About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017.

A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

Judging a Book By Its Cover

By John Gilstrap

Whenever I finish a new book, my publisher is kind enough to ask me if I have any ideas for what the cover should look like.  It seems like a reasonable thing to expect, right?  After all, I spent a year writing the thing, so you’d think I have some inclination as to what I want the cover image to be.

Well, I never do.  I testify with neither pride nor shame that my mind simply does not work that way.  I think I’ve mentioned here before that after 11 books in the series, I really don’t know what Jonathan Grave looks like.  I know how he thinks, and I know what his skills are.  I know his strengths and his weaknesses, but, physically, beyond having intense blue eyes and a number of scars, I don’t see him in my head.  If I can’t see him, then I guess it should be of no surprise that I can’t cough up a cover image.  That said, I know a good cover when I see one, and this one for Scorpion Strike (July, 2018) is my favorite of all my books.

I think that the old adage that a book cannot be judged by its cover is at best disingenuous, and at worst a lie.  We all do it, and publishers understand that we do.  That’s why they have art departments. A book’s cover telegraphs more than just the story it tells.  It says a lot about the attitude of the book and its intended audience.  While my book covers are designed to project a Big Commercial Thriller, other covers, such as the one here for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, telegraph quite clearly that they are targeted for a more literary audience.

When my first thriller, Nathan’s Run, was released in hardcover in 1996, I was horrified by the cover.  I was a rookie in the business and afraid to express my opinion, but I thought the cover with its drab brown tones and its weird font expressed nothing about the story while conveying the wrong tone.  This was supposed to be a Big Commercial Thriller, but it projected . . . well, I don’t know.  At best, the message seemed muddled. While the book sold well–certainly for a first novel–it fell short of expectations, and I’ve always thought the cover was a contributor to that.

My British publisher, Michael Joseph, on the other hand, had a vision of the cover that fit way more closely to what I thought a cover should look like.  The bad guy’s sunglasses reflecting a fleeing boy was “too literal” in the view of my peeps at HarperCollins, so I kept my mouth shut, but I loved the UK cover. And the tag line, “At twelve, Nathan has seen just about everything … Now all he wants to see is thirteen,” was a stroke of brilliance.  Per capita, the book did much better in the UK than it did here in the U.S.  We all know that correlation is not causation, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the cooler cover played a role in the better sales.

Roughly eight years after the paper copies of Nathan’s Run went out of print, Kensington re-bought the publication rights and put it out  as an eBook, along with my second novel, At All Costs.  I’m not sure what I think about this latest cover.  It shows motion, and I can’t complain about the size of my name relative to the title, but, to my eye, this version of the cover is kind of a place holder. It doesn’t really convey anything about the story, but I think it projects that it’s a commercial thriller.  Maybe that’s all it needs.  Again, I don’t know about this stuff.

Ultimately, I think cover art achieves its primary goal if it convinces a reader to pick up the book and take a look at the first page.  After that, it’s all about the writing.

Or is it?

I suspect, in the utter absence of any empirical data, that covers are one of the big obstacles that keep a lot of genre fiction from reaching mainstream acceptance.  We all know the story of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.  In its original printed form–before the movie tie-in version–the cover is clearly literary in its focus, and Western in its setting.  In my busiest days of my fire service career, I wouldn’t have hesitated to carry this book with me and read it in the day room of the fire station. Replace the cover with a picture of a bare-chested man in chaps, though, and not only would I not have carried it, I never would have opened it. (Yes, I’m that shallow.)  I know professional women who are secretly fans of romance novels, but won’t read them on the subway because the bodice-ripping covers.

And, in all fairness, I’m sure there will be professional men and women both who will feel a little uncomfortable toting a cover that features rusted bullet holes.  But, man-oh-man, I do love it.

