About John Gilstrap

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

When The Dog Catches The Car

By John Gilstrap

A couple of days ago, Brother Bell posted a compelling piece about the process of writing. It got me to thinking about the strange transition that happens when writing evolves to be more than a passion, and becomes a means to pay some or all of the bills.

NOTE WELL: None of what follows is intended as whining. I am fully aware of how fortunate I have been–and continue to be–to be 23 books into a 25-year career doing the very thing I’d have told you I wanted to do if you’d asked me when I was 12 years old.

But while I have the best job in the world, it’s still a job. There’s a relentlessness to it.

To start, I’ve over-committed. I wrote two novels and a 7,500-word short story last year. I have to deliver another Victoria Emerson thriller on April 15, followed by a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave novel. Plus, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m working on a fun Western novel with two other authors. As I write this, it’s my turn again to write a chapter. Tick tock. I’m also collaborating with another writer and a film producer to develop a very cool idea for a television series.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are building a new house that we’ll be moving to around this time next year. It’s in the West Virginia woods, about 90 minutes from our current house. In addition to the weekly (minimum) visits to the worksite to monitor the details, there are the thousands of decisions to be made from among infinite variables. Exterior stone, interior floors, appliances, design flow, and, and, and . . .

I must confess that the general malaise of the past 12 months worked its way into my soul more deeply than I would have expected. And I’m a news junkie. ‘Nuff said on that.

Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my new Victoria Emerson series drops on February 23, and my publisher is pulling out a lot of stops to promote it, which means lots of emailed interviews and (God help us) Zoom calls. I’ve got a YouTube channel to feed, social media stuff, and the rest of everyday life.

I feel sometimes that every time I sit down to write, another high-priority, time-sensitive thing pops up. My wife and I both work out of the house–our offices are no more than 30 feet from each other–and oftentimes, we won’t see each other until dinnertime, and then we usually go back to work after dinner. We do make it a point to relax and watch TV beginning at 8pm at the latest. Sanity lies in Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Okay, maybe I am whining.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook writers’ groups. (It’s a great way to bring traffic to my YouTube channel.) Those places teem with rookies who maintain that as writers, their sole job is to create stuff, and that marketing, promotion and the rest should be someone else’s responsibility. I don’t engage at that level because I have little to offer to the deeply clueless. We all know the reality that without all that other non-writing activity, success will never happen. (I’ll leave it to you to determine what your definition of success is.)

Then, when success does happen, complete with all the accoutrements, the world changes a bit. Maybe a lot. It feels unearned because you know there are way better writers than you who have not seen the same success. And because it feels unearned, it also feels fragile. Hell, it is fragile. Fragility is the nature of the entertainment business.

The past is the past, pal. What’ve you got for me today?

With success comes the burden of additional opportunities, all of which have a short shelf life. I say “burden” of opportunities with full knowledge that the phrase sounds oxymoronic. You work hard, you create work that resonates. Do it long enough, and it resonates with enough people that the work gets recognized by people higher than you on the creative ladder and they invite you onto their rung.

It’s terrifying, if only because saying no is not an option. You say yes to an invitation to submit to an anthology of stories by franchise names. You say yes to the offer to develop a TV series because if you say no, you may never get another call like that. Every effort for every project has to be the best you can give because anything short of that betrays the reason you were asked in the first place.

You lose sleep because you understand that no matter how much effort you put into those opportunities, they may come to nothing. You realize that your true loyalty must be focused on the longtime readers who helped you achieve your greatest dreams. They, too, perhaps more than any others, also deserve the best you can give. They’ve earned the best you can give.

“Sleep is for the weak,” a fire captain told me one time. I’ve been thinking about him a lot these past few months.


What A Difference A Quarter Century Makes

By John Gilstrap

My first novel, Nathan’s Run, first hit the shelves in 1996–two millennia ago in book-time. To put it in perspective, Bantam, Doubleday and Dell were all different publishers back then. Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins were independent companies. Back then, the big money came to authors via mass market paperback deals because jobbers filled book racks in every pharmacy and grocery store, and everybody read paperbacks. Mass market rights often were sold to different publishers than the hard cover houses, and for much more money.

Borders Books and Barnes and Noble were just beginning to spread their wings, targeting local bookstores with extreme prejudice. In the mid-nineties, independent bookstores were the backbone of book sales. Every strip mall, it seemed, had its own bookstore. Some were generalists, selling all kinds of books, but others were specialty stores, targeting specific genres. Mystery bookstores grew like weeds.

When the superstore booksellers entered the scene, they were able to negotiate terms with publishers that allowed them to price books at retail for less than what the independents had to pay for wholesale. When really big books hit the scene, it seemed to me (though I could never prove it) that the superstores waded into predatory pricing, selling the books for less than what they paid as loss leaders that would force the mom and pop shops out of business.

Meanwhile, a guy named Bezos was a laughing stock throughout the publishing world because he had this crazy idea that people would buy books from their computers–no, really, their computers! Have you ever heard something so silly? As if book lovers would give up glorious trips to the local bookstore in favor of shopping on one of those squealy dial-up modem desk toys. At the same time, a kid named Steve Case was toiling like mad to create a platform that would give everyday people access to a thing called the internet.

In the mid-nineties, the competition among publishers to acquire the Next Big Book was cutthroat. Authors and their agents had so many big houses to choose from! And the result often ended in bidding wars or pre-emptive bids that routinely netted six- and seven-figure deals for first-time authors.

Money flowed in torrents. Big producers at major film studios paid real money to interns and assistants in the major publishing houses to steal manuscripts from the copy room to give the studios a leg-up on the inevitable bidding war for film rights. During the Christmas season back in the day, every publishing house threw lavish holiday bashes for their staffs, authors, agents and media.

