About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

Take Cover!

By John Gilstrap

My research for the Jonathan Grave series exposes me to some pretty cool stuff.  Having never done the kind of work that Jonathan and his team do, the initial learning curve was pretty steep, and it will get steep again if I don’t stay current on tactics and technologies.  A few weeks ago, I took a terrific class called Active Threat Response through Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The focus of the class was on clearing rooms where bad guys are expected to be holed up.  It was a Simunitions class, meaning that everybody had real guns that fired wicked little paint pellets that sting like crap when they hit.  Instructors call that a “pain penalty” and I confess it adds real stress to simulated encounters.  I learned a great deal during that class, and I thought I would combine those lessons with some others I’ve picked up over the years into a blog post.

They’re staples of every police drama:

As cruisers skid to a halt to confront a bad guy, cops throw their doors open and take a knee behind the sheet metal, using the panel for cover as they aim their weapons through the window opening.  Maybe the officers in the car next to them will be aiming their weapons across the hood of their car.


The SWAT team makes its way down an apartment building’s cinder-block hallway to confront the barricaded bad guy. (All too often, the SWAT team is stacked up behind the plain-clothed detective who happens to be the star of the show–but that BS is for a different post).  To prevent exposing themselves to return fire, they’re pressed up against the same wall that houses the door to the target apartment.


The good-hearted hero goes muzzle-to-muzzle with the bad guy, shouting, “Put it down or I’ll shoot!”

Well . . . no.  We’ll take them in order.

A car door provides exactly zero reliable cover.  Barring the off chance that incoming fire will hit one of the steel mechanical components inside the door, a full metal jacketed bullet will pass through a car door with relatively little loss in energy.  And let’s not forget the exposed knees below the door and the exposed face and shoulders above the door.  Not a good source of cover.

The guy aiming over the hood is in better shape tactically because he’s got the more-or-less impenetrable engine block as cover, but the exposed shoulders and face continue to be a problem.  That problem is exacerbated by the risk of a poorly-aimed incoming round ricocheting off the surface of the hood and into his face.  The smart move when using the engine block as cover is to peek around the wheel well and headlights while exposing as little of yourself as possible.

Before getting to the scenario of the guys in the hallway, I need to clarify that when it comes to SWAT tactics, there are as many procedure books as there are teams.  Different teams clear buildings different ways, so the point here is to give you some things to think about.

All else being equal, an armed bad guy holed up in a room has a huge initial advantage over the team that’s coming in to get him. If the bad guy is willing to die as part of the transaction, his initial advantage is even greater.  If there’s only one accessible door, the bad guy knows exactly where his attackers are coming from, and that gives him a free first shot.

Let’s say the hero cop in your story needs to clear a room on the right-hand side of the hallway. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say the door is already open.  If he approaches along the right-hand wall, he has zero visibility into the room until he’s right on top of it.  Then, in order to do the job that needs to be done, he’s got to swing out and expose at least half of his body to whatever the villain has planned.  That’s bad.

Each dot in the picture is the same person, advancing with baby steps.

The smart move is to approach along the left-hand side of the hallway.  As your hero approaches the open door, he moves with tiny steps, his weapon up and ready to shoot.  As that plane of the doorway opens a little at a time, your good guy exposes only a tiny sliver of his body, a little at a time, and that exposed sliver is the one that holds a gun, ready to shoot first or shoot back.  Incoming fire would require extraordinary marksmanship on the part of the bad guy.  This tactic is call “slicing the pie,” and it’s more or less the same maneuver that would be used to turn a blind corner.

In general, it is always a bad idea to advance too closely to a solid wall surface like cinder block or concrete because of the risk of ricochet.  By definition, ricochets have expended much of their energy on initial impact, but the closer you are to the point of impact, the worse the damage will be.

As for the muzzle-to-muzzle trope, I throw that in as a way to introduce the concept that a “fair fight” is anathema to every police and military agency I’m aware of. From the law enforcement officer’s point of view, the threat of overwhelming violence saves lives, but sometimes the threat becomes reality.  No sane person who has the means to defend himself would try to out-talk a bullet.


Hollow Point Bullets & Other Stuff

By John Gilstrap

I have just returned from my annual sojourn to Las Vegas and the SHOT Show, so I thought I’d turn away from the craft of writing in this post, and back to some tactical topics. Throw in the bullet-bait Brother Bell inserted into his always-excellent post last Sunday, and I feel driven to talk about bullet stuff this week.

First, on the issue of being thrown back by bullet strikes, consider this: Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictates that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If the energy of a bullet strike is enough to throw the bad guy back five feet, then the shooter would fly back a similar distance. When it comes to handguns, the shooter feels more linear force in recoil than the target feels on impact. And remember, once a round leaves the muzzle, it is constantly slowing down. And falling.

