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.

Tell the Damn Story

By John Gilstrap

Building on PJ Parrish’s post from yesterday, it occurs to me that the casual discussion of writing poses many false dichotomies.  Is your work character-driven or plot driven?  Is it about action or about vivid storytelling?  If your story meets its potential, the answer to all of the above is simply, “Yes.”

I also hear a lot about rules that don’t really exist.  We all know that prologues are a mistake–unless they work.  We know that we should never start with the weather or with backstory.  Bull.  Anything that works for the story will work for the reader.  Countless works of successful fiction break the rules, thus proving that the rules were never truly rules in the first place.  Take a hard look at the latter Harry Potter books.  While I am an unapologetic devotee of Harry and his exploits, there is no objective evaluation of the prose itself that could rate it any higher than average-plus.  JK Rowling never found an adverb that she didn’t like, and she’s quite the fan of passive sentence construction.  A TKZ First Page Critique would not make her happy.

Yet her books work–really, really work.  Why?  Because the story and the characters are so compelling that we’re willing to overlook some of the basic mechanics.

When I teach writing seminars–as I will next month at the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University, and again on August 5 at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC–I reveal two basic truths that I hold dear: 1) that no one can teach a person to write; and 2) that successful writers get out of their heads and out of their own way and just tell the damn story.

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none.  Some people are not wired for storytelling.  I say this from the point of view of a writer who is entirely self-taught and was driven by my unblinking desire to make my writing better by reading the works of others and dissecting them.  And I whole-heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all.

Some of the most creatively constipated writers I’ve ever spoken with have spent gobs of money over the years attending writing classes, yet paradoxically have few stories–and often no books–to show for it.  I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they believe in the rules and the dichotomies.  They value perfect sentence construction over compelling characters.  In short, they spend too much time stressing over getting it right when maybe they’d have been better off if they’d just gotten it written.

In my own case, my “first” book–the first to be published–was in fact the fourth book I’d written.  Those other three were my own private master class in fiction.  But the single biggest difference between Nathan’s Run and its unpublished predecessors is that that was my first effort to forget about WRITING A BOOK (read that with a rolled R) and instead tell the story the way I would tell it orally, using the same turns of phrase and the same rather cynical squint that pretty much defines my worldview.  As I wrote each scene, and I found that I liked them, I began to realize that I’d discovered that elusive “voice” that people always talk about.

At that point–before agents or sales–there was no way for me to know if the book was any good, but I knew that it was exactly the book I wanted it to be, exactly the book I’d set out to write.  And because I have always been a voracious reader, I had enough confidence (hubris?) to believe that it was as good or better than any book I’d read that year.

A good part of this writing biz is about attitude, I think.  It’s about believing from your own experience that the book you’ve written is exactly the book you want it to be.  If you know its close and you know what’s wrong–or at least you think you do–then by all means workshop the manuscript and attend classes and seek guidance.  Similarly, if you want to be introduced to the basics of the craft–the literary equivalent of learning how miter joints in carpentry–then classes and workshops are a terrific resource.

But never lose sight of the fact that if you truly believe that a scene or a chapter or a whole story is exactly what you want it to be, yet others in your group disagree, only one name goes on the spine.  Only in workshops do people sit down to read with an eye toward nit-picking and changing things.  In the real world, when people sit down to read, they have every expectation of a good story well told.

Don’t let them down.



Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

By John Gilstrap

Let’s get back to talking about how to kill people.  It is, after all, what our characters do, right?  This week, the topic is knife fighting.

That’s a pig carcass wrapped in a leather jacket (the one on the right).

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to train on guns and knives with Steve Tarani, whose martial arts skills are the stuff of legend.   My most recent training was about a year ago at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, where I spent a week training with carbines, pistols and . . . wait for it . . . knives.  While I’ve done a lot of shooting in the past, this was my first exposure to knife fighting, and it was, frankly, terrifying.  As you might imagine, on the pistol and carbine courses, there’s no shooting at each other, but when it came to the knife sessions, there was sparring among the students, albeit with practice knives.  In part because Tarani and I are friends–and in part because my nickname was “Writer Boy”–I was frequently called out to be the victim during demonstrations.  The most embarrassing of those episodes was when Tarani disarmed me and “killed” me with my own knife before I even knew he’d moved.

The 21-Foot Rule

Same pig carcass but with an overhand thrust.

