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.

Internet to the Rescue!

By John Gilstrap

I’ve read articles by and about other writers who maintain that their first step in drawing a character is to find the perfect name.  I’ve never understood that, beyond the obvious connotations of character type.  A romantic hero named Raunchy McStinkface would probably be doomed.  My series character, Jonathan Grave, is called that because my original plan for the series was to build titles around the name–Grave Danger, Grave Peril, etc.  Okay, I’m not very good with titles.  (Hand to God: I was two or three books into the series before I realized, thanks to an inquiry from a fan, that Jonathan and I share the same initials.)

For me, characters develop in my head from the inside out–how they think and feel and react.  Names, for the most part, are just labels, something to call them.  I’ve taken names from friends, and also from news stories, sometimes attaching one news maker’s first name to someone else’s last name.

In my current WIP, Crimson Phoenix, my first non-Grave book in quite a while, I’m cursed with a ton of walk-on characters.  I’ve been going crazy trying to develop names for these folks, until earlier this week, when I wondered if the internet has such a thing as a name generator.  Eureka!  This site is a name generator.  It allows you to choose ethnicity, sex, age, and a host of other factors to spit out a list of names.  Or, you can go straight to the Quick Name Generator, which will spit out a random list for you to choose from.

Fair warning: The site can become an obsession if you’re not careful.

So, this got me to thinking, what else is out there?  One of my evil writing reflexes is to have characters nod too much.  Non-verbal communication is important in a scene, but beyond shrugs, nods making faces, my quiver runs empty pretty quickly.  Here’s a site I found specifically to help with body language.

Want more?  How about this helpful blog with 106 ways to describe sound?

I forget sometimes what a boon the internet can be for writers.  I am continually amazed by how there seems always to be an answer to any question you want to ask.  Not all of the answers or suggestions are great, but there’s always a route to follow to get to the answer.

So, TKZers, give us a link to your favorite helpful sites, either on craft or just for reaearch.


Gotta Have Thick Skin

By John Gilstrap

Full disclosure: This post originally appeared here in TKZ on July 23, 2010, with the title, “Skin Like Leather.”  I bring it back here today for two reasons: 1) It’s still relevant; and 2) I’m crashing on a deadline.

We always tell up-and-comers that they’ve got to have a thick skin if they’re ever going to break into the publishing business. As the rejections pile up, it’s hard not to lose faith in your own abilities. When the news finally turns good, and an agent wants to see the manuscript, and later when an editor decides to buy it, you feel vindicated. Ha-ha and neener-neener, you think. Clearly all those rejecters were wrong.

What clearer affirmation of talent can there be than a publishing contract, right? If you’re not careful, you might start rubbing aloe on that leather-tough skin, thinking that it’s time to shed the bullet-proof coating.

Oh, that it were true.

I won the 2010 award at Thriller Fest for the Worst Review Ever, for an opinion of Nathan’s Run that appeared in an upstate New York newspaper: “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.” That it followed dozens of major market rave reviews from around the world softened the blow to the point that I laughed out loud when I read it at the time. Now I treasure my award, which is a lovely wooden box containing a fossilized dinosaur turd. All in good fun.

As I write this, I am again in the early stages of a new book launch (Hostage Zero, 19 days straight in the Top 30 in Amazon’s Kindle store), blessed with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I’m very proud of the book. Frankly, I think it’s my best work, but then I always think that when a new book comes out.

I almost took out the aloe again. Not so fast.

This is the age of the amateur Internet review, where the opinions of casual readers wield influence equal to that of professional critics. Among many very positive reviews, one fellow calls my book “surprisingly decent.” Another expresses surprise that as a “second tier suspense writer” I have had such a long career. I have been chastised for leading with my left-wing politics, and I’ve been chastised for leading with my right-wing politics. One reviewer chastises me for coming off as stupid because I can’t seem to keep my own politics straight.

Interestingly, several reviewers have accused me in an online forum of writing my own raves, one of them going so far as to praise my ability to change my writing style to accommodate my various fictional identities. (For the record, I’ve never done such a thing.)

God bless them all. Once the book is written and I’ve launched it out to the world, it belongs more to the reader than it does to me. It’s the nature of art that perception trumps intent. A review is a review, after all, and since the major media markets have decided that books are no longer worthy of ink and newsprint, I’m just happy that someone’s paying attention.

