About John Gilstrap

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

Panic Attack

By John Gilstrap

I’ve done a lot of writing on the run these past few weeks.  My tour for Total Mayhem has spun out over the past month or so, keeping me away from home and away from my desk.  Yet my September 15 deadline hasn’t moved.  I’ve been spewing words from hotels and restaurants, and from moving platforms like trains and airplanes.

I’ve always written a fair chunk of my first drafts long hand.  Sometimes, the creativity flows better and the there’s the added plus of a built-in second draft when I transfer the handwritten text onto the computer.

Up until a couple of years ago, I did my home-based writing on a desktop computer, with a lightweight laptop reserved for travel.  More recently, the desktop has been mothballed and all my computing needs are served by my Surface Book Pro.   If I’m traveling any distance, it’s coming with me.

While it’s unlikely that my computer would be lost or stolen, I recognize the possibility, so I therefore store virtually no data on my hard drive.  Instead, I’ve come to depend heavily on external storage.   When I finish a writing session, I save the day’s work to a thumb drive that contains pretty much everything I have written in at least the past five years.  Once that’s done, I save the same document to my Dropbox account, and then, finally, once a week or so, I save a copy to my hard drive.  When I start a new session, I use the thumb drive copy as the primary document.

Before the days of cloud storage, I carried that thumb drive–or one of its predecessors–everywhere I went, always in my left front pocket.  My theory was if the house burned and the took the hard drive with it, I wouldn’t lose too much of my writing.

Nowadays, that thumb drive stays with the computer.  It only leaves the house if the laptop leaves the house.  When it does go on the road, it has its own dedicated pouch in the the backpack that doubles as my briefcase.  Routine.  A place for everything, everything in its place.

Until it’s not.

This morning I awoke ahead of my alarm in the fabulous Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, ready to be home again after five days of being away.  I showered, dressed, packed my bag, and then as I was putting my backpack together, the thumb drive was gone.  Clearly, I had misplaced it somehow, even though I never before have done so.  I unpacked.  I dumped the backpack.  I re-searched the closet and dresser drawers.  I searched the pockets of previously-worn pants.  No luck.  It was gone.

Here’s where my accident investigation training kicked in.  It couldn’t, in fact, just be gone.  Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, remember?  That thumb drive was someplace, and I was confident that when I found it, I would remember that it was exactly where I had put it.  So . . . where?

I’d left the backpack behind for yesterday’s tour event at Fort Knox, so I knew it could be neither somewhere on post nor in the car of the escort who drove me there.  It had to be in the hotel.  But where?

I checked my backpack for a third time.  Nope, matter still had not been created.

Ah-hah!  When I’d returned from Fort Knox, I’d taken my computer up to the “club room” to transcribe my handwritten manuscript pages.  I must have left it there somehow.  Breaking from routine, I’d decided not to bring the whole backpack with me into the club room, so that was how it had transitioned into my pocket.

Thing is, there was no way I would leave the thumb drive behind.  Not after this many years of routine.  Still, I had to track down the lead.  No, the manager told me, no one had found a thumb drive.  Of course, that didn’t mean someone hadn’t picked it up and kept it as their own.  Or, maybe they’d turned it in down at the front desk.

Oh, yeah.  The front desk.  Tick-tock.  I had a rental car to return and there was an airplane with my name on it.  I needed to check out of the hotel and move on.

The lady at the front desk could not have been nicer.  After giving me my receipt, she disappeared into the back office to check lost and found.  Neither of us felt much hope.  While she was gone, I looked out onto the lobby bar where I had dined last night, and as I did, I pulled my phone out to check if the flight was still on time.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket.

My left front pocket–the same one that once was dedicated to my thumb drive back when I carried it everywhere.  My seat for dinner had been a nice one, next to a window with a pretty view of the street.  I remembered that as I sat at the table, I’d pulled my phone out of my pocket and placed it on the window sill because I’d been expecting a call.

With a growing sense of hope, I walked over to last night’s seat and pulled out my chair.  And there it was, a black-and-red plastic thumb drive hiding in the pattern of the plush black-and-red carpet.  Just sitting there, waiting.  It wasn’t where I’d put it, after all.  It was where I’d dropped it when it piggy-backed out of my pocket with the phone.

My morning got a lot brighter.

So, TKZers, how do you save and backup your work?  Ever lost a chunk of it?

 

13+

National Shooting Sports Month

By John Gilstrap

August is National Shooting Sports month!

Okay, so it doesn’t rate a special tree in the living room or lights in the window, but National Shooting Sports Month provides unique opportunities for writers to familiarize themselves with the weaponry their characters use.

Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF, the same group that puts on the massive SHOT Show every year), the month-long celebration encourages shooters, gun stores and range owners to make special efforts to introduce more people to hunting and the shooting sports.  Have questions?  Walk in and ask some questions.

There will even be special events.  On August 17, I will be giving a presentation on the weapons Jonathan Grave uses, at Elite Shooting Sports in Manassas, Virginia.  The details are still in play, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to do any live fire exercises.  That would have made the even really fun.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here on TKZ over the years discussing gun stuff.  Guns handling and gun play are nearly impossible to describe accurately unless you’ve done some shooting.  There’s a feel to the grip and the recoil.  There are weight and balance issues peculiar to different weapons.  There’s a method to loading magazines.  National Shooting Sports Month will provide perfect opportunities for you to get hands-on training.

A couple of years ago, my publicity team from Kensington traveled from New York to Virginia–and then on to West Virginia with me–as part of a publicity plan to shoot copies of Scorpion Strike, whose cover featured a number of bullet holes.  These young ladies were as anti-gun as you’d expect from New York City.  As we entered the range complex at Echo Valley Training Center, they mocked the shooters they saw and cowered at the sight of firearms being carried out in the open.

When I got them on the trigger, though, everything changed.  After hundreds of rounds apiece, they were enthralled by the sport.  By the end of the day, I had them advancing and shooting at steel targets.  When their magazines ran dry, they dropped them and slapped in another.

In four hours at the range, their world view of shooting–and shooters–had changed.  They’d learned new skills and had had a fun day outdoors in the fresh West Virginia air.

Marksmanship is about precision.  Just like golf or tennis, your number one competitor is yourself, and experience combined with good instruction is the only way to advance your skills.  Here’s a website that will direct you to a shooting range in your area.  Even if you have no experience–especially if you have no experience–drop in and sign up for some beginner instruction.

If you’re afraid of the weaponry, embrace your fears.  A firearm is just a tool and your instructor won’t let you pose a danger to yourself or others.  Don’t worry about recoil.  It’s never as violent as what you see on movies or television.  (I know, right?)  Just hang on to everything tightly and keep a balanced stance.

For your first outing, shoot with either a small caliber or a big gun.  Preferably both.  Physics lesson: The heavier the gun, the less the felt recoil, and the smaller the load, the less energy to trigger that equal and opposite reaction.

So . . . Who’s game?

4+

Book Tour!

By John Gilstrap

Total Mayhem, the 11th book in my Jonathan Grave thriller series dropped on June 25, and now I’m on the road meeting booksellers and fans and fans-to-be.  There’s something exciting and romantic in the phrase, “book tour.”  It’s a heck of a conversation starter.

“What brings you to town?” asks the desk clerk or Uber driver.

“I’m here on my book tour,” I reply.

“Oh, you’re really an author?  I love to read.  What’s your book about?”

And we’re off to the races.  “Terrorists are targeting Mid-American small towns, hitting high school football games and county administrative buildings.  We expect major targets to be hit in big cities, but when the carnage comes to soft targets that have always been considered safe, the nation is rocked.  When the FBI learns that one of the terrorists knows Jonathan Grave, it falls to Jonathan to root out the network and destroy it.”

And then I give them a business card (and a bookmark if I have one on me).

Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop

My first stop was Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, in Mechanicsburg, PA., and that turned out to be my favorite format for these things.  People had to sign up in advance, and the outstanding management team provided soft pretzels and dipping sauces (as if there’s a better dipping sauce than mustard).  I spoke for about 45 minutes, then it was time for the ice cream social and book signing.

I had another nice crowd in Sea Isle City, New Jersey at the main library branch there.  Thanks to BAM for providing books for sale.

My lodging in New Jersey was a bed and breakfast in Cape May.  Here’s where it got a little weird.  (Full disclosure: I’m a Hyatt and Hilton kind of guy, but there’s a three-night minimum this time of year.)  Using AirBnB, I reserved a “room with a private bath.”  It had already been a long day when I arrived, and I was shocked to find that in a town that’s famous for its Victorian extravagance, I found myself in a suburban rambler.  My room was just the guest room in a lady’s house, and my “private bath” was down the hall.

The Brown Room at Congress Hall

That night, I Uber’d downtown to see the sights and enjoy the food in Cape May–which really is a gorgeous town.  After dinner, I wandered into Congress Hall, a stately old hotel, which features The Brown Room.  The picture leaves no doubt where the name comes from.  I got a comfortable seat on a sofa, ordered a martini, and took out my fountain pen and pad of paper, and started writing away on Hellfire, the next Grave book which is due to the publisher on September 15.  The lounge was crowded, a talented piano player was tickling the ivories in the corner, and I got totally consumed by the scene I was writing.

