About John Gilstrap

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

The Myth About Time

By John Gilstrap

In the two years leading up to the pandemic, I flogged my social media accounts pretty hard, producing and promoting over 30 videos on writing and then posting them on my YouTube channel. Each new video linked to previous videos, and then I posted promotional links on Facebook and Twitter. I picked up enough subscribers and viewers to monetize the channel, bringing in enough extra scratch to fund a Mickey-D’s drive through every six months or so.

Then Covid hit and brought with it social fractures that left me stunned. We avoid politics on this site, and I don’t want to relitigate all that passed during those awful years, but suffice to say they left me Angry. Notice the capital A. I’ve learned since that friends were worried about me.

The saving grace for me was that we had a dream house to build out in God’s wilderness. All those selections and decisions were exactly the kind distractions I needed to distance myself from the urban insanity that I would soon leave behind and embrace the rural calm that awaited us in West Virginia. Our dreams of Utopia were shaken pretty hard when out son suffered a workplace accident that broke his leg in 10 places, but that crisis also passed–just about the time we got the new puppy.

Oh, I should mention that January of 2020 marked the beginning of my first-ever (and last-ever) contract to write two books per year for two years. With my emotions on edge and my calendar packed, something had to go. Thus, no new videos on the channel in the past two and a half years.

I’d like to start doing them again, but . . . here it comes . . . I don’t have the time.

And that is 100% a lie. I have the same 24 hours in every day that I had when I toiled away at a Big Boy job, zig-zagging across the country making speeches and providing consulting services while running a 7-person department and still writing a book per year. The difference is, back then, my writing hours were from dinnertime till 11pm every night. I rarely if ever watched television. I just worked, whether one job or the other. That was the schedule for 11 books over 11 years.

When it comes to starting the videos again, yes, it’s something I would like to do, but clearly I don’t want it enough to give up unclaimed downtime. Empirical evidence shows that I would rather go to shooting range than make a video, and when that’s done, I’d rather clean the guns. When it’s not so stinkin’ hot, playing Frisbee with Kimber is more important, and so is just hanging out with my bride.

“Where do I find the time?”

If you lurk around any of the writer-oriented sites on Facebook or elsewhere on the internet, you’ve seen the question posed dozens of times: “I have a story in my head that I want to get on paper, but I just don’t have the time. Between my work schedule and the kids and their athletics, I just can’t do it.”

In the words of that great philosopher, Col. Sherman Potter, horse fritters!

The time is there. Heck, the time it took for the complainer to post the complaint (and check back three dozen times to see what the responses were) is time they chose not to dedicate to writing. So is that half hour they spent playing Wordle in the morning and the hours they spent playing video games or watching the baseball game on television.

Time is a constant. It cannot be lost and it cannot be found. It just is. Each of us finds the way to prioritize that which is important to us. For me, family is always the top priority, so back in the days of early books, soccer games and endless concerts and recitals always took precedence over anything book-related, because those things were fleeting and fixed in space. One and done. If you miss it, it’s gone forever. But the book still needed to get done. The four hours of productivity I lost that night could be made up in 30-minute increments over the next writing sessions.

Truth can be harsh, but I think we need to be truthful with ourselves. When you hear a friend complaining that they don’t have time to do a thing, and you sense that they’re truly looking for a solution, ask them what less valuable time suck they are willing to give up to make room for the new thing. Hint: I know many people who never watch television and do very well on only five hours of sleep.

It’s all about choices.

Hesitation Kills

By John Gilstrap

After reading Reavis Wortham’s post on Saturday, I figured it was okay to tell this story.

I’ve posted before about our beloved dog Kimber, a mix of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Boston Terrier called a Caviston. (And yes, it bothers me that it’s not spelled Cavaston, but no one consulted me.) When we first moved to the woodland house in West Virginia, she weighed less than five pounds and I was keenly aware that the entire world posed one big hazard for her. Not only was she prey to most other creatures, her girth was smaller than that of the floor vents which hadn’t yet been covered.

We fenced in about a half acre of the backyard/woods so Kimber could have a place to wander, but for the first, say, nine months of her life, she never wandered without an escort. I was her primary security detail. After a year or so, she’d filled out to about 18 pounds and had outgrown reasonable threats from owls and hawks. Only the largest dogs ever outgrow threats from eagles, but our eagles stay distracted by the Potomac River smorgasbord a few hundred yards away from our place.

Once permitted to wander her fenced domain alone during the day, she turned into quite the squirrel hunter, chasing them great distances until the critters cheated and shot up a tree. I don’t think Kimber ever figured out why she couldn’t follow. She’s an avid deer chaser, too, though I’m not sure of her plan for when she caught one.

As neighbors joined our community, her canine best friends became a German shepherd and a Rottweiler. They let her hang out with them and played without crushing her. Like many small breeds, Kimber always thought she had way more wolf in her than she ever did.

As a human in her life, I of course knew better. Although Kimber aged out of danger from smaller predators, very real danger remained from larger carnivores–coyotes in particular. Even at her top adult weight of 20 pounds, she never went out at night without an armed escort. My rifle of choice: a Rossi Circuit Judge chambered in .45 Long Colt. The coyote gun lives its life staged at the back door all the time, easily accessible when needed. Often carried, only used once. On a snake. That’s a lot of gun for a snake.

