About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of 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. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. 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.

Bad Guy Boot Camp Redux

By John Gilstrap

I’m pleased to announce that my publisher, Kensington, has signed me on for three more installments of the Jonathan Grave series.  The working titles are Untitled Grave 12, 13 and 14.  Few series get that kind of lifespan, and I am both humbled and thrilled.

One of the questions I have to wrestle with at the plotting stage of every book is the most basic of them all: Why?  Jonathan Grave and his team are freelance hostage rescuers who frequently end up rescuing far more than that, and there has to be a plausible reason why his clients, who often are government officials, are compelled to turn to him instead of to local police, the FBI or even the military.

There’s another compelling why question that is often more difficult to satisfy.  More times than not, Jonathan’s enemies are bad-ass dudes who are well-schooled in their bad-assery.  Why do they always lose the fight in the end?  If I’ve established a bad guy who is an expert sniper, it’s not fair to the reader or to the story to make his one bad shot of the book the one that was intended for my protagonist.  All elements of a story need to be earned by the characters.

I’ve just recently discovered the wonderful Amazon original series, “Bosch,” based on the novels of Michael Connelly.  I binge-watched all four seasons over the course of a couple of weeks.  For the most part, the writers keep within the realm of probability, but they dropped the ball at a critical juncture.  Over the course of eight episodes, we’ve come to know and hate a mass-murdering bad guy who is ruthlessly good at what he does.  He’s a killer who kills.  Then, in the final scenes, as Bosch and his partner creep through the woods toward our bad guy’s mountain cabin (without backup, of course), the bad guy gets the drop on our heroes and opens up with a machine gun.  He rips out a good 30 rounds from a defended position from which he’s had plenty of time to aim, but he misses, thus setting up a pretty cool shootout. It’s an exciting scene that just happens to defy logic.

More recently, I was watching the season finale of “Blue Bloods,” another favorite, in which the NYPD is searching for an assassin who’s been offing people with amazing marksmanship.  The MacGuffin of the episode is pretty compelling, and as each of the killer’s targets drops dead, we learn that the police commissioner’s own family is in danger.  In the final reel, our assassin has the commissioner’s son in his sights at point blank range—think three feet—and this one time, when he pulls the trigger, his bullet goes wide.  Aargh!

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time.  In fact, I wrote about it here in the Killzone back in 2010.  I decided to host a convention of fictional villains to give them a pep talk to inspire them to have more pride in their work.  I called it Bad Guy Boot Camp.  Here is a transcription of my opening remarks:

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Bad Guy Boot Camp. Please take your seats so we can get started. Yes, it’s good to see you, too, Dr. Lecter. What’s that? Oh, no thanks. It looks delicious, but I’m still full from breakfast. Couldn’t eat another thing.

Um, Mr. Morgan? Dexter? Please don’t sit so close to Dr. Lecter.  I’m pleased that you’d like to get to know him better, but wait till after the session. The lounge downstairs has a very nice wine list. I recommend the Chianti. 

Let’s get right to it, shall we? I think I speak for all when I say that I’m sick and tired of the good guys getting all the credit in fiction. Without you, all those stories would be pretty darned boring and I think that . . .

Um, Mr. Dolarhyde, please turn off the camera. We don’t allow filming of these sessions, and I believe you know why. Thank you.

As I was saying, I think it’s about time that, as a group, you started taking more pride in your work. It’s about craftsmanship and respect. For example—and please take no offense—several of you were taken down by a quadriplegic detective. I mean, really. That’s embarrassing. Yes, we all know that it’s the hot chick doing all the leg work (no pun intended), but the quad is the headline, and that makes all of you look bad.

Let’s start at the beginning. You’re villains.  Be . . . I don’t know . . . villainous. Be a freaking bad guy. Do your crimes, get them over with, and quit making it so easy for the heroes. If we frustrate those detectives enough, they’ll quit being so glib.

Let’s start with you serial killers. I know you’re crazy and all, but try to stay focused on your goals: sexual gratification through unspeakable mutilation. Everything else is secondary. Are the notes and the clues really necessary?  You know those always work against you, right?  I know that for some of you, your creative process requires spewing DNA, but how about leaving that as your only direct pathway to arrest? It’s about risk management, people.  Business 101.

If making bombs is your thing, I submit that the digital countdown clock is not your friend.  And folks, please.  All the same color wires.  Trust me, this will frustrate the daylights out of the cops. 

A note about travel: Stay out of Miami, Vegas, New Orleans and New York. They’ve got CSI teams there that are amazing. They’ve got a hundred percent catch ratio, and the average time from incident to arrest is only an hour. Really, an hour. I recommend keeping to the heartland, where all the local police are incompetent and depend exclusively on the FBI or on passing private investigators to get anything done.

Oh, and there’s a town in Maine called Cabot’s Cove.  Bad, bad news there.

Any questions? Great.

Let’s move on to marksmanship and gun play. Folks, at the end of the session today, I’m hosting an outing to the shooting range so you can hone your skills. There’s a trend among all of you where you show excellent marksmanship at the beginning of your crime spree, but then they erode toward the end. Maybe you’re choking because of the pressure, but the basic skills are there. When you whiff that critical shot, you miss by only a fraction of an inch.  When your instructor, Mr. Wick, is finished with you, I’m confident you’ll see a world of difference. 

While we’re on the topic of guns, I beg you to keep one point in mind: When in doubt, shoot. If the moment comes when you’re muzzle to muzzle with the protagonist, don’t negotiate, shoot. Why do you care if he drops his gun? You’re a villain, for heaven’s sake. Just pop him. You don’t need to tell him why.

Yes, Dr. Moriarty, you have a question?

Actually, I’m not sure I agree that murders have become less civilized over the years, but I encourage you to bring that up during your breakout session . . .

