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.

Every Commercial Writer is His or Her Own Small Business

Last week, I received an email from a high school buddy with whom I had not spoken in decades.  It’s always nice to reconnect.  Turns out that he and his wife are both writing fiction now–she a cozy mystery and he a fantasy/sci-fi novel–and he had some questions, and it occurred to me as I responded, the the whole exchange would make a nice post for TKZ.

First, to quote from his letter, “[My wife has] had no luck so far finding an agent, and wanted to know a few things that a published author might be able to enlighten her on.  Specifically, she wants to know, did you have to have your manuscripts professionally edited before submitting them to potential agents?  This seems a very expensive route for something that might not be picked up by anyone.  Also, many agents seem to want to know “how you intend to market your book.”    We always thought this was something the publisher did.  So, what are they looking for with this question?  I understand that all agents aren’t the same, but any information could help her get really started here.  she has started work on books two and three, and has a basic outline of the series for quite a long way down the road, so if we can maximize her chances of getting it considered by someone, any help would be greatly appreciated!”

Here is my response to him, picking up after the pleasantries:

You’ve asked some questions that are probably more complex than you realize, but I’ll give it shot.  First I encourage you to visit my website and click on the “Essays” tab.  You’ll find a section in the middle of that page that chronicles how I got published.  I should throw in a caveat that I found my first agent in 1995.  I cut my teeth in this business when all correspondence required envelopes and stamps, but the one thing that remains unchanged about the publishing industry is the continuing and insatiable need for good stories told well.

I urge your wife (and you, too) to look into a group called Sisters In Crime (SinC).  I’m not a member, but I know many writers of all levels of success who sing the praises of that group for its helpfulness to new and upcoming writers.

I personally have never used an outside editor, but I know many writers who do.  The point here is to make your manuscript as perfect as it can be before shipping it around to agents and editors.  The risk of using an outside editor is that not all are created equal.  It falls on the author’s shoulders to make sure that any changes proposed by an editor are in fact changes the author wants to make.  Sometimes, bad advice is worse than no advice at all.

As for the expense, only you can decide what is reasonable and what is not.  I guess it depends on how good your writerly instincts are, and how intent you are in seeing your works published.

The job of an editor at a publishing house is more that of a project manager than an editor in the sense that most people imagine them.  The editor is the person who buys the book, manages the cover design, and fights for dollars during marketing meetings.  They offer editorial input, of course, but they focus on making an already very good manuscript even better.  If the prose or the story require too much work, they’ll pass.

This brings us to the role of the agent.  Through the relationships they’ve built over the years with various houses, agents are aware of various editors’ tastes and desires.  The agent’s job is to spot literary properties that a) are already very well written, and b) are likely to fill a niche.  My agent, for example, is keenly dialed into the thriller market, the genre I write.  If I decided to write, say, a children’s book or a romance, she’d be of little help to me because she doesn’t know those markets and she doesn’t know the editors who acquire those books.

Now to marketing.  It’s a quirk of the publishing industry that irrespective of genre, a book is a product to be sold, and it goes stale on the shelf after only a month or two.  Books are largely forgotten after a period of time has passed.

What people remember, however, is the author.  Just as a book is a product, think of the author as the brand.  People who like cars have an opinion of, say, Ford that infects and affects buying decisions.  I happen to like Fords, so when I go shopping for a new car, that’s my go-to brand.  (On the flip side, my only experience with a General Motors vehicle–30 years ago!–was so awful that I would never consider another GM product, no matter what JD Powers might say.)  That’s the power–both the good and the bad–of branding.

If you’ll forgive me for referring to myself in the third person, John Gilstrap is my brand.  After 18 published novels, people who buy a Gilstrap book know that they’re going to get a wild ride with a story that is heavy on character and plot.  Good guys win in the aggregate, and bad guys have very, very bad days.  Whether part of my series, or in a stand alone novel, every story shares those basic characteristics.

No one is better able to build an author’s brand than the author him- or herself.  This means, to the degree that time and money allow, flogging social media, attending conferences, visiting bookstores, writing newsletters, establishing mailing lists, and any other strategies that might work.  A writer of commercial fiction is his own small business, and all of the principles of business apply.  When prospective agents ask about your marketing plans and platforms, this is what they’re wanting to know.

When a publisher offers a contract, they are in fact, investing in your business.  They will make sure that your product finds shelf space and distribution, and they’ll do their best to make the packaging attractive and engaging.  But if you don’t help them do their job, the smart business move on their part would be to invest in someone else’s business.

The letter then closed with some personal pleasantries.  So, what say you, TKZers?  Did I lead my buddy astray?  What did I leave out?

