About John Gilstrap

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

Let’s Argue!

By John Gilstrap

I thought I’d pull y’all in on a running argument I’ve been having with my writer-buddies.  Spoiler: I’m finding precious few to take my side.

Here’s the hypothetical: Let’s say successful thriller writer George Schwartz decides to write a historical romance novel through traditional publishing outlets.  To keep the marketing department happy, and to avoid confusing his existing audience, George decides to write under the pseudonym, Amanda Thomas.  (Apologies if there is a real Amanda Thomas in the romance space.  I couldn’t find her in my 30-second Amazon search.)

Just to get it out of the way, I believe that honesty is king.  Lying to anyone about anything is wrong.  Hard stop.

Here’s my argument:

Since George is writing FICTION under a PSEUDONYM, I don’t see anything wrong with him creating a fabulous, seductive, relevant bio for Amanda Thomas’.  She led a hardscrabble life in the Midwest, raising her three younger siblings because Mom and Dad disappeared in a twister.  As she worked her way toward a management position in some unnamed factory, she never took her eye off her real goal of becoming a writer.  This FIRST NOVEL is the culmination of her life’s dream.  She’s only thirty now, with nothing but future ahead of her.

Her cover photo would be gorgeous, that of a model who has signed a scary non-disclosure agreement.  Amanda flat-out does not do interviews.

Okay, you get where I am going with this.

One of my best friends in the writing world, a very successful author, was horrified at this possibility.  What if the readers found out?  They would feel betrayed, and no one would ever buy another Amanda Thomas novel.  And when they found out that George Schwartz was the purveyor of the betrayal, they’d never buy another of his books either.

But where’s the betrayal?  Where’s the lie?

Amanda Thomas is NOT REAL, and her book is FICTION.  There’s no analogy James Frey and A Million Little Pieces because his reprehensible action was to misrepresent a made-up story as nonfiction.  Amanda’s book is a novel–no one expects a word of it to be true.

If there’s a lie, it’s in the fact of the pseudonym.

To me, to object to a fictional bio for a pseudonym is to object to a pseudonym itself.  The only honest pseudonym in this case would be “Amanda Thomas, who is really George Schwartz.”  We don’t expect that, so why, if it’s okay to misrepresent the fact of authorship, is it not okay to give the fake author a fake background?

What say you, TKZ family?  Is it wrong to misrepresent a pseudonymous writer as a real person?  Should readers know that the name on the cover is not the writer’s real name?  Where are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed?

9+

Use It

By John Gilstrap

Okay, first things first.  My most recent post dealt in some detail with a surgery I was facing to fuse three vertebrae in my cervical spine.  I am thrilled to report that even the doctor is surprised by the speed of my recovery.  There’s some post-op discomfort to deal with, but that improves every day.  Last weekend, I was able to attend a black tie event (Bond-era ascot in lieu of tie), and I made it all the way to the end.

And the nerve pain that triggered the procedure in the first place is entirely gone, save for some lingering numbness in my thumb, which I’m told will likewise go away with time.

Now, for the hard part.  The important part.  It comes as no surprise, I suppose, that my world view is a cynical one.  Blame it on decades with emergency services or a half century living in the Washington, DC are(n)a.  Blame it on a character flaw.  I don’t know why, but I don’t expect a lot out of people.  If nothing else, it’s an outlook that keeps disappointment at a minimum.

Then y’all went and shook my cynicism with unspeakable kindness.  Your posts and emails in support of me and my family and my stories were beautiful, heartfelt and deeply appreciated.  I wasn’t in a position to respond real-time, but please know that I read them all, and each one touched me.  Thank you so, so much.

I have never been an actor outside of a couple of high school performances but I’m fascinated by the concept of method acting.  As I understand it, actors learn to channel real-life experiences into the characters they play, thus finding the visceral compass that will lead them to the “truth” of a scene.  The Method teaches actors to create emotional vaults within themselves from which they are able to draw when the need arises.

I think one of the reasons The Method interests me is because it is exactly what effective writers must be able to do in order to make their characters–and therefore their stories–come to life on the page.

