About John Gilstrap

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

1968 to 1972: The Awful Years

By John Gilstrap

At some point along the line, I apparently set a recording on my DVR for a retrospective of the Ed Sullivan Show and Rock and Roll. The other night, as I was trying to bore myself to sleep, I watched the episode that features the rock-n-roll hits from 1968-1970. I watched songs from The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even Tom Jones’s Delilah. Everything about that show–from the fashions to the songs themselves–brought an unexpected feeling of melancholy.

I turned 11 years old in 1968. When that year dawned, we had already seen one president shot dead on the streets of Dallas, a neighbor of mine–the father of a classmate–had been gunned down at his front door by a stranger who remains at large to this day. Three of my heroes–the astronauts of Apollo 1 (and previous astronauts of the Mercury and Gemini Programs) had burned to death while trapped inside their capsule. More than a few of my neighbors’ dads had been shipped off to Vietnam. Five years earlier, I had been rescued from the roof of my grandparents’ burning apartment building in Pleasantville, New Jersey, the most egregiously misnamed city on the planet.

By the end of that year, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would be dead, and just a few miles away, Washington, DC, would be set ablaze, just like so many other cities across the country. That was the year when civil rights-based busing came to my neighborhood, causing me to be shipped off every day to a school 35 minutes from my house in the midst of a culture where everyone was angry and nobody told us kids how we supposed to deal with such startling changes. I learned to fight, but I never liked it, and I was never very good at it.

1969 brought such protests to Washington that my father, a career Navy officer, was ordered to wear suits to the Pentagon for his own safety. Woodstock happened that year, but that was also the year when Charles Manson went on his rampage. Things at home were beginning to unravel between my parents, and I was still fighting a lot in school. The thrill of my lifetime occurred on July 20, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 conquered the moon. Five days later, another Kennedy, Ted, was in the news for his actions in Chappaquiddick. We closed that year with the news of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

In May of 1970, soldiers from the National Guard opened up on student protesters at Kent State University. We actually had the discussion at our dinner table that perhaps the protesters brought it on themselves. In August of that year, our vacation at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos ended after the first night when the lodge burned to the ground, taking all of our stuff with it.

By autumn of 1971, my brother had gone to college, leaving me to cope with family stuff as a solo.

As I write this post, that knot of anxiety returns to my gut as a ghost from the past–equal parts fear, anger, sadness and disorientation. It was during those years when I turned most desperately to fiction–both reading it and writing it. I escaped to places in my head where good guys always won and bad guys were always brought to justice. I rarely showed my writing to anyone back then, and I’m not sure why. Looking back with decades of space between then and now, I think I was afraid of people knowing just how twisted up I was inside. The “me” I projected was immune to such things as emotion. Back then, there was no greater embarrassment for a boy than to cry in public–or show any real emotion for that matter. In those days, I never had a friend who was close enough to let me lower the armor. Hell, maybe I wasn’t a good enough friend to anyone else to let them share with me.

Life in a bickering household can be very lonely. I think now, in retrospect, that the adults in the house were so wrapped up in their own unpleasantness that having me be quiet was probably a blessing. I know that it was a blessing to be relieved from my role as marriage counselor, listening to their grievances as they each tried to pull me to their side.

My high school had 4,500 kids. Talk about anonymity!  As a young teenager with less than zero athletic ability (or interest in such), the school library became my hangout spot. I have no idea how many books I read in those days, and how many stories I wrote, but they have to number in the hundreds. When I was into a book or writing a story, I was safe.

Life took a sharp turn for me when I was sixteen years old. I called a family meeting–the first in the family’s history–and I announced to Mom and Dad that I wasn’t doing this anymore. I told them that they were being unfair to me by airing problems that I could not solve, and that I was going to start taking chances at school. I was going to join things and risk the taunts of others. Since my parents wouldn’t drive me and we couldn’t afford a car for me, I told them that they would have to let me ride with friends. I told them that an 11:00 pm curfew was unreasonable on a weekend night. To bolster my argument, I had a long list of straight-A report cards to show them.

As I presented my case, they said nothing. I think they were shocked–in fact, I know they were because that night is still the stuff of legend among my extended family. But they didn’t argue. From that moment on, the “me” I projected moved closer and closer to the “me” I actually was. I don’t think the two will ever meet, but asymptotic is close enough.

I realize now that my imagination saved me from what could have been a terrible end. I don’t expect the demons ever to go away, but at least now they know their place. August 27 marked the 40th anniversary of my first date with my best friend, who would become my bride. Later this month, we will celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary. We have been blessed in countless ways, but had I not planted my flag on Mount Angst, and opened the spigot to honest emotion–which still flows much more easily through my stories than in real life–I don’t think I would have recognized the blessings for what they are.

