About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, 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.

Hauntings

By John Gilstrap

When I was younger, I thrived on horror stories. I read every word Stephen King wrote, and I’d be first in line for the slasher movies of the ’70s and ’80s. I lost my taste for them during my fire service years, and abandoned them entirely once I started a family. I don’t know if there’s a nexus in there, but that was the timing of it.

That’s also about the time when I realized that energy lives on past the lives of some, and that those energies are drawn to me. Or, maybe it’s the other way around.

Two stories (of many I could share):

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail

Ten, maybe fifteen years ago, I signed on for a midnight tour of Moundsville State Penitentiary in West Virginia. It’s supposed to be one of the most haunted spots in America (aren’t they all?), and I thought it would be a hoot. I talked Jeffery Deaver into coming along. We climbed onto a bus around 6 pm and drove off into the night.

The tour was led by a self-proclaimed ghost hunter who channeled Van Helsing, complete with the floppy fedora and flowing great coat. When we arrived at the prison grounds, Van saw ghosts everywhere, just hangin’ around the yard. “There’s one! There’s one!” Jeff and I thought it was a hoot.

Then we entered the hospital wing of the abandoned fortress. If you’ve seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, you know what the place looks like. There’s a common room that was overseen by a nurse’s station, beyond which there are a couple of operatories and then another common room. This repeated five or six times.

Remember, the only lighting we had were the flashlights that we brought with us, so eerie doesn’t quite touch the atmosphere at zero-dark-early. We walked into the first one or two of the operatories, looked around, checked our watches and began talking about how we might work our way back to the bus.

The mood of the evening changed when we crossed the threshold of what I believe was the third operatory. I stopped about three steps in and could not go any farther. A dark energy surrounded me–that’s the best way I can put it, a nearly electrical feeling on my skin, but more than that, I felt so terribly sad. It was the kind of sadness that comes after the loss of a loved one. It was unbearable.

I turned and walked back out into the hallway, and the feeling vanished, as surely as if a switch had been flipped. Deaver reported feeling “something” but he night have been humoring me. Everyone else seemed to be fine. I went to Van Helsing and asked if that room was particularly energized? His response: “You notice I stay in the hallway, right?”

As the tour moved on, I told Jeff that I needed to go back. I needed to know if it was some kind of trick that Van was pulling. We parted from the group and walked back. This time, when I crossed the threshold, my knees nearly buckled. The feeling was beyond awful. It felt soul stealing.

That was the only notable incident on that tour, but later research showed that that room was used to perform lobotomies back in the ’50s or ’60s.

Now, fast-forward a few years. I was in Boston, staying at one of the fancy chain hotels to attend a board of directors for the trade association I worked for. (I’m not sandbagging on the name. I really don’t remember which one, and given the story to come, it’s best not to guess and be wrong.)

About 2:30 in the morning, I was sound asleep, alone in my room, sleeping on my left side, as I am wont to do, when someone grabbed my shoulder with both hands and placed his face about an inch from mine.

I shot out of bed, ready for war. I don’t think I’ve ever been so startled, before or since. Nobody was there, but I could still feel the imprint of his hand on my shoulder. I turned on the light, and the first thing I did was check my door. Not only was it closed, it was locked on the inside.

This was not a dream. It could not have been a dream. I saw him, for God’s sake. But several thorough searches revealed that I was still alone. The most vivid goddamn dream in the history of nightmares.

It takes a while for the body to process that much adrenaline, but ultimately, I fell back to sleep. Shortly after the sun came up, I rose, showered, tied myself into a business suit and headed down to the staff breakfast room. I was the last to arrive, but that wasn’t uncommon, given my relationship with mornings. As I sat down with my banquet eggs, I relayed the story of my nightmare, and conversation stopped.

My boss paled and asked, “What room are you in?”

“Twenty-one forty-four,” I answered. (I don’t remember the real room number.)

A gasp went around the table. By boss was staying in 2244, and one of our VPs was staying in 2344. All of us had the exact same “nightmare” within minutes of each other.

Creepy, eh? Okay, there’s a coda to the story. I was on the hook for a very important, very serious presentation to a filled ballroom at 8 am the next morning. After an endless string of meetings, I returned to my room at around 11 pm. Out loud, I said, “Okay, look. I know you have a job to do, and I respect that. I respect that I am in your space, but I really need to sleep tonight, so I’d appreciate it if you’d leave me alone.”

In general, I’m not a deep sleeper in a hotel, but that night, I slept like, well, the dead.

I haven’t studied this stuff, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but I’ve come to believe that something about what makes us human projects energy, and I think that some people are better tuned to it than others. I think I’ve posted here before that I have a very strong Spidey sense about others. My first impressions of people rarely prove themselves wrong. (Truthfully, I can’t remember a single time.)

When my son was 14 or so, he got separated from the group on a camping trip and became the focus of a National Park Service search party. (In case you’re wondering, parents are not informed of ongoing searches when they are in their early stages.) He and a buddy were lost in Washington National Forest all night. Everybody turned out fine, but he tells a great story of what it’s like being in the middle of nowhere on a moonless night as the batteries in your flashlight begin to die.

We learned about the search after he returned home a week or so later. Here’s the thing, though: On the night he was lost–at the hours he was lost–I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I got up and wrote about a young teenager lost in the woods.

Okay, now that I’ve revealed my crazy card, what say you, TKZ family? In this season of spooks and witchcraft, do you have any stories to share?

Chatting With The Pros

By John Gilstrap

Top left is Ann Hawkins of John Hawkins & Associates. Center bottom is my editor, Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing.

I don’t think I’ve posted this here already, but if so, it’s probably worth another look from people who are interested in an insider’s view of the traditional publishing game. In this video from my YouTube channel, I sat down with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and Michaela Hamilton, my longtime editor at Kensington Books to get industry professionals’ views on the kinds of topics that are often discussed here on The Killzone.

I thought it was a bit of a coup to get everyone together at once, so the video is admittedly a bit long, but I also think it’s well worth the time. If you want to jump around, here are links to the individual topics:

00:00 Introduction

02:00 Do editors and agents work well together?

04:09 Managing author expectations

05:16 Do publishers nurture new authors?

08:33 The slush pile: What happens with unsolicited manuscripts?

10:16 Do authors need agents?

10:53 Deal points: the author’s advance is only one consideration

12:53 Deal breakers, clients from hell, & you’ve got to do your research

16:12 Traditional publishing is starving for new writers

19:09 What it means for an author to have a platform?

23:20 Are conferences important?

I hope you find something useful in the video. If nothing else, you can watch really great people hanging out with me.

