About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

Reigniting The Passion

By John Gilstrap

Let me get this out of the way first: I love what I do. I am privileged and honored to make my living by entertaining people with stories. People ask me if or when I intend to retire someday, and I don’t even know what that means. When a novelist “retires”, do the stories just go away? Do characters somehow stop appearing in his head? I’ve always figured that as long as readers keep reading what I write, I’ll continue to feed them with stories.

That said, 2020 has been a helluva year. Beyond all the other weirdness that’s been inflicted on all of us, this is also the year that I signed on to write two full-length thrillers. As always, my next Jonathan Grave thriller will hit the stands in July, but before that, February 23, 2021, will see the release of Crimson Phoenix, the first book in a new series that I’m confident I’ll hawk in a post that is closer to the publication date.

A few weeks ago, our buddy James Scott Bell wrote a post here on TKZ about how Erle Stanley Gardner churned out 100,000 words per month for fifty years. I’m not that guy. If I can pound out 2,500 words in a day, I’m thrilled. My record for one day was 8,000 words and that left me exhausted. I’m not cut out for that kind of production.

So, here we are, in the middle of the pandemic stuff, and as stress rose, avenues for relaxation were shut down.

As a relief valve, I got myself a Zoom account. Every Wednesday evening, I gather with two author buddies at a virtual bar for virtual happy hour. These are folks I’ve known for decades. Every meeting starts with a toast, and then we shoot the sh*t for a couple of hours. It’s surprisingly refreshing.

Because we’re writers, we complain a lot. There’s life, a little bit of politics, the state of the industry, and the ups and downs of daily life.

Sooner or later, we inevitably come to the subject of movies. We talk about some of the contemporary stuff that’s out there (thank God for Amazon Prime and Netflix!), but the real passion for all of us turns out to be Westerns. Tombstone is, of course, the greatest Western of all time–argue this point at your own peril–and there is considerable disagreement about The Wild Bunch being a close second. Shane is a favorite of one of the revelers, but I must confess that I don’t agree. I mean, Alan Ladd? Really?

Then it happened. I said, “We should write a serial Western.”

In that instant, a new project was born. Over the course of 30 minutes, we worked out the only rules: The story will be set in 1880, and each of us will write from the point of view of our own characters. My character is Jake Bristow, a grieving farmer from Virginia. Somehow, for reasons yet unknown, we will all end up in an Oklahoma town on the same date for what will be an epic and legendary gunfight against bad guys we have yet to determine.

Logistically, we each write a chapter in turn. I started the effort and passed it on to the next author in the line, who put brilliance on the page, and then Author #3 took his turn. The ball is back in my court now. In only 9,500 word, we now know who the characters are, what their motivations are, and they’ve already crossed paths. Hint: They don’t like each other very much yet. But we do know why they’re headed to Oklahoma.

At our most recent happy hour, we all revealed that individually, we haven’t had this much fun at the keyboard in a long, long time. The project is liberating. I’m writing in a completely new, different voice and I’m getting lost in new lines of research. Perhaps most refreshing is the element that is inherently missing in writing: the thrill of teamwork among friends. What I find most fascinating is how our vastly different writing styles work in a single stitched-together narrative.

And yes, I’m being deliberately circumspect about mentioning the other authors’ names. That’s not my place.

Now, to the point of this post. The cooperative Western project has reignited the passion for writing in all of us. It’s as if by shifting to another project that is strictly for fun, if only for a few thousand words at a time, the elements that stir creativity get a fresh swirl. That inures to the benefit of every other project on our plates.

I’ve stated in this space more than a few times that half of being a professional writer (a professional anything, really) is showing up to work every day. During the dark days of summer, I confess that showing up had become a drag. Now, I can’t wait. I’m getting up earlier, spending more time at the keyboard. I’m enjoying the process again.

So what about you folks? What are your tricks for reigniting the passion for writing that you know is there, but sometimes dwindles?

 

11+

Well Behaved Characters (Redux)

By John Gilstrap

FULL DISCLOSURE: The article that I originally planned to post today isn’t ready for prime time. It’s a nuanced look at writing in the white space–making what isn’t on the page resonate as clearly as what is. I’ll post it next time, I hope.

What follows is an edited version of one of my TKZ entries from 12 years ago(!). I called it:

Well Behaved Characters

Like all authors, I suppose, I teach a number of writing classes and attend my share of conferences, and one of the questions that always comes up goes something like this: “I hear authors talk about how there comes a point in every story when the characters take over and start writing the story for you. Does that happen to you?”