The need for thick skin doesn’t end at the impersonal review, however.

Nine times out of ten, people are wonderfully supportive of me and my work. With the exception of certain engineered opportunities—book signings, etc.—I have little desire to be the star of a social setting. I’d much rather discuss current events than the mechanics of writing. Among these friends, the launch of a new book warrants a congratulations and a couple of signed books and that’s about it.

Then there’s the remaining one out of ten who just sort of baffle me. Consider those among my relatives who ostentatiously don’t read my books (even though I think they do), yet ask me to autograph editions for their friends. A day-job colleague of mine went out of his way to list the stores he’d visited where none of my books were in stock, and another rarely missed a public opportunity to express shock that my books do as well as they do. What am I supposed to say in response to such things? It seems sometimes that people go out of their way to be hurtful.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the rudeness—whether by acts of omission or commission—is rarely intended to be hurtful. The family stuff is weirder than the collegial stuff, but I’ve decided that artistic success—even when it’s second tier—makes some people feel both empowered and uncomfortable. The public nature of book writing empowers people to criticize, while public success—and the minor celebrity that comes with it—can upset the balance of an insecure relationship.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past 25 years toiling as a scribe is to respond thusly to even the most scathing review: Thank you for reading my work and taking the time to comment.


Think Small to Make Big Scenes Work

By John Gilstrap

Let’s say that you want to write a bit of fiction that’s set at the Battle of Gettysburg.  You want to convey the scope and terror of the battlefield, and you want your readers’ pulses to pound with the drama of the event.  You want to show the humanity and the awfulness, all while eliciting an emotional response from your audience.

By way of refresher, from July 1-3, 1863, 104,000 Union soldiers clashed with 75,000 Confederates in a little town populated by 2,400 residents.  By the time the smoke cleared (hey, guess the origins of that phrase!), each side suffered 23,000 casualties.  That’s 46,000 killed, wounded or missing soldiers.  Now, consider the 1,500 dead horses.  In July.  The Union Army marched away from 14,529 wounded men, while the Confederates left behind about 13,000 wounded soldiers.  So, in addition to the 46,000 moldering human corpses, the town had to deal with 27,000 men in need of urgent medical care.

The magnitude of the battle and its aftermath are almost impossible to grasp.  And you want to bring it to life on the page.  It’s a daunting challenge, and it’s equally applicable to any large conflicts, whether real or imagined; in this world or a pretend one.  If we stipulate that the primary building block of any story is character, how can we possibly bring all of those people into high relief on the page?

The answer is to not try.  The trick is to pick your point of view characters carefully and develop them well.  During any bit of action, the new recruit may want to lie down or run forward, but the sergeant major has to preserve order.  Both are likely to be terrified, but one does not have the luxury of showing it.  Which POV is the most compelling for which bit of action?  If the set piece is about a frontal assault on a defended position, maybe the most drama is found in the POV of the kid who’s watching the human wave charge at him.

Let your POV character serve as an exemplar for the other characters of his class and rank.  Through his set of eyes–the ones that belong to a character we care about–we experience his confusion and his fear and his horror as he does.  He’s less likely to count the bodies he passes in the grass than he is to be sickened by the brutality with which those other soldiers were dismembered.  As readers, we don’t need to know about the number of people killed, we just need to understand that the number is incomprehensible.

In the opening pages of Total Mayhem (2019), a sniper with a semiautomatic weapon opens fire on a high school football game.  The main challenge I faced in writing that scene centered on how to show the horror from the point of view of a character who is running away.  No one is going to stick around and observe details while his neighbors are dying in the stands.  I chose to show the awfulness through tiny, fleeting details.  The heavy thump of bullets as they impacted people and the sound the victims made when they were hit.  The character–Tom Darone–observed those details but didn’t dwell on them because his emotions were focused on saving his own life.  That scene was really hard to write, in large measure because of Tom Darone’s fear.  He’s just not paying close attention to others.  By contrast, a later sniper scene with many times more casualties, was much easier to write because I presented the action from Jonathan Grave’s POV.  Jonathan is confident in his skills and actively searches for opportunities not to run, but to bring the fight to the bad guy.  That means he notices details.

In any crowd scene–whether a violent one or a social one–the trick is to remember that the character you choose to reveal the events is your readers’ guide.  Every new interaction is a new learning experience for the reader.  I urge you to think small to make big scenes work.


