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.

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?

 

7+

Dear Hollywood Producer

By John Gilstrap

Dear Hollywood Producer,

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

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

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

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

“Today money” is much more important to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

John

10+

Loose Lips Sink Careers

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

12+

Scene Construction

By John Gilstrap

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

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

INT. – LIVING ROOM – DAY

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

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

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

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

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

Gilstrap’s Rules For Space Breaks/Scenes

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

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

 

8+

The Page Proof Nightmare

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

I hate page proofs.

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

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

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

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

The good pages get tossed to the floor for recycling.

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

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

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

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

7+

A Whole Lot of Travel

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it’s time for coffee.

6+

Where Inspiration Comes From

By John Gilstrap

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

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

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Arizona

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

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

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

I’m better because of the experience.

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

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

6+

First Page Critique – The Halcyon Vengeance

By John Gilstrap

Another brave anonymous writer has submitted a first page for review and comment.  Y’all know the drill by now: First the piece, and then comments on the other side.  NOTE: The italics are all mine, a way to differentiate whose writing is which.

THE HALCYON VENGEANCE

              Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

              “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

              He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

              “You mean –?”

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

It’s Gilstrap again.  First, by way of full disclosure, I had some real formatting issues transferring the original email onto the blogging platform.  So, Anon, if I screwed up any of the paragraph breaks, I apologize.

First, the positives.  I like the tone of this story.  It has a very Cold War Ludlum feel to it.  No one trusts anyone.  I like that stuff.  I also like the flow of the dialogue for the most part.  It feels like a real scene, populated with believable characters.

On the downside, I have some quibbles with the prose, which I’ll discuss below, but the most urgent issue here is the fact that it’s confusing.  So, let’s get to all of that.

First things first: I hate the title. It doesn’t mean anything. Titles are supposed to draw a reader in.  It’s among your most important marketing tools. 

Now let’s go section by section:

           Adrian Steele stared out the 10th floor window in the direction of Sheremetyevo. Snow drifted lightly down. His jaw clenched. He was in Moscow. In winter. Again. He glanced over to Natalya who recited the final brief for his assignment in Cuba. Steele kept his expression neutral, his impatience hidden. He traced a finger through the condensation of his breath on the cold window. His hand remained steady. Good. He wasn’t nervy.

I get that it’s not my place to rewrite Anon’s work, but I think the opening line should be “Adrian Steele was in Moscow.  In winter.  Again.  He stared out the 10th floor . . .”  More people have heard of Moscow than have heard of Sheremetyevo, so the quicker you anchor the reader’s head to the setting, the better off you’ll be.

Anon, I urge you to cleanse your work of -ly adverbs. “Snow drifted lightly down” implies that snow can “drift” through the air heavily.  In this case, the word, drift, is strong enough to carry the entire image you’re looking for.

The image of Steele tracing his finger through the condensation implies to me that he is very close to the window, yet he’s receiving a mission brief.  This confuses me.  Is there something outside that he must watch? Is there a reason for him not to be fully engaged in what Natalya is telling him?

This is the paragraph where the confusion starts.  An assignment in Cuba could be a job as a missionary as well as an assassin.  I think you should plant something more specific as to the nature of what he’s going to do, just so the reader can get his head in the right place.

              “Steele,” Natalya said softly after a pause, “please remember why you’re here.”

More confusion for me.  Natalya’s admonition seems unearned.  To me, there’s no indication that he’s not remembering why he’s there. It doesn’t help that we the reader don’t know, either.

              “You’re sounding like Pierce. Doesn’t suit you.”

A one-sentence explanation could clarify who Pierce is.  Alternatively, Natalya could respond with a pithy remark like, “Impossible.  His voice is much higher than mine.”  Anything that would give us a hint of character.

              Natalya grimaced, stepping to the knapsack she’d left on the chair. She handed him an unmarked envelope.

Here again, the grimace feels unearned.  Is she in pain?  As she steps to the knapsack, where is she stepping off from?  In my mind, they were sitting, so she would have to rise before she steps.  We need more description of the setting.

If she’s briefing him, why is the knapsack someplace other than where she is?

              “That’s all there is. It could be my job for helping you. Especially with this.”

Until this line, I thought Natalya was the boss.  Also, shouldn’t there be some reaction from Steele?  A few lines later, we learn that he’s confident that she’s a liar, so it makes sense that he wold have some kind of cynical reaction to her fear that she might lose her job.  Given that Steele is risking his life, wouldn’t he be a little bit snarky, if only in his head?

            “Clothes?”

              She tossed him the knapsack. “No trackers, I checked them myself.”

