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.

A Whole Lot of Travel

By John Gilstrap

Today’s KZ post appears late because its author has been on the road and arrived home exhausted.

I left January 20 for the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, an event I go to every year because it is to weapons systems and technology what the Detroit Auto Show is to automobiles.  Plus, I get to shoot hundreds of rounds of other people’s ammunition.  I even got to shoot a crossbow.  The highlight of this year’s day at the range came when I nailed the center of a target at 850 yards with a 6.5 Creedmoor.

The day the SHOT Show ended, the January Writers Retreat began at the Golden Nugget Casino and Hotel on Fremont Street, also in Vegas. This is a one-day (or three-day, depending on how you count) retreat where writers get together to talk about writing.

That brings us to January 27, the day we embarked on a driving trip to from Las Vegas to Santa Fe with a stopover in Monument Valley.  This trip was purely vacation.  We traveled with our good friends, Reavis Wortham and his wife.  If you haven’t read any of Reavis’s books, you’re really missing something. Santa Fe is a beautiful town, situated at 7,000 feet.  Personally, I had some real problems with the thin air, particularly at night,  The secret, I learned, is to drink a ridiculous amount of water every day.

We returned home from Santa Fe on February 4, a day later than planned, thanks to flight delays.

On February 7, I left for a 5-day trip to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, where my colleague Khris Baxter and I taught an all-day writing class for the residents of the base.  We also spoke to the high school there.  The cherries on the cake, though, were the tours we got of the base, including those areas for which Guantanamo is most famous.  I’m not comfortable yet regarding what I can and cannot write about that, but it was quite the experience.

I got home last night and was in bed by 9.  That’s 2100 hours.  Travel to and from Gitmo is a chore.  It includes driving from Washington to Norfolk to arrive at the Military Airlift Command (MAC) by 0400 to catch the 0530 flight to the Jacksonville, FL, Naval Station (JAX).  There, the key is patience because the wait is long.  At least two hours.  Then you catch the flight to GTMO.  Upon arrival, you catch the bus that takes you to the ferry that takes you from the Leeward side to the Windward side, which is where all the cool stuff is.

Yesterday, I had to reverse that procedure to get home.  Which is why I am tired, and didn’t get this post written on time.  Oh, did I mention that Internet service on GTMO is . . . spotty?  I’ve already committed to going back next year for a full week.  But more on that later.

Now it’s time for coffee.

5+

Where Inspiration Comes From

By John Gilstrap

Over the weekend, on the heels of the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, I participated in a small, 20-person writers’ retreat, and I was reminded at how inspirational it is simply to be in the presence of other writers.  No fans, no industry people, just other authors who are doing their best to carve a living out of a crazy business.

I’ve been doing this a long time, yet there’s always another tidbit or two to be learned from others, even if it’s a different squint on a common problem.

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Arizona

Fired up with creativity, Joy and I joined with another couple and headed off for a week in the Great Southwest.  Our final destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico, but our first stopping point was Monument Valley, Arizona.  We stayed at The View Hotel on the Navajo Reservation, and Mother Nature presented us with the very best she had to offer.

I don’t remember the last time I had an unobstructed view of a moonless, entirely dark night sky.  The sight of billions of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon brought tears to my eyes.  It centered me.

And when I awoke the next morning, I was greeted with a sight that turned out to be photo-friendly.  The sun rose slowly against the big sky, and every few minutes the light changed again.  After a couple of snapshots, I realized I was squandering my gift from God.  Moments like that are meant to be experienced. They are meant to be savored.  It sounds corny, but something changed in me.

I’m better because of the experience.

What fleeting moments in your life have had a profound impact on you?

Fair warning: I’ll be savoring Santa Fe when this is published, so I won’t be participating much in the responses.

6+

First Page Critique – The Halcyon Vengeance

By John Gilstrap

Another brave anonymous writer has submitted a first page for review and comment.  Y’all know the drill by now: First the piece, and then comments on the other side.  NOTE: The italics are all mine, a way to differentiate whose writing is which.

THE HALCYON VENGEANCE

              Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

              “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

              He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

              “You mean –?”

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

It’s Gilstrap again.  First, by way of full disclosure, I had some real formatting issues transferring the original email onto the blogging platform.  So, Anon, if I screwed up any of the paragraph breaks, I apologize.

First, the positives.  I like the tone of this story.  It has a very Cold War Ludlum feel to it.  No one trusts anyone.  I like that stuff.  I also like the flow of the dialogue for the most part.  It feels like a real scene, populated with believable characters.

On the downside, I have some quibbles with the prose, which I’ll discuss below, but the most urgent issue here is the fact that it’s confusing.  So, let’s get to all of that.

First things first: I hate the title. It doesn’t mean anything. Titles are supposed to draw a reader in.  It’s among your most important marketing tools. 

Now let’s go section by section:

           Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

I get that it’s not my place to rewrite Anon’s work, but I think the opening line should be “Adrian Steele was in Moscow.  In winter.  Again.  He stared out the 10th floor . . .”  More people have heard of Moscow than have heard of Sheremetyevo, so the quicker you anchor the reader’s head to the setting, the better off you’ll be.

