About John Gilstrap

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

I Hate Being Caught Being Wrong

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate being caught being wrong.


Copy Edits and Good News

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

Comma Splices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series comma

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

Comma around internal “too” and “either”

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

Comma before terminal “anyway”

Comma before terminal “though”

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

Comma after introductory and terminal and around internal “instead”

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

Comma after introductory “Plus”

Temperature: eighty degrees

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

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

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

Small Caps: signs, displays, button functions


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

I am, as they say, jazzed!


Three Hours A Day

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

That’s his writing schedule.  Three concentrated hours.

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

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

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


Noir at the Bar

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let’s Talk Shotguns

By John Gilstrap

Let’s say you’ve got a character in your story who had no background in firearms, yet needs to engage an armed bad guy.  A shotgun may be your character’s best choice, especially at close quarters.  Because every pull of the trigger sends multiple high-velocity projectiles downrange simultaneously, marksmanship is less of an issue when it comes to killing the enemy, but more of an issue when it comes to shooting only the enemy.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about rifles and pistols, so this week, I thought I’d devote some time to shotguns.  As a first step, forget much of what you’ve learned about rifles and pistols.  The rules of Newtonian physics all remain the same, but much of the terminology seems counter-intuitive when you deal with smooth-bore weapons.

Okay, what’s a smooth-bore weapon?

Whereas modern rifles and pistols fire bullets, shotguns fire either pellets or slugs.  As a bullet is propelled down a rifle’s barrel, the lands and grooves that have been cut into the metal to form “rifling” impart a spin on the projectile that stabilizes it in flight and allows for greater range and accuracy.  Standard shotguns, on the other hand, have no rifling down the bore.  The barrel is simply a smooth tube.  (Note: there is such a thing as a rifled shotgun, but I won’t be addressing that here.)  Basically, a smooth-bore barrel is merely an extended pressure vessel that allows the projectile(s) to accelerate.

Think gauge, not caliber.  Think spheres, not bullet-shaped.

It’s common to refer to rifles and pistols by the diameter of the bullets they fire.  A “.30 caliber” rifle fires a bullet that is three-tenths (.30) of an inch in diameter at its widest point.  A “.45” fires a bullet that is 45/100ths of an inch at its widest point.

Shotguns, on the other hand, are referred to by their “gauge” and the term has nothing to do with linear measurement.  To understand the reason why, we need to geek out a little:

One characteristic of elemental lead is that when melted, its physical volume is a constant, relative to it’s weight.  Thus, a one-pound sphere of lead will always be 1.66 inches in diameter (assuming I did the math correctly).  From the days of the Napoleonic Wars through the American Civil War and beyond, one of the primary artillery cannons was the “twelve-pounder”, which, predictably, I suppose, fired a twelve-pound ball (also called a “shot”–as in the shot put event in track-and-field, get it?) out of a barrel that was 4.62 inches in diameter.

The concept of “gauge” is based on the same principle, but in this case dealing with fractions of a pound.  The bore of a 12 gauge shotgun is the diameter of a lead sphere that weighs 1/12 of a pound, or 0.727 inches.  A 20 gauge shotgun has a bore of 0.617 inches, which is the diameter of a lead sphere that weighs 1/20 of a pound.

Still with me?

One of the most counter-intuitive parts of discussing shotguns is the fact that unlike calibers, higher gauges actually mean smaller projectiles.

Buckshot, Birdshot, Slugs.

So, we’ve got our smooth-bore shotgun of a chosen gauge–for our  purposes here, we’ll assume 12 gauge if only because it the most common shotgun deployed by law enforcement officers.  The size of the bore is largely just a reference point; it has little to do with the weight of the projectile being sent downrange.

One of the strengths of a shotgun as a weapon platform is its versatility.  The same gun can be used to hunt doves and deer, and then when you come home, it can be a great home defense weapon.  Different applications require different ammunition, though, and here’s where things get complicated again.

Starting with the basics, each round of ammunition is called a “shell”, not a “bullet” or a “cartridge”, as would be case with rifle and pistol ammo.  Inside the shell, the pellets (or “shot”) are separated from the propellant (or “powder”) by a plastic cup that is call the “wad.”  Each pull of the trigger sends a “load of shot” or a “slug” downrange.  Once spent, the “hull” is ejected.