Then came last week.

Last week was reasonably cool for a June afternoon, so we left the downstairs door open to allow Kimber to come and go as she pleased to and from the back yard. My office sits on the second floor, overlooking the backyard and the woods beyond. I was doing as I always do while staring down the maw of an approaching deadline, pounding away on the keyboard, playing with my imaginary friends when a cacophony erupted from out beyond my windows.

Growling and barking. My wife screaming at Kimber to come. To stop. I heard other animal sounds.

I knew this was bad.

I bolted from my desk and raced down the stairs, down the hall, and through the family room to the back door, grabbing the rifle on my way out. I still had no idea what was happening, but the noise of it all had not decreased in intensity. If anything, it had gotten louder.

Outside now, I turned the corner and the crisis became clear. Kimber had tangled with a woodchuck (or groundhog, depending on where you live). Normally docile, woodchucks are herbivores and hover near the bottom of Mother Nature’s food chain. When confronted with a carnivore, they survive by running away. But Kimber was faster and she cornered it against a tree.

Best I could tell, Kimber thought it was a game. Her tail was wagging hard enough to dislocate itself at the root as she bounced around, taunting the woodchuck that thought it was fighting for its life. Those critters have wicked incisors and long claws that would tear a little dog apart. Given a clear shot, I was going to kill the woodchuck.

Let’s not forget that my wife was in the mix, too, trying to separate the sparring parties. One thing for sure: I had no safe shot to take.

And then I did.

Woody Woodchuck broke into an open field run and for a good three or four seconds, he was all alone. As I shouldered the rifle, though, my wife yelled, “No, please, don’t!” In that instant of hesitation–my fault, not my wife’s; mine was the only finger on the trigger–Kimber woke up to the chase and re-entered the sight picture, chasing the woodchuck down until it somehow managed to climb under the fence and make its escape.

So, Woody lives on to make another appearance. Maybe he was traumatized enough to stay away from our backyard. I look for him every day. So does Kimber, who is fine, by the way. Not a scratch on her.

But a known danger lives on because of a momentary hesitation. Though Kimber sleeps in our bed at night, she is a country dog and she’s happiest when she’s outside. It’s too late to turn her into an indoor dog, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. So, if you’re a woodchuck or a coyote or a copperhead and you’re reading this, do yourself a favor and hang out at a property down the road. At the very least, stay outside the fence.

If there’s a writing related takeaway to this story, it’s that opportunity is often fleeting, and that hesitation–indecision–keeps doors shut that could otherwise be open. Whether it’s a job opportunity or a creative decision in a story, sometimes making a decision–any decision–is better than stewing about it overnight.

Structural Engineering

By John Gilstrap

For the 29th time in 29 books in a row, I find myself in the same predicament: roughly a month to go before deadline and woefully behind where I want to be. And not to sound cocky and not to jinx things, I’m confident that somehow, for the 29th time in 29 books in a row, I’m going to pull it all together and cross the line before the buzzer.

The book on the X at the moment is Burned Bridges (Spring/Summer, 2025), the first installment of my new series featuring Irene Rivers, the FBI Director from the Jonathan Grave series. The very existence of the series is a bit of a spoiler for the next Grave book, Zero Sum (August, 2024), but that’s pretty much unavoidable. Because this is the first book in a series, I’m taking my time in building the world in which she lives in West Virginia. It’s bucolic yet corrupt–I write thrillers, after all–but my corrupt players are smart and educated, just like the vast majority of real West Virginians I’ve come to know since we moved here.

Also, the Irene Rivers series will not be Jonathan Grave with a female protagonist. This series will be more subtle. Less explosive. Driven out of Washington by the political implosion she caused, she’s living out in the country now on inherited family land, trying to reconnect with her kids and be as invisible as possible. To give herself a little something to do, she hangs out her shingle as a private investigator.

Last week, as I crossed the 75,000-word mark, I realized that I’d created a problem for myself. I had characters I really liked doing interesting things with snappy dialogue to solve perplexing problems. What I didn’t have was a pervasive sense of menace. No one felt the presence of danger–including the reader, I’m afraid. I had big reveals planned for the third act in the midst of big violence, but I hadn’t given the reader a reason yet to recognize who my bad guys were, let alone dread their presence in a scene. Third act reveals don’t matter if readers aren’t still there to experience them.

Remember, I write thrillers, and one of the chief differences between my genre and mysteries is that it’s fine for the reader to have more perfect knowledge than the protagonist. I realized that instead of saving all the good stuff for the third act, I needed to open up a parallel storyline for my bad guys and transfer some of the violence up front. Right away, the pacing improved, and my bad guys started to feel more real to me. We come to see that much of the bad they do is necessary in their minds to prevent larger problems from being uncovered. Readers might not agree with their methods, but at least they’ll understand their motivations. The additional storyline also grants the impression of time passing between Irene’s scenes as she moves from place to place.

When I teach master classes–as I will be in September at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in Denver–I emphasize that a story is an engineered product. The purpose of the product is to take readers on an emotional journey with characters that feel real to them. The writer is the engineer who makes every decision from yes or no on the Oxford comma to paragraph length to the perfect balance of action, description and dialogue. If I do my job right with these latest changes, the casual readers of Burned Bridges will have no idea that certain plot points exist where they do as the result of late-in-the-cycle structural repairs. Instead, they will feel perfectly organic to the story.