In my case, as my surgery date approached, I was forced into emotional and practical spaces that I don’t remember ever entering before.  The darkest of those moments for me came when I gathered my wife and son (32) on the sofa and had The Talk.  If things went badly, and there was a pull-the-plug decision, they were to pull it.  I have no desire to exist in a vegetative state and I looked them both in the eye as I said it.  I needed to give that permission directly, I thought, even though it’s all written down in legalese in my Advance Directive.  I gave specific instructions to exclude certain member of my extended family from that decision-making process because I knew they would introduce doubt.

As a threesome, we made light of it all, but I saw the looks behind the smiles and the fear and pain only reinforced the love I knew was there.  We had no reason to expect anything but the best, yet the worst needed to be considered.

Now, for the next few weeks, I am not allowed to lift more than 5 pounds, which means that I have to watch my lovely bride carry the heavy stuff.  Yes, I’m a believer in old school gender roles, and it hurts me to be the weak one.  It angers me.  And it motivates me.

Someday, in the near or distant future, all of it will inform a character or scene.  The indignity of the hospital stay, the non-breathable plastic mattresses, the pain of the first baby steps, the challenges of the first nights back home, the warmth of those oh-so-gentle hugs in the recovery room, the agony of learning to swallow again, the out-of-body weirdness of narcotic painkillers, the wonder of chronic pain being relieved.  All of it is there to be used.

For a writer, then, I guess all of life is one big research project.

Are you willing to share some of what’s in your vault?

11+

ACDF: My New, Most Important Alphabet

By John Gilstrap

Note: My bone grafts will come from the bone bank, not from my hip. Thank goodness.

If you’re looking for any solid writing advice on this Wednesday, perhaps you should move along.  This week’s post is personal.  Perhaps even indulgent.

My writing schedule has been knocked completely off course by life issues.  Yes, I realize that this contradicts a point made a few weeks ago in a post on this very blog, but I’m not trolling for sympathy, and I don’t consider this space to be “social media”.  I’ve been a regular here for long enough for all y’all to feel like family.  And I don’t look at any of this as bad news.

Tomorrow, I will undergo roughly four hours of surgery to remove three discs from my cervical spine, replace them with bone grafts, and then fuse them all together with a titanium plate.  The surgeon will go in from the front of my throat, retract my trachea and esophagus off to the side.  The procedure is called anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF), and the success rate is phenomenal.

This is not my neck, but this is what my x-ray will look like when they’re done.

For about a year now, I’ve endured pain and numbness down my left arm and shoulder, radiating down into my left shoulder blade.  Sometimes, my thumb feels as if it’s been hit with a hammer.  As I type this, I can’t feel my thumb at all.  It’s called cervical radiculopathy. I’ve tried physical therapy, and I’ve had two epidural injections, one of which helped a great deal, and one that seemed to do nothing at all.  The surgeon explained that I now have two choices:

Choice One.  I can suck it up and keep going.  There’s no danger of catastrophic degeneration from my condition, so the surgery is, by definition, elective (though insurance will cover it).  He said if I do nothing, things will never be better than they are now, and if they get worse, I always have the option for surgery down the road.

Choice Two.  Have the surgery now and make the pain go away.  This is the choice I made, and here’s why: I will never be younger than I am now, and few conditions age a person faster than chronic pain.

So, the decision is made.  I’ve decided that the risks inherent in any major surgery are worth the results.  I’ve signed on for 4-6 weeks of recovery and the inability to lift anything heavier than 5 pounds for eight weeks.  This puts a big burden on my lovely bride, and she’s signed on as well.

And I’m terrified.

It’s my cervical spine, for heaven’s sake!  The fusion will happen at three levels, C4-5, 5-6, and 6-7.  In the weeks ramping up to tomorrow, I’ve realized how counter-productive it is to be the control freak that I am.  I am literally passing my future into the hands of a man I’ve met only twice.

Since mid-March of this year, the time when this surgical rock started rolling down the hill, I have spent countless hours–hundreds, probably–researching every aspect of ACDF surgery.  I’ve watched an entire procedure, from incision to final sutures (thanks, YouTube!).  I know what the likely complications will be (difficulty swallowing and speaking for the first week or two), but I also know that the vast majority of patients who undergo ACDF surgery enjoy complete elimination of their radiculopathy as soon as they open their eyes.

Knowing these details helps me settle my fears.  This is going to happen, so why not embrace it and try not to be scared?