Writers’ Group Trolls

By John Gilstrap

In the mid-1990s, about the time when Nathan’s Run was first being published, AOL was pretty much synonymous with the internet for me.  Those were the days of squealing telephone modems and pay-by-the-hour access.  I remember jumping out of my skin the first time that AOL voice said, “Welcome” through the speakers that I didn’t even know my computer had.

There seemed to be no end to the rabbit holes of information diving. As a trivia junkie and a procrastinator, I’d stumbled upon the ultimate time suck.  It was fabulous!  But it wasn’t until I discovered the wonders of the chat room that I truly understood the addiction of internet rabbit holes.  AOL chat rooms provided opportunities to “speak” real-time with real people all over the world.

My favorite of those chat rooms was the AOL Writers Club.  Run by a husband-and-wife team out of their apartment in Arlington, Virginia, the Writers Club provided my first opportunity to interact with writers of all stripes.  Since the chats were real-time, the topics we discussed were the kinds of things you’d discuss in a coffee shop with friends.  We got to know each other as we talked not just about craft, but about our families and whatever came to mind.  Tom Clancy was probably the most famous person to pop in from time to time, but other regulars included Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Dennis Lehane and others who were just starting their careers.  More than a few of those Writers Club denizens became face-to-face friends and remain so to this day.

Then the trolls arrived.

I don’t know that we knew them as trolls at the time, but they charged into the otherwise friendly group and started swinging bats and throwing hand grenades.  They were uncooperative, and just plain mean to people.  One in particular went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, but he was one of the most sour individuals I have ever run across.  The Writers Club did not survive.  (I don’t know if the trolls were the cause of the collapse, but they are certainly the reason why I capped off that particular rabbit hole in my life.)

At conferences, I run into some the old members, and when the topic comes up, everyone agrees that no group has ever come close to the sense of community we shared in the early days of the AOL Writers Club.  TKZ comes close on some levels, but the interaction here happens in slow motion, while the Writers Club was real time.

Fast forward to 2020.  I have joined–but rarely participate in–several writer-oriented Facebook groups, and I’m dismayed by how many of them are pre-loaded with trolls, and how the trolls are the dominant presence.  Even more frustrating is the fact that these moderated, members-only group leaders tolerate the internal festering that will ultimately kill the thing they’re trying to build.

Some of these groups have tens of thousands of members.  If only 1% carry the troll gene, that’s still a lot of negativity.  So, why do people who are obviously early in their writer-journey post their work into these ant hills and ask for comments?  Do they not read other entries first?  Are they masochists and merely want to reinforce the negative narrative that plagues so many artists?  I cannot imagine doing such a thing.

Let’s add into this mix some egregiously awful advice, mostly doled out by people who clearly are parroting what they’ve heard from somebody who knows someone who attended a conference somewhere.  A recent goodie was the echo chamber conclusion that prologues are essential in order to give the backstory necessary to understand why the main character does what he does in Chapter One.

Let’s pause for a moment to give Brother Bell a chance to settle his blood pressure.

I join these groups with the intent of helping but then I realize that by pushing against the group-think, I run the risk of playing the role of the perceived troll.  So I sit silently, lurking through the bad advice about structure and the industry, waiting for that occasional opportunity to help out.  And after I do, I weather the push-back from the people who heard differently from their cousin’s girlfriend’s brother.

Here’s what I want to scream in those groups: If you’re serious about selling your writing–whether by traditional or indie routes–move away from the easy echo-chamber research.  Attend conferences.  Read books by people who know what they’re talking about.  Quit complaining about how stupid the world is to reject your 180,000-word dystopian romantic vampire political thriller and accept the reality that as a rookie, there are wise moves and unwise moves, and that your actions have consequences.

Understand that your zeal to self-publish that book that you know is under-cooked, merely for the bragging rights, can fundamentally damage your ability to sell future books as your skills improve.

Ah, the heck with it.  I’ll write a blog post instead.


Nathan Is Running Again!

By John Gilstrap

Happy New Year, everyone!  Yeah, I know the year is two weeks old, but this is my first post of 2020.

If you’re familiar with the Grave books, that black Lab you see in the picture is the real JoeDog.

This picture of tossing money in the air was the single greatest mistake in the run-out of the book. It alienated most of our neighbors and all of our families.