Hands down, the most jaw-droppingly over-the-top book affair I’ve ever attended was a Christmas party thrown by Readers Digest Condensed Books at the New York Palace Hotel in New York (formerly the Helmsley Palace). Limitless beef, salmon, shrimp, caviar, Champaign, booze and desserts served to every author, editor and agent in the world, it seemed. There had to be a thousand people there, including every author who’d ever had a book included in a collection by RD. As a kid from Virginia whose first book was about to be released, this was heady stuff.

(Teaser: The most opulent party ever was the three-day celebration of Dino DeLaurentiis’s birthday on the Island of Capri. That was beyond amazing, and a very funny story. Maybe in a future post.)

Within a few years, everything changed. I don’t remember the order in which they fell, but over the course of what felt like a few months, overseas corporations consumed dozens of imprints and the number of “Big Houses” started to contract. The contraction never stopped. The recent news of Penguin Random’s purchase of Simon & Schuster saddens me. All I see are diminishing opportunities for writers earn big advances for their books. Think about it. Penguin Random (a part of the Bertelsmann empire) has assimilated once-grand independent publisher names such as Penguin, Random House (duh), Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Viking, Knopf, and others. And it doesn’t stop with the the Bertelsmann empire. Hachette is another, and there are still more.

Meanwhile, Karma being a be-otch, Borders Books is dead, and B&N is moribund at best. (In a happy bit of irony, B&N’s new CEO, James Daunt, is designing the company’s phoenix-like rise from its ashes on the direct involvement of on-the-ground booksellers in the decisions on what books individual stores should stock. You know, the way booksellers used to do it before the superstores ran them out of business.)

Independent bookstores are making a comeback (albeit very slowly and cautiously), and new publishing houses are being born every day.

While the bookracks in drug stores are gone, more books are published every year nowadays than have ever been published before. Ebooks, audio, graphic novels, and Lord only knows how many other new avenues for storytelling are exploding. While all these options bring limitless opportunity, they also bring limitless problems, not the least of which is discovering the new metrics and strategies for letting readers know that a new author has arrived on the scene. Those full-page ads in major dailies that used to grease the skids to bestsellerdom, are all but irrelevant now. Word of mouth has morphed into tweet-to-tweet (or something like that).

These are exciting times to be an author. But they’re also scary times. Million-dollar advances have gone the way of the dodo (or of Borders Books) and that’s probably a good thing in the long run. It makes a lot of sense to align advances with anticipated sales. Hollywood is an evolving train wreck, but it will straighten itself out, too. I’d hate to own a theater chain right now, but man oh man would I like to invest in big screen televisions for the home market.

As I write this post, it occurs to me that as the business fluctuates and expands and contracts, the one constant to all of it, through all of time, is the public’s insatiable desire for good stories, well told. And that, TKZ family, is where we come in. If we don’t think this stuff up and put it on paper, the whole of the entertainment business breaks down.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

Finally, this is it for me here in The Killzone for a few weeks as we take our winter hiatus. Thank you all for making this blog what it has become. Contributors, you force the rest of us to keep the bar high. Readers, you’re the reason we do it, and your numbers speak for themselves. Thank you. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and a prosperous, healthy and happy new year.

God bless us, every one.


Throat Clearing

By John Gilstrap

This morning, we take a look at a few hundred words that were submitted by Valiant Author, looking for an honest critique. I think we all know the drill by now. First, I’ll present the submission as I received it, and then it’ll be my turn on the back end:

Chapter 1


There was a knock at the door. “Major Edwards? It’s 0600; you requested a wake-up call, sir.”

Elijah turned the lamp on beside him and folded back the covers of his bed. The stark contrast between the warmth of the sheets and the chill of the room caused him to shiver. He sighed heavily as he placed his feet in the slippers beside the bed. He drew a short breath as they touched his skin, feeling more of ice than leather, before slowly walking to the door. Opening it, there stood a corporal with a clipboard.

“Thank you, Corporal, I’m up now,” said Edwards.

The Corporal nodded, “Yes Sir, do you need anything else Major?”

“No, that will be all.” Edwards replied closing the door.

The day’s ritual had begun.

He could hear the corporal move down the hallway and knock on the next door. Edwards rubbed his face, trying to wipe the fog of sleep from his mind, the stubble of his beard scratching his palms as he did. He turned from the door and paused to look around his “home”. A bed, with a washstand next to it, occupied most of the room. On the far wall, a wingback chair and ottoman sat before a fireplace. The walls, covered by large red roses on blue-tinted wallpaper, meant to be cheerful and welcoming.

The wood floor reflected his mood of late, worn, bare, and darkened by the passage of time. An Orderly cleaned it daily, yet it always smelled the same. A thick musty odor hung in the air, a reminder, of the many lives that passed through before him.

Edwards glanced at calendar on the wall, his only reminder that the world still moved along, read Friday, March 3rd, 1944.

It’s been over two years since I arrived in 1942, just one of thousands of Americans. Each of us, full of piss and vinegar, ready to kick the Nazis clean back to Germany. It seems like a lifetime ago. The swift victory we all believed in never came and one day just became the next in this interminable war.


It’s Gilstrap again.

A common trait among first chapters is what I call throat clearing, akin to the moment in public speaking when you approach the microphone and deliver an ahem as your first message to the audience. It centers you as a speaker. It makes the vocal cords vibrate to assure you that they are in place and ready to go, but the noise itself does little to advance the message people have gathered to hear.

In fiction, throat clearing is often disguised as setting or, heaven forfend, a prologue. It happens to all of us in early drafts, and I wager these passages rarely survive the final edit. All of that is fine. It’s part of the process. And it’s the bulk of what we find in this submission.  It’s less story than it is pre-story.