The real casualty of this looming episode in my life is my writing–and that’s my hook around to the topic of this blog.  Thanks to my obsessive research into my surgery, I have fallen woefully behind the power curve for my next book.  It’s a quirk of my personality that I have difficulty concentrating on the imagery necessary to write a story while my mind is consumed with unanswered questions.  No excuses, just an observation.  I’m hoping that during those days (weeks, perhaps) when I am pretty much unable to do anything but rest and take walks, I’ll be able to re-focus on what I really should be doing.

So, here we go, on into the unknown . . .

10+

Resorting to Manual Methods

By John Gilstrap

I wrote the first draft of this blog post longhand while sitting on a beach in Antigua, under an umbrella made of palm fronds.  The ocean in this part of the world is crystal clear and a perfect aquamarine in color.  Huh, maybe that’s where the color got its name.  Huh.

This is our annual spring sojourn to a beautiful place for a week of uninterrupted relaxation.  With tax season in the rear view mirror, Joy can finally breathe again.  And it doesn’t hurt that her birthday is tomorrow.  As I jot these words, it occurs to me that I’ve vamped my way in to my topic for this week’s blog post: The value of putting pen to paper–literally.

I had no idea what this week’s post would be until I started stringing words together. Then it came to me. That’s the power of picking up a pen!

I’ve discussed this on my YouTube channel.  When I find myself blocked–or if the idea I need refuses to show itself, I return to manual methods.  There’s something about the tactile connection with the paper that helps words and images to break free.

I have it on very good authority that the great Civil War historian Shelby Foote wrote all of his history books using a 19th century dip pen and ink.  He said it kept him connected to the period he was writing about.

I always double-space handwritten drafts because it leaves room for editing as I go along.

At least 15% of the content of each of my books begin as handwritten first drafts.  Sometimes, it’s not because the thoughts won’t come, but rather because a laptop is inconvenient.  Say, for example, when I’m sitting on a beach in Antigua.

I don’t keep a pen and paper near my bed at night, and I don’t carry paper with me on routine outings such as shopping, or going out on a dinner date–unless I’m deep in the middle of a project and I know that the

It’s not uncommon for edits to run for over a page in the spaces between the lines of the original text. It can get confusing during rewrites.

writing demons will probably not let go of me.  But I always have my writing tools with me when I go someplace that is likely to inspire me.

Just as an aside, if I had been drafting a section of a book by hand, I would have included a slug line at the top that would show the date and my location at the time I was drafting it.  That has no practical rationale in real time, but now that I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades, it’s nice to remember where I was, back in the day.

So, what say you, TKZers?  Are a pen and paper important tools in your box?

 

8+

Dear Hollywood Producer

By John Gilstrap

Dear Hollywood Producer,

How do I put this and not be offensive?  It’s really not about you.  It’s about the money—the cash that you pay me.  Today.

I think it’s wonderful that you hang out with Spielberg and Hanks every weekend.  You have every reason to be pleased with your success over the years, and I appreciate your commitment to making the movie based on my book a smash success.  Even bigger than Titanic, you say.  Holy cow!

But I’ll still take the money, thank you.  A big honkin’ check.  The bigger and honkiner the better.  On signing.  As I put ink on the contract.

The back-end money?  That extra hunk of cash you’ll give me on the first day of principal photography?  Oh, hell yeah, I’ll take that, too.  That’ll be a great payday—two times, maybe three times the signing money.  Absolutely, I’ll take it.  And I’ll be very grateful.  But I think of that as “tomorrow money.”

“Today money” is much more important to me.

Let’s be honest with each other.  We both know that a thousand things have to go right with nothing going wrong for the movie ever to be made.  It’ll take years.  And in that time, studios will merge, executives will come and go, and laws will change.  Hollywood is built on “tomorrow money” snatched from the hands of writers.

Oh, no, ma’am.  I’m not suggesting that you would swindle me.  I stipulate that you’re one of the good ones, one of the honest ones.  Forgive me that I still count my fingers after we shake hands.  Force of habit.

So, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll take the money today.  Up front.

Yes, of course I would like to see my stories up on the big screen, and no, I would never try to get in the way of that happening, but again, may I be honest?  We both know that the story projected onto the screen—if it is ever projected at all—will bear only a slight resemblance to the story I wrote.  The screenwriter you hire to adapt my book will be paid way more than what you paid me, and during the course of penning the adaptation, said screenwriter won’t be the least bit interested in my thoughts about the script.

