About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of 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. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. 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.

Choose Your Weapon

By John Gilstrap

In the comments section of my most recent gun porn post, our own Jordan Dane gave me the idea of doing a post on how a character–particularly a female character–would go about choosing which handgun to carry.  Way to tee one up for the Johnster!

Caliber (and caliber snobs)

As I’ve discussed here before, “caliber” refers to the diameter of a bullet at its widest point, measured in inches or millimeters.  (Note: in the parlance of people who know guns, the word caliber is exclusively used in reference to measurement in inches.  One would never say “nine millimeter caliber,” but one would say “.38 caliber.”)

If you hang out at some of the corners of the Internet that I visit from time to time, you’ll learn that there’s a very vocal element out there that states without equivocation that any caliber that doesn’t start with a 4 or larger isn’t worth carrying.  They’ll talk about “stopping power” and “lethality” and hold in contempt anyone who is not willing to strap a two-pound hand cannon to their belt.  I call these bloviators caliber snobs, and believe their claims to fall within the broad category known as Bravo Sierra.

I’ve previously posted on how bullets do their damage.  You’re sending a hunk of metal through vulnerable parts of your target’s anatomy.  If it hits the appropriate anatomy, the result is reasonably predictable.  In almost all cases, a poorly aimed mini-cannonball does far less damage than a well-placed .22.  Have your character choose a weapon s/he can reasonably control.

Ultimately, selection comes down to manageability.  This leads us to…

My friend Isaac Newton

Newton’s three laws of motion are:

1. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.

2. The acceleration of an object is affected by two factors: the force applied; and the object’s mass.

3. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Sooo . . . Heavier bullets need more force to get them out of the barrel and on their way.  Greater force creates greater recoil.  For any given caliber of firearm, the heavier the gun, the less recoil felt by the shooter.  The greater the felt recoil, the more likely the shot will be off-target.  There are lots of reasons for this, but for our purposes here, it boils down to the shooter getting what I call the yips.  They anticipate the punch to the hand and they screw up their aim.

There’s such a thing as a Smith & Wesson .500 magnum.  Pictured here from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, this four-pound smoke wagon fires bullets at over 1,800 feet per second (FPS) and, according to the manufacturer, will drop an elephant.  I’ve shot this beast.  While it’s the kind of pistol that a new Dirty Harry might be drawn to (“the most powerful handgun in the world and can blow your head clean off–while you’re hiding behind the refrigerator in your neighbor’s house“), there’s no practical use for it in the hands of your private detective.

Barrel length matters.

A firearm is a pressure chamber, the sole purpose of which is to contain the pressure of the exploding gunpowder long enough to send a projectile on to its target.  As the bullet proceeds down the barrel, the lands and grooves of the rifling impart a spin that stabilizes the bullet in flight.  The more time the pressure has to push the bullet, the longer the bullet has time to stabilize from the lands and grooves.  Thus, all else being equal, longer barrels equal greater accuracy at greater distances.

So, what kind of gunfight does your character anticipate?  Most gunfights play out in less than five seconds at distances of less than ten feet.  If that’s most likely your character’s world, then shorter barrels will do.

NOTE: There’s such a thing as the “21-foot rule,” which proclaims that any shot fired at a person from a range of greater than 21 feet–seven yards–is not considered self defense against any threat that is not another firearm.  If a bad guy is running at your good guy with a baseball bat or a knife, many jurisdictions will say that threat is not lethal until the bad guy closes to within 21 feet.

Single-stack or double-stack?

Guns for everyday carry (EDC) are getting smaller, but there remains a need for ammunition to feed them.  As you probably know, ammo magazines for pistols typically reside in the weapon’s grip.  A “single-stack” magazine stacks the bullets directly on top of each other, while a “double-stack” mag staggers the bullets side-by side, with the effect of making the grip thicker and harder to hold for a shooter with a smaller hand.  The pistols shown side-by-side in the picture are the Glock 26 on the left, and the Glock 43 on the right.  Both are called “baby Glocks”, with barrel lengths within a couple hundredths of 3.4 inches.  They’re called compact 9mm pistols.  The one on the left (G26) is fed by a double-stack magazine and holds 10 rounds, plus one in the chamber, while the one on the right (the G43) uses a single-stack mag and holds 6 rounds plus one in the pipe.  You need to ask yourself what your character’s priorities are.  Those four extra rounds cost you a lot in terms of grip size and concealability.  (Full disclosure: having spoken to many people who’ve been involved in gunfights, I’ve never heard one complain about having too much ammunition.)

Dress for the day.

How likely is it that your character will get involved in a gunfight?  Military personnel in a war zone, and police officers on duty carry full-size pistols because there’s a reasonably high likelihood that they will find themselves in a gunfight.  They make no effort to conceal their firearm, so bigger is better.  The bigger, heavier platform is less punishing to shoot, and as a result, accuracy tends to be better.  But it’s not exactly the right weapon to strap to your tuxedo or evening gown on the way to the opera.