As a society, while we fawn all over celebrity, we don’t show a lot of respect for the inherent virtue of artistry. I think that each of us needs an outlet to shorten the distances between the “me” we project, the “me” we know ourselves to be, and the “me” to which we aspire. Whether through music, dance, writing or perfecting one’s golf game, it’s the process that matters, not the sales record. It doesn’t matter if no one else in the world appreciates your art if it honestly reflects that slice of time in your journey.

Dare to try. Dare to dream.

Creative Spaces

By John Gilstrap

When I was growing up, immersed in dreams of one day becoming a writer, I romanticized what the process must be like. Where would one go to imagine new worlds and create new adventures? Movies romanticized the whole process, and I bought into it. Then I saw this now famous picture of a then less-famous Stephen King in his writing space. It seemed so . . . ordinary. Yet at the same time it seemed very special. The dog under his feet is a nice touch. This is a guy with a job. And his creative space is . . . an office. Just an office. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s Stephen King’s office. (As you’ll see below, it turns out that I was not the only budding young writer who was impressed by the photo.)

Offices are important–more important to some than to others. In some ways, creative spaces reflect the personalities of their occupants. They fascinate me.

Following up on a comment made on Friday’s Reader Friday post by our beloved Brother Bell, I sent emails to my fellow bloggers here at TKZ, suggesting that we let our readers into our creative spaces. My one caveat was a pinky swear to not clean up before taking the picture. Here’s what we came up with.

John Gilstrap

Our move to West Virginia presented a unique opportunity to design an office as an office–as opposed to a purloined bedroom. Now that I think about it, I suppose there’s not a lot of difference between the two. I wanted lots of light and direct access to the outdoors. That door leads to a deck that overlooks the woods. The orange helmet on the left end of the bookcase belonged to my father. A closer look will show that it’s quite banged up from the helicopter crash he survived on the deck of the USS Forrestal in 1959. The two yellow helmets are mine from the two jurisdictions where I ran fire and rescue. (I had to turn my white lieutenant’s helmet back in when I left.) Since the house is now run by a 12-pound ball of fur named Kimber, chew toys and water bowls litter the floor of every room.

Here it is from a different angle. This is messier than it normally is, but a pinky swear is a pinky swear. Note the studio grade microphone and the webcam–a new bit of ubiquity in office photos, I’ve found. All of those Gilstrap books stacked on the far end of the bookcase are the background for Zooming and YouTube videos (when I start shooting them again). The opened journal you see on the desk is one of many that I have stacked around the place (each novel gets a new journal). That’s where I scratch my way through difficult parts of the story that are somehow resistant to being typed. That green chair in the corner used to belong to me. Now it’s Kimber’s day bed and she gets very annoyed if I move the blanket from where she left it.

Kristy Montee (PJ Parrish)

When we moved out of Fort Lauderdale five years ago, it meant big downsizing. As some wag said (might have been George Carlin): You spend the first half of your life accumulating stuff and the second half getting rid of it.  We now live half the year in Tallahassee and half in Traverse City, Michigan. We don’t have the luxury of an extra “office” space anymore, so I store everything on line and cart my laptop around wherever the spirit moves me. Often it’s the sofa, but more likely my local coffee shop or after 4, the Traverse City Whiskey Co. where they make a mean whiskey sour. On spectacular days like today, the balcony will do.

Terry Odell

I’m fortunate to have a bedroom dedicated to me. This is my workspace, which doesn’t show my cluttered closet space or bookshelves. The desk is also a little less cluttered than usual, since the request for the photo came on Friday, and I clear my desk on Thursday for the housekeeper. The stacks of paper next to the printer and behind the monitor represent my method of ‘housekeeping.’ The stacks will eventually topple over, and I’ll attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Watching the wildlife is my biggest writing distraction. (The hummingbird feeder is just out of camera range, but not out of eyeshot if I’m sitting at my desk.)

Kay DiBianca

 Here’s my picture. Like you suggested, I just moved the chair out of the way and took the picture with things as they really are. No cleanup. Organized chaos. I know where (almost) everything is.

Sue Coletta

Attached are two photos of my office from different angles. The Holy Hands on my desk were made and blessed by a Cherokee chief. They hold tiny replicas of my Mayhem Series. Both gifts from a couple (readers) who said I touched their lives. Most of the crows, as well as the crow dreamcatcher hanging above, were also gifts from readers. All mean a lot to me. Constant reminders of why I write.

 

 

 

Elaine Viets

Here’s my office. I’m most comfortable surrounded by books, and many of these mysteries are signed by  friends. The box with the white rug is for my cat, Vanessa. She “helps” while I work.