When things don’t feel right on a project, never hesitate to pump the brakes and take a hard look at what might be pulling your narrative astray. If you find yourself working too hard to keep revealing secrets to your reader while still having a story that makes sense, consider a structural change that will allow the reader to know the secret and then concentrate instead on keeping the protagonist in the dark. That could be as simple as a POV change.

If you find yourself drowning in the choreography of a love scene or a fight scene, consider having your characters merely close the door or run away.

The engineering of a story depends on the niche you’re hoping to fill. I drive a very nice Jeep Wrangler while my wife drives a very nice BMW X3. We’re both very happy with our vehicles. Mine is louder and bouncier than hers on purpose, not as a mistake in engineering. A young wealthy neighbor drives a Porsche that is essentially a massive engine with wheels attached. Neither of our cars would scratch his itch. (I’ve never sat in his Porsche because I’m afraid someone would post a video of me trying to get out of it.)

Your turn, Zoners. Does this engineering approach resonate with your own approach to writing? If you’re a plotter, do you always avoid late term panic attacks like mine? Pantsers, can you relate?

Smackdown: English Instructor vs. Freshman

By John Gilstrap

By the time I got to college, writing and public speaking were my things–the niches I’d cut out for myself. I wasn’t nearly as good at either as I thought I was, but that’s what being a freshman is all about, right? I wanted to be a good student and I wanted to get good grades, both of which came so easily in high school but then proved to be elusive at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I was surrounded by students for whom such things likewise came easily in high school.

Western Civ kicked my ass. Honestly, who can possibly read all that stuff? As a science, Geology looked a lot better in the catalogue than it turned out to be in the classroom. Anthropology was cool, but again, what’s with all that reading? Holy crap! The Yanomamo are interesting, I suppose, but not for five hundred pages!

English 101 was supposed to be my happy place, the slam-dunk. I’d been editor of my high school paper, for crying out loud. I’d never gotten less than an A in any English class in my life. Welcome to college, kid.

This was 1975 and Mr. Greene (not Professor, mind you, making him only an instructor of English, apparently an important distinction) was a groovy, happening guy. With shoulder-length hair and a porn star mustache, he wore bellbottoms and sandals–the kind with the leather loop around the big toe. While he never did it around us, I’m confident he toked maryjane in his off hours. I would not have been surprised to learn that he owned a set of finger cymbals.

Our very first assignment from Mr. Greene was to write a one-page descriptive essay. Easy-peasy.

My Pop-Pop Bonner had passed away shortly before, so I wrote of seeing him laid out in the funeral home for the first time. I’d never seen a corpse before, and I’d never encountered the overwhelming smell (stench, actually) of all those flowers. I wrote of my hesitation to approach the casket and of my refusal to touch his hand as my mom wanted me to do. The payoff of the piece was that Pop-Pop had always been a working man, and there in the casket was first time I’d ever seen the lenses of his glasses be clean. I cried when I wrote it. I thought it was great. I turned it in with the naive confidence of an easy A.

Next class, Mr. Greene handed it back to me ungraded, with the note, “See me.”

I saw him. He told me that my piece was non-responsive to the assignment. He wanted a descriptive essay. I gave him a story. He gave me till the next class meeting to try it again.

I did try it again. I described the bejesus out of that scene. I talked about my uncomfortable shoes, about the crucifix on the wall, the light through the windows, the color of the carpet–everything. If nothing else, I demonstrated my knowledge of adjectives. I turned it in.

“SEE ME.” Note the caps.

I saw him. “What is this? Are you mocking me?”

I honestly don’t remember my reply. I might not have replied at all. Being a keen reader of body language and listener to words, I knew that I’d done something wrong, but I for the life of me didn’t know what it was. I certainly was not mocking him. Then. I most definitely am now.

I got a third swing at the ball. Lucky me.

Back at my dorm, I vented to my buddy Paul who lived next door (and is now a professor of accounting), who, as luck would have it, also had Mr. Greene but at a different time, and declared the descriptive essay to be the simplest assignment in history. He let me read what he’d written.

Oh.

My final rewrite was about a vase with flowers in it. No action, no emotion. Just flowers and a vessel to hold them. I got my A.

To this day, I do not understand the point of that exercise. For a reader to bond with a scene–with the description–movement and emotion are essential. Looking back, I must have instinctively realized the importance of point of view in creating a scene. In reality, plot, setting character can never exist effectively without interacting, all of it filtering through point of view narration.

My version was better.

And I still miss Pop-Pop.

Opa!

By John Gilstrap

Sometimes, the writer’s life is about not writing. Sometimes, it’s about celebrating your wife’s birthday with a two-week trip to Greece. I am writing this from the airport hotel in Athens awaiting my flight home, where I will once again face the reality of holy crap! I’ve got a deadline coming way too fast! But for now, I’ll just share some pictures.

Oh! And wouldn’t you know it? On our first night in Athens, dining al fresco at the base of the Acropolis, my Hollywood agent called with news of yet another option on Six Minutes to Freedom. That in itself was a kind of Hollywood moment.

Now, on with the photos!

Dining on the streets of Athens. My agent called with news of the film option about three minutes after I took this picture of my bride. It was about 10 pm Greek time, noon Los Angeles time.