North American Arms Mini-Revolver chambered in .22 short. The effective range is maybe 4 or 5 feet, but fired into the brain pan, it’s as deadly as a sniper shot.

For those highly concealed applications, the firearm manufacturing industry offers lots of options.  Just remember that for any given caliber, the smaller and lighter the weapon–the easier it is to carry and conceal–the more punishing it is to shoot.  Also, smaller guns mean a shorter effective range.

One of the most popular EDC guns on the market these days is the Ruger LCP (Lightweight Compact Pistol), chambered in .380, shown here in the picture next to the ballpoint pen to give it scale.  As presented, the pistol is in a pocket holster, which is exactly what it sounds like–a holster that slides easily into a pocket or a purse.  Because of its tiny size–there’s only room for two fingers on the grip–and its very heavy trigger pull, this is a difficult gun to learn to shoot, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty effective.  Virtually every gun manufacturer makes a similar weapon, and all of them are hand-breakers till you learn the right grip.

Okay, TKZers, how do you want to arm your good guys?  How about your bad guys?  What other questions do you have?

6+

Pesky Deadlines

By John Gilstrap

Every September 15, I owe a book to my publisher, and somehow, every September 12, it’s not quite done.  It’s close.  I’ve written all the scenes, and the story has a complete structure, but I’m in the throes of making right that which is close.  It’s a tedious, arduous task, and alas, it takes away from activities such as blogging.  Feel free to gossip about my awesome new cover, but for now, I must go back to making stuff up.  I’ll see you here again in a couple of weeks.  Sorry about this.

4+

Cla-shack

By John Gilstrap

Gear up for a little gun porn, folks.  It’s been a while since I’ve ranted about mistakes authors make when writing about guns, so I thought I’d stir things up a little.

Cla-shack.  When I say it out loud, it is exactly the sound that a well-tuned pump-action shotgun makes when you work the bolt.  It’s very dramatic on the page or on the screen, and it is unmistakable in real life.  How many times have we seen that moment when our good guy with a shotgun confronts the armed bad guy he’s been looking for and then, when they’re face-to-face . . . cla-shack “Freeze!”?

I watch those scenes and wonder what kind of moron searches for a bad guy without a round in the chamber, ready to fire?  Why walk into a gunfight with your gun unloaded?

This is a Glock 26, but all Glock platforms work the same way. Note that there’s no hammer.

Remember that very dramatic scene in The Fugitive (the 1993 movie version) when Richard Kimble is making his getaway from City Hall with Marshal Sam Gerard right behind?  In that chase, we see Gerard pull his Glock from its holster and he racks a round into the chamber.  Then as Kimble dives through the bullet proof glass barrier doors, Kimble’s foot gets clamped between the doors and Gerard fires four or five times into the glass.  Very thrilling, but why didn’t he shoot the sole of Kimble’s foot, which was still inside the glass?  Okay, that last part is for a future post.

Understanding that the average gunfight lasts less than five seconds, and at a range of 7-10 feet, every cop I know carries his or her pistol in what’s called “condition one”, which means there’s a round in the chamber and the safety is on.

“But John!” someone shouts.  “Everybody knows there’s no safety on a Glock!”

Not so, I reply.  There are actually three safeties on a Glock.  They’re internal.  There’s a trigger safety, a firing pin safety and a drop safety.  You can throw a chambered Glock against a concrete floor as hard as you want, and it won’t go off accidentally.  Yet, if you pull the trigger intentionally, it will fire every time.  And that’s the point.  When someone is about to kill you, you don’t want a lot of intermediate manipulations to get in the way of returning the favor.

This is a “1911 platform” pistol in Condition One. Note that the hammer is cocked, and the thumb safety is engaged. This is often called “cocked & locked.”

If you’re going to include firearms in your writing, it’s important to know the peccadillos of your character’s chosen pistol (or rifle, for that matter).

My character Jonathan Grave carries a Colt 1911, always in Condition One, which also called “cocked and locked.” When confronted by a bad guy, all he has to do is draw, thumb the safety (press down on the lever next to the hammer) and shoot.

Many gun manufacturers use the 1911 platform for pistols in pretty much any caliber.  Among the characteristics they all share is the fact that they are single action only (SA), meaning that unless the hammer is cocked, the weapon will not fire.  Thus, when you see a character carrying a pistol that looks anything like the one in the picture, but the hammer is down, it is not ready to shoot.

Many pistols like this Beretta 92 (military M9) are double action on the first round, and single action thereafter.