Because bullets travel as fast as they do, on impact, they exert all of their damage over the course of a millisecond.  In through-and-through wounds, victims often don’t know for a few seconds that they’ve been shot.  Bullet dynamics being what they are, I have shot empty Styrofoam cups through-and-through with pretty hot rounds, and watched the cups never move.  When a bullet passes through tissue, the ballistic damage it causes actually manifests behind the moving projectile, not at its point.  (The link goes to a video where there’s no blood, so it’s safe for mealtime viewing.)

Brother Bell, I will take exception to your left-hand-shooter speed bump.  Most shooters I know make it a point to train with their weak hand, specifically planning for the event when their strong hand is immobilized.

Bullets are specifically designed to inflict ballistic damage to tissue as it passes through its intended target.  Handguns are intended for close range, and rifles are designed for longer ranges. (A SEAL buddy of mine maintains that the only good use for a pistol is to fight your way to your rifle.)  As a rule, additional range means additional ballistic energy, and a concomitant increase in ballistic damage on impact.

Here’s a video showing a 9 millimeter pistol bullet being fired into ballistic gelatin.  For those who can’t watch the footage, it shows a standard round-nosed bullet passing all the way through the gelatin block with little of its energy expended along the way.  Bottom line: it would suck to be the guy standing behind the guy who got shot, because you’d get shot, too.

This over-penetration issue is specifically why most (all?) police agencies have moved to hollow point ammo. The definition is simple and self-explanatory.  A hollow point bullet is one that has, well, a hollow point. It is different than “full metal jacket” (FMJ) ammo, which is also called ball ammo. It’s been around for a lot longer than I have, and it comes in pretty much any caliber you can think of.  Old farts who haven’t kept up with technology will tell you that hollow points cannot be fired from semi-automatic pistols, but they’re wrong. HP bullets used to be a problem because of issues with the feed ramps in old pistols, but that problem was solved a long time ago.

In the pictures, note the lines around the circumference of the the tip. When a hollow point bullet impacts a target, its “petals” bloom, causing the the projectile to tumble and lose most of its energy. The wound channel is significantly enlarged in the process. Within the gun industry, and among knowledgeable people, hollow points are also call “personal defense” rounds (as opposed to range ammunition) because they are the preferred choice in a gunfight–but probably not for the reasons you think.

This video shows a 9 millimeter HP round hitting ballistic gelatin.

There are a couple of take-aways from the video. First, HP bullets do leave a significantly larger permanent wound channel than that which is left by ball ammo. But second, and more importantly, the bullet stays inside its intended target.  Even if there were to be over-penetration, the vast majority of the energy would be dissipated before the bullet could hit a second, unintended target.  That said, if your characters are anticipating the need to shoot through car doors or windows, HP would not be their first choice.  Yes, HP bullets will penetrate both, but that loss of energy could be a factor.

Next time, we’ll talk about what every police drama gets wrong when it comes to storming the bad guy’s house.

All questions are welcome.

And since you’ve read this far, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.



Internal Monologue

By John Gilstrap

Today’s post responds to a request from a TKZ reader who asked about internal monologue. (I’ve heard this referred to as internal dialogue, as well, but outside the world of psychoses, I’m not sure such a thing is possible.)  This is my take on the way to present thoughts on the page.

Narrative voice.  For fiction to work at its finest, every word of every line of every paragraph should advance either story or character, preferably both. I discussed this previously in a post I called The Point of View Tapestry, and more recently, I addressed it in a video on my YouTube Channel in a piece I call, Point of View and Voice. When writing in the first person or close third person, every line of narration serves as a presentation of a character’s point of view. As an example, consider this paragraph from Scorpion Strike, the next Jonathan Grave thriller (July, 2018):

[Gail] was still trying to process what she had just seen.  She understood that she’d fallen in love with a crusader whose combat skills had been honed over nearly two decades of training and experience with the most elite Special Forces unit in the world. Yes, she’d seen him kill before.  Indeed, she’d killed right alongside him. But those incidents had all involved firearms and extraordinary marksmanship.  Killing with a knife seemed so personal, and Jonathan had wielded the blade with such expert precision that it took her breath away.

That entire passage is, in effect, internal monologue.  We are seeing the world through Gail’s eyes. And, because this scene comes from very early in the novel, we learn a little backstory, too.  In the previous scene, separated by a space break, we were in Jonathan’s point of view as he killed their attacker with a focused precision that clearly comes naturally to him.  That scene was essentially internal monologue, as well.  Done effectively, your narrative voice carries a lot of the water for internal monologue.

Quoted thought.  The accepted practice these days is to italicize quoted thought, and then tag it as if it were dialogue: Nice place, Jonathan thought. It’s a simple, effective convention that I believe can easily be overdone.  If the narrative voice handles the description of a place well, the reader–who is firmly rooted in a character’s point of view–will know simply by word choice whether or not the character is impressed or repelled.

