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.

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.


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?


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.



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:

True Confessions

By John Gilstrap

I don’t think any creative person follows a straight line to a creative career. Motives and motivations and inspirations come from all kinds of angles. We bring our childhoods with us, along with our triumphs and lost loves. Recently, I’ve found myself in a more pensive mood than usual.

Last week, I binge-watched a few episodes of “Mannix“, starring the always-cool Mike Connors. As a kid, I thought that was one of the most riveting shows on the air. For those who are not old enough to remember, Mannix was a Los Angeles private investigator who got thoroughly beaten up pretty much every episode, and was shot more than 20 times in the same shoulder. He lived above his cool office in a cool neighborhood. His super-capable secretary, Peggy (Gail Fisher) was, I believe, one of the first African American characters of any real substance on television.

As I watched, I got smacked with a realization that came out of nowhere: Joe Mannix and Peggy are the inspiration for my characters Jonathan Grave and Venice Alexander. Even down to her race and the fact that she’s a single mom of one son! Honestly, this had never occurred to me, but now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think there’s any denying it. Jonathan lives below his office, but still. The subconscious stirs quietly and for a long time, I guess.

But wait, there’s more. With my brain primed for nostalgia, as I watched “Stand By Me” for the scumpty-seventh time (it’s one of the movies from which I cannot turn away), I was hit with another writing revelation. But first, some background . . .

After graduating from William and Mary in 1979, I got a terrible job working for Construction Magazine, a trade journal that was all about making advertisers look good. I was in a dark place writing-wise, and had pretty much abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a novelist. As the years progressed, I got consumed by grad school, the explosives business and the fire and rescue service and husbandhood and fatherhood. I’d say that writing went to the back burner, but in reality, it was off the stove entirely.

ENTER: 1986 and the movie, “Stand By Me”. An anthem to boyhood, the movie is bookended with scenes of the unnamed narrator as an author (played by Richard Dreyfus), writing the story of his great childhood adventure. We see the author/narrator typing away on the very first word processor I’d ever seen. The sound of the keys was melodic to me. The writer is also a dad, who’s made promises to take his kid and his friends swimming. Dad is distracted by the story he’s telling, though, and his son gets annoyed. The boy explains to his friend words to the effect, “He gets like that when he’s writing.”

Then in one of the most inspiring movie scenes ever, after the roller coaster that is the story, the film closes without dialogue. We hear the wonderful clicking sound of the keys as old-school white letters against the blue screen type, “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve . . . Jesus, does anyone?”

That was my moment of clarity. The writer on the screen was living the life I wanted to have. Despite professorial opinions to the contrary when I was in undergraduate school, I was convinced that I had talent. I realized that the dream wasn’t going to just happen, though. The stories in my head were not going to write themselves.

So I pulled my grad school typewriter–a cheap electric–out of the closet and I wrote crap. Utter awfulness. I was rusty, I told myself. I forced myself to write that first book all the way to the end, and when I read it, I realized two things: 1) It needed a page-one rewrite, and 2) I didn’t like the story enough to do that. So, I wrote a second bit of drivel that was decidedly less terrible than the first, and it had some good moments. Number Three had more good moments than bad, but I knew it still wasn’t ready for prime time. The language was too stiff, too stilted. I don’t think I knew at the time that the problem had a label–voice–but I knew that that’s what was missing.

And I was really busy with life. By then–1994–I’d added CEO of a consulting company to the list of things I dealt with every day.

One night, feeling guilty about not writing, I re-read Different Seasons by Stephen King, the collection of novellas that included The Body, which was the source material for “Stand By Me.” No one on the planet has a stronger narrative voice than King, and as I was reading, it hit me: He doesn’t write like a writer. He writes like a fascinating friend telling you a story. He uses vernacular in his narration. I realized that King, the writer, is invisible in all of his stories. Even when we’re in the third person, every scene is narrated in the voice of the point-of-view character.

So, in August of 1994, I set to work on what would become Nathan’s Run. I wrote the story as if I were telling it to a friend. I kept my writerly vocabulary to a minimum and tried my best to bring characters to life on the page. Four months later, when the book was finished, no one was more startled than I that I liked the final product.

That was 21 books ago, and yes, I do zone out of the real world when I write. And even as I type this blog, I love the sound of those keys as they create words on the screen.

What say you, TKZers? Do you have unlikely inspirations that drove you to become a writer?



The Hardest Writing I’ve Ever Done

By John Gilstrap

Allow me to share the first paragraph of an email I received yesterday from my editor regarding my new book, Crimson Phoenix (March, 2021): “I finished the ms at 1 am.  What a page-turner. It sure was eerie reading about a post-nuclear apocalypse while being held hostage by a global pandemic.”

Tell me about it.