Here we have back-to-back non-sequiturs (sp?). Steele asks a one-word question and Natalya gives a non-responsive response.  Is Steele naked?  What does he need the clothes for?  Is he asking if clothes are in the knapsack?  

              Steele thought about the trackers that she’d doubtlessly put in.

Yes!  I like this bit.  I’m not fond of the word, doubtlessly, but the sentiment works.

              Natalya turned her head to the dark window as he changed his clothes. She’d watched him before. Now she wouldn’t. He’d need to lose the clothes, then.

More confusion.  Changing clothes from what to what?  Why?  That she’d seen him without clothes implies that they are (or were) lovers, so why turn away?  Again, this seems unearned.

              After he pulled on a thick parka she handed him a battered ushanka. 

I have no idea what a ushanka is, so therefore I have no image.  Without an image, the next line makes no sense.

             “Remember, flaps up. Or you’ll look like a pussy,” she muttered.

              Steele nodded. He knew.

He knew what?  That he’d look like a pussy?

              “And don’t die. Or get wounded. You need to be back by 0300 for your flight to Havana.”

This is the best line of the entire piece.  I would break it into two parts, though:

“And don’t die.  Or get wounded.”

“I can’t,” he said.  “I’ve got an 0300 flight to Havana.”  He put . . .

             He put his hand out. Natalya bit her lip as she passed him a Makarov PM and two magazines.

              “Don’t fret, I won’t leave a mess.”

Okay, the Makarov PM is a clue. Unless the assassin is using old surplus equipment, the story must be set sometime between the late ’40s and early ’90s.  Now that he’s got his pistol, what does he do with it?  Is there a holster?  Does he slip it in his pocket? Surely he must load it (unless the two magazines Natalya hands him are extras).  My point here is that once you introduce an object, yhou can’t just let it disappear from the page.

              “You’re lucky, going to a tropical place,” she muttered wistfully.

              “I wouldn’t exactly call it lucky.”

              “But the weather’s better.”

              “Yes, it is. Spasiba do svidaniya myshonok,” he muttered as he opened the door, checked the hallway, and slipped away.

Jim Bell blogged last Sunday on using dialect and foreign words in manuscripts.  “Spasiba do . . .” translates in my head as blah, blah, blah.  Also, where’s the emotion?  They talk about the weather, and then Steele just walks away.

This section highlights a lack of point of view.  Whose scene is this? I’d like to be in someone’s head, but instead, I’m just watching the players move around on the set.  I’d like to feel something from someone.

              Natalya pulled the mobile from the inside pocket of her jacket. “Did you get all of that?” she asked Pierce.

              “Yes. But he lied, our Adrian did.”

What is the lie?

              “You mean –?”

I’m lost.  I don’t know what they’re talking about.

              “Oh, he won’t miss his flight, he knows what’s on the line.”

              “But he’s off the leash…”

              “I let him do this, or he won’t do the job in Cuba. He’s the only one who can and he knows it. I’m not sure what he’s got planned, but it’s going to leave a hell of a mess.”

              “Will he kill Voschenko?”

              “He wants to. Thank you for your help Natalya. You should go to ground.”

              “But…”

              “Leave myshonok. Disappear. Now.”

I sense that here at the end, I’m supposed to be fearful, but I’m not.  Dialogue can carry a scene only so far.  As a reader, I don’t want to feel like I’m merely eavesdropping on someone’s conversation.  I want to understand what’s going on.  I want to understand the stakes.

What say you, TKZers?  It’s your turn.

 

 

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Networking For Writers

By John Gilstrap

Like any other business, this publishing game is built in part on personal relationships. Want to rise to the top of an agent’s slush pile?  Want to get a blurb from a big-name author? Want to know how to deal with the frustrations of cover designs, finding an editor, or fleshing out the technical details of your plot?  All of these challenges and just about everything else you want to know or do can be flushed out through networking.  That’s what I want to talk about in the paragraphs ahead.

In no particular order of importance:

Followers, Friends, Likes and Contacts don’t count. There’s a widespread presumption “out there” that the way to start a writing career is to build an enormous social media platform.  I see the logic when it comes to nonfiction expertise, but when it comes to fiction, it makes no sense to me to concentrate on finding customers for a product that doesn’t yet exist.  Yes, I suppose a well-done blog about one’s writing process could be interesting to other writers, but here’s the sad truth: Writers don’t buy books. I’ve overstated that, of course, but in large measure I think it’s true when it comes to writers’ blogs.  I’m not being bitter here at all, but we get statistics every week on how many people visit TKZ every day, and trust me: If all those people bought all our books, we’d all be driving better cars.