A long time ago someone did research to show that within 7 yards, and attacker with a knife can close the distance and kill a skilled shooter before the shooter can clear his gun from his holster.  Our class proved that to be a bogus number.  The real number is closer to 30 feet, and once the attacker with knife skills is within arm’s length, the shooter doesn’t have a chance.

Fair Warning: It gets a bit gruesome from here.  While there are no upsetting pictures, there are some toe-curling concepts.  Read on at your own risk.

Once you’re close enough to touch your gun-wielding opponent, slash the tendons of his wrist and the guy can no longer hold his weapon.  We were taught to next slash his eyes to blind him.  From there, it’s a matter of evaluating the threat.  If he’s done, then so are you, but if he’s still got fight in him, you go for the kill.

The (Other) Kill Zones

A knife fight is an exercise in exsanguination.  The last one to bleed out is the “winner”. Thus, knife fighting is geared toward severing major blood vessels.  Arteries produce a more crippling blood flow than veins, but they arteries lay buried significantly deeper in the body than veins.  To get to an artery, then, you’ve really got to want it.  To sever the carotids, for example, we were taught to start the strike with the fist of your knife hand in direct contact with the victim’s neck and push through.  Same thing with the femoral arteries, which made for some awkward posturing while sparring.

Best access to the subclavian arteries is via the arm pits.  Like the carotids, they branch directly off the aorta, but I found the armpit thrusts difficult to execute.  There’s also a belly thrust that will take you through the navel to the abdominal aorta, but it involved the assistance of a knee strike to get the blade deep enough, so we didn’t practice it.

Defensive Moves

While all of the above applies to defense against a lethal attack, we were taught potentially less lethal moves to be employed if we’re more interested in discouraging an attack than engaging in one.

The Windmill. Say you’re at the bus stop with your kid or your mom or with your significant other, and that skeezy guy who’s been eyeballing you approaches in an unsettling way.  You tell him forcefully to stay away, yet he keeps coming.  You want to break off the encounter, and you certainly don’t want to fight the guy.  This is where the move I call “the windmill” comes in (if Tarani gave it a real name, I don’t remember what it was).  You draw and open your locking blade folding knife–if you don’t carry one, I think you should–and hold it in a thumb-support or fencer’s grip (the blade on the thumb end of your fist, not the pinky end) and as you back away, you make slashing motions in the air.  Big figure X’s at face-to-shoulder level.  You tell him over and over to stay away.  No sane person would walk into that razor-sharp windmill.

Which brings us to The Filet.  So, Mr. Skeeze keeps coming and he gets a hand around your free arm or he gets a fistful of your clothing.  You bring the edge of your blade down perpendicular to his arm bone and dig deep.  Then, in one fast, continuous motion, you pivot your blade to be flat against the bone and you slice from wrist to elbow, separating the flesh and muscle tissue of his arm completely off the bone.  I’m told it’s not a fatal wound, but goodness gracious it would be an ugly one.

Zero Resistance

On the final day of classes, Steve Tarani brought in a bunch of pig carcasses and dressed them up in clothes from all seasons.  Pigs in T-shirts, pigs in leather jackets, that sort of thing.  The point was to employ the lessons of sparring with real blades on actual flesh and bone.

While I always carry a sharp knife, I’m not obsessive about the edge.  I certainly couldn’t shave with the blade.  So I was surprised–shocked, actually–by the ease with which I could slash through the heaviest clothing all the way through the carcass’s thoracic cavity.  On one of my slashes, in fact, I thought I had whiffed it, only to find out that I’d gone through to the bone.

Now I Need Input

I’m told sometimes that my filter for that-which-is-disgusting is out of sync with those of normal people.  If posts like this are a step too far into the violent side of reality, I can tone them back. All input is welcome.

And I have mentioned that I have a YouTube channel called A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.  Feel free to visit and subscribe!




Endings Really Matter

By John Gilstrap

I just finished a book that was sent to me in search of a blurb.  It was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve read in a long time, and because the publisher was on tight time constraints, I gave the book a rave blurb when I was only about three-quarters of the way through.  I mean, this was a pulse-pounder.

Until the last 30 pages.

“Before you kill me, you’ve got to tell me why you did it, and how all of your compatriots fit into the puzzle.”  Okay, it wasn’t that on-the-nose, but it was close.  Such a disappointment.  I don’t regret the blurb, and I would read the author again because of the exciting 9/10 of the storytelling, but I really felt let down.  And no, I won’t share the book title or the author because I don’t think that would be fair.