Anon, I urge you to cleanse your work of -ly adverbs. “Snow drifted lightly down” implies that snow can “drift” through the air heavily.  In this case, the word, drift, is strong enough to carry the entire image you’re looking for.

The image of Steele tracing his finger through the condensation implies to me that he is very close to the window, yet he’s receiving a mission brief.  This confuses me.  Is there something outside that he must watch? Is there a reason for him not to be fully engaged in what Natalya is telling him?

This is the paragraph where the confusion starts.  An assignment in Cuba could be a job as a missionary as well as an assassin.  I think you should plant something more specific as to the nature of what he’s going to do, just so the reader can get his head in the right place.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

More confusion for me.  Natalya’s admonition seems unearned.  To me, there’s no indication that he’s not remembering why he’s there. It doesn’t help that we the reader don’t know, either.

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

A one-sentence explanation could clarify who Pierce is.  Alternatively, Natalya could respond with a pithy remark like, “Impossible.  His voice is much higher than mine.”  Anything that would give us a hint of character.

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

Here again, the grimace feels unearned.  Is she in pain?  As she steps to the knapsack, where is she stepping off from?  In my mind, they were sitting, so she would have to rise before she steps.  We need more description of the setting.

If she’s briefing him, why is the knapsack someplace other than where she is?

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

Until this line, I thought Natalya was the boss.  Also, shouldn’t there be some reaction from Steele?  A few lines later, we learn that he’s confident that she’s a liar, so it makes sense that he wold have some kind of cynical reaction to her fear that she might lose her job.  Given that Steele is risking his life, wouldn’t he be a little bit snarky, if only in his head?

            “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

Here we have back-to-back non-sequiturs (sp?). Steele asks a one-word question and Natalya gives a non-responsive response.  Is Steele naked?  What does he need the clothes for?  Is he asking if clothes are in the knapsack?  

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

Yes!  I like this bit.  I’m not fond of the word, doubtlessly, but the sentiment works.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

More confusion.  Changing clothes from what to what?  Why?  That she’d seen him without clothes implies that they are (or were) lovers, so why turn away?  Again, this seems unearned.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

I have no idea what a ushanka is, so therefore I have no image.  Without an image, the next line makes no sense.

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

He knew what?  That he’d look like a pussy?

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

This is the best line of the entire piece.  I would break it into two parts, though:

“And don’t die.  Or get wounded.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “I’ve got an 0300 flight to Havana.”  He put . . .

             He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

Okay, the Makarov PM is a clue. Unless the assassin is using old surplus equipment, the story must be set sometime between the late ’40s and early ’90s.  Now that he’s got his pistol, what does he do with it?  Is there a holster?  Does he slip it in his pocket? Surely he must load it (unless the two magazines Natalya hands him are extras).  My point here is that once you introduce an object, yhou can’t just let it disappear from the page.

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

Jim Bell blogged last Sunday on using dialect and foreign words in manuscripts.  “Spasiba do . . .” translates in my head as blah, blah, blah.  Also, where’s the emotion?  They talk about the weather, and then Steele just walks away.

This section highlights a lack of point of view.  Whose scene is this? I’d like to be in someone’s head, but instead, I’m just watching the players move around on the set.  I’d like to feel something from someone.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

What is the lie?

              “You mean –?”

I’m lost.  I don’t know what they’re talking about.

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

I sense that here at the end, I’m supposed to be fearful, but I’m not.  Dialogue can carry a scene only so far.  As a reader, I don’t want to feel like I’m merely eavesdropping on someone’s conversation.  I want to understand what’s going on.  I want to understand the stakes.

What say you, TKZers?  It’s your turn.

 

 

4+

Networking For Writers

By John Gilstrap

Like any other business, this publishing game is built in part on personal relationships. Want to rise to the top of an agent’s slush pile?  Want to get a blurb from a big-name author? Want to know how to deal with the frustrations of cover designs, finding an editor, or fleshing out the technical details of your plot?  All of these challenges and just about everything else you want to know or do can be flushed out through networking.  That’s what I want to talk about in the paragraphs ahead.

In no particular order of importance:

Followers, Friends, Likes and Contacts don’t count. There’s a widespread presumption “out there” that the way to start a writing career is to build an enormous social media platform.  I see the logic when it comes to nonfiction expertise, but when it comes to fiction, it makes no sense to me to concentrate on finding customers for a product that doesn’t yet exist.  Yes, I suppose a well-done blog about one’s writing process could be interesting to other writers, but here’s the sad truth: Writers don’t buy books. I’ve overstated that, of course, but in large measure I think it’s true when it comes to writers’ blogs.  I’m not being bitter here at all, but we get statistics every week on how many people visit TKZ every day, and trust me: If all those people bought all our books, we’d all be driving better cars.