When the load reaches the muzzle on its way downrange, the pellets are tightly grouped together, but as they travel through the air, they separate to form a spray of projectiles.  The width of the spread and the terminal performance of individual projectiles has everything to do with their size and their weight.  “Birdshot” refers to smaller, lighter pellets that are designed to kill smaller, lighter prey.  “Buckshot”, on the other hand, is designed for larger prey.  Within, say, 10 feet, both are equally lethal.

Here again, smaller is bigger.  The size of individual pellets is described by industry-accepted numbers.  On paper, you might read “#4 buck”, but you would pronounce it as “number four buck.”  And #4 buck is smaller than #3 buck.

What most people think of when they’re talking about buckshot is #00 buck, which is commonly referred to as “double aught buck.”  (Note: It’s NOT double ought.)  Individual pellets are 0.33 inches in diameter (.33 caliber) and there are nine of them in an ounce.  By contrast, #4 buck pellets are 0.24 inches in diameter (24 caliber) and there are 24 of them in an ounce.

Bird shot is also categorized by numbers, but on a different scale.  For example, No. 4 bird shot pellets are 0.13 inches in diameter, and there are 135 of them in an ounce.

A slug is a single projectile that essentially turns the shotgun into a less accurate rifle and hits with enormous force.  Slugs come in many different forms and perform many different functions.  For example, when you hear of riots being dispersed by the use of “rubber bullets”, those “bullets” are really rubber slugs, or sometimes beanbag slugs.

Types of Shotguns.  

Double barrel shotguns have been around for a very long time, back to the days of the flintlock.  The classic arrangement for the barrels was “side-by-side”, as characterized by bird hunters and stage coach security guys.  You know that’s where the phrase “riding shotgun” originated, right?

The second configuration of a double-barrel shotgun is the “over and under” configuration, where the barrels are stacked.  As a bit of trivia, you’ll note that there’s only one trigger on the gun.  The act of closing the breech cocks the gun.  The lower barrel shoots first and the recoil re-cocks the gun so the top barrel will fire.

Semi-automatic.  As with its rifle counterpart, you can load the magazine to whatever its capacity may be, and every pull of the trigger sends a new load downrange until the magazine is empty.

Pump-action.  This is the mainstay of cop shows and sound effects crews.  Also called a “shucker”, this configuration requires the shooter to work the pump to eject one hull and put the next shell into battery.

So, there you have it, TKZers, this quarter’s offering of gun porn.  All questions, comments and observations are welcome.



You Never Feel Secure

By John Gilstrap

One of the questions that every published writer faces from time to time goes something like this: “Does it ever get easier after you’ve published your first book?”

The whole-truth form of the answer is yes, it does get easier, but not in the ways that people might expect.  The pressure never eases to produce a compelling story with interesting characters doing important things in interesting ways.  There’s no quarter for bad writing, flat storytelling or indulgent rants.  The mechanics all need to be there, and, I would argue, the bar for excellence only increases from book to book.

The confidence factor is where things get easier, I think.  I now realize that somewhere around page 200 in a book, I’m going to feel totally lost and I’m going to conclude that the only way to successfully end the misery is to give the book a ride in the shredder.  Having walked the walk 20 times now, however, I also know that somehow, I’ll figure it out.  The panic evaporates and the story resolves itself.

Yeah, but what if I can’t?  When creativity meets cockiness, a lot of bad things can happen.

September 15 has been my submission deadline every year since 2009.  Every year.  I’ve posted before about how much August sucks for me as I binge-write for 10-hours a day trying to bring the story in under the wire.  It’s total madness in the Gilstrap household during the month of August and the first half of September.

Beginning five or six years ago, my lovely bride, Joy, landed on an antidote for the madness: An exotic vacation that begins on September 16.  Two years ago, it was two weeks in Scotland, last year it was two weeks in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and this year, as I write this post, we’re beginning our second week in Portugal.  The upshot of this, of course, is that with tickets bought and deposits put down, blowing my deadline is not an option.

Next year’s Jonathan Grave book is called Hellfire.  I clicked Send to launch the manuscript five hours before our plane left Dulles Airport.  I wrote it, read it and liked it, but was that because it was good or because I needed to like it?

This is where the insecurity always lives on.  My agent and my editor had copies, and all I had to do was wait for the results.

After a week, I had hear nothing from either.  If it was terrific, they’d tell me right away, right?  But they knew I was on vacation.  If they hated the story, they would say nothing, right?  They’d let me enjoy the trip before ruining my day.  Right?

whole week passed without any word.  What the hell?