It’s been a quarter of a century since HarperCollins published my first novel, Nathan’s Run.  (Why does “quarter of a century” sound so much longer than “twenty-five years”?)  The sale made big news in 1995 and upon its initial release, Nathan earned starred reviews in the Big Three of pre-pub review outlets, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and Library Journal.  People, Entertainment Weekly, Redbook and Washingtonian magazines all ran features on me and the novel.  Even Liz Smith and Larry King talked about it.  A year before it was published, Warner Brothers snatched up the movie rights in a seven-studio bidding war, and foreign rights were sold in 23 countries around the world.  The American Library Association subsequently name Nathan’s Run as the winner of the Alex Award as the best adult-market fiction for young adult readers.

I still hear from people who read the feature story that Writer’s Digest wrote about my rookie year windfall.  It was a hell of a way to launch a new career!  Hand to God: At the time, I had no idea how unusual my experience was.  After all, there was no user-friendly internet yet, at least not in my house, and the only other author I knew at the time was Stephen Hunter, who had just come out with his runaway bestseller, Point of Impact

Nathan’s Run did what it did, and more books followed, but ultimately, the novel went out of print, and in 2007, give or take, all rights reverted to me.  By then, I had just launched my nonfiction book, Six Minutes to Freedom through Citadel Press, an imprint of Kensington, but my Jonathan Grave series hadn’t yet made it to the page.  I essentially was between publishers and between deals, and really didn’t have a place to put a re-release of Nathan.  So, I sat on the rights for a while.  Well, most of the rights.  Over at Recorded Books, George Guidall’s narration of the unabridged Nathan’s Run, had done well for them, so I inked an independent deal to re-up the audio rights with them.  For about four or five years, then, Nathan remained in “print” only as an audio book.

In 2012, having established a nice track record with Kensington through the Grave series, I floated the idea with my agent that we re-sell Nathan to Kensington.  They jumped right on it–along with At All Costs, my second novel (1998) and the first to introduce Irene Rivers, then an FBI agent, and in the Grave books the director of the FBI.  They were very clear during the negotiations that they were mainly interested in publishing the new Nathan as an eBook, and I was fine with that.

And now, effective December 31, 2019, Nathan’s Run is once again available as a premium mass market paperback.  Better still, it’s the “director’s cut” of the story.

I think I posted here before about my decision not to rewrite the story to reflect my storytelling choices of today.  I like the idea of it reflecting my voice and world view at the time I wrote it.  The only changes I made from one version to the next is to clean up the language.  Nathan Bailey, the protagonist of the story is 12 years old and he’s on the run from people who want to kill him.  In the original, when I was in the POV of the bad guys, the narrative language was pretty harsh.  That, combined with the Alex Award, which brought the book into middle school libraries, ultimately led to it being named as one of 100 most banned books in America.

I received a ton of letters and emails from readers who were disappointed that the language prevented them from sharing the story with their kids or their parents of their minister.  So, when I had the opportunity, I cleaned the story of F-bombs and other high-end profanity.  Truth be told, I haven’t dropped an F-bomb in my fiction in over ten years, and no one has ever complained.

The other most frequent topic for complaints from otherwise satisfied readers was the ending, which they felt was too abrupt.  Yeah, me too.  Whereas my original ending–the one I submitted when the publishers bought the book–ended in short coda that tied up loose ends, my editor and agent at the time felt strongly that a degree of ambiguity in the end made the story better.   I never agreed, but it was my first book, and I was dizzy from the whole experience, so I said okay.  I’ve regretted it for 25 years.

So, now, Nathan’s Run ends the way I originally wanted it to, and I think it has legs for young adult readers as well as fans of my thrillers.  There’s also an author’s note at the end that explains a lot of the behind the scenes stuff.  For example, I explain how Nathan Bailey got his name.

Now, in an awkward segue, since this post is all about shameless self-promotion, I’m happy to announce that my YouTube channel, A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing in closing in on 1,900 subscribers and over 75,000 views.  The channel features short videos (most are 6-8 minutes long) that talk about how the publishing industry works, and provides tips for writers to navigate the waters.  If you get a chance, please pop over and give it a look–and subscribe if you like what you see.


Zipper Rescues and the Importance of Communication

By John Gilstrap

Fair warning:  This week’s post has very little to do with the craft of writing.  In fact, it’s sort of a one-off non sequitur.  I wrote it because I told these stories to some friends the other night, and they said, “You really should write those.”  Well, this was the only venue that came to mind, and really, it does have a strong message about the importance of effective communication.  So, here we go . . .

