About John Gilstrap

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

Writing To Be Heard

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

Nobody sees the paragraphs.

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

Nobody sees italics.

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

Accents and pronunciation pose a challenge.

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

There are kids in the backseat.

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

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

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

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

It All Counts

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

Posting Stories Online

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

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

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

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

TKZ First Page Critiques Are Different

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

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

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

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

Spelling and Grammar Count

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

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

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

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

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

 

Research Hacks Redux

By John Gilstrap

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

Now let’s talk research.

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

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

Research is a big word.

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

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

Research Hack One: Cheat.

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

Research Hack Two:  Stick to the coast you know.

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

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

Research Hack Three: Think like Willie Sutton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for those who are curious . . .

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

A Touch of Reality

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time for sure . . .

 

Stay In The Fight

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons From Safety Engineering.

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

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

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

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

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

Now I had to engineer the way to do that.

Wise Advice From A Friend.

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

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

Yeah, okay. Fine. Perspective.

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

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

“Nobody says you have to do it fulltime.”

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

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

Writers Write.

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

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

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

Once more, pardon my language. Bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

Books are products, and products trend.

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

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

Failure cannot be inflicted.

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

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

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

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

 

What’s In A Name?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard that many writers sweat over the names of their characters. One very famous romance writer (I’m not sure which one or I would name her) says that she cannot begin a story until her characters have the perfect name. I’m not like that. While I’ll put some effort into naming primary characters–the ones that will live on throughout a series of books–secondary characters are get their names sort of at random.

Nathan Bailey, the eponymous character of my first novel, Nathan’s Run, got his name by process of elimination. My son, Chris, was about the same age as Nathan when I wrote the book, and since I knew what lay ahead for the character, I couldn’t name him Chris. But because he was the same age, and kids are not always forgiving sorts, I couldn’t use the names of any of his friends. He didn’t know any Nathans at the time, and Nathan Hale has always held a prime spot in my panoply of noble patriots. Nathan’s last name, Bailey, is a direct nod to George Bailey of It’s A Wonderful Life.

Lyle Pointer, the twisted bad guy in Nathans Run, and Warren Michaels, the kind-hearted cop, are both named as they are because I thought their names worked against type.

Jonathan Grave, the protagonist of my hostage rescue series, is named as a convenience. In my original plan for the series, I imagined a branded line of titles like Grave Danger, Grave Peril, Grave Doubt, etc. It turned out that I was the only person in my editorial food chain who thought that was anything but a terrible idea. I kept the name because I had already finished the book, and I like the character. (Hand to God: It never occurred to me that Jonathan and I share a monogram until I was many books into the series and a fan asked about it.)

Secondary characters in general come from one of two sources. Each year, I auction character names for charitable fundraisers, and those winners get a prime secondary spot–often as the bad guy, but not always. My next alternative is to go to IMDB, pick a movie that I like, and then click on “all cast and crew.” I rarely copy both the first and last names of crew members, but rather mix and match them.

Ethnic characters. Over the course of the Grave series, most of my bad guys have been American, but I’ve exploited Chechen, Russian and Mexican bad guys, too. (Jonathan and the cartels don’t get along at all.) For those names, I’ll do a Google search for “Chechen names,” or likewise for another nationality. It’s astonishing how that never lets me down.

Richard Goldsbury was the bully who preyed on me in junior high school. He’s died in at least five books. Most recently, he was incinerated in a nuclear blast.

Laziness. I don’t like typing complicated names. In my new Victoria Emerson series, a throwaway character named First Sergeant Paul Copley turned out to have a more significant role that I thought he would, and I ended up having to type his name a lot. I have accordingly instructed the autocorrect in Word to change “1stsgt” to First Sergeant. “1stsgtp” becomes First Sergeant Paul Copley and “1sgtc” becomes First Sergeant Copley.

Amusement. In one of the Grave books (I think it’s No Mercy), Jonathan and his buddy Boxers encounter a guy named Dick Semen, and they get the giggles. Thrillers need some comic relief and that worked. In fact, I’m smiling as I write this, thinking back on the scene. (Aspiring writers please note: men’s true senses of humor form and solidify when they’re 12 years old. Farts and funny names will always be funny. The more inappropriate the timing, the funnier they will be. [See: Rusty Bed Springs by I.P. Nightly.])