As of yesterday, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I sent an email to my agent telling her that the silence was killing me.  She wrote back almost instantly with the news that she loved the book, but was terrified that Joy would kill her if she interrupted our vacation with a work email.  Then I heard from my big honkin’ New York editor, who told the same story.  Loved the book, scared of my five-foot-three bride.  Now, that’s respect!

The takeaway, though, is that I can now have a nice vacation.

And next year, I have every confidence that the paranoids will come hunting for me once again.

What say you, TKZers?  Can you keep your paranoids in the closet where they belong?


Swell Swag

By John Gilstrap

Up until about a year ago, I thought that bookmark swag was a waste of money and time.  I have since changed my mind.  I may have posted here before that on those awful occasions when a book signing is really just that–a table in the entryway where I wait for people to inquire why I’m there–I no longer just sit passively and wait.  I get up and wander the store, introducing myself as the visiting author, and inviting them to stop by and say hi–or buy a book–as they pass me yet again on their way out of the store.

More times than not, they’ll ask a few questions, and that’s when I hand them my bookmark. As you can see, the bookmark (designed by publisher–Thank you Kensington!) not only has contact information, but the titles of the most recent books and a bit about awards won and such.  Never once have I handed out one of these things without seeing the recipient going on to Google me.

When I was on tour for Total Mayhem back in July, I became truly shameless.  Because I dined alone, and spent a lot of time writing my next book long-hand, I knew that I was raising curiosity, so I made sure to put a bookmark in the check folder after I had signed the credit card voucher.  When you dine in the hotel where you’re staying, that can create an interesting buzz.

Business Cards

For the first time in the history of forever, I actually killed my entire supply of business cards.  As I approached the bottom of the box, I started paying closer attention to other writers’ business cards to see how they were handling what to include and what not to.  Because I pass these things out to pretty much everybody from the maitre d’ to the car mechanic to somebody I meet at a party, the information on the card needs to carry a lot of weight.

Things I considered included:

  1. Email address but no phone number or street address.  (Stephen King’s Misery continues to lurk in my head.)
  2. Standard design and style. This is one of my peccadilloes.  I get annoyed when business cards don’t fit easily into my wallet.
  3. All social media included for quick reference.  I chose not to include the Killzone Blog, however, because my every-other-week posting status would have required narrative.
  4. My entire bibliography.
  5. Had to have a clean look.
  6. Had to have space for people to write notes to themselves on the card.

I’ll let others judge the final product, but I’m happy with it.  I’m also happy with Vistaprint, which is the company I used to create and print the cards.

Special Gifts.

Most swag is intended as a kind of fan service or shameless self-promotion.  Or, merely business communication.  Sometimes, though, people can be so helpful to my research, or in their hospitality, that I offer them special gifts that I designed for just occasions.

Within military and other public service circles, challenge coins are very important.  They are a way of showing pride in one’s unit or department.  I figured that if Jonathan Grave were a real person, he’d most certainly have a challenge coin struck for his company, Security Solutions, so I did it for him.

In addition to offering them up as thank-yous, I also offer them in trade for those who offer similar coins for my own collection.  Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty cool ones from some pretty spooky places.

So, TKZ family, what’s your swag bag look like?  What works for you as writers or fans or booksellers, and what doesn’t?


Violence Smells Bad

By John Gilstrap

Sue Coletta’s excellent post on Monday took us into the reality of murder.  When I finished reading it, I wished I could un-read it.  That’s no insult to Sue.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  Good writing makes you squirm.  (Or laugh, or cry . . .)  I read the piece to the end out of respect not just for the author, but for the victims.  It’s important for people to understand what those young ladies endured in their final moments (or, God help us, final hours).

If that same scene were included in a novel I was reading, though, written by someone I didn’t know, I’d have closed the book and banned the author from my shelf.

Having been a first responder for 15 years, I was eyewitness to the aftermath unspeakable acts of cruelty.  I’ve tucked in protruding viscera and I’ve bagged a few heads.

I’ve comforted the bereaved, but that was the part I hated the most.  I was fire and rescue, not police.  My job was to bring order to chaos–to stabilize dangerous situations–and then go home.  No one ever died on my watch or in my ambulance because back then, only a medical doctor could pronounce death.  Thus, people were either victims who were clearly dead when I arrived at the scene, or they were patients receiving life-saving care when I delivered them to the emergency room.