 

10+

Demonic Darjeeling — A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

It’s that time again.  The brave writer who’s stepped into the breach for a first page critique has been waiting for way longer than s/he should have.  This one was actually submitted back in December, and it got lost in the scrum of the Holidays.  My apologies for that.  So, here we go, hopefully better late than never.  I’ll see you on the other side.  (As always, the italics are mine for clarity’s sake.)

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory horns and alabaster pale skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;

“Who is it this time?”  For as long as I had run the tea shop, the Demons would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place, by all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing? 

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job.”

=

It’s Gilstrap again.

Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this piece.  I think I like the tone, the off-handedness of the interaction and dialogue, but I don’t understand the world.  Wouldn’t those horns raise a ruckus as they wandered down the street?  If they’re visible only to Ness, then that should be made clear.  And if they can repair pottery with a sweep of a hand, why do they need to enter the shop through the door?  Wouldn’t they just *poof* their way in?

I don’t think this scene makes a good first scene.  It’s a good turning point, but I’d like to get to know Ness–and see her interacting with Kailor and Malariz on previous missions–so that we get a chance to buy into their relationships.  There’s a chumminess among them that feels unearned in this sample.

I’m reminded here of the Three Kings from the Gian Carlo Menotti operetta, Amahl and the Night Visitors, where Melchior is portrayed as playing with less than a full deck.  I presume that that’s what we are to believe of Malariz.

I think there’s real potential here, though angel-of-death stories have been done many, many times, and therefor pose a great risk of falling into the realm of cliche.

Brave Author, you’ll see below that I have made some specific suggestions for a re-write.  You have a tendency to be redundant in your narrative, and there seems to be an addiction to -ly adverbs.  Look for my comments in bold type.

And thanks for submitting!

Title: When the Demons Came for Tea

The tinkling bell chimed in the teashop and I turned to see two figures, dressed smartly in velvety black velvet business suits.  They could have passed for ordinary people save for the curling ivory (really ivory—in which case could she really know that—or ivory colored?) horns and alabaster pale (redundant) skin.  I picked up the rose patterned china tea pot and asked;,

“Who is it this time?”  For as long (How long is that? This is an opportunity for detail.) as I had run the tea shop, these Demons (why capitalized?) of death would come in for afternoon tea before they went off to claim their next soul.  These were demons of death, in charge of claiming the souls of those ready to depart the earth and giving theme safe passage to…  well, wherever they went next.  I had no idea what had drawn them in here in the first place. By all accounts this was an ordinary tea shop.  (We will assume the ordinary, unless instructed otherwise.) Perhaps they just liked the tea I served.  That’s what I liked to believe anyway.  I handed the demons a cup of tea each and repeated my question, noticing for the first time their rather uncomfortable silence.  Oh God, was it one of my family?

“W-who is it?”  I asked again.  Kailor sipped his tea.  Malariz shot Kailor a furious look (This feels unearned to me. Why the furious look?) before turning to me.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “it’s… you Ness.”  The china tea pot shattered as it hit the marble floor, having fallen from my limp hand.

“M-me?”  I whispered.

Kailor sighed, repairing and repaired my tea pot with a sweep of his hand.  “Hennessey Kayla Jones, we Kailor and Malariz of Soul Reclamation come to you know with a choice.  Come with us, to your afterlife or accept our job offer.”

Job offer?  Was that a thing?

“A job?”  I asked.

“You accept the job?” Malariz asked quickly.

“No, what is the job?”  I said quickly.  The demons exchanged a secretive look.

“We can’t tell you.”  Kailor said happily.  I gaped at him.  Taking a deep breath, I downed my tea in one gulp and turned back to the demons.

I think this is a place for some internal monologue as Ness sorts through her options.  As written—as dialogue—it seems too glib, too for-the-reader.

“Let me get this straight.  I’m the soul you’ve come to claim, and I can either go with you to my afterlife, or take this job offer.  A job which you can’t tell me about until I’ve accepted it?  Is that about right?”  I asked shakily.

Malariz looked happy that I was catching on, “Yep that about covered it.”  I stared at him, lost for words.  Kailor looked between me and Malariz.

“I think she was being sarcastic mate.”  He said.  Malariz looked crestfallen.  I looked back and forth between the demons for a moment before turning around to look at my beloved tea shop.  Either way I would have to leave this place, I’d might as well have an adventure while I’m at it.  I turned back to them.

“I’ll take the job,” I said.

 

3+

Emotion Must Be Earned: A First Page Critique

By John Gilstrap

Here we are again, presenting the work of a brave author willing to invite friendly fire.  This one arrived to me untitled, and is presented as such.  The italics are mine, just for the sake of clarity. I’ll see you on the other side.

Quinn Larson slipped into the gallery’s back row, settled on the hard edge of a plastic chair, and waited for the execution to begin. In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words. Instead, she found a handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats. A few stole curious glances at her with lifeless eyes. The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food. She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff as he helped her into a chair near the door. Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to. She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus. It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.

Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks. Phones and video cameras had been confiscated at security and Quinn took wicked pleasure that the prison forced them to write things down the old-fashioned way. She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.

Special Agent Dawson swaggered in next, the execution his final moment in the spotlight. He’d hunted down the monster, bringing an end to a gruesome fairy tale. He came up the aisle ahead of Quinn in the center of the row, scoping out the view. Then, he glanced at Quinn.

“Miss Larson.” He inclined his hat before removing it. They were two tiny words, just a few letters each, but they sent a live current through the assembled spectators. Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her, their expressions full of contempt, and her skin crawled. She was an infection to their grief, the painful itch of a murderer’s daughter in their midst. The humiliation of it rose up the back of her neck and blossomed across her cheeks. Even in the heavily air-conditioned room, her face flamed.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.  I think the premise here is very strong.  A daughter coming to witness her father’s execution is pretty stuff.  Clearly, Quinn and her soon-to-be dearly departed daddy are not what we’d call close.  I can only imagine the stress of feeling the heat of so many stares when people realize who sits among them.