No, no, I’m not upset.  I recognize that that’s the way things are done, and I’m fine with it.  You just have to pay me for the right to turn the film adaptation of my book into some weird parody of the story.  I give you my blessing.

If the check is big enough, I won’t even care.

From where I sit, the value of that first check shows me your commitment to follow through on making the movie.  You offer me $5,000 and I think, “You pay more than that for your first-class ticket to Sundance.  Sure, it’s a lot of money to me, but for you, it’s chump change.”  Offer me $1 million, and now I know you’re serious.  That’s real skin in the game.  For me, a  tempting offer would fall somewhere in the middle, but understand where I’m coming from: The more squirmy you are about the up-front payment, the more likely I am to receive that back-end payment on the first day of principal photography.  Madame Producer, I want you to be motivated to make a movie that will get me paid again.

You say you can only afford to pay me $5,000?  Okay, there’s a way around that.  Give me ownership points, a percentage of every dollar the movie makes.  No, no, not the points on profit that you typically offer to schmuck writers like me.  I mean the first dollar points that you’ll give to the screenwriter who adapts my story, or to the actor who will recite my words.  That’d be the perfect setup for both of us.  You’ll have little risk up front, and I only make big money if the movie makes big money.

Yes, of course I know that is never done.  Writers have never been truly respected by Hollywood.  The studios want the world to believe that movies are created by directors and producers and actors.  Writers need to stay quiet on the sidelines.

And I’m good with that, really, I am.  Just, you know, pay me.

Yours sincerely,

John

10+

Loose Lips Sink Careers

By John Gilstrap

Back around the turn of the century (that would be 1999, give or take), I had the honor and distinct pleasure of splitting a bottle of good Italian wine with Thomas Harris.  For those who don’t recall, he is the brilliant writer who created Hannibal Lecter on the page.  I was writing the screenplay for reboot of Red Dragon at the time.  (No, my name is not on the film, and yes, I think I was screwed.  Royally so.)

Tom was (and is, I suppose) famously reclusive.  For the trade press back in the day, he was the get of all gets.  I asked him why he so vigorously avoided the press, and he told me that among other reasons, it was good for a thriller writer to be mysterious. I took that to mean that the fame should be about the work, not about the author.

Truthfully, I’m not sure that was ever the case, but it’s interesting to think about against today’s backdrop of social media and the narcissism it breeds.  And yes, I am a practitioner.  (Have I mentioned my YouTube channel or my Facebook page yet?) I don’t think it’s possible to go to a writers’ conference anywhere where the effective flogging of social media is not a main event.

That genie is out of the bottle now, and there’s no putting it back.  The question I grapple with is, where does the public Gilstrap end and the private Gilstrap begin?  Because let’s face it: As players in the entertainment business, we are all one Twitter shaming campaign away from being ruined. And there’s the fact that some things simply are nobody’s business.

I interact freely and openly with readers and watchers of my channel.  I encourage them to ask questions, and I promise honest answers.  If a question crosses the line, I don’t make a big deal of it; I just delete it and pretend it was never there.  And here’s why: There’s no point in engaging in any form of negative discourse in a public venue.  Ever.  I’ve build several successful careers around the inviolable rule that you always praise in public and correct in private.  That’s just simple respect.

I know several authors who paste copies of negative Amazon reviews on Facebook and then go on to excoriate the author of the review, presumably for the purpose of public humiliation.  What follows, of course, is a torrent of praise from his fans.  I don’t get it.  As longtime TKZers know, I am not a finger cymbals and incense kind of guy, but that kind of negative energy would exhaust me.

So, I thought I present my [until now, unwritten] rules about public discourse:

  1. Never post politics. Sometimes my flesh is weaker than my spirit on this one.  We all know that I’m a gun guy and that gushy feel-goodism makes my teeth hurt, but I hope that comes out more as charming curmudgeonliness than political.  (Just stay off my lawn.) I can’t count the number of author buddies who post ill-considered, un-researched broadsides against the team they hate.  They get praise from their respective echo chambers, but they’ll never know the number of readers, followers, or would-be agents or publishers they turn off in the process.  Angry, insulted people rarely speak up.  They just quietly go away forever.
  2. Never insult anyone for any reason. It’s fine to rail on about “the idiot who ran me off the road and then gave me the finger,” but I think it’s a mistake to say “Harriet Jones, my idiot neighbor ran me off the road . . .”  First of all, the part of the complaint that is relevant to a social media post is the act of being run off the road.  Mentioning Harriet’s name has no use other than to humiliate her–and in the process perhaps trigger some legal action against you in the future.
    1. And if you must insult someone, make sure it is never someone in the industry. The rumor mill in the publishing biz is swift and brutal.  Notwithstanding the power they wield over writers’ futures, agents and editors are notoriously thin-skinned.  Ditto movie producers.  Bottom line: they don’t need to take any crap from a newbie or a mid-lister, so many of them just won’t.
  3. I never forget that mine is probably the bigger soapbox. This plays into #2 above.  As one’s social media presence grows, so does the need to recognize the responsibility that comes with it.  It would be a form of bullying for me to call out a freshman book that I thought was awful.  First of all, what the hell do I know?  Second, I remember how fragile a first book is.  Third, I may want a blurb from that author in a few years.
  4. I never forget that lots of people have bigger soapboxes than mine. And that their rules may very well be different than mine.  There are issues that I simply won’t engage for fear of becoming chum for Twitter-hate.
  5. I keep it positive. First of all, this resonates with my overall world view.  I’m a pretty optimistic guy.  There’s another reason why I keep things positive and I confess that I’m conflicted on my rationale.  Being part of the entertainment business, my business is to entertain.  People turn to fiction–and by extension to its creators–to find a release from the stresses of the day.  They neither want nor need the burden of my life’s stresses.  I’m blessed to have a great family and many wonderful and supportive friends, all of whom I can turn to for support in the dark times that we all face from time to time.  I don’t see a need to strong-arm people I’ve never met into giving me happy thoughts and supportive words.
    1. Health issues affect us all, whether directly or indirectly through those who are close to us.  I’ve been known to post about these things after-the-fact, but mostly to look at the funnier side and, more importantly, the hopeful side, as I did just about nine years ago exactly, when I posted Way Too Much Information, a journal of my gallbladder surgery.  After receiving some positive comments about that piece, I re-titled it My Cholesystectomy Adventure, and posted it on my website.  Every year, I get a dozen or so letters from patients who are facing that scary operation and find some comfort in my blunt, informative and pretty funny peek into the operating room.  And my urethra.
  6. I keep my family out of it.  Everybody knows that I’m married to Joy, my best friend, and that we do a lot of things together.  She’s a huge part of my journey through life.  But she has her own business, and we both have extended families that are totally out of bounds for social media.
  7. When I’m off-duty, I’m off-line. When night falls and the alarm is set, the social media machine is turned off.  Social media is part of my job, and my job requires me to be sociable and accessible.  But like any job, there’s a workday.  When I leave my office, I’m home.  And I never talk about what I do at home.

There are probably more, but that’s all that come to mind, and this post is running long anyway.  So, speak up, TKZ family.  What am I missing?

 

12+

Scene Construction

By John Gilstrap

Last week, I received this [very] brief email from Bobby, a viewer of my YouTube channel: “can you make a future video on how you write scenes and the length they sometimes are?”

I responded to him that of course, I’d be delighted to do a video on the topic, but then I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure what constitutes a “scene” when it comes to a novel.  In a screenplay, scenes are self-described by slug lines:

INT. – LIVING ROOM – DAY

But novels aren’t formatted that way.  We use paragraphs and space breaks to denote POV switches, but that’s because we can deploy the thoughts and perspectives of characters occupying the same space, a powerful tool that does not exist in a screenwriter’s ditty bag.

According to The Writing Cooperative, “A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action or dialogue. You can think of a scene as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, you’ll start a new scene when you change the point of view character, the setting, or the time.”

I’m not sure I agree with this.  If George and Martha are having a fight, and we cut away to Midge’s POV as she listens to the argument and passes judgment on them, that seems to me to be the same scene, but from different POVs.

This is what happens when you’re a home-schooled writer.  I don’t have the vocabulary to explain much of what I do, and the more I search for it, but more irrelevant the vocabulary seems to the actual process of writing.  Thus my philosophy, “Think less, write more.”

But I still owe Bobby an answer, and for the sake of this post, I’ll rename what The Writing Cooperative defines as a scene to be a space break.  And I mean that literally–an extra space on the page to indicate a switch to a new POV, or even to a parallel story line.