Mykonos is known as a party town, but the parties hadn’t started when we were there. In Late April, it’s just a series of beautiful villages on the Aegean.

This is the view from our room in (on?) the island of Santorini, by far the most beautiful location of our trip.

Proof that I was on the trip, too. And that we actually touched the Aegean Sea. Too cold for my tastes, the two boys just out of frame would certainly disagree.

Sunset in Santorini.

Our final stop was the island of Crete, where we didn’t leave nearly enough time to do it justice. We did tour the 7,000-year-old ruins of the Palace of Knossos, the historical roots of the Minoan culture. The foundations you see are original, much of the rest is reconstruction. This place had running water, folks, and history’s first flushing toilet!

A Tale of Two Worlds

By John Gilstrap

A few months ago, I was asked and agreed to participate in a first of its kind literary event at the Berkeley County-Martinsburg Public Library here in my new West Virginia hometown. It would be a meet-n-greet, book signing supported by Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. A few weeks later, the organizers reached out again and asked if I would mind if a second author joined the event. Magnanimous fellow that I try to be, I agreed right away, then asked for the other author’s name and genre. I had never heard of the name, probably because the genre was romance.

Well, that would be different, wouldn’t it? I’d never done a panel that mashed up romance and thrillers. I even agreed to promote the event on my radio show and put it out on my Facebook feed as the time approached.

About two weeks out, the organizers sent an email about how to get tickets for this event.

Wait. What? Tickets? In advance? They were free, but they were required to get through the door. This was new to me, and I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time. When I clicked on the link to the tickets and discovered that the event was already sold out, I said to myself, “Self, you should have taken this romance writer you’ve never heard of more seriously.”

Not that anything would have changed.

It turns out that Jennifer L. Armentrout, a delightful, fabulously successful #1 New York Times bestselling author does not write romance. She writes . . . wait for it . . . young adult paranormal sci-fi romance. And she lives about eight miles from me. A bit of a recluse, I believe her when she says she has not taken a vacation or even a weekend off in over 10 years. That’s how she’s been able to churn out 60 books in that period of time. But she’s wildly active on social media, so when she announced that her fans could meet her in Martinsburg . . .

The event.

When I arrived at the library and was ushered to the second floor to the green room, I still didn’t get it. Worse, I didn’t think the library got it. They’d cleared out the entire space–bookshelves and everything–and set up hundreds of chairs. Who the hell was going to fill them?

The the human spigot opened. At 1:50, ten minutes before the event was to start, people started flowing up the stairs, each of them sporting a yellow wrist band that proved they’d been ticketed. Nearly all carried books, many carried bags of books. None of the books bore one of my covers. I have never seen such a rainbow of different hair colors, or variety of facial piercings and tattoos. I put the median age at twenty-three–twenty-five, max.

The discussion.

Once everyone was seated, the moderator introduced Jennifer and me, and we took our places behind the long table next to the display of our books. The light hearted banter we’d developed in the green room transferred well onto the stage and the audience laughed a lot, so a good time was had by all.

For me, though, there was one truly sobering moment–the one that demonstrated just what a dinosaur I am in this business. The question was something like, “Tell us how you sold your first book. How did you find your agent, you know how did all of that work?”

Jennifer answered first. The only part I remember is, “I sold my first book in 2012, and I . . .” From there, she ground through social media/computer-speak that clearly made perfect sense to the audience but meant nothing to me. She talked about promotional sites I’d never heard of and something really big on TikTok. The whole time she was speaking, my brain was screaming, oh, shit, I’m next!

When it was my turn, I played the truth for a laugh. In 1994, after I finished marking up the pages of a book called Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, I sent my query letter and self-addressed stamped envelope . . .

It’s an entirely different world now.

The signing.

I’ve signed next to Lee Child and Mary Higgins Clark. I have never seen fans as passionate as the ones who stood in line for three hours to have their books signed by Jennifer L. Armentrout. One fan had driven overnight from Buffalo to be there, and another had taken a train from Connecticut. At least two fans were so overwhelmed that they cried.

I’m happy to say that I sold and signed a dozen or so books, too, but to be honest, they felt like sympathy sales. As much as I tried not to look sad and lonely as I was largely ignored, maybe I didn’t quite pull it off.

Lessons learned.

First, I learned that there’s a genre called young adult paranormal sci-fi romance.

More importantly, I experienced my first vivid, first-person demonstration of the power of social media to spread word of an event. Unfortunately, I think there’s a generational component to those particular social media outlets. I could be wrong, but I don’t see TikTok as a destination for the average Jonathan Grave fan.

A Peek Into the Sausage Grinder

By John Gilstrap

Yesterday’s excellent post by PJ Parrish about the first pages of this year’s nominees for the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award brought me back to the year when I served as a judge for best novel of the year. I looked at it an an honor–a rite of passage, of sorts, in the same vein as jury duty. I would set aside hundreds of hours of my life over the coming year as a means of paying tribute other writers, in service to this artform that I love so much.

Of necessity, much of the process is veiled in secrecy. As such, I have no idea if my judging experience bears any resemblance to that of any other review committee. And, to honor commitments I made to keep the process quiet, I won’t just keep titles to myself, but I won’t even mention the year in which I served. (Hint: It was a long time ago.)