So, Killzone family . . . Any thoughts on naming characters? Any tricks or resources you’d like to share?

What Makes A Good Author Newsletter?

By John Gilstrap

Every email I send includes an invitation to subscribe to my author newsletter. I have amassed a pleasing number of subscribers, and I appreciate every single one of them. But I have no idea what to do with them.

I get the idea of sending out newsletters to people who are interested in my books and, I guess, in me. But I rarely publish newsletters because I don’t know what to say. I mean, let’s face it, a self- aggrandizing look-at-my-shining-new-book email is not exactly an engaging communication. It’s self-promotion. And there’s a place for that.

But I think a newsletter should be something people find informative, interesting and engaging. This is where things fall apart for me. I recently broke a toe. It hurt like the dickens, my foot swelled to the point that I had to wear one of those stupid boots, and now it’s getting better. That was very much the focus of my attention for a couple of weeks, but do people want to read about that? They have their own problems, after all, and many of them would trade theirs for the relative nuisance of my hurts-like-hell fractured toe.

My wife and I are building our dream home in West Virginia. That’s interesting to us, but the books I write are all about heroics and high stakes. Is the new house interesting for others to read in a newsletter from a guy who writes thrillers?

Dear TKZ family, this blog post is all about your comments. What would you like to see in an author newsletter? Not necessarily mine in particular, but in the larger sense? First-time authors and decades-long veterans are all seeking to grab the attention of readers, but I think it’s destructive to bang one’s own bell continuously. So, where’s the balance? What would you like to see? Are there any author newsletters that you think knock it out of the park? If so, share the links.

On the flip side, what kind of newsletter sends you straight to the mark as spam button? (No need to share those links.)

Shut Up And Write Stories

By John Gilstrap

These are interesting times to be a writer. Last night, I was chatting with four other writers when one took another to task for including the phrase “had no dog in this fight” in the body of his story. The one who called the other out worried that because the phrase traced its origins to the practice of siccing dogs on one another to watch them fight to the death, the reference was likely trigger pushback from sensitive readers.

I had two thoughts on this in rapid succession. First: You’ve got to be kidding. Second: Okay, so what? My squint on the world is such that the harder an individual searches for a reason to be offended, the more responsibility the offended must take for his own discomfort.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a live two-hour Zoom seminar for a writer’s group in the Midwest. My topic was a craft-oriented one that focused on some of the granular elements of writing a tight, tense story. During the final Q&A, an attendee (whose camera was turned off, of course) asked me what efforts I take in my stories to make sure I include a cast of characters that is widely inclusive of ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

I confess I was not ready for that one, but I was fully aware that my camera was on, and I was in closeup. I defaulted to the truth: I don’t do anything along those lines. I don’t write sex scenes, so what difference does their orientation make? And I rarely–rarely–describe the ethnicity of even my primary series characters. If an ethnic reference does not directly affect the story, then I see no reason to include it. Obviously, when Chechen terrorists are the bad guys, we can conclude the ethnicity, but I see no reason to mention if they are Muslim or Christian. It doesn’t affect the story, so I don’t care. My answer seemed to work because there was no follow-up.

As an interesting side note, one of the primary characters in my Jonathan Grave series (Stealth Attack will hit the stands on June 29) goes by the codename Boxers. He’s close to 7 feet tall, bends the needle on most household scales, and is deeply lethal. I’ve never described his ethnicity, but I was surprised to learn that everyone–including my editor and my agent–assumes that Boxers is black. He is not. Do I mind that people see him as they do? Not a bit.

Last week, I received this email from a fan:

Hi John,

I just purchased “Against All Enemies” and am looking foreword to reading it. Tell me, what are your views on the 2nd amendment?

That was the entirety of the email. I smelled a trap. I considered ignoring the email, but I promise on my website to reply personally to every email I receive, and, well, a deal’s a deal. Here’s my reply:

Hi, [Name].