I can’t begin to calculate the number of times various writers in this space have espoused the importance of beginning at a high point in a story. As one who writes a fair amount of violence into my books, I feel confident in proclaiming that the process of awakening from a sound sleep is rarely the high point in a book set in the midst of war. Even if what follows is not a series of shoot-’em-up action scenes, the fact of the war–and the sense of melancholy that flows from it–is the central theme of this opening. I would feel much more empathy for Major Edwards’s situation if he were blowing bloody snot out of his nose in a trench than having been rousted out of the rack by his orderly.

Alas, I feel that Valiant Author’s actual story begins on the other side of the page turn.

That said, let’s take a look at the sample itself, ignoring the strategic location within the story and concentrating instead on the craftsmanship itself. My comments are in bold face.

Beginnings (Okay, this is purely my own prejudice, and I confess that I might be completely off-base, but I dislike named chapters. They seem trite and old-fashioned to me.)

There was a knock at the door. (This form of sentence construction–“there was . . .” is toxic to narrative. It’s so horribly passive. It means nothing. Room service knocks on doors, and so do SWAT teams when they serve a warrant, but each represents an entirely different variety of contact with the door.) “Major Edwards? It’s 0600; you requested a wake-up call, sir.” (A wake-up call? Is this in fact a hotel? And if so, why is a corporal doing the wakeup duty? Under the circumstances, not knowing what corner of the war Major Edwards occupies, 0600 feels a lot like sleeping in. While we’re here, another pet peeve of mine is the use of numerals in dialogue. I always spell things out–oh six hundred. Also a pet peeve: semicolons have no place in fiction. [Cue the arguments from English purists.])

Elijah (Because we’re not yet acclimated to these surroundings or these characters, we don’t know who Elijah is. I would write this as, Major Elijah Edwards . . .) turned the lamp on beside him and folded back the covers of his bed. (This seems at once precious and vague. Did he yank the chain on the lamp? Spin a knob? Was the knob knurled? Yellow light? Bright enough to hurt his eyes? And as for folding down the covers, is that really the image you’re after? That seems so very fastidious.) The stark contrast between the warmth of the sheets and the chill of the room caused him to shiver. (He shivered in the cold. We’ll understand why.) He sighed heavily as he placed his feet in the slippers beside the bed. (Generally speaking, sighs are a mistake. Heavy sighs are always a mistake in all genres but a few. As for the slippers, well, I guess we all must suffer in wartime.) He drew a short breath as they touched his skin, feeling more of ice than leather, before slowly walking to the door. (I don’t know where you intend to go with this story, so this might not be a criticism, but I hate this guy. He’s a whiny, privileged REMF [look it up]. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ve nailed it.) Opening it, there stood a corporal with a clipboard. (This is a tortured sentence. Notice the recurrence of the “there” construction.)

My recommendation is to kill all of the above paragraph–and the one immediately below–and replace it with something like, “Yup.”

“Thank you, Corporal, I’m up now,” said Edwards.

The Corporal nodded, “Yes Sir, do you need anything else Major?” (I wasn’t around in WW2, but this seems like a lot sucking up to a major. It’s not that senior a rank. Here again, I could be wrong.)

“No, that will be all.” Edwards replied closing the door.

The day’s ritual had begun.

Note: In over 150 words of text, nothing has happened. A guy heard a knock and he stood up. In 154 words.

He could hear the corporal move down the hallway and knock on the next door. (So everyone on the hall gets a wakeup call?) Edwards (He was Elijah above. Pick one and stay with it.) rubbed his face, trying to wipe the fog of sleep from his mind, the stubble of his beard scratching his palms as he did. He turned from the door and paused to look around his “home”. A bed, with a washstand next to it, occupied most of the room. On the far wall, a wingback chair and ottoman sat before a fireplace. The walls, covered by large red roses on blue-tinted wallpaper, meant to be cheerful and welcoming. (Still, nothing has happened. But I am hating him more. I mean, honestly. Who chose such awful wallpaper? I’m sure he’d take a trench any day.)

The wood floor reflected his mood of late, worn, bare, and darkened by the passage of time. An Orderly cleaned it daily, yet it always smelled the same. A thick musty odor hung in the air, a reminder, of the many lives that passed through before him. (Now, I might be thinking too hard. Are we in a hospital? Orderlies (never capitalized in the middle of a sentence) could be stretcher pushers, or, since this is a military setting, they could be folks who wake up officers and get their uniforms ready–though not likely for a major.

Edwards glanced at calendar on the wall, his only reminder that the world still moved along, read Friday, March 3rd, 1944.

It’s been over two years since I arrived in 1942, just one of thousands of Americans. Each of us, full of piss and vinegar, (cliche) ready to kick the Nazis clean back to Germany. It seems like a lifetime ago. The swift victory we all believed in never came and one day just became the next in this interminable war. (Quoted thoughts can be really tricky. We don’t think in complete sentences–at least I don’t. I think in feelings, images. I certainly don’t engage in eloquent internal monologues. If I were writing this, I would write it as close third-person narrative.)

It’s still me, but I took off the heavy dark coat.

Valiant Author, I hope you understand that honest feedback is intended as a kindness, not as a spirit-breaker. I encourage you to re-think your story’s opening–and perhaps the entire story, whatever that might be–to approach it from the point of view of readers who crave good tales and want authors to snatch them by the lower lip and pull them into drama from which they cannot look away. At each turn in your story–at each new paragraph, even–ask yourself if the words you’re writing are advancing either plot or character. In a perfect world, every passage advances both at the same time.

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn . . .



Chapter One

By John Gilstrap

I just submitted the manuscript for Stealth Attack (July, 2021), the 14th installment of my Jonathan Grave series. As I await the copy edits, it’s time to embark on the second book of my new Victoria Emerson thriller series.