Now, think of the number of writing-related groups and blogs you subscribe to through Facebook and LinkedIn and all the other social media platforms.  I get that those are the safe spaces that make you comfortable, and give you an opportunity to actively participate in conversations, but if you’re writing, say, about police procedures, might your time and efforts be better spent on groups and blogs that talk about those things?

I don’t think it’s insignificant that the social media push is largely driven by people who make money by helping people build their social media platform. I mean, think about it: Authors are brands and books are products. Would you be more inclined to buy a Chevy over a Toyota because the president of Chevrolet posted a picture of his breakfast?

Step out of the virtual world into the real one. Given that you’re currently reading a blog about writing, I feel a little awkward telling you to push away from the computer and stop reading blogs about writing. None of us are truly who we pretend to be in public forums like this. Many of us try to be genuine–I know that I do–but my armor is always up in an online interaction.  My inner-cynic won’t let me get but so close in a cyber-relationship, and I expect the same level of cynicism from others. I would never dream of asking advice or asking a favor from someone I have not met in person.

Go to where the experts are.  It’s no secret to TKZ regulars that I’m what you might call a gun guy.  I like firearms and I know a lot about them. I also know that there are people who know far more than I do, and that a large percentage of those people will gather in Las Vegas at the end of January for the annual SHOT Show, which is to weapons systems what the Detroit Auto Show is to automobiles. I need to be there.

My first SHOT Show was in 2012, and it was there that I met a guy who is a world renown expert in martial arts and edged weapons. We bonded and became friends. Through him, I’ve met a number of Special Forces operators, and through them some FBI special weapons experts.  I try not to bother them too much, but they always take my phone calls and answer tough questions.  They trust me never to write things that I shouldn’t and I pay them every year with an acknowledgement and a free book. Most of these guys have become good friends.

But you don’t have to go to Vegas.  Want to know about how cops interact with each other? Start with a community ride-along program and chat up the officer who’s driving you around.  Listen not just to the words, but to the attitude.  Ask that cop if he can introduce you to other cops–say, a homicide investigator–so that you can ask a few questions.  I think you’ll be surprised by the results.

BTW, for police-related immersion learning, you cannot beat Writer’s Police Academy.  Lee Lofland puts on one hell of a 4-day show every year. His blog, The Graveyard Shift, is informative, too.

You need to meet other industry professionals.  Pick a conference, any conference. They grow like weeds around the country–around the world, for that matter.  I can’t speak to other genres, but in the world of mysteries and thrillers, you could spend virtually every weekend at a conference.  Yes, they cost money, but before you complain about that, remember that writing is a business, and every business requires investment.

  • 100% of all business at a conference is conducted in the bar. You don’t have to drink, but just as lions on the hunt target watering holes for their dinner, smart rookies scope out the bar at the conference hotel to meet people. Authors of all stature are there to hang out with old friends and meet new ones. Agents and editors are there to develop relationships with existing clients and to scope out new ones.
  • Have a plan. Are you attending the conference to simply get to know people and hang out, or are you going there to accomplish a particular goal?  If you’re on the hunt for an agent, be sure to research who’s attending and what kind of books they’re looking for.  Basically, read the program booklet.
  • Don’t be shy. Okay, you’re an introvert and are uncomfortable around people.  I get that.  Now, get over it. This is a business, and contacts are not going to come to you. To a person, everyone you see at the bar knows that they’re in a public place among hungry strangers, and they’re willing–anxious, even–to talk with shy rookies.
  • Know what you want. After sharing a laugh and a few stories about life and family, be ready for the question, “So, how can I help you?”  That’s your cue for your ten-second elevator pitch delivered without notes. With a smile.  The home run here is a request to send a manuscript. Then chat some more.  This is a people business, so be a real person.
  • Hang out with the crowd you want to belong to.  I’m always amazed–and a little dismayed–at conferences when I see all the rookies hanging out with each other, while the veterans and bestsellers hang out separately. I don’t mean to be crass–and remember, this is a business conference–but your fellow rookies are not in positions to help you.  If Connolly and Lehane and Deaver and Gerritsen are all hanging out, drinking and laughing, pull up a chair.  If the Agent of All Agents is holding court, join the crowd. Unless it’s an intense one-on-one business meeting, I guarantee that no one will ask you to leave. (And why in the world would anyone choose such a public forum for an intense one-on-one business meeting?)

Overall, “networking” as a concept attempts to complicate something that is inherently simple. You have goals that you wish to accomplish, and you want to get to know people who can help you get there.  As an alternative step, you want to get to know someone who can introduce you to someone who can help you.  It’s as easy–and as hard–as showing up and asking.

So, what do you think?  What have I missed? Where am I entirely off base?

9+

Every Commercial Writer is His or Her Own Small Business

Last week, I received an email from a high school buddy with whom I had not spoken in decades.  It’s always nice to reconnect.  Turns out that he and his wife are both writing fiction now–she a cozy mystery and he a fantasy/sci-fi novel–and he had some questions, and it occurred to me as I responded, the the whole exchange would make a nice post for TKZ.