I hope you enjoy the book. Thanks for the support. As for the Second Amendment, I have little respect for entertainers who expound on political issues. I just tell stories and try never to write politics. My characters have strong feelings about many issues. I agree with some, disagree with others. I figure I’m doing my job if readers can’t tell one from the other.
This is the new standard I wish to set for anyone in the entertainment business. For the life of me, I do not understand why a non-expert with a readership (or viewership) would consider his or her views as more relevant or nuanced than a non-expert who has no “platform”. I cannot count the number of writer colleagues whom I’ve watched commit professional suicide during the weirdness of the past 15 months by posting diatribes that are guaranteed to anger 50% of their potential audiences.
It’s interesting that the focus of an audience on a writer or presenter is called a “bully pulpit” because too many people use it to bully others. It’s a gift to enjoy a facility with words and images, but by definition, anything on the page is a one-sided conversation. Sure, there are comments sections tagged to the end of op-ed screeds, but we all know that’s not the same. Readers with huge hearts and different world views often do not have that same gift to express their thoughts in writing or to gain the attention of others. All to often, such people feel aggrieved and silenced. And angry.
I think that the bullying is especially pernicious when it blindsides the audience. When someone opens one of my books–or reads blog posts like this–they have certain expectations. With the books, they expect an exciting, entertaining ride through fictional thrills. Here, I presume they expect to be given something to think about. In neither case do I think they want to hear about my half-baked thoughts on social or political issues.
Now, as I write this conclusion, I feel that I must apologize if I inadvertently did that very thing.

Avram Davidson And Closure

By John Gilstrap

I’ve alluded many times here and during public presentations that my one and only creative writing teacher (in 1977) did more to harm my future writing career than he did to help it along. That experience hardened my thoughts on such classes and drove me to the world of the self-taught writer. The punch line in this section of my presentation is that the cranky old guy died before I had a chance to show him my first published novel.

I never mentioned the instructor’s name in public because I thought it would be unfair to him and his family. After all, he was quite well-respected among science fiction writers (and short story writers in general), and I’m confident that my experience was unique.

So, imagine my surprise when I received this email out of the blue:

Hi John,

My Name is [his name].  Avram Davidson was my Godfather.  Long story but I would love to schedule a call.  I understand you had him as a professor at William & Mary?

The URL for his email appeared to be from a law firm. My first thought: Oh, crap. Schedule a call? Could there possibly be an upside to that? So I wrote back:

It’s rare that I get startled by an email. I guess the world truly is small. Nearly half a century has passed since I last saw your godfather, though he was indeed my instructor when he was writer-in-residence at W&M. May I ask what you’d like to talk about?

His response:

Thanks for getting back to me. The short of it is I inherited Avram’s literary estate recently and I am getting my arms around it.  I started a podcast and I have been interviewing authors who knew Avram.  I really wanted to interview a student of Avram’s to see what he was like as a professor. I found a picture of [fellow student at the time] and that he was a student.  I am sad to say he passed away a few months ago.  His wife mentioned that you were a student so I wanted to see if we could connect.

I’ll be honest with you here. I didn’t realize how raw a wound this was until I started weighing the pros and cons of even responding further. What would be the point, right? Then again, forty-plus years is a long enough time to get over things, and on balance, I’ve done okay in this writing world. I think the godson’s efforts to keep Avram’s memory alive and vivid is truly a noble mission, and there is no doubt that I interacted with Avram in a way that I would want to know if I were the godson. I won’t share the entirety of my response, but here are the pertinent parts:

Here’s my dilemma: Avram hated my work. He told me, in fact, that I had no talent and that he had no interest in hearing from me again. Given the work in evidence at the time, I suppose he had a point. I assure you that I harbor no ill will for him lo these many years later, but he really hurt my feelings at the time. In fact, my final discussion with Avram derailed my projected writing career for well over a decade.

That last sentence is as unfair as it is factual. Avram delivered the truth as he saw it. The fact that I absorbed it as a gut punch was on me, not on him. I know that he meant no harm. Now that I’m 23 books and four screenplays into a 25-year career, it’s entirely possible that my success (whatever that means) is tied directly to his giving me, well, something to prove.

So, I’ve shown you my hand. I’d be happy to participate in your podcast, but you need to know that it would not be an elegy to your godfather. Nor would it be a hit piece. I was a 20-year-old dreamer from a troubled background with a love of confrontation. I wanted to write commercial thrillers in the vein of Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsythe at a time when Rod Mcuan and Richard Bach were all the rage. Avram loved edgy, experimental writing, and I was exactly not that.