NOTE:  Since this is my last post of 2018, pending the arrival of our annual holiday hiatus, let me wish all of you a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever religious holiday you my celebrate.  To all, here’s to lots of love and laughter and a wonderful, prosperous and healthy 2019.  It’s an honor to be a part of this great community of writers and readers and friends.  God bless us, every one.

Series, -Ogy, or Stand-Alone?

By John Gilstrap

I am often asked about the business and creative considerations of writing a thriller series as opposed to writing stand-alone thrillers.  The truthful answer is a shrug and a heartfelt “I don’t know.” But having written both over the course of my career, I guess I have some thoughts to share.

An -ogy is not a series.

A trilogy or a quintilogy is not a series.  It is a single story broken up into parts.  As I understand it, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was originally a single manuscript.  There being no market for a 900,000-word book, however, he broke the one story into multiple parts.  I don’t know if that story is true, but I like it because it proves my point.  In an -ogy, there’s no anticipation from the reader for a completed story at the end of any volume but the last one.

The Harry Potter saga is another example–one with which I’m more familiar because I actually read the books.  Not to be confused with Hobbitty stories, which I have not.  Book One of the septilogy (is that a word?) is dedicated mostly to establishing the wizarding world, along with establishing relationships between the kids.  The whole business of the Sorcerer’s Stone is more of a MacGuffin.  At the end of that volume, while there is a sense of continuing peril, Harry’s immediate world is stable.  Looking back on those books, I believe that Rowling wrote Sorcerer’s Stone in a way that it could have lived on as a stand-alone if the market had not embraced Harry and Hogwarts.

Beginning with Book Two, and continuing all the way through to the end, the Potter story was a continuous one.  Even though Harry resolved the immediate crisis of each book, the last pages always revealed more impending doom.  There was no real resolution.

A series is more episodic.

My Jonathan Grave thriller series is not a continuing story, but is rather a collection of stand-alone stories that involve recurring main characters.  Jonathan Grave’s character arc over the course of eleven books now is very long and slow, while the arcs of the characters he interacts with are completely developed within each book.  There are Easter eggs for readers who have read all the books in order, but I am careful to make each episode as fulfilling for a reader who picks up  Book Ten as their first exposure to the series as it is for a reader who’s been with me from the beginning.

Writers like the always-fabulous Donna Andrews write series that are driven as much by place as by characters.  The people in her fictional town of Caerphilly, Virginia, are a hoot, even though an extraordinary number of people are murdered there.

Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme solves a new crime by the end of every book.  While Rhyme’s medical progress as a quadriplegic is continually evolving from book to book, as is his relationship with Amelia, a new reader is well-grounded in any story, without benefit of having read the previous ones.

A stand-alone, well, stands alone.

When I finished Nathan’s Run, the story was over.  There was no place I could feasibly have taken Nathan or the other characters to tell a new story.  That was the case with each of the following three novels and, of course, with my nonfiction book.  I think the primary characteristic of a stand-alone is that “The End” means the end.  The character and story arcs have all been driven to ground.

A series takes planning.

When I was writing No Mercy, the first book in the Grave series, I knew in my heart that I had finally landed on a character who could support a series.  What I didn’t know was whether or not a publisher would buy it, and if they did, whether they’d support the idea of developing the one story into many.  Still, I made a conscious effort to plant as much fodder as I could for potential use in future stories.  For example:

  1. Jonathan is a former Delta Force operator, leaving the potential for stories dealing with his days in the Unit.
  2. His hostage rescue activities are a covert part of a legitimate private investigation firm that does work for some of the largest corporate names in the world.  This sets up potential stories set in the world of more common private investigators.
  3. Jonathan is the primary benefactor for Resurrection House, a school for the children of incarcerated parents.  When every student has parents with lots of enemies, there’s lots of potential for future stories.
  4. His home, Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, is the town where he grew up.  This puts him in the midst of people who already know the darkest secrets of his childhood and accept him for who he is.  Or they don’t.  This sets up the potential for small  town conflicts.

There are many more such seeds, but there’s no need to highlight them all.  The point is that unlike a stand-alone, a series needs to be engineered not just for the current book, but for future books as well.

What do y’all think?  Do these resonate with you?  What have I forgotten?

And finally, tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the United States.  For those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful time with whatever your holiday traditions may be.  For those of you who read this from somewhere other than America, I wish you a great day with lots of high-calorie food and televised sports!


First Page Critique: Musical Hairs

By John Gilstrap

I haven’t done one of these First Page things in a while.  As you read through Brave Anon’s submission, ask yourself one question in particular: So what?


Gertrude Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, was on the landline phone in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store. The door was closed and she was finishing up a call with Mr. Carney from the local high school. “Of course, Mr. Carney,” she reassured him. “We’ll make sure all the instruments have been unboxed and checked for defects before we deliver them to the school. That’s always been our policy.”