On the other hand, there are many pistols with hammers, such as the Beretta M9, where carrying with the hammer down does not impede quick deployment.  That’s because these pistols are both double action and single action (DA/SA).  With a bullet in the chamber, and the hammer down, the first pull of the trigger pulls the hammer back and then releases it to strike the firing pin.  Then, after the slide operates to eject the round, the hammer remains cocked and ready to shoot as a single action pistol.  The tricky part is that that initial pull on the trigger is very hard, and then the pull is very light for the follow-up shots.  As a result, for me, anyway, accuracy suffers because of the lack of a consistent trigger pull.

As I’ve written before in this space, if verisimilitude is important to you, and you’re going to write about firearms, don’t go with what you see on TV or in movies.  Get thee to your local shooting range and rent your character’s gun for an hour and shoot it.  If you’re not familiar with shooting, the staff will be happy to help you out.

All questions and comments are welcome.

9+

Rejection Proofing

By John Gilstrap

If we’ve run into each other at an event, you might have noticed that I’m not a very shy guy.  In fact, I am the classic extrovert–one who draws energy from being around other people.  I love getting to know people, listening to their stories and picking their brains.  It’s the rare person, I find, who doesn’t have an interesting story to share about their life.

What I’m not good at is asking people to do things.  I’m not a closer.  It’s difficult for me at a book signing to end a chat with a potential customer by asking how many copies they would like to buy.  Personally, I don’t think it’s a fear of rejection as much as it is a desire not to inconvenience the other party.  And as I wrote that last sentence, yes, I see that that is likely my rationalization of a fear of rejection.

This hesitation on my part will be brought into high relief soon when I live up to my offer to spearhead a fundraising drive for the RiteCare Scottish Rite Childhood Language Program.  (This is NOT a solicitation for contributions.)  I’ve never approached a wealthy friend and asked for money, even for a great cause, and I find the prospect rather daunting.

I reached out to my friend Lynda who runs the YouthQuest Foundation for some advice, and her very first bit was to buy a book called Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang.  It’s a quirky little book that might not be for everyone, but there are a few sections that I think are particularly worthwhile for writers.  For me, the central idea boiled down to some obvious themes that come as no surprise: Rejection is about the request being made, not about the person making it; and expectations often become reality.  If you expect a no, that’s likely what you’ll walk away with.

But the part of the book that got me to thinking is where it points out that in most cases, the person being approached is as nervous about the request as the requester is of rejection.  Rejection does not exist in a vacuum.  It is always one part of a two-way communication.  My challenge will be to combine my natural gregariousness with an offer to help a good cause, packaged in a way that the person on the other end of the conversation will feel great about saying yes.

So, what does this have to do with writing?  I’m glad you asked.

Last Sunday, I did a book signing at the fabulous Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA.  It’s a pretty small place, and there I was in a chair at a table at the front of the store, right where customers had to trip over me to get by.  I always find it interesting just how many ways customers will actively avoid the gaze of the guy sitting next to a pile of books he wants to sell.

And I get it.  They likely don’t have a clue who I am, and if they’re in the store for a children’s book, or a title by Toni Morrison, they don’t want to hear a pitch that they know they will ultimately say no to.  It makes them feel uncomfortable. Remember, this rejection equation equalizes on both sides.  Call it social algebra.

At one point, an older gentleman entered the store, and when the always-excellent sales staff approached him and told him that an author was there and he’d love to sign a book for him, the guy–who turned out to be a fellow named Willard–said, “We’ll see,” and he started wandering the shelves.

What’s the point of reading a self-help book if you’re not going to put the strategies to good use, right?  So, I threw caution to the wind.  I left my station, walked up to him and said, “Hi, I’m John Gilstrap, a visiting author. Zero pressure to buy a book, but I’d love to shake your hand.”

He beamed.  We chatted for a few minutes.  He asked me what Scorpion Strike was about.  When it came around to the fact that I’m a native Virginian, he was sold.  He bought a book from me–a guy he knew–and I inscribed to to a guy I now knew as well.

Then there was the lovely lady named Bambi, who came into the store with her ancient beagle, Max.  Bambi was on a mission.  She told the manager that she wanted the two best children’s books for kids of a very young age.  They were gifts, and she wanted them wrapped.  While they discussed kids’ books, I made friends with Max.  Bambi and I talked a little about dogs, and when she asked me if I was from Richmond, I told her no, that I was from Fairfax.  It was at that moment that it dawned on her that I was the author who’d been mentioned to her when she first arrived.

Turns out that she personally likes thrillers, but she wasn’t there with the purpose of buying a book for herself.  She was concentrating on kid-lit.  Once her focus shifted, she became interested in me and my writing, and she bought a book–likewise from a guy she now knew, without any pressure from me.  I inscribed it to Bambi and Max, and she seemed genuinely touched.

Now here’s the big lesson: As predicted in Rejection Proof, both of those transactions were actually fun for me, and I presume for the others as well.  Zero stress.  Asking for the order is not about pushing a thing, it’s about interacting with people you like and trust, even if the relationship is only a few minutes old.