The short answer is no; and frankly, it sort of ticks me off. I’d love to cede the process of plot development to my characters. Hell, somewhere in the middle of the second act, where all the tedious stuff is being manipulated and I’ve got to keep the pacing going, I’d cede the process to a stranger in a grocery store if he could make it any less painful.

As it is, my characters just sit there and wait to be told what to do. Lazy bastards. Not an original thought from any of them. In fact, during those tough times when I’ve written myself into a corner and don’t know how to extricate myself, I believe I’ve seen them chuckling at my plight. If I didn’t need the characters to make the story work, I swear sometimes that I’d fire them all.

When I first wrote this post, I was staring down the throat of an approaching and I needed an ending. I mean, I already had an ending from the initial drafts, but I needed an ending. A kick-ass final sequence that would leave the reader exhausted and satisfied. The one I already had took care of the satisfaction part, but it didn’t have the roller coaster feel that I wanted.

So I shot one of the characters.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t a gratuitous thing. The shooting is organic to the plot, and it provides the twist I needed. It also wiped those sanctimonious smirks off their faces. Sometimes it helps to remind them of the power I have over their lives.

Seriously, though, when I found myself in this crisis-of-ending, I think I discovered what authors really mean when they talk about characters taking over. By shooting that character, I gave the other characters in the scene something to react to. Things started happening—things that I hadn’t planned for, which is really saying something for an author who is as outline obsessed as I was back then—and new twists occurred to me as I wrote. I got really into the scene. The characters’ reality became so much my own reality that all I had to do was observe and record what I saw in my imagination. It was one of those moments of high concentration that I think every writer adores. When I finished and went back and read the thirty pages I’d written, I loved it. I’d nailed it.

I submitted the manuscript a week early!

Back to this business of characters taking on lives of their own. I’ve decided that when I’m in the zone, writing fiction has a lot in common with method acting. As the creator of characters, I spend a lot of time in my characters’ head space. Every action they take is the result of some plot-related motivation, and over time I come to understand those motivations. As plot twists come along—triggered by the actions of other characters whose motivations I’ve come to understand even as the rest of the cast have not—the reaction becomes obvious.

It’s not about them telling me what to do; it’s about me drawing them clearly enough to know what they’d do on their own if they were real enough to walk among us.

I do love this job.

So, TKZers, are your characters lazy and wait for direction, or do they take over the story?

9+

Take A Long View on Research

By John Gilstrap

Some of the most common questions I encounter about the writing process involve research: Some version of “How do I find out about . . . ?”

We’ve talked in this space about ride-along programs for police agencies and other emergency response groups. There are some great conferences (when conferences are allowed to happen again) like Writer’s Police Academy, and many writer’s conferences feature tracks where technical professionals share details with the assembled group. But let’s be honest. The programs that have been cleared by the public affairs office are probably not going to give you the real scoop that you’re looking for.

Most people are afraid to speak on the record these days, especially to a writer. The fact that I’m not a journalist–people are never on the record with me–doesn’t necessarily loosen tongues, especially because the kinds of things I usually want to know are the things that public affairs offices specifically don’t want me to know. Still, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of Special Forces operators, federal agents, cops, intelligence officers, ex-cons, doctors, politicians and a host of other interesting people who will answer their phones when I call.

I thought I’d share my strategy for collecting sources.

Be 100% Trustworthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. In fact, I list it first because it is the only element of my research rules that is inviolable. These folks take a risk when they share inside scoop, and trust is as fragile as one misplaced word. I never drop names among my friends, and the Acknowledgements pages in my books never include sources who helped me unless I have received specific permission. More than a few of the names provided for those acknowledgements are are different than the ones I know them to be, and I never ask which is the pseudonym.

Try to meet everyone. True confession time. My personality meets the clinical definition of an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this bit of advice comes more easily for me than it will for many writers who exhibit the more typical introverted tendencies of an artist. But it’s doable.

Here’s the secret: Everyone is the hero of their own story in their minds, but most folks get few opportunities to talk about their jobs and their hobbies. And in my experience, most people are delighted to be asked. Just recently, I needed to get a document notarized on a Sunday evening in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The only notary we could find was one of the local bail bondsmen. I realized that I knew nothing about that business, so I started chatting him up. Given the hour and the day of the week–he left an evening with his family to help us out–I took a business card, gave him a challenge coin, and got permission to call him later if I had any questions. Two weeks later, he spent a half hour on the phone with me, explaining the ins and outs of being a bondsman. Fascinating.