I was then–and am now–something of a Pollyanna.  There’s always a way to win, always a route to a positive outcome.  All I need to do is never give up.  If the first strategy doesn’t work, you throw that aside and try something else.  And then something else again.  If the positive outcome does not arrive, it won’t be because I didn’t do everything I could.  It’s a theme that drives my fiction.  There’s always a way for the good guys to win.  Or they die trying.

When I was researching my nonfiction book Six Minutes to Freedom (2006) and I finally got permission to talk to the Delta Force operators who performed Kurt Muse’s daring rescue, there was a common theme that drove every interview.  To a man, the operators I spoke with told me that come hell or high water, they were bringing Kurt home.  If he stayed, they stayed.  When Operation ACID GAMBIT was done, more than a few of those operators were shot to pieces–one of them amputated his own foot to escape his crashed rescue chopper–but they never stopped fighting.  And they delivered Kurt to his family five days before Christmas.

Victimhood makes me uncomfortable.  I have no desire to read torture porn, which is one of the reasons why I don’t like reading about fictional serial killers.  Those scenes with the suffering victims are all about hopelessness.  Yes, it happens in real life, and if I want access to real-life case files, I can gain it with a phone call.  It’s a call I’ll never make.

In reality, violence smells bad.  It’s sticky and it’s ugly.  It’s unnerving.  When I commanded a horrific auto accident or occupational injury, my standing order to my crew was, “If it’s ugly, cover it up.”  No one functions well in the presence of mangled people.  I bring some of that to my fiction, and I get occasional hate mail as a result, but that level of reality–the reality of the aftermath–doesn’t push me beyond my limits.

The irony is not lost on me that I write violent books, and that good guys occasionally die at my hand.  I can’t define where my breaking point is on how much is too much, but there’s a line there somewhere.  The knee-jerk response is to say that violence against children is the line not to be crossed, but I cross that all the time.  I don’t do it gratuitously, though.  At least I don’t think I do.  I will not write a scene with sexual violence against women.  Come to think of it, I don’t write much about sex at all.

What are your thoughts, TKZ family?  How much squirming are you willing to endure when reading books?  At what point do you send a book sailing?


Panic Attack

By John Gilstrap

I’ve done a lot of writing on the run these past few weeks.  My tour for Total Mayhem has spun out over the past month or so, keeping me away from home and away from my desk.  Yet my September 15 deadline hasn’t moved.  I’ve been spewing words from hotels and restaurants, and from moving platforms like trains and airplanes.

I’ve always written a fair chunk of my first drafts long hand.  Sometimes, the creativity flows better and the there’s the added plus of a built-in second draft when I transfer the handwritten text onto the computer.

Up until a couple of years ago, I did my home-based writing on a desktop computer, with a lightweight laptop reserved for travel.  More recently, the desktop has been mothballed and all my computing needs are served by my Surface Book Pro.   If I’m traveling any distance, it’s coming with me.

While it’s unlikely that my computer would be lost or stolen, I recognize the possibility, so I therefore store virtually no data on my hard drive.  Instead, I’ve come to depend heavily on external storage.   When I finish a writing session, I save the day’s work to a thumb drive that contains pretty much everything I have written in at least the past five years.  Once that’s done, I save the same document to my Dropbox account, and then, finally, once a week or so, I save a copy to my hard drive.  When I start a new session, I use the thumb drive copy as the primary document.

Before the days of cloud storage, I carried that thumb drive–or one of its predecessors–everywhere I went, always in my left front pocket.  My theory was if the house burned and the took the hard drive with it, I wouldn’t lose too much of my writing.

Nowadays, that thumb drive stays with the computer.  It only leaves the house if the laptop leaves the house.  When it does go on the road, it has its own dedicated pouch in the the backpack that doubles as my briefcase.  Routine.  A place for everything, everything in its place.

Until it’s not.

This morning I awoke ahead of my alarm in the fabulous Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, ready to be home again after five days of being away.  I showered, dressed, packed my bag, and then as I was putting my backpack together, the thumb drive was gone.  Clearly, I had misplaced it somehow, even though I never before have done so.  I unpacked.  I dumped the backpack.  I re-searched the closet and dresser drawers.  I searched the pockets of previously-worn pants.  No luck.  It was gone.

Here’s where my accident investigation training kicked in.  It couldn’t, in fact, just be gone.  Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, remember?  That thumb drive was someplace, and I was confident that when I found it, I would remember that it was exactly where I had put it.  So . . . where?

I’d left the backpack behind for yesterday’s tour event at Fort Knox, so I knew it could be neither somewhere on post nor in the car of the escort who drove me there.  It had to be in the hotel.  But where?