Every book I write begins by typing the words, Chapter One, written in bold type, centered on the top of page one. It is the only chapter I number as I write. Subsequent chapters are labeled Chapter with a space next to it, pre-formatted in bold face type. My very last chore before submitting a manuscript is to type in the chapter numbers. And yes, inexplicably, it’s important to me that the number be written out, as in Chapter Thirty-seven.

I also type the phrase, THE END, all in caps at the bottom of the final page. It’s cathartic. And it guarantees the copy editor at least one line to delete–as if there aren’t many, many others.

There is one very practical reason for leaving all but the first chapter unnumbered: The first chapter of the next book appears as a teaser at the end of the most recently published book. And it’s a payment milestone.

Here’s the thing, though: That teaser chapter often does not survive my ongoing writing/editing process. It always changes–sometimes significantly–and if it survives it is often bumped to later in the book. I can’t remember if it was on Amazon or Goodreads, but one reviewer pummeled me for un-shooting a character who was shot in the teaser for Hellfire. A lot can happen in eleven months and 100,000 words.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s sufficient to submit a first chapter for the teaser. It needn’t be the first chapter.

We’ve established here before that I am not an outliner. But I’m not really a pantser, either. Before I type those first two words, I know basically where the story is supposed to go–what the stakes are–but when I start writing, I have no idea how I’m going to make those things happen. This is why that first chapter evolves so much or occasionally doesn’t survive final edits. If I’ve started a story in the wrong spot, I generally won’t realize it until I’m around page fifty or so.

I know going in that Jonathan Grave’s world is populated by four main characters, each of whom has to have something to do by way of progressing the story. Then there are a couple of very popular supporting players that I try to bring into each installment. And the dog. I always get a few emails from concerned readers if JoeDog does not make an appearance.

Chapter One provides limitless opportunity, but it also poses limitless challenges. Yesterday, PJ Parrish wrote about the importance of verbs. (A brilliant piece, by the way.) I concur whole-heartedly, but in the vast emptiness on the far side of those initial opening words, thousands of other words await to be chosen, embracing every part of speech that need to be selected from among what feels like an infinite set of variables. If writing a book were a math problem, it would be unsolvable.

My next move is to step off the cliff. To write something. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the words that spill out are utter crap. That’s part of my process. For me, creativity in general–and writing in particular–is a flow. Typing those first words is like priming a pump. The process will cavitate and make ugly sounds at first, but then we’ll get the bubbles out of the system and good thoughts will start to flow.

Then, on the good days, I’ll be so inside the scenes I’m writing that I’ll merely be channeling thoughts through my fingers. On those days, the spelling is atrocious and words are often dropped, but the story is there. And by story I mean characters I know doing things I understand for reasons that excite me.

As I write this, I realize that I have discovered for the first time why I can write the last one-third of a book in thirty days or so. At that point, I’m no longer writing–I’m merely reporting what I see. And somehow, usually just a day or two before my deadline, it all works out.

And then it’s time to do it again.

What about you, TKZ family? Got any quirky superstitions or must-do habits when launching into a new project?


My Cynical View of Titles and Covers

By John Gilstrap

Whoever coined the trope that you can’t judge a book by its cover had to have been an academic. Certainly, the trope-coiner was not a reader of novels. Yes, it is true that some great novels come encased in ugly wrappers, but few of them find a broad readership.

What follows is based on zero research and even less science, but it reflects quite a few decades of personal observation.

People buy books in steps.

First, they have to know to look for it. This is the unicorn hair in the mix. I don’t know what drives me to look for a book. Certainly, there’s word of mouth, and I read a lot of books for blurbs, but I don’t remember the last time I went into a bookstore blind–without a target I was looking for–and scoured the shelves, hoping to be attracted to a cover. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in the virtual world, where online bookstores are not, in my opinion, very browsable.

Next, there has to be an instant attraction. Perhaps it’s the author’s name—which highlights the importance of “branding”. But that instant attraction is just that—instant. It’s fleeting. There and gone. This is where the cover comes in, highlighting the reason that genres exist in the first place. The title is important here, too. A thriller has to look and sound like a thriller. Ditto a romance or horror novel. In that brief second of instant attraction, the artwork makes a connection and causes the reader to move to the next step . . .

They read the plot description. In just a few words, the pressure is on to pull the reader into the story. To make them gamble their hard-earned money that the ride you’re going to provide is worth the money. How do they make their final decision?

They read the first pages. Yesterday, PJ Parrish posted a terrific primer on the elements of a good opening. Here’s where that pays off. Boom! Decision made, one way or the other. There’s neither the time nor the real estate to flub the opening and make it better later.

So, where is the cynicism?

Okay, here it is: The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. Some examples from my own work:

Hellfire is the Jonathan Grave book that hit the stands back in July. What does Hellfire even mean? The story is about two kids who are kidnapped to keep their mom from revealing a terrorist plot after she has been arrested. The word itself–Hellfire–is an oblique reference to an air-to-surface missile system. And it sounds cool. It positions the book properly in the minds of readers who generally enjoy the types of books I write.

The red cover makes it distinctive on the shelf–unless or until red becomes the cover du jour for the current crop of cover designers. It also lends itself well as a Facebook cover image. But if you really look at the image and its various elements, it could be for a reprint of All’s Quiet On The Western Front, or it could be a story about Satan.

Other examples from my oeuvre (today is Pretend-I-Know-French Day): The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it. The cover of Friendly Fire features the White House, yet neither the president nor his team are involved in the story. What we wanted to do is establish the book and its author as being “inside Washington”.