So, what about you, TKZers?  Does asking for stuff make you squirm?  Do you want to share any strategies for screwing up the courage to make the effort?

.

5+

But Does It Sell Books?

By John Gilstrap

I just returned from a fabulous week in New York, communing with fellow writers at Thrillerfest, the annual confab of the International Thriller Writers Association (ITW).  As always happens when two or more writers occupy the same space, the conversation turned to strategies to employ for the purposes of selling books.

There’s universal agreement that a writer needs a platform from which to launch his or her marketing campaign.  There’s equal unanimity that social media accounts are the way to go.  Dutifully, I’ve established my Facebook page, my Twitter feed and my Instagram account.  In addition, I have a YouTube channel, and this biweekly blog in TKZ.  I attend conferences, teach seminars when opportunities arise, and in general make myself as accessible as reasonable security and privacy allow.

For the most part, I enjoy the marketing side of what I do.  I’m kind of a Type-A personality to begin with so I enjoy the interaction with people, even if most of it is virtual.  If the invested time and effort didn’t sell a single book, I would probably do a lot of that stuff anyway.

So, here’s my first question for the group: Forgetting what the pundits proclaim to be immutable fact, what is your experience?  Do you read blog posts in this space or others that inspire you to buy books by authors you otherwise have not read?  Do Facebook travelogues or Twitter insights make you actually feel so much closer to an author that you’ll plop down some bucks for the latest book?

My second question is closely related: Have social media posts ever driven you away from an author you have otherwise been inclined to read?

My answers to my own questions are yes and yes, particularly with regard to blog posts and Facebook.  Excepting the nonfiction blogs that I lean on for research, I will occasionally read a post from a fiction writer whose voice intrigues me enough to take a poke at the fruits of his or her imagination.  And, sometimes an ill-informed political or social screed will push me to place an author on my never-again list.  I don’t care what side a FB friend takes on a position so long as it is well-argued.  When the name-calling starts, I’m out.  (And that’s exactly why I don’t understand why anyone in the entertainment business chooses to write screeds.)

Now, fair warning: When this post goes up, I will be doing my best torpedo impersonation inside the tube of an MRI machine to diagnose the source of pinched nerve in my neck.  Because I am a raging claustrophobe, I expect to be in a narcotic haze for some of the day, and past experience has demonstrated that it’s best to stay away from the Internet and emails while drugged.  Thus, I will likely not be a part of the conversation.

 

6+

My Cure for Writer’s Block

By John Gilstrap

Perhaps the title of this post is a bit misleading.  Truth be told, I don’t believe in writer’s block.  There are days when the creativity feels like it won’t flow at all, and there are certainly days when I would prefer to do something other than tying my backside to the chair and hammering out words, but that’s what everybody feels about any job on some days.

“Writer’s block” is, I believe, too often an excuse to be wielded on those days when a writer would prefer to play hookie.  There’s nothing wrong with playing hookie, but whilst playing, it’s disingenuous to complain about not getting stuff done on your manuscript.  There truly is no substitute to a writer writing, even when the words don’t flow easily.

I think of creativity as a flow, and the writer as the pump.  When the pipes are filled and the pressure is even, creativity pours out of us, sometimes in such volume that we can’t handle it all.  Then stuff happens in our lives or in our surroundings that causes intellectual cavitation, and our pump loses prime.  All that flow reduces to a pool, and it’s hard work to get it going again.

Everybody has a proprietary secret sauce to re-prime their own pipes, but one that always works for me is to return to the basics: pen and paper.  I posted a video on the topic on my YouTube channel.  I don’t know why it works, but somehow, the tactile connection between my brain and the page, flowing through an old-fashioned fountain pen, never fails to set me straight.  For every book I write, I’d guess 20% of the prose starts as being written longhand.  Once the story is flowing again, I type up the handwritten pages and I’m off and running.

What about you?  Any tricks you want to share for getting past the story parts that don’t seem to want to work?

7+

Stories Are Always Better When Something Happens

By John Gilstrap

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous has submitted a page for us to critique.  As always, the italics are mine, for the sake of clarity.  First the submission, and then I’ll see you on the flip.

Title:  Octobers Fire

The Dodge pulled up to the edge of the cliff. The man cut the engine, then the headlights. Stepping out of the car, he spent a few moments letting his eyes adjust, listening to the ticking of the hot engine block as it cooled. It was deep in the night, the hour when everyone and everything is slumbering, and the stillness was palpable. Even the crickets were asleep.

This hour was the sole domain of insomniacs.