You’ve Got To Live The Moment

By John Gilstrap

There was a time in my life when I thought I wanted to be an actor. As I mentioned in a post back in January, I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of “Godspell.” (In the picture, I’m the guy with the striped pants and socks.) Every performance was sold out. In fact, we had to add additional performances, and those, too, were sold out. My solo song was “All Good Gifts” and every performance got a standing ovation. I even got a fan letter from a freshman cheerleader–much younger than I, who, at the ancient age of 17, could not be seen fraternizing with a lower classman (classperson?). It was very heady stuff.

I didn’t think I was very good in the role, but who was I to judge, right? And what a rush! Applause was SO way more exciting than lots of speaker points from the judges of debate tournaments. I was writing stories pretty steadily even back then, and I remember speaking to my buddy Steve (he’s the guy in the yellow pants and sport coat) that maybe one day I could write a play and star in it.

The next play on the schedule was Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”–quite a pivot from “Godspell”–and I won the role of George Gibbs. Buddy Steve (who went on to a wonderful career on Broadway and later in TV commercials) was the Stage Manager. Those are arguably the two male leads in the show.

For those who are unfamiliar with the “Our Town”, the titles of the three acts pretty much describe the story, which is set in Grover’s Corner New Hampshire in 1901: Act One-Daily Life; Act Two-Love and Marriage; Act 3-Death and Eternity. George Gibbs (my character) falls in love with Emily Webb, who ultimately dies, leaving George bereft.

Yeah, the feel good play of the year.

(I hear you purists out there already, warming up your computers to tell me how superficial my interpretation of the play is, but stand down. If you read on, you’ll see that that’s kind of my point.)

In “Godspell”, I got to perform. I got to sing and dance and do pantomime, but I never really had to act. Sure, there’re the crucifixion scene, but that was designed as a scene-chewer. Plus, it was sung, and ultimately danced.

“Our Town” flipped that formula solidly on its head. That role was all acting. I was expected to make other people’s words come to life, and I had no idea what I was doing. There’s a scene in Act 3 where George is alone at Emily’s gravesite, speaking to her, and he comes unglued. This is the Big Moment of the play, and I had nothin’. Not only had I never experienced real loss–hell, even my first dog was still alive at the time–but I grew up in a family where crying was shameful.

Now I was supposed to cry in front of all my high school buddies? I couldn’t do it.

Full disclosure: I guess I faked it okay because we got more standing O’s from the audience and no one kicked my ass for my performance. (Full disclosure redux: Parents and friends are not the most punishing reviewers.)

I hated the whole experience. I hated the emotional exposure, and I hated the notion of making a fool of myself live and in color on the stage. It wasn’t the crowd that bothered me–hell, I’ve always liked a crowd. It was the notion of someone seeing behind the curtain to reveal the real me, who was far different than the me I worked very hard to project.

Did I mention that I was 17 years old?

As an aside, about 25 years later, I was on the staff of the Virginia Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. It was a monthlong residential program where rising juniors in high school gathered at the University of Richmond with the best fellow singers and dancers and actors from high schools throughout the state. I was teaching screenwriting at the time, but we had to teach an interdisciplinary course as well, so I developed one called “Truth and Labeling” in which kids explored the differences between who they pretended to be and who they really were. The course was a big hit. Just sayin’.

So, what does any of this have to do with writing? Here it is: Just as actors have to learn to bare their emotions and their feelings to the audience, we fiction writers have to find a way to do that on the page. If the sad parts don’t make us cry when we write, and the funny parts don’t make us chuckle, then we’re just phoning in our performance, and the reading audience will see right through it.

To be believed, you need to live the moment on the page. We talk about first lines and inciting events and characterization, and all of those things are important, but none of them are as vital as true emotion spilled onto the page. On those rare occasions when you find yourself squarely in the zone, the words are flying onto the page and you know that you are channeling something raw into the characters on the page, understand that you’re flirting with your bestseller moment.

Once it’s committed to the page, save it, print it, do whatever you have to do to preserve it, and then promise yourself not to touch it. Not to edit a word. That is your heart, as recorded live and in color as it presented itself. It’s important stuff, even if you never use it in your story, because it documents you. The real you.

When you return to the WIP and you write the second (or fifteenth) draft, you can edit and change that magical piece however you want, or not at all, to fit the story’s needs, but treasure the raw source material it came from.

Now that I’m more than a few years older than 17, I think that I would like to try my hand at acting again. I have a lot more life to tap into, and after a few million words in print, I think I’ve pretty much peeled the curtain away.

That audience is very enticing. I still like the sound of applause.

Now, if I could just find a way to edit my performance live on the stage.

What say you, TKZ family? Do you have it in you to get honest on the page?

Different Roads To The Same Destination

By John Gilstrap

As I read Reavis Wortham’s post last Saturday on how his characters evolve in his head, I marveled at how vastly different our writing processes are. I often tell people that my characters are all day workers: they hang out at the social hall drinking beer and having fun until I call on them to do something. Then, they’re like, “Don’t ask me what I should do, Mr. Writer Man. This is your gig, dude. I just do what I’m told.”

My stories are told from a very close third-person point of view. I don the character like a costume and and live the story from the inside. I know what the character wants to do (or wants to stop, depending), and then I go on the great pretend. I document what that scene’s POV character sees, feels, and smells. Somehow, through that process, I become close to those characters, and they come alive for me.

In any given scene, then, the most important choice is assigning POV ownership. It becomes especially critical when two or more POV characters are interacting. While they all can speak and emote, only one of them can feel. The POV character knows that his heart is racing and that his face feels flushed, but he can only observe or surmise that the other characters in the scene appear to feel emotion.

I’ve written in this space before that I have never described my character Jonathan Grave in any detail. In part, this is because if he is in the scene, he is 99% likely to be the owner of the action. As I write this, I have no idea what my facial expression is as I type, but I do know that my back is sore from where I tweaked it the other day. If we were having this discussion live and in person, you wouldn’t know about the twinges of pain unless I mentioned them.

As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.

Because I write on tight deadlines, there’s no such thing as a mistake. If I push Jonathan and his crew into a corner that I shouldn’t have, I don’t have the luxury of going back and rewriting a week’s worth of work. Instead, I climb into the POV character’s skin, and I figure out the solution from behind his or her eyes. And you know what? Some of the most poignant, memorable scenes in my books grow out of those “mistakes.” It happens frequently enough, in fact, that I’ve come to trust that the subconscious somehow knows what has to happen, and if I relax, I’ll get there.