When I chat with folks, I always tell them that they should free to push back if I ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, and I make it clear that we are never on any record–I’m just interested in what they do. With the exception of a couple steps too close to national security issues, no one has ever pushed back. (And there are ways around the national security push back, too.)

Avoid the cliches. Say you’re meeting a mortician. If you start with, “Eew, how do you work with dead people all day?” the conversation will likely be short and shallow. When I shared a hotel bar with a mortician a few years ago, I asked him why, at the last funeral I’d attended, the decedent’s fingertips had started to turn blue. He explained that there were several possible reasons, and that led to a broader discussion of embalming best practices. I’ve never had occasion to use any of that, but I still have his card, and I send him an email every time a new book comes out. I presume that if I call him sometime in the future, he’ll remember our chat and he’ll talk with me.

Hang out at the bar. When life returns to normal, find an excuse to hang out at a local hotel bar. Not the local watering hole where you know everyone and everyone knows you, but a bar where transients bide their time between the work day and bedtime. Sit at the bar–not at a table–and start a casual conversation. Something like, “Where are you from?” or “Stay away from the fried shrimp.” Sooner or later, if the spark of a conversation turns to something real, you’ll get around to “What do you do?” Bingo. You’re in.

They might not have a job that’s earth-shattering, but there’s something interesting to glean from everyone. Years ago, I was at a bar with a nurse who was attending a conference, and I asked, “What’s you’re most disgusting bedpan story?” It caught her off guard, she laughed and she shared an unprintable tale that involved geriatric incontinence and a slippery floor. I doubt I’ll ever put in a book, but at least I was more entertained than if I had sat there by myself.

Listen more than you talk. Back when I had my Big Boy Job, and more recently as I tour, I’m usually alone. Many others in a hotel bar are not. They are either part of a crowd, or they’re waiting for someone to go somewhere else. When two or more people are talking, there’s nothing wrong with eavesdropping. If what they’re talking about is interesting, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Do you all really work for Space X?” They’ll either shut you down or be complimented. In my experience, there’s not much middle ground.

On the other hand, if the people having the conversation are very engaged with each other, and telling interesting stories, become invisible. A few years ago, I attended a week-long class in Arizona on pistols and carbines. The sessions were all taught by former Special Forces operators from various agencies, and after they got a few drinks down their gullets, they started reminiscing about past operations they’d been on. They were aware of my presence, I suppose (I was sitting in plain sight, after all), but they’d either forgotten or they didn’t care. The stories themselves were interesting in their own right, but those weren’t my big take-away. I absorbed the banter among these guys, and how much they adored what they did–and some still do as private security contractors.

Never take notes. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s no reason to take notes on a casual conversation. The presence of a tape recorder or a note pad is a quick way to get vectored back to the public affairs officer. You can always make notes to yourself after the fact.

Take the long view. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the best research is often passive. You don’t have to limit your efforts to the project you’re working on. Rather, always be in data collection mode. Never be afraid to learn more about people and what they do–who they are. Use your accidental audience with interesting people to talk about things you would never find on Wikipedia or from the public affairs folks.

Hand out and collect business cards. Back in the days of my Big Boy Job, I carried two sets of cards. If I was doing association business, I only handed out that card–even if the inquiry was about my books. I’d tell them to visit my website for more information. In every other event when a card exchange seemed appropriate, I exclusively handed out my I’m-a-writer business cards.

Lock in the contact with a friendly email. At my first opportunity after meeting an interesting person and collecting their card, I write them an email telling them how much I enjoyed learning from them, and I double down on my intent to maybe one day call them.

What say you TKZ family? Any research tricks you’d like to share?

 

 

9+

Beware Of The Throw-Away Line

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

12+

Firehouse Slang

By John Gilstrap

I might have mentioned a few dozen times in this space that I spent 15 years in the fire and rescue service, at a volunteer department that ran over 14,000 calls per year. My name is on thousands of those reports. I’ve been burned, shot at, and threatened by one very large knife. I ran two plane crashes, uncountable car crashes, delivered two babies and performed CPR hundreds of times. In the end, I saved more lives than I lost, and I never got paid a dime for any of it. That’s a point of pride to me.

Every line of work has its own vocabulary–rhetorical shortcuts that relay information that others might not understand, but mean very specific things to insiders. I thought I’d take you inside the firehouse for a peek at our peculiar dictionary. (Warning: Some of what follows is . . . insensitive. If you’ve never been an emergency responder, it might be hard to understand, but trust me when I say it is entirely possible to be compassionate and insensitive at the same time. Sometimes, the humor is the only good part of a really crappy day.)

Now, in no particular order . . .