The sliver of a crescent moon inched towards its zenith. To the west, lights from the boxy tract homes of San Amaro Hills spilled into the orange glow of the coastal cities, and to the south, a few twinkling lights peeked from the lush foliage protecting the old growth mansions of Rancho Alto. To the east, he gazed into the blackness of Fairy Glen. Its undulating hills were carpeted in shaggy chaparral, just a shade darker than the black velvet sky, freckled with stars, that hung above it. The perfect hunting grounds.

As the man’s eyes adapted, he could make out the depth of the quarry below him, the scarred surface of the granite torn away by machines and men. He pulled a half smoked cigar from the case in his pants pocket, stuck it in his mouth, but then decided against lighting it. He would savor it when the job was done.

He saw headlights approaching, bouncing and jarring up the hill.

He’d had a plan–make small talk, act jovial, share a few beers–but now found his patience was short. The thought of the whole charade seemed more distasteful than the job itself. The Rohypnol in his pocket could go to good use elsewhere, he wasn’t worried about that. He pictured a new, spectacular kind of death.

In his experience, investigations were clumsy. Police grasped at the first assumption and held on tight, like a dog with a bone. Nobody would miss this poor kid enough to investigate his death fully. It probably wouldn’t even make the local news.

He looked around his feet for the perfect rock, not too big, not too small. He remembered his boyhood in Bogota, pitching for his street gang’s stickball team. As the second car pulled up to his, he couldn’t help but smile. He still had a good arm.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.  Let’s start with the positives.  I think the writing here is very strong.  I like the details of the ticking engine and the stillness of the night.  The imagery of looking out over the sleeping town of boxy tract homes worked for me.  Kudos on that.  I have some niggling suggestions for strengthening the prose, which I’ll present below, but overall, the prose stitches together nicely.

All that’s missing is a sense of story.  And that brings us to the not-so-positives.  In these 400 words, we meet an insomniac with no name who for reasons unknown is preparing to do harm to someone else with no name.  From this sample, I could be equally convinced that the story is about either a serial killer or a werewolf.  (We learn that the remote outdoors are the “perfect hunting grounds,” yet we are also told that the hunter knows that the bouncing headlights are delivering a “poor kid” who is targeted for a “new, spectacular kind of death.”  Those are ominous phrases that ultimately have no meaning for the reader.)

I wonder more and more whether writers who submit their first-page samples have ever bothered to read the feedback given to their predecessors.  The problems that haunt this piece have mostly been discussed here on TKZ many times before.

Give us a name.  It’s impossible for a reader to bond with a pronoun or nameless entity.  The man, the boy, the woman, etc. have no humanity without a name attached. We don’t need much.  No backstory, no physical description.  Just a name will do to bring a spark of life to a character we’re meeting for the first time.

Give us action.  Lovely description is, well, lovely, but it’s not a story.  In this sample, I believe I would open with the approaching headlights.  Think of that as the framework to support the why of the story.  Consider:

Zachary Childress caressed the bottle of Rohypnol in his pocket as he watched the headlights approaching through the blackness.  They bounced and jarred up the rough hill, but they were still too far away for their engine noise to pierce the silence of the night.  Just a few feet away, the engine of his Dodge pickup ticked as it cooled.

Maybe that’s not where your story is going, but the point is that in just a few words, we know that a guy with an old-fashioned name means to make use of a date rape drug on the occupant of the approaching vehicle.  We also know that Zachary has only recently arrived.  From here, if you want to throw in a paragraph about the beauty of the night, that’s fine, but understand that that description stops the story.  (Your audience is not reading to find out what the evening looks like.  They’re reading to find out what he has in mind for his victim.)

Instead of transitioning to description, I would transition to his internal monologue.

Okay, enough of that.  Instead of rewriting your story, let me offer some suggestions on your story as it is.  The bold writing is mine.

Title:  Octobers Fire [Are we missing an apostrophe here?]

The Dodge [Give a little bit more here.  Pickup truck, maybe?] pulled up to the edge of the cliff. The man cut the engine, then the headlights. Stepping out of the car, he spent a few moments [This phrase makes me crazy.  A moment is an undefined unit of time, so a few is as long as only one.  If you mean seconds, say seconds.  Otherwise, one moment will do.] letting his eyes adjust, listening to the ticking of the hot engine block as it cooled. It was [Weak construction.  What was?  Better to say “This was the hour when everyone . . .]deep in the night, the hour when everyone and everything is slumbering, and the stillness was palpable. Even the crickets were asleep.

This hour was the sole [Really? The sole domain? What about firefighters and shift workers? Beware the unnecessary modifier.] domain of insomniacs.