First, to quote from his letter, “[My wife has] had no luck so far finding an agent, and wanted to know a few things that a published author might be able to enlighten her on.  Specifically, she wants to know, did you have to have your manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them to potential agents?  This seems a very expensive route for something that might not be picked up by anyone.  Also, many agents seem to want to know “how you intend to market your book.”    We always thought this was something the publisher did.  So, what are they looking for with this question?  I understand that all agents aren’t the same, but any information could help her get really started here.  she has started work on books two and three, and has a basic outline of the series for quite a long way down the road, so if we can maximize her chances of getting it considered by someone, any help would be greatly appreciated!”

Here is my response to him, picking up after the pleasantries:

You’ve asked some questions that are probably more complex than you realize, but I’ll give it shot.  First I encourage you to visit my website and click on the “Essays” tab.  You’ll find a section in the middle of that page that chronicles how I got published.  I should throw in a caveat that I found my first agent in 1995.  I cut my teeth in this business when all correspondence required envelopes and stamps, but the one thing that remains unchanged about the publishing industry is the continuing and insatiable need for good stories told well.

I urge your wife (and you, too) to look into a group called Sisters In Crime (SinC).  I’m not a member, but I know many writers of all levels of success who sing the praises of that group for its helpfulness to new and upcoming writers.

I personally have never used an outside editor, but I know many writers who do.  The point here is to make your manuscript as perfect as it can be before shipping it around to agents and editors.  The risk of using an outside editor is that not all are created equal.  It falls on the author’s shoulders to make sure that any changes proposed by an editor are in fact changes the author wants to make.  Sometimes, bad advice is worse than no advice at all.

As for the expense, only you can decide what is reasonable and what is not.  I guess it depends on how good your writerly instincts are, and how intent you are in seeing your works published.

The job of an editor at a publishing house is more that of a project manager than an editor in the sense that most people imagine them.  The editor is the person who buys the book, manages the cover design, and fights for dollars during marketing meetings.  They offer editorial input, of course, but they focus on making an already very good manuscript even better.  If the prose or the story require too much work, they’ll pass.

This brings us to the role of the agent.  Through the relationships they’ve built over the years with various houses, agents are aware of various editors’ tastes and desires.  The agent’s job is to spot literary properties that a) are already very well written, and b) are likely to fill a niche.  My agent, for example, is keenly dialed into the thriller market, the genre I write.  If I decided to write, say, a children’s book or a romance, she’d be of little help to me because she doesn’t know those markets and she doesn’t know the editors who acquire those books.

Now to marketing.  It’s a quirk of the publishing industry that irrespective of genre, a book is a product to be sold, and it goes stale on the shelf after only a month or two.  Books are largely forgotten after a period of time has passed.

What people remember, however, is the author.  Just as a book is a product, think of the author as the brand.  People who like cars have an opinion of, say, Ford that infects and affects buying decisions.  I happen to like Fords, so when I go shopping for a new car, that’s my go-to brand.  (On the flip side, my only experience with a General Motors vehicle–30 years ago!–was so awful that I would never consider another GM product, no matter what JD Powers might say.)  That’s the power–both the good and the bad–of branding.

If you’ll forgive me for referring to myself in the third person, John Gilstrap is my brand.  After 18 published novels, people who buy a Gilstrap book know that they’re going to get a wild ride with a story that is heavy on character and plot.  Good guys win in the aggregate, and bad guys have very, very bad days.  Whether part of my series, or in a stand alone novel, every story shares those basic characteristics.

No one is better able to build an author’s brand than the author him- or herself.  This means, to the degree that time and money allow, flogging social media, attending conferences, visiting bookstores, writing newsletters, establishing mailing lists, and any other strategies that might work.  A writer of commercial fiction is his own small business, and all of the principles of business apply.  When prospective agents ask about your marketing plans and platforms, this is what they’re wanting to know.

When a publisher offers a contract, they are in fact, investing in your business.  They will make sure that your product finds shelf space and distribution, and they’ll do their best to make the packaging attractive and engaging.  But if you don’t help them do their job, the smart business move on their part would be to invest in someone else’s business.

The letter then closed with some personal pleasantries.  So, what say you, TKZers?  Did I lead my buddy astray?  What did I leave out?

NOTE:  Since this is my last post of 2018, pending the arrival of our annual holiday hiatus, let me wish all of you a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever religious holiday you my celebrate.  To all, here’s to lots of love and laughter and a wonderful, prosperous and healthy 2019.  It’s an honor to be a part of this great community of writers and readers and friends.  God bless us, every one.
13+

Series, -Ogy, or Stand-Alone?

By John Gilstrap

I am often asked about the business and creative considerations of writing a thriller series as opposed to writing stand-alone thrillers.  The truthful answer is a shrug and a heartfelt “I don’t know.” But having written both over the course of my career, I guess I have some thoughts to share.

An -ogy is not a series.