When I was 13 years old, I had to inform my mother that I had contracted gonorrhea.  But more on that later.

One lesson I learned through the fire and rescue service is the importance of detailed, explicit communication when dealing the the victims of mishaps.  As a medical provider with an important job to do, I occasionally lost track of how easily patients could be distracted more by perception than reality.

By way of background, EMT school trained us not just in overall emergency medical care, but also for some very specific rescue techniques.  For example, there is such a thing as a “zipper rescue”, which is prompted by a “zipper injury.”  This is a condition that in my experience applies exclusively to males who are in a hurry.  Consumption of alcohol is frequently a factor.  You’ve got the picture, right?  Whether you want to or not?  (I see you squirming over there!)

As you can imagine, patients who are suffering from this particular malady are often distraught, and always pretty bloody.  Our protocol for zipper rescues was pretty simple: You use a pair of scissor to cut the zipper out of the trousers to take the tension off of things, and then transport the patient to the ER, where doctors would take care of the more detailed work.  Honestly, you’d be shocked to know how many times I had to employ this technique in the field.  It helped to have a college in close proximity to the firehouse.

This brings me to my communication failure.  In this case, the patient was younger than usual–say, 12 or 13–and as far as I could tell, he was stone cold sober.  He’d just been rushing things a bit too much.  I assured him (and his mom) that this was something I was trained to take care of, and that soon he’d be feeling better.

Then he saw the scissors.

He, uh, jumped to the wrong conclusion.  So did Mom, actually, which I found a little startling.  Yeah, I kind of dropped the ball on that one, and no amount of backpedaling and explanation could stem the panic.  I put the scissors back in the aid box and we transported him as-is, trousers and all.  When the medical director asked me why I had violated the protocol, I explained.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a doctor laugh that hard.

Which brings me to my adolescent venereal disease.  And again, it comes down to garbled communication.

If you’ve ever been a young teen boy–or if you’ve had them in your life–you know that certain . . . obsessions kick in as the hormones hit.  Showers become longer and alone time becomes more important.  Are you with me?  Now remember, we’re talking about the early 1970s in a house where certain things were never discussed.  Never.  Those corners of life were giant voyages of discovery.

So, there I was in Mr. Binion’s English class when all the girls were herded out of the room and the school nurse came in with her film strip projector and a lecture on the perils of venereal disease–or, simply, VD.  Why this presentation was made in English class rather than, say, PE or Shop class, is a secret known only to the administration.

I’m confident that we probably learned important stuff that day, but the one detail that nailed me to my chair was this: One of the primary symptoms of gonorrhea is . . . wait for it . . . a milky white discharge from you-know-where.

Well, shit.  For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how or where I got infected, but I was INFECTED!  At the rate I was going, blindness and dementia couldn’t be more than a week or two away.  Days, maybe.  I needed a doctor, and I needed one, like, yesterday!

When I walked home from the bus that afternoon, Mom knew that something was wrong.  I tried denying it for a while, but ultimately, the tears came, and with them, the devastating news of my disease.

And I saw the look.  My mom’s eyes would flash when she was amused–almost literally–and that’s what I saw.  She tried to keep her poker face, presumably to save me from humiliation, but I knew then that I had somehow miscalculated.  Things weren’t as bad as they seemed.  That night, my dad and I had the most awkward conversation of my life.

Happy Holidays, everyone!  I’ll see you in the New Year.


I Hate Being Caught Being Wrong

By John Gilstrap

I’m writing this on Monday evening, December 2, 2019.  This morning, I submitted my copy edited manuscript back to my publisher, having endured my annual pity party centered around the theme, “If you know so much, write your own damn book.”  It’s the constant picking at the niggling details that make me crazy.  Yeah, I get that “which” vs. “that” is a real thing, as is “farther” vs. “further”.  And, as I discussed last time in my epistle about my comma conundrum, I’ve accepted that I’ll never get certain things right.

But come on.  “We can’t take this argument any further/farther.”  They both make sense.

Copy editors make me think too hard, that’s the problem.  (See that friggin’ comma splice?  Boy, did we hammer on comma splices at my last critique group meeting!)  Even I–the passionate purveyor of the principle that there are no rules in writing–admit that there are rules to grammar, and I try very hard to stay out of the way of those who understand these things.  But then there are the stylistic choices.  Such as . . .