I approach italicized quoted thought with the same trepidation with which I approach dialect. Misspellings and startling contractions stop the narrative and break the spell for the reader.  (I feel the same about expressions in foreign languages that are then translated for the reader. A much better approach is, “Please have a seat,” he said in Russian.  Why make me plow through unintelligible Cyrillic characters first?)  A little bit goes a long, long way.

The reader who asked me to address this topic presented to me in an email a passage for which his freelance editor took him to task.  He granted permission for me to share it here.  This is a paragraph from his work in progress:

Phil was right. I’ve been doing my best to keep evil out or to deny it. But what’s the alternative? Permanent depression? I’m pretty depressed right now . . . Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe Lara was with some guy and something happened and he panicked and had to ditch the body.

His editor told him–and I agree–that this passage comes off as “inauthentic” if only because we don’t actually think in words. We certainly don’t think in complex logical analyses. We think in bursts of reaction and instinct that can be an enormous challenge to present effectively on the page. The example above doesn’t work because it is too complex.  In this case, the fix is simple:

Phil was right, Paula thought.  She’d been doing her best to keep evil out or to deny it. But what’s the alternative? Permanent depression? She was pretty depressed right now . . . Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe Lara was with some guy and something happened and he panicked and had to ditch the body.

The same passage that feels clunky in italicized thought works (though it’s absent context) as straight narrative and communicates the same thoughts.

As a further example that’s a little closer to my wheelhouse, there are probably dozens of considerations in drawing and firing a pistol, and while all of them are present in the shooter’s head, it would be inauthentic to articulate them on the page.  Imagine . . .

I see that Harley’s hand is at an awkward angle. I bet he’s concealing a gun, so I’d better draw mine. Let me make sure that my shirttail doesn’t get in the way as I move my left hand to my abdomen to keep it out of the way while I move my right hand to the holster that is clipped to my belt at the four o’clock position . . . 
Or . . .
Jonathan didn’t like the angle of Harley’s arm. The son of a bitch has a gun.  Jonathan cleared his shirttail with his left hand as he moved his right to the holster on his hip . . .
Okay, that example is admittedly a bit over-the-top, but it illustrates the point. As I mentioned in the video referenced above, we tend to think of writing and the teaching thereof in terms of character and setting and dialogue and plot as if they were separate things, when in reality, they are all interdependent threads in the same garment.

Note to Copy Editor

By John Gilstrap

After spending a year creating a story line and populating it with characters that I hope are interesting, it’s time to send my novel off to my editor, who will let me know, in blisteringly easy-to-interpret terms, where my efforts succeeded and where they fell short.  I spend as much time as is necessary to repair, prop-up or redesign the story difficulties, at which time I send the manuscript back to the publisher. At that point, I will have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.

Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

And I need them. After 18 books, I’ve surrendered to the fact that I will never understand the true use of commas, that the proper use of the words “which” and “that” will be forever beyond my ken, and that I am unable to keep my characters from nodding or sighing too much.  I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.

But sometimes, copy editors change stuff that shouldn’t be changed, and for that reason, as the author, I must approve or disapprove every alteration they propose. At times, knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.

Okay, that was a one-off horrible copy editing experience (over 300 proposed changes of which I rejected over 200), and I have it on good authority that she and I will never cross paths again.

The whole agonizing process is made even more agonizing by technology. In the good old days, copy edits came back as a stack of papers with red marks on them. It was actually kind of fun to sit in the lounge chair with a lap desk and either “STET” or approve the changes with a different-color pencil. Now, the copy edits come back as a Word file with Track Changes turned on. I am not allowed merely to reject a change, because that would make my copy different than the publishing house’s copy, and that would screw up the system.  Thus, if I want to reject a change or re-insert a deleted portion, I need to drop my cursor into the appropriate spot and retype.  A simple STET is no longer allowed.

What used to take only a few days now takes a couple of weeks. It’s that long a slog.

So, to ease the process, I took a step several books ago to limit the misunderstandings that might develop between the copy editor and myself. I developed a Gilstrap Style Sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit.  I thought I’d share it with you.  (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)

NOTE TO COPY EDITOR: Stylebook notwithstanding, please note the following:

The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s).  This change does not affect any other names that end with S. (I’ve always believed that when people read silently, they’re really reading aloud without sound, and syntax counts.)

In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.)  (Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this is not the convention.)

Consider landmarks within Jonathan’s office to be proper nouns and capitalized as such (The Cave, the War Room, etc.)

Please consider all weapons nomenclature to be correct as written. (e.g., Jonathan carries a “Colt 1911 .45”, even though the official listing might show the pistol to be a Colt M1911A1, and even though there are newer versions of the platform available.  These are very deliberate choices.)