The sliver of a crescent moon [As opposed to a sliver of a full moon? I’d pick either crescent or sliver, but not both] inched towards its zenith. To the west, lights from the boxy tract homes of San Amaro Hills spilled into the orange glow of the coastal cities, and to the south, a few twinkling lights peeked from the lush foliage protecting the old growth mansions of Rancho Alto. To the east, he gazed into the blackness of Fairy Glen [Be careful not to confuse your reader. Fairy Glen may well be a real place, but I’ve never heard of it. To me, this implies that Unicorn Alley may be around the corner, and that this is a fantasy/SF story.]. Its undulating hills [Do hills undulate, absent an earthquake?] were carpeted in shaggy chaparral, just a shade darker than the black velvet sky, freckled with stars, that hung above it. The perfect hunting grounds.[Except he’s not really hunting here, is he? Again, in context, “hunting” makes me think that he has not yet chosen his prey, but I think he in fact has.]

As the man’s eyes adapted, he could make out the depth of the quarry [Quarry is a bad word in this context. In the previous paragraph, you speak of hunting, and now you speak of quarry.  Beware of homonyms.] below him, the scarred surface of the granite torn away by machines and men. He pulled a half smoked cigar from the case in his pants pocket, stuck it in his mouth, but then decided against lighting it. He would savor it when the job was done.

He saw headlights approaching, bouncing and jarring up the hill.

He’d had a plan–make small talk, act jovial, share a few beers–but now found his patience was short. The thought of the whole charade seemed more distasteful than the job itself. [Does he in fact find the job distasteful?] The Rohypnol in his pocket could go to good use elsewhere, he wasn’t worried about that. He pictured a new, spectacular kind of death. [Presumably for his victim? What does he envision here?]

In his experience, investigations were clumsy. [This is a weird, jarring pivot.  Is he a cop?  If not, this seems like a non-sequitur.] Police grasped at the first assumption and held on tight, like a dog with a bone. Nobody would miss this poor kid enough to investigate his death fully. It probably wouldn’t even make the local news.

He looked around his feet for the perfect rock, [I thought it was dark. How does he see?  Is the rock his murder weapon?] not too big, not too small. He remembered his boyhood in Bogota, pitching for his street gang’s stickball team. As the second car pulled up to his, he couldn’t help but smile. He still had a good arm. [When I first read this, I presumed that he had somehow injured his other arm. Now, I think you mean a good pitching arm.]

7+

Bad Guy Boot Camp Redux

By John Gilstrap

I’m pleased to announce that my publisher, Kensington, has signed me on for three more installments of the Jonathan Grave series.  The working titles are Untitled Grave 12, 13 and 14.  Few series get that kind of lifespan, and I am both humbled and thrilled.

One of the questions I have to wrestle with at the plotting stage of every book is the most basic of them all: Why?  Jonathan Grave and his team are freelance hostage rescuers who frequently end up rescuing far more than that, and there has to be a plausible reason why his clients, who often are government officials, are compelled to turn to him instead of to local police, the FBI or even the military.

There’s another compelling why question that is often more difficult to satisfy.  More times than not, Jonathan’s enemies are bad-ass dudes who are well-schooled in their bad-assery.  Why do they always lose the fight in the end?  If I’ve established a bad guy who is an expert sniper, it’s not fair to the reader or to the story to make his one bad shot of the book the one that was intended for my protagonist.  All elements of a story need to be earned by the characters.

I’ve just recently discovered the wonderful Amazon original series, “Bosch,” based on the novels of Michael Connelly.  I binge-watched all four seasons over the course of a couple of weeks.  For the most part, the writers keep within the realm of probability, but they dropped the ball at a critical juncture.  Over the course of eight episodes, we’ve come to know and hate a mass-murdering bad guy who is ruthlessly good at what he does.  He’s a killer who kills.  Then, in the final scenes, as Bosch and his partner creep through the woods toward our bad guy’s mountain cabin (without backup, of course), the bad guy gets the drop on our heroes and opens up with a machine gun.  He rips out a good 30 rounds from a defended position from which he’s had plenty of time to aim, but he misses, thus setting up a pretty cool shootout. It’s an exciting scene that just happens to defy logic.

More recently, I was watching the season finale of “Blue Bloods,” another favorite, in which the NYPD is searching for an assassin who’s been offing people with amazing marksmanship.  The MacGuffin of the episode is pretty compelling, and as each of the killer’s targets drops dead, we learn that the police commissioner’s own family is in danger.  In the final reel, our assassin has the commissioner’s son in his sights at point blank range—think three feet—and this one time, when he pulls the trigger, his bullet goes wide.  Aargh!

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time.  In fact, I wrote about it here in the Killzone back in 2010.  I decided to host a convention of fictional villains to give them a pep talk to inspire them to have more pride in their work.  I called it Bad Guy Boot Camp.  Here is a transcription of my opening remarks:

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Bad Guy Boot Camp. Please take your seats so we can get started. Yes, it’s good to see you, too, Dr. Lecter. What’s that? Oh, no thanks. It looks delicious, but I’m still full from breakfast. Couldn’t eat another thing.