In my original draft, I wrote, “Sid asked for a Maker’s-rocks”.  (By the way, that comma is properly positioned.  You know, in case someone asks.)  The copy editor changed it to “. . . Maker’s Mark Bourbon on the rocks”.  My first instinct was to ignore the comment, but then I wondered if maybe I was unclear.  Sid is in a bar, for crying out loud. Doesn’t the context fill in whatever blanks there might be?  The word, Bourbon, was a non-starter, but should it be Maker’s Mark on the rocks?  On the first pass, I accepted that part of the change, but on the second pass, I switched it back to my original.  That sounded best to my ear.

Shouldn’t “God-forsaken” be capitalized?  The copy editor lower-cased it, and for the life of me, I don’t understand why.

And then I stumbled upon The Big One.  The.  Big.  One.  How I missed this in my own editing passes is beyond me, but miss it I did: A nighttime shootout sandwiched between two daylight scenes.  Wait.  What?  Holy crap!

My stories are all told on a pretty tight timeline, with the events of one scene having ripple effects through other subsequent scenes.  The shootout couldn’t be moved from its slot in the story, and the results of said shootout have a massive impact on the next 250 pages of story.  Have I said holy crap yet?  Well, here it is again: Holy crap!

So, I had to re-engineer the shootout to happen in the daytime.  From a tactical perspective, that changes everything.  Different gun sights, different approach to the building.  Different everything.  But I fixed it.  I made it work, and I think I was able to stitch the downrange damage back together.  I think.

Actually I’m sure.  Well, pretty sure.  Damn.

It looks like I’ll be reading the page proofs more carefully than usual in a couple of months.

Meanwhile, here it is for the record: Thank you, Mr. Copy Editor for catching The Big One while there was still time to fix it.

I hate being caught being wrong.


Copy Edits and Good News

By John Gilstrap

My favorite pic of my wife and myself from the Iceland trip. This is from the inside of a glacier. That’s actually a white light embedded in the ice. The blue comes from Mother Nature.

It’s been a long three weeks.  First, there was Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis, followed the next weekend by Bouchercon in Dallas, then a week-long book tour through Texas with my buddy Reavis Wortham.  I finally got home from Texas on the nigh of November 9, only to go back to the airport for a trip to Iceland with my wife and cousins.  If you ever get a chance to visit Iceland, do yourself a favor and go. (This was our third trip, and I can’t wait to go back.)  The highlight was a walking tour through the inside of a glacier.  The deeper you go, you literally are eyewitness to the past.

Upon my return, I was greeted with the copy edits for Hellfire, the Jonathan Grave novel slated for July, 2020.  This is my 21st encounter with copy edits, and therefore my 21st reminder of how little I understand about grammar in general and the deployment of a comma in particular.  Take the previous sentence, for example.  Should it read, “. . . and, therefore, my 21st . . .”?  Should it be “. . . grammar in general, and . . .”?  Feel free to tell me, but I guarantee it will not stick in my head.  (That comma after “tell me” shouldn’t be there, should it?”)  Damn.

Appropriate use of commas seems random to me and the commas themselves complicate language.  For example, the copy editor changed this sentence to include commas that I did not: “He and his brother, Geoff, were being driven . . .”  To my eye and ear, the meaning is clear without the commas, but I let it go because they tell me they’re correct.  (That comma before but shouldn’t be there either, should it?)

Then there’s this edit: “. . . scrolled through his contacts list, and pressed a button.”  Why? What does that comma do that its absence does not?  Aargh!

Comma Splices

First of all, I didn’t know that a comma splice was even a thing.  Here’s the note, verbatim, from the copy editor:

“There are some comma splices in the book, where two complete thoughts, that is, separate sentences, are separated by commas rather than periods.  Some people accept this in dialogue but not in descriptive text.  I have highlighted those I found like this (word-comma-word highlighted) so you can see where they are and decide what to do.  In many cases, the comma splice can be fixed by adding “and” or “but” after the comma.”

Here’s an example of what he’s talking about: “Questions never changed bad news, they only slowed it down.”  For me, it’s about the rhythm of the sentence and I think the passage flows better with the comma instead of a period.  Apparently, I do this quite a lot.  In most cases, I kept the passages as I originally wrote them.