A trilogy or a quintilogy is not a series.  It is a single story broken up into parts.  As I understand it, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was originally a single manuscript.  There being no market for a 900,000-word book, however, he broke the one story into multiple parts.  I don’t know if that story is true, but I like it because it proves my point.  In an -ogy, there’s no anticipation from the reader for a completed story at the end of any volume but the last one.

The Harry Potter saga is another example–one with which I’m more familiar because I actually read the books.  Not to be confused with Hobbitty stories, which I have not.  Book One of the septilogy (is that a word?) is dedicated mostly to establishing the wizarding world, along with establishing relationships between the kids.  The whole business of the Sorcerer’s Stone is more of a MacGuffin.  At the end of that volume, while there is a sense of continuing peril, Harry’s immediate world is stable.  Looking back on those books, I believe that Rowling wrote Sorcerer’s Stone in a way that it could have lived on as a stand-alone if the market had not embraced Harry and Hogwarts.

Beginning with Book Two, and continuing all the way through to the end, the Potter story was a continuous one.  Even though Harry resolved the immediate crisis of each book, the last pages always revealed more impending doom.  There was no real resolution.

A series is more episodic.

My Jonathan Grave thriller series is not a continuing story, but is rather a collection of stand-alone stories that involve recurring main characters.  Jonathan Grave’s character arc over the course of eleven books now is very long and slow, while the arcs of the characters he interacts with are completely developed within each book.  There are Easter eggs for readers who have read all the books in order, but I am careful to make each episode as fulfilling for a reader who picks up  Book Ten as their first exposure to the series as it is for a reader who’s been with me from the beginning.

Writers like the always-fabulous Donna Andrews write series that are driven as much by place as by characters.  The people in her fictional town of Caerphilly, Virginia, are a hoot, even though an extraordinary number of people are murdered there.

Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme solves a new crime by the end of every book.  While Rhyme’s medical progress as a quadriplegic is continually evolving from book to book, as is his relationship with Amelia, a new reader is well-grounded in any story, without benefit of having read the previous ones.

A stand-alone, well, stands alone.

When I finished Nathan’s Run, the story was over.  There was no place I could feasibly have taken Nathan or the other characters to tell a new story.  That was the case with each of the following three novels and, of course, with my nonfiction book.  I think the primary characteristic of a stand-alone is that “The End” means the end.  The character and story arcs have all been driven to ground.

A series takes planning.

When I was writing No Mercy, the first book in the Grave series, I knew in my heart that I had finally landed on a character who could support a series.  What I didn’t know was whether or not a publisher would buy it, and if they did, whether they’d support the idea of developing the one story into many.  Still, I made a conscious effort to plant as much fodder as I could for potential use in future stories.  For example:

  1. Jonathan is a former Delta Force operator, leaving the potential for stories dealing with his days in the Unit.
  2. His hostage rescue activities are a covert part of a legitimate private investigation firm that does work for some of the largest corporate names in the world.  This sets up potential stories set in the world of more common private investigators.
  3. Jonathan is the primary benefactor for Resurrection House, a school for the children of incarcerated parents.  When every student has parents with lots of enemies, there’s lots of potential for future stories.
  4. His home, Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, is the town where he grew up.  This puts him in the midst of people who already know the darkest secrets of his childhood and accept him for who he is.  Or they don’t.  This sets up the potential for small  town conflicts.

There are many more such seeds, but there’s no need to highlight them all.  The point is that unlike a stand-alone, a series needs to be engineered not just for the current book, but for future books as well.

What do y’all think?  Do these resonate with you?  What have I forgotten?

And finally, tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States.  For those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful time with whatever your holiday traditions may be.  For those of you who read this from somewhere other than America, I wish you a great day with lots of high-calorie food and televised sports!

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First Page Critique: Musical Hairs

By John Gilstrap

I haven’t done one of these First Page things in a while.  As you read through Brave Anon’s submission, ask yourself one question in particular: So what?

MUSICAL HAIRS

Gertrude Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, was on the landline phone in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store. The door was closed and she was finishing up a call with Mr. Carney from the local high school. “Of course, Mr. Carney,” she reassured him. “We’ll make sure all the instruments have been unboxed and checked for defects before we deliver them to the school. That’s always been our policy.”

Mr. Carney was new to the town of Cannonsville, Tennessee, and this was the first time Gertie had dealt with him. Bless his heart, she thought to herself. Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things.

Someone knocked on her office door loud enough that Mr. Carney heard it on the other end of the line and stopped talking for a second. Gertie said, “There’s someone here for a very important meeting I have this morning and I’ve got to go now. I’ll give you a heads up call when we get the instruments in.” She waited for a second and then hung up, breathing a sigh of relief.

The knock came again and Gertie said, “Come in, come in.” The door opened. It was her assistant manager, Olivia Stanton, with some papers in her hand. “Thank goodness, Olivia. You saved me from that new band director at the high school. He is a nice enough man, but he just doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking.”

“I know,” Olivia said. “I spoke to him yesterday and had to finally excuse myself to go to the bathroom to get him off the phone. Being new to the school, I think he’s a little bit overly nervous and is trying too hard to do a good job.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gertie said, “but I’ve got a business to run. I know the customer is always right. I just need to learn how to graciously end a phone conversation when the other party gets over talkative.”