Folks, this show-don’t-tell trope holds from the beginning of a story all the way through to the last page.  I think that writers sometimes get tired of their own stories, or they’re leaning face-first into the fan blades of a submission deadline and they sort of eject from the plot and characters, settling for, “Well, it’s good enough.”

And you know what? I get that.  I’ll readily forgive that of an author I’ve followed and whose works I enjoy, provided it’s a one-off.  I’ll write it off as their Mulligan book, their bye.  But at that point, they’re on notice.  The next book better be up to standard, or they lose their spot on the TBR pile.

This is why the bar is set especially high for new writers.  Rookies don’t get a Mulligan on their first swing.  They’ve got to slam that baby three hundred yards straight down the fairway.


Um . . . oops

By John Gilstrap

I, um, forgot.  See, I’m late on a deadline for an anthology submission, and I’ve got two interviews to write up in support of next month’s release of Final Target, and I retreated down the rabbit hole that is The World of John, where there is no light, no sound.

I even checked TKZ this morning, and finding yesterday’s post still up, I wondered if someone had dropped the ball.  Didn’t occur to me that I was the fumbler until I got an email from a TKZ colleague asking if this was, in fact, my day to post.  See, the thing is, in a shared blog like this, I guess we’re all on the feather edge of, “Oh, shit, did I forget?” so when something goes wrong, we instinctively worry that we’re at fault. With the occasional exception, it seems, of the person who actually is at fault.

So, this one’s all on me.  Sorry, folks.  Now, back down the rabbit hole . . .


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The Secret to Effective Research Is . . .

By John Gilstrap

Last Friday, I spent the better part of seven hours hanging out with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team at their headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.  In addition to getting a tour of the facilities, I got a peek into their tactics, and, most importantly, into the new technology that has evolved for breaching all kinds of doors, from residential to ship-board to prisons.  Given the focus of my Jonathan Grave series, it’s hard to conceive of a day better spent.

Which brings me to the question, how did I stumble into this opportunity?  Which, in turn, triggers the question, how does a writer access research information that will make his books believable?

Okay, here it is, the secret to worthwhile research: Listen and ask questions.

Here’s how the HRT gig originated.  I was on a flight coming home from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, and the guy in the seat next to me was reading a book by a friend of mine.  I asked him to hold up the book and smile so I could take a picture of him with the book and send it to my friend.  The guys seemed a little put off by my request, but when I explained the circumstance, he agreed to pose, and then shared with me that he was friends with the author’s brother.

Let’s call the guy with the book Mike.

It didn’t take long for the conversation with Mike to morph into my own line of work as a writer, and yada, yada, a connection was made.  Mike has a certain tactical look about him.  Forty years old, give or take five years, he’s got the physique of an operator and sports a battle beard.  I presumed that he, too, was returning from the SHOT Show, but he told me that he was not.  He was in Vegas for other business, but had dropped into the show for an hour or two.  I’m hearing code at this point: He’s spooky, but doesn’t want to talk about it.  Okay, that’s cool.

More conversation revealed that he lives fairly near me, and that he works at Quantico.  There are only two “industries” in Quantico, Virginia.  One is the United States Marine Corps and the other is the FBI.  When I asked Mike when the Marine Corps started allowing beards, he smiled.


We talked about books and about the writing process, and when I told him what I wrote, he lit up.  He is a fan of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction book about the rescue of Kurt Muse.  More conversation.  It wasn’t till we traded contact information at the end of the flight that I found out that Mike was with HRT.  Our parting conversation was about coming down to Quantico for a tour, and now, several months later, that’s what we did.

Two weeks previous to my exploits with HRT, I was in Austin, Texas with a former SEAL friend–also met at the SHOT Show, but several years ago–who taught me the ins and outs of modern night vision technology.  On that flight home, I sat next to a guy whose specialty was defending against explosive and chemical weapons threats posed by standard commercial aerial drones.  I hadn’t given that a lot of thought, but wow.  I learned about jamming technologies, about what was legal in the continental US and what was not.  In that case, once he learned that I was a writer, he clammed up.  But that was okay.  I had germs of thought that intrigued me.

One of the most common questions I receive from fans and readers deals with how I learn what I know.  These two anecdotes are merely examples of dozens of others over the years.  People love to talk about what they do and how they do it.  Since I’m not a reporter with a notebook, most speak freely because I have assured them that I wish only enough information on a topic to not embarrass myself in front of knowledgeable readers.  I am genuinely interested in what they tell me, and that interest tends to trigger more detail.