Gilstrap’s Rules For Space Breaks/Scenes

  1. There are no rules.  Use whatever works for you. That which works for me in my writing may very well suck in your writing.
  2. Know why your characters are doing what they’re doing in this scene and how this interaction contributes to the larger story.
    1. If the scene does not develop a character or propel the plot (preferably both, and at the same time), it does not belong in the story.
  3. Know whose point of view is the most dramatic for the presentation of this action.
    1. If Character M’s POV is the key to action that occurs in the second or third act, Character M needs at least one POV scene earlier in the story.  The reader will feel cheated if an otherwise secondary character steps into the spotlight for that One Important Reveal.
  4. Each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
    1. In the scene I’m writing in my current WIP, Hellfire (July, 2020), we’re introduced to Grant, who will become a significant character in the story.  He’s in jail as we meet him, and he anticipates good news very soon (the beginning).  When the news arrives, it is entirely different than what he expected (the middle).  And then it hits him just how really bad the news is (end).  I haven’t finished the scene yet, but I expect that it will all play out in 7 pages or so.
  5. Conflict, conflict, conflict.
    1. Two people who like each other and are in agreement do not advance a story.  Our own James Scott Bell refers to this as Happy People in Happy Land and it is first on his list of “The Five Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)” [We can discuss the choice of an ampersand in the title later.]  Taking him completely out of context, he also believes that the best novels “have the threat of death hanging over every scene.”  The linked article is really worth reading.  You know, when you’re done reading this.
  6. Strive for consistent space break/chapter break lengths.
    1. This is an imprecise science at best.  I shoot for chapter lengths of 12-15 manuscript pages, with two space breaks per chapter (maybe three).  I do this because I write long to begin with, and I think 40 chapters is about right.  One chapter per space break interrupts the “fictive dream” too frequently for my tastes.  (And 180 chapters is silly.)

So, that’s my cut at Bobby’s question.  It’s your turn, TKZers.  I haven’t done the video yet, so what am I missing?

 

8+

The Page Proof Nightmare

By John Gilstrap

[COMMERCIAL: The latest video on my YouTube channel is all about sex, violence and bad language in fiction.]

In the traditional publishing world, milestones define the production cycle of a book.  You turn in the manuscript, then you get the global edit from the editor.  Next come the larger structural changes and you turn those in.  Copy edits are next, those niggling little change-which-to-that kinds of changes.  (Or why did-that-guy’s-name-change-between-Chapter-Four-and-Chapter-Fifteen kinds of changes.)

The final step is the one I hate–the page proofs.  That milestone is my last shot at making sure that the book is exactly what I want it to be.  Did the copy edits I rejected make it through anyway?  Have any other errors made it through?  Does the plot really make sense?

For me, this is a staggeringly stressful process.  First of all, I suck as a copy editor.  I’m not a details-oriented reader.  Once I get lost in the “fictive dream” (thanks for the phrase, Brother Bell), I don’t see the little stuff.  So, for the page proofs, I have to force myself to . . . Read.  Every.  Word.  It takes forever.

I hate page proofs.

My beloved Delta mechanical pencil sits atop the dog eared pages where I made changes.

But it helps a little to have traditions in place to get me through.  It starts with the Delta mechanical pencil.  I’m a fountain pen purist when it comes to hand writing my manuscripts, but for me, editing must be done with a pencil.  This Delta pencil has been my go-to editing instrument for at least the last 15 books.  I like the weight of it, the balance.  And it will always write, irrespective of the angle, whether I’m sitting upright or reclining in a chair.

I grab a hunk of pages and start reading.  Where I note a change, I dog ear that page, but all the pages have to stay in order for a while because it’s not unusual to have to refer back.

After Lord knows how many sessions of detailed reading of a story I am sooo sick of reading, I finally reach the last page.  I turn it over and put it atop the 500-page mound of paper.  In the case of the latest of the Grave novels, Total Mayhem (July 1, 2019), whose page proofs I finished just this morning, I had marked changes on 90 of the book’s 480 pages.

The good pages get tossed to the floor for recycling.

Those pages go to my office, where I sit at my desk and take a last look at every page.  (I can’t count on myself to have dog eared every page where I’ve made a change.)  The clean pages get tossed on the floor, and I stack the edited pages into a new pile.  That pile then gets separated into mini-stacks of ten pages each.  This morning, I scanned the stacks into my computer as PDFs, and then I emailed the PDFs to the production editor at Kensington.