 

 

Garry Rodgers

Here’s a shot of my mind lab. Brief description: “My creative place is a combination of old and new. Side-by-side, I have a Windows 11 laptop with audio/visual recording devices next to a retro 1920s private detective office with stuff like a pristine vintage typewriter and a cool rotary phone that’s tweaked to work in the digital age. Fun place. BTW, that filing cabinet is stuffed full of books.”

James Scott Bell

My desk, with microphone and sound foam. To the left, pics of Stephen King (with legs on desk), Ed McBain, and John D. MacDonald, all telling me to stop whining and write. My coffee mug with WRITER on it, which I bought a few days after I decided I had to try to become a writer. And a file folder for my first drafts.

 

As you read this, I will be on my way to Bouchercon in Minneapolis, my first large-scale book event since the Covid insanity. It’ll be nice to see old friends again.

Radio Dreams Fulfilled

By John Gilstrap

I came of age during the 1970s. I was six years old when JFK was assassinated in 1963, and I lived in the Washington, DC, suburbs during the violence and political turmoil of 1968-74. Every radio in the house was tuned to WMAL AM630, and they were on pretty much all the time. I woke up to Harden and Weaver giving the time and weather forecast 20 times an hour, and went to bed with Felix Grant playing soft jazz in the background. (When snow was in the forecast, I of course slept with my pajamas turned inside-out as a talisman for schools to be closed. Messrs. Harden and Weaver would be the deliverer of that news, requiring an earlier alarm so I could go back to sleep if my wishes were granted.)

I dreamed back then of one day becoming a radio broadcaster. As I approached the end of my high school years, the lure of the Columbia School of Broadcasting was almost overwhelming. In the end, I went to college instead, at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I hoped to join the staff of WCWM, the college radio station. Alas, that turned out to be a clique for people whose lifestyles were different from mine, and I found myself not welcome.

After I graduated and returned to the DC area, I became addicted to morning and evening drivetime radio. The Morning Zoo fad was huge there. Even in the early ’80s, commutes were long and brutal, so radio entertainment was essential. My shock jocks of choice were Don Geronimo & Mike O’Meara (“We’re fat, we’re white, we’re Catholic, and we’re sick about it.”) In the afternoons, I preferred a more staid commute, so it was back to WMAL and Trumbull and Core (originally called Two For The Road, but they changed it after MADD started making waves). That afternoon broadcast was all about local and national news, but with a fun spin.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the beginning of my writing career. I’ve lost track of the number of radio interviews I’ve done by way of promoting my books. Add podcasts to the list and it has to be in the hundreds. Technically, those qualified as “being on the radio” but it wasn’t the same. First of all, the vast majority are phone-in interviews, and for the most part, I’m telling the same stories and answering the same questions, back-to-back. It’s the nature of touring.

Then came May 3, 2022. My publicist in New York arranged an in-studio interview with WRNR Eastern Panhandle Talk Radio and TV10 in Martinsburg, WV, essentially in my new backyard. I had the whole last segment of the show, about 25 minutes, and it went very well. Lots of laughs. When the show was over and we were saying our goodbyes, I mentioned to Rob Mario, the host of the show, that I had always dreamed about being on the radio.

Bam! Right then and there, he offered me a slot in his rotating schedule of guest hosts. The format of the show is local and statewide politics and community activities. So far, I’ve interviewed the mayor of Martinsburg, the president of the Berkeley County council, the director of the Health Department, and a number of the local business stars. If you’re reading this on August 24 between the hours of 8 and 10 a.m. Eastern time, I am on the air now.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts here in TKZ that I’m a Type-A extrovert. One of my biggest concerns as we walked away from a lifetime of living in Northern Virginia was wondering how I was going to streamline the process of getting to know people in my new community. Living in Berkeley County, WV, is the very model of rural small town life. County fairs are still big news, and the local paper reports the substance of valedictory speeches from the local high schools. I worried about being the outsider.

And then this opportunity fell into my lap. I am humbled and thrilled. I’ve always been a news junkie, and now I get to talk one-on-one (in front of thousands of people) with the newsmakers themselves. In fact, my very first interview on my very first day as a co-host was all about West Virginia’s proposed abortion legislation. Yikes! I think it went well. (They did ask me back again (and again . . .))

To bring this back around to the true focus of TKZ, Being a writer and having books to sell provides many opportunities to get out in front of other people. The odds are stacked against introverted authors who cave in to their shy tendencies. By being out there, wherever there is, that moment of celebrity can blossom into tremendous opportunity. I figure it can’t hurt to be introduced at the top and bottom of each hour as “New York Times bestselling author John Gilstrap.” Let’s call that soft marketing. I swear I can hear listeners all over the Eastern Panhandle turning to the person next to them and saying, “I’ve never heard of him.” If a few turn to their internet machines and do a search, well, that can’t hurt either.