Which is good, because those lazy-ass characters love to chuckle at me and guzzle suds and eat wings while they watch me try to figure things out.

All of this harkens back to my oft-stated and heartfelt belief that there are no rules to this writing thing. What works, works. Hard stop. I don’t understand the need to outline and do character sketches before I start, but if they work for another writer–and I know such things work for many other writers–God bless them.

But here’s some food for thought: If you are an outliner or character sketcher, and you find yourself plagued by writer’s block, consider the possibility that your outline is the problem. Perhaps your preproduction vision of the story is not the best one, and that your real problem is trying to join parts that aren’t sized properly, or have simply fallen out of fashion. Try putting the outline away and going on a great pretend.

An Insider’s View of Audio

By John Gilstrap (But not really)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted in this space my observations about writing for translation to audio books.  Well, wouldn’t you know it? Basil Sands, the voice of Jonathan Grave, my literary alter ego, paid attention and agreed to pen a guest post about an audio guy’s view of audio books.

Basil has been a frequent poster here on TKZ since the beginning, and he’s a crack author in his own right.

As you read this, I will be supervising a team of movers who will be packaging pretty much everything we own for six months’ of storage before we move to the dream house in West Virginia. My inevitable silence will have everything to do with the lack of an internet connection.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, from the great state of Alaska, I bring you Basil Sands:

===

Seanchaidhe – n. – literally “a bearer of old lore”. A Seanchaidhe is a traditional Irish storyteller/historian.

I like to imagine that somewhere in my past there is an Irish ancestor who made his living travelling from village to village telling stories to both teach and entertain. Having been a voracious reader since I was five years old, and according to my parents was a storyteller even longer, having come to the world right off screaming a tale on my first breath after being ripped from the warmth of my mother’s womb.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t acting at quite that young, but not much later I am told.

I have always loved telling stories. My stories. Other people’s stories. The stories the Leprechauns tell me around the fire at night. Factual, fictual, historical or fantastical. I love hearing stories and I love telling stories. And so I believe do you dear reader of this blog.

After John Gilstrap’s article of a couple weeks ago on the topic of writing for audiobooks he invited me to come and talk a bit more on the topic from a different aspect of the gem of storytelling. That of the narrator/producer.

I have been an avid follower of TKZ since not long after its founding. My Leprechauns and I have happily been leaving our marks in the comments below when we can. From a hidden cabin fortress built into the side of a mountain in Anchorage Alaska I have been writing thrillers and recording audiobooks since 2006. John’s books were among the first of my professional step into the world of “books on tape” and I have not looked back.

From what I have seen, creating audiobooks seems to appear relatively simple to a great deal of the population, including a surprisingly large number of writers. This is particularly true when an author balks at the cost of having a pro create one. For a ten-hour novel without tons of research heavy material this can range from $6000+ upon delivery for a ‘per finished hour’ (PFH) contract to zero out of pocket up front with a fifty/fifty split in a ‘royalty share’ (RS) contract. The latter of which can potentially entail the author sharing even more significant dinero if the books sell well. Of course, that share can also be zilch if it doesn’t, the narrator is taking 100% of the actual risk on a RS deal aka 50 hours of labor for no return.

“How hard can it be?” I’ve heard from more than one author, “You just sit in closet and read the book into the microphone. I think I will just save the money and do it myself.”

Following is an excerpt from an actual email an author sent to me when they realized just how much their book was making on a royalty share contract (it was a lot) and thought maybe they didn’t want to share 50% of that kinda money for the whole series, but they also still didn’t want to pay the standard rates for a narrator producer.

“I decided to record book 2 on my own. I’ve always had an ear for voices (or is it a tongue?) and figured I read well enough–It’s turns out I hate it. It’s very much like real work. It will be my last, guaranteed.”

And much like work it is! Very, very much!

Here is a breakdown of the process it takes to make an audiobook:

  • Book is published
    • self or traditional
  • Audiobook is contracted
    • Traditional publishers usually own the audio rights and have their own folks that do this
    • Self-pubbed authors and small-press authors choose from a variety of audiobook self-publishing companies and do the whole thing themselves
  • Narrator is selected
    • Self-pubbed and small-press authors typically pick the narrator themselves based on recorded auditions
    • Traditional audiobook production houses most often have a stable of narrators they choose from to narrate particular genres
      • authors seldom have a say in the matter
        • But might
      • Narrator receives materials and production begins
        • In trad houses the only thing the narrator does is ‘prep read’ the book and then narrate the book
          • All of the remaining production work is done by directors, producers, editors, proofers, sound engineers and marketing teams
        • In self/small-pubs the narrator is responsible for everything but the writing, artwork, and marketing bits
          • Although if it is RS the narrator has equal responsibility for marketing if they hope to get paid
        • Completed materials are proofed and edited
          • Proofing = reading the manuscript while listening and annotating all mispronunciations, missed words, extra words
          • Editing = listening through book, removing extraneous sounds, odd breaths, thumps and mouth clicks, weird noises*
            • Self-produced narrators most often hire out these two functions to a single person
          • Corrections recorded by the narrator are inserted by the editor and final files returned for mastering
        • Mastering = making the audio sound pretty, this takes an audio engineer to get really superb sound
          • Audio engineers have a really good ear and sense of space, and some pretty expensive gear
          • Often a narrator will hire an engineer to get their sound settings right for their recording space, then little if any final mastering is needed
            • Very few editor/proofers are also sound engineers
          • Final book is uploaded and eventually comes up for sale.
          • Everybody gets paid…hopefully

That is the very basic process right there. Those steps, in some form or another, all must be done for every single audiobook to brought into existence.

How long does it take to make an audiobook?

A general idea of finished length of any audiobook is typically going to be in the range of one finished hour for every 9500 words. Therefore a 60k word book will be about five hours long at the end. A 100k word book comes in at a bit more than ten hours. But those lengths are only the finished product. The time it takes to create that product is variable based upon several factors, some controllable others not. Depending on the experience level of the narrator it takes between two to five hours on mic to create one finished hour of audiobook. And that is just the narrator’s part!