If you want to know how doctors talk and behave in clinical settings, volunteer to work at your local hospital and get to know people.  Talk to them.  Ditto cops, firefighters, or any number of other professionals whose careers are interesting (yet nowhere near as interesting in real life as we imagine them to be).  Go where they are and hang out.  Listen.  When an opportunity arises, ask an honest question from an honest place.  Don’t take notes.  Chat them up.

I think you’ll be pleased with the response.


First Page Critique: NUTTER BODINE

Bu John Gilstrap

Another brave soul has stepped up to the plate and volunteered for a First Page Critique.  The Italics are all mine, just to separate the author’s text from my comments, which appear on the far side.  Here we go . . .


’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free

     Eighteenth century Shaker song


“I think I killed someone.”

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

Out at his desk, Gus Temple, made the “crazy” sign with his finger, careful to make sure the big man didn’t see him. Will Ed frowned at him, but the skinny dispatcher just grinned.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

Will Edd took a sip from his warm Dr. Pepper, sighed and said, “Come on in, Arvil.”

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

First the good:

There’s a lot here to like.  The first line is everything a first line should be. It’s short, to the point and engaging.  I get a real sense of place, a sense of atmosphere.  The writing is journeyman like (that’s a compliment), though it needs tightening (see below).  It’s a compelling setup.  If the point of a first page is to drive the reader to turn to the second page, then this is a success.  Except . . .

Now let’s talk about strengthening the already-strong writing:

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

  1. Is his middle name Edd or Ed? You present it both ways.
  2. Pruitt just heard some startling news, yet he’s more concerned about the heat and the fan.  I’m not sure I buy it, but I’m thinking like a critiquer (critic?), not a reader. If this were from an author I liked, it would not be a deal breaker because I would assume that the author wanted me to think Pruitt is something of a prick.  If that’s not your point, consider changing it.
  3. “Scorching hot” is superfluously redundant. Pick one, drop the other.
  4. “He’d positioned…” Who’s “he”?

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

  1. The adverb in the first sentence weakens it, and the second part of the sentence weakens it further.  Consider: “He cursed Jim Beam for last night. The caffeine and four aspirins hadn’t kicked in yet.” Maybe it’s just my style, but I think breaking the one sentence into two strengthens them both.
  2. I think you need to give the giant man a name in this paragraph.  Consider: “. . .  in the doorway. Arvil LeRoy Bodeen.  He was . . .”  Note I deleted “to his office” because we already know that.
  3. Sentence construction that begins, “He was . . .” is inherently weak.  Consider, “Shirtless, he’d stuffed his sockless feet into laceless brogans.  Faded, grime-stained bib overalls barely contained the man’s girth, making Will Edd wonder if the man had dressed himself in someone else’s clothes.”  By eliminating the passive voice, the images become more vivid and the prose snaps a little more.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

  1. By introducing Arvil’s name earlier, you eliminate the need for more passive construction.  Consider: “Arvil wasn’t crazy, just slow . . .”
  2. This whole sentence, from Pruitt’s POV, presumes knowledge of backstory that doesn’t jibe with future paragraphs. Knowing about the unwanted pregnancy and the meth is pretty personal stuff.
  3. I would end the final sentence of this graph at “room”.  The simile about the frightened kid seems over-worked. (That is a simile, right?)

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

  1. More passive construction. Not bad, per se, but not strong to my ear. Consider: “A toxic bouquet of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits made Will Edd’s eyes water.  He scooted . . .”

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

  1. This is the part that confuses me.  Does the chief know him or not? That equation needs to be equalized somehow.
  2. Also, is it necessary to use all three of Arvil’s names at every mention? It feels awkward to me.

Fearless Writer, congratulations on a fine start.  These edits are of a polishing nature.  You done good.

What say you, TKZers?



The Great Culling of 2017

By John Gilstrap

I came to an interesting realization this week: I’m afraid of my own Facebook Timeline.

Over the years, I’ve accepted friend requests pretty much as a matter of course, and now the majority of my “friends” are in fact strangers, among whom most are fans, or aspiring writers or friends of others who are.  It’s a little like walking out of your bedroom and finding the hallway populated by people you don’t recognize.