Another example: “Their mom was just arrested, their dad is dead.”  The “and” is silent and I think the sentence is better for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I clearly need a good copy editor, and this one (the same as I had for Total Mayhem) is very good.  He’s just going to have to get used to me not comprehending the role of the comma.

With every set of copy edits, I also receive a “style sheet” that gets deeply into the weeds of my writing style, and that of the publisher.  The sections of the style sheet include:

Characters (in order of appearance).  With each character comes a brief description, based upon what I wrote in the book.  Here’s an example: Soren Lightwater: head of Shenandoah Station, smoker’s voice, mid-forties, built like a farmer, more attractive than her voice;

Geographic Locales (in alphabetical order).  Here again, there’s a brief description of the role the location plays in the story.  For example: “Resurrection House/Rez House, in Fisherman’s Cove, on Church Street, up the hill from Saint Kate’s Catholic Church, on the grounds of Jonathan’s childhood mansion;

Words Particular to Text.  Examples include A/V (audio-visual), ain’t, Air Force One, all-or-nothing deal, asshats . . .

Grammar/Punctuation. Given the subject matter of the post, I thought I’d paste this entire section verbatim.  Apologies for all the spacing, but I don’t know how to manipulate this platform to prevent double-spacing between lines.

Hours and minutes given in numerals (4:47), but just hours can be written out (six o’clock, he had to be there by five)

Author’s preference of comma following introductory “So” is permitted, as is comma after introductory “Or.”

Series comma

Comma before terminal “too” and “either” (Exception: me too, you too, us too, or any other one-word construction before “too”)

Comma around internal “too” and “either”

Comma before terminal “as well” and around internal “as well”

Comma before terminal “anyway”

Comma before terminal “though”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “in fact”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “instead”

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “after all”

Comma after introductory “Plus”

Temperature: eighty degrees

Numerals appear before the word “percent,” except in dialogue or when starting a sentence in narrative

Italicize sound effects, emphasis, letters as letters, words as words, internal monologue in present tense and in first-person narration, words written down, unfamiliar foreign words (especially if not found in dictionary)

Quotation marks when something (an object) is being given a sarcastic name or unexpected nickname

Small Caps: signs, displays, button functions


Six months ago, I posted here about my impending surgery to fuse vertebrae in my cervical spine to relieve a pinched nerve that was causing severe pain in my left arm and shoulder.  Y’all were very supportive of me, and I appreciate that to this day.  As of this morning, as I write this, I heard from my surgeon that that the procedure was 100% successful.  The fusion at all levels is complete, and no complications developed.

I am, as they say, jazzed!


Three Hours A Day

By John Gilstrap

This is conference season, and I feel a little like I’ve been on a treadmill.  Two weeks ago, I was at Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis, always one of my faves, and this past weekend, I attended Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, which was held in Dallas.

Currently, I am still in Texas with my buddy (and outstanding writer) Reavis Wortham.  We share a publisher, and the publicity department put together the “Double Barrel Book Tour.”  Rev and I will be tearing up Houston, Austin and parts in between.  In this part of the world, wild hogs are vermin, to be shot on sight, no license required.  So yes, there’ll be a couple of rifles in the mix.

All of this eats up huge buckets full of time.  Having just submitted Hellfire, the latest in the Jonathan Grave series, back in September, I owe a manuscript on March 1 for Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my second series.  I’m only 30 pages into that one.  I feel a low grade panic beginning to build.

Which brings us to the real point of this post: time management.

Joe R. Lansdale was the guest of honor at this year’s Magna, and I got to spend a good bit of time with him over the course of the weekend.  If you’re not familiar with Joe’s work, you really need to be.  The guy is a creativity machine, churning out massive amounts of work in various genres and formats.  When I asked him how he can do that, he answered with four simple words.  “Three hours a day.”

That’s his writing schedule.  Three concentrated hours.

I’ve decided to steal the idea.  My writing sessions tend to be scattershot, jerked around by distractions like email, phone calls and extra cups of coffee.  I’ll really concentrate for maybe twenty, thirty minutes at a time, and then see something shiny that whips my attention away.  I’m announcing here and now that I’m going to give Joe’s strategy a solid try.

It’s amazing what a compelling force panic can be.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

For what it’s worth, when this post appears, I will be on the road, and likely not able to respond.