FNG: The full pronunciation of effing new guy, aka rookie. Also known as a red hat, because in my jurisdiction, FNGs wore red helmets on the fireground. I wanted them to wear cowbells, but they refused. We also called them wheel chocks, even though real wheel chocks always knew what they were supposed to do, and they never did stupid stuff.

Blue flares: There is no such thing as a blue flare, but FNGs didn’t know that. It was always entertaining to send them over to the farthest-away fire station with orders to bring back a box of blue flares. Of course, when they arrived at the target station, those folks would have just given them away to another station, miles away of course. That fun could go on for hours. It was like a cat chasing a laser pointer. Smoke shifters (either left-handed or right-handed) could be used in lieu of blue flares.

Box o’ Rocks: The intellectual assessment of someone who, say, didn’t catch on to the blue flares gambit after two or three stations.

Ticks: The name paid firefighters used for volunteers, purportedly because we were annoying and always hanging around. The fact that said volunteers built the firehouse and purchased all of the rolling stock they rode on and furniture they sat in often went unacknowledged.

Squirrel: This one had at least two meanings. One was another derogatory term for volunteers, but another dealt with enthusiasm. To “squirrel a call” meant either to drive to the scene in your POV (privately owned vehicle) or to respond from the firehouse with a spare piece of fire apparatus.

Paid maids: In the early days, this was the volunteers’ term for paid personnel. Among their daily tasks was to clean the kitchen and the bathrooms. (No, the two sides of the house did not always get along.)

Big eye: Have you ever encountered a challenge that was so huge and so out of the ordinary that you kind of vapor locked and didn’t know what to do first? That’s the big eye. When the world is on fire or people are screaming for assistance, it’s a bad thing to get. FNGs get the big eye a LOT.

Fireground: The general term for the scene of any emergency involving fire and rescue apparatus. In my jurisdiction, the senior OIC (officer in charge) of the First due (see below) wagon (see below) was in overall charge of the fireground, while the senior aide (see below) on the ambulance was in charge of patient care.

OIC: Translates to officer in charge, but is not necessarily tied to rank. In my jurisdiction, the OIC of any piece of apparatus was the person in the shotgun seat (right-hand front seat). If, for example, a captain was driving, but a sergeant was in the seat, the sergeant would be in charge of the fireground. It was a great way to train up-and-coming officers.

Fireground Commander: For larger incidents, command would be passed to a chief officer. Chiefs were the senior officer of their respective fire departments, but they rarely commanded individual pieces of apparatus. Chiefs had their own buggies but rarely wrested command from the first due OIC. It was, however, customary for the OIC to offer command to the chief, who then decided whether or not to take it. To be relieved without first offering would be a slap in the face.

Bugles: Fire officer rank insignia. Lieutenants wear one bugle on their collar points. Captains wear two . . . chiefs of departments wear five.

Wagon: This has changed in many jurisdictions, but where I ran, every fire station housed two pumpers (what you think of when you think “firetruck”). The first one out the door on a call was the wagon, and the second was the engine. Together, both the wagon and engine were called an engine company. Thus, Wagon 14 or Engine 14 were individual vehicles. Engine Company 14 was two vehicles, and when they were on the road, it was time for the fire to be very scared.

Aide: The OIC of the ambulance.

First due: The area to which a department or a specialty vehicle (ladder truck, hazmat truck, etc.) is dispatched first. The next closest is second due, and so forth. In my jurisdiction, for a commercial alarm, the dispatch would sound something like this: “Box 1404 for the structure fire. Engine companies 14,13 and 2, Trucks 14 and 13, Squad 2, Ambulance 14.” The first number of the box number (in this case 14) indicates who’s first due, the second part is a rough idea of how far the call is from the station. (Fire station 14 sits in the center of box 1400. Ditto every other fire station.)

Smells and bells: I can’t begin to imagine the number of dispatches that started with “odor of smoke” or “fire alarm sounding.” These calls got the full boat (full alarm assignment–see below), rousted a bunch of people out of bed, and left the beleaguered first due engine company officer with a complex report to fill out.

Working fire (or a worker): A real fire with real flames. The opposite of smells and bells.

Second alarm (or third . . .): Different types of structures have different alarm assignments. In my jurisdiction, a single family house fire had an alarm assignment of two engine companies, a truck (ladder truck), a heavy squad (think rolling tool box with lots of cool toys) and an ambulance. At the top of the heap, the hospital had an alarm assignment of four engine companies, two trucks, two squads and (I think) three ambulances. When the fireground commander strikes a second alarm on a fire, he’s ordering up a duplication of the first alarm. Remember this when you hear about a four-alarm fire.