Alas, I have not choice but to imagine those things because they are not here on the page.  The piece, as submitted, impresses me more as notes for the author than as an actual bit of drama.  It’s the emotional equivalent of bland spaghetti sauce.  It’s the right color, all the elements appear to be there, but it’s missing the spice that makes the offering come alive.

My first thought is that the author has chosen the wrong place to begin the story.  We make much here in TKZ of acting first and explaining later, and for good reason.  But this scene is more emotion than action, and emotion needs to be earned.  That’s a problem here.  I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be in Quinn’s corner, or if I’m supposed to be as appalled by her presence as her fellow spectators are.  Maybe the author should start a few minutes earlier, perhaps with an interaction with the guard at the security station, where a few lines of dialogue would give us a clue as to her status on the observer tree.

I think if there were a quick interaction with Agent Dawson, in which she asks to remain anonymous, his greeting to her in from of the others would pay off as an act of betrayal–if that’s where you’re trying to go.  Have her encounter a reporter and tell him to go to hell.  Lead us into her world.

Bottom line: the author hasn’t triggered empathy from this reader.

At a more granular level, some of the writing gets in its own way.  Take, for example:

“In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words.”  Remember that this is the reader’s first encounter with any of this story.  When you refer to torches, a time frame is set in my head, and even though you counter it in later passages, the contradiction is jarring.

“. . . handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats.”  I’m not sure this is possible.  One is either sitting or being held up, it can’t be both–unless there’s a robbery involved, in which case the meaning of “held up” changes altogether.

“The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.”  How does Quinn know whether the woman is sane?  She can appear stressed (“She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff” does a nice job of that), but stress and sanity are entirely different things.

“Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to.”  The first two or three times I read this, the image in my head was of her pulling her hood tighter, and I couldn’t figure out how that would tighten around her body.  Now, I realize that by “hoodie” you really meant “hooded jacket.”  Again, because we have no lead-in to this scene, the obligation to be precise in descriptions is critical.

“She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus.”  I don’t see the contradiction here.

“It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.”  This is an intrusive bit of backstory.  Not only does it interrupt the present action, it catapults the reader to a place he’s never seen and has no reason to care about.

“Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.”  Morbid fascination? Really?  Because we have not been brought into Quinn’s close third-person world–where we might understand that she’s pissed at the press for good reason–this feels like a POV violation.  How does she know what they’re writing?

“She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.”  Finally, this is a good bit of business, but, again, it’s not earned.  Put her face-to-face with Reporter Bob and let them interact.  Show, don’t tell.  Let us witness the angst through her eyes.  “Callous disregard” is a facile phrase that ultimately means nothing.

That’s all I’ve got before turning things over to the Killzone denizens.  By way of full disclosure, when this critique posts, I will inaccessible to all things Internet, so y’all behave.

6+

The Truth About Silencers

By John Gilstrap

We’ve all seen how silencers work on firearms, right?  Our assassin lies in wait as his victim approaches down the street.  His silenced revolver is loaded and ready to fire.  The shooter takes his time, waits for his shot.  And then, from ten feet away (or 20 yards away), he makes his move.  The revolver puffs twice.  Phut, phut.  The victim falls, and no one knows whats wrong.  The killer makes his getaway.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is yet another example of how movies and television get pretty much everything wrong when it comes to firearms and tactics.  Where, oh where to begin?

First of all, they’re called suppressors, and that’s because they’re not all that quiet.  Except sometimes.

A YouTuber who calls himself SmarterEveryDay posted a unique and very cool video on the function of suppressors.  He hooked up with a guy from Soteria, a suppressor manufacturer from Munford, Alabama, and together, using a high speed camera and a see-through acrylic suppressor, they were able to demonstrate exactly how a suppressor does its thing.

In case you can’t get the video to run, the suppressor (or the “can”) uses a series of internal baffles that contain the flash and expanding gases of a fired round, and then vent them slowly.  The effect is a more muffled report.  But there is still a substantial report.  Such things are hard to quantify in a blog post, but to my ear, most suppressed rifle shots sound like unsuppressed small caliber pistol shots.  Click here for a video of me shooting a suppressed Heckler & Koch MP7 at the Navy SEAL range in Virginia Beach.  What you’re hearing is a wicked little 4.6mm round, which translates to around 19 caliber.

The real benefit of suppressors is muzzle flash control.

Imagine you’re a bad guy doing bad things, when in the middle of the night, you hear pop-pop-pop and your friends start falling down around you.  There’s noise, but no muzzle flash–no visual reference for where the attack is coming from.  It’s just from out there somewhere. Recognizing your situation for what it is, you pick up your own weapon to return fire, and every pull of the trigger releases a blinding flash at the tip of the barrel that not only destroys your night vision, but announces your location to anyone who maybe hadn’t noticed you yet.  Your night is likely to get pretty unpleasant.

For military operators, SWAT folks, Border Patrol and all manner of other groups who do dangerous things under the cover of darkness, suppressors, combined with night vision technology are tremendous force multipliers.  Owning the night doesn’t mean much if every shot gives away your location.

You can’t suppress a revolver.

Before my gun buddies get too twitchy that I let that first picture stand too long without contradiction, I need to point out that every old movie that shows a suppressed revolver is demonstrating the impossible.  The only way a suppressor is even a little effective is if the combustion gases are all contained long enough for the pressure to dissipate.  As the picture shows, every revolver has a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, through which a significant amount of gas escapes.  So significant is the pressure, in fact, that a revolver needs to be fired using a significantly different grip than that used with a semiautomatic pistol. if you rest the thumb of your support hand along the base as you would with a semi-auto, you’d stand a good chance of blowing your thumb off with the escaping cylinder gas.  The technical term for that is “a bad thing.”