Over a year ago, I signed a two-book contract to create a new thriller series.  This one features Victoria Emerson, a member of the House of Representatives, whose world is turned upside down when U.S. Army Major Joseph McCrea shows up on her doorstep one night and announces that CRIMSON PHOENIX is active.  That means the USA is inches away from nuclear war.  McCrea is there to evacuate Victoria to the United States Government Relocation Center, a bunker in the mountains of West Virginia that is meant to house the entire legislative branch in the event of Armageddon.  She cannot bring her family.

A single mother, Victoria refuses to abandon her three teenage sons. Denied entry to the bunker, they nonetheless survive the nuclear onslaught that devastates the country. The land is nearly uninhabitable. Electronics have been rendered useless. Food is scarce. Millions of scared and ailing people await aid from a government that is unable to regroup, much less organize a rescue from the chaos.

With Major McCrea’s help, Victoria devotes herself to reestablishing order—only to encounter the harsh realities required of a leader dealing with the violence wrought by desperate people . . .

I think the book turned out great, but never have I struggled so hard to put words on paper.  When I pitched the book back in 2019, the economy was booming, people were happy and the idea of citizens reverting to their feral instincts seemed like a fun diversion.  Over the last two months, writing from quarantine, every fictional act of self-preservation and confrontation I wrote felt all too possible–especially in the early days of the madness when the panic was most vibrant and threatening.

Early on in the pandemic–facing an immovable April 15 deadline with 30,000 words to go–it felt as if my imagination had been switched off.  Writing about the collapse of infrastructure and the moral relativism that it triggers really troubled me.  I am not a man prone to pessimism or depression, but for that first week or more, there seemed to be no light in any day.  To make it all worse, even the weather conspired against me in those early weeks, when every morning, it seemed, dawned cold and cloudy.

Then I wrote a bit of dialogue that allowed light back in.  In a discussion with McCrea, who’s worried that Victoria’s children won’t be tough enough for what lies ahead, Victoria says, “Just because every bit of infrastructure is broken, and just because people become desperate is no reason to dismiss kindness and understanding as some kind of a curse. Kindness is a blessing, not a liability.”

I don’t know if this makes sense out of context, but that bit came out of nowhere, and it changed not just the arc of the story, but it lifted my mood.  Victoria and her crew are the lucky ones.  They’ve survived the destruction that killed millions.  From that moment on, Crimson Phoenix ceased being about how they would survive, but rather about how they can help to fix some of what has been broken.  How to work to help make people less miserable.

Forgive me if I am rambling, but I’ve never before experienced the phenomenon of my work lifting my spirit in such a direct manner.  I am not a victim of this pandemic, nor am I a survivor.  I am an author with a job to do who’s living in strange, difficult times.  None of us knows what tomorrow might bring, but I know that today I am healthy.  I started celebrating the weird repetitiveness of each day.  For the first time in a very long time, my wife and I cook every meal together and eat it together at home.  In the evenings, we sit together and binge-watch Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Then we go to bed, get up and do it all over again.  I realize now that when this awfulness lifts, I’m going to miss the relative ease of these days.

As for the book, the words started flowing.  Think fire hydrant–easily ten pages a day.  I had a new focus, and now knowing what the book is really about, I created a story that was substantively different–and, I believe, far better–than the one I set out to write.  It’s not about victimhood, it’s about leadership.  It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s still very much a thriller, and I think it may very well be the best thing I’ve ever written.  Of course, mine is the least important opinion on that last point.

Have y’all ever had your fiction make a profound impact on you like this?


On an unrelated note, I’ve added another video to my YouTube channel.  This one talks about what to look for in a publisher. Just click on the picture.



Movie Deals

By John Gilstrap

Over the past 25 years, I have been involved in seven movie projects.  Producers have either purchased or optioned the film rights for four my books, and I have been signed five times to write screenplays.  (The math doesn’t work because I was attached to write the screenplays for two of the adaptations of my books.)  Notably, none of those films have yet to make it to the screen–except for Red Dragon, for which I was screwed out of a writer’s credit.   No, not bitter at all.  Grrr.

The movie business is sexy, it pays well, and is the most dysfunctional business model I’ve ever encountered.  It’s a miracle that any film ever gets made.  But clearly they do, so I thought I’d describe the process.

The Producer.

In the movie business, the title of producer gets thrown around a lot, and frankly, the term has a lot of different meanings.  For my purposes here, I’m not talking about any of the vanity titles.  I’m talking about the person who actually cares about the project and breaks his backside to bring it to life.

There’s an analogy between being a producer and being an author, but it’s a weak one.  I’ll give it a shot, though.

As an author, you get an idea, you develop it, write it and polish it.  When it’s done, every image is traceable to your imagination.  You are the producer, director, cinematographer, stunt coordinator, costume designer and set dresser, all rolled into one.