Whether we do this thing or not, here’s what I want your takeaway to be: Avram made an impact on his students. He made a difference. A week rarely goes by when I don’t think back to those sessions in his tiny, underlit apartment, sipping sherry while noshing on cheese and crackers. And Herman, the dog. He was a sweetheart.

In crafting that response, I discovered something: Whether I like it or not, Avram Davidson truly did give me something to prove. In thinking back on that class experience as a whole, I realized that I made some long-lasting friendships. Of all the classes I took over my four years at William and Mary, his is without doubt the one I remember most vividly.

Is this what closure is–a concept that I’ve never much believed in?

I’ve since spoken at length with the godson on the phone, and our conversation was delightful. I learned that Avram Davidson was a doting godfather and a very nice man–when he wasn’t cranky, as he was occasionally wont to be. He was, you know, human. I cannot wait now for the opportunity to reminisce in the podcast.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is closure.

A Lot of Research Still Might Not Be Enough

By John Gilstrap

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Today, we take on the work of a brave writer who submitted his first few hundred words for some input. First, I’ll present the piece as I received it, and then my comments will be on the flip side, after the asterisks.

The Mirage 

Chapter One

Mexican State of Zacatecas

Chihuahuan Desert

The caravan of seven black SUVs drove through the empty desert. The road they followed was little more than a ribbon of heat-cracked asphalt winding through the barren, rolling hills.

Captain Jaime Barrios stood half-way through the open sunroof of the lead vehicle, a pair of binoculars pressed against his aviator sunglasses. His dark mustache hugged lips made puffy through hours of gun chewing. Scorching sun made the letters ATF gleam yellow against the back of his navy blue jacket.

A voice squawked from the radio bud he’d jammed into his ear.

“Captain Barrios. This holding mode is holding a little long, no?”

Barrios thumbed the mike button at his lapel before giving a curt reply.

“We’ll be going kinetic in another minute. Just sit tight.”

He looked to the three other cars in the front of the caravan. Two of them had Special Response agents also standing out of their car sunroofs. Each wore a bullet proof vest and carried an M4 assault rifle slung. The other agents inside the SUVs were similarly armed and armored.

The radio crackled in his ear again.

“Captain,” one of the agents complained, “No one said this raid came with a side of skin cancer.”

Barrios smiled mirthlessly as he continued to scan the desert. “Ha. The Chihuahuan desert welcomes your Boston ass, McKinney.”

“Shit. Who needs a fuckin’ border wall when you have this sun?”

A gleam from far behind caught Barrios’ attention. Dark dots appeared against the bright yellow landscape, growing larger with each second. His pulse quickened as he realized that their waiting was over.

“They’re coming up at six o’clock. Everyone, get ready. It’s game time.”

Barrios stamped his foot twice. At the signal, his driver accelerated. The force of the wind grew as he tucked away the binoculars and readied his assault rifle.

“Fuck,” he swore. “This looks like a lot more than eight bikes!”

“No kidding,” McKinney put in. “I count seventeen crotch rockets.”

The Hayabusa 950 motorcycles ate up the distance between them and the SUVs. Fourteen of the cyclists wore all black from head to toe. Three others had brown, yellow, or gray helmets.

Power windows rolled down on each SUV. Men poked their heads out or leaned out the windows, rifles or pistols at the ready. Barrios waited until the motorcycles were within range.

“Open fire!” he yelled into his radio.

*****

Gilstrap again. Okay, there’s a lot to like in this piece. I think the author chose an interesting place to start the story–certainly none of the throat clearing that I talked about in a piece I critiqued a few weeks ago. The prose is reasonably crisp, and the descriptions of the desert mostly work for me.

That said, I think are serious plot issues. This reads to me a bit like a reimagination of the 1960s television show, “The Rat Patrol,” where a tiny squad of six (?) guys, all in different (but very cool) uniforms drive aimlessly through the North African desert looking for fights with Nazi tanks. I loved it as a kid. I’ve since watched it as an adult. Lots of WTFing in every episode.