We’re talking a lot of books. Every hardcover mystery, thriller, or genre-adjacent book published between January 1 and December 31 of the year under review. The number that I recall is 492, all delivered to the front door. The UPS driver got a very good Christmas bonus that year.

“Best book” is an absolute. This was the first speed bump for me. Best is best, hard stop. The standard is not really, really good, or “Wow, that’s an original take!” Best is “none better.” No silver medals here. It’s daunting.

The books don’t arrive all at once. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. During the first few months of the 12-month submission period, I received books at a rate of a manageable trickle. Easy-peasy. Well over 100 arrived during the month of December, a good number of those squeaking in just under the New Year’s Eve deadline. Bummer for those authors.

Judging is done by committee. As I recall, I was one of 7 judges on the best novel committee that year, each of us representing a different corner of the suspense writing universe–cozies, thrillers, hardboiled, etc. I don’t know if that’s typical, but I though it was a touch of brilliance. We were well wrangled by an under-appreciated and overworked committee chair. I forget the details of how it all worked exactly, but as tranches of books arrived, each of us would provide ranked lists of our favorites (top 10 at first, winnowed to top five toward the end), which often bore little resemblance to each other.

Confirmation bias is real. For me, it boiled down to best being best. Given the numbers involved, if what might have been the greatest book ever written didn’t become interesting before page 20, it surrendered its shot at being absolute best. (Ironically, if that book had been one of the initial submissions in the slow times, it might have had a shot. If it had been submitted in the December tranche, it would have been lucky to have a 10-page fuse.) Other judges refused to consider books written by certain famous names. Hey, judges are people, too.

Production values matter. This one is really an aside, but its an important one. There’s a look and feel to a well-produced book–factors that go above and beyond the quality of the writing itself–that have a big impact on the overall reading experience. Font size, binding, paper quality, and I’m sure a bunch of other qualities I don’t understand make a subliminal difference to a reader. Something for all of us to keep in mind.

It’s all friendly until the end. As I recall, our final submission deadline for nominees was sometime in early February. Seven judges, each reading roughly 500 books, represents 3,500 individual reading experiences. There’ll be disagreements. By this time, though, the obvious non-starters have been eliminated, and we were down to the last 20-30 books that not only were all very good (okay, I didn’t particularly like two of them), and we have to narrow it down to a total of one winner and four runners up. Exactly four, not five. In my year, the winner was the book that was common to each of the judges’ top-five lists, though not necessarily in the top slot. As for the runners up, that’s where the fighting occurred. My top two picks don’t appear anywhere on the final list. I’m confident that other judges can say the same thing.

So what do awards mean in the end?

Having won the Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original in 2016, I can tell you that it means a lot to be recognized by one’s peers. It’s humbling. And I deeply appreciate the honor.

But being involved in the process taught me that “best” does not, in fact, mean “best” because such a standard cannot exist in an arena as subjective as art. What “best” really means is engaging and entertaining enough to rate inclusion on lists that also include other writers whose works I admire and whose talent I envy.

The final takeaway is this: Cliche notwithstanding, the true honor lies in being nominated in the first place.

Smooth Operator – First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

By way of full disclosure, I don’t often participate in our First Page Critique program. It’s not that I don’t think there’s value in it, but rather that I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to critique the work of others. As I’ve mentioned here about a bazillion times, I am entirely self-taught. By sheer trial and error, I’ve learned what works for me, and what irks me about the works of others. The problem is that I am often irked by some of the bestselling authors on the planet, which brings me back to what the hell do I know? And who am I to presume to tell others what to do?

On the rare occasions when I do pick up a sample for a first page critique, it’s because I think the work has a lot of potential, and it falls within areas of my expertise where I know I can provide some wisdom that goes beyond the mechanics of writing. Today’s sample of Smooth Operator, by Courageous Author Unknown, is just such an example. (Note to said author: if you email john@johngilstrap.com, I’ll send you the complete marked-up manuscript.)

Here we go. First the original manuscript in bold fontwith my comments on the back end:

Smooth Operator

Chapter 1

“Give yourself up, Ma’am,” the agent shouted. “There is no way out. It’s your only choice.”

Madam Chiang hunkered low against the grey BMW, still clutching the empty Beretta in her perfectly manicured hands.

Oh please. You sound like some B-grade cop movie.

“You only have one option,” the agent shouted again. “Give up now and I won’t shoot. Back-up’s on the way.”

Ah, rookies. It’s Sunday evening. Any back-up is still twenty miles away. And, of course I have options. I always have options. She just hadn’t thought of one yet.

But, in that exchange, Madam Chiang had gained two valuable pieces of information. First, she knew the agent had no idea who she was pursuing, because she had been addressed as ma’am. Likely, the agent only assumed she was a threat because she had just witnessed Madam Chiang blow her friend to oblivion. Not an altogether bad assumption.

Second, the agent was most likely not even on duty. Her tight dress and heels said she wasn’t here for work. Probably only stopped by the office on her way to a party. Whatever the reason, it must have been dumb luck that the agent saw her at all.

 

Moments ago, Madam Chiang had been inside the federal building rushing toward her prearranged exit, clutching the recovered evidence against her chest. She had just spotted her door when a chime announced the elevator’s arrival. Startled, she turned toward the sound. Two women stepped half way out before glimpsing Madam Chiang. All three froze simultaneously. Madam Chiang noticed their eyes widen as they spotted the pistol in her hand. Were they just harmless visitors or a threat?