When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular.  (e.g., an HK 417 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)

References to federal agencies need no definite article.  (e.g., “He’s with DEA” is fine. He’s not with THE DEA.)

When Boxers or other team members refer to Jonathan as “Boss”, the word should be capitalized.

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

Northern Virginia and the Washington Metropolitan Area are both proper nouns and require capitalization.

Please assume all dialogue to be correct as written.  Feel free to correct spelling and typos, but do not strive to make dialogue grammatically correct.

In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct. (I’ve made an effort to reduce the profanity in my books, and to my eye, the one-word construction is less offensive. It could be that I’m just being strange.)

I intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.

As a rule, I dislike exclamation points, and use them sparingly. Please avoid inserting them.

Any thoughts out there about the editing process in general, or copy editing in particular? Any items you think should be added to or removed from the personal style sheet?

Happy New Year, by the way! (Notice the exclamation point.)



Judging a Book By Its Cover

By John Gilstrap

Whenever I finish a new book, my publisher is kind enough to ask me if I have any ideas for what the cover should look like.  It seems like a reasonable thing to expect, right?  After all, I spent a year writing the thing, so you’d think I have some inclination as to what I want the cover image to be.

Well, I never do.  I testify with neither pride nor shame that my mind simply does not work that way.  I think I’ve mentioned here before that after 11 books in the series, I really don’t know what Jonathan Grave looks like.  I know how he thinks, and I know what his skills are.  I know his strengths and his weaknesses, but, physically, beyond having intense blue eyes and a number of scars, I don’t see him in my head.  If I can’t see him, then I guess it should be of no surprise that I can’t cough up a cover image.  That said, I know a good cover when I see one, and this one for Scorpion Strike (July, 2018) is my favorite of all my books.

I think that the old adage that a book cannot be judged by its cover is at best disingenuous, and at worst a lie.  We all do it, and publishers understand that we do.  That’s why they have art departments. A book’s cover telegraphs more than just the story it tells.  It says a lot about the attitude of the book and its intended audience.  While my book covers are designed to project a Big Commercial Thriller, other covers, such as the one here for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, telegraph quite clearly that they are targeted for a more literary audience.

When my first thriller, Nathan’s Run, was released in hardcover in 1996, I was horrified by the cover.  I was a rookie in the business and afraid to express my opinion, but I thought the cover with its drab brown tones and its weird font expressed nothing about the story while conveying the wrong tone.  This was supposed to be a Big Commercial Thriller, but it projected . . . well, I don’t know.  At best, the message seemed muddled. While the book sold well–certainly for a first novel–it fell short of expectations, and I’ve always thought the cover was a contributor to that.

My British publisher, Michael Joseph, on the other hand, had a vision of the cover that fit way more closely to what I thought a cover should look like.  The bad guy’s sunglasses reflecting a fleeing boy was “too literal” in the view of my peeps at HarperCollins, so I kept my mouth shut, but I loved the UK cover. And the tag line, “At twelve, Nathan has seen just about everything … Now all he wants to see is thirteen,” was a stroke of brilliance.  Per capita, the book did much better in the UK than it did here in the U.S.  We all know that correlation is not causation, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the cooler cover played a role in the better sales.

Roughly eight years after the paper copies of Nathan’s Run went out of print, Kensington re-bought the publication rights and put it out  as an eBook, along with my second novel, At All Costs.  I’m not sure what I think about this latest cover.  It shows motion, and I can’t complain about the size of my name relative to the title, but, to my eye, this version of the cover is kind of a place holder. It doesn’t really convey anything about the story, but I think it projects that it’s a commercial thriller.  Maybe that’s all it needs.  Again, I don’t know about this stuff.

Ultimately, I think cover art achieves its primary goal if it convinces a reader to pick up the book and take a look at the first page.  After that, it’s all about the writing.

Or is it?

I suspect, in the utter absence of any empirical data, that covers are one of the big obstacles that keep a lot of genre fiction from reaching mainstream acceptance.  We all know the story of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.  In its original printed form–before the movie tie-in version–the cover is clearly literary in its focus, and Western in its setting.  In my busiest days of my fire service career, I wouldn’t have hesitated to carry this book with me and read it in the day room of the fire station. Replace the cover with a picture of a bare-chested man in chaps, though, and not only would I not have carried it, I never would have opened it. (Yes, I’m that shallow.)  I know professional women who are secretly fans of romance novels, but won’t read them on the subway because the bodice-ripping covers.

And, in all fairness, I’m sure there will be professional men and women both who will feel a little uncomfortable toting a cover that features rusted bullet holes.  But, man-oh-man, I do love it.

