest there be any doubt, this is not one to watch with the kiddos.) The scene in question occurs in the show’s fourth season, when our heroine, Maeve, has come to America from England to attend a college workshop conducted by the famous and fawned over literary genius, Thomas Molloy, who spills out quotable nonsense about how writing should take something from the writer. This is an exercise in suffering for one’s art.

While the other students in this workshop are bowled over by this pretentious twit, Maeve is more circumspect, sharing with him that she preferred his first book over the second one that won all the prizes. He’s impressed, he says, and then he tears her work apart under the guise of helping her tap that deep vein that makes writing hurt. When she finally pens her new first chapter, he tells her–wait for it–that she does not have the talent to make it as a writer.

Yeah, I had a flashback. I haven’t finished the season yet, but I can only hope that Maeve will be able to rub the asshat’s face in it before the final credits roll.

There’s an X Factor to teaching that I don’t pretend to understand. The best teachers in my life found a way to be thoroughly honest in their assessment of my work, driving me to be better without breaking my spirit. The problem with assessing art is that creativity is by its very nature relative. There is no objective standard, yet we all know bad when we see it. And then, in the truly confusing circumstances, we see stories and art that we know is objectively bad yet it still moves us. Those pieces are victories for the creator.

The lectern is a powerful thing. To stand there behind the mic is to be perceived as an expert by the people in the audience who are looking back at you. This is an opportunity to inspire. Or foment anger. Provide hope or project pessimism. If you’ve been to a writer’s conference, you’ve no doubt encountered the speaker who has experienced only failure, and whose mission seems to be to make the dream of publication seem hopeless.

Even if it were true, what’s the point of making people feel sad? Everybody knows that writing is hard and that getting published is even harder, yet people succeed at it every day. Why not concentrate on the probability of success–however much smaller than the probability of not-success–and fire people up to keep going?

I think there’s a special place in hell for people who try to ruin other people’s dreams.

What about you, TKZ family? Did you have teachers or coaches or bosses who inspired you to do things you never thought possible?