I’ve learned one fascinating fact about covers over the years–and titles, too, for that matter: They needn’t have much to do with the story the book tells. Friendly Fire, for example, features a picture of the White House on the cover. I think it’s a terrific cover, but it hides a secret: Neither the White House nor the presidency play a role in the story. Once again, I was told that I was thinking too literally. The Jonathan Grave novels are “corridors-of-power” thrillers, and that is the message being conveyed by the cover image. Certainly, no one is going to mistake it for literary fiction or a romance. If it’s an engaging enough cover, people will pick it up.  At that point, the cover will have done its job.

A critical component of any cover design is the title.  Here again, the sole purpose of the title, in combination with the cover design, is to get a potential reader to crack the spine and take a peek inside. Thus, the title needn’t connect directly to the content of the book. Rather, it should convey the feel of the story.  The most obvious example of this in my own career is Hostage Zero, the second in the Grave series. The phrase means nothing. There is no Hostage Zero in the book, but my team at Kensington liked the sound of it–and the look of it, too, when put on the page. In the ten years or so since that book dropped I haven’t heard from a single reader or critic who felt cheated by the asymmetry of title and story.

Now I throw it to you Zoners.  How important are covers to you in your decision to give a book a try?  Any favorites out there we should know about?

Oh, and before you go, please consider subscribing to my YouTube Channel, “A Writer’s View on Writing and Publishing.” I like to think there’s some interesting stuff there.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



First Page Critique: Indianner

By John Gilstrap

Let’s go right to the piece submitted by our brave writer, and I’ll see you on the other side.



Megan’s long nails played across the keyboard. Click. Click. Click. Acrylic on plastic keys. She paused, staring at the poster hanging above her computer. Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled the faces of the three Native Americans dressed in traditional regalia. Circled their faces until she wore a hole in the paper. Around her bedroom, posters of gothic metal bands fought for the remaining wall space. Their dark lyrics appealed to her. She smiled as she glanced around the room at the black-circled faces staring back at her from every corner. A few more words and she was done. Click.

She refocused on the poster with the Native Americans: two women and one man, appearing in a musical performance that night in Frankfurt, Germany, a short walk from Megan’s hometown of Bad Homburg. This was her second time seeing the Navajo singer/songwriter Doli Yazzie in concert. Last time was disappointing; this time Megan was better prepared. She had post-concert passes in her purse, won through a contest held by Doli via her Facebook Fan Page. Megan was fascinated with all things Native American. “Dances with Wolves” and books by German author, Karl Friedrich May, were  cult favorites of Germans and other Europeans who followed their own version of the pow wow trail. As popular as the Renaissance Faires in the United States, the teepee camps and Indian pow wows arranged by and for Non-Natives were scheduled throughout the year in Germany and other countries. Megan was an active participant.

Shawnee/Creek flute player, Ella Longhat, and Ella’s husband, Caddo/Shawnee Charlie Longhat, a noted Native film producer and pow wow dancer, were something of an afterthought for her. Took up too much space on the poster, she thought. She was only interested in Doli.

“Megan, come on. We’re waiting on you. Momma says hurry. We’re going to be late.” Her little sister banged on Megan’s locked bedroom door.

“Go away, brat. Leave me alone. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Megan stood up, repositioned her chair, and rearranged her desk, squaring off a stack of paper, realigning pen and pencil. She glanced back and forth from Doli’s poster to her full-length mirror as she dressed in black pants and black t-shirt, the same way Doli dressed for concerts. Megan imagined herself looking like Doli, but Megan was a large girl, nearer to woman than child, a recent high school graduate working at a local American fast-food franchise. She brushed her dyed black hair, muttering as she covered a lighter section with a green parrot feather, and applied blush and lipstick to her pale face. Glancing one more time at her reflection, the poster, and a final time at her reflection, she joined her mother and two younger sisters. They walked in silence to the concert hall.


It’s Gilstrap again.

What a ride, huh?  A gripping tale of . . .