Um, Mr. Morgan? Dexter? Please don’t sit so close to Dr. Lecter.  I’m pleased that you’d like to get to know him better, but wait till after the session. The lounge downstairs has a very nice wine list. I recommend the Chianti. 

Let’s get right to it, shall we? I think I speak for all when I say that I’m sick and tired of the good guys getting all the credit in fiction. Without you, all those stories would be pretty darned boring and I think that . . .

Um, Mr. Dolarhyde, please turn off the camera. We don’t allow filming of these sessions, and I believe you know why. Thank you.

As I was saying, I think it’s about time that, as a group, you started taking more pride in your work. It’s about craftsmanship and respect. For example—and please take no offense—several of you were taken down by a quadriplegic detective. I mean, really. That’s embarrassing. Yes, we all know that it’s the hot chick doing all the leg work (no pun intended), but the quad is the headline, and that makes all of you look bad.

Let’s start at the beginning. You’re villains.  Be . . . I don’t know . . . villainous. Be a freaking bad guy. Do your crimes, get them over with, and quit making it so easy for the heroes. If we frustrate those detectives enough, they’ll quit being so glib.

Let’s start with you serial killers. I know you’re crazy and all, but try to stay focused on your goals: sexual gratification through unspeakable mutilation. Everything else is secondary. Are the notes and the clues really necessary?  You know those always work against you, right?  I know that for some of you, your creative process requires spewing DNA, but how about leaving that as your only direct pathway to arrest? It’s about risk management, people.  Business 101.

If making bombs is your thing, I submit that the digital countdown clock is not your friend.  And folks, please.  All the same color wires.  Trust me, this will frustrate the daylights out of the cops. 

A note about travel: Stay out of Miami, Vegas, New Orleans and New York. They’ve got CSI teams there that are amazing. They’ve got a hundred percent catch ratio, and the average time from incident to arrest is only an hour. Really, an hour. I recommend keeping to the heartland, where all the local police are incompetent and depend exclusively on the FBI or on passing private investigators to get anything done.

Oh, and there’s a town in Maine called Cabot’s Cove.  Bad, bad news there.

Any questions? Great.

Let’s move on to marksmanship and gun play. Folks, at the end of the session today, I’m hosting an outing to the shooting range so you can hone your skills. There’s a trend among all of you where you show excellent marksmanship at the beginning of your crime spree, but then they erode toward the end. Maybe you’re choking because of the pressure, but the basic skills are there. When you whiff that critical shot, you miss by only a fraction of an inch.  When your instructor, Mr. Wick, is finished with you, I’m confident you’ll see a world of difference. 

While we’re on the topic of guns, I beg you to keep one point in mind: When in doubt, shoot. If the moment comes when you’re muzzle to muzzle with the protagonist, don’t negotiate, shoot. Why do you care if he drops his gun? You’re a villain, for heaven’s sake. Just pop him. You don’t need to tell him why.

Yes, Dr. Moriarty, you have a question?

Actually, I’m not sure I agree that murders have become less civilized over the years, but I encourage you to bring that up during your breakout session . . .

 

10+

Demonic Darjeeling — A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

It’s that time again.  The brave writer who’s stepped into the breach for a first page critique has been waiting for way longer than s/he should have.  This one was actually submitted back in December, and it got lost in the scrum of the Holidays.  My apologies for that.  So, here we go, hopefully better late than never.  I’ll see you on the other side.  (As always, the italics are mine for clarity’s sake.)

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory horns and alabaster pale skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;

“Who is it this time?”  For as long as I had run the tea shop, the Demons would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place, by all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing? 

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job.”

=

It’s Gilstrap again.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this piece.  I think I like the tone, the off-handedness of the interaction and dialogue, but I don’t understand the world.  Wouldn’t those horns raise a ruckus as they wandered down the street?  If they’re visible only to Ness, then that should be made clear.  And if they can repair pottery with a sweep of a hand, why do they need to enter the shop through the door?  Wouldn’t they just *poof* their way in?

I don’t think this scene makes a good first scene.  It’s a good turning point, but I’d like to get to know Ness–and see her interacting with Kailor and Malariz on previous missions–so that we get a chance to buy into their relationships.  There’s a chumminess among them that feels unearned in this sample.

I’m reminded here of the Three Kings from the Gian Carlo Menotti operetta, Amahl and the Night Visitors, where Melchior is portrayed as playing with less than a full deck.  I presume that that’s what we are to believe of Malariz.

I think there’s real potential here, though angel-of-death stories have been done many, many times, and therefor pose a great risk of falling into the realm of cliche.

Brave Author, you’ll see below that I have made some specific suggestions for a re-write.  You have a tendency to be redundant in your narrative, and there seems to be an addiction to -ly adverbs.  Look for my comments in bold type.

And thanks for submitting!