Mr. Carney was new to the town of Cannonsville, Tennessee, and this was the first time Gertie had dealt with him. Bless his heart, she thought to herself. Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things.

Someone knocked on her office door loud enough that Mr. Carney heard it on the other end of the line and stopped talking for a second. Gertie said, “There’s someone here for a very important meeting I have this morning and I’ve got to go now. I’ll give you a heads up call when we get the instruments in.” She waited for a second and then hung up, breathing a sigh of relief.

The knock came again and Gertie said, “Come in, come in.” The door opened. It was her assistant manager, Olivia Stanton, with some papers in her hand. “Thank goodness, Olivia. You saved me from that new band director at the high school. He is a nice enough man, but he just doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking.”

“I know,” Olivia said. “I spoke to him yesterday and had to finally excuse myself to go to the bathroom to get him off the phone. Being new to the school, I think he’s a little bit overly nervous and is trying too hard to do a good job.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gertie said, “but I’ve got a business to run. I know the customer is always right. I just need to learn how to graciously end a phone conversation when the other party gets over talkative.”

Olivia held up her hand of paperwork and frowned. “Have you seen these bills yet from Tommy’s session last week? There’re a little bit over the top if you ask me.”

It’s me again.  So . . . So what?  In my view, the most critical problem with this page is the lack of a so what.  What is at stake here?  Who are the players, really?  Truth be told, this reads like the warm-up to the beginning of a story rather than a story in and of itself.

As a self-taught writer, I’m not sure what “passive sentence construction” actually means, but I’ll apply it to virtually any sentence that relies on some conjugation of the verb, to be.  Gertie was on the landline . . . the door was closed . . . she was finishing up a call . . . Carney was new . . . That’s a snore-o-rama.  Consider: Gertie held the receiver . . . her closed door made the tiny office feel smaller . . . she wondered if the call would ever end . . . “I may be new,” he said . . .

The conjugated to-be+verb construction can’t be avoided in its entirety, but remember that better options always exist.  (Before editing that sentence, I had written, “It’s important to remember that there are always better options.”  Ha!)

Stories must always advance.  Word-by-word, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by page.  If a sentence or scene does not advance either character or story, then it merely stops the story.

Let’s take another look at Brave Anon’s story.  My comments are in bold type.


Gertrude Gertie Watson, known as “Gert” or “Gertie” to her friends, [We don’t need to know this detail, and it interrupts the flow of the story] was on the landline phone [what would a landline be if not a phone?]in her small, disheveled office in the back of her music store. The door was closed and she was finishing up a call with Mr. Carney from the local high school. “Of course, Mr. Carney,” she reassured him. “We’ll make sure all the instruments have been unboxed and checked for defects before we deliver them to the school. That’s always been our policy.”

Consider: “Of course we’ll make sure that the instruments are fine,” Gertie said into the handset of her landline. “We wouldn’t deliver a defective product to your school.” If her office weren’t so cluttered with incoming inventory, she’d pace.  Or at least put her feet up.  As it was, every surface of her store was stacked horns, woodwinds and strings.

Mr. [I would give him a first name, but that’s a stylistic thing that you might not agree with.] Carney was new to the town of Cannonsville, Tennessee, [We don’t need this detail yet, and including it makes the syntax awkward.] and this was the first time Gertie had dealt with him. [If he placed an order, how can this be the first time she’s dealing with him?] Bless his heart, she thought to herself. [This is your first moment of narrative voice.  “Bless his heart” stands alone as a thought, and it establishes a Southern root for the story.  Also, is it possible to think to someone other than oneself?] Not only did he seem to have a substantial case of OCD, but he was a talker and hard to get off the phone. He had a habit of repeating himself over and over again on the simplest of things. [Either show it or kill it.  This entire paragraph is a squandered opportunity to show instead of telling.]

Consider: “I’m very serious about this,” Mr. Carney said in her ear.  “I may be new to the community and to the high school faculty, but this band is very important to me.  There can be no flaws.”

Gertie rolled her eyes.  “As your business is important to me,” she said.  “I don’t know how many times I can say the same thing until you believe me.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Carney said.  “I just want to make sure you understand the importance—”

A perfectly-timed knock at her door saved her from having to choose between homicide or suicide.  “Gotta go,” she said. “My next appointment just arrived.”  She disconnected before Carney could argue.  “Come in.”

Someone knocked on her office door loud enough that Mr. Carney heard it on the other end of the line and stopped talking for a second. Gertie said, “There’s someone here for a very important meeting I have this morning and I’ve got to go now. I’ll give you a heads up call when we get the instruments in.” [Say those lines of dialogue aloud.  Do they sound real to you? They sound stilted to me.] She waited for a second [Why wait?  Why not hang up as soon as possible?] and then hung up, breathing a sigh of relief.