Here are a few of the things that can affect the time it takes to record an audiobook:

  • The heaviness of the writing
    A typical thriller usually reads much easier than a PhD level tome titled Capturing Non-Markovian Dynamics on Near-Term Quantum Computers.
  • Language, IE how it is used
    A 600K word fantasy epic (first of 12 volumes) with entirely reconstituted laws of phonetic pronunciation and every person and place name having added ‘eth’, ‘el’ and ‘ae’ randomly to names and otherwise common words throughout is much more challenging than the vast majority of, perhaps all, cozy mysteries.
  • Character Accents and Dialects
    If your characters have regional accents, that usually takes extra prep and may also require several takes for a scene. Like the time I had Canadian, South African, Dutch, English, Australian, and New Zealand characters all together in a single high-speed conversation. That scene took me a few extra moments to get through.
  • Regional Spellings/Pronunciations
    Schuykill River in Pennsylvania. Houston Street in Manhattan. Worcester in Massachusetts. Look them up if you think you know them but aren’t from them.

Writing your novel with an audiobook version in mind

Several years ago I narrated a dozen or so titles for Sci-Fi author Piers Anthony, his whole backlist of books published before he became famous with his wildly popular Xanth series in the 80s. In his Cluster series, about a Tarzan-like interplanetary hero who takes on the form of whatever species he is sent to help, Anthony has a number of characters with names spelled like #>@<}, and ]**(#), and ^…–~ and so on. I contacted him directly and asked how those were to be pronounced.

He replied, “When I wrote those in the sixties and seventies audiobooks were not a thing. I never even imagined those being pronounced out loud. Feel free to just make something up, I trust you.”

These days audiobooks are a huge industry, and it is expected to continue to rise in popularity for the foreseeable future. Whether or not you as a writer enjoy, or can even withstand, listening to audiobooks you can bet that 30%-40% of your audience does. Many folks, myself included seldom are able to read for pleasure due to busy schedules, but have plenty of time to listen to audiobooks while doing physical tasks or familiar chores that occupy hands and eyes, but not so much the brain. For the last decade or so I only read for pay, and then seldom get to choose the materials but get assigned. I do however ingest several hours of audiobooks most days while working my big boy job.

So for writing your books with the idea of having an audiobook recorded here are a handful of suggestions that will make it not only easier for a narrator to get it right, but will ultimately bless your print readers as well.

  • Read your text out loud to yourself.
    This is one of the greatest methods of self-editing in my experience. When we read our manuscript aloud, we have to make our lips and tongues say the actual words in the order they are on the page rather than letting our minds read the words as we think they should be. If you the writer stumble saying a sentence out loud, that is likely how the reader is hearing it in their heads.
  • Use Dialogue Tags appropriately.
    That multi-national conversation above could not have turned out as well as it did had the author not put tags or action descriptors on nearly every line of dialogue to make the speaker obvious. If your conversation is a rapid fire back and forth between only two characters, you may not need as many tags, but will still need to make sure there are sufficient ones to keep the narrator aware of who is saying what.
  • Announce accents and any speech related quirks early and clearly
    There are few things as angina-inducing for a narrator as having read hundreds of pages of a particular cowboy character’s dialogue only to discover on page 369 the single mention of the aforementioned character’s posh British accent and how it was so out of place riding the range in 1870s Texas. If there is an accent mention it upon or as close as possible to the character’s first dialogue. Do not assume the reader will pick up on it based on place and setting if it is not a single location story. Even then don’t expect the reader to hear it in the same voice you heard in your head when you wrote it.
  • For the sake of your narrator’s health please keep strained sounding voices to a minimum
    I am not referring to emotional strain as that goes with the story, but actual physical strain on the vocal folds of the narrator. Gravelly, raspy, rough, harsh, etc. Attempting such a sound in the booth for extended periods can cause actual lasting damage to the voice. I once did a 6-book series of romance-thrillers that followed a group of five studly former Marines and their retired boss as private detectives. Each book focused on one of the characters, with the others all appearing in support roles in that story. The voice of the fifty-something retired Master Gunnery Sergeant “sounded like he maintained a diet of gravel washed down with tar coffee as he chain-smoked cheap cigars”. He only appeared a handful of times in each of the first five books, so I was able to sustain almost exactly the sound I thought the author imagined. It was all just fine until I got to the last book and the entire thing was Gunny’s story, including almost 50% of the dialogue. After that sexology of stories** I had to take a month off narration to let my voice heal.
  • Prepare a list of special details and potential surprises
    If you have any special pronunciations, accents or dialects, uncommon words, and so on and want your narrator to be dedicated to you for life, make a list of such things for them in advance. This not only saves the narrator time, but saves the continuity of the story by not having excessive pickups***.
  • Write Well!
    This is probably the single most important thing for any author to have success with audiobooks. The text has to have the capacity to become real in the mind of the reader both via manuscript reading and audible storytelling. This means something quite different from one genre to the next, but in all cases a well written story will literally flow off the narrator’s tongue and sound natural to the ear.

Finally, here are a couple of things related to self/small pubbed authors specifically, where the author has more control over the process.

  • Fit the right narrator to your project
    A gentle voiced kindergarten teacher narrating an alpha-male biker gang vs cop thriller probably won’t seem realistic. Likewise, don’t hire a male former Marine turned lumberjack turned actor to narrate your cupcake centric cozy mystery unless you want all of your characters, male, female and children alike, to sound like chain-smoking-gravel-eaters.
  • Do not ‘direct’ the performance
    Unless you are an actual experienced acting director managing that project in the studio looking through the booth glass, physically or virtually, unless you are that person then once you have accepted and approved the initial 15-minute sample of the recording the remainder of the narration, including voicing of characters, styles of reading, anything performance specific are up to the narrator. In most contracts by legitimate audiobook publishers, this is actually stipulated in some manner.

And lastly here is a bit for those intrepid adventurers among you who think you want to narrate your own books for sale.

  • Radio/Broadcast experience does not translate to audiobooks
    While they all use voice as the medium, audiobooks are nothing like radio, I know as I have done both. First off, “radio-voice” is not welcome, nobody wants to listen to non-stop announcer voice tell a story. The other big difference is comparable to that of a sprinter versus an extreme distance runner. Radio is 1-5 minute sound bites with commercial breaks interspersed while audiobooks are hours upon hours of uninterrupted you talking in different voices while all alone in a small dark box.
  • Audiobook Narration/Production is a Marathon
    My shortest audiobooks are a couple short stories about 30 minutes long that took a couple days to fully produce. The longest is The Bible, at just over 86 hours completed, which took well over a thousand man-hours to make ready for publication. If you have ever done public speaking, you know that even a short speech or sermon, 20 or 30 minutes, can wear you out. Imagine talking in hour long segments, five or six times a day with only a ten-minute break for water to go in and out. It can be utterly exhausting.
  • Get Coaching first
    If you are an experienced stage or film actor be advised, audiobook acting is only remotely similar. You will need coaching of some sort to ensure you are delivering the best product you can create with your voice alone. Every single part of the listener’s understanding of the story comes from the narrator’s vocal delivery. Audiobooks are 100% actor delivered, there are zero sound effects or mood setting musical scores in true audiobooks.