My point here is that storytelling and marketing are entirely different skillsets, with only distantly related goals. As an author, my job is to entertain my readers by giving them a helluva ride. To get that chance, I need to convince them (trick them?) into picking out my book from among all the others on the shelf.

Your turn, TKZers. Do you have any tricks you’re willing to share about how you convince readers to take the plunge?


Writing In The White Space

By John Gilstrap

When I was in high school, dreaming that one day I might write a novel, I studied books that I loved. I tried to see beneath the skin of the words, and into the musculature of the characters and the skeleton of the plot. I wanted to figure out how the writer turned spots on the page into real emotion.

In April Morning by Howard Fast, 15-year-old Adam Cooper stands on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts, a squirrel gun in his hands on the morning of April 19, 1775, shoulder-to-shoulder with his neighbors and his disapproving father. They face down the column of British regulars who were sent to seize their weapons, and the slaughter begins. Initially, the American lines scatter, but then they reorganize and the remainder of the novel is about the running gunfight that is now the stuff of American legend.

Then the story shifts. In the final scene, with the day won by the colonists, Adam returns home filled with adrenaline and fear and excitement, to find his father’s body laid out on a table in the parlor. He was one of the first to fall. In that moment, Adam realizes that everything has changed. At 15, he is now the man of the house. The earth’s axis has shifted, and will never be right again. It was a very emotional ending for me. I have not read that book in over 40 years, and that moment still resonates with me.

Even at the time, I understood that very little of the emotion was on the page. “He felt sad” or a similar phrase didn’t appear anywhere in the prose. The author had ripped my guts out, but the words that did it weren’t in the black part of the printing. The emotion resided in the white space, in the words that weren’t written. The emotions were in my head.

Other books that had that effect on me include Lord of the Flies, Charlotte’s Web, To Kill A Mockingbird and many others. How did the authors manipulate me that way?

I don’t think there’s a formula to follow, but there are some thoughts to keep in mind:

Earn it. Emotional release requires emotional investment. No reader weeps for the person killed in Chapter One of a murder mystery. We don’t know the identity of the decedent, and even if we get a name, we still don’t have an emotional bond.

In April Morning, the clash on Lexington Green occurs on page 100 of the edition I read in high school. In the lead-up, we establish that Adam Cooper is a lazy boy who shirks his chores and clashes frequently with his father. After the first volley from the British, Adam runs for cover, a coward. Over the course of the story, he is driven to fight by the sight of so many friends and townsfolk dying, and then by the end of the novel, he is positively valiant. Upon returning home, he realizes that no one wants to hear of his gallantry in battle. Father is dead. That is all that matters. He realizes that he is alone in many ways, and that he can no longer be the boy that he is.

The emotion of the ending was earned by the emotional journey of the character. Because I experienced his journey, I felt his pain.

Keep the emotions locked down. In fiction, emotional release is boring. Drama lives within a character’s efforts to keep his emotions in check–to plow forward despite the pain. We’ve seen it at funerals as sons and daughters struggle to get through their eulogy, and we’ve seen it on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum–the pure joy of those surprise reunions in classrooms as dads and moms return from military service.

We know it when we see it, but how do we reduce it to words on the page?

Remember the white space. Trust yourself and trust your reader. If you’ve built their character well the reader won’t need your words to understand.

Here’s a true story from my own life that had immense impact on my writing (and yes, sorry, it’s another fire service story).

Very early in my career–I was maybe 24 years old–I was the officer on the ambulance for a particularly awful pediatric fatality. It came in late in the evening, and I didn’t get back to the firehouse till the wee hours. Everyone else was asleep. I went to the bunkroom and tried, but sleep was not in the cards so I went downstairs to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee that could have doubled as ink. I wasn’t feeling particularly morose, but I’d seen things and done things that I needed to sort out.

Then Big Dave Millan walked into the kitchen, barely awake, his hair a swirled mess. Big Dave was a career guy–a paid firefighter–and he was probably in his 50s at the time. He was the grizzled no-shit fire dog who had done it all and was very good at everything. Early on, I was kind of terrified of him.

Big Dave poured himself a cup of rancid brew and sat on the opposite end of the long kitchen table. He didn’t say anything and neither did I, but he was there. He glanced at me a couple of times, but mostly he just stared down at his cup. After about ten minutes, he dumped the coffee, rinsed his cup and headed back to the bunk room. As he passed behind me, he gave my shoulder a squeeze and he patted my back. Just a quick tap. I took it as a silent, You’re okay, kid. We never spoke of that moment, but it was one of the most caring, special gestures I’ve ever experienced.

I tap that moment with Big Dave frequently as I’m writing what I hope are quietly emotional scenes. If there is a trick–if there’s a way to boil this down to words of advice–I guess it is to be honest with your reader. Tap that vein of memory and let the emotion flow into what you’re writing.

And, as with all things writing related, less is almost always more.

Okay, TKZ family, what are your thoughts? What scenes have gut-hooked you? How do you harness emotion as you write?



The Virtual You

By John Gilstrap

Zoom, Webex and their conferencing cousins are a way of life these days. It’s how kids (pretend to) learn at school, it’s how business is conducted, and it’s how virtual happy hours are convened. More to the point of this blog, it’s also how book festivals and book tours are being conducted. I’ve even talked to a few book groups. (Send me an email if you’d like me to talk to your group.)

I’ve written in this space before about developing public speaking skills, but now that I’ve been a part of a bazillion virtual get-togethers, I’ve learned that many of the skills needed for addressing an audience in person don’t apply in the virtual world, and in fact may prove harmful to the presentation. So, for this week’s post, I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned:

First things first: A number of websites exist for the purpose of allowing you to test your webcam to play with the images. This is one of them.