The knock came [Knocks don’t come. Someone causes them to happen. A second knock does not advance the story unless there’s something different in the character of the knock.  More urgent, maybe?] again and Gertie said, “Come in, come in.” The door opened. [Of course it did.  Don’t need the detail.] It was h Her assistant manager, Olivia Stanton, entered with some papers in her hand. “Thank goodness, Olivia.  [Don’t need this.  The next sentence makes your point.] You saved me from that new band director at the high school Mr. Carney. He is a nice enough man, but he just doesn’t seem to know when to stop talking.”

Olivia laughed.  “I know,” Olivia said. “He’s a talker. I spoke to him yesterday and had to finally excuse myself to go to the bathroom to get him off the phone. Being new to the school, I think he’s a little bit overly nervous and is trying too hard to do a good job.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gertie said, “but I’ve got a business to run. I know the customer is always right. I just need to learn how to graciously end a phone conversation when the other party gets over talkative [This point has been pretty much flogged to death.  Time to move on.] Consider: “What’ve you got?”

Olivia frowned as she held up her hand [stack?]of paperwork and frowned. “Have you seen these bills yet from Tommy’s session last week? There’re a little bit over the top if you ask me.” [“Tommy’s session” means nothing to the reader.]



A Different Twist on Storytelling

By John Gilstrap

The Greenbrier

Autumn is conference season.  Bouchercon morphed into C3 (Creatures, Crimes & Creativity con), which then morphed into Magna Cum Murder.  As a former road warrior, traveling by air all the time, I decided this year to skip the airport this year and drive from Northern Virginia to Indianapolis for Magna.  On the way out, we broke the trip into two, four-and-a-half-hour drives, stopping for a night in Wheeling, West Virginia.  For the trip home, we decided to take the southern route, which took us through White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, the home of the stately and wonderful Greenbrier Resort (and yes, that’s spelled properly).

From 1962 till 1992 The Greenbrier kept an important secret.  Then a reporter from the Washington Post decided on his own that the world needed to know something that the government had classified Top Secret.  The Greenbrier had been designated as the relocation spot for members of the US Senate and House of Representatives in the event of a nuclear attack.  (I’m told that said reporter now teaches journalistic ethics at the collegiate level.  Just sayin’.)  A 112,000-square-foot, 153-room bunker facility lies buried 720 feet under the Allegheny Mountains, and is constructed of 50,000 tons of reinforced concrete.  One of the four blast doors that provides access to the bunker weighs 25 tons, and swings on hinges that are four feet long, 14 inches wide and eight inches thick.

The bunker was built in total secret.  How, you might ask?  That’s where storytellers became important.  Beginning in 1955, the C&O Railroad, owner of the resort at the time, started a press campaign celebrating an expansion of the hotel which would add the West Virginia Wing, featuring new guest rooms and massive exhibition space for business meetings and trade shows.

Joy and me standing in front of one of the smaller blast doors.

And here’s the thing: When the bunker was finished in 1962, the massive spaces were all used for business meetings and trade shows.  One of the nation’s most important secrets was kept in plain sight!  The enormous blast doors were disguised as walls, and the House and Senate chambers were rented out for classes and business meetings.  Who would  think to ask if the walls were five feet thick?

For thirty years, the bunker was maintained by a crew of thirteen very special workers who doubled as the television and electronics maintenance team for the hotel and its visitors.  Their cover worked because they actually were the television and maintenance team for The Greenbrier.

If the balloon ever went up, the U.S. Government Relocation Facility–the official name for the bunker–would have become home to roughly 1,100 members of congress and their staffs.  Sleeping in bunks and sharing bathrooms and showers, conditions would have been Spartan at best.  Even in the early sixties, the folks who ran the bunker understood that cramming passionate politicians from all persuasions into tight quarters could lead to flashes of temper.  They understood that after weeks of living underground, somebody might go a little nuts and try to open the blast doors to expose everyone to fallout.  Thus, there was a safe, accessible only to security personnel, where riot gear was stored.  Because these people needed to be fed in shifts and it was therefore necessary to move people along, the architects intentionally included design features that made the cafeteria an unpleasant place to sit and talk.

One of the planning details that impressed me the most was the White House backdrop on the wall of the media room.  The president and the executive branch would never have come near The Greenbrier, so it made sense that the Capitol Building backdrop would be part of any broadcast, but why the White House backdrop?  Well, if the president and vice president were killed, the speaker of the House of Representatives would become the president, and they were prepared for that eventuality.