I’m kind of in that same place with these first pages of THE MIRAGE. I’ll stipulate that ATF agents are trolling the deserts of Mexico (though my ATF buddies tell me that such would rarely if ever be done). What bothers me most is the lack of planning and the lack of discipline. Federal agents of all ilk are buttoned down tight in these kinds of operations. The chit-chat on the radio would be a huge no-no. Even in the fire service, that was a no-no. The whole world listens in on radio traffic.

We don’t yet know what this mission is, but it is inconceivable to me that they would not have some sort of air assets in place to know what was coming at them. The SRT is one hell of a polished team. Like all such teams, they pride themselves in denying their opposition forces anything that remotely resembles a fair fight.

Then there’s the whole notion of firing without being fired upon. That’s just not done. And if it were done, shooting moving targets from a moving platform is a recipe for disaster, especially given the lack of clear firing lanes.

If this is the beginning of a serious book that the author wants to be taken seriously, lots of research remains to be done. A good place to start is to embrace the fact that anything you’ve seen in any movie in the “Fast ‘n’ Furious” franchise ranks high on the wouldn’t-ever-happen scale.

Now, let’s get down to some line-level stuff . . .

The caravan of seven black SUVs drove through the empty desert. The road they followed was little more than a ribbon of heat-cracked asphalt winding through the barren, rolling hills.

Details matter. Seven black BMW X5s paints a different picture and leaves a different impression than seven black Suburbans or seven black Escalades. Also, is there a way to combine these two sentences into one? Something like, “The seven-Suburban motorcade sped through the barren, rolling desert hills on a ribbon of road that was little more than crumbled asphalt.”

Captain Jaime Barrios stood half-way through the open sunroof of the lead vehicle, a pair of binoculars pressed against his aviator sunglasses.

This is pure “Rat Patrol.” Why would he do this? It’s hot and windy and car windows are clear. Also, the current tacti-cool look is Oakley shades. The aviators remain popular mostly among older generations. That said, it’s really hard to get a good image through binoculars while wearing any form of glasses.

Also, how far out the hatch is he? He’s standing on the center console, right?

Finally, how certain are you that the ATF has captains within their rank structure? As far as I know, they’re all variants of the rank of “special agent.”

His dark mustache hugged lips made puffy through hours of gun chewing. Scorching sun made the letters ATF gleam yellow against the back of his navy blue jacket.

For the sake of argument, I will assume that the author really meant “gum chewing” because gun chewing leads to explosions of brain pizza. That said, I’m not familiar with gum chewing causing swollen lips. Assuming that Barrios is wearing the ubiquitous G-man windbreaker, I believe the letters are yellow whether seen in the sun or by candlelight.

A voice squawked from the radio bud he’d jammed into his ear.

“Jammed” is the wrong verb here. That would hurt.

“Captain Barrios. This holding mode is holding a little long, no?”

Note the comment above about the captain thing. This bit of dialogue is exclusively for the reader. Everyone in the scene knows exactly how long they’ve been there, so what is the motivation in asking this? Also, it’s chit-chat. Finally, I don’t get the “holding mode” here. Seems to me they’re on the way to somewhere.

Barrios thumbed the mike button at his lapel before giving a curt reply.

The appropriate spelling is “mic” when you mean microphone. I’m getting conflicting information throughout this piece about their wardrobe. Assuming they’re wearing ballistic armor, “lapels” don’t really exist.

“We’ll be going kinetic in another minute. Just sit tight.”

So, now the bad guys know the good guys’ plan–because they transmitted it over the radio. I’m confused as to how Barrios knows this already. If what we’re reading here is a mission to murder the folks on the crotch rockets, you’d do well to set it up in some narrative.

He looked to the three other cars in the front of the caravan. 

There’s a lot here. From one paragraph to another, the SUVs became cars. How?

Two of them had Special Response agents also standing out of their car sunroofs.

This paints a picture of two sedans, each with multiple agents standing out to the sunroof. I’m think clown car.

When you write “Special Response agents” I presume you mean agents assigned to the Special Response Team, the elite of the elite within ATF. If so, I would point that out.

Each wore a bullet proof vest and carried an M4 assault rifle slung. The other agents inside the SUVs were similarly armed and armored.

“Bullet proof vests” do exist in the real world, but I’m certain that’s not what your guys are wearing. Your team is probably wearing “ballistic armor.”