Special alarm: Say the fireground commander only wants one more engine company or one more truck. That would be a special alarm, not to be confused with an additional alarm (see above).

Scratch: I think this one’s unique to volunteer departments. A piece of apparatus scratches when it fails to mark responding within three minutes after dispatch. When a house scratches, the next due piece of apparatus will be dispatched in its place. There is no greater humiliation.

Second (or third, or fourth) call: These happen quite a lot during weather events, when everyone is running their wheels off. Let’s say Wagon and Ambulance 14 are already running a call, when the station gets hit again for an incident. Dispatch knows that Engine 14 and Ambulance 14-2 are in the station, but they have no way of knowing if they are manned. So the dispatch would sound like, “Box 1425 for the auto accident. Engine Company 14 (your second call), Ambulance 14 (your second call), Engine Company 2, Ambulance 2.” Whoever got out first got the call.

To cut numbers: Occasionally, someone would walk into the station with an injury or illness, or we would wander up on something while in service (see below). In this case, because the dispatcher has no idea that there’s an incident, we’d radio in and ask them to “cut numbers” on a new incident, and we’d give them the address. This would make the incident official and take the appropriate vehicle out of service.

In service/out of service. This is counter-intuitive to a lot of people. A piece of apparatus is in service when it is available for a call. When on a call (not available for another call) it is out of service. It was common, when we were assisting an ambulance with a medical call, for the dispatcher to ask us if we could “go in service for a call.” If we were, then there no second calls would be needed.

Bidding a call: Say that Ambulance 14 is just clearing the hospital (which is in Station 13’s first due) after dropping off a patient when a call comes in for, say, an auto accident in Box 1313. If Ambulance 14’s OIC thinks he’s closer, he can bid the call. It would sound something like, “Ambulance 14, Dispatch. We’re closer. Put Ambulance 13 in service.” It’s kind of humiliating for Station 13. In the old days, on rare occasions, there were bidding wars, where neither vehicle agreed to go in service, so there’d be a race to the scene. Whoever got there first, got the call.

Tapped (or tapped out): To be dispatched. “We got tapped last night for a wreck on Walker Road.” “They tapped us out for worker at the Bates Motel.”

Putting a good stop: When a crew extinguishes a fire quickly and with minimum damage, they’ve put a good stop on the fire.

Cellar saver: Exactly the opposite of a good stop. When the roof ends up in the basement (i.e., the structure is a total loss), the fireground commander is credited with saving the cellar. That’s . . . bad.

Snot-slinger: A big fire. Aka, the big one.

Teeth-hair-and-eyeball: The kind of incident where the most useful pieces of equipment are body bags and tweezers.

DRT: Dead right there. (A play on DOA.)

Federal Q: That wonderful siren on the front bumper that sounds like an air raid siren on speed. Melting the Q meant to have it spun up really high. Combined with the air horn in rush hour, melting the Q created lanes out of stopped traffic where cars had nowhere to go. I had a driver for years who would melt the Q at oh-dark-early, shouting his mantra out the window: “If I gotta be up, you gotta be up, too!”

I’m sure there are many I’ve forgotten, but this is a good start. So, what about you, TKZers? Y’all come from interesting backgrounds. Give us a peek into your secret dictionary.

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One last thing. If you’re a teacher or if you’re with a book club, and you’d like me to Zoom with you, drop me an email at john@johngilstrap.com

 

11+

Courage in Fiction

By John Gilstrap

I’ve knocked around in my corner of the entertainment business for a quarter of a century now. Over the years, I’ve seen and heard a lot of snide talk and snobbery among authors and critics that belittles books, films and TV shows for their lack of . . . shall we say importance?

Snottery knows no bounds, it seems. Self-published authors take in on the chin quite a lot, but so do romance authors and those who write cozy mysteries and horror. When speaking a few years ago to a group of students in an MFA program, the professor who introduced me warned the assembled body to have an open mind even though I was “content to write nothing more important than commercial fiction.” If you’ve attended any of my seminars since then, you might remember that I now introduce myself as a writer of commercial fiction, whose work will likely never be taught in the classroom. I consider that to be something of a badge of honor.

I write and I consume the creative works of others for one primary purpose: to entertain or be entertained. Hard stop. If the material I’m consuming also educates, informs or instructs me at the same time, that’s terrific, but it’s not a requirement.