And then there was the incinerator room.  Yes, it burned documents and clothing that were brought in, but the designers had also taken into consideration that members of congress were of a certain age, and that there would be lots of stress, and, well, you know.  Burial really wasn’t possible.

As I took this tour, my mind whirled at about a million rpm.  Think classic locked-room mystery.  Think psychological thriller.  Think political thriller.  Is there any place one couldn’t go with that kind of setup?



Choose Your Weapon

By John Gilstrap

In the comments section of my most recent gun porn post, our own Jordan Dane gave me the idea of doing a post on how a character–particularly a female character–would go about choosing which handgun to carry.  Way to tee one up for the Johnster!

Caliber (and caliber snobs)

As I’ve discussed here before, “caliber” refers to the diameter of a bullet at its widest point, measured in inches or millimeters.  (Note: in the parlance of people who know guns, the word caliber is exclusively used in reference to measurement in inches.  One would never say “nine millimeter caliber,” but one would say “.38 caliber.”)

If you hang out at some of the corners of the Internet that I visit from time to time, you’ll learn that there’s a very vocal element out there that states without equivocation that any caliber that doesn’t start with a 4 or larger isn’t worth carrying.  They’ll talk about “stopping power” and “lethality” and hold in contempt anyone who is not willing to strap a two-pound hand cannon to their belt.  I call these bloviators caliber snobs, and believe their claims to fall within the broad category known as Bravo Sierra.

I’ve previously posted on how bullets do their damage.  You’re sending a hunk of metal through vulnerable parts of your target’s anatomy.  If it hits the appropriate anatomy, the result is reasonably predictable.  In almost all cases, a poorly aimed mini-cannonball does far less damage than a well-placed .22.  Have your character choose a weapon s/he can reasonably control.

Ultimately, selection comes down to manageability.  This leads us to…

My friend Isaac Newton

Newton’s three laws of motion are:

1. An object at rest tends to stay at rest.

2. The acceleration of an object is affected by two factors: the force applied; and the object’s mass.

3. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Sooo . . . Heavier bullets need more force to get them out of the barrel and on their way.  Greater force creates greater recoil.  For any given caliber of firearm, the heavier the gun, the less recoil felt by the shooter.  The greater the felt recoil, the more likely the shot will be off-target.  There are lots of reasons for this, but for our purposes here, it boils down to the shooter getting what I call the yips.  They anticipate the punch to the hand and they screw up their aim.

There’s such a thing as a Smith & Wesson .500 magnum.  Pictured here from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, this four-pound smoke wagon fires bullets at over 1,800 feet per second (FPS) and, according to the manufacturer, will drop an elephant.  I’ve shot this beast.  While it’s the kind of pistol that a new Dirty Harry might be drawn to (“the most powerful handgun in the world and can blow your head clean off–while you’re hiding behind the refrigerator in your neighbor’s house“), there’s no practical use for it in the hands of your private detective.

Barrel length matters.

A firearm is a pressure chamber, the sole purpose of which is to contain the pressure of the exploding gunpowder long enough to send a projectile on to its target.  As the bullet proceeds down the barrel, the lands and grooves of the rifling impart a spin that stabilizes the bullet in flight.  The more time the pressure has to push the bullet, the longer the bullet has time to stabilize from the lands and grooves.  Thus, all else being equal, longer barrels equal greater accuracy at greater distances.

So, what kind of gunfight does your character anticipate?  Most gunfights play out in less than five seconds at distances of less than ten feet.  If that’s most likely your character’s world, then shorter barrels will do.

NOTE: There’s such a thing as the “21-foot rule,” which proclaims that any shot fired at a person from a range of greater than 21 feet–seven yards–is not considered self defense against any threat that is not another firearm.  If a bad guy is running at your good guy with a baseball bat or a knife, many jurisdictions will say that threat is not lethal until the bad guy closes to within 21 feet.

Single-stack or double-stack?

Guns for everyday carry (EDC) are getting smaller, but there remains a need for ammunition to feed them.  As you probably know, ammo magazines for pistols typically reside in the weapon’s grip.  A “single-stack” magazine stacks the bullets directly on top of each other, while a “double-stack” mag staggers the bullets side-by side, with the effect of making the grip thicker and harder to hold for a shooter with a smaller hand.  The pistols shown side-by-side in the picture are the Glock 26 on the left, and the Glock 43 on the right.  Both are called “baby Glocks”, with barrel lengths within a couple hundredths of 3.4 inches.  They’re called compact 9mm pistols.  The one on the left (G26) is fed by a double-stack magazine and holds 10 rounds, plus one in the chamber, while the one on the right (the G43) uses a single-stack mag and holds 6 rounds plus one in the pipe.  You need to ask yourself what your character’s priorities are.  Those four extra rounds cost you a lot in terms of grip size and concealability.  (Full disclosure: having spoken to many people who’ve been involved in gunfights, I’ve never heard one complain about having too much ammunition.)