And if no one does that, that’s okay. I’m fulfilling my dream of being on the radio.

The Care And Feeding Of Copy Editors

By JohnGilstrap

Having just finished a marathon session reviewing the copy edits for White Smoke (the third book in the Victoria Emerson thriller series), I started to write a post for TKZ that addresses my view of the copy editing process, and shares my copy editing rules. I was a hundred words or so into it when it occurred to me that it was all feeling very familiar.

It turns out that I posted on the topic here back in 2018. So now, if the content feels like you might have read it before, at least you’ll know why–although I have rewritten parts.

Copy editing is the penultimate opportunity for me to make significant changes to a manuscript. By that point, I’ve already addressed the developmental issues outlined in my editorial letter, and–to my mind, anyway–the copy is pretty clean. Typos abound, but not for lack of hunting them down. At that point, I have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.

The next step is for the completed manuscript to be sent off to be copy edited. This is the typo/spelling/continuity review step. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

And I need them. I’ve posted here before that I deeply don’t understand commas, and no matter how many times it is explained to me, the rules for “which” vs. “that” elude me. I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.

But there’s a dark side.

Sometimes, copy editors change stuff that shouldn’t be changed, and for that reason, as the author, I must approve or disapprove every alteration they propose. At times, their knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.

Most recently, the copy editor noted that referring in dialogue to deer hunting as “killing Bambi” might offend more sensitive readers. My inclination is to write back that I no doubt had lost my sensitive readers about 20 books ago, but instead I responded with the ever-useful “stet.”

I miss the days of handwritten copy edits. I like paper. I like printed manuscripts that I can read in a lounge chair with a lap desk and a pencil, making changes or stetting by hand. For the past five or six years, the edits come as a word file with Track Changes turned on, forcing me to read the book on my computer. Okay, now I’m whining.

The Gilstrap Style Sheet

My publisher uses the Chicago Manual of Style as the Holy Grail of copy edits. That’s fine. There has to be a standard by which to judge correctness. But here’s the thing: Mine is the only name on the spine of the book, and there are instances where I disagree with the style manual. After spending countless hours over my first ten or twelve books stetting changes made by copy editors, I decided to create my own style sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit.  I thought I’d share it with you.  (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)

NOTE TO COPY EDITOR: Stylebook notwithstanding, please note the following:

The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s).  This change does not affect any other names that end with S.

In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.)

Consider landmarks within Jonathan’s office to be proper nouns and capitalized as such (The Cave, the War Room, etc.)

Please consider all weapons nomenclature to be correct as written. (e.g., Jonathan carries a “Colt 1911 .45”, even though the official listing might show the pistol to be a Colt M1911A1, and even though there are newer versions of the platform available.  These are very deliberate choices.)

When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular.  (e.g., a Glock 19 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)

References to federal agencies need no definite article.  (e.g., “He’s with DEA” is fine. He’s not with THE DEA.)

When Boxers or other team members refer to Jonathan as “Boss”, the word should be capitalized.

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

Northern Virginia and the Washington Metropolitan Area are both proper nouns and require capitalization.

Please assume all dialogue to be correct as written.  Feel free to correct spelling and typos, but do not strive to make dialogue grammatically correct.

In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct.

I intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.

As a rule, I dislike exclamation points. Please avoid inserting them.

The first time I submitted a manuscript with the style sheet attached, I expected some pushback from the publisher. Instead, I got a big thank-you and an expressed wish that more authors would do likewise. It saves time for everyone.

Something that a lot of newbies to the writing game don’t realize is that the editor and publisher may not change a word of your manuscript without your permission. I don’t recommend recalcitrance, and I do recommend listening to the editor’s advice, but when the book is published, it’s your work, not theirs. Make sure that it’s what you want it to be.

What’s Your Name Again?

By John Gilstrap

Of the countless moving parts in a story, an element I find among the top five most annoying is the naming of characters.

A famous romance writer said in an article I read years ago that she cannot type the first word of her stories until she knows the characters’ names. The names, she said, say so much about the characters and their personalities, and without that bit of creative data locked into her brain, none of the other stuff works.

To me, characters’ names–particularly the minor ones–are little more than labels. I have to call them something, right? There are practical considerations, too. Many of those are tied to the fact that I want to make this writing business as simple as possible for myself.

I keep the names short.

I’m going to be typing the letter sequence of a name dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a manuscript. Typing four letters hundreds of times is easier than typing 12 or 15 letters hundreds of times.

I keep the names pronounceable. 

When I read silently, I actually read aloud but without making noise. I pronounce every word in my head as I plow through, and when I stumble onto a name that I can’t pronounce, the story stops for me. This is one of the primary reasons why I don’t read fantasy stories. In my own writing, one of the reasons why I don’t deal with Middle Eastern terrorists–other than the fact that every other writer in my corner of the thrillerverse is doing it–is I don’t want to get bogged down with Middle Eastern names.