Don’t look down on your audience. I mean that literally. Many of us (myself include) ply our trade via a laptop computer, where the webcam is at chest level or below–the least complimentary angle from which to be photographed. Find a way to raise that camera so that you’re looking straight at the lens.

If you do a lot of virtual conferencing–even if it’s for a big boy/big girl job–consider investing in an external webcam. With a simple click, you can disable the built-in webcam and switch to one that can be placed on a tripod (or anywhere else you’d like).

Design your set. Background matters, especially if you’re a featured speaker. My background during the day while I’m working is a beautiful bay window that looks great in real life, but looks terrible on camera. First of all, the lighting is all wrong (see below), and closed blinds are boring. My Zoom studio (aka a table in my basement) is set up in front of a pretty bar we built. When I address scouts or kids’ groups, I angle away from the array of booze bottles.

When setting up your zooming place, know that people are, in fact, paying attention to what’s behind you. That’s why the school district in my area does not require students to be on camera during their remote learning sessions. (What could possibly go wrong there?) Plan accordingly.

Avoid harsh backgrounds like unadorned dry wall. In a perfect world, textures like stone work or bookcases work better than plain.

Zoom (and maybe others) has a feature where you can turn a photo into a virtual background. I advise against using that feature simply because it never looks right. When people are trying to figure out what’s wrong with the picture, they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying.

Framing matters. Whether they realize it or not, your audience wants to see you as a close-up. Not a “60 Minutes” count-the-nose-hairs close-up, but a head-and-shoulders close-up. All too often, especially when using laptop webcams, people in virtual conferences become a pair of eyes and a ceiling. Alternatively, they become a distant whole person without clear features.

Zooming is performance art, and needs to be treated as such. Whether you’re the star of the show or an attendee, you should own your moment and be aware of the details.

Remember that EVERYTHING is bigger. The difference between speaking live and Zooming reminds me of the difference between live performance and television. Zoom is, after all, a close relative to TV. Every movement of your eyes, every scratch of your nose is big and noticeable to people on the other side of your webcam. That booming voice you would normally use to address a large crowd sounds harsh and angry through your audience’s computer screens.

The microphone that is built into your computer picks up every sound, and projects it out as tinny, un-nuanced audio. Coughs and sneezes happen, but when they do, show the courtesy of muting your audio for the duration of the event. If you’re in the audience, show the courtesy of staying muted unless and until you have something to say.

Because it’s all bigger, you have to do EVERYTHING smaller. Even if there are hundreds of people in your audience, the teleconference is a personal communication with each attendee. Speak more softly than you would–as if you were sitting across the table from them. As you gesticulate, remember that to be seen, your hands must remain inside the frame.

Focus your eyes on the camera lens. No matter how many faces are displayed in that Brady Bunch checkerboard on your screen, your only audience is the camera lens. If you talk directly to the image of the person whose question you’re answering, you will look to the questioner as if you are addressing the floor. Eye contact is more important in a teleconference than it is in real life, and the only eye you can contact is that camera lens.

Design your lighting. Lighting ads subtle depth to the image you project–literally and figuratively–via webcam. As I mentioned above, I don’t Zoom from my desk in part because the backlighting from my window makes it difficult to see my face, and it also adds unwanted glare to what the audience sees.

Front lights are probably the most important. You want to illuminate your face evenly–no sharp shadows–without reflection off of your skin or your glasses, if you wear them. Given my hairline (and my refusal to grant my wife giggle-rights by applying makeup to my head), lighting can be a real challenge, not just for video conferencing, but for my YouTube channel, as well.

Remember the importance of eye contact with your audience. If you wear glasses, consider removing them for your teleconference. If that’s not possible, work hard to design lighting that won’t be a reflection bomb that makes your eyes invisible. Because I do this stuff a lot, I buy my glasses with an anti-reflective coating that works very well.

Backlighting adds depth and personality to your image. You don’t have to buy anything fancy–you’ve probably got lamps hanging around that will do the job. YouTube teems with lighting suggestions.

Security concerns. We live in weird times. While weirdness may not thrive in your neighborhood, the internet knocks down all gates and fences. I’m probably more cautious than I need to be, but I’m very wary of what people can see in my frame. I don’t show doors or windows, and I don’t display anything of real value. I don’t have kids at home anymore, but if I did, I certainly would not allow them to be in the background. Particularly if you’re using a high angle for your camera, police the paperwork on nearby surfaces to make sure there are no bank statements or draft ransom notes visible.

What say you, TKZ family? Have I missed anything? Have you been Zooming a lot?


Reigniting The Passion

By John Gilstrap

Let me get this out of the way first: I love what I do. I am privileged and honored to make my living by entertaining people with stories. People ask me if or when I intend to retire someday, and I don’t even know what that means. When a novelist “retires”, do the stories just go away? Do characters somehow stop appearing in his head? I’ve always figured that as long as readers keep reading what I write, I’ll continue to feed them with stories.

That said, 2020 has been a helluva year. Beyond all the other weirdness that’s been inflicted on all of us, this is also the year that I signed on to write two full-length thrillers. As always, my next Jonathan Grave thriller will hit the stands in July, but before that, February 23, 2021, will see the release of Crimson Phoenix, the first book in a new series that I’m confident I’ll hawk in a post that is closer to the publication date.

A few weeks ago, our buddy James Scott Bell wrote a post here on TKZ about how Erle Stanley Gardner churned out 100,000 words per month for fifty years. I’m not that guy. If I can pound out 2,500 words in a day, I’m thrilled. My record for one day was 8,000 words and that left me exhausted. I’m not cut out for that kind of production.

So, here we are, in the middle of the pandemic stuff, and as stress rose, avenues for relaxation were shut down.