Guns need to be modified to accept a suppressor.

Because of the pressures involved, adding a can to the muzzle of a firearm requires a strong bond.  For a suppressor, that means lots of pretty fine threads that extend beyond the frame of the firearm.  The picture of the 1911 variant pistol shows the modified barrel that would be used to accept a can.  As shown, the threads are protected with a threaded cap, and the can has not yet been attached.  As shown, the gun will still shoot just fine.  Also note that this pistol has taller sights than usual to accommodate diameter of the suppressor.

Bullet speed means more than bullet size when it comes to suppressor effectiveness.

The bang of a gunshot actually has several sources.  First, there’s the obvious explosion of gunpowder in the breech.  Depending on the load, that may or may not rise to the level of detonation, but in any case, there’s a lot of fast-burning gas.  Second, in the case of high-powered pistols and rifles whose bullets travel at supersonic speed, there’s the sonic boom that is caused by the projectile in flight.

Shotguns, on the other hand, are almost always subsonic. (I can’t think of one that is not, but I’ll avoid the absolute anyway.)  A full load of .00 buckshot will send nine to fifteen .32-caliber pellets downrange at around 1,100 feet per second, and because they are not rifled, they lose velocity more quickly than bullets.  Thus, a suppressed shotgun is really very quiet, to the degree that no hearing protection is required.

If you really need the drama of more traditional “silencer” . . .

If your story desperately needs the visuals or drama of that phut, phut of old, you’re not totally out of luck.  Most manufacturers make a line of subsonic ammo in most calibers.  When used in conjunction with a suppressor, they can be fairly effective.  You’re still going to get more of a bang than a phut, and it will still be audible within, say, 20 yards in the open, but you might not hear it in the basement if the shot is fired on the second floor.  All else being equal, larger calibers create louder noise.

If your character really needs to shoot a bad guy at bad-breath distance and not be detected in the next room . . .

This picture of a suppressed .22LR pistol also shows the ring (now removed) that protected the threads before the can was attached.

I have it on good authority that the preferred bullet for wet work contractors engaged in close-in killing is the subsonic .22LR (long rifle) round. This is the little bitty round that most people think of as a plinker–the round you fired at summer camp when you were a kid–but in reality it is the most common caliber in the world, and is therefore the world’s deadliest round in terms of sheer numbers of people killed (including Bobby Kennedy).  When fired through a good suppressor, a subsonic .22LR doesn’t even produce a phut.  The only audible noise is the clack, clack of the action.

Those are the basics. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.  Okay, TKZers, it’s your turn.

 

16+

First Page Critique: Endless Tomorrow

By John Gilstrap

We all know the drill by now.  A brave author has taken a big risk that we all respect.  First, the submission, and I’ll join you on the flip side:

Endless Tomorrow (TITLE)

The message from the Consul arrived before breakfast. Agnes had just wiped the last of the shaving lather from his face when Congressman John Paul opened the embossed and sealed envelope. He stared for far longer than it took to read the few words on the short scrap of paper.

“Well, what is it now?” asked Agnes.

Not the reserve a housekeeper should show to an employer but his momentary flash of irritation was soon forgotten. His fingers slid numbly over still tingling cheeks. “They know how to make guns.”

“Guns?” Her disbelief was evident. “Who’s got guns?”

John might as well have told her he could do magic. Guns were a relic of the past and long since gone from the world. “Strangers from behind the Eastern Mountains. We got word of them yesterday at the Ministers’ Meeting but there was no talk of guns.” He stared absently ahead. “A messenger must have come in the night.”

She laughed dismissively. “No one has guns anymore. Not for hundreds of years.” Agnes gently slapped powder on his cheeks and untied the barber cloth.

“Don’t be so sure, Agnes. I learned about them once in school. They are not complicated—at least in theory.”

“Oh, goodness. What else does the Consul’s note say about these people? They have rocket planes too?”

John had the feeling that rockets and planes were two different devices but his memory was fuzzy on the subject of the Moderns’ technology. He read the Consul’s note aloud. That was what Agnes wanted anyway. She was never satisfied until she knew everything.

Dozens of strangers from east now camped in field by Beaker’s Farm. Requesting our presence. Tech and crops unclear. Claim to have guns!? Ministers meeting at eleven. Then we ride. Richard.

Her voice was scolding. “Guns! Don’t believe those people—telling whatever lies they think might impress us. They’ll be wanting to settle here in the valley, just like every wanderer coming from the east. We both know it!” Her fingers moved adeptly over the contents of his shaving kit, brushing the blades clean, packing everything.

He folded the note away and regarded the woman beside him as she busily tidied his dressing room. Short in stature with a curvy figure slowly going plump, long dark hair done up in a bun, sharp gray eyes that never hesitated to meet his own. Clever she was, a bit of a schemer, a good source of town gossip—useful in every way but she had spent her whole life in the quiet town of Newhaven. Can she imagine the violence and slave-taking that reign outside our valley? Maybe none of us can. 

John shook his head and wished suddenly that he had heard fewer stories from terrified refugees who had fled from over the mountains. The era of the great seed traders was over. Only the wretched came now.

It’s Gilstrap again.

First the full disclosure: This piece is not from any genre that I care to read.  I don’t even know what genre it is.  And Author, that was not an insult, merely a confession.  That said, storytelling is storytelling, and from that perspective, this piece is troubled.  First, some general observations, and then I’ll dig a little deeper.

Adverbs.  Goodness gracious, there are a lot of them, and none are necessary. At a glance, I got numbly, absently, dismissively, gently, adeptly, busily, slowly, and suddenly. It’s a mistake to believe that -ly adverbs clarify meaning, because they never do. Either the modified verb will do the job on its own, or the writer has chosen the wrong verb in the first place.  There are exceptions, but I can’t think of one as I write this.  And yes, we’re all guilty of it.