I’ve learned one fascinating fact about covers over the years–and titles, too, for that matter: They needn’t have much to do with the story the book tells. Friendly Fire, for example, features a picture of the White House on the cover. I think it’s a terrific cover, but it hides a secret: Neither the White House nor the presidency play a role in the story. Once again, I was told that I was thinking too literally. The Jonathan Grave novels are “corridors-of-power” thrillers, and that is the message being conveyed by the cover image. Certainly, no one is going to mistake it for literary fiction or a romance. If it’s an engaging enough cover, people will pick it up.  At that point, the cover will have done its job.

A critical component of any cover design is the title.  Here again, the sole purpose of the title, in combination with the cover design, is to get a potential reader to crack the spine and take a peek inside. Thus, the title needn’t connect directly to the content of the book. Rather, it should convey the feel of the story.  The most obvious example of this in my own career is Hostage Zero, the second in the Grave series. The phrase means nothing. There is no Hostage Zero in the book, but my team at Kensington liked the sound of it–and the look of it, too, when put on the page. In the ten years or so since that book dropped I haven’t heard from a single reader or critic who felt cheated by the asymmetry of title and story.

Now I throw it to you Zoners.  How important are covers to you in your decision to give a book a try?  Any favorites out there we should know about?

Oh, and before you go, please consider subscribing to my YouTube Channel, “A Writer’s View on Writing and Publishing.” I like to think there’s some interesting stuff there.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



First Page Critique: Indianner

By John Gilstrap

Let’s go right to the piece submitted by our brave writer, and I’ll see you on the other side.



Megan’s long nails played across the keyboard. Click. Click. Click. Acrylic on plastic keys. She paused, staring at the poster hanging above her computer. Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled the faces of the three Native Americans dressed in traditional regalia. Circled their faces until she wore a hole in the paper. Around her bedroom, posters of gothic metal bands fought for the remaining wall space. Their dark lyrics appealed to her. She smiled as she glanced around the room at the black-circled faces staring back at her from every corner. A few more words and she was done. Click.

She refocused on the poster with the Native Americans: two women and one man, appearing in a musical performance that night in Frankfurt, Germany, a short walk from Megan’s hometown of Bad Homburg. This was her second time seeing the Navajo singer/songwriter Doli Yazzie in concert. Last time was disappointing; this time Megan was better prepared. She had post-concert passes in her purse, won through a contest held by Doli via her Facebook Fan Page. Megan was fascinated with all things Native American. “Dances with Wolves” and books by German author, Karl Friedrich May, were  cult favorites of Germans and other Europeans who followed their own version of the pow wow trail. As popular as the Renaissance Faires in the United States, the teepee camps and Indian pow wows arranged by and for Non-Natives were scheduled throughout the year in Germany and other countries. Megan was an active participant.

Shawnee/Creek flute player, Ella Longhat, and Ella’s husband, Caddo/Shawnee Charlie Longhat, a noted Native film producer and pow wow dancer, were something of an afterthought for her. Took up too much space on the poster, she thought. She was only interested in Doli.

“Megan, come on. We’re waiting on you. Momma says hurry. We’re going to be late.” Her little sister banged on Megan’s locked bedroom door.

“Go away, brat. Leave me alone. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Megan stood up, repositioned her chair, and rearranged her desk, squaring off a stack of paper, realigning pen and pencil. She glanced back and forth from Doli’s poster to her full-length mirror as she dressed in black pants and black t-shirt, the same way Doli dressed for concerts. Megan imagined herself looking like Doli, but Megan was a large girl, nearer to woman than child, a recent high school graduate working at a local American fast-food franchise. She brushed her dyed black hair, muttering as she covered a lighter section with a green parrot feather, and applied blush and lipstick to her pale face. Glancing one more time at her reflection, the poster, and a final time at her reflection, she joined her mother and two younger sisters. They walked in silence to the concert hall.


It’s Gilstrap again.

What a ride, huh?  A gripping tale of . . .

Wait.  Nothing happened.  No, seriously.  Nothing.  Happened.  In 474 words, Megan made circles on posters, thought a lot about music that is entirely unfamiliar to me, and she got dressed.  The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to grab readers’ attention with exciting prose that is worthy of the single most valuable patch of real estate any book can have.

Whether writing a thriller, a mystery, a romance or a literary novel, something needs to happen that will engage the reader.  The first paragraph needs to make us hungry for the second paragraph.  Ditto the first page for the second page.  This piece disappoints at every level.

Now, let’s talk about the writing itself, which feels young to me, and is not without promise.  Here’s the first paragraph again, but annotated:

Megan’s long nails played across the keyboard. Click. Click. Click.  As written, the nails are acting independently.  I would prefer that Megan drives the action: Megan played her fingers across the keyboard, acrylic nails against plastic keys. The “click <period>” construction plays as very slow typing.  If that is the writer’s intent, then fine.  But I sense that it is not the intent.