In a film, the producer recognizes a “literary property” that he thinks would make a good film.  So, he starts writing checks.  All those union jobs that resided in your head are positions that need to be hired to make the film.  A smart producer will write those checks with other people’s money–investors who trade their cash for a “producer” credit on the film.  If it makes money at the box office, the investors do well.  If it tanks, the real producer still gets to keep his producer’s fee.

Film Rights.

If you’re in the writing business long enough, you’re going to be approached by someone who calls herself a producer.  Nine times out of ten, the pitch will go something like, “I’ll pay you a hundred dollars for the film rights to your book.  I’ll shop it around Hollywood and if we get a deal, I’ll pay you a lot of money.”

That is your cue to hang up and run like a bunny rabbit.  There is exactly ZERO upside for you in that deal.  It’s an indicator that the producer is inexperienced, has no real contacts, and is trying to make a killing for herself off of your intellectual property.  Your response to that proposal should be, “Pay me a good sum up front for the rights to shop the book around.  If you get a deal, you’ll pay me a lot MORE money.”  I believe that the up-front money should be enough to serve as an incentive for the producer to actually do something with it.  It should hurt them if they fail to do their job.

Purchase or Option?

There are two main ways to structure your deal: An outright purchase or an option.

In a purchase, the producer buys the film rights to your book for all time.  The contract language reads, “forever and throughout the universe.”  I’m not making that up.  The structure of the purchase will be as above–money up front (“front-end” money) which is paid in full when the contract is signed, and “back-end” money (often a significantly larger sum) which will be paid on the first day of “principal photography”, which means filming actors.  Principal photography is distinct from, say, B-roll footage.  Because they own the rights outright, the producer can take as long as they want to make the movie.

In an option, the producer essentially rents the film rights for a negotiated period of time, after which the rights revert back to the author, who gets to keep the check and shop the project around to other producers.  Options have front-end and back-end money, but the front-end is generally much less than the back-end because of the additional risks posed by the ticking clock.

Options can be renewed.  In fact, every option deal I’ve seen has an automatic renewal built into the contract, with the renewal period generally being half that of the original option (and for additional money).  After that first pro-forma renewal, as the option period is about to expire, the producer can opt to extend it for a negotiated sum, but the author is under no obligation to grant the extension.

Series Writers Beware!

Every film contract, whether by option or by outright purchase, has a sticky and scary clause that grants the producer the production rights of specified characters “forever and throughout the universe.”  For an option, the character rights expire with the option–unless the film gets made, in which case the clause will lock in forever.

A good friend of mine sold the rights to the first book in what has since become a long-running series to one of the major studios.  The movie was made and did . . . okay, but not well enough in the minds of the studio execs to justify another film.  Since then, as the book series has gone on to blockbuster business worldwide, my friend has been offered many other movie deals, but since that first studio owns the rights to his series character, he can’t take any of the deals.  To make it even worse, the original studio has no desire to make another film; they’ve just set a ridiculous price tag for other producers to buy the rights to the series character.

Front-End Money is likely the only payment you’ll ever receive.  Negotiate accordingly.

Many years ago, my film agent set my head right about the movie business when he told me that for a film to make it to the screen, a million things have to go right with literally nothing going wrong.  Directors and stars drop in and out of projects, producers get distracted and lose interest.  The latest film in a genre similar to yours tanks at the box office.  Any of these things–and a thousand others–can tank a film before it’s ever made.

When negotiating a deal, treat it as if you’re never going to see another dime after you walk away from the negotiating table.

Do nothing without getting paid.

I can’t count the number of writers I’ve met who are so thrilled that a “movie producer” wants to make a movie or TV show out of their book that they essentially give away the option rights.  Producers know that authors are easy prey and they take advantage.  Don’t be a victim.

The best equivalent I can think of would be convenience store owner going to Coca-Cola and Nabisco and saying, “If you stock my shelves free of charge, I’ll pay you when I sell stuff.”  It doesn’t work that way.  Show some respect for your own intellectual property.  If producer doesn’t have at least a few thousand bucks to invest in their own business (selling intellectual properties written by others), then they’re bottom-feeders who won’t hesitate an instant to throw you under the nearest bus.

Another truth about Hollywood: Everybody lies. This was the hardest adjustment for me to make when I was working on the Warner lot for a few months.  Handshakes don’t mean a thing, and everyone knows it.  There’s not a single person in any studio or production office who isn’t scared to death that they will be fired tomorrow.  It’s the way the system works.

If it’s not in writing, it’s not real.

Don’t sign anything without consulting an agent or entertainment lawyer.

Hollywood is built on people’s dreams, half of them crushed.  All contracts I’ve seen are dictated by California law, and the lawmakers know how important the film industry is to the economy.  The standard option contracts are abusive to authors, reflecting the general disdain that Tinseltown has for writers.  There are terms of art that are unique to the business.  If you’re not careful, getting that option check might turn out to be the worst day of your professional life.

And you know what?  I’d do another deal in a heartbeat.


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.