That said, I’m not an easy audience. The classics that I’m supposed to say I love because I make my living as an author–Hemingway, Marquez, Joyce, Fitzgerald, et. al.–for the most part put me to sleep. And Michener. Good God, James Michener. I stipulate that these authors are all brilliant, and that they have changed people’s lives, but I am unable to plow through their stories from beginning to end. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader.

Or perhaps I prefer to read great stories well told in voices that resonate in my head. Give me a Stephen King or Stephen Hunter or Tess Gerritsen or James Scott Bell, put me in a quiet room with a wee dram of smoky scotch, and I will be transported to wherever they take me.

What they write–what we write–may not be important (remember, that’s the word we agreed on), but the works inspire. Powerfully drawn good guys bring justice to powerfully drawn bad guys. Some leave more blood on the ceiling and walls than others, some present more moral ambiguity than others, but after the last page turns, right and wrong are sharply defined.

Last week, my fellow bloggers here at TKZ wrote of old television shows and old comedians. As I read those posts and the responses, it occurred to me that the common trait shared by writers, actors and comedians is a commitment to telling stories that move their respective audiences in some way. That’s what entertainment is, isn’t it?

And it works best when it surprises us. M*A*S*H was primarily a comedy, but who among us didn’t choke up the first time we learned of Henry Blake’s final plane trip? To this day, even though I’ve seen the episode a dozen times or more, the room still gets dusty every time I watch Andy Taylor open the window and tell Opie to listen to those birds that will never see their mama again.

Which brings us to the topic of courage (or lack thereof). Every week, my DVR records episodes of “12 O’Clock High”, starring Robert Lansing as General Frank Savage. I remember watching it as a kid, but all I remember are the scenes of aerial battle. The stories are really very complex and often quite moving. When you consider that the series aired when World War 2 wasn’t yet 20 years in the past, and that more pilots died in the 8th Air Force out of England than did all of the Marines in the Pacific theater, the story lines are particularly courageous. Battle fatigue (PTSD), cowardice, reckless bravery, loss of friends and the futility of war are all addressed in those episodes. They entertain because they resonate, and they resonate because we care about these young men who are forced to take exceptional risks for the benefit of others. We see courage in action. And it’s inspiring.

Fictional courage–whether on the page or on any size screen–starts with the writer, not with the characters. I tell myself that there are places I won’t go in my work, but that’s really a lie. I’ve harmed children and animals in my books, but never gratuitously. Still, I get hate mail whenever I do, and that’s fine. I figure that I moved that reader, and therefore I did my job. Sure, I moved them in a direction I didn’t intend, but at least they cared enough to write a note.

Plain vanilla stories are always safe, and they’re certainly not important. But if they’re not even inspiring, doesn’t that just make them irrelevant?

So what about you, TKZ family? What risks are you willing to take in your reading and your writing?

 

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It’s Launch Day!

By John Gilstrap

This is my 21st Book Birthday, and it is always exciting.  Hellfire is Jonathan Grave’s twelfth adventure. If you click the picture, you’ll go to a plot summary and (shockingly, right?) links to buy the book. They make wonderful gifts, remember. And Christmas is less than six months away. Just sayin’.

I frequently tell audiences–and I may have posted here in the past–that I consider myself blessed that I am one of precious few people I know who has been fortunate enough to live out pretty much every item on my bucket list. If you’d asked me when I was 12 what I wanted to do for a living, I’d have told you that I wanted to write novels.

And because it’s Launch Day, I need to beg the forgiveness of the TKZ family. Due to a shipping glitch, a couple hundred books that I was supposed to sign a week ago arrived at my doorstep today. My blog writing time has been taken from me in the best possible way. This, folks, is living the dream. Seriously.

BUT . . . So your time on this site today won’t be entirely wasted, I have a MS Word trick that I discovered a couple of years ago, but which many people don’t yet know about. Have you ever been frustrated when apostrophes face the wrong direction when you’re typing? It happens at the beginning of contracted words like ’cause instead of because. It also happens when you close a quote after an em dash.  Well, there’s a solution and it lies in the Ctrl key. If you type <Ctrl> ‘ and then ‘ your single quote will become an apostrophe at the beginning of your word. After the em dash, <Ctrl> ” then ” will change than annoying opening quotation mark to a closed quote.

Next, time, I’ll be more worth reading, I promise.

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Eyes Front

By John Gilstrap

Self-doubt is a crippling condition for any artist. (Spoiler: It never goes away. You just learn to manage it.) For young or inexperienced artists–hereinafter called writers because this is a blog about writing–self-doubt can be paralyzing. You write something you think is pretty good, but when you show it to your “beta readers” they have suggestions, so forward progress stops on your story.