Olivia held up her hand of paperwork and frowned. “Have you seen these bills yet from Tommy’s session last week? There’re a little bit over the top if you ask me.”

It’s me again.  So . . . So what?  In my view, the most critical problem with this page is the lack of a so what.  What is at stake here?  Who are the players, really?  Truth be told, this reads like the warm-up to the beginning of a story rather than a story in and of itself.

As a self-taught writer, I’m not sure what “passive sentence construction” actually means, but I’ll apply it to virtually any sentence that relies on some conjugation of the verb, to be.  Gertie was on the landline . . . the door was closed . . . she was finishing up a call . . . Carney was new . . . That’s a snore-o-rama.  Consider: Gertie held the receiver . . . her closed door made the tiny office feel smaller . . . she wondered if the call would ever end . . . “I may be new,” he said . . .

The conjugated to-be+verb construction can’t be avoided in its entirety, but remember that better options always exist.  (Before editing that sentence, I had written, “It’s important to remember that there are always better options.”  Ha!)

Stories must always advance.  Word-by-word, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by page.  If a sentence or scene does not advance either character or story, then it merely stops the story.

Let’s take another look at Brave Anon’s story.  My comments are in bold type.

MUSICAL HAIRS

Gertrude Gertie Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, [We don’t need to know this detail, and it interrupts the flow of the story] was on the landline phone [what would a landline be if not a phone?]in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store. The door was closed and she was finishing up a call with Mr. Carney from the local high school. “Of course, Mr. Carney,” she reassured him. “We’ll make sure all the instruments have been unboxed and checked for defects before we deliver them to the school. That’s always been our policy.”

Consider: “Of course we’ll make sure that the instruments are fine,” Gertie said into the handset of her landline. “We wouldn’t deliver a defective product to your school.” If her office weren’t so cluttered with incoming inventory, she’d pace.  Or at least put her feet up.  As it was, every surface of her store was stacked horns, woodwinds and strings.

Mr. [I would give him a first name, but that’s a stylistic thing that you might not agree with.] Carney was new to the town of Cannonsville, Tennessee, [We don’t need this detail yet, and including it makes the syntax awkward.] and this was the first time Gertie had dealt with him. [If he placed an order, how can this be the first time she’s dealing with him?] Bless his heart, she thought to herself. [This is your first moment of narrative voice.  “Bless his heart” stands alone as a thought, and it establishes a Southern root for the story.  Also, is it possible to think to someone other than oneself?] Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things. [Either show it or kill it.  This entire paragraph is a squandered opportunity to show instead of telling.]

Consider: “I’m very serious about this,” Mr. Carney said in her ear.  “I may be new to the community and to the high school faculty, but this band is very important to me.  There can be no flaws.”

Gertie rolled her eyes.  “As your business is important to me,” she said.  “I don’t know how many times I can say the same thing until you believe me.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Carney said.  “I just want to make sure you understand the importance—”

A perfectly-timed knock at her door saved her from having to choose between homicide or suicide.  “Gotta go,” she said. “My next appointment just arrived.”  She disconnected before Carney could argue.  “Come in.”

Someone knocked on her office door loud enough that Mr. Carney heard it on the other end of the line and stopped talking for a second. Gertie said, “There’s someone here for a very important meeting I have this morning and I’ve got to go now. I’ll give you a heads up call when we get the instruments in.” [Say those lines of dialogue aloud.  Do they sound real to you? They sound stilted to me.] She waited for a second [Why wait?  Why not hang up as soon as possible?] and then hung up, breathing a sigh of relief.

The knock came [Knocks don’t come. Someone causes them to happen. A second knock does not advance the story unless there’s something different in the character of the knock.  More urgent, maybe?] again and Gertie said, “Come in, come in.” The door opened. [Of course it did.  Don’t need the detail.] It was h Her assistant manager, Olivia Stanton, entered with some papers in her hand. “Thank goodness, Olivia.  [Don’t need this.  The next sentence makes your point.] You saved me from that new band director at the high school Mr. Carney. He is a nice enough man, but he just doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking.”

Olivia laughed.  “I know,” Olivia said. “He’s a talker. I spoke to him yesterday and had to finally excuse myself to go to the bathroom to get him off the phone. Being new to the school, I think he’s a little bit overly nervous and is trying too hard to do a good job.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gertie said, “but I’ve got a business to run. I know the customer is always right. I just need to learn how to graciously end a phone conversation when the other party gets over talkative [This point has been pretty much flogged to death.  Time to move on.] Consider: “What’ve you got?”

Olivia frowned as she held up her hand [stack?]of paperwork and frowned. “Have you seen these bills yet from Tommy’s session last week? There’re a little bit over the top if you ask me.” [“Tommy’s session” means nothing to the reader.]