Here’s where it got really interesting.  Some people are unnerved, it turns out, when a guy sits by himself and writes page after page.  Three different people interrupted to ask what I was doing–but with a paranoid edge.

One asked, “Are you writing down what we’re talking about?”  Think about that question and the hubris it represents.  Truth be told, I had no idea what they were talking about because I was playing with my imaginary friends.  I told her, “No, I’m an author on book tour and I’m on deadline for my next book . . .” (See paragraph 2 above.)

Another was just the curious, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you seem so intense.  What are you writing?”  See above.

But this was the craziest: “You’re writing a review of this place, aren’t you?  How are you qualified to do that?”  See above.

As I write this, I’m leaving Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on my way to Sykesville, Maryland.  After the Maryland event, I go straight home, where we’ve got to get the house ready for a launch party this weekend, where we’ll have over 100 people.  That’ll be a lot of signing.

Then, next week we’re off to New York for ThrillerFest.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

6+

What to Wear To A Gunfight

By John Gilstrap

It’s been a while since I’ve written any gun porn.  This is the day the drought ends.

Here’s the scenario: Your character, Detective Dan, knows that he is marching into harm’s way to confront at least two bad guys who he knows are armed.  For our purposes here, Detective Dan is part of a small force, maybe just a partner or two.  The smart move is to wait for backup, but they can’t do that because a family of four is being held hostage and things have gone very bad very quickly.

It’s almost certain that shots will be fired.  The good news is they have a pretty good arsenal to choose from. Just to make it interesting, they have to walk a long way to get in an out, and climb a lot of stairs.  And let’s put them in regular street clothes–nothing tactical.  Think business suits.

Choose Your Weapons

Simunitions are essentially medium-velocity paint pellets that can be loaded into real weapons. Yes, they sting when they hit.

There’s an adage among the tacti-cool crowd that the only reason to carry a pistol is to fight your way back to your rifle.  Having never been in a real gunfight I can’t speak to the veracity of the adage in the real world, but my experience having been a  bad guy in Simunitions training with law enforcement agencies, I can attest to feeling woefully outgunned when I brought my 15-round Glock into play against their 30-round M4s.

M4 carbine

If I’m writing Detective Dan, he’s going to want to have a rifle with him.  If his police agency is like most that I know, he’s got an M4 stashed in the trunk of his car, right next to his ballistic vest. An M4 is the rifle you see in most pictures of soldiers and SWAT team operators.

Right about now, when he’s kitting up for the fight, Detective Dan is going to second-guess his decision not to wait.  That vest he’s putting on will stop most pistol rounds, but it’ll be useless against a rifle bullet.  In an hour, he could have the State Police there with ballistic shields, dogs and a helicopter.  Best of all, he’d have a team that’s specifically trained to do the kind of entry that he’s about to attempt.

But hey, he wouldn’t be the main character in a book if he didn’t put his life on the line from time to time.

Now, Detective Dan has some thinking to do.  Of the weaponry available to him, what should he take?

Everything is heavy.

Loaded Glock 19 magazine

A Glock 19 (common pistol for police agencies around the world) loaded with a standard 15-round magazine weighs about two pounds.  Extra mags weigh a half pound apiece.  Detective Dan normally carries two extra mags, so that’s three pounds on his belt.  It’s no wonder so many detectives wear suspenders.

Loaded 30-round M4 magazine

His loaded M4 weighs 8.5 pounds and each extra 30-round magazine weighs about one pound.  Detective Dan decides to carry four extra mags to feed his M4. The good news here is that his vest–which itself weighs 5 to 8 pounds (or more)–has pouches specifically designed to hold extra mags with that weight distributed across his shoulders.

Single-point rifle sling. I think the rifle itself is an AR15.

Detective Dan will use a single-point sling for his M4 to help distribute that weight, as well.  Then there’s the radio, handcuffs and whatever other hardware Detective Dan carries.  All of it bounces around and rattles when he moves.

Tough choices.

Does Detective Dan really need 45 rounds for his pistol and 150 rounds for his rifle?  This mission would be a lot lighter if he cut back on ammo.  And he’d sweat a lot less without the body armor.  Suppose the fight degenerates to hand-to-hand?  He’s going to have a heck of a time maneuvering with all that stuff on him.

As the author, you have to balance what is reasonable for the character.  If you’ve established Detective Dan as a reformed alcoholic 50-something with a beer gut, the choices are much different than if you’ve established him as a 30-something ex-Special Forces operator who works out two hours a day.

The last thing Detective Dan wants is a fair fight.

This target highlights the most lethal impact points on the human body.