I’ve inadvertently allowed my Facebook Timeline to become a marketing platform for my books.  Consequently, I need to be circumspect about everything I post there, for fear of affecting my brand.  I don’t post adorable pictures of grand-nieces and nephews because it’s wrong to invite strangers into the lives of other family members.  It’s crazy.

I have an Author Page on Facebook for fans and potential fans, and it is designed to be a marketing and writer-education platform.  That’s where I post relevant items about my books and other projects, and a controlled stream of personal information about myself and my family–just not everything about us.  I try to display the me-I-am, but with some of the sharp edges dulled.

So, I have begun the Great Culling of 2017. My plan is to work my way through my Friends List and un-friend anyone whose hand I have not shaken, or with whom I have not had a personal conversation.  There will be some exceptions, of course, because I have become quite close with a number of online correspondents whom I’ve never met, and I welcome those people into my life.  Before un-friending them, though, I will send a message explaining why, and I’ll provide them a link to my author page.  I’ve already heard from a few “friends” who are pissed at being eased out of my house and into the yard, but most seem to understand.

What do you all think?  Is this a rude thing to do?  Is there a gentle way to tell loyal fans that as much as I love them, I don’t necessarily want them hanging out with the family and me?


Public Speaking Tips

By John Gilstrap

Before I get to the real business of this post, allow me a moment to update you on the aftermath of a previous post.  Back on February 1, I posted an entry here recapping advice I’d received to work more with my Facebook page to post videos and other media that would potentially draw more eyes to my page.  Taking y’all’s advice to heart, I have now established my own YouTube Channel, on which I have posted and will continue to post short videos that offer an insider’s look into the publishing business.  So far, I’ve talked about the various steps in the editing process, advance reader’s copies and the role of a literary agent.  My intent is to post one video per week, with a maximum length of 4-5 minutes.  If you’re inclined to subscribe and tell your friends, I’d be most grateful.

Thus endeth the sales pitch. (Endith?)

Public speaking is a major part of a successful writer’s life.  Whether sitting on panels or asking questions from the audience, conducting a seminar or delivering a keynote speech, it’s helpful to master the techniques of delivering interesting information in an entertaining way.  I know a number of people who have made major improvements in their speech construction and delivery techniques through Toastmasters International. At the very least, Toastmasters helps those who are fearful of public speaking to wrangle their fears.

While there are countless moving parts in constructing and delivering any kind of speech, there are some inherently destructive practices and habits that can distract from or totally destroy an otherwise viable presentation, and yet are relatively easy to prevent.

Let’s talk about microphones.

Yes, you need one.  I don’t understand the common refusal to use a mic when one is available and offered.  It seems to be a point of pride among some to declare, “people can hear me without a microphone.”  Even when that’s true, a microphone makes you more easily heard.  Remember, you’re competing with the air handler, the whispers and cellophane crinkles of everyone in the room.  Then, there are the physics of it all.  If the room is carpeted and the ceilings are high, the sound pressure just gets lost or absorbed.  If the floors are wooden and the walls concrete, the echo muddles your words.  That’s why they offered you the mic in the first place.

Lavaliere, stand or handheld?  If I am the primary speaker, I vastly prefer a lavaliere mic over the other options, simply because I like to move around while I speak. My second choice is a handheld, for the same reason.  If the other options are not available, I’ll make due with a stand or lectern microphone.  But even with a microphone, there are significant limitations.

  1. Positioning. With a lav, I find the best position to clip the microphone is between the 3rd and 4th buttons of my shirt. That’s where they’re designed to be placed, so you don’t have to look down and speak into it.  Just project out to the audience as you would if you had no amplification.
    1. Neatness counts.  Okay, this is my personal bugaboo, but I hate the look of the microphone cord trailing from the mic to the battery pack.  Tuck that bad boy away so you don’t distract your audience.  Here’s a good short video that shows how to do that.
    2. If you’re doing an interview from a stage in front of a live audience and you have lapels to work with, be sure to mount the lav on the lapel that is closest to the other person.
    3. Remember that jewelry, name tags or any other objects that might hit against the microphone need to be secured.
    4. Important safety tip: If you’re miked up with a lav radio mike, be sure it’s turned off until you want it to be turned on. It’s always worth a second check before you go to the bathroom.
  2. With a handheld mic, remember that you have lost one half of your gesticulating ability.  If you’re pointing with it, it can’t do its job.
  3. Most podium microphones are aggressively directional.  When you look left or right–as you should, to keep everyone’s interest and attention–think of the microphone as the center of a ball and socket joint, always remaining the same distance from your mouth, regardless of the direction you’re looking.
  4. You still have to project and enunciate clearly.  Amplified or not, mumbling never works.