Point of view.  The piece doesn’t have one.  I don’t know whose story we’re telling here.  The head-hopping detracts from the narrative pull of the story.

Setting.  Clearly, we are hundreds of years into the future, but the technology clock has for some reason spun the other way.  I don’t buy it.  This could very well be my unfamiliarity with the genre.

You started your story in the wrong place.  Getting a shave and receiving a note are not barn-burners of crises.  As it’s currently written, the opening is mainly a framework on which to hang backstory that we don’t yet need.  Assuming that guns are a big part of the McGuffin, I suggest starting with a holy-crap reaction that those new strangers have them.

Now, let’s get picky . . .

Endless Tomorrow (TITLE) JG: Years ago, I was told by an editor never to make a title an easy target for a snarky reviewer.  Casting no aspersions on this piece, Endless Tomorrow invites something like, “Endless Story” in the review. Just a thought.

The message from the Consul [Why capitalized?] arrived before breakfast. Agnes had just wiped the last of the shaving lather from his face [gramatically, the “his” here refers to Agnes] when Congressman John Paul opened the embossed and sealed envelope. [What did it look like? Thick, thin? How did it arrive?] He stared for far longer than it took to read the few words on the short scrap of paper. [So? what does Agnes think about that?]

“Well, what is it now?” asked Agnes.

Not the reserve a housekeeper should show to an employer [according to whom? Whose POV are we in?] but his momentary flash of irritation was soon forgotten [by whom?]. His fingers slid numbly [Why are his fingers numb?] over still tingling cheeks. “They know how to make guns.”

“Guns?” Her disbelief was evident [How? In what way?]. “Who’s got guns?”

John might as well have told her he could do magic. [POV?] Guns were a relic of the past and long since gone from the world. “Strangers from behind the Eastern Mountains. We got word of them yesterday at the Ministers’ Meeting but there was no talk of guns.” He stared absently ahead. “A messenger must have come in the night.”

[She laughed dismissively. “No one has guns anymore. Not for hundreds of years.” Agnes gently slapped powder on his cheeks and untied the barber cloth.

“Don’t be so sure, Agnes. I learned about them once in school. They are not complicated—at least in theory.”

“Oh, goodness. What else does the Consul’s note say about these people? They have rocket planes too?”

John had the feeling that rockets and planes were two different devices but his memory was fuzzy on the subject of the Moderns’ technology. He read the Consul’s note aloud. That was what Agnes wanted anyway. She was never satisfied until she knew everything.] The bracketed and underlined section is unnecessary backstory, and mostly redundant.  Recommend deleting it.

Dozens of strangers from east now camped in field by Beaker’s Farm. Requesting our presence. Tech and crops unclear. Claim to have guns!? Ministers meeting at eleven. Then we ride. Richard.

Her voice was scolding [What is a scolding voice? Tone, maybe?]. “Guns! Don’t believe those people—telling whatever lies they think might impress us. They’ll be wanting to settle here in the valley, just like every wanderer coming from the east. We both know it!” Her fingers moved adeptly over the contents of his shaving kit, brushing the blades clean, packing everything.

He folded the note away [What does “folded away” mean? Where did he put it?] and regarded the woman beside him as she busily tidied his dressing room. Short in stature with a curvy figure slowly going plump, long dark hair done up in a bun, sharp gray eyes that never hesitated to meet his own. Clever she was,[this structure sounds like Yoda] a bit of a schemer, a good source of town gossip—useful in every way but she had spent her whole life in the quiet town of Newhaven. Can [Could?–keep it in past tense] she imagine the violence and slave-taking that reign outside our valley? Maybe none of us can [Could?]. 

John shook his head and wished suddenly that he had heard fewer stories from terrified refugees who had fled from over the mountains. The era of the great seed traders was over. Only the wretched came now.

Overall, this piece feels like a very early draft to me.  Okay, TKZers, what say you?

 

5+

Take Cover!

By John Gilstrap

My research for the Jonathan Grave series exposes me to some pretty cool stuff.  Having never done the kind of work that Jonathan and his team do, the initial learning curve was pretty steep, and it will get steep again if I don’t stay current on tactics and technologies.  A few weeks ago, I took a terrific class called Active Threat Response through Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The focus of the class was on clearing rooms where bad guys are expected to be holed up.  It was a Simunitions class, meaning that everybody had real guns that fired wicked little paint pellets that sting like crap when they hit.  Instructors call that a “pain penalty” and I confess it adds real stress to simulated encounters.  I learned a great deal during that class, and I thought I would combine those lessons with some others I’ve picked up over the years into a blog post.

They’re staples of every police drama:

As cruisers skid to a halt to confront a bad guy, cops throw their doors open and take a knee behind the sheet metal, using the panel for cover as they aim their weapons through the window opening.  Maybe the officers in the car next to them will be aiming their weapons across the hood of their car.

Or:

The SWAT team makes its way down an apartment building’s cinder-block hallway to confront the barricaded bad guy. (All too often, the SWAT team is stacked up behind the plain-clothed detective who happens to be the star of the show–but that BS is for a different post).  To prevent exposing themselves to return fire, they’re pressed up against the same wall that houses the door to the target apartment.

Or:

The good-hearted hero goes muzzle-to-muzzle with the bad guy, shouting, “Put it down or I’ll shoot!”

Well . . . no.  We’ll take them in order.

A car door provides exactly zero reliable cover.  Barring the off chance that incoming fire will hit one of the steel mechanical components inside the door, a full metal jacketed bullet will pass through a car door with relatively little loss in energy.  And let’s not forget the exposed knees below the door and the exposed face and shoulders above the door.  Not a good source of cover.