The writer’s internal monologue goes something like this: I thought that description of the lightning strike was pretty strong. But if Beta George didn’t like it, there must be something wrong. He said he didn’t like the word “struck” because he thought it was a cliche. And he said Main Character Harriett wasn’t scared enough. I don’t get why she’d be more scared than she is, but if Beta George thinks. . .

I call this navel gazing. No further work gets done on the story because the writer is wrapped around his own axle trying to make Beta George happy–even if it’s against the writer’s own better judgment.

Does this scenario sound familiar to anyone: Mary has been working on her story for eighteen months but hasn’t gotten past Chapter Three. Every time she tries to move forward, she looks back and realizes that what she’s written is terrible. She wonders why she ever thought she could write a book, maybe has a little cry or maybe a big cocktail, and then she goes back to the beginning.

NOTE: Up to and excluding the part where she starts over, this is a process I go through with every book. Twenty-one of them. It’s part of the process. Literally, writing crappy prose is a necessary element of the journey to get to the end of a project. And not just at the beginning of a career. Every. Friggin’. Book.

Having done this a few times grants the advantage of having confidence in the crappy parts. I know that once the creative boiler comes up to pressure and I’m steaming through the story, I’ll be able to take care of damage control. But I have to get up to pressure. I have to move the story forward.

I’m going to share my strategy for managing doubt and crappy prose, and then I’m going to share how I think you should handle it until you feel confident that your boiler is sound.

I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote in the previous two sessions. Then, when I finish today’s session of moving forward, I intentionally do not go back and edit. That’s tomorrow’s job, after things are less fresh in my head. Rewriting takes about an hour most days, and then I forge ahead. By the time I get to the end of the first draft, I’m really on my third or fourth draft, and all I need is a quick pass for a polish.

My system works for me because a) I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and b) I force myself to add at least a thousand words to yesterday’s count. Two thousand is better, and I think my record is 8,900. I don’t want to do that again.

Here’s my suggestion for others: Eyes Front. Don’t look back. Period. Hard stop.

Pick a targeted word count or a date on the calendar (think 10,000 words or three weeks–a real stretch). Until that milestone is reached, you are forbidden to look back at what you’ve written. Keep the story moving forward. Only forward. Get that boiler churning. Fall in love with your story again. And no cheating! If you forget what you named that guy in Chapter Two, mark the spot with asterisks and keep going.

When you reach your milestone, you MUST congratulate yourself for having met it. If you’re sailing your book at full speed through calm waters, set another goal and keep pressing on. If you need to go back to fix stuff (all those asterisks, for example), go for it. Make all the changes you feel are necessary, but remember that you still owe yourself a thousand words of forward progress.

Don’t let your book run aground while you’re cleaning the bilges.

What do you think, TKZers? Worth a try?

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Establishing Priorities

By John Gilstrap

It’s a common lament among authors struggling to make time to pursue or complete their writing tasks: With kids and a full time job, I can’t carve out the time to sit down and create.

Before diving into the advice portion of this post, let me show my prejudice. I wrote twelve books while working a full time job with executive responsibilities that kept me on the road for over 100 nights per year. That’s well over a million published words, all as a sideline. Through it all, I never missed a kid’s soccer game or school event, and my wife and I kept up a robust social life.

In the early days, my inspiration was Tom Clancy, who managed to create the techno-thriller genre while working full time in insurance. Later, I realized that Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Tess Gerritsen, and countless other successful authors were able to squeeze their same 24-hour days in a way that allowed them to create works of fiction that changed their lives.

I put my inner engineer to work and ran some calculations.

Everyone of us starts Sunday with the same 168 hours available for use in the coming week. Including commuting time (if you don’t live in New York, L.A. or D.C.) work will absorb 9 hours per day, Monday through Friday. That’s 45 hours stripped away from your control.

We have to eat, of course, and take care of chores and personal hygiene stuff. Shall we agree on 10 hours for each, for a total of 20? Throw in another three hours as a rounding error (and to keep the math manageable) we’re down to roughly 100 hours of unaccounted for free time.

Okay fine. You want to sleep. And you’re blessed with the ability to sleep eight hours per night. Subtract 56 hours from the weekly assignment schedule. That leaves you with 47 hours to work with. We’re approaching the amount of true discretionary time. That’s almost six standard work days’ worth of time.

Oh, yeah. The kids’ soccer tournament on Saturday. Will seven hours cover it? Give or take a couple, you’re now hovering around the 40-hour mark for free time. That’s a standard work week, folks.