A Test: The Narrator’s Crucible

If you think you may want to narrate your own books, following in the footsteps of such greats as Neil Gaiman, Carrie Fisher or Oprah Winfrey before you spend your hard earned dollars on a fancy microphone, pre-amp, computer upgrades and software try this test.

  1. Pick your favorite book, eBook or paper doesn’t matter.
  2. Close yourself in a small dark room, like a walk in closet or half-bathroom, with only a single light to read by
  3. Read out loud for 1 hour, doing different voices for each character and stopping every time you make a mistake in the read and re-reading that line until you get it correct before continuing.
    1. Record yourself on your phone or laptop, etc. so you can listen back at the end
  4. Take a ten-minute break at the top of each hour
  5. Repeat for 2-3 one-hour sessions each day
  6. Do this every day for a week
  7. If you have not become disgusted by the sound of your own voice and given up by the end of the week, you might stand a chance at actually enjoying this narrating gig.
    1. Maybe.

There is a lot more detail trying to pour out of my fingertips than I could ever put into a single blog post, but this provides a 15,000 foot view, with a handful treetop skimming dives as a bonus.

If you are interested in learning more about the process, either as an author who wants your piece of the audio market or as a someone interested in becoming a narrator or producer here are some very helpful links that can get you in swimming toward the deep end fairly quickly.

Audiobook creation Exchange (https://www.acx.com/) – Audible’s division for self/small publishers, like KDP for audiobooks.  ACX is a marketplace where authors, literary agents, publishers, and other Rights Holders can connect with narrators, engineers, recording studios, and other Producers capable of producing a finished audiobook. The result: More audiobooks will be made.

Narrator’s Roadmap (https://www.narratorsroadmap.com/) – the amazing Karen Commins’ extremely informative website – If you’re new to this career, every resource on this page — articles, books, connections, and videos — answers the question “How can I become an audiobook narrator?” You’ll find invaluable advice from industry pros that you will want to read and absorb. Success leaves tracks!

Audiobook Publishers Association – https://www.audiopub.org/APA is a not-for-profit trade association that advocates the common, collective business interests of audio publishers. The APA consists of audio publishing companies and suppliers, distributors, and retailers of spoken word products and allied fields related to the production, distribution, and sale of audiobooks.

Being me and the way I am it seems I have probably already used more than the number of words I should put here, therefore let’s move this thing to the chat below for conversifying and questionizing!

*Weird noises – Do not fart while recording, they might miss it in editing, but the listeners certainly will not. Trust me on this.

**Sexology – that may not be the mathematically correct word for a series of six but is fairly accurate to the storylines

***Pickups – small corrections re-recorded and pasted in, hopefully matching the surrounding original sound. May be done in a bar but only if you’re desperate.

BONUS! BONUS! BONUS! BONUS! BONUS! BONUS! BONUS! BONUS!

If you made it this far in my ramblings you deserve a treat.

I have US & UK Audible coupon codes for several of the books that I have both written and narrated.

ICE HAMMER BOXED SET

APPETIZERS OF THE GODS

THE NEW TESTAMENT, DARBY TRANSLATION

Drop me an email with your title preference and whether you are a US or UK resident and I will send you a code for a free download.

All I ask in return is an honest review on Audible.

Check out more about my narration and voice work at www.sandmanstudiosak.com

Writing To Be Heard

By John Gilstrap

In the past few years, audiobooks have become the fastest growing segment of the book industry. In 2018, according to this article from GoodEReader, audio book sales in the United States alone topped $1.2 billion, for the first time eclipsing ebook sales, which brought in $983 million during the same period. That trend continues. The demographics are impressive, too, with the majority of audio books sold falling the in the mystery/suspense genres, and 57% of frequent audio book consumers being under 45 years old.

Personally, I don’t bond well with audio books, but I know for a fact that a large chunk of my readers do. I also know that they’re addicted to the characterizations provided by Basil Sands, a frequent contributor to the comments section here on TKZ. Those who listen to the Jonathan Grave books have come to hear the voices assigned by Basil to the actual voices of the characters.

Given the trends and business realities, I have become progressively more conscious of the role of audio in the reach and popularity of what I write. Fact is, some of the tricks we use on the page to tweak suspense and believability can fail completely in the transition to audio.

Nobody sees the paragraphs.

We all know that in dialogue, when a new speaker begins, that character gets a new paragraph. Because of that, we can get away with rapid-fire dialogue on the page with only intermittent use of dialogue tags. In audio, verbal gymnastics are required of the narrator to keep the listener from getting lost in the exchange. Given the growth in the audio market, I use far more dialogue tags than I used to. On the page, I believe they become invisible, and on audio, it keeps the listener on track.

Nobody sees italics.

Prior to the proliferation of audio sales, I would allow italicized passages to do all the lifting to show a character’s thoughts. This is a strictly visual trick that does not work at all on audio. Now, I write thought tags (I presume those are real things). I don’t like the way they junk up the written page, but there you go.

Accents and pronunciation pose a challenge.

Venice Alexander is one of the primary characters in my Jonathan Grave thriller series. In every book, I must explain that she pronounces her name as Ven-EE-chay. Think about the challenge that poses for the audio book narrator. To reveal to the listener the pronunciation of a name they’ve just heard pronounced properly is awkward. (In this case, I’ve started changing the audio script to point out that people who don’t know her assume from the spelling that her name is pronounced the same as the city in Italy.) The same problem exists when revealing a regional accent to readers in a way that won’t sound odd to listeners.

There are kids in the backseat.

I written here before that I’ve excised high-end profanity from my books, and that I’ve never been one to write graphic sex. I did that for reasons driven by reader input that made it clear that they didn’t like those things in thrillers. That’s when they’re reading silently. Imagine the response when the family is taking a cross country drive while listening to American Psycho.

It’s okay to have a chat with your audio book narrator.

Basil and I chat before each of the Grave projects he starts. He asks me is I anticipate any special challenges, and I encourage him to reach out to me if he finds any.

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn. Are you a fan of listening to books you “read”? Do you consider the presence of listeners when you write?

It All Counts

By John Gilstrap

You experienced writers out there please talk quietly among yourselves while I address the rookies for a few minutes.

I’ve mentioned here before that I frequent Facebook pages that cater to young, new or upcoming writers. I consider it a form of paying forward, and I try to help in ways that I reasonably can. Those pages also serve to give me ideas for this blog and well as for my YouTube channel.