I avoid homophonic names.

At the beginning of each book, I tackle the administrative task of updating my auto correct to automatically capitalize my characters’ names. Thus, when I type jonathan, it automatically converts to Jonathan. Thus, you’ll never find me writing a book with a character named Robin. If I did, then the bird version of the road would be capitalized. The reason why my recurring character named Boxers has an S at the end is so it doesn’t conflict with the pugilistic version of the word.

Google is my friend.

The drug cartels of Central and South America are frequent enemies of Jonathan Grave, which means I create POV characters who need Hispanic names. To find them, I turn to Google and type “Colombian (or Mexican or Venezuelan) surnames” and “Colombian (etc.) first names.” Then I shop for names from those lists.

Excel is also my friend.

My Victoria Emerson series is a true series, where each story builds on the one that preceded it. At this point, having just submitted White Smoke (the third book in the series, following Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire), I’m about 900 pages into the story. Between main characters, secondary characters and walk-ons, I’ve introduced about 150 named players. The only way to keep them straight was to create a spreadsheet that documented their names, a descriptor, and which subplot they’re a part of.

So, TKZ family, are character names important to you? How do you choose them?

When Is It Done?

By John Gilstrap

So, you’ve finally made it to the end of your manuscript. Your plot points are all where they need to be, the characters have the personalities you hoped for, and the climax will leave people breathless. Whether it took you four months or four years, it’s seemed like a long time coming, but the day has finally come to either ship it off to your agent, or to go about the business of finding one, or to do whatever needs to be done to independently publish.

But wait. Is it really done?

Remember that place in Chapter Seven where you struggled with the action, and you wondered if the action was really motivated? Maybe you should go back and read that one more time. Yep, sure enough, it’s not all that you had wanted it to be. Maybe it was actually better before you made the change.

So, you delay pressing the SEND button for a day or two and you tweak that section again.

Oh, crap! If you make that change, then the big reveal in Chapter Fifteen won’t be as powerful. Maybe you should change it back. Yes, definitely, you should change it back.

And there. On page 24, you used “which” when you should have used “that.” Oh, no! Did you make that same mistake again? Oh, hell, you never were really sure of the difference in every circumstance.

Oh, my goodness! Look at all the adverbs . . .

When is it time to stop editing?

That doubt circle I present above is something we all face, but sooner or later, that circle becomes a spiral that will drag your project to destruction. So, when is it okay to stop? Some things to consider:

It will never be perfect.

I cringe every time I read a book that I wrote a few years ago. Why did I use that stupid phrase? Why did I use so many words? Why am I incapable of understanding the proper use of commas?

Everybody’s inner quality control manager is different. A writer-buddy of mine hires two proofreaders to go over his manuscript before he sends it to his publisher and their copy editors. And every book still has a typo or two.

I don’t enjoy my buddy’s level of success, but my bank account is smaller, too, so I don’t do that. I start every writing session by rewriting what I wrote the day before. When I get to the end, I do one major editing pass to make sure that the story’s connective tissue is all there, and then I launch it.

Staring in the mirror doesn’t change the image.

There comes a point in every manuscript where you’ve either nailed it or you haven’t. Staring at it longer, tweaking individual words and questioning decisions you’ve already made doesn’t advance the story. If you genuinely liked the story yesterday, give that fact as much weight in your heart as the fact that you’ve got doubts today.

A few typos won’t torpedo your project.

An asterisk to that would be that the first couple of chapters should be pretty friggin’ pristine. Once you get people hooked on the story, the tolerance for human error increases.

True story:

My first literary agent was “Million Dollar Molly” Friedrich with the Aaron Priest Literary Agency. This was in the mid-1990s. A friend/neighbor of hers said she had an acquaintance who’d written a memoir and would Molly look at it. With a cringe, she said yes and was handed a typewritten single-spaced manuscript on onion skin erasable bond paper. Despite every submission protocol being broken, she gave it a read and agreed to represent the book. The author was an unknown fellow named Frank McCourt, and the book was Angela’s Ashes. It did okay.

The lesson:

If the story is great, there’s lots of room for forgiveness of the little stuff.

So, TKZ family, when do you decide it’s time to launch your literary baby?