That question was quickly resolved when one of the women popped open her clutch and pulled out her own pistol. Madam Chiang leveled the Beretta and squeezed off two rounds. Her first hollow-point hit its mark, entering the body just below the unarmed girl’s armpit, continuing on to obliterate her heart and lungs. The force slammed her body into a wall before folding to the floor in a crumpled heap. The second slug missed its mark.

The surviving agent jerked back inside the elevator firing an errant shot as she did. A split-second later, Madam Chiang fired one final shot toward the open elevator and sprinted toward her exit, charging toward cover in an adjacent parking structure.

It’s Gilstrap again. Pretty good stuff overall, don’t you think? The piece certainly starts on action. We get some good hints of attitude in the narration surrounding Madam Chiang. To be sure, she’s not a lady I want to cross when she’s cranky. Let’s stipulate that Courageous Unknown Author knows what s/he’s doing, and that this snippet earns a solid B. Now let’s get to the business of making a good thing even better:

“Give yourself up, Ma’am,” the agent shouted. “There is no way out. It’s your only choice.”

Given what we learn later–that our POV character has killed the agent’s friend–this dialogue prints as way too polite to me. “Show yourself or I will effing kill you!” (or something along those lines, depending on your market) seems way more appropriate. Also, where is the agent relative to our character? Shouldn’t our character be worried about the agent moving for position, especially since her weapon is dry?

Madam Chiang hunkered low against the grey BMW, still clutching the empty Beretta in her perfectly manicured hands.

There are dozens of models of Berettas, but one thing they all have in common is the fact if the magazine is empty, there’s been a hell of a gunfight. I don’t buy that a) she’d be noticing her manicure, or b) that she wouldn’t have broken a nail or gotten them dirty in a running gunfight. The gunshot residue alone would have dirtied her hands.

Also–and this is one of my proprietary irks–please name your characters, especially for close in 3rd POV. First of all, Madam Chiang reads to me as someone who runs a brothel. Later, as the action picks up, you seem to realize that the name is awkward, and resort instead into battling pronouns.

Oh please. You sound like some B-grade cop movie.

Attach this to the end of the paragraph above. That way, it’s easier to know whose thoughts we’re reading. As for the substance of the thought, I was thinking the same thing, but not in a good way.

“You only have one option,” the agent shouted again. “Give up now and I won’t shoot. Back-up’s on the way.”

Let’s think about this. I’m the agent and you’re the bad guy that I’ve got dead to rights on a murder charge. Why would I think for a minute that you would give yourself up after a gunfight? Why would I be marking my position with my voice so you would know where I am–especially since I’m alone? In this circumstance, if I knew where you were, I’d be advancing on your position as silently as I could to take you out. If I didn’t know where you were, I’d take cover somewhere and not make a sound while I waited for you to make a move and show yourself. If you were a professional–and that seems to be what you’re making Madam Chiang out to be–you would know all of this and you’d be plotting accordingly.

Ah, rookies. It’s Sunday evening. Any back-up is still twenty miles away. And, of course I have options. I always have options. She just hadn’t thought of one yet.

Proprietary irk #2: I hate long passages of quoted thought, because that’s not really how we think. At least, that’s not how I think. If this were my story, I would initiate the thought with italics, and then move on with close-in 3rd person narration. Like this:

Ah, rookies. It was Sunday evening, any backup was still twenty minutes away, and she always had options. She just hadn’t thought of one yet. (By the way, I really like that last sentence.)

Now, let’s talk about the choreography. Are federal buildings–the setting, as we will learn in the next section–ever so empty that backup is twenty minutes away? I’m thinking more like 90 seconds.

But, in that exchange, Madam Chiang had gained two valuable pieces of information. First, she knew the agent had no idea who she was pursuing, because she had been addressed as ma’am. Likely, the agent only assumed she was a threat because she had just witnessed Madam Chiang blow her friend to oblivion. Not an altogether bad assumption.

This is the only paragraph in the sample that I hate in its entirety. The glibness just doesn’t work. And it stops the flow of the story.

Second, the agent was most likely not even on duty. Her tight dress and heels said she wasn’t here for work. Probably only stopped by the office on her way to a party. Whatever the reason, it must have been dumb luck that the agent saw her at all.

The detail of the agent’s dress (how do we know she’s an agent, by the way, and not a security guard or concealed carrier?) may pay off later, but if not, this is a bit of a non sequitur for me.

Then, there’s a space break, and . .

Moments ago, Madam Chiang had been inside the federal building rushing toward her prearranged exit, clutching the recovered evidence against her chest. She had just spotted her door when a chime announced the elevator’s arrival. Startled, she turned toward the sound. Two women stepped half way out before glimpsing Madam Chiang. All three froze simultaneously. Madam Chiang noticed their eyes widen as they spotted the pistol in her hand. Were they just harmless visitors or a threat?

First, I don’t understand why this is not the beginning of the story.

I’m not at all oriented to the setting here. I know it’s a federal building, but that doesn’t mean anything. The federal building here in Martinsburg, WV, is entirely different than the federal building in Washington, DC. Are we talking marble floors? Artwork on the walls?

And where are the security guards?