She paused, staring at the poster hanging above her computer. Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled the faces of the three Native Americans dressed in traditional regalia.  There’s nothing wrong with this writing, but the -ing construction of the simultaneous action bothers me.  I would write this as separate sentences, restructured to have Megan drive the action: When she paused, she looked up at the poster she’d hung on the wall above her computer screen.  It showed three Native Americans in traditional regalia—two women and a man—who’d performed last night just a few miles down the road from Megan’s apartment in Bad Hamburg, a suburb of Frankfurt.  Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled their faces.  Then she circled them some more.  And more.  Until her marker wore a hole in the paper.  Until those faces looked like all the other faces on all the other posters on her walls.

I don’t mean to presume to rewrite your piece, but I just combined two paragraphs into a few sentences, and while there’s still no action, there’s a sense of weirdness that I think is kind of cool.

All of the esoterica about the music and what she likes and what she doesn’t needs to be deleted, or at the very least moved elsewhere in the story.  Too many names come flying at the reader too quickly, and it’s confusing.  They call that stuff backstory for a reason—because it belongs in the back of the piece.  Certainly not the first page.

Finally, avoid the urge to be coy with your reader.  Specifics bring us into the story.  Her little sister has a name, so use it.  If you mean McDonald’s, don’t say, “American fast-food franchise.”

What say you, TKZ?



Engineering A Brand

By John Gilstrap

This past Sunday, I returned from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I spent the weekend at the always-wonderful Magna Cum Murder conference.  As often happens at such events, the panels I participated in got me thinking more introspectively about my writing than I ordinarily do.  In one such panel, I heard myself refer to a book as “an engineered product,” and I realized that I’d landed on the topic of this week’s TKZ post.

When we buy anything from a car to a cheeseburger, we expect it to meet certain engineering specifications.  We expect less luxury from a low-end Kia than we do from a top-of-the-line Mercedes, but irrespective of price and name recognition, we expect our chosen vehicle to get us from here to there without burning up, and in the event of a wreck, we expect the seat belts to work.  The perfectly-cooked fast food burger is of no lesser quality than the perfectly-cooked Porterhouse at a 5-star restaurant, but the expectation is different.

When people buy a John Gilstrap book (yes, it’s a little creepy to refer to myself in the third person), I presume they expect a different kind of ride than what they’ll get from, say, a Danielle Steele book.  Our stories are engineered differently, from the ground up, with the result that a Venn diagram of our respective fans would likely reveal a tiny shared area.  Different readers have different tastes, and my job as a professional storyteller is to deliver what my readers have come to expect.

No, that’s too passive.  My job as a writer is to deliver what I have promised fans for over two decades, attracting new readers who could just as easily have chosen a different book and different author.  Those who sample my work and like it are willing to try me again and again, so long as I hold up my end of the bargain.  I offer a tacit promise that there will be violence without gore-porn, there may be romance, but there will be no graphic sex.  My good guys will always be principled, and when the ride is over, justice will reign over my little corner of the fiction universe.  That’s the deal.  That’s my dining menu.

If I let my fan base down even once, I risk losing them forever.  Some will give me a bye if I fall short, but others won’t.  I worked my butt off for every set of eyes, and to risk losing even one is unacceptable.

Of course, the flip side of this is the risk of my stories becoming too predictable—too formulaic—which has its own negative consequences.  So, while providing a trustworthy reading experience, it’s incumbent on me to mix it up a little.  In Scorpion Strike (July, 2018), Jonathan Grave’s team endures their first fatality.  It was a hard scene to write, and it’s a scary thing to do.  Fingers crossed that I won’t drive readers away.

A lot of cyber ink gets spilled in the blogosphere talking about platform building, social media marketing and the like.  It occurred to me this weekend that platform-building and trust are closely related.  As authors’ careers grow, I think it’s important for them to think two or three books ahead—not regarding plots, but in terms of what kind of product they want to addict their readers to.  I believe marketers would call this thinking about their brand.

The harsh truth is that writing and getting read are two entirely different, though related transactions.  Without doubt, every writer is free to write whatever he wants, and publish (or not) by whatever means he desires.  But if said writer wants to maximize his ability to build a readership, he needs to teach his readers what to expect, and then dependably deliver on the promises he makes.

I know too many talented writers who finally achieve the dream of publication only to sabotage their own careers through literary ADD.  One very talented self-published friend of mine cannot constrain his creative impulses.  In quick succession, he’s pushed out a cozy, a thriller, a PI novel and a couple of horror books.  I get the need to flex the creative muscle, but there’s a reason why we don’t see Pepsodent pistols or Smith & Wesson toothpaste.  Branding matters.

What say you, Killzoners?