Dress for the day.

How likely is it that your character will get involved in a gunfight?  Military personnel in a war zone, and police officers on duty carry full-size pistols because there’s a reasonably high likelihood that they will find themselves in a gunfight.  They make no effort to conceal their firearm, so bigger is better.  The bigger, heavier platform is less punishing to shoot, and as a result, accuracy tends to be better.  But it’s not exactly the right weapon to strap to your tuxedo or evening gown on the way to the opera.

North American Arms Mini-Revolver chambered in .22 short. The effective range is maybe 4 or 5 feet, but fired into the brain pan, it’s as deadly as a sniper shot.

For those highly concealed applications, the firearm manufacturing industry offers lots of options.  Just remember that for any given caliber, the smaller and lighter the weapon–the easier it is to carry and conceal–the more punishing it is to shoot.  Also, smaller guns mean a shorter effective range.

One of the most popular EDC guns on the market these days is the Ruger LCP (Lightweight Compact Pistol), chambered in .380, shown here in the picture next to the ballpoint pen to give it scale.  As presented, the pistol is in a pocket holster, which is exactly what it sounds like–a holster that slides easily into a pocket or a purse.  Because of its tiny size–there’s only room for two fingers on the grip–and its very heavy trigger pull, this is a difficult gun to learn to shoot, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty effective.  Virtually every gun manufacturer makes a similar weapon, and all of them are hand-breakers till you learn the right grip.

Okay, TKZers, how do you want to arm your good guys?  How about your bad guys?  What other questions do you have?


Pesky Deadlines

By John Gilstrap

Every September 15, I owe a book to my publisher, and somehow, every September 12, it’s not quite done.  It’s close.  I’ve written all the scenes, and the story has a complete structure, but I’m in the throes of making right that which is close.  It’s a tedious, arduous task, and alas, it takes away from activities such as blogging.  Feel free to gossip about my awesome new cover, but for now, I must go back to making stuff up.  I’ll see you here again in a couple of weeks.  Sorry about this.



By John Gilstrap

Gear up for a little gun porn, folks.  It’s been a while since I’ve ranted about mistakes authors make when writing about guns, so I thought I’d stir things up a little.

Cla-shack.  When I say it out loud, it is exactly the sound that a well-tuned pump-action shotgun makes when you work the bolt.  It’s very dramatic on the page or on the screen, and it is unmistakable in real life.  How many times have we seen that moment when our good guy with a shotgun confronts the armed bad guy he’s been looking for and then, when they’re face-to-face . . . cla-shack “Freeze!”?

I watch those scenes and wonder what kind of moron searches for a bad guy without a round in the chamber, ready to fire?  Why walk into a gunfight with your gun unloaded?

This is a Glock 26, but all Glock platforms work the same way. Note that there’s no hammer.

Remember that very dramatic scene in The Fugitive (the 1993 movie version) when Richard Kimble is making his getaway from City Hall with Marshal Sam Gerard right behind?  In that chase, we see Gerard pull his Glock from its holster and he racks a round into the chamber.  Then as Kimble dives through the bullet proof glass barrier doors, Kimble’s foot gets clamped between the doors and Gerard fires four or five times into the glass.  Very thrilling, but why didn’t he shoot the sole of Kimble’s foot, which was still inside the glass?  Okay, that last part is for a future post.

Understanding that the average gunfight lasts less than five seconds, and at a range of 7-10 feet, every cop I know carries his or her pistol in what’s called “condition one”, which means there’s a round in the chamber and the safety is on.

“But John!” someone shouts.  “Everybody knows there’s no safety on a Glock!”

Not so, I reply.  There are actually three safeties on a Glock.  They’re internal.  There’s a trigger safety, a firing pin safety and a drop safety.  You can throw a chambered Glock against a concrete floor as hard as you want, and it won’t go off accidentally.  Yet, if you pull the trigger intentionally, it will fire every time.  And that’s the point.  When someone is about to kill you, you don’t want a lot of intermediate manipulations to get in the way of returning the favor.

This is a “1911 platform” pistol in Condition One. Note that the hammer is cocked, and the thumb safety is engaged. This is often called “cocked & locked.”

If you’re going to include firearms in your writing, it’s important to know the peccadillos of your character’s chosen pistol (or rifle, for that matter).

My character Jonathan Grave carries a Colt 1911, always in Condition One, which also called “cocked and locked.” When confronted by a bad guy, all he has to do is draw, thumb the safety (press down on the lever next to the hammer) and shoot.