So now it’s official.  Total Mayhem is in the can.  I couldn’t change a word of it even if I wanted to.  The good news is that I really like the story.  Now I just have to deliver two new manuscripts in the next 12 months.  (Yes, I’m out of my mind.)

So, TKZ family, are there parts of the writing/editing/production process that you hate?  Parts that you love?

Final note: Today is my birthday!  As you read this, I be getting prepped for/undergoing/recovering from an epidural injection in my cervical spine to relieve the pain of a pinched nerve.  I expect to be fine, but my responses here might be slow.  Do I know how to celebrate or what!

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A Whole Lot of Travel

By John Gilstrap

Today’s KZ post appears late because its author has been on the road and arrived home exhausted.

I left January 20 for the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, an event I go to every year because it is to weapons systems and technology what the Detroit Auto Show is to automobiles.  Plus, I get to shoot hundreds of rounds of other people’s ammunition.  I even got to shoot a crossbow.  The highlight of this year’s day at the range came when I nailed the center of a target at 850 yards with a 6.5 Creedmoor.

The day the SHOT Show ended, the January Writers Retreat began at the Golden Nugget Casino and Hotel on Fremont Street, also in Vegas. This is a one-day (or three-day, depending on how you count) retreat where writers get together to talk about writing.

That brings us to January 27, the day we embarked on a driving trip to from Las Vegas to Santa Fe with a stopover in Monument Valley.  This trip was purely vacation.  We traveled with our good friends, Reavis Wortham and his wife.  If you haven’t read any of Reavis’s books, you’re really missing something. Santa Fe is a beautiful town, situated at 7,000 feet.  Personally, I had some real problems with the thin air, particularly at night,  The secret, I learned, is to drink a ridiculous amount of water every day.

We returned home from Santa Fe on February 4, a day later than planned, thanks to flight delays.

On February 7, I left for a 5-day trip to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, where my colleague Khris Baxter and I taught an all-day writing class for the residents of the base.  We also spoke to the high school there.  The cherries on the cake, though, were the tours we got of the base, including those areas for which Guantanamo is most famous.  I’m not comfortable yet regarding what I can and cannot write about that, but it was quite the experience.

I got home last night and was in bed by 9.  That’s 2100 hours.  Travel to and from Gitmo is a chore.  It includes driving from Washington to Norfolk to arrive at the Military Airlift Command (MAC) by 0400 to catch the 0530 flight to the Jacksonville, FL, Naval Station (JAX).  There, the key is patience because the wait is long.  At least two hours.  Then you catch the flight to GTMO.  Upon arrival, you catch the bus that takes you to the ferry that takes you from the Leeward side to the Windward side, which is where all the cool stuff is.

Yesterday, I had to reverse that procedure to get home.  Which is why I am tired, and didn’t get this post written on time.  Oh, did I mention that Internet service on GTMO is . . . spotty?  I’ve already committed to going back next year for a full week.  But more on that later.

Now it’s time for coffee.

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Where Inspiration Comes From

By John Gilstrap

Over the weekend, on the heels of the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, I participated in a small, 20-person writers’ retreat, and I was reminded at how inspirational it is simply to be in the presence of other writers.  No fans, no industry people, just other authors who are doing their best to carve a living out of a crazy business.

I’ve been doing this a long time, yet there’s always another tidbit or two to be learned from others, even if it’s a different squint on a common problem.

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Arizona

Fired up with creativity, Joy and I joined with another couple and headed off for a week in the Great Southwest.  Our final destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico, but our first stopping point was Monument Valley, Arizona.  We stayed at The View Hotel on the Navajo Reservation, and Mother Nature presented us with the very best she had to offer.

I don’t remember the last time I had an unobstructed view of a moonless, entirely dark night sky.  The sight of billions of stars, stretching from horizon to horizon brought tears to my eyes.  It centered me.

And when I awoke the next morning, I was greeted with a sight that turned out to be photo-friendly.  The sun rose slowly against the big sky, and every few minutes the light changed again.  After a couple of snapshots, I realized I was squandering my gift from God.  Moments like that are meant to be experienced. They are meant to be savored.  It sounds corny, but something changed in me.

I’m better because of the experience.

What fleeting moments in your life have had a profound impact on you?

Fair warning: I’ll be savoring Santa Fe when this is published, so I won’t be participating much in the responses.

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