Point of View And Voice

By John Gilstrap

Forgive me as I begin this week’s post with some shameless self-promotion. This is Launch Week for the latest in my Jonathan Grave thriller series (#14!). It’s called Lethal Game, and you should be able to find it at your bookseller of choice. From the Marketing Department:

Hostage rescue expert Jonathan Grave and his fellow special-ops veteran, Boxers, are hunting in Montana when shots ring out, and they realize they’ve become the prey for assassins. In the crosshairs of unseen shooters, cut off from all communication, with the wind at a blood-freezing chill, the nightmare is just beginning. Because Jonathan and Boxers aren’t the only ones under fire. Back in Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, Jonathan’s Security Solutions team is fighting for their lives too. A vicious onslaught is clearing the way for a much bigger game by eliminating anyone in the way. If Jonathan and Boxers can make it out of the wilderness alive, the real war will begin.

Now we return to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

Full disclosure: I posted a piece very similar to this back in 2017, but the concept of “voice” in fiction is a subject that many new writers struggle to understand, and that is, quite frankly, difficult to teach. It’s a worthy topic to revisit occasionally.

We all learn that the elements of a story are plot, setting and character. If not taught and learned carefully, these can seem like separate elements–separate threads, if you will–but for a story to work, they can’t be treated as such. The elements of story are less a quilt than it is a tapestry, and the subtle weave that combines the elements into something beautiful is the author’s voice, as presented to the reader through the point of view characters

So, rather than thinking of those story elements as separate threads, let’s readjust the whole concept of those elements. Let’s think this way: for a story to fulfill its promise to the reader, it must chronicle compelling characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting settings, all of which is presented in an engaging voice.

Maybe this analogy is clearer. When you go to buy paint at the hardware store and you ask for the color European Autumn Sunshine (or whatever), the guy in the apron starts with a white base and then adds some blue and some red and whatever other colors, and only after its shaken does the color you want appear. Those component colors are your story elements. Your narrative voice is the shaker that gives you the shade you’re looking for.

As an illustration, let’s say that your POV character, Bob, finds himself broken down in the desert. In a descriptive essay, you would write about the colors and the temperature and the wildlife as the entities that they are. But to make that setting part of the story, it’s a mistake to forget about the character. It’s a mistake to leave the action to describe the scene. So, give those elements a ride in the paint shaker:

Option One:

Bob pushed the car door open and climbed out into the heat.  Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  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 but he’d left his oils and brushes in the hotel room.

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:

As Bob opened the door, super heated air hit him 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’ slipped a few rungs down on the food chain. No wonder we tested nukes in places like this. How the hell was he going to get out of here?  

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 third person 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, especially for writers like me, who works hard to be invisible on the page, leaving all of the storytelling to the characters.

Confessions Of A Blown Deadline

By John Gilstrap

Well, it’s official. My deadline for submitting my manuscript for White Smoke, the third book in my Victoria Emerson thriller series was today, and for only the second time in my career, I will not be able to answer the bell. There’s never an excuse for not meeting one’s business obligations, but in my case, there were a number of contributing factors. Not complaining, just explaining.

The Pandemic

We Gilstraps lost the month of December to Covid-19. We got hit hard. I started it with my 14-day run of sickdom, but by the time it ran its course, my wife had spent 8 days in the hospital, including the span from Christmas Eve through January 3. Everyone is well now, but there’s definitely a brain fog that comes with it.

A Two-Stage Move

Last July, we sold our house in Virginia in anticipation of moving into our dream home in West Virginia. The anticipated move date was December 15 (good thing that didn’t happen!). We moved into a 1,200-square-foot apartment with the thought of staying five months. Seven months later, the new place was finally done-ish. Essentially, we moved into a working construction site on March 12. But that was nearly a month after we took possession of . . .

(Fair warning: This could be the sappiest thing I’ve ever written.)

Kimber

In her own words . . .

My name is Kimber. I am a Cavaston–a mix of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Boston Terrier. My new parents drove all the way up to Pennsylvania to pick me up on February 15. It was cold and I was scared.

I really had two new homes. I had my apartment, and I also had my crate, which I didn’t mind until nighttime came and then I’d get lonely. John told me that I shouldn’t bark for attention because we were in an apartment with neighbors really close. For the first couple of nights, he slept on the floor next to my crate to keep me company, but then he said it was more comfortable to let me sleep with them in their bed. I liked that better. That’s where I sleep every night now. John takes up a lot of room, though.

I had to go to the doctor for a checkup during my first week at the apartment. The doctor was nice, but there’s not a lot of privacy. They stuck me with needles and squeezed me a lot, but they let me eat spray cheese out of a can while they did it, so I didn’t mind all that much.

Not everybody recognizes the origins of my name. John tells me it’s the same as one of his favorite pistols. One day, when we were visiting the new house before we moved in and the heat wasn’t turned on yet, I got cold and climbed inside of his vest. After this picture was taken, John called me his quick-draw puppy.

These days, we’re all moved into the new house and the construction is over with–well, mostly. John complains that the master bedroom closets still aren’t finished. I like living in the country more than I liked living in the apartment. Out here, I get to pee and poo outside instead of on the little pads that I never really hit. (Apparently, you’re supposed to have your back legs on the pad, too. Who knew?)