Many gun manufacturers use the 1911 platform for pistols in pretty much any caliber.  Among the characteristics they all share is the fact that they are single action only (SA), meaning that unless the hammer is cocked, the weapon will not fire.  Thus, when you see a character carrying a pistol that looks anything like the one in the picture, but the hammer is down, it is not ready to shoot.

Many pistols like this Beretta 92 (military M9) are double action on the first round, and single action thereafter.

On the other hand, there are many pistols with hammers, such as the Beretta M9, where carrying with the hammer down does not impede quick deployment.  That’s because these pistols are both double action and single action (DA/SA).  With a bullet in the chamber, and the hammer down, the first pull of the trigger pulls the hammer back and then releases it to strike the firing pin.  Then, after the slide operates to eject the round, the hammer remains cocked and ready to shoot as a single action pistol.  The tricky part is that that initial pull on the trigger is very hard, and then the pull is very light for the follow-up shots.  As a result, for me, anyway, accuracy suffers because of the lack of a consistent trigger pull.

As I’ve written before in this space, if verisimilitude is important to you, and you’re going to write about firearms, don’t go with what you see on TV or in movies.  Get thee to your local shooting range and rent your character’s gun for an hour and shoot it.  If you’re not familiar with shooting, the staff will be happy to help you out.

All questions and comments are welcome.


Rejection Proofing

By John Gilstrap

If we’ve run into each other at an event, you might have noticed that I’m not a very shy guy.  In fact, I am the classic extrovert–one who draws energy from being around other people.  I love getting to know people, listening to their stories and picking their brains.  It’s the rare person, I find, who doesn’t have an interesting story to share about their life.

What I’m not good at is asking people to do things.  I’m not a closer.  It’s difficult for me at a book signing to end a chat with a potential customer by asking how many copies they would like to buy.  Personally, I don’t think it’s a fear of rejection as much as it is a desire not to inconvenience the other party.  And as I wrote that last sentence, yes, I see that that is likely my rationalization of a fear of rejection.

This hesitation on my part will be brought into high relief soon when I live up to my offer to spearhead a fundraising drive for the RiteCare Scottish Rite Childhood Language Program.  (This is NOT a solicitation for contributions.)  I’ve never approached a wealthy friend and asked for money, even for a great cause, and I find the prospect rather daunting.

I reached out to my friend Lynda who runs the YouthQuest Foundation for some advice, and her very first bit was to buy a book called Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang.  It’s a quirky little book that might not be for everyone, but there are a few sections that I think are particularly worthwhile for writers.  For me, the central idea boiled down to some obvious themes that come as no surprise: Rejection is about the request being made, not about the person making it; and expectations often become reality.  If you expect a no, that’s likely what you’ll walk away with.

But the part of the book that got me to thinking is where it points out that in most cases, the person being approached is as nervous about the request as the requester is of rejection.  Rejection does not exist in a vacuum.  It is always one part of a two-way communication.  My challenge will be to combine my natural gregariousness with an offer to help a good cause, packaged in a way that the person on the other end of the conversation will feel great about saying yes.

So, what does this have to do with writing?  I’m glad you asked.

Last Sunday, I did a book signing at the fabulous Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA.  It’s a pretty small place, and there I was in a chair at a table at the front of the store, right where customers had to trip over me to get by.  I always find it interesting just how many ways customers will actively avoid the gaze of the guy sitting next to a pile of books he wants to sell.

And I get it.  They likely don’t have a clue who I am, and if they’re in the store for a children’s book, or a title by Toni Morrison, they don’t want to hear a pitch that they know they will ultimately say no to.  It makes them feel uncomfortable. Remember, this rejection equation equalizes on both sides.  Call it social algebra.

At one point, an older gentleman entered the store, and when the always-excellent sales staff approached him and told him that an author was there and he’d love to sign a book for him, the guy–who turned out to be a fellow named Willard–said, “We’ll see,” and he started wandering the shelves.

What’s the point of reading a self-help book if you’re not going to put the strategies to good use, right?  So, I threw caution to the wind.  I left my station, walked up to him and said, “Hi, I’m John Gilstrap, a visiting author. Zero pressure to buy a book, but I’d love to shake your hand.”

He beamed.  We chatted for a few minutes.  He asked me what Scorpion Strike was about.  When it came around to the fact that I’m a native Virginian, he was sold.  He bought a book from me–a guy he knew–and I inscribed to to a guy I now knew as well.

Then there was the lovely lady named Bambi, who came into the store with her ancient beagle, Max.  Bambi was on a mission.  She told the manager that she wanted the two best children’s books for kids of a very young age.  They were gifts, and she wanted them wrapped.  While they discussed kids’ books, I made friends with Max.  Bambi and I talked a little about dogs, and when she asked me if I was from Richmond, I told her no, that I was from Fairfax.  It was at that moment that it dawned on her that I was the author who’d been mentioned to her when she first arrived.