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black velvet business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory (really ivory—in which case could she really know that—or ivory colored?) horns and alabaster pale (redundant) skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;,

“Who is it this time?”  For as long (How long is that? This is an opportunity for detail.) as I had run the tea shop, these Demons (why capitalized?) of death would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place. By all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  (We will assume the ordinary, unless instructed otherwise.) Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look (This feels unearned to me. Why the furious look?) before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing and repaired my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing?

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

I think this is a place for some internal monologue as Ness sorts through her options.  As written—as dialogue—it seems too glib, too for-the-reader.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job,” I said.

 

3+

Emotion Must Be Earned: A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

Here we are again, presenting the work of a brave author willing to invite friendly fire.  This one arrived to me untitled, and is presented as such.  The italics are mine, just for the sake of clarity. I’ll see you on the other side.

Quinn Larson slipped into the gallery’s back row, settled on the hard edge of a plastic chair, and waited for the execution to begin. In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words. Instead, she found a handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats. A few stole curious glances at her with lifeless eyes. The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food. She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff as he helped her into a chair near the door. Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to. She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus. It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.

Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks. Phones and video cameras had been confiscated at security and Quinn took wicked pleasure that the prison forced them to write things down the old-fashioned way. She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.

Special Agent Dawson swaggered in next, the execution his final moment in the spotlight. He’d hunted down the monster, bringing an end to a gruesome fairy tale. He came up the aisle ahead of Quinn in the center of the row, scoping out the view. Then, he glanced at Quinn.

“Miss Larson.” He inclined his hat before removing it. They were two tiny words, just a few letters each, but they sent a live current through the assembled spectators. Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her, their expressions full of contempt, and her skin crawled. She was an infection to their grief, the painful itch of a murderer’s daughter in their midst. The humiliation of it rose up the back of her neck and blossomed across her cheeks. Even in the heavily air-conditioned room, her face flamed.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.  I think the premise here is very strong.  A daughter coming to witness her father’s execution is pretty stuff.  Clearly, Quinn and her soon-to-be dearly departed daddy are not what we’d call close.  I can only imagine the stress of feeling the heat of so many stares when people realize who sits among them.

Alas, I have not choice but to imagine those things because they are not here on the page.  The piece, as submitted, impresses me more as notes for the author than as an actual bit of drama.  It’s the emotional equivalent of bland spaghetti sauce.  It’s the right color, all the elements appear to be there, but it’s missing the spice that makes the offering come alive.

My first thought is that the author has chosen the wrong place to begin the story.  We make much here in TKZ of acting first and explaining later, and for good reason.  But this scene is more emotion than action, and emotion needs to be earned.  That’s a problem here.  I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be in Quinn’s corner, or if I’m supposed to be as appalled by her presence as her fellow spectators are.  Maybe the author should start a few minutes earlier, perhaps with an interaction with the guard at the security station, where a few lines of dialogue would give us a clue as to her status on the observer tree.

I think if there were a quick interaction with Agent Dawson, in which she asks to remain anonymous, his greeting to her in from of the others would pay off as an act of betrayal–if that’s where you’re trying to go.  Have her encounter a reporter and tell him to go to hell.  Lead us into her world.

Bottom line: the author hasn’t triggered empathy from this reader.

At a more granular level, some of the writing gets in its own way.  Take, for example:

“In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words.”  Remember that this is the reader’s first encounter with any of this story.  When you refer to torches, a time frame is set in my head, and even though you counter it in later passages, the contradiction is jarring.

“. . . handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats.”  I’m not sure this is possible.  One is either sitting or being held up, it can’t be both–unless there’s a robbery involved, in which case the meaning of “held up” changes altogether.

“The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.”  How does Quinn know whether the woman is sane?  She can appear stressed (“She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff” does a nice job of that), but stress and sanity are entirely different things.

“Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to.”  The first two or three times I read this, the image in my head was of her pulling her hood tighter, and I couldn’t figure out how that would tighten around her body.  Now, I realize that by “hoodie” you really meant “hooded jacket.”  Again, because we have no lead-in to this scene, the obligation to be precise in descriptions is critical.

“She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus.”  I don’t see the contradiction here.

“It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.”  This is an intrusive bit of backstory.  Not only does it interrupt the present action, it catapults the reader to a place he’s never seen and has no reason to care about.

“Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.”  Morbid fascination? Really?  Because we have not been brought into Quinn’s close third-person world–where we might understand that she’s pissed at the press for good reason–this feels like a POV violation.  How does she know what they’re writing?

“She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.”  Finally, this is a good bit of business, but, again, it’s not earned.  Put her face-to-face with Reporter Bob and let them interact.  Show, don’t tell.  Let us witness the angst through her eyes.  “Callous disregard” is a facile phrase that ultimately means nothing.

That’s all I’ve got before turning things over to the Killzone denizens.  By way of full disclosure, when this critique posts, I will inaccessible to all things Internet, so y’all behave.

6+