Wait.  Nothing happened.  No, seriously.  Nothing.  Happened.  In 474 words, Megan made circles on posters, thought a lot about music that is entirely unfamiliar to me, and she got dressed.  The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to grab readers’ attention with exciting prose that is worthy of the single most valuable patch of real estate any book can have.

Whether writing a thriller, a mystery, a romance or a literary novel, something needs to happen that will engage the reader.  The first paragraph needs to make us hungry for the second paragraph.  Ditto the first page for the second page.  This piece disappoints at every level.

Now, let’s talk about the writing itself, which feels young to me, and is not without promise.  Here’s the first paragraph again, but annotated:

Megan’s long nails played across the keyboard. Click. Click. Click.  As written, the nails are acting independently.  I would prefer that Megan drives the action: Megan played her fingers across the keyboard, acrylic nails against plastic keys. The “click <period>” construction plays as very slow typing.  If that is the writer’s intent, then fine.  But I sense that it is not the intent.

She paused, staring at the poster hanging above her computer. Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled the faces of the three Native Americans dressed in traditional regalia.  There’s nothing wrong with this writing, but the -ing construction of the simultaneous action bothers me.  I would write this as separate sentences, restructured to have Megan drive the action: When she paused, she looked up at the poster she’d hung on the wall above her computer screen.  It showed three Native Americans in traditional regalia—two women and a man—who’d performed last night just a few miles down the road from Megan’s apartment in Bad Hamburg, a suburb of Frankfurt.  Grabbing a black marker, she leaned over her monitor and circled their faces.  Then she circled them some more.  And more.  Until her marker wore a hole in the paper.  Until those faces looked like all the other faces on all the other posters on her walls.

I don’t mean to presume to rewrite your piece, but I just combined two paragraphs into a few sentences, and while there’s still no action, there’s a sense of weirdness that I think is kind of cool.

All of the esoterica about the music and what she likes and what she doesn’t needs to be deleted, or at the very least moved elsewhere in the story.  Too many names come flying at the reader too quickly, and it’s confusing.  They call that stuff backstory for a reason—because it belongs in the back of the piece.  Certainly not the first page.

Finally, avoid the urge to be coy with your reader.  Specifics bring us into the story.  Her little sister has a name, so use it.  If you mean McDonald’s, don’t say, “American fast-food franchise.”

What say you, TKZ?



Engineering A Brand

By John Gilstrap

This past Sunday, I returned from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I spent the weekend at the always-wonderful Magna Cum Murder conference.  As often happens at such events, the panels I participated in got me thinking more introspectively about my writing than I ordinarily do.  In one such panel, I heard myself refer to a book as “an engineered product,” and I realized that I’d landed on the topic of this week’s TKZ post.

When we buy anything from a car to a cheeseburger, we expect it to meet certain engineering specifications.  We expect less luxury from a low-end Kia than we do from a top-of-the-line Mercedes, but irrespective of price and name recognition, we expect our chosen vehicle to get us from here to there without burning up, and in the event of a wreck, we expect the seat belts to work.  The perfectly-cooked fast food burger is of no lesser quality than the perfectly-cooked Porterhouse at a 5-star restaurant, but the expectation is different.

When people buy a John Gilstrap book (yes, it’s a little creepy to refer to myself in the third person), I presume they expect a different kind of ride than what they’ll get from, say, a Danielle Steele book.  Our stories are engineered differently, from the ground up, with the result that a Venn diagram of our respective fans would likely reveal a tiny shared area.  Different readers have different tastes, and my job as a professional storyteller is to deliver what my readers have come to expect.

No, that’s too passive.  My job as a writer is to deliver what I have promised fans for over two decades, attracting new readers who could just as easily have chosen a different book and different author.  Those who sample my work and like it are willing to try me again and again, so long as I hold up my end of the bargain.  I offer a tacit promise that there will be violence without gore-porn, there may be romance, but there will be no graphic sex.  My good guys will always be principled, and when the ride is over, justice will reign over my little corner of the fiction universe.  That’s the deal.  That’s my dining menu.