Deadline Hell

By John Gilstrap

I’ve never understood very much about my own creative process (God, I hate that phrase), and because of that, I try not to think about it very much.  Where do ideas come from?  I have no idea.  They just arrive, and always just in time.  I talk to writers whose minds are filled with stories demanding to be told, and I admire them.  My ideas stumble into my head one, maybe two at a time, and they just sit at the bar and stare.  “Go ahead, Writer-man,” they say.  “Do your job and make us pretty.”

One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book.  I plan my entire year around that deadline.  A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15.  That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that.  But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline.  (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)

On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere.  This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12.  That shortened my deadline by three whole days!  That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two.  It was either submit two days early or four weeks late.  In my world, we call that “motivation.”

Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works.  If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1.  Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable.  Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write.  I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.

This year, reality bitch-slapped me.  ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana.  When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.

And September 12 still sat there, immovable.

I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event.  Math was beginning to work against me.  I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions.  Sounds horrible, but doable.

Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone.  And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend.  The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals.  Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.

Tick and Tock were both laughing at me.  In fact, they were mocking me.

Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words.  Perish the thought.  The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.

Never in my life have I written so much in so little time.  That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days).  If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me.  The last two writing days were each 6K-plus.  It was exhausting.

As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary.  And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for.  Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.”  Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation.  No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.

When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing.  For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter.  No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one.  Just spelling and continuity.

So . . . what the f-bomb?  How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe?  I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.

Here’s what’s off the table: I’m not going to try to recreate the magic of 6,000-word writing sessions.  I like being able to feel my legs and stand up straight.  I like a focal length longer than twenty-four inches. And that much coffee can’t possibly be good for me.

Next deadline: First two chapters of the next Grave book by November 1.  Piece of cake.


First Page Critique: Skyler

By John Gilstrap

By now, we all know the drill.  A fearless writer has submitted a sample to the piranha tank.  First, the submission, and I’ll see you on the flip.

Title: Skyler

THEY SAID LOVE IS selfless. They said love is sacrifice. They said all that rubbish because they hadn’t been in love. They didn’t know that when he didn’t love you back, it felt like God created you and tossed you into an inferno—to burn and cease to exist the very moment you were born. Because you cared about him and along the way, he forgot to care about you in return. Maybe you were supposed to love him unconditionally without expecting anything of him. But in reality, it wasn’t the sappy, unrealistic feelings of seeing him smile that stuck with you. It was the doubt that maybe you weren’t enough—that maybe he didn’t think you were worth the love.

I looked at the closed window that overlooked the colorful leaves hanging from the tree outside. The leaves swayed so slowly, calmly. A stray leaf landed right on the puddle of rain on the ground. It floated, not giving into the power of the water yet. The leaf stared at me, its stem buried within the puddle. I watched for what felt like an eternity. Desperately, I hoped another leaf would tumble to keep the current one company. The wind would take this leaf to a faraway place soon, and how sad it would be for it to vanish from the Earth alone. After all, everyone needed a friend sometime.

Even a leaf.

I knew I sounded morbid, but I was confined here. The rules were clear: we weren’t allowed to open the windows. The facilitator, Teresa Castilla, said if I wanted to go outside, all I had to do was ask a rehab official. With a trusted authority, I could go anywhere. But the window rule was intact under all circumstances. Immediately, I’d thought this was a prison in disguise but the pretty receptionist with platinum blonde hair assured me people here weren’t terrible once I’d get to know them.

I’d arrived here at five in the evening two days earlier. The first thing I’d noticed was the medieval, timbered structure of the building. From the outside, the residence had seemed quite simplistic and bland, though I’d have to admit the timbered style carried an ornate energy. It was a two-story building and it was smack in the middle of a secluded neighborhood. There were several stores and other services two streets away, in case of emergencies.

Yo.  It’s Gilstrap again.  First off, I need to offer a bit of full-disclosure.  This is not a genre I read, nor is it one whose rules and expectations I’m familiar with.  From the first paragraph on, the tone is entirely too whiny for my taste.  That is not a criticism of the writer or the writing–it is merely a confession that I may not be the best judge for a book of this genre.

With that bit out of the way, I find a lot to like in the craftsmanship of this piece.  The voice is strong and the angst is clear.  In a different setting–if I were not expected to offer critique–I would have nothing to say.  I think the entire piece is of professional quality.

But let’s quibble anyway.  The leaf thing goes on way, way too long. The paragraph resonates to me like one of those darlings we’re required to kill.  It feels very . . . literary.  And by that I mean that while it takes up valuable first-page real estate, it does not advance the story.

The phrase, “I knew I sounded morbid” was a bit of a moment-breaker.  To “sound”, something must be heard, and I have the sense that this is all internal monologue.  Perhaps, “I knew these thoughts were morbid . . .” would work better.  I’m also not 100% sure that “morbid” is the word you want.  Morose, maybe?