I checked my backpack for a third time.  Nope, matter still had not been created.

Ah-hah!  When I’d returned from Fort Knox, I’d taken my computer up to the “club room” to transcribe my handwritten manuscript pages.  I must have left it there somehow.  Breaking from routine, I’d decided not to bring the whole backpack with me into the club room, so that was how it had transitioned into my pocket.

Thing is, there was no way I would leave the thumb drive behind.  Not after this many years of routine.  Still, I had to track down the lead.  No, the manager told me, no one had found a thumb drive.  Of course, that didn’t mean someone hadn’t picked it up and kept it as their own.  Or, maybe they’d turned it in down at the front desk.

Oh, yeah.  The front desk.  Tick-tock.  I had a rental car to return and there was an airplane with my name on it.  I needed to check out of the hotel and move on.

The lady at the front desk could not have been nicer.  After giving me my receipt, she disappeared into the back office to check lost and found.  Neither of us felt much hope.  While she was gone, I looked out onto the lobby bar where I had dined last night, and as I did, I pulled my phone out to check if the flight was still on time.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket.

My left front pocket–the same one that once was dedicated to my thumb drive back when I carried it everywhere.  My seat for dinner had been a nice one, next to a window with a pretty view of the street.  I remembered that as I sat at the table, I’d pulled my phone out of my pocket and placed it on the window sill because I’d been expecting a call.

With a growing sense of hope, I walked over to last night’s seat and pulled out my chair.  And there it was, a black-and-red plastic thumb drive hiding in the pattern of the plush black-and-red carpet.  Just sitting there, waiting.  It wasn’t where I’d put it, after all.  It was where I’d dropped it when it piggy-backed out of my pocket with the phone.

My morning got a lot brighter.

So, TKZers, how do you save and backup your work?  Ever lost a chunk of it?



National Shooting Sports Month

By John Gilstrap

August is National Shooting Sports month!

Okay, so it doesn’t rate a special tree in the living room or lights in the window, but National Shooting Sports Month provides unique opportunities for writers to familiarize themselves with the weaponry their characters use.

Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF, the same group that puts on the massive SHOT Show every year), the month-long celebration encourages shooters, gun stores and range owners to make special efforts to introduce more people to hunting and the shooting sports.  Have questions?  Walk in and ask some questions.

There will even be special events.  On August 17, I will be giving a presentation on the weapons Jonathan Grave uses, at Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The details are still in play, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to do any live fire exercises.  That would have made the even really fun.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here on TKZ over the years discussing gun stuff.  Guns handling and gun play are nearly impossible to describe accurately unless you’ve done some shooting.  There’s a feel to the grip and the recoil.  There are weight and balance issues peculiar to different weapons.  There’s a method to loading magazines.  National Shooting Sports Month will provide perfect opportunities for you to get hands-on training.

A couple of years ago, my publicity team from Kensington traveled from New York to Virginia–and then on to West Virginia with me–as part of a publicity plan to shoot copies of Scorpion Strike, whose cover featured a number of bullet holes.  These young ladies were as anti-gun as you’d expect from New York City.  As we entered the range complex at Echo Valley Training Center, they mocked the shooters they saw and cowered at the sight of firearms being carried out in the open.

When I got them on the trigger, though, everything changed.  After hundreds of rounds apiece, they were enthralled by the sport.  By the end of the day, I had them advancing and shooting at steel targets.  When their magazines ran dry, they dropped them and slapped in another.

In four hours at the range, their world view of shooting–and shooters–had changed.  They’d learned new skills and had had a fun day outdoors in the fresh West Virginia air.

Marksmanship is about precision.  Just like golf or tennis, your number one competitor is yourself, and experience combined with good instruction is the only way to advance your skills.  Here’s a website that will direct you to a shooting range in your area.  Even if you have no experience–especially if you have no experience–drop in and sign up for some beginner instruction.

If you’re afraid of the weaponry, embrace your fears.  A firearm is just a tool and your instructor won’t let you pose a danger to yourself or others.  Don’t worry about recoil.  It’s never as violent as what you see on movies or television.  (I know, right?)  Just hang on to everything tightly and keep a balanced stance.

For your first outing, shoot with either a small caliber or a big gun.  Preferably both.  Physics lesson: The heavier the gun, the less the felt recoil, and the smaller the load, the less energy to trigger that equal and opposite reaction.

So . . . Who’s game?