“Prearranged exit” implies additional players. Either way, don’t be coy. Share with us what that exit is and how far away it is.

At this stage, I don’t think we need to know what the “recovered evidence” is, but I’m curious why she’s walking the halls with her pistol drawn if she’s just stealing stuff. A gun in your hand makes it more difficult to clutch things against your chest. Also, the reaction of the ladies in the elevator when they see the gun is exactly the reason not to have one in her hand unless she’s on the attack.

That question was quickly resolved when one of the women popped open her clutch and pulled out her own pistol. Madam Chiang leveled the Beretta and squeezed off two rounds. Her first hollow-point hit its mark, entering the body just below the unarmed girl’s armpit, continuing on to obliterate her heart and lungs. The force slammed her body into a wall before folding to the floor in a crumpled heap. The second slug missed its mark.

Here’s a rule to live by–literally: Never draw down on a drawn gun because you’re going to lose the fight. Agents know this. When the gun is carried off-body (as in a purse), it’s an even bigger problem. The agent’s smart move would have been to duck back into the elevator for cover and to buy a few seconds of time.

Okay, I’m an armed bad guy and I confront two targets–one is armed and one is not. Why on earth would I shoot the unarmed target first? We know it wasn’t a miss because the bullet “hit its mark.”

Is Madam Chiang still clutching the evidence to her chest when she fires these shots? If she’s a professional, she needs to finish this gunfight right here. Drop the evidence, engage the targets and be done with it. To intentionally leave an armed and angry enemy alive to follow as you run is a bad decision.

Proprietary irk #3: Bullets don’t throw people around when they hit. Also, while you can see where a bullet hits on a person’s body, there’s no way to know in real time where it goes as it tumbles through the viscera.

If Madam Chiang is a professional, she would know exactly where that second bullet landed, and she would be pissed.

The surviving agent jerked back inside the elevator firing an errant shot as she did. A split-second later, Madam Chiang fired one final shot toward the open elevator and sprinted toward her exit, charging toward cover in an adjacent parking structure.

The smart move for Madam Chiang would be to dump half a magazine through the elevator door behind which the agent was hiding, and then move to the opening to make sure the job was done.

Before the beginning to this paragraph, this post was at 2,048 words. Probably time to move on.

I hand it over to the rest of the TKZ family for further analysis . . .

 

 

 

 

Banning Obscenity

By John Gilstrap

The West Virginia House of Delegates is making news by passing a bill that removes an exemption for schools and libraries from long-existing laws that punish the intentional distribution of obscene materials to minors. Under the law, adults who willfully and knowingly distribute “obscene” materials to minors can be held criminally liable for up to $25,000 in fines and up to five years’ imprisonment. The justification behind the bill that has forwarded to the West Virginia Senate lies in the question of why would adults whose job description is teacher or librarian be treated differently than any other adult in the state?

To be clear, nothing in the new law in any way prohibits parents from buying “obscene” materials for their children, and the definition of obscenity (see link above) is clear enough and graphic enough that it is not suitable for presentation here in this post. This is not the pornography that Justice Stewart would famously know when he saw it. The definition is really pretty clear. Libraries in West Virginia will be free to have in their stacks as many lascivious materials as they wish; they just have to make sure that minors can’t get their hands on it.

As the author of Nathan’s Run, one of the 100 most banned books in America, I feel that I have a dog in this fight, but I’m not sure who I want the dog to bite. To be honest, while the story features a 12-year-old boy, I never intended that it be considered a book that was appropriate for children. It wasn’t until the American Library Association bestowed the book with an Alex Award that school librarians placed orders for their shelves. Many, many parents were offended by some of the plot points and dialogue, and I understand why.

That said, we’re not talking American Psycho here. There’s graphic violence and bad language (409 bad words according to one letter I received) but there’s no gore porn. Still, I would never question the choices parents make on behalf of their children’s book shelves–or those of the libraries in the schools their children attend.

What I don’t understand is the perceived harm of kids seeing pictures or reading stories that Mommy and Daddy don’t want them to see–presuming that the materials are themselves legal to possess. I learned a lot when my next door neighbor, Sharon, showed me her father’s Playboys behind the hedges in front of their house. Would my mom have been upset if she found out? Oh, yeah, but how would she have found out? And where was the harm?

Reading is one of the finest ways to discover the world, and reading some of my mother’s romance novels during my adolescence cleared up a few important details while raising lots of new questions which I dared not ever ask. That was an essential part of my childhood.

The recent societal emphasis on inclusion and diversity has catapulted new angles on behavior and sexuality that has left many of my generation stunned and dizzy. “Why on earth should we be talking about that in third grade? What happened to innocence?” Change the timeframe to sixth grade, and I’m confident that that’s what Mom would have wondered if she’d found out about Sharon and I behind the hedges, and what happened was the kind of frightened fumbling nothingness that is the very definition of innocence.

The imagery and angry discourse of social media has, I believe, done more to shatter the old notions of childhood innocence than any library could possibly do. Instead of scouring literature to hunt down and identify racial stereotypes and gender roles that offend us, perhaps we should accept the notion that being offended is a part of life that each of us has to work through. Rather than getting wrapped around the axle about the epithets Huck Finn uses to refer to Jim, we should learn from the adventures these great friends shared together.