If Detective Dan had had the gift of time, he could have waited for darkness to fall and brought night vision into play as a force multiplier.  In any confrontation, when your team is the only one that can see anything, the odds of winning tilt decidedly in your favor. In the real world, there are no verbal warnings, and no warning shots.  When a bad guy points a firearm at a good guy, there’s going to be a gunfight.  More times than not, the shooter with the most training wins, and the loser is dead.  In that engagement, the trained shooter will aim exclusively at the bad guy’s head, torso or pelvis, because that’s where the major organs and blood vessels are.  If someone is hit in the leg or the hand, that’s because the trained shooter whiffed that shot.

Shots fired.

I don’t want to write a whole scenario here, but let’s talk about some practical considerations.  We’ve kitted out Detective Dan with lots of cool options, so when the shooting starts, he and his team can have the best possible chance of seeing dinnertime.

Once the SHTF (come on, you can figure that one out), Detective Dan does not have the luxury of panicking.  He needs to be keenly aware of the differences between cover (which prevents being hit by bullets) and concealment (which merely makes him invisible).  He needs to remember that he is responsible for every bullet he sends downrange, and that the four innocents are as susceptible to his gunfire as the unknown number of bad guys.

Every shot needs to be aimed at a known target.  And because Detective Dan is a dedicated professional, he won’t take even the perfect shot if one of the hostages is in the background and likely to get hit.  More on that later.

The bad guys, by contrast, don’t care who they kill, so they can feel free to shoot blindly.

Rifle or pistol?

The distance between the front sight and the rear sight is called the sight radius. The longer the radius, the more accurate the shooter.

There are many reasons why most people (everyone I know) shoots more accurately with a rifle than with a handgun, but mostly it boils down to the stability of the platform and the sight radius (the distance between the front and rear sights).  Holding a firearm against your shoulder is inherently more stable than holding one out at arm’s length.  That’s true of holding anything, right?

Past 15 yards for most shooters, and 25 yards for all but the most elite competitive shooters, a pistol shot is at least equal parts hope and marksmanship.  For that M4 Detective Dan is carrying, accuracy at 100 yards isn’t even a challenge if he’s had even a little bit of training.

Here’s the problem: Those rifle bullets love to fly.  That head, torso or pelvis it hit is just the beginning of its journey.  The bullet might break up, it’s trajectory will probably will destabilize and it might start tumbling, but it will still be going very fast.  The next few milliseconds could get troubling for others in the room.  Perhaps that’s not a concern if everybody in the room is a bad guy, but that’s not our scenario.  Again, those pesky hostages are the wildcard.

Given the weaponry he carries, Detective Dan must always weigh accuracy against collateral damage.  I imagine it will be stressful for him.

I cheated a little to make a point.

I gave Detective Dan weaponry he most certainly would have access to, but not necessarily his smartest choices.

The M4 I gave Detective Dan is the weapon that every cop seems to be carrying on the news during active shooter incidents.  I saw a DC subway cop carrying one on a train not too long ago.  It’s tacti-cool as all get out–makes for a badass photo op–but I think it’s the wrong gun.

A tactical 12-gauge shotgun.

If I were Detective Dan, I think I’d have taken a 12 gauge shotgun as my long gun. I’ve rarely seen a police vehicle that doesn’t have one, and it is a very effective weapon in close quarters, with less chance of over-penetration.

Uzi

A lot of police agencies employ a hybrid weapon called a pistol caliber carbine.  The Uzi and Heckler and Koch MP5 are probably the most famous of these.  Certainly, they are heralded by Hollywood.  Also called personal defense weapons (PDWs), pistol caliber carbines provide the stability of a longer frame with the ballistics of a pistol.

H&K MP5. It’s hard to see, but the stock is folded forward.

Critics (and every tactical operator I know) argue that pistol caliber carbines are overrated.  Why carry two pistols?  If the bad guy has body armor, the good guys’ advantage is reduced.  A load of 00 buckshot probably would not penetrate body armor either, but getting hit with all 9 of those .32 caliber pellets would probably take their breath away long enough for a second shot.

Okay, it’s late and I’m tired.  We’ll talk about tactical reloads and deeper tactical considerations later.  Questions and comments are all welcome.

 

8+

Let’s Argue!

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

Here’s my argument:

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

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

Okay, you get where I am going with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

9+

Use It

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11+

ACDF: My New, Most Important Alphabet

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m terrified.

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

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

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

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

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

10+

Resorting to Manual Methods

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Dear Hollywood Producer

By John Gilstrap

Dear Hollywood Producer,

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

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

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

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

“Today money” is much more important to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

John

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Loose Lips Sink Careers

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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