The hours are there. Now it’s a question of priorities. That episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” costs you 2.5% of your writing time. Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will cost a whopping 10% of your creative hours. (And if you’ve seen it, I trust you’ll agree that it is worth no more than 5%–7.5%, tops.)

The time is there, folks. The question that all writers must confront is how important is it to them to finish what they’ve started? Not to bite the hand that is currently feeding me, but recognize that every second you’ve spent reading this post and whatever responses it garners is a second you’ve decided NOT to spend on writing.

It’s all about choices.

 

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About Platforms

By John Gilstrap

In my experience, nothing triggers a panic response in an author more quickly or profoundly than the mention of building a platform. According to the social media hive mind, if a writer hopes to sell his or her first book, they must first have a strong social media platform. How, exactly, does that work, you might ask. How does one build a fan base for a product that does not yet exist?
For years, I dismissed this notion as foolishness. You write the book, you sell the book, and then you flog the book to get your name out there. It’s all common sense.
Except it’s not. I reached out to my editor at Kensington Publishing, as well as to my agent, and they both confirmed with a sigh that an evaluation of a writer’s social media platform does, indeed, play into the decision buy the rights to their work. On the positive side, both assured me that the absence of a strong platform does not work against a writer, but rather, the presence of a strong platform works strongly in a writer’s favor. So, all ties go to the strong platform.
So, this got me to thinking. What is a platform, exactly? And since it’s important to have, how is one constructed? Surely, it’s more than posting desperate pleas on Twitter and Facebook. As far as I’m concerned, people to bombard me with requests to buy, buy, buy(!) are blacklisted from my bookshelf.
I have no idea if what follows is true, but it makes sense to me. I think that people think too hard when it comes to all things platform based.
A platform is not a group that will be guaranteed to go out and buy your book. In fact, the harder you push for a direct sale, the more harm you do to your cause.
A platform is merely a group of people who are interested in YOU. Members of your church, fellow Rotarians, and book club buddies are all a part of your platform. Your poker buddies. The other workers who share your shift. At its center, building a new platform is synonymous with keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances. In the early days, it’s discomfiting to ask for email addresses, and permission to send them an occasional newsletter–too many flashbacks to the days when your college roommate got that insurance sales job right out of school. Mary Kay and Amway, too. You’ve got to get over that. True friends will understand what you’re trying to do.
So, this book is not yet done. What do you send to these people on your list? Progress updates. Here’s a little secret that’s not a secret at all: Almost everyone has dreams that they have not pursued for one reason or another. For good or ill, they will live vicariously through your journey. A blessed few will share your updates with friends who will share it with even more.
 
As you move farther down the publishing path, you’ll attend conferences in your genre, and there you will make contact with agents, editors and fellow writers who will expand your platform even wider. They may never buy one of your books, but you’ll have made connections. Even if they don’t read your genre, maybe their friend or their mother does. 
One thought about conferences. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: When attending, try to resist the comfort of hanging with fellow rookies. Join in with the group you aspire to belong to. This is a business meeting, after all, and successful people have more help to offer than those who have not yet achieved their goals.
You’ve got to have a writer’s website. If nothing else, use it as a long-lasting repository for all those newsletters you’ve written. Make your website interesting, helpful. Mine isn’t fancy, but I think it’s entertaining. Everyone who visits it is given an opportunity to join my mailing list and to subscribe to my YouTube channel–and, of course, to buy my books. Personally, I don’t believe in a lot of flash on a website. I want mine to be informative. I don’t add to it as often as I should, but there’s still a lot there.
 
With your website in place, develop business cards. The point of business cards is less to advertise yourself than it is to receive the other person’s card in trade. When that happens, you ask, “Do you mind if I add you to my mailing list?” Ninety-nine percent will grant permission, and now you’re golden.
 
Change your email signature block. Every single email I send–irrespective of topic or recipient–closes with links to my website, YouTube channel and newsletter list.
I personally have been steadily moving away from Facebook and Twitter. Twitter in particular is a cesspool of negativity and anger. To a lesser extent, Facebook is the same way, but my timeline is a way to stay in touch with friends around the world. I’ve moved most of my most active Facebook participation over to my author page, where I talk almost exclusively about books and writing–the business side of my life.
 
Now here’s the caution: According to the various analytics, my outreach efforts reach hundreds of thousands of people every year–far more than the number of books I sell. In fact, when all is said and done, I have no evidence that any of this effort has sold a single book.
So, TKZers, what do you think? Is this what platform building is truly all about, or have I missed something/everything? I’m really curious to hear y’all’s input.
By way of shameless self-promotion, I’ve added a new video to my channel:
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