What I want to talk about here today is less about writing, per se, than it is about fulfilling dreams of pursuing a writing career. Cutting to the chase: If you’re posting online, you’re in a public forum. Every item you post, every comment you make, is part of a truly permanent record. Before you click that “Post” button, ask yourself if you’re about to do something good and helpful, or are you about to do something you might have to apologize for sometime in the future.

I belong to one Facebook fiction writing group that boasts over 120,000 members. I’m not sure if its possible to know what the demographics are of that group, but judging from the posts and responses, many are young, the majority are inexperienced, and for a substantial number, English is not the members’ first language. As with all virtual groups of that size, trolls are common.

What’s less common–in fact, what’s damn difficult to find–is good advice. Most of the “wisdom” from members feels like advice we’ve all heard over the years presented as inviolable rules. Those of you who have hung around TKZ for a while know my opinion on the rules of writing: There aren’t any. Fiction writers need only to entertain their audience. If they can do that while including a prologue that’s all about waking up from a dream in the middle of a thunderstorm and wondering who they are, then Godspeed.

Posting Stories Online

I know you’re new to all of this, and I know that it’s hard to get feedback on your writing from real people in the real world, but do yourself a favor before you post a work in progress: Ask yourself what you hope to achieve by posting what is essentially a rough draft in a public forum.

What will you do with anonymous feedback from largely unqualified critics? Clearly, you will share the glowing praise when it happens, but what about the less glowing yet honest critiques? Worse, how are you going to handle the slashing troll attacks? All too often, feelings get bruised and wounded submitters engage in ad hominem broadsides with their gloating trolls.

What about that exchange seems helpful? I submit that every bit of it is 100% harmful. What’s the sense in seeking feedback that can never be trusted?

And to make it even worse, the submissions, responses, and arguments reside in that public forum forever, where deans of admissions, employers, security clearance analysts, editors and agents can all see them and learn from them.

TKZ First Page Critiques Are Different

My intent is not to shill for our First Page Critique program, but I do want to differentiate it from what I discuss above. Three key differences come to mind:

First, the critiques come from writers who have walked the walk in their own lives and have enjoyed some success in the fiction writing biz. That doesn’t mean we know what we’re talking about, necessarily, but at least our opinions come from an earned place.

Second, submissions here are anonymous for a reason. If a critique is harsh (they should never be mean-spirited), the author need never step forward and take responsibility for the piece. Hopefully, they will learn from the experience, but there’s no embarrassment. In fact, as the designated critics (critiquers?) we never know whose work we’ve analyzed.

Third, submissions to the First Page Critique program are curated at the beginning. Occasionally, submissions are so immature or undercooked that it would be unkind to expose them to public critique. We will never savage anyone here.

Spelling and Grammar Count

I recognize that I am now strolling on very thin ice. I find that it is the rare TKZ post with my name attached that does not have at least a couple of typos in it. It ain’t for lack of trying, but if there’s one truth I’ve learned over the past decades, it’s that I suck at finding little things, whether it be a typo or the milk that is right in front of me in the refrigerator.

That said, if you’re part of my targeted audience with this post–the new, upcoming, young, struggling writer–you have to be more careful than I do. I’ve earned a Mulligan or two, while your Mulligan bank is empty. Every word you post in a public forum is part of an ongoing audition for your future as a writer. Don’t squander marvelous opportunities to make good impressions.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t destroy a history of well-thought, well-constructed posts with an ill-considered rant about anything.

Writing is a craft, and crafts need to be practiced. Just as golf and tennis swings require muscle memory that repeats good habits, so does writing. If u r in da habit uv riting in internet-speak, I urge you to stop. Immediately. When bad form and bad syntax start feeling normal, it has to affect the quality of other written communication. It has to.

Your turn TKZ family. Am I all wet here? Have I missed anything?

 

Research Hacks Redux

By John Gilstrap

Your regularly scheduled blog post will begin following this moment of shameless self promotion. Yesterday was Launch Day for Stealth Attack, the 13th (!) entry in my Jonathan grave thriller series. It’s available wherever books are sold. For reasons not known to me, the audio version won’t be released for another couple of weeks, so if that’s your preferred method to visit fictional worlds, I beg your patience for just a short while longer.

Now let’s talk research.

If this week’s posts seems familiar to you, it means that you’ve been reading The Killzone Blog for at least five years, so thanks for that. The original version appeared in 2016, but it addresses a topic that I feel strongly about if only because I see people getting way too stressed over a topic that I think should be more fun than stressful.

I’ve never been a proponent of the old adage, write what you know.  In fact, I think it’s kind of silly.  It’s the rare crime writer who has witnessed a crime, let alone investigated one.  I’ve been fortunate in my own life to be able to look back on some exciting times in the fire service, and in the hazmat business, but those are not the exciting times I write about.  While I’ve been shot at, I’ve never been a position to shoot back.  Basically, I am the three-time survivor of poor marksmanship. That hardly qualifies me to write battle scenes, but combined with the fear I’ve felt in life-threatening situations, combined with discussions I’ve had with people who’ve walked that walk, and bingo! I conjure up what I think are pretty good set pieces featuring people doing heroic deeds I’ve never performed.

Research is a big word.

In this line of work, every moment we live and every person we interact with is a moment of research. More times than not, I find that the really good stuff comes less from studying books than it does from passive listening and watching. It doesn’t take work so much as it takes paying attention.

Over the years, I’ve learned some research hacks that I would like to share.

Research Hack One: Cheat.

The easiest way to pull off the illusion of knowledge is to eliminate the need for reality.  For example, despite have lived pretty much my whole life in Fairfax and Prince William Counties in Virginia, I choose to play out my Northern Virginia police work in Braddock County, Virginia, which does not exist.  That way, I can develop whatever standard operating procedures best serve the story, eliminating a huge research burden.  I don’t need a tour of the jail, I don’t need to know which firearms they carry, what the command structure is, or how shifts are organized.  Do the cops carry their shotguns propped up vertically, or under the front of the seat?  I can make it however I want it to be.  Because the place where the story takes place does not exist, neither do the police agencies, so by definition, I can never get any of those details wrong.

Research Hack Two:  Stick to the coast you know.