Turns out that she personally likes thrillers, but she wasn’t there with the purpose of buying a book for herself.  She was concentrating on kid-lit.  Once her focus shifted, she became interested in me and my writing, and she bought a book–likewise from a guy she now knew, without any pressure from me.  I inscribed it to Bambi and Max, and she seemed genuinely touched.

Now here’s the big lesson: As predicted in Rejection Proof, both of those transactions were actually fun for me, and I presume for the others as well.  Zero stress.  Asking for the order is not about pushing a thing, it’s about interacting with people you like and trust, even if the relationship is only a few minutes old.

So, what about you, TKZers?  Does asking for stuff make you squirm?  Do you want to share any strategies for screwing up the courage to make the effort?



But Does It Sell Books?

By John Gilstrap

I just returned from a fabulous week in New York, communing with fellow writers at Thrillerfest, the annual confab of the International Thriller Writers Association (ITW).  As always happens when two or more writers occupy the same space, the conversation turned to strategies to employ for the purposes of selling books.

There’s universal agreement that a writer needs a platform from which to launch his or her marketing campaign.  There’s equal unanimity that social media accounts are the way to go.  Dutifully, I’ve established my Facebook page, my Twitter feed and my Instagram account.  In addition, I have a YouTube channel, and this biweekly blog in TKZ.  I attend conferences, teach seminars when opportunities arise, and in general make myself as accessible as reasonable security and privacy allow.

For the most part, I enjoy the marketing side of what I do.  I’m kind of a Type-A personality to begin with so I enjoy the interaction with people, even if most of it is virtual.  If the invested time and effort didn’t sell a single book, I would probably do a lot of that stuff anyway.

So, here’s my first question for the group: Forgetting what the pundits proclaim to be immutable fact, what is your experience?  Do you read blog posts in this space or others that inspire you to buy books by authors you otherwise have not read?  Do Facebook travelogues or Twitter insights make you actually feel so much closer to an author that you’ll plop down some bucks for the latest book?

My second question is closely related: Have social media posts ever driven you away from an author you have otherwise been inclined to read?

My answers to my own questions are yes and yes, particularly with regard to blog posts and Facebook.  Excepting the nonfiction blogs that I lean on for research, I will occasionally read a post from a fiction writer whose voice intrigues me enough to take a poke at the fruits of his or her imagination.  And, sometimes an ill-informed political or social screed will push me to place an author on my never-again list.  I don’t care what side a FB friend takes on a position so long as it is well-argued.  When the name-calling starts, I’m out.  (And that’s exactly why I don’t understand why anyone in the entertainment business chooses to write screeds.)

Now, fair warning: When this post goes up, I will be doing my best torpedo impersonation inside the tube of an MRI machine to diagnose the source of pinched nerve in my neck.  Because I am a raging claustrophobe, I expect to be in a narcotic haze for some of the day, and past experience has demonstrated that it’s best to stay away from the Internet and emails while drugged.  Thus, I will likely not be a part of the conversation.



My Cure for Writer’s Block

By John Gilstrap

Perhaps the title of this post is a bit misleading.  Truth be told, I don’t believe in writer’s block.  There are days when the creativity feels like it won’t flow at all, and there are certainly days when I would prefer to do something other than tying my backside to the chair and hammering out words, but that’s what everybody feels about any job on some days.

“Writer’s block” is, I believe, too often an excuse to be wielded on those days when a writer would prefer to play hookie.  There’s nothing wrong with playing hookie, but whilst playing, it’s disingenuous to complain about not getting stuff done on your manuscript.  There truly is no substitute to a writer writing, even when the words don’t flow easily.

I think of creativity as a flow, and the writer as the pump.  When the pipes are filled and the pressure is even, creativity pours out of us, sometimes in such volume that we can’t handle it all.  Then stuff happens in our lives or in our surroundings that causes intellectual cavitation, and our pump loses prime.  All that flow reduces to a pool, and it’s hard work to get it going again.

Everybody has a proprietary secret sauce to re-prime their own pipes, but one that always works for me is to return to the basics: pen and paper.  I posted a video on the topic on my YouTube channel.  I don’t know why it works, but somehow, the tactile connection between my brain and the page, flowing through an old-fashioned fountain pen, never fails to set me straight.  For every book I write, I’d guess 20% of the prose starts as being written longhand.  Once the story is flowing again, I type up the handwritten pages and I’m off and running.

What about you?  Any tricks you want to share for getting past the story parts that don’t seem to want to work?