Noir at the Bar

By John Gilstrap

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending a conference that is quickly becoming one of my favorites, and has earned a place on my very small must-attend list.  Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3 Con) is one of very few writer and fan confabs that is not genre-specific.  In fact, C3 is the only conference on my list that is not specific to the mystery/suspense/thriller genre.  It’s nice to hang out with romancers and science fictioneers.  Hey, writers are writers, and it’s hard to find a smarter, more entertaining group to hang around with.

A popular after-dinner feature of C3 is an event called Noir at the Bar, where writers sign up in advance to read a selection of their work to the assembled crowd, who then vote for the “best” story.  (By way of full disclosure and bragging rights, I won the contest in 2018, but was too crushed by deadline pressure to prepare anything for this year.)  There’s always a time limit to the presented pieces, usually somewhere between five and seven minutes, and at hard core Noirs at the Bar, they cut readers off at the sixtieth second of that final minute.

This year, as I sat in the audience listening and watching authors slash each other with gladiatorial prose, I realized that too many of the presenters didn’t understand the challenge they were facing.  To read a story aloud is to perform a story.  Pushing the competitive element aside, when a writer chooses to read to his audience, he is denying his audience the opportunity to read along.  Whatever the listener gleans from the story must pass through not just the writer’s fingers, but also his vocal chords and his eyes and his body language.

The whole point of taking the stage–any stage–is to entertain the audience.  Hard stop.  That requires eye contact and knowledge of how to use the microphone.  It means knowing your material.  The year I won, I confess I cheated a little bit by reading an epic poem instead of a short story.  (I was just a child, a boy of ten, when I went to the mountain where I’d never been/and I heard the old folks talk and say there’s a monster up here, still lives today/with glowing red eyes and a deathly look/I’m telling you, boy, ’bout Old Mack Cook . . .)

Our time limit was 7 minutes, and I edited the piece and rehearsed it and trimmed it some more until I had it down to 6:45.  I presented from a manuscript that I’d printed out in 20-point Arial, and using the timer on my phone, I tracked my progress through handwritten notes I’d placed during rehearsals that showed me what the time should be at the beginning of key stanzas.  By the time of the performance, I had the piece pretty much memorized, and the manuscript was there just as a reference.

Speaking of using a manuscript as a reference, I learned a valuable trick.  First of all, I never staple or bind the papers.  When I place the text of a presentation on the lectern, I begin with two piles, both face-up, with the bulk of the text on the right, and the current page I’m referencing on the left.  As I get to the bottom of the left-hand page, I slide the right-hand page over to cover it.  This way, if a brain fart happens, I know at a glance both where I’m supposed to be, and where I’m going.  When the presentation is completed, the entire manuscript is stacked on the left, face-up, with the last page on top.

My rationale here is that I want to appear to be as prepared for a presentation as I try to be.  To the degree that I can memorize the presentation, I do, but I think it looks terrible to break the flow of language for a page turn, and I hate the optics of a page flip.  It looks unprofessional to me.  And the flopping page turn necessitated by a staple in the corner is just flat-out awful.

When I’m on tour for a book, I avoid doing readings whenever I can because I find them boring.  But when pressed, I invoke a trick I learned from an author buddy of mine, and read a scene from the book that I’ve rewritten specifically for a bookstore audience.  Since my stories are largely inappropriate for children, yet children are often present at readings, I simplify the language and make it family-friendly.  I’ll make the violence less violent.

While we writers are not in show business, per se, we are in the entertainment business, and we’d all be wise to treat every public presentation as if we were addressing a television audience of millions of people.  Preparation is key.  Obsessive preparation is even better.  Every time you ask people to watch you and listen to your words, you owe them the courtesy of having something to say and being prepared to say it in the most engaging way you can.

Just as writing is about the reader, not the writer, presentations are about the audience, not the speaker.  However many or few are in the audience, every one of those people came for a show, and you owe them the best you can give.

There’s really no downside to writers putting themselves out there as public speakers.  For the most part, the public expectation is low because most writers hate being out in front of audiences–that’s why they sit alone in rooms making stuff up.  If the speaker is boring, he’ll have met expectations and will largely be forgotten.  If he nails it, though–if he makes people laugh a little or cry a little (preferably both)–he’ll be remembered for taking the audience on an unexpected journey.

What say you, TKZers?  Do you have any tips to share on presentation skills?