Country living can be scary. I was playing in the woods just a few days ago and I saw something that looked like it wanted to play with me, but not in a good way. It kept hissing and trying to bite me. I’m really fast, though. I barked and barked, and finally, John came out to see what was happening. The stranger hissed and tried to bite him, too. He got very stern and told me to go back into the house. A few minutes later, I heard a really loud noise. I haven’t seen the stranger since.

I think John’s really happy that I’m around the house. All day long, he sits in a chair in front of a folding thing with buttons on it, but I’m tall enough now that I can jump right up onto the buttons and help him push them. He pretends not to like me doing that, but he always ends up playing with me. Maybe not the first time I jump up, or the second, but sooner or later, he gives in and plays. He said something about not being able to say no to my face.

Should One Seek A Critique?

By John Gilstrap

On November 1, 2010, I was a reluctant founder of a critique group that was designed to help a group of professional writers better. Everyone lived in Northern Virginia, so we could meet in person, and since I had the biggest basement (and a Big Boy Job at the time, which put constraints on my ability to come home and head out again) we agreed to meet at my house. In my rumpus room, as it were. Thus was born the Rumpus Writers, aka Rumpi.

Since then, Donna Andrews, Art Taylor, Ellen Crosby, Alan Orloff, and I have met every month, with 100% attendance by everyone. That’s 138 meetings. The madness of the pandemic drove us to Zoom, but the record remains. Among the five of us, we have published (or have under contract) 92 books, 53 of which came out since we started getting together. In addition, we’ve written and published 109 short stories and edited 12 anthologies.

Collectively, we have been nominated for 55 major industry awards, of which we have one 36. Awards and nominations include: Edgar, Derringer, Agatha, Lefty, Toby Bromberg, Anthony, Barry, Library of Virginia People’s Choice, Romantic Times Readers Choice, Dilys, Macavity, Thriller, Shamus, Alex, Mary Higgins Clark and (believe it or not) the Gourmand World Cookbook Award.

Full disclosure: I was resistant to joining this group back in 2010 for several reasons. First, I am loathe to share unfinished writing with anyone. I didn’t understand the point of wasting other people’s time reading something that I already know is not up to snuff. Second, groups consisting of busy people tend to fall apart quickly. People don’t take their commitments seriously and I feared that the group would devolve into a massive time suck.

I didn’t really know any of these other authors until our first meeting. I had crossed paths a couple of times with Donna Andrews, and had chatted a couple of times with Ellen Crosby, but that was the extent of it. I made my concerns clear on our very first meeting. Not only were they well received, they were shared by everyone. That’s when we made the commitment that we would never miss a meeting. We’d figure out a way to get together once per month, come hell or high water. So seriously have we taken this commitment that there’ve been a few times when no common dates were available in a given month, so we’ve doubled up the meetings on the previous or subsequent month. There’s never been a twelve-month period when we haven’t met 12 times.

Format

The meeting starts at 7 pm. Read: 18:59:60. Every meeting starts with news of both the personal and business variety. The news is sprinkled with a hefty serving of gossip, too, but there’s an ironclad rule that nothing said leaves the room. Given recent circumstances in the news, we are officially more secure and honorable than Supreme Court clerks.

The chatting lasts for about an hour, and then it’s time to get to the business of critiquing. In turn, we read aloud from that week’s submission. Then, there’s a round-robin of input and we move on to the next submission. It’s rare that everyone has something to read on any given night, but it happens from time to time. Most submissions are in the range of 12-15 pages, but they’ve gone as high as 30+ pages. I think I am the record holder on a complete short story, but I needed to know if the payoff actually paid off.

Rules of Engagement

This one’s pretty easy. We’re honest without being snarky. One of my most frequent comments is, “Nothing happened in that scene.” It’s easy to do. You get caught up in exposition or dialogue and action gets lost. A comment I hear about my own work more often than I’d like is, “That emotion felt unearned.”

Then there’s the occasional knife to the heart: “That whole thing just didn’t work for me.”

Occasionally, there’s disagreement between us when offering a critique of a member’s work and we talk through it.

The target of the critique remains silent, taking it in until the end, when it’s fine to seek further input.

Pre-Validation Means A Lot

I think a large part of the group’s success is driven by the fact that none of us has anything to prove. We’re successful as authors, we’ve got established audiences, and we don’t seek abject approval (though it is always welcome). After all of this time, we have grown accustomed to each other’s voices on the page, and every one of us routinely violates the rules that we’ve heard in conferences and such are inviolable. Most of the time, those violations work for the story, or are a part of the author’s style.