About the delivery . . .

Lose the PowerPoint.  I see too many presenters of all ilks using PowerPoint more or less as a script.  No matter how interesting your topic might be, your audience will stay with you only if your performance is at least as interesting.  If I’m ever elected king, an edict shall be passed that limits any PowerPoint slide to a maximum of ten words.  But if you must use it, keep a few things in mind:

  1. Make the slides an active part of the presentation. Make them worth reading.  For example, when I give my standard How-to-write seminar, immediately after I emphasize the point that there are no rules in writing, I cue the slide that reads, “But there are some very good suggestions.”  I let the audience get the joke, and then we move along.
  2. Videos work very well as PowerPoints, but it can be tricky getting them to run.
    1. No matter how many bajillions of times you have done a presentation, always take time to rehearse the slides and the transitions on the actual equipment you will be using.
  3. Talk to the audience, not to the screen.  The image is there, I promise. If you need a cue on where you are, use your computer screen as a TelePrompTer of sorts.
  4. Buy your own remote clicker and use it to advance your slides, and practice the transitions so you can keep talking even as the slides move.
  5. Assume catastrophic equipment failure, and have a backup plan to make your presentation without visual aids. It happens more than you’d think, and every time is a character-building experience.

Remember that it’s about the audience.  Even if people have not paid to attend your speech or the conference at which your speech is delivered, they are at a minimum paying with their time, and you accordingly owe them a show.

  1. Don’t poison the well before you begin.  This is more prominent among writers who speak than other groups I’ve dealt with.  It usually begins with something like, “I don’t do a lot of public speaking, so if I screw up . . .”  My thought at this point is always, “Then sit the hell down and don’t waste my time.”  If you know ahead of time that you’re going to suck, then do us all a favor and don’t start. Cede your time to someone who’s prepared.
    1. If the apology falls better into the category of the humble brag, keep that to yourself, as well.  If you kill up there, everyone will know and applaud, and if you die up there, they will likewise know yet still applaud.
  2. Know your subject and be well-rehearsed. Back when I was working my Big Boy Job, I delivered a lot of speeches, most of which were designed to be motivational. Think hundreds of times. And before each one, I always rehearsed the first five minutes and the last five minutes of the speech, usually out loud in the hotel room.  Once I got a presentation going, I could maneuver my way through the middle of the speech by feel, but I obsessed about getting the beginning and the end just right.

We writers are communicators, after all.  The only difference between writing and speaking is that with the latter, there’s only one draft.

Many of you do more public speaking than I. What have I missed?



The Code

By John Gilstrap

I turned the Big Six-Oh this week, which triggered some of the reflection that big birthdays bring.  Nothing morose, mind you–in fact, quite the opposite.  I wouldn’t go back and live my thirties again for anything.  I enjoy the stability and sense of ease that is my life of the moment.  I’m aware that things can change on a dime, but for now, the view out the windshield is at least as bright and sunny as the one in the rearview mirror.

For this week’s TKZ entry, I thought I’d talk about how storytelling has evolved just within my lifetime.  I’ve recently discovered MeTV, a television network for geezers, which runs TV series from days gone by.  I’m particularly taken by “The Rifleman”, starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son, Mark.  Truth be told, I don’t remember any of the episodes from when I watched them as a kid, though I do remember the opening sequence with the rapid-fire Winchester.  Thanks to the wonders of DVR technology, I’ve been able to record all of the shows, and in the evening, when I want to unwind before bed, I’ll watch an episode or two.  While the stories tend to be small, the storytelling itself is really quite good.  Sam Peckinpah wrote and/or directed quite a few of the episodes.

In watching those old episodes, I’ve come to realize how much the Westerns of my youth have influenced my storytelling sensibilities.  In fact, it has been said of my Jonathan Grave series that they are Westerns with different costumes.  I don’t know that I would go that far, but there’s no ignoring the kernel of truth, and I think some of those truths take us to the core of what makes a good hero.

A good man (or woman) lives to a code.  Lucas McCain was loyal to his friends, devoted to his son, and committed to helping others in need.  He neither took nor offered charity, but he was always there to offer a job to a man who’d hit hard times and wanted to regain his self respect through honest work.  He never picked a fight, but he never walked away from one out of fear, because he knew that reputations were fragile and that predators needed only the first whiff of weakness to be encouraged.

