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.

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.


The Point of View Tapestry

by John Gilstrap

Two weeks ago, in my previous post here on TKZ, I used the example of a chess board to demonstrate the difference between omniscient POV and the close third-person.  Essentially, I pointed out that in any given game of chess, the perspectives of the individual pawns, knights and royalty are entirely different than that of the chess master who’s sending them into battle.

This week, I want to expand on the theme of close third-person with a tip on how to make the 3P voice sing.  First, there’s the Gilstrapian view of what makes a story good: A good story is about compelling characters doing interesting things in interesting ways, all of which is presented in an engaging voice.  Those elements–character, action and voice–are not, however individual elements.  Rather, they form what I call a POV tapestry, where the various threads influence every element of the finished product.

POV drives everything from dialogue to setting to action.  As an illustration, consider that your POV character, Bob, finds himself in a desert, and you, as the writer, need to set the scene for your readers.  Consider these two options:

Bob pushed the car door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine.  Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze.  The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with shades of red and blue and yellow.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

In this version, while we’re being introduced to the setting, we’re also learning something about Bob.  Perhaps he’s a romantic.  He’s certainly observant.

Now, consider this:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Super heated air hit Bob with what felt like a physical blow.  It took his breath away. The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood, and as he scanned the scrub growth and rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain. Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.  

The setting in these two examples is the same.  The action is the same.  Both examples advance the story–whatever that may be–exactly the same distance.  But the voices–the critical element in pulling off 3P POV–are different.  Notice that there’s no need to say that Bob #1 is a fan of the desert, or that Bob #2 is not.  That’s because the descriptions are all filtered for the reader through the character’s point of view.

In an effective story, every word of every sentence and every sentence of every paragraph should advance not just plot or character or setting, but all of these at the same time.

In my seminars I ask students to take five or six minutes to describe the place of the class–room, building, campus, town, whatever they choose–and through the description alone, convey the character of the narrator.  It’s a worthwhile exercise.


A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of teaching two of my six-hour classes entitled, “Adrenaline Rush: Writing Suspense Fiction.”  The first was at the always-wonderful Midwest Writers Workshop which is held every July on the campus of Ball State University, and more recently at the Smithsonian’s marvelous S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC.  It’s a fun, interactive course that includes four writing exercises that are designed to help students understand the issues of voice and characterization.

A large part of that discussion by necessity deals with point of view (POV).  I find that students inherently understand the relative strengths and weakness of first-person story telling, but when they shift gears into the third person, they have difficulty creating as intense a relationship between reader and character as they can with the first person.  I tell them that it’s largely a case of writing the same sentence and changing the pronoun (“His heart slammed in his chest as he opened the door” vs. “My heart slammed in my chest as I opened the door”), and while they get it intellectually, they have difficulty pulling it off on the page.  They tend to slip into that omniscient, reportorial space.

While teaching at MWW, I hit upon an analogy that I liked, and the students seemed to bond with.  I urged them to pretend that we were writing about a very intense chess game, along the lines of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the chess pieces are living things.  I explained how the point of view of the chess master–the guy with the strategy–is entirely different from that of the pawn.  In the case of the latter, the poor guy just stands there, oblivious, staring out at a sea of squares until some unseen thing grabs his face and moves him forward.  After a few iterations, he finds himself kitty-corner from a guy who looks just like him, but in a different color, and now he’s supposed to kill him.  Hell, he never even met the guy!

That’s the close third-person, I told them.  Now, if you add the point of view of the knight who can’t move, but is exposed to certain death at the hands of the bishop on the other side of the sea, all because the pawn stepped out of the way, you’ve got a thriller told in shifting 3rd-person POV.  And it’s potentially much more interesting than the story that would be told through the omniscient view of the chess master.

What should I add in the next class to illustrate POV choices?


Always Be Marketing

By John Gilstrap

When a writer decides to produce books and articles as his primary source of revenue, he has, in effect, started an independently-owned small business.  All the elements are there, from product development to design to distribution and sales. If the company owner doesn’t tend to the details, then who will?  The burden of such things arguably falls more heavily on indie authors, but even those of us who ply the trade via the traditional publishing route have to keep a strong hand on the tiller if we’re going to have adequate funds in the till.