 

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A Different Twist on Storytelling

By John Gilstrap

The Greenbrier

Autumn is conference season.  Bouchercon morphed into C3 (Creatures, Crimes & Creativity con), which then morphed into Magna Cum Murder.  As a former road warrior, traveling by air all the time, I decided this year to skip the airport this year and drive from Northern Virginia to Indianapolis for Magna.  On the way out, we broke the trip into two, four-and-a-half-hour drives, stopping for a night in Wheeling, West Virginia.  For the trip home, we decided to take the southern route, which took us through White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, the home of the stately and wonderful Greenbrier Resort (and yes, that’s spelled properly).

From 1962 till 1992 The Greenbrier kept an important secret.  Then a reporter from the Washington Post decided on his own that the world needed to know something that the government had classified Top Secret.  The Greenbrier had been designated as the relocation spot for members of the US Senate and House of Representatives in the event of a nuclear attack.  (I’m told that said reporter now teaches journalistic ethics at the collegiate level.  Just sayin’.)  A 112,000-square-foot, 153-room bunker facility lies buried 720 feet under the Allegheny Mountains, and is constructed of 50,000 tons of reinforced concrete.  One of the four blast doors that provides access to the bunker weighs 25 tons, and swings on hinges that are four feet long, 14 inches wide and eight inches thick.

The bunker was built in total secret.  How, you might ask?  That’s where storytellers became important.  Beginning in 1955, the C&O Railroad, owner of the resort at the time, started a press campaign celebrating an expansion of the hotel which would add the West Virginia Wing, featuring new guest rooms and massive exhibition space for business meetings and trade shows.

Joy and me standing in front of one of the smaller blast doors.

And here’s the thing: When the bunker was finished in 1962, the massive spaces were all used for business meetings and trade shows.  One of the nation’s most important secrets was kept in plain sight!  The enormous blast doors were disguised as walls, and the House and Senate chambers were rented out for classes and business meetings.  Who would  think to ask if the walls were five feet thick?

For thirty years, the bunker was maintained by a crew of thirteen very special workers who doubled as the television and electronics maintenance team for the hotel and its visitors.  Their cover worked because they actually were the television and maintenance team for The Greenbrier.

If the balloon ever went up, the U.S. Government Relocation Facility–the official name for the bunker–would have become home to roughly 1,100 members of congress and their staffs.  Sleeping in bunks and sharing bathrooms and showers, conditions would have been Spartan at best.  Even in the early sixties, the folks who ran the bunker understood that cramming passionate politicians from all persuasions into tight quarters could lead to flashes of temper.  They understood that after weeks of living underground, somebody might go a little nuts and try to open the blast doors to expose everyone to fallout.  Thus, there was a safe, accessible only to security personnel, where riot gear was stored.  Because these people needed to be fed in shifts and it was therefore necessary to move people along, the architects intentionally included design features that made the cafeteria an unpleasant place to sit and talk.

One of the planning details that impressed me the most was the White House backdrop on the wall of the media room.  The president and the executive branch would never have come near The Greenbrier, so it made sense that the Capitol Building backdrop would be part of any broadcast, but why the White House backdrop?  Well, if the president and vice president were killed, the speaker of the House of Representatives would become the president, and they were prepared for that eventuality.

And then there was the incinerator room.  Yes, it burned documents and clothing that were brought in, but the designers had also taken into consideration that members of congress were of a certain age, and that there would be lots of stress, and, well, you know.  Burial really wasn’t possible.

As I took this tour, my mind whirled at about a million rpm.  Think classic locked-room mystery.  Think psychological thriller.  Think political thriller.  Is there any place one couldn’t go with that kind of setup?

 

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Choose Your Weapon

By John Gilstrap

In the comments section of my most recent gun porn post, our own Jordan Dane gave me the idea of doing a post on how a character–particularly a female character–would go about choosing which handgun to carry.  Way to tee one up for the Johnster!

Caliber (and caliber snobs)

As I’ve discussed here before, “caliber” refers to the diameter of a bullet at its widest point, measured in inches or millimeters.  (Note: in the parlance of people who know guns, the word caliber is exclusively used in reference to measurement in inches.  One would never say “nine millimeter caliber,” but one would say “.38 caliber.”)

If you hang out at some of the corners of the Internet that I visit from time to time, you’ll learn that there’s a very vocal element out there that states without equivocation that any caliber that doesn’t start with a 4 or larger isn’t worth carrying.  They’ll talk about “stopping power” and “lethality” and hold in contempt anyone who is not willing to strap a two-pound hand cannon to their belt.  I call these bloviators caliber snobs, and believe their claims to fall within the broad category known as Bravo Sierra.

I’ve previously posted on how bullets do their damage.  You’re sending a hunk of metal through vulnerable parts of your target’s anatomy.  If it hits the appropriate anatomy, the result is reasonably predictable.  In almost all cases, a poorly aimed mini-cannonball does far less damage than a well-placed .22.  Have your character choose a weapon s/he can reasonably control.

Ultimately, selection comes down to manageability.  This leads us to…

My friend Isaac Newton

Newton’s three laws of motion are:

1. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.