A good man is a gentleman.  Hard stop. He stands when a lady enters or leaves, and he would never wear a hat at the table.  And he would never impugn a lady’s honor.

A good man (or woman) defends what is his or hers.  John Wayne put it best as John Bernard Book in The Shootist when he said, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” This goes back to the code I mentioned above. The lesson taught by these shows–and echoed through my father as I was growing up–was that there’s no dishonor in losing a fight so long as you fight as hard as you can. As a kid, I repeatedly proved to myself and others that I was not a good fighter, but that experience led me to become a good de-fuser.

Good triumphs over evil, but only after a brutal effort. My cowboy heroes always got up again–if not after the initial fight, then certainly by the end of the story.  And the bad guys always got their comeuppance.

Then came the seventies.  Good and evil became muddled on television and on the screen and in books.  “Injun savages” evolved to “endangered minorities” and the European settlers became the predators.  Modern military service members evolved from defenders of freedom to killers of innocent children. Cynicism raged, and heroes were hard to find anywhere.  Popeye Doyle? Please. Serpico?  Archie Bunker?  No joke was funny, it seemed, unless it insulted someone else in the process.

As a budding writer in college (1975-79), in the age of Rod McKuen and Richard Bach, my admittedly simple view of right and wrong–of hero and villain–was scoffed at by professors and my lit’ry student colleagues.  The professor of one of only two writing classes I ever took told me, “You have no talent, stop writing.” I was only 20 years old.  And it was not some reverse psychology plan on his part.  He was so enraged by my view of good guys and bad guys on the page that he wanted nothing to do with me, and he wanted to discourage me from any path forward.

So, here we are, a few decades later.  Current political screeching notwithstanding, I think we’ve evolved past the blinding cynicism of the ’70s, but it is still there in my writing.  My good guys recognize that in their world, predators have been allowed to thrive as innocents are discouraged from protecting what is theirs.  Fierce independence is frowned upon, in favor of dependence on others, government agencies in particular.  In Jonathan Grave’s world, the police are almost always good guys, but they value their own careers over the pursuit of real justice. Those cops who do take risks on behalf of the innocent are keenly aware that they are one out-of-context cell phone video away from losing everything they hold dear.

The one chance society has in Jonathan Grave’s world is for the noble gunslinger to take that risk that no one else is willing to take. He does it not for himself, but for the benefit of the innocent.  Because he is on the side of the angels.

Come to think of it, maybe I need to give him a Winchester.


Which Handgun Should Your Character Carry?

By John Gilstrap

I just returned from my annual sojourn to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show (Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Technology–at best, a tortured acronym), which is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The SHOT Show is to shooting and archery what the Detroit Auto Show is for car manufacturers, the event when new products are launched. It’s also an opportunity for me to meet with my subject matter experts face-to-face.  A highlight of the SHOT Show is Media Day at the Range, when folks like me can shoot a wide variety of weapons, while sending hundreds of rounds of free ammo downrange.

As I wandered the 17 miles (!) of display aisles, it occurred to me that the average writer–or person, for that matter–cannot comprehend the thousands of variations that exist for what we casually call a gun.  In this post, I thought I’d walk you through some of the major decisions your character would consider in deciding which firearm to carry.

Revolver, Pistol, or . . . Something Different?

For we gun porn purists, pistols and revolvers are mutually exclusive. Both are handguns, but they operate under entirely different principles.  A revolver, otherwise known as a “wheel gun”, holds its cartridges in a cylinder that rotates as the hammer comes back and prepares for each shot. The revolver in the picture features an external hammer, and can be fired double action (DA) or single action (SA), which makes it a DA/SA revolver. (Double action means that with the hammer down, a single pull of the trigger with bring the hammer back, rotate the cylinder, and then drop the hammer again, firing the gun. Single action would describe the condition where the hammer is manually cocked and remains back–“condition zero”. From this condition, the trigger is more sensitive by a large margin.)  Generally, there are no external safeties on a revolver.  The fact of the long DA trigger pull functions as a safety.  Only a fool would carry a revolver in condition zero.

Recent years have seen a growth in the popularity of the DAO (double action only) revolver.  With no external hammer to cock, every pull of the trigger is double action.  The upside of a hammerless revolver is the ease of the draw from concealment (hammers have a way of snagging on clothing).