More times than not, it’s the smaller details of research that screw an author up, and even if you make up cities and counties, you’re going to have to root the reader somewhere in the world.  I’m very comfortable making up locations in the South because I’ve lived here for so many decades.  It’s always the tell of a West Coast writer when a character looks for a “freeway” and gets on “the 495.”  In Virginia, we look for a “highway” and get on “Route 50” or just “50.”  Heading north or south on the Beltway says little unless we know whether you’re on the Inner Loop or the Outer Loop.  For natives, the airports are “National” or “Dulles”.  Maybe DCA for frequent travelers.  In the original version of this piece, I pointed out that one rarely hears the airport referred to as “Reagan”, but that’s changed in recent years.  Oh, and we “go to” meetings or “attend” them.  We do not “take” them.

Places like New York and L.A. (and every other famous city, I suppose) have traditions and colloquialisms that can get you in trouble.  So, stay close to home if you can.

Research Hack Three: Think like Willie Sutton

When the gangster Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

So, where are the repositories for the information you want to know?  Let’s say you’re writing about a cop.  To be sure, there are great established resources available to you, such as a citizen’s police academy, but remember that there you’ll be getting the view of the agency that the public affairs office wants you to see.  A better choice, in my opinion, would be to attend a conference like Writers Police Academy, where you can get to know the far more interesting underbelly of police agencies.  Bring some business cards, chat people up and get their card in exchange. Just like that, you’ve got a valuable research contact who will answer your emails and phone calls.

Can’t afford the money or time to fly to a conference?  Try chatting up a cop.  The less formal the circumstance, the better.  In my experience, everyone—Ev. Ry. One.—likes to share stories about what they do.  Find out where cops gather for drinks after work and go there.  Just hang out and listen.  Actually, that’s a strategy for just about any specialty.  Want to write about quilting? Go where quilters go and then shut up and listen.

When I’m in DC, one of my favorite places to go for soft research is Union Station, the AMTRAK/Metro terminal that is maybe 500 yards from the Capitol Building.  The place teems with restaurants.  If you park yourself near a couple of Millennials in suits, there’s a 90% chance that they’re oh-so-self-important staffers to a member of Congress, and the inevitable one-upsmanship is fascinating.  The best eavesdropping spot near the White House is the very cozy bar of the Hay Adams Hotel, though given the proximity to the presidential palace, the gossip there tends to be less juicy.

One bit of advice for eavesdroppers: Don’t take notes.  For the ruse to work, you’ve got to seem disinterested.

Research Hack Four: Get a superfast Internet connection and use it.

I understand that professors are loathe to accept Wikipedia as a legitimate source, and when the time comes for me to submit a dissertation, I’ll keep that in mind.  Meanwhile, I’ll remain devoted to it as a bottomless source of really good information.  Never once have I been disappointed when seeking the finer points of weaponry, for example.  I don’t get into the deeper depths of gun porn in my books, but when arming my good guys and bad guys, it’s good to know how much the weapon weighs, how many rounds it holds and what it looks like.  Want to see the same weapon in action?  I guarantee that YouTube has at least two videos of somebody shooting something with it.

Google Earth and its Street View feature are a godsend.  The closing sequence of Final Target includes a chase down the rural streets of Yucatan.  Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to travel the entire route with a three dimensional view, all without the burden of having to go to a place where I’d rather not be.

Research Hack Five: Know the difference between a research trail and a rabbit hole.

We’ve all been there, I’m sure.  You start out looking for the year when the Ford Ranger went out of production, and an hour later, you’ve chased links to a sweet video of baby goats in pajamas.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The secret to doing my kind of research is to abide by a certain self-imposed intellectual laziness. When I’m writing a scene and I come across a place where I realize there’s a hole in my knowledge, I drop out to the Interwebs, find out exactly what I need for that scene, and then go back to work.

Remember this: It’s not important that you know how to do all the things your characters do—or even to know everything they do.  Your job is simply to convince readers that the character knows enough to pull off the story they’re starring in.

Research Hack Six (and maybe it should be Number One): Respect your sources’ time.

As a weapons guy, I’m happy to help people choose a firearm for their characters, but it’s annoying when the discussion includes the difference between a pistol and a revolver.  That kind of basic information is available anywhere.  It is many times more fun to talk about important details with someone who has already done a reasonable amount of research.  Use your human resources for the esoteric details of verisimilitude, not for the 101 level of whatever you’re researching.

Your turn, TKZ family. What are your research tricks and hacks?

And for those who are curious . . .

Two weeks ago, I whined about the frustrations of “staging” my home for sale. We worked diligently to do most of what we were told, and I’m pleased to report that that house sold within three days of being on the market, and for a price that made us very happy. Maybe stagers know what they’re doing after all . . .

A Touch of Reality

By John Gilstrap

Full disclosure: Expect to learn nothing about writing from this blog post.

I’ve mentioned before that the lovely bride and I are building our dream home in the wilds of West Virginia. Our original plan was to stay put in our current house until the new one was completed sometime in early 2022, then move in, clean up our current abode, and then put it on the market. Easy-peasy.

Except, the market is so hot right now that we think it would be short-sighted on our part to wait. Thus, the plan changed to: Sell the house, move into an apartment for six months, then move into the new house when it’s ready for us. That adds a bit of . . . confusion to the mix. Now, the plan has evolved into a logistical challenge.

As you read this, I will be enduring what’s called a “staging move”, which translates roughly to taking anything that’s interesting or colorful out of our home so that HGTV-trained tire-kickers can walk through the upcoming open house without fear of seeing anything that is remotely related to family, love, or any other trinket that might make the house feel actually lived-in. We’re talking dining room chairs, sofas, love seats, lamps, pictures, clothes and books. (Says the staging expert (yes, such a person exists): “There are too many books in your library.” And no, I’m not making that up.)

The goal, of course, is to highlight the house (not the stuff), thereby triggering a buying frenzy among a swarm of potential purchasers during the open house. Before the open house, however, comes the 3D scan and still photography, but only after the repainting, carpet cleaning and lightbulb replacing. If the strategy works, we’ll sell our house for tens of thousands of dollars more than asking price. If it doesn’t, we’ll have pre-moved stuff that we were going to move anyway.

Leading up to all of this is the part that might possibly have some relevance to the subject of the Killzone Blog: Dozens (and dozens) of hours of culling, tossing, recycling, yard-saling and donating hundreds of bits of stuff left me without a truly relevant item to post today.

Next time for sure . . .

 

Stay In The Fight

By John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, Brother Bell posted Advice For the Demoralized Writer, and I confess it cut a bit close to the bone. I was the beneficiary of the crazy advances of the 1990s. The combined advances for my first two books (Nathan’s Run and At All Costs) weighed in at about $4 million, including the movies that were never made. For Books 3 & 4, the advances totaled about $150,000. None of them earned out.