The guy aiming over the hood is in better shape tactically because he’s got the more-or-less impenetrable engine block as cover, but the exposed shoulders and face continue to be a problem.  That problem is exacerbated by the risk of a poorly-aimed incoming round ricocheting off the surface of the hood and into his face.  The smart move when using the engine block as cover is to peek around the wheel well and headlights while exposing as little of yourself as possible.

Before getting to the scenario of the guys in the hallway, I need to clarify that when it comes to SWAT tactics, there are as many procedure books as there are teams.  Different teams clear buildings different ways, so the point here is to give you some things to think about.

All else being equal, an armed bad guy holed up in a room has a huge initial advantage over the team that’s coming in to get him. If the bad guy is willing to die as part of the transaction, his initial advantage is even greater.  If there’s only one accessible door, the bad guy knows exactly where his attackers are coming from, and that gives him a free first shot.

Let’s say the hero cop in your story needs to clear a room on the right-hand side of the hallway. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say the door is already open.  If he approaches along the right-hand wall, he has zero visibility into the room until he’s right on top of it.  Then, in order to do the job that needs to be done, he’s got to swing out and expose at least half of his body to whatever the villain has planned.  That’s bad.

Each dot in the picture is the same person, advancing with baby steps.

The smart move is to approach along the left-hand side of the hallway.  As your hero approaches the open door, he moves with tiny steps, his weapon up and ready to shoot.  As that plane of the doorway opens a little at a time, your good guy exposes only a tiny sliver of his body, a little at a time, and that exposed sliver is the one that holds a gun, ready to shoot first or shoot back.  Incoming fire would require extraordinary marksmanship on the part of the bad guy.  This tactic is call “slicing the pie,” and it’s more or less the same maneuver that would be used to turn a blind corner.

In general, it is always a bad idea to advance too closely to a solid wall surface like cinder block or concrete because of the risk of ricochet.  By definition, ricochets have expended much of their energy on initial impact, but the closer you are to the point of impact, the worse the damage will be.

As for the muzzle-to-muzzle trope, I throw that in as a way to introduce the concept that a “fair fight” is anathema to every police and military agency I’m aware of. From the law enforcement officer’s point of view, the threat of overwhelming violence saves lives, but sometimes the threat becomes reality.  No sane person who has the means to defend himself would try to out-talk a bullet.

9+

Hollow Point Bullets & Other Stuff

By John Gilstrap

I have just returned from my annual sojourn to Las Vegas and the SHOT Show, so I thought I’d turn away from the craft of writing in this post, and back to some tactical topics. Throw in the bullet-bait Brother Bell inserted into his always-excellent post last Sunday, and I feel driven to talk about bullet stuff this week.

First, on the issue of being thrown back by bullet strikes, consider this: Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictates that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If the energy of a bullet strike is enough to throw the bad guy back five feet, then the shooter would fly back a similar distance. When it comes to handguns, the shooter feels more linear force in recoil than the target feels on impact. And remember, once a round leaves the muzzle, it is constantly slowing down. And falling.

Because bullets travel as fast as they do, on impact, they exert all of their damage over the course of a millisecond.  In through-and-through wounds, victims often don’t know for a few seconds that they’ve been shot.  Bullet dynamics being what they are, I have shot empty Styrofoam cups through-and-through with pretty hot rounds, and watched the cups never move.  When a bullet passes through tissue, the ballistic damage it causes actually manifests behind the moving projectile, not at its point.  (The link goes to a video where there’s no blood, so it’s safe for mealtime viewing.)

Brother Bell, I will take exception to your left-hand-shooter speed bump.  Most shooters I know make it a point to train with their weak hand, specifically planning for the event when their strong hand is immobilized.

Bullets are specifically designed to inflict ballistic damage to tissue as it passes through its intended target.  Handguns are intended for close range, and rifles are designed for longer ranges. (A SEAL buddy of mine maintains that the only good use for a pistol is to fight your way to your rifle.)  As a rule, additional range means additional ballistic energy, and a concomitant increase in ballistic damage on impact.

Here’s a video showing a 9 millimeter pistol bullet being fired into ballistic gelatin.  For those who can’t watch the footage, it shows a standard round-nosed bullet passing all the way through the gelatin block with little of its energy expended along the way.  Bottom line: it would suck to be the guy standing behind the guy who got shot, because you’d get shot, too.

This over-penetration issue is specifically why most (all?) police agencies have moved to hollow point ammo. The definition is simple and self-explanatory.  A hollow point bullet is one that has, well, a hollow point. It is different than “full metal jacket” (FMJ) ammo, which is also called ball ammo. It’s been around for a lot longer than I have, and it comes in pretty much any caliber you can think of.  Old farts who haven’t kept up with technology will tell you that hollow points cannot be fired from semi-automatic pistols, but they’re wrong. HP bullets used to be a problem because of issues with the feed ramps in old pistols, but that problem was solved a long time ago.

In the pictures, note the lines around the circumference of the the tip. When a hollow point bullet impacts a target, its “petals” bloom, causing the the projectile to tumble and lose most of its energy. The wound channel is significantly enlarged in the process. Within the gun industry, and among knowledgeable people, hollow points are also call “personal defense” rounds (as opposed to range ammunition) because they are the preferred choice in a gunfight–but probably not for the reasons you think.

This video shows a 9 millimeter HP round hitting ballistic gelatin.

There are a couple of take-aways from the video. First, HP bullets do leave a significantly larger permanent wound channel than that which is left by ball ammo. But second, and more importantly, the bullet stays inside its intended target.  Even if there were to be over-penetration, the vast majority of the energy would be dissipated before the bullet could hit a second, unintended target.  That said, if your characters are anticipating the need to shoot through car doors or windows, HP would not be their first choice.  Yes, HP bullets will penetrate both, but that loss of energy could be a factor.

Next time, we’ll talk about what every police drama gets wrong when it comes to storming the bad guy’s house.

All questions are welcome.