Now, think of the number of writing-related groups and blogs you subscribe to through Facebook and LinkedIn and all the other social media platforms.  I get that those are the safe spaces that make you comfortable, and give you an opportunity to actively participate in conversations, but if you’re writing, say, about police procedures, might your time and efforts be better spent on groups and blogs that talk about those things?

I don’t think it’s insignificant that the social media push is largely driven by people who make money by helping people build their social media platform. I mean, think about it: Authors are brands and books are products. Would you be more inclined to buy a Chevy over a Toyota because the president of Chevrolet posted a picture of his breakfast?

Step out of the virtual world into the real one. Given that you’re currently reading a blog about writing, I feel a little awkward telling you to push away from the computer and stop reading blogs about writing. None of us are truly who we pretend to be in public forums like this. Many of us try to be genuine–I know that I do–but my armor is always up in an online interaction.  My inner-cynic won’t let me get but so close in a cyber-relationship, and I expect the same level of cynicism from others. I would never dream of asking advice or asking a favor from someone I have not met in person.

Go to where the experts are.  It’s no secret to TKZ regulars that I’m what you might call a gun guy.  I like firearms and I know a lot about them. I also know that there are people who know far more than I do, and that a large percentage of those people will gather in Las Vegas at the end of January for the annual SHOT Show, which is to weapons systems what the Detroit Auto Show is to automobiles. I need to be there.

My first SHOT Show was in 2012, and it was there that I met a guy who is a world renown expert in martial arts and edged weapons. We bonded and became friends. Through him, I’ve met a number of Special Forces operators, and through them some FBI special weapons experts.  I try not to bother them too much, but they always take my phone calls and answer tough questions.  They trust me never to write things that I shouldn’t and I pay them every year with an acknowledgement and a free book. Most of these guys have become good friends.

But you don’t have to go to Vegas.  Want to know about how cops interact with each other? Start with a community ride-along program and chat up the officer who’s driving you around.  Listen not just to the words, but to the attitude.  Ask that cop if he can introduce you to other cops–say, a homicide investigator–so that you can ask a few questions.  I think you’ll be surprised by the results.

BTW, for police-related immersion learning, you cannot beat Writer’s Police Academy.  Lee Lofland puts on one hell of a 4-day show every year. His blog, The Graveyard Shift, is informative, too.

You need to meet other industry professionals.  Pick a conference, any conference. They grow like weeds around the country–around the world, for that matter.  I can’t speak to other genres, but in the world of mysteries and thrillers, you could spend virtually every weekend at a conference.  Yes, they cost money, but before you complain about that, remember that writing is a business, and every business requires investment.

  • 100% of all business at a conference is conducted in the bar. You don’t have to drink, but just as lions on the hunt target watering holes for their dinner, smart rookies scope out the bar at the conference hotel to meet people. Authors of all stature are there to hang out with old friends and meet new ones. Agents and editors are there to develop relationships with existing clients and to scope out new ones.
  • Have a plan. Are you attending the conference to simply get to know people and hang out, or are you going there to accomplish a particular goal?  If you’re on the hunt for an agent, be sure to research who’s attending and what kind of books they’re looking for.  Basically, read the program booklet.
  • Don’t be shy. Okay, you’re an introvert and are uncomfortable around people.  I get that.  Now, get over it. This is a business, and contacts are not going to come to you. To a person, everyone you see at the bar knows that they’re in a public place among hungry strangers, and they’re willing–anxious, even–to talk with shy rookies.
  • Know what you want. After sharing a laugh and a few stories about life and family, be ready for the question, “So, how can I help you?”  That’s your cue for your ten-second elevator pitch delivered without notes. With a smile.  The home run here is a request to send a manuscript. Then chat some more.  This is a people business, so be a real person.
  • Hang out with the crowd you want to belong to.  I’m always amazed–and a little dismayed–at conferences when I see all the rookies hanging out with each other, while the veterans and bestsellers hang out separately. I don’t mean to be crass–and remember, this is a business conference–but your fellow rookies are not in positions to help you.  If Connolly and Lehane and Deaver and Gerritsen are all hanging out, drinking and laughing, pull up a chair.  If the Agent of All Agents is holding court, join the crowd. Unless it’s an intense one-on-one business meeting, I guarantee that no one will ask you to leave. (And why in the world would anyone choose such a public forum for an intense one-on-one business meeting?)

Overall, “networking” as a concept attempts to complicate something that is inherently simple. You have goals that you wish to accomplish, and you want to get to know people who can help you get there.  As an alternative step, you want to get to know someone who can introduce you to someone who can help you.  It’s as easy–and as hard–as showing up and asking.

So, what do you think?  What have I missed? Where am I entirely off base?

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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.
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