My question to you, dear Killzone family, is where do we find the balance between parental authority and librarian responsibility? Please keep politics out of it.

 

 

 

The Choreography Of Violence

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, Sue Coletta wrote a wonderful piece on how to write a dance scene. As I read it, I realized that a) I’ve never written a dance scene, and b) what a daunting challenge it would be to try. The page is an inanimate thing. There’s no music to hear, no rhythm to feel. All of that–and the romance that it triggers–must be borne solely by word on the page. The more I think about it, the less likely it becomes that I will ever write a dance scene.

I do, however, write my fair share of violence, and it shares at least one requirement with dance scenes: choreography. Whether it’s mano a mano fisticuffs or a major armed conflict with firearms and explosives, it’s our job as writers to bring readers into the middle of the action in a way that makes them feel involved.

It all boils down to point of view.

If you’ve ever endured the adrenaline dump that is our fight-or-flight instinct, you know that in the moments when your survival is threatened, the world becomes very small. If someone threatens to hurt you or to hurt a family member, there’s a special kind of clarity of purpose. The why of the situation that brought you to that moment could not be less relevant. Survival is all that matters. Sometimes, that means running away, and other times it means defeating the threat.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Experts in managing violent encounters–specifically active shooter situations–tout the strategy of Run-Hide-Fight, in that order. Run away if you can, otherwise hide. Only as a last resort should one attempt to fight back. As a non-expert in such things, however, history all too often has shown that to hide really means to await one’s turn to be be a victim. Something to think about.

When it comes to the fight scene in your story, ask yourself whose is the best point of view from which to present the action, and then stick with it. My 2019 Jonathan Grave thriller, Total Mayhem, opens with a mass shooting at a high school football game:

            Tom Darone had seen a lot of people die in his day, but not like this. The lady in the blue coat—the first to go down—made a barking sound and then folded in on herself.  Tom’s first thought was that she’d suffered a seizure, or maybe a stroke.  She sat two spaces down from him in the bleachers, and one row closer to the football field.  Her emergency happened at the same second when Number 19 of the Custer Cavalrymen intercepted a pass at the end zone, robbing the Hooker Hornets of a go-ahead touchdown.

In all the excitement, nobody saw her collapse.  Then her husband noticed.  “Anita?” he said as he stooped to help her.

Then the crowd erupted with a new kind of cheer.

People pointed, and Tom followed their fingers to see that a player had collapsed on the field.  Was that blood?

Then two more players fell.  A chunk of helmet erupted in a gruesome spray from a third.

The lights went out. In an instant, the field went from the artificial daylight bright that is unique to nighttime football to true darkness.

Anita’s husband shouted, “Oh, my God, she’s been shot!  Help me!”

A ripple of four spectators to Tom’s right fell side-by-side among yelps of pain.

The field was under attack.

Tom watched with a strange sense of detachment as the panic hit.  Home now only two months from his eighth deployment to the Sand Box, and six weeks into his new status as an unemployed vet, the reality of the moment crystalized in an instant. The first survival challenge would be to avoid being trampled in the stampede of humanity.

The panic around him didn’t blossom or bloom.  It erupted.  Those who’d been hit—and the people who loved them—hunkered down, while everyone else fled. In a single instant, hundreds of people decided that personal survival trumped everything. A few were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the swirling action that they simply shut down, but those were the minority.  Most people ran. They had no obvious destination, and they had no apparent plan. Most didn’t even know where the exits were, so they followed the people ahead of them on the assumption that strangers were smarter than they were.

The mayhem grew to critical proportions in mere seconds. Tom realized in a rush that he was in the epicenter of the kill zone.  As the sea of spectators pushed and tumbled past each other—and as bullets continued to find their marks—Tom dropped to his stomach into the foot-trough of the bleachers and rolled to his right.  As he dropped into the matrix of the metal support structure, his boot found a foothold, and then so did his hands.

If I had chosen to write that scene from the point of view of Anita’s husband–the spouse of the first victim–all of the action would have been secondary to his efforts to save Anita’s life and shelter her from further harm. If I’d written it from a football player’s point of view as his teammates are dying, the scene would be different still.

If I’d told this part of the story from the shooter’s point of view, it would have given away too much of the story, so that choice was never in play.

The point here is that while each POV character would observe the same swarm of panicked humanity, the reader’s journey through the scene would be entirely different depending on the author’s writerly choice. Even the narrative voice would be different. Because Tom Darone had recently been in battle, his voice is naturally more observant and less emotional than would be, say, a teenage football player.

Action scenes fail when the author tries to take too big a bite.

The choreography of violence is inherently confusing, so it’s easy to lose the reader. Take the cliched barroom melee from every cowboy movie of the 1960s. On film, a viewer can easily keep track of the different punches thrown by John Wayne and Dean Martin because our brains process imagery at the speed of light. On the page, though, there’s that extra filter in play that translates spots on the paper into words and then those words into images that can be far more vivid than any movie adaptation, but that translation is as fragile as a single misplaced word. Throw in a bunch of different POV characters and the risk of losing your readers grows astronomically.

If you pick a single character from whose point of view to show the scene, you can give the reader a literal blow by blow description of that character’s corner of the fight, while observing flashes of the rest of the activity through peripheral observation. We feel his knuckles hurt when he throws a punch, and we feel the pain in his gut when he takes a body blow.