And since you’ve read this far, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.

 

16+

Internal Monologue

By John Gilstrap

Today’s post responds to a request from a TKZ reader who asked about internal monologue. (I’ve heard this referred to as internal dialogue, as well, but outside the world of psychoses, I’m not sure such a thing is possible.)  This is my take on the way to present thoughts on the page.

Narrative voice.  For fiction to work at its finest, every word of every line of every paragraph should advance either story or character, preferably both. I discussed this previously in a post I called The Point of View Tapestry, and more recently, I addressed it in a video on my YouTube Channel in a piece I call, Point of View and Voice. When writing in the first person or close third person, every line of narration serves as a presentation of a character’s point of view. As an example, consider this paragraph from Scorpion Strike, the next Jonathan Grave thriller (July, 2018):

[Gail] was still trying to process what she had just seen.  She understood that she’d fallen in love with a crusader whose combat skills had been honed over nearly two decades of training and experience with the most elite Special Forces unit in the world. Yes, she’d seen him kill before.  Indeed, she’d killed right alongside him. But those incidents had all involved firearms and extraordinary marksmanship.  Killing with a knife seemed so personal, and Jonathan had wielded the blade with such expert precision that it took her breath away.

That entire passage is, in effect, internal monologue.  We are seeing the world through Gail’s eyes. And, because this scene comes from very early in the novel, we learn a little backstory, too.  In the previous scene, separated by a space break, we were in Jonathan’s point of view as he killed their attacker with a focused precision that clearly comes naturally to him.  That scene was essentially internal monologue, as well.  Done effectively, your narrative voice carries a lot of the water for internal monologue.

Quoted thought.  The accepted practice these days is to italicize quoted thought, and then tag it as if it were dialogue: Nice place, Jonathan thought. It’s a simple, effective convention that I believe can easily be overdone.  If the narrative voice handles the description of a place well, the reader–who is firmly rooted in a character’s point of view–will know simply by word choice whether or not the character is impressed or repelled.

I approach italicized quoted thought with the same trepidation with which I approach dialect. Misspellings and startling contractions stop the narrative and break the spell for the reader.  (I feel the same about expressions in foreign languages that are then translated for the reader. A much better approach is, “Please have a seat,” he said in Russian.  Why make me plow through unintelligible Cyrillic characters first?)  A little bit goes a long, long way.

The reader who asked me to address this topic presented to me in an email a passage for which his freelance editor took him to task.  He granted permission for me to share it here.  This is a paragraph from his work in progress:

Phil was right. I’ve been doing my best to keep evil out or to deny it. But what’s the alternative? Permanent depression? I’m pretty depressed right now . . . Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe Lara was with some guy and something happened and he panicked and had to ditch the body.

His editor told him–and I agree–that this passage comes off as “inauthentic” if only because we don’t actually think in words. We certainly don’t think in complex logical analyses. We think in bursts of reaction and instinct that can be an enormous challenge to present effectively on the page. The example above doesn’t work because it is too complex.  In this case, the fix is simple:

Phil was right, Paula thought.  She’d been doing her best to keep evil out or to deny it. But what’s the alternative? Permanent depression? She was pretty depressed right now . . . Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe Lara was with some guy and something happened and he panicked and had to ditch the body.

The same passage that feels clunky in italicized thought works (though it’s absent context) as straight narrative and communicates the same thoughts.

As a further example that’s a little closer to my wheelhouse, there are probably dozens of considerations in drawing and firing a pistol, and while all of them are present in the shooter’s head, it would be inauthentic to articulate them on the page.  Imagine . . .

I see that Harley’s hand is at an awkward angle. I bet he’s concealing a gun, so I’d better draw mine. Let me make sure that my shirttail doesn’t get in the way as I move my left hand to my abdomen to keep it out of the way while I move my right hand to the holster that is clipped to my belt at the four o’clock position . . . 
Or . . .
Jonathan didn’t like the angle of Harley’s arm. The son of a bitch has a gun.  Jonathan cleared his shirttail with his left hand as he moved his right to the holster on his hip . . .
Okay, that example is admittedly a bit over-the-top, but it illustrates the point. As I mentioned in the video referenced above, we tend to think of writing and the teaching thereof in terms of character and setting and dialogue and plot as if they were separate things, when in reality, they are all interdependent threads in the same garment.
10+

Note to Copy Editor

By John Gilstrap

After spending a year creating a story line and populating it with characters that I hope are interesting, it’s time to send my novel off to my editor, who will let me know, in blisteringly easy-to-interpret terms, where my efforts succeeded and where they fell short.  I spend as much time as is necessary to repair, prop-up or redesign the story difficulties, at which time I send the manuscript back to the publisher. At that point, I will have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.

Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

And I need them. After 18 books, I’ve surrendered to the fact that I will never understand the true use of commas, that the proper use of the words “which” and “that” will be forever beyond my ken, and that I am unable to keep my characters from nodding or sighing too much.  I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.

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

Okay, that was a one-off horrible copy editing experience (over 300 proposed changes of which I rejected over 200), and I have it on good authority that she and I will never cross paths again.

The whole agonizing process is made even more agonizing by technology. In the good old days, copy edits came back as a stack of papers with red marks on them. It was actually kind of fun to sit in the lounge chair with a lap desk and either “STET” or approve the changes with a different-color pencil. Now, the copy edits come back as a Word file with Track Changes turned on. I am not allowed merely to reject a change, because that would make my copy different than the publishing house’s copy, and that would screw up the system.  Thus, if I want to reject a change or re-insert a deleted portion, I need to drop my cursor into the appropriate spot and retype.  A simple STET is no longer allowed.

What used to take only a few days now takes a couple of weeks. It’s that long a slog.