2. The acceleration of an object is affected by two factors: the force applied; and the object’s mass.

3. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Sooo . . . Heavier bullets need more force to get them out of the barrel and on their way.  Greater force creates greater recoil.  For any given caliber of firearm, the heavier the gun, the less recoil felt by the shooter.  The greater the felt recoil, the more likely the shot will be off-target.  There are lots of reasons for this, but for our purposes here, it boils down to the shooter getting what I call the yips.  They anticipate the punch to the hand and they screw up their aim.

There’s such a thing as a Smith & Wesson .500 magnum.  Pictured here from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, this four-pound smoke wagon fires bullets at over 1,800 feet per second (FPS) and, according to the manufacturer, will drop an elephant.  I’ve shot this beast.  While it’s the kind of pistol that a new Dirty Harry might be drawn to (“the most powerful handgun in the world and can blow your head clean off–while you’re hiding behind the refrigerator in your neighbor’s house“), there’s no practical use for it in the hands of your private detective.

Barrel length matters.

A firearm is a pressure chamber, the sole purpose of which is to contain the pressure of the exploding gunpowder long enough to send a projectile on to its target.  As the bullet proceeds down the barrel, the lands and grooves of the rifling impart a spin that stabilizes the bullet in flight.  The more time the pressure has to push the bullet, the longer the bullet has time to stabilize from the lands and grooves.  Thus, all else being equal, longer barrels equal greater accuracy at greater distances.

So, what kind of gunfight does your character anticipate?  Most gunfights play out in less than five seconds at distances of less than ten feet.  If that’s most likely your character’s world, then shorter barrels will do.

NOTE: There’s such a thing as the “21-foot rule,” which proclaims that any shot fired at a person from a range of greater than 21 feet–seven yards–is not considered self defense against any threat that is not another firearm.  If a bad guy is running at your good guy with a baseball bat or a knife, many jurisdictions will say that threat is not lethal until the bad guy closes to within 21 feet.

Single-stack or double-stack?

Guns for everyday carry (EDC) are getting smaller, but there remains a need for ammunition to feed them.  As you probably know, ammo magazines for pistols typically reside in the weapon’s grip.  A “single-stack” magazine stacks the bullets directly on top of each other, while a “double-stack” mag staggers the bullets side-by side, with the effect of making the grip thicker and harder to hold for a shooter with a smaller hand.  The pistols shown side-by-side in the picture are the Glock 26 on the left, and the Glock 43 on the right.  Both are called “baby Glocks”, with barrel lengths within a couple hundredths of 3.4 inches.  They’re called compact 9mm pistols.  The one on the left (G26) is fed by a double-stack magazine and holds 10 rounds, plus one in the chamber, while the one on the right (the G43) uses a single-stack mag and holds 6 rounds plus one in the pipe.  You need to ask yourself what your character’s priorities are.  Those four extra rounds cost you a lot in terms of grip size and concealability.  (Full disclosure: having spoken to many people who’ve been involved in gunfights, I’ve never heard one complain about having too much ammunition.)

Dress for the day.

How likely is it that your character will get involved in a gunfight?  Military personnel in a war zone, and police officers on duty carry full-size pistols because there’s a reasonably high likelihood that they will find themselves in a gunfight.  They make no effort to conceal their firearm, so bigger is better.  The bigger, heavier platform is less punishing to shoot, and as a result, accuracy tends to be better.  But it’s not exactly the right weapon to strap to your tuxedo or evening gown on the way to the opera.

North American Arms Mini-Revolver chambered in .22 short. The effective range is maybe 4 or 5 feet, but fired into the brain pan, it’s as deadly as a sniper shot.

For those highly concealed applications, the firearm manufacturing industry offers lots of options.  Just remember that for any given caliber, the smaller and lighter the weapon–the easier it is to carry and conceal–the more punishing it is to shoot.  Also, smaller guns mean a shorter effective range.

One of the most popular EDC guns on the market these days is the Ruger LCP (Lightweight Compact Pistol), chambered in .380, shown here in the picture next to the ballpoint pen to give it scale.  As presented, the pistol is in a pocket holster, which is exactly what it sounds like–a holster that slides easily into a pocket or a purse.  Because of its tiny size–there’s only room for two fingers on the grip–and its very heavy trigger pull, this is a difficult gun to learn to shoot, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty effective.  Virtually every gun manufacturer makes a similar weapon, and all of them are hand-breakers till you learn the right grip.

Okay, TKZers, how do you want to arm your good guys?  How about your bad guys?  What other questions do you have?

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Pesky Deadlines

By John Gilstrap

Every September 15, I owe a book to my publisher, and somehow, every September 12, it’s not quite done.  It’s close.  I’ve written all the scenes, and the story has a complete structure, but I’m in the throes of making right that which is close.  It’s a tedious, arduous task, and alas, it takes away from activities such as blogging.  Feel free to gossip about my awesome new cover, but for now, I must go back to making stuff up.  I’ll see you here again in a couple of weeks.  Sorry about this.

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