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.

Avram Davidson And Closure

By John Gilstrap

I’ve alluded many times here and during public presentations that my one and only creative writing teacher (in 1977) did more to harm my future writing career than he did to help it along. That experience hardened my thoughts on such classes and drove me to the world of the self-taught writer. The punch line in this section of my presentation is that the cranky old guy died before I had a chance to show him my first published novel.

I never mentioned the instructor’s name in public because I thought it would be unfair to him and his family. After all, he was quite well-respected among science fiction writers (and short story writers in general), and I’m confident that my experience was unique.

So, imagine my surprise when I received this email out of the blue:

Hi John,

My Name is [his name].  Avram Davidson was my Godfather.  Long story but I would love to schedule a call.  I understand you had him as a professor at William & Mary?

The URL for his email appeared to be from a law firm. My first thought: Oh, crap. Schedule a call? Could there possibly be an upside to that? So I wrote back:

It’s rare that I get startled by an email. I guess the world truly is small. Nearly half a century has passed since I last saw your godfather, though he was indeed my instructor when he was writer-in-residence at W&M. May I ask what you’d like to talk about?

His response:

Thanks for getting back to me. The short of it is I inherited Avram’s literary estate recently and I am getting my arms around it.  I started a podcast and I have been interviewing authors who knew Avram.  I really wanted to interview a student of Avram’s to see what he was like as a professor. I found a picture of [fellow student at the time] and that he was a student.  I am sad to say he passed away a few months ago.  His wife mentioned that you were a student so I wanted to see if we could connect.

I’ll be honest with you here. I didn’t realize how raw a wound this was until I started weighing the pros and cons of even responding further. What would be the point, right? Then again, forty-plus years is a long enough time to get over things, and on balance, I’ve done okay in this writing world. I think the godson’s efforts to keep Avram’s memory alive and vivid is truly a noble mission, and there is no doubt that I interacted with Avram in a way that I would want to know if I were the godson. I won’t share the entirety of my response, but here are the pertinent parts:

Here’s my dilemma: Avram hated my work. He told me, in fact, that I had no talent and that he had no interest in hearing from me again. Given the work in evidence at the time, I suppose he had a point. I assure you that I harbor no ill will for him lo these many years later, but he really hurt my feelings at the time. In fact, my final discussion with Avram derailed my projected writing career for well over a decade.

That last sentence is as unfair as it is factual. Avram delivered the truth as he saw it. The fact that I absorbed it as a gut punch was on me, not on him. I know that he meant no harm. Now that I’m 23 books and four screenplays into a 25-year career, it’s entirely possible that my success (whatever that means) is tied directly to his giving me, well, something to prove.

So, I’ve shown you my hand. I’d be happy to participate in your podcast, but you need to know that it would not be an elegy to your godfather. Nor would it be a hit piece. I was a 20-year-old dreamer from a troubled background with a love of confrontation. I wanted to write commercial thrillers in the vein of Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsythe at a time when Rod Mcuan and Richard Bach were all the rage. Avram loved edgy, experimental writing, and I was exactly not that.

Whether we do this thing or not, here’s what I want your takeaway to be: Avram made an impact on his students. He made a difference. A week rarely goes by when I don’t think back to those sessions in his tiny, underlit apartment, sipping sherry while noshing on cheese and crackers. And Herman, the dog. He was a sweetheart.

In crafting that response, I discovered something: Whether I like it or not, Avram Davidson truly did give me something to prove. In thinking back on that class experience as a whole, I realized that I made some long-lasting friendships. Of all the classes I took over my four years at William and Mary, his is without doubt the one I remember most vividly.

Is this what closure is–a concept that I’ve never much believed in?

I’ve since spoken at length with the godson on the phone, and our conversation was delightful. I learned that Avram Davidson was a doting godfather and a very nice man–when he wasn’t cranky, as he was occasionally wont to be. He was, you know, human. I cannot wait now for the opportunity to reminisce in the podcast.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is closure.

+13

A Lot of Research Still Might Not Be Enough

By John Gilstrap

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Today, we take on the work of a brave writer who submitted his first few hundred words for some input. First, I’ll present the piece as I received it, and then my comments will be on the flip side, after the asterisks.

The Mirage 

Chapter One

Mexican State of Zacatecas

Chihuahuan Desert

The caravan of seven black SUVs drove through the empty desert. The road they followed was little more than a ribbon of heat-cracked asphalt winding through the barren, rolling hills.

Captain Jaime Barrios stood half-way through the open sunroof of the lead vehicle, a pair of binoculars pressed against his aviator sunglasses. His dark mustache hugged lips made puffy through hours of gun chewing. Scorching sun made the letters ATF gleam yellow against the back of his navy blue jacket.

A voice squawked from the radio bud he’d jammed into his ear.

“Captain Barrios. This holding mode is holding a little long, no?”

Barrios thumbed the mike button at his lapel before giving a curt reply.

“We’ll be going kinetic in another minute. Just sit tight.”

He looked to the three other cars in the front of the caravan. Two of them had Special Response agents also standing out of their car sunroofs. Each wore a bullet proof vest and carried an M4 assault rifle slung. The other agents inside the SUVs were similarly armed and armored.

The radio crackled in his ear again.

“Captain,” one of the agents complained, “No one said this raid came with a side of skin cancer.”

Barrios smiled mirthlessly as he continued to scan the desert. “Ha. The Chihuahuan desert welcomes your Boston ass, McKinney.”

“Shit. Who needs a fuckin’ border wall when you have this sun?”

A gleam from far behind caught Barrios’ attention. Dark dots appeared against the bright yellow landscape, growing larger with each second. His pulse quickened as he realized that their waiting was over.

“They’re coming up at six o’clock. Everyone, get ready. It’s game time.”

Barrios stamped his foot twice. At the signal, his driver accelerated. The force of the wind grew as he tucked away the binoculars and readied his assault rifle.

“Fuck,” he swore. “This looks like a lot more than eight bikes!”

“No kidding,” McKinney put in. “I count seventeen crotch rockets.”

The Hayabusa 950 