So, to ease the process, I took a step several books ago to limit the misunderstandings that might develop between the copy editor and myself. I developed a Gilstrap Style Sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit.  I thought I’d share it with you.  (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)

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

The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s).  This change does not affect any other names that end with S. (I’ve always believed that when people read silently, they’re really reading aloud without sound, and syntax counts.)

In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.)  (Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this is not the convention.)

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

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

When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular.  (e.g., an HK 417 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)

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

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

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

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

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

In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct. (I’ve made an effort to reduce the profanity in my books, and to my eye, the one-word construction is less offensive. It could be that I’m just being strange.)

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

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

Any thoughts out there about the editing process in general, or copy editing in particular? Any items you think should be added to or removed from the personal style sheet?

Happy New Year, by the way! (Notice the exclamation point.)

 

9+

Judging a Book By Its Cover

By John Gilstrap

Whenever I finish a new book, my publisher is kind enough to ask me if I have any ideas for what the cover should look like.  It seems like a reasonable thing to expect, right?  After all, I spent a year writing the thing, so you’d think I have some inclination as to what I want the cover image to be.

Well, I never do.  I testify with neither pride nor shame that my mind simply does not work that way.  I think I’ve mentioned here before that after 11 books in the series, I really don’t know what Jonathan Grave looks like.  I know how he thinks, and I know what his skills are.  I know his strengths and his weaknesses, but, physically, beyond having intense blue eyes and a number of scars, I don’t see him in my head.  If I can’t see him, then I guess it should be of no surprise that I can’t cough up a cover image.  That said, I know a good cover when I see one, and this one for Scorpion Strike (July, 2018) is my favorite of all my books.

I think that the old adage that a book cannot be judged by its cover is at best disingenuous, and at worst a lie.  We all do it, and publishers understand that we do.  That’s why they have art departments. A book’s cover telegraphs more than just the story it tells.  It says a lot about the attitude of the book and its intended audience.  While my book covers are designed to project a Big Commercial Thriller, other covers, such as the one here for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, telegraph quite clearly that they are targeted for a more literary audience.

When my first thriller, Nathan’s Run, was released in hardcover in 1996, I was horrified by the cover.  I was a rookie in the business and afraid to express my opinion, but I thought the cover with its drab brown tones and its weird font expressed nothing about the story while conveying the wrong tone.  This was supposed to be a Big Commercial Thriller, but it projected . . . well, I don’t know.  At best, the message seemed muddled. While the book sold well–certainly for a first novel–it fell short of expectations, and I’ve always thought the cover was a contributor to that.

My British publisher, Michael Joseph, on the other hand, had a vision of the cover that fit way more closely to what I thought a cover should look like.  The bad guy’s sunglasses reflecting a fleeing boy was “too literal” in the view of my peeps at HarperCollins, so I kept my mouth shut, but I loved the UK cover. And the tag line, “At twelve, Nathan has seen just about everything … Now all he wants to see is thirteen,” was a stroke of brilliance.  Per capita, the book did much better in the UK than it did here in the U.S.  We all know that correlation is not causation, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the cooler cover played a role in the better sales.

Roughly eight years after the paper copies of Nathan’s Run went out of print, Kensington re-bought the publication rights and put it out  as an eBook, along with my second novel, At All Costs.  I’m not sure what I think about this latest cover.  It shows motion, and I can’t complain about the size of my name relative to the title, but, to my eye, this version of the cover is kind of a place holder. It doesn’t really convey anything about the story, but I think it projects that it’s a commercial thriller.  Maybe that’s all it needs.  Again, I don’t know about this stuff.

Ultimately, I think cover art achieves its primary goal if it convinces a reader to pick up the book and take a look at the first page.  After that, it’s all about the writing.

Or is it?

I suspect, in the utter absence of any empirical data, that covers are one of the big obstacles that keep a lot of genre fiction from reaching mainstream acceptance.  We all know the story of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.  In its original printed form–before the movie tie-in version–the cover is clearly literary in its focus, and Western in its setting.  In my busiest days of my fire service career, I wouldn’t have hesitated to carry this book with me and read it in the day room of the fire station. Replace the cover with a picture of a bare-chested man in chaps, though, and not only would I not have carried it, I never would have opened it. (Yes, I’m that shallow.)  I know professional women who are secretly fans of romance novels, but won’t read them on the subway because the bodice-ripping covers.

And, in all fairness, I’m sure there will be professional men and women both who will feel a little uncomfortable toting a cover that features rusted bullet holes.  But, man-oh-man, I do love it.

I’ve learned one fascinating fact about covers over the years–and titles, too, for that matter: They needn’t have much to do with the story the book tells. Friendly Fire, for example, features a picture of the White House on the cover. I think it’s a terrific cover, but it hides a secret: Neither the White House nor the presidency play a role in the story. Once again, I was told that I was thinking too literally. The Jonathan Grave novels are “corridors-of-power” thrillers, and that is the message being conveyed by the cover image. Certainly, no one is going to mistake it for literary fiction or a romance. If it’s an engaging enough cover, people will pick it up.  At that point, the cover will have done its job.

A critical component of any cover design is the title.  Here again, the sole purpose of the title, in combination with the cover design, is to get a potential reader to crack the spine and take a peek inside. Thus, the title needn’t connect directly to the content of the book. Rather, it should convey the feel of the story.  The most obvious example of this in my own career is Hostage Zero, the second in the Grave series. The phrase means nothing. There is no Hostage Zero in the book, but my team at Kensington liked the sound of it–and the look of it, too, when put on the page. In the ten years or so since that book dropped I haven’t heard from a single reader or critic who felt cheated by the asymmetry of title and story.

Now I throw it to you Zoners.  How important are covers to you in your decision to give a book a try?  Any favorites out there we should know about?

Oh, and before you go, please consider subscribing to my YouTube Channel, “A Writer’s View on Writing and Publishing.” I like to think there’s some interesting stuff there.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

4+