Let’s talk about those slung M4s. Question One: Why are they slung? When you’re driving into a gunfight, you want to enter it with your weapon fully prepared for deployment. “Slung” generally means “at ease.” Question Two: Since slung rifles are carried with muzzles facing down (remember, our guys are doing the prairie dog peek out of their vehicles), I see the muzzle pointing at the driver’s ear. That would be disconcerting.

The radio crackled in his ear again.

This could be merely stylistic, but to my ear, radios haven’t “crackled” in decades. To my ear, they “pop” or “break squelch.”

“Captain,” one of the agents complained, “No one said this raid came with a side of skin cancer.”

I think the author is going for lighthearted banter here, but it comes off as whining.

Barrios smiled mirthlessly as he continued to scan the desert. “Ha. The Chihuahuan desert welcomes your Boston ass, McKinney.”

Now I see the source of the lack of discipline. It starts at the top. For the world to hear. And surely there’s a better word than mirthlessly.

“Shit. Who needs a fuckin’ border wall when you have this sun?”

Got it. Maybe they’d be cooler if they took off those jackets.

Most importantly: Beware the F-bombs. I did a whole video for my YouTube channel on the perils of using high-end profanity in popular fiction. It turns off an astonishing number of readers. I used to be an offender, but after literally hundreds of letters and emails from readers, I stopped. I haven’t written an F-bomb in probably my latest 15 books. These are hard-edged thrillers, and no one has ever complained that the bad language isn’t there.

A gleam from far behind caught Barrios’ attention.

Be specific. “Far behind” means nothing.

Dark dots appeared against the bright yellow landscape, growing larger with each second. His pulse quickened as he realized that their waiting was over.

I get that the author is playing coy here, but for me it’s too coy by half. I’d like to know who these people are–if not by specific identity, then by a throw-away reference to why it’s important to engage them.

“They’re coming up at six o’clock. Everyone, get ready. It’s game time.”

Barrios stamped his foot twice. At the signal, his driver accelerated.

So, everything else can go out on the air, but he has to stomp his foot to say “go faster”?

The force of the wind grew as he tucked away the binoculars and readied his assault rifle.

I have no idea what this means. Where did he tuck the binoculars? No one thinks of their weapon as an “assault rifle” and what readying does he need to do? He’s going to war here, so it seems a little late to oil the action. He’d probably think of the weapon as his M4 or his Colt (the manufacturer that supplies ATF with their M4s). By the time Barrios peeked his noggin out of the hole, he’d have the puppy chambered and ready to go. One quick move of his thumb against the safety lever, and he’d he ready to rock.

“Fuck,” he swore. “This looks like a lot more than eight bikes!”

“No kidding,” McKinney put in. “I count seventeen crotch rockets.”

The Hayabusa 950 motorcycles ate up the distance between them and the SUVs. Fourteen of the cyclists wore all black from head to toe. Three others had brown, yellow, or gray helmets.

Here again, the author is presenting information through dialogue that is really for the benefit of the reader. They’ve come a long way from seeing barely discernable black dots to a specific count of precisely 17 Hayabusa 950 motorcycles, plus a breakdown of their wardrobe.

But wait! As we’ll see below, McKinney got all of these details BEFORE they were in range of the M4s. That would put them at at least 200 yards. I want McKinney’s ophthalmologist!

Power windows rolled down on each SUV. Men poked their heads out or leaned out the windows, rifles or pistols at the ready. Barrios waited until the motorcycles were within range.

The clown car image has returned. Brave author, I urge you to go to your car and act this image out. The bad guys are screaming up from behind (from “six o’clock”). Imagine being packed into your vehicle with all the gear. Some people are “leaning out” of windows, others are only showing their heads. And they all want to shoot the same direction.

“Open fire!” he yelled into his radio.

Yelling into the radio does not extend the range of the signal, but it does garble the transmission. Yelling into radios is unprofessional.

Okay, Brave Author, I’ve been hard on you, but know that it comes from a helpful place. I’m on the record here and elsewhere stating that “write what you know” is perhaps the worst advice ever given, but this is an example of when the advice spot-on.

When a writer enters the world of weapons and tactics (or technology or space flight or any one of thousands of topics that people think they know but probably don’t), little mistakes add up quickly.

Okay, TKZers. Your turn.