If I let my fan base down even once, I risk losing them forever.  Some will give me a bye if I fall short, but others won’t.  I worked my butt off for every set of eyes, and to risk losing even one is unacceptable.

Of course, the flip side of this is the risk of my stories becoming too predictable—too formulaic—which has its own negative consequences.  So, while providing a trustworthy reading experience, it’s incumbent on me to mix it up a little.  In Scorpion Strike (July, 2018), Jonathan Grave’s team endures their first fatality.  It was a hard scene to write, and it’s a scary thing to do.  Fingers crossed that I won’t drive readers away.

A lot of cyber ink gets spilled in the blogosphere talking about platform building, social media marketing and the like.  It occurred to me this weekend that platform-building and trust are closely related.  As authors’ careers grow, I think it’s important for them to think two or three books ahead—not regarding plots, but in terms of what kind of product they want to addict their readers to.  I believe marketers would call this thinking about their brand.

The harsh truth is that writing and getting read are two entirely different, though related transactions.  Without doubt, every writer is free to write whatever he wants, and publish (or not) by whatever means he desires.  But if said writer wants to maximize his ability to build a readership, he needs to teach his readers what to expect, and then dependably deliver on the promises he makes.

I know too many talented writers who finally achieve the dream of publication only to sabotage their own careers through literary ADD.  One very talented self-published friend of mine cannot constrain his creative impulses.  In quick succession, he’s pushed out a cozy, a thriller, a PI novel and a couple of horror books.  I get the need to flex the creative muscle, but there’s a reason why we don’t see Pepsodent pistols or Smith & Wesson toothpaste.  Branding matters.

What say you, Killzoners?


Deadline Hell

By John Gilstrap

I’ve never understood very much about my own creative process (God, I hate that phrase), and because of that, I try not to think about it very much.  Where do ideas come from?  I have no idea.  They just arrive, and always just in time.  I talk to writers whose minds are filled with stories demanding to be told, and I admire them.  My ideas stumble into my head one, maybe two at a time, and they just sit at the bar and stare.  “Go ahead, Writer-man,” they say.  “Do your job and make us pretty.”

One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book.  I plan my entire year around that deadline.  A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15.  That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that.  But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline.  (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)

On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere.  This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12.  That shortened my deadline by three whole days!  That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two.  It was either submit two days early or four weeks late.  In my world, we call that “motivation.”

Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works.  If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1.  Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable.  Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write.  I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.

This year, reality bitch-slapped me.  ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana.  When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.

And September 12 still sat there, immovable.

I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event.  Math was beginning to work against me.  I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions.  Sounds horrible, but doable.

Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone.  And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend.  The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals.  Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.

Tick and Tock were both laughing at me.  In fact, they were mocking me.

Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words.  Perish the thought.  The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.

Never in my life have I written so much in so little time.  That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days).  If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me.  The last two writing days were each 6K-plus.  It was exhausting.

As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary.  And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for.  Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.”  Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation.  No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.

When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing.  For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter.  No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one.  Just spelling and continuity.

So . . . what the f-bomb?  How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe?  I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.

Here’s what’s off the table: I’m not going to try to recreate the magic of 6,000-word writing sessions.  I like being able to feel my legs and stand up straight.  I like a focal length longer than twenty-four inches. And that much coffee can’t possibly be good for me.

Next deadline: First two chapters of the next Grave book by November 1.  Piece of cake.


First Page Critique: Skyler

By John Gilstrap

By now, we all know the drill.  A fearless writer has submitted a sample to the piranha tank.  First, the submission, and I’ll see you on the flip.

Title: Skyler

THEY SAID LOVE IS selfless. They said love is sacrifice. They said all that rubbish because they hadn’t been in love. They didn’t know that when he didn’t love you back, it felt like God created you and tossed you into an inferno—to burn and cease to exist the very moment you were born. Because you cared about him and along the way, he forgot to care about you in return. Maybe you were supposed to love him unconditionally without expecting anything of him. But in reality, it wasn’t the sappy, unrealistic feelings of seeing him smile that stuck with you. It was the doubt that maybe you weren’t enough—that maybe he didn’t think you were worth the love.