I couldn’t give away Book #5. My career was declared dead, even though each of those books achieved critical acclaim and won some awards. Was it hard on the ego? Darn tootin’ it was. Mostly, it was embarrassing. My books and I were featured in People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher’s Weekly, Larry King’s radio program and Liz Smith’s Hollywood column. Heady stuff for a safety engineer in Woodbridge, Virginia.

A huge share of the publicity surrounding the books focused on the eye-popping numbers. I had nothing to do with that publicity, of course, but imagine the angst and anger of journeyman authors who hadn’t earned nearly that kind of scratch over the entirety of their prolific careers. To this day, there is one household-name author who was famous then and still pretty famous today who will not speak to me. He never has. Not once.

When the books didn’t come close to earning out, the entire industry knew it, and more than a few of my fellow authors smirked through their expressions of sympathy and support. I got it then, I get it now. The most common advice I got was to write under pseudonym. Looking back, I believe that they believed that they were helping me deal with my loss.

Except, I hadn’t lost. Never thought I had.

Lessons From Safety Engineering.

At the time, a good bit of my Big Boy Job involved accident investigations. The nature of “energetic incidents” (aka unexpected explosions) is such that the hardware involved ends up looking little like it did before it blew up. Thus, most investigations started with what was left–what went right.

In the case of my mourned writing career, I knew that I could tell a good story that people enjoyed reading. I knew from fan mail that my characters were three-dimensional, and I knew from previous contracts that industry professionals thought I had potential.

I also was awash in empirical data that publishers were unwilling to roll the dice on my brand of family-focused dramatic thrillers. That doesn’t reflect the quality of the writing or the stories, but merely risk-based business analysis. As with every industry, bean counters make the final decisions.

I knew what worked and what didn’t, and I knew that I was going to make this writing gig work.

That’s worth repeating. I was going to make this writing gig work. Hard stop.

Now I had to engineer the way to do that.

Wise Advice From A Friend.

I’ve known Jeffery Deaver for many years–long before he became Jeffery Friggin’ Deaver, mega-selling author. For the better part of a decade, we had a standing date at a local bar every Thursday for dinner and drinks. (Now it’s virtual and we’ve moved it to every Wednesday.) I’d hit bottom just about the time when The Bone Collector was making him a household name, and I asked him one evening, “What are you doing right that I’m doing wrong?”

He answered without pause, “Last time I counted, I was sixteen books ahead of you.”

Yeah, okay. Fine. Perspective.

Then he went on to say, “You know you have to keep writing. Stopping isn’t an option.”

“What if I can’t sell anything?” I whined.

“Nobody says you have to do it fulltime.”

That one rocked me back. Money wasn’t the issue, but self esteem was. I realized that as wonderful and exciting as the publishing biz is, it’s fundamentally the entertainment business, and there is no more capricious industry in the world. When you look at the decisions they make–and the ones they don’t–you’d think that they threw darts at the wall.

I realized that I wasn’t suited to that, certainly not as my fulltime focus. I’m an engineer at heart. In 2004, I went back to a high-profile Big Boy Job and became a more prolific writer than ever before. (More on that below.)

Writers Write.

Here’s where I have to confess that serendipity plays a role in all our lives. The trick is to recognize a break when it arrives and to determine what to do with it.

Thanks to A Perfect Storm and Black Hawk Down, narrative nonfiction was taking off in the late nineties and early aughts. That was when I met Kurt Muse, a U.S. citizen imprisoned by Manuel Noriega and ultimately rescued by Delta Force. His story thrilled me. We agreed to collaborate on what became Six Minutes To Freedom, the book that I am probably most proud of. It’s nonfiction and a kick-ass thriller. (Serendipity again: As I write this, SixMin is on sale for $1.99 on Amazon.)

My agent at the time refused to present SixMin to publishers because of bullshit political bigotry so I fired her and took on the lovely and talented Anne Hawkins as my agent. Her first task was to tell me that no publishers wanted SixMin because I was not a journalist, and only journalists can write narrative nonfiction.

Once more, pardon my language. Bullshit.

Way back in the early days after Nathan’s Run had hit the shelves, I met a fellow named Steve Zacharius, who at the time was an executive with Kensington Publishing in New York, and he was a huge fan of my writing. His words to me were something to the effect of, “if you ever find yourself in need of a publisher, let me know.”

I let him know, and he bought the book–for very little money. I would share the number if it were not for the fact that Kurt is part of the deal, and that wouldn’t be right, under the circumstances.

Six Minutes To Freedom hit the stands in 2006. It didn’t do much business in stateside brick and mortar stores, but it caught fire on U.S military facilities around the world. That was a time when tens of thousands of military personnel were in harm’s way and needed stories of heroes and successful military operations. The book earned out its advance in three weeks. Twenty or so members of the U.S. Army’s First Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (“Delta Force”) attended the book party at my house. Among them were the delightful, funny and kind models for characters later to be named Jonathan Grave and Boxers.

The presumed corpse of my career took a giant breath. Its heart light started to glow again.

Nothing breeds success like success. I pitched the Jonathan Grave series to Kensington, and they took it on. Thirteen series books later, I am happy to report than every one of them has earned out its advance in the first year. When the rights to Nathan’s Run and At All Costs reverted to me, Kensington snapped them up. Remember that fifth novel I couldn’t give away? They bought that, too. It came out as Nick Of Time.

Books are products, and products trend.

Even though the sales figures for the Grave series trend up each year, I know (fear?) that every boom is counterbalanced by a bust. That’s why, when I was smacked with the idea of a cool post-apocalyptic tale, I pitched my Victoria Emerson series and signed a contract for Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire (2022).

I’ve got a great idea for an occult detective series, too, but that one needs more development. Ditto my paradigm-changing Christmas series.

Failure cannot be inflicted.

I’ve made this point here before, but it bears repeating: When it comes to writing and publishing, ain’t none of us are victims. We are part of an industry that is desperate for new material, even if executives are not entirely sure what they’re looking for. Our job is to be different, exciting and persistent.

A couple of Sundays ago, when Brother Bell presented the story of the composite writer whose life was derailed and he turned to drink, I felt little sympathy. If a person chooses to quit any profession, he needs to be prepared to live with the consequences. If a publisher drops your books, you’ve been presented with a crossroads. You can choose to quit, or you can choose to adjust, but no one can force you to do either one. Most of the successful authors I know have been slapped around by the business. They’re successful because they stayed with it.

It doesn’t matter that others think that you’re out of the game. As long as you don’t give up, you’re still in the fight.

On the day you quit, understand that you will have declared your failure. No one will have inflicted it on you.