As a relief valve, I got myself a Zoom account. Every Wednesday evening, I gather with two author buddies at a virtual bar for virtual happy hour. These are folks I’ve known for decades. Every meeting starts with a toast, and then we shoot the sh*t for a couple of hours. It’s surprisingly refreshing.

Because we’re writers, we complain a lot. There’s life, a little bit of politics, the state of the industry, and the ups and downs of daily life.

Sooner or later, we inevitably come to the subject of movies. We talk about some of the contemporary stuff that’s out there (thank God for Amazon Prime and Netflix!), but the real passion for all of us turns out to be Westerns. Tombstone is, of course, the greatest Western of all time–argue this point at your own peril–and there is considerable disagreement about The Wild Bunch being a close second. Shane is a favorite of one of the revelers, but I must confess that I don’t agree. I mean, Alan Ladd? Really?

Then it happened. I said, “We should write a serial Western.”

In that instant, a new project was born. Over the course of 30 minutes, we worked out the only rules: The story will be set in 1880, and each of us will write from the point of view of our own characters. My character is Jake Bristow, a grieving farmer from Virginia. Somehow, for reasons yet unknown, we will all end up in an Oklahoma town on the same date for what will be an epic and legendary gunfight against bad guys we have yet to determine.

Logistically, we each write a chapter in turn. I started the effort and passed it on to the next author in the line, who put brilliance on the page, and then Author #3 took his turn. The ball is back in my court now. In only 9,500 word, we now know who the characters are, what their motivations are, and they’ve already crossed paths. Hint: They don’t like each other very much yet. But we do know why they’re headed to Oklahoma.

At our most recent happy hour, we all revealed that individually, we haven’t had this much fun at the keyboard in a long, long time. The project is liberating. I’m writing in a completely new, different voice and I’m getting lost in new lines of research. Perhaps most refreshing is the element that is inherently missing in writing: the thrill of teamwork among friends. What I find most fascinating is how our vastly different writing styles work in a single stitched-together narrative.

And yes, I’m being deliberately circumspect about mentioning the other authors’ names. That’s not my place.

Now, to the point of this post. The cooperative Western project has reignited the passion for writing in all of us. It’s as if by shifting to another project that is strictly for fun, if only for a few thousand words at a time, the elements that stir creativity get a fresh swirl. That inures to the benefit of every other project on our plates.

I’ve stated in this space more than a few times that half of being a professional writer (a professional anything, really) is showing up to work every day. During the dark days of summer, I confess that showing up had become a drag. Now, I can’t wait. I’m getting up earlier, spending more time at the keyboard. I’m enjoying the process again.

So what about you folks? What are your tricks for reigniting the passion for writing that you know is there, but sometimes dwindles?



Well Behaved Characters (Redux)

By John Gilstrap

FULL DISCLOSURE: The article that I originally planned to post today isn’t ready for prime time. It’s a nuanced look at writing in the white space–making what isn’t on the page resonate as clearly as what is. I’ll post it next time, I hope.

What follows is an edited version of one of my TKZ entries from 12 years ago(!). I called it:

Well Behaved Characters

Like all authors, I suppose, I teach a number of writing classes and attend my share of conferences, and one of the questions that always comes up goes something like this: “I hear authors talk about how there comes a point in every story when the characters take over and start writing the story for you. Does that happen to you?”

The short answer is no; and frankly, it sort of ticks me off. I’d love to cede the process of plot development to my characters. Hell, somewhere in the middle of the second act, where all the tedious stuff is being manipulated and I’ve got to keep the pacing going, I’d cede the process to a stranger in a grocery store if he could make it any less painful.

As it is, my characters just sit there and wait to be told what to do. Lazy bastards. Not an original thought from any of them. In fact, during those tough times when I’ve written myself into a corner and don’t know how to extricate myself, I believe I’ve seen them chuckling at my plight. If I didn’t need the characters to make the story work, I swear sometimes that I’d fire them all.

When I first wrote this post, I was staring down the throat of an approaching and I needed an ending. I mean, I already had an ending from the initial drafts, but I needed an ending. A kick-ass final sequence that would leave the reader exhausted and satisfied. The one I already had took care of the satisfaction part, but it didn’t have the roller coaster feel that I wanted.

So I shot one of the characters.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t a gratuitous thing. The shooting is organic to the plot, and it provides the twist I needed. It also wiped those sanctimonious smirks off their faces. Sometimes it helps to remind them of the power I have over their lives.

Seriously, though, when I found myself in this crisis-of-ending, I think I discovered what authors really mean when they talk about characters taking over. By shooting that character, I gave the other characters in the scene something to react to. Things started happening—things that I hadn’t planned for, which is really saying something for an author who is as outline obsessed as I was back then—and new twists occurred to me as I wrote. I got really into the scene. The characters’ reality became so much my own reality that all I had to do was observe and record what I saw in my imagination. It was one of those moments of high concentration that I think every writer adores. When I finished and went back and read the thirty pages I’d written, I loved it. I’d nailed it.

I submitted the manuscript a week early!

Back to this business of characters taking on lives of their own. I’ve decided that when I’m in the zone, writing fiction has a lot in common with method acting. As the creator of characters, I spend a lot of time in my characters’ head space. Every action they take is the result of some plot-related motivation, and over time I come to understand those motivations. As plot twists come along—triggered by the actions of other characters whose motivations I’ve come to understand even as the rest of the cast have not—the reaction becomes obvious.

It’s not about them telling me what to do; it’s about me drawing them clearly enough to know what they’d do on their own if they were real enough to walk among us.

I do love this job.

So, TKZers, are your characters lazy and wait for direction, or do they take over the story?


Take A Long View on Research

By John Gilstrap

Some of the most common questions I encounter about the writing process involve research: Some version of “How do I find out about . . . ?”