What pre-validation does in a group like this is eliminate the need for forced praise before getting down to the business of what doesn’t work. We all know and respect that we’re capable writers. As such, we are also able to choose for ourselves which bits of advice we’re going to take, and which we’re going to ignore. When the meetings end, nobody feels bruised, and the friendships remain intact.

What Does This Mean For Writers Seeking Critique?

Over the years, I’ve sat in on critique sessions among amateur authors, and they all make me squirm. Attendees often are far more interested in hearing how brilliant they are than how to make things better. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the writers who are convinced they suck and therefore never process the good stuff they hear. Then there are the competing egos and genres, where the MFA graduate insists that the mystery or romance that someone else has written isn’t literary enough, or the genre writer who thinks a literary piece doesn’t work.

All too often, feelings get thrashed and no one has a good time.

I tell people who are looking for honest critique that almost all external input is harmful unless you have a strong sense of yourself as a writer. You need to find an honest neutral gear in your creative self where you are able to absorb the compliments and the criticisms with equal cynicism. Accept if only for the sake of argument that the other parties are coming from an honest place, but don’t assume that the reader who liked the piece is more accurate in his assessment that the one who did not.

As I’ve written in this blog before, the fact that the person with the critique bears the title of teacher does not imply infallibility. Sometimes, in the grand scheme of things, they can be flat-out wrong. On the other hand, they could be brilliant. How are you to tell the difference? I have no idea.

Now to you, TKZ family. Have you belonged to a critique group? How did it work out for you?

The Virtual You Redux

By John Gilstrap

Back in October of 2020, I posted a piece here that I called “The Virtual You,” which Talked about some of the basic lessons I’d learned about Zooming. That article talks about framing and lighting and a little about set design. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I’d share some updates.

My New Set

Two months ago, we completed our move to West Virginia, which was two years in the making, the final 7 months of which was in a tiny apartment in an urban part of Northern Virginia. In moving into the new place I designed my office around the reality of video-oriented promotional opportunities. My office in the previous house was designed such that my desk was in front of a pretty bay window that looked out onto the neighborhood. I enjoyed having all that light coming in over my shoulders while I worked, but it made for a terrible video backdrop. As a consequence, I did all my Zooming from the bar in my basement. It looked cool, but was not appropriate for all audiences.

Now, in the West Virginia forever office, I can shoot video from my desk, and the backdrop is a bookcase loaded with my books. (Always be marketing, right?) It’s quite the relief not to have to go traipsing down two levels every time I need to do an interview.

Built-In Teleprompter

Because I can do what I need to do from my desk, I have the advantage of a second screen on which I can see the people I’m talking to without looking down, or, in the case of videos for my YouTube Channel, I can have an outline of what I want to say right there in my peripheral vision. In my old YouTube setup, I would have to tape cheat sheets to the walls and bookcases to keep the narrative on track.

Note The Angle Of The Camera

In the first iteration of “The Virtual You” I talked about my obsession about not featuring my various chins in the video frame–the curse of recording through my laptop’s built-in camera. What you see in the photo is a Logitech 1080p Webcam. Mine is a couple of years old, but the newer versions cost less than $60.

It’s a bit tricky getting Windows to recognize the external webcam as the default device. You have to go into settings and disable the built-in cameras. (That was about 45 minutes of research boiled down to a sentence. You’re welcome.)

New Lighting Design

The French doors you see on the right in the photo create interesting challenges for lighting. Those doors face due west. Without obscuring them with a blanket–something I don’t want to do–any camera work that happens in the last 30 minutes before sunset will be impossible to light properly. For the rest of the day, though, I find that if I turn on the overhead light, and crank up the ring light in the corner, I can live with what I get. The light is pointed toward the wall because the reflected light works better than straight-on.

Improved Sound

With the publication of Blue Fire back in February, I have been slammed with podcasts and radio interviews. One of the most enjoyable interviews was with David Temple, who hosts The Thriller Zone podcast. At the conclusion of the interview, I asked him specifically for suggestions on how to make my own performance (if that’s the right word) better. Reluctantly, he told me that my audio quality was substandard with lots of echo. At my request, he sent some recommendations for high-quality yet affordable sound equipment.

After a couple of weeks of due diligence, I decided on the Rode NT-USB Mini studio-quality microphone. For less than $100, I am very pleased with the results. Since then, several interviewers have commented without my asking that the quality of sound is very good. And let’s face it, when you’re listening to a podcast, bad sound is a turnoff. Through experimentation, I learned that closer is better when using the USB Mini, so I bought a mic stand that keeps the device about two inches from my lips while I speak, yet still below the lower margin of the viewing frame.

Anything Worth Doing . . .

You know the adage, and you know it’s true. Remote speaking and teaching and conferencing are a permanent part of our business lives. How are y’all embracing the new reality?