A pistol, on the other hand, carries its load in a magazine that is inserted in the grip. As the weapon fires, the slide cycles, ejecting the spent shell casing and pushing the next round into battery. The picture at the top of this post of me at the range shows this cycling action of a Glock 36 at 1/4000 of a second–thanks to my son, Chris, for getting the picture. The pistol in the picture with the revolver has no hammer, but is rather “striker fired”–a distinction that is best left to a future post.  Striker fired pistols may or may not have external safeties.  Some pistols have external hammers, such as the Colt Defender in the picture.  As shown, the Colt is in condition one, which means cartridge in the chamber, hammer back and safety on–otherwise known as “cocked and locked.”  In yet another iteration, many manufacturers make DA/SA pistols.  The Bersa Thunder in the photo offers a very long, hard DA trigger pull for the first shot, which leaves the hammer back for a SA follow-up shot. For most DA/SA pistols, the “safety” is not a safety at all, but rather a de-cocker, which safely returns the hammer to its DA position.

What difference does it make?

There are so many variables, but consider just a few:

  1. If your character is going to shoot through a pocket or a purse, a revolver is the better choice because a pistol’s slide would likely get fouled or tangled in fabric, making a follow-up shot difficult if not impossible.
  2. It’s much more cumbersome and time consuming to reload a revolver.
  3. No modern revolver I can think of is compatible with a suppressor.
  4. For less-experienced shooters, a DA/SA revolver is generally a better choice.

What Caliber?

I’ve discussed bullet choices here in TKZ before, so I won’t regurgitate all of that here, but it is definitely a consideration. If your character is a cop or in the military, chances are that s/he won’t carry anything smaller than 9mm.  On the flip side, I don’t know anyone who carries the Harry Callahan .44 magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head cleeean off), but I know lots of people who carry .45 or .357 magnum.

Where on their bodies do they carry the gun?

If your character is an on-duty cop or active duty military, where sidearms are worn in some kind of duty rig, the sky’s the limit for what they want to carry.  You can buy holsters for all kinds of hand cannons.  The choices become more limited when it’s important for your character to conceal his or her weapon. As a general rule, the larger the firearm, the harder it is to conceal. The obvious corollary is that bigger people can conceal bigger guns.

When it comes to carrying a gun on one’s belt, the critical first choice is inside-the-waistband (IWB) vs. outside-the-waistband (OWB), and both mean exactly what the words say.  Generally, OWB carry is more detectable, but with the right holster and an effective cover garment, it can be very effective.  By contrast, IWB carry allows for concealment by means as simple as an untucked T-shirt. On the downside, the gun takes up waistband real estate that would otherwise be used by the waist.  If your character wears skinny jeans, IWB could be a problem.  IWB carry positions are referred to as positions on a clock face, where one’s navel would be 12 o’clock and the right hip would be 3 o’clock. The IWB position in the picture is referred to as “appendix carry”, and for the life of me, I don’t know how he would be able to sit down.  Shoulder rigs are popular in movies and television shows, but I have never met a real person who wore one and didn’t hate it over time. They’re hard on the shoulders, and you can never let your arms hang normally. But the deal breaker for me would be that during the draw stroke, you pretty much have to point the gun at the person behind you, and then subsequently at yourself. That violates the basic tenets of firearm safety–as do many of the specialty retention devices such as the bra holster.  ‘Nuff said, can we agree?

Now, suppose your character needs to go for deep concealment, and the weapon is merely for close-in defense? Suppose the only concealment option is a vest pocket, or perhaps a boot?  Search the Web for specialty guns that are actually well-made and very effective for what they are.  North American Arms makes a mini-revolver that easily fits in your fist, and can be chambered in .22 magnum, a round that shows very similar terminal ballistics to a .38 special, under ideal circumstances.  The tiny, nearly non-existent barrel is a problem for a shot longer than, say, 10 yards, but as a belly gun, it’s kind of impressive, and since it’s a revolver, your character gets five tries to bring justice to another character.

The Derringer lives on. Bond Arms manufactures a wide line of two-shot firearms that come chambered in nearly every caliber. One will even take 410 gauge shotgun shells. Beware, however, that there’s a direct trade-off between the weight of a firearm and the degree of felt recoil. These little guns kick like angry horses.


At this point, rather than me blathering on answering presumed questions, let’s switch over to the real things.  Any particular problems you’re tackling in your WIP?