I looked at the closed window that overlooked the colorful leaves hanging from the tree outside. The leaves swayed so slowly, calmly. A stray leaf landed right on the puddle of rain on the ground. It floated, not giving into the power of the water yet. The leaf stared at me, its stem buried within the puddle. I watched for what felt like an eternity. Desperately, I hoped another leaf would tumble to keep the current one company. The wind would take this leaf to a faraway place soon, and how sad it would be for it to vanish from the Earth alone. After all, everyone needed a friend sometime.

Even a leaf.

I knew I sounded morbid, but I was confined here. The rules were clear: we weren’t allowed to open the windows. The facilitator, Teresa Castilla, said if I wanted to go outside, all I had to do was ask a rehab official. With a trusted authority, I could go anywhere. But the window rule was intact under all circumstances. Immediately, I’d thought this was a prison in disguise but the pretty receptionist with platinum blonde hair assured me people here weren’t terrible once I’d get to know them.

I’d arrived here at five in the evening two days earlier. The first thing I’d noticed was the medieval, timbered structure of the building. From the outside, the residence had seemed quite simplistic and bland, though I’d have to admit the timbered style carried an ornate energy. It was a two-story building and it was smack in the middle of a secluded neighborhood. There were several stores and other services two streets away, in case of emergencies.

Yo.  It’s Gilstrap again.  First off, I need to offer a bit of full-disclosure.  This is not a genre I read, nor is it one whose rules and expectations I’m familiar with.  From the first paragraph on, the tone is entirely too whiny for my taste.  That is not a criticism of the writer or the writing–it is merely a confession that I may not be the best judge for a book of this genre.

With that bit out of the way, I find a lot to like in the craftsmanship of this piece.  The voice is strong and the angst is clear.  In a different setting–if I were not expected to offer critique–I would have nothing to say.  I think the entire piece is of professional quality.

But let’s quibble anyway.  The leaf thing goes on way, way too long. The paragraph resonates to me like one of those darlings we’re required to kill.  It feels very . . . literary.  And by that I mean that while it takes up valuable first-page real estate, it does not advance the story.

The phrase, “I knew I sounded morbid” was a bit of a moment-breaker.  To “sound”, something must be heard, and I have the sense that this is all internal monologue.  Perhaps, “I knew these thoughts were morbid . . .” would work better.  I’m also not 100% sure that “morbid” is the word you want.  Morose, maybe?

Finally, I’m not sure what a “secluded neighborhood” is.  Secluded from what, especially given that there are stores and such nearby?

And that’s about all I’ve got.  Overall, this is one of the most satisfying, well-done submissions that I’ve had the pleasure of critiquing.  Well done.


First Page Critique: Angry Vines

By John Gilstrap

A brave anonymous author offers up a page for feedback.  First, the page, then the feedback (Italics are all mine):

Title: Angry Vines

A man, dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything, traveled slowly through the woods. He had been paid to deliver a package, and was traveling by the light of an oil burning lantern. Even though it was early enough now that the first hint of the sun was starting to peak over the ground and bleed into the sky, he’d been told that the cottage was well disguised, and didn’t want to risk missing it.

He was searching for any hint of a building of some sort. A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. 

When the man regained his composure he shook the bird off, swatting at it as it flew to a nearby branch. “What did I say about doing that without warning me?” He said with the same tone someone might use to talk to a very young child that just broke a well established rule.

The crow cocked its head and blinked its beady black eyes. The man assumed this was the only response he was going to get and walked past it, holding his lantern up to continue his search. He didn’t stop when the crow finally spoke, hopping from branch to branch behind him.

“I didn’t see a thing up there. Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?” 