Finally, I’m not sure what a “secluded neighborhood” is.  Secluded from what, especially given that there are stores and such nearby?

And that’s about all I’ve got.  Overall, this is one of the most satisfying, well-done submissions that I’ve had the pleasure of critiquing.  Well done.


First Page Critique: Angry Vines

By John Gilstrap

A brave anonymous author offers up a page for feedback.  First, the page, then the feedback (Italics are all mine):

Title: Angry Vines

A man, dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything, traveled slowly through the woods. He had been paid to deliver a package, and was traveling by the light of an oil burning lantern. Even though it was early enough now that the first hint of the sun was starting to peak over the ground and bleed into the sky, he’d been told that the cottage was well disguised, and didn’t want to risk missing it.

He was searching for any hint of a building of some sort. A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. 

When the man regained his composure he shook the bird off, swatting at it as it flew to a nearby branch. “What did I say about doing that without warning me?” He said with the same tone someone might use to talk to a very young child that just broke a well established rule.

The crow cocked its head and blinked its beady black eyes. The man assumed this was the only response he was going to get and walked past it, holding his lantern up to continue his search. He didn’t stop when the crow finally spoke, hopping from branch to branch behind him.

“I didn’t see a thing up there. Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?” 

“I know how to read a map.” He replied indignantly. The man had it tucked under his arm, with the package.

“Don’t take everything I say so personally.” The crow flew back to the man’s shoulder, apparently too tired to keep hopping after him. “Maybe there isn’t even a cottage to begin with. I don’t think the kind of person that would hire a strange man to deliver something would have any problem sending him on a wild goose chase through the woods.” 

    The man shook his head. “I’m delivering this for a witch, and a powerful one at that. If someone like that wanted to mess with me, she would have done it by shrinking my head or turning my skin green. Not pay me to not deliver a package.” 

“Oh.” The crow said. “I didn’t know she already payed you.” And after a moment added “I think you’d look better with a smaller head.”

Hi,  It’s Gilstrap again.  And now for my thoughts:

First of all, I love the crow.  I love the wry sense of humor, and the last line of this sample is perfect.  I do hope it’s the end of the scene because that would be a very strong close.

Structurally and stylistically, I think this is a troubled piece, and the trouble starts with the first two words: A man.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to keep this character’s identity a secret, it’s very hard for a reader to bond with a pronoun.  If at all possible, give him a name.  For my purposes here, we’ll call him Tony.

Whose POV is this?  Who perceives him to be dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything?  This would work so much better if we were in [Tony’s] POV, and rather than seeing what he looks like, we could feel his exhaustion.

“Traveled slowly” is a great example of why -ly adverbs are loathed by so many.  Trudged, crawled, staggered, wandered and countless other stronger verbs would make a stronger sentence.  Consider: “. . . trudged through the woods, his way lit only by the dim light of an oil lantern.  Overhead, a crow flew lazy figure eights, no doubt mocking Tony for his dwindling strength.”  See below for why I added the crow here.

I don’t think we need to know in para 1 that he’s been paid to deliver a package.  Let us know that he’s searching, and let us wonder why.

[A]ny hint of a building of some sort is redundant.

A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. The sudden introduction of the crow is jarring.  Stay in Tony’s POV.  Consider:

The flutter of approaching wings startled him and he jumped as the crow that had been mocking him landed on his shoulder.  When the bird cawed, Tony heard laughter.  He swatted it away and it flew to a nearby branch.  “What did I tell you about startling me?”

The crow hopped to a new branch, and then another one.  “Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?”

“I know how to read a map,” Tony replied.

“And I know how to fly,” the crow said.  “I didn’t see a thing up there.  And I’ve had enough of this hopping business.”

Tony made no effort to prevent him from returning to his shoulder.

“Maybe your witch friend sent you on a wild goose chase,” the crow said.  “Maybe there is no cottage.”

“It’s here,” Tony said.  “If she were trying to mess with my head, she could have just shrunk it.  Or turned my skin green.”

They trudged in silence for a few steps.  “I think you’d look better with a smaller head,” the crow said.

Okay, that was presumptuous of me.  I took the liberty of essentially rewriting your piece, but I did it for a reason.  By sticking to the moment and eliminating backstory, the narrative becomes more compelling.  Let us come to like the characters and experience things through their eyes as the events unfold.

Much of what you expose in dialogue, such as “I’m delivering this for a witch and a powerful one at that . . .” is information that the characters would already know, and therefore would not reasonably be spoken at this time.

That’s my take on the piece.  What say you, TKZers?  Fair warning: When this blog entry is posted, I will likely not have a reliable Internet connection, so I will probably not be able to interact with other posters.