We’ve talked in this space about ride-along programs for police agencies and other emergency response groups. There are some great conferences (when conferences are allowed to happen again) like Writer’s Police Academy, and many writer’s conferences feature tracks where technical professionals share details with the assembled group. But let’s be honest. The programs that have been cleared by the public affairs office are probably not going to give you the real scoop that you’re looking for.

Most people are afraid to speak on the record these days, especially to a writer. The fact that I’m not a journalist–people are never on the record with me–doesn’t necessarily loosen tongues, especially because the kinds of things I usually want to know are the things that public affairs offices specifically don’t want me to know. Still, I have a Rolodex filled with the names of Special Forces operators, federal agents, cops, intelligence officers, ex-cons, doctors, politicians and a host of other interesting people who will answer their phones when I call.

I thought I’d share my strategy for collecting sources.

Be 100% Trustworthy. I cannot emphasize this enough. In fact, I list it first because it is the only element of my research rules that is inviolable. These folks take a risk when they share inside scoop, and trust is as fragile as one misplaced word. I never drop names among my friends, and the Acknowledgements pages in my books never include sources who helped me unless I have received specific permission. More than a few of the names provided for those acknowledgements are are different than the ones I know them to be, and I never ask which is the pseudonym.

Try to meet everyone. True confession time. My personality meets the clinical definition of an extrovert. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know them. So, this bit of advice comes more easily for me than it will for many writers who exhibit the more typical introverted tendencies of an artist. But it’s doable.

Here’s the secret: Everyone is the hero of their own story in their minds, but most folks get few opportunities to talk about their jobs and their hobbies. And in my experience, most people are delighted to be asked. Just recently, I needed to get a document notarized on a Sunday evening in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The only notary we could find was one of the local bail bondsmen. I realized that I knew nothing about that business, so I started chatting him up. Given the hour and the day of the week–he left an evening with his family to help us out–I took a business card, gave him a challenge coin, and got permission to call him later if I had any questions. Two weeks later, he spent a half hour on the phone with me, explaining the ins and outs of being a bondsman. Fascinating.

When I chat with folks, I always tell them that they should free to push back if I ask a question that makes them uncomfortable, and I make it clear that we are never on any record–I’m just interested in what they do. With the exception of a couple steps too close to national security issues, no one has ever pushed back. (And there are ways around the national security push back, too.)

Avoid the cliches. Say you’re meeting a mortician. If you start with, “Eew, how do you work with dead people all day?” the conversation will likely be short and shallow. When I shared a hotel bar with a mortician a few years ago, I asked him why, at the last funeral I’d attended, the decedent’s fingertips had started to turn blue. He explained that there were several possible reasons, and that led to a broader discussion of embalming best practices. I’ve never had occasion to use any of that, but I still have his card, and I send him an email every time a new book comes out. I presume that if I call him sometime in the future, he’ll remember our chat and he’ll talk with me.

Hang out at the bar. When life returns to normal, find an excuse to hang out at a local hotel bar. Not the local watering hole where you know everyone and everyone knows you, but a bar where transients bide their time between the work day and bedtime. Sit at the bar–not at a table–and start a casual conversation. Something like, “Where are you from?” or “Stay away from the fried shrimp.” Sooner or later, if the spark of a conversation turns to something real, you’ll get around to “What do you do?” Bingo. You’re in.

They might not have a job that’s earth-shattering, but there’s something interesting to glean from everyone. Years ago, I was at a bar with a nurse who was attending a conference, and I asked, “What’s you’re most disgusting bedpan story?” It caught her off guard, she laughed and she shared an unprintable tale that involved geriatric incontinence and a slippery floor. I doubt I’ll ever put in a book, but at least I was more entertained than if I had sat there by myself.

Listen more than you talk. Back when I had my Big Boy Job, and more recently as I tour, I’m usually alone. Many others in a hotel bar are not. They are either part of a crowd, or they’re waiting for someone to go somewhere else. When two or more people are talking, there’s nothing wrong with eavesdropping. If what they’re talking about is interesting, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Do you all really work for Space X?” They’ll either shut you down or be complimented. In my experience, there’s not much middle ground.

On the other hand, if the people having the conversation are very engaged with each other, and telling interesting stories, become invisible. A few years ago, I attended a week-long class in Arizona on pistols and carbines. The sessions were all taught by former Special Forces operators from various agencies, and after they got a few drinks down their gullets, they started reminiscing about past operations they’d been on. They were aware of my presence, I suppose (I was sitting in plain sight, after all), but they’d either forgotten or they didn’t care. The stories themselves were interesting in their own right, but those weren’t my big take-away. I absorbed the banter among these guys, and how much they adored what they did–and some still do as private security contractors.

Never take notes. Unless you’re a journalist, there’s no reason to take notes on a casual conversation. The presence of a tape recorder or a note pad is a quick way to get vectored back to the public affairs officer. You can always make notes to yourself after the fact.

Take the long view. The main point I’m trying to make here is that the best research is often passive. You don’t have to limit your efforts to the project you’re working on. Rather, always be in data collection mode. Never be afraid to learn more about people and what they do–who they are. Use your accidental audience with interesting people to talk about things you would never find on Wikipedia or from the public affairs folks.

Hand out and collect business cards. Back in the days of my Big Boy Job, I carried two sets of cards. If I was doing association business, I only handed out that card–even if the inquiry was about my books. I’d tell them to visit my website for more information. In every other event when a card exchange seemed appropriate, I exclusively handed out my I’m-a-writer business cards.

Lock in the contact with a friendly email. At my first opportunity after meeting an interesting person and collecting their card, I write them an email telling them how much I enjoyed learning from them, and I double down on my intent to maybe one day call them.

What say you TKZ family? Any research tricks you’d like to share?