“I know how to read a map.” He replied indignantly. The man had it tucked under his arm, with the package.

“Don’t take everything I say so personally.” The crow flew back to the man’s shoulder, apparently too tired to keep hopping after him. “Maybe there isn’t even a cottage to begin with. I don’t think the kind of person that would hire a strange man to deliver something would have any problem sending him on a wild goose chase through the woods.” 

    The man shook his head. “I’m delivering this for a witch, and a powerful one at that. If someone like that wanted to mess with me, she would have done it by shrinking my head or turning my skin green. Not pay me to not deliver a package.” 

“Oh.” The crow said. “I didn’t know she already payed you.” And after a moment added “I think you’d look better with a smaller head.”

Hi,  It’s Gilstrap again.  And now for my thoughts:

First of all, I love the crow.  I love the wry sense of humor, and the last line of this sample is perfect.  I do hope it’s the end of the scene because that would be a very strong close.

Structurally and stylistically, I think this is a troubled piece, and the trouble starts with the first two words: A man.  Unless there’s a compelling reason to keep this character’s identity a secret, it’s very hard for a reader to bond with a pronoun.  If at all possible, give him a name.  For my purposes here, we’ll call him Tony.

Whose POV is this?  Who perceives him to be dirty and thin from living too many months with too little of anything?  This would work so much better if we were in [Tony’s] POV, and rather than seeing what he looks like, we could feel his exhaustion.

“Traveled slowly” is a great example of why -ly adverbs are loathed by so many.  Trudged, crawled, staggered, wandered and countless other stronger verbs would make a stronger sentence.  Consider: “. . . trudged through the woods, his way lit only by the dim light of an oil lantern.  Overhead, a crow flew lazy figure eights, no doubt mocking Tony for his dwindling strength.”  See below for why I added the crow here.

I don’t think we need to know in para 1 that he’s been paid to deliver a package.  Let us know that he’s searching, and let us wonder why.

[A]ny hint of a building of some sort is redundant.

A crow that had been circling overhead for some time flew down and perched on his shoulder, cawing loudly in a mocking laugh when the man jumped. The sudden introduction of the crow is jarring.  Stay in Tony’s POV.  Consider:

The flutter of approaching wings startled him and he jumped as the crow that had been mocking him landed on his shoulder.  When the bird cawed, Tony heard laughter.  He swatted it away and it flew to a nearby branch.  “What did I tell you about startling me?”

The crow hopped to a new branch, and then another one.  “Are you sure you didn’t get us lost?”

“I know how to read a map,” Tony replied.

“And I know how to fly,” the crow said.  “I didn’t see a thing up there.  And I’ve had enough of this hopping business.”

Tony made no effort to prevent him from returning to his shoulder.

“Maybe your witch friend sent you on a wild goose chase,” the crow said.  “Maybe there is no cottage.”

“It’s here,” Tony said.  “If she were trying to mess with my head, she could have just shrunk it.  Or turned my skin green.”

They trudged in silence for a few steps.  “I think you’d look better with a smaller head,” the crow said.

Okay, that was presumptuous of me.  I took the liberty of essentially rewriting your piece, but I did it for a reason.  By sticking to the moment and eliminating backstory, the narrative becomes more compelling.  Let us come to like the characters and experience things through their eyes as the events unfold.

Much of what you expose in dialogue, such as “I’m delivering this for a witch and a powerful one at that . . .” is information that the characters would already know, and therefore would not reasonably be spoken at this time.

That’s my take on the piece.  What say you, TKZers?  Fair warning: When this blog entry is posted, I will likely not have a reliable Internet connection, so I will probably not be able to interact with other posters.


The Point of View Tapestry

by John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

Now, consider this:

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

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

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

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


A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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


Always Be Marketing

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

First, the duds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lee Harvey Oswald and Me

by John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Gilstrap,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

That was Oswald’s rifle.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had held the gun that inflicted that wound.

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

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

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

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

In the end, I got an A.