Last month marked the publication of Final Target, the eleventh entry in the Jonathan Grave thriller series.  I’m delighted to report that I’ve seen more copies in grocery stores and what I call secondary venues than I ever have with any of my previous books.  This story also is published simultaneously in both hardcover and paperback (and e-book and audio . . .) so there should be no sticker shock for those readers who’ve come to read about Jonathan’s adventures as a paperback original.

I’m calling this post “Always Be Marketing” because that’s what I always feel I’m doing this time of the year, immediately after publication.  With two decades of this business under my belt, I thought I’d share some marketing strategies that have worked for me, and those which I consider to be utter duds.

First, the duds:

Bookmarks.  These have never made sense to me.  While I’m a big believer in bookmarks–and I believe there’s a special place in hell for readers who turn down pages to mark their place–no bookmark I use has any value to me.  It could just as well be my most recent airline boarding pass, a napkin, or my own business card.  I cannot imagine a circumstance where a bookmark with an author’s name on it would inspire me to buy a book.

At writers’ conferences, hungry authors hand out their custom-made bookmarks like candy.  “Here, have five of them.”  They litter the swag tables near the registration desk.  Some writers hand them out as business cards.  Think about that last one.  Business cards need to fit into business card-shaped wallet slots. More on that later.

On the other hand, I think that bookmarks are brilliant marketing gimmicks for bookstores themselves.  If I enjoyed the customer service, I would most definitely go back.

Big Box in-store signings.  I avoid them these days.  It’s hard to conceive of a more soul-sucking experience than sitting in the middle of a store, surrounded by stacks of my own books while people avoid eye contact on their way to the science fiction section.  Or maybe the bathroom.  Case in point: early on, I was signing in a Walden Bookstore in a mall–essentially blocking everyone’s entry through the door–when a distressed woman approached me and asked where the manager was because she wanted to return this terrible book.  It was mine.  Ouch.

Book trailers.  These have never made sense to me.  First of all, in my experience, 90-plus percent of book trailers I’ve seen have horrible production values and are ten clicks too self-reverential.  Stock art combined with poor acting and royalty-free music are not effective vectors to direct me to buy a book from an author I don’t know.  Besides, movies and books are entirely different art forms.

Now, let’s shift to the positive, stuff that has worked for me:

Business cards.  I put this at the top just to counter my shot at bookmarks.  Actually, I believe in carrying several business cards–and the design of the cards depends on where a writer is in his or her career.  If you’re new to the business, in that stage where you’re trying to find an agent or a publisher, then I think the business card should be of the standard format: Your name, address, phone number, email–as many ways to reach you as possible.  Because at this stage, your prospective customers are industry people, not the public.

Later, in the time after you’ve got a deal and a career, I believe in two different business cards: One is for industry people or research sources, where you want to make yourself as accessible as possible.  This card will be more or less the same as the one you used in your rookie years.  The second card you need is a “fan” card, one that you hand out to people you meet who want to stay in touch, but fall outside the category of people you want knowing your cell phone number.  To these folks, I hand out a card that introduces me as “John Gilstrap, author of the Jonathan Grave Thriller series”, and gives my contact information as my email address.  That’s plenty.  Oh, and there’s a list on the reverse side of my last 10 titles, more or less.

Something special for every book.  Currently, for Final Target, I’ve laid in a couple hundred pens that are marked with www.johngilstrap.com, and also have a built-in flashlight.  The theory is that when I sign a book, I will hand the buyer the pen with which I signed it.

A high-value giveaway for special people.  Some people need a very special thank-you because they have done something very special to help you out.  They need a cool bit of swag.  For this corner of my universe, I designed the Jonathan Grave Challenge Coin, of which there are very few, and whose distribution I take very seriously.  Follow the link if you think you might be interested in owning one.

Really cool book launch party.  No book-selling event ever pays for itself in real time with book sales.  Not one.  Book events are about giving fans and friends a good time, and providing an opportunity for them to buy a lot of books.  With this in mind, my wife and I budget for a blow-out party that is attendant to the release of every new book.  We’ve thrown parties at restaurants, wineries, coffee shops, and, most recently, at our home.  Roughly a hundred people showed up, and everyone had a terrific time, complete with catered food and open bar.  And the bookseller we brought in to provide the books–One More Page Books in Falls Church, VA–had a very good sales day.   That’s always a good thing.

Another book.  And then another and another . . . This is the best marketing gimmick of all: Write more books.  One of the primary reasons rookie authors find themselves at a disadvantage marketing-wise is that even the most devoted fans have no other books to turn to when they’ve turned the last page of your Opus One.  Having done this for as long as I have, when a fan discovers my writing via, say, the 11th book in my Grave series, they have ten more plus four stand-alones and a nonfiction book to consume before they run dry.  By the time they get through those, I should have a new one out, and the most effective strategy to reach them is to announce the launch of the new book.

What say you, TKZers?  What works and doesn’t work for you as a consumer?  As a writer, what do you find to be worthwhile marketing strategies?


Lee Harvey Oswald and Me

by John Gilstrap

November 22, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of one of my great research obsessions—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Last name notwithstanding, I am of Irish Catholic heritage, and in my house growing up, the Pope and President Kennedy were held in equal esteem. When the news came that the president had been killed, my mother was devastated. I was six at the time, and while I couldn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the crime, I knew that Mom was upset and I found her grief unnerving.

In the years that followed, Mom became quite the conspiracy theorist. She consumed all the books by Garrison and the others, and by extension, I likewise became a conspiracy theorist. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew that there were at least two gunmen and as many as three. I steeped my geeky self in the research, even as I was penning stories on the side. (Look up “babe magnet” in the dictionary. My high school picture is there, labeled, “Not Him.”)

Once I got my acceptance letter to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I realized that freshmen had to write a major research project in their first semester, I knew that JFK’s murder would be my topic. Living in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and working a night job in telephone sales, I was in a perfect position to do primary research at the National Archives downtown. In the morning, I would take the bus to Constitution Avenue, and then I would head inside the massive Archives building to the reading room.

This was 1975. The Zapruder Film had still not been seen by anyone outside of official Washington, and the House Select Committee had not yet convened to re-examine the Warren Commission evidence. This was all new territory for me, and I hoped to forge new territory for my future professors.

Here’s how it worked: I would fill out a sheet of paper for what I wanted to look at, whether Warren Commission documents or FBI interviews, or re-enactment photographs, and then I would hand the sheet to a pretty young clerk-lady, and then she would bring my requests to me. It was table service, and as an 18-year-old with braces on my teeth, this was pretty heady stuff. They even called me Mr. Gilstrap. Very, very classy.

After four or five days of taking up space and making copious notes (no photos allowed, and certainly no copiers), I was sitting at my spot at a study table when the cart full of stuff I ordered arrived not with a pretty clerk at the helm, but rather it was pushed by an old guy.

“Mr. Gilstrap,” he said.

I thought I was in trouble. “Yes, sir.”

“You’ve been the source of a lot of curiosity here,” he said. He then went on to introduce himself as Marion Johnson, the curator of the JFK exhibit at the National Archives. He observed that they didn’t often see someone my age being such a dedicated researcher.

I explained to him about the paper I had to write, and about my family’s obsession with all things assassination-related. He seemed interested, and then he said, “Come with me. I think I have some items that you might be interested in.”

I followed him into the bowels of the old building, into a large locked storage room that was under-lit, and stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and file cabinets. “This is all of it,” Mr. Johnson explained. “This is our John F. Kennedy exhibit.”

I don’t remember the place itself well enough to give dimensions, and at the time, I didn’t have a frame of reference, but the room housed a lot of stuff. When he unlocked an area within the storage room that was set off from the rest by a chain link barrier, I knew I was in for something special. Mr. Johnson pulled a wooden case off of a shelf and placed it on a clear spot in an otherwise cluttered table. He donned a pair of cotton gloves and handed me another pair. When the snaps on the box opened and he lifted the cover of the box, I realized right away that I was looking at a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 millimeter rifle bearing the serial number C-2766.

That was Oswald’s rifle.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

“You can lift it,” he said. “That’s all.”

That was plenty. At age 18, I got to hold the rifle that killed John F. Kennedy.

I noticed the .38 caliber pistol that was also in the box. “Is that the gun that killed Tippitt?” I asked. J.D. Tippitt was a Dallas police officer who Oswald shot to death shortly after the assassination.

“It is,” Mr. Johnson said. “But you can’t touch that one.” It seemed rude to ask why, and to this day, I don’t know.

From there, Mr. Johnson led me to a smaller room—a double room, really, with a few chairs on my side, and then a second room I was not allowed to enter that was separated from mine by a glass panel. It reminded me of the perp interview room in every cop show.

“Have a seat,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’re going to see something that very few others have seen.”

Within a minute, it became clear that the room on the other side of the glass was a projection booth. The lights dimmed, and then the screen on the far end came to life with the Zapruder film. Now that those few seconds documenting the fatal shots are so ubiquitous, it’s difficult to explain how thrilling—how heart-stoppingly shocking—it was to watch the events unfold in that little room. There’s no sound on the film, and there was no sound in the room—not even the clacking of the 8mm projector, thanks to the glass—as the motorcade swung the turn from Houston Street onto Elm, and then disappeared behind the traffic sign, where a still-unknown stranger opened his umbrella.

When the president’s limousine emerged from behind the sign, I watched his hands rise to his throat, just as they had in the countless stills I had seen of that moment. Jackie looked over, concerned, and then the top of the president’s head vaporized. Having by then seen stills of Frame 313 of the Zapruder film, I knew about the eruption of brain and bone, but those stills did not prepare me for the violence of it in real time.

I had held the gun that inflicted that wound.

I left the Archives impressed yet shaken that afternoon, and I was more fully emboldened to do my research the way it was supposed to be done. I stated above that I was a telephone salesman during the evenings, hawking Army Times magazine to people who loved to hang up on salesmen who sounded like they were eighteen years old. I hated that job, but it gave me access to a WATS Line, which was a huge deal back in the day—long distance phone calls to anywhere for very little cost. Extraordinarily little cost to me since I wasn’t paying for the service.

Abusing the largesse of my employer (who subsequently fired me, not that I cared), I was able to find and call the key players from the assassination at their homes, and like the staff at the National Archives, they were each impressed that someone my age would be so dedicated to a research project. Among the people I interviewed for that paper were Admiral J.J. Hume, USN (ret.), who performed JFK’s autopsy, Malcolm Perry, the Emergency Room physician who treated the president when he arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and Cyril Wecht, MD, a forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, who was a serious critic of the Warren Commission’s processes and conclusions. We’re talking long interviews, here, and not one of them ever lost patience with me—not even Admiral Hume, when I asked him what he thought about the accusations that he had botched the autopsy. His answer to that question, in fact, left an impression on me. He painted a picture of enormous pressure and emotion that I have later come to see as similar to the so-called fog of war. They were, after all, human, and the ravaged body of the president of the United States lay naked on a steel slab. I realized what a horrible moment that must have been for everyone in an official capacity.

By summer’s end in 1975, I had already made good progress on my paper. As I recall, it weighed in at something like thirty pages, and it contained photographs ordered from the National Archives, and the content of the multiple interviews that I had performed. When my mother read the paper, she was less than pleased by my conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman—a conclusion I stand by today, and which has been reinforced by every bit of reliable new evidence that has since been released.

When I turned the paper in, I had no idea that it would nearly get me thrown out of college before I finished my first semester. My professor, Mr. Greene, as I recall, did not believe that a college freshman would do that level of research, and he called me in my dormitory to tell me that he was reporting me to the Honor Council. It took nearly three hours on the phone to convince him otherwise, defending every quote that I collected on my own, and every conclusion I drew.

In the end, I got an A.


On Vacation

by John Gilstrap

Good morning, everyone.  It was my intent to have a compelling piece posted here this morning on the topic of marketing.  In fact, the title of the piece is “Always Be Marketing.”  But here’s the thing: I’m on vacation, and the current draft kind of sucks.

So, rather than posting something that is sucky, I thought I’d take this week off.  See you in two, with a well-considered and edited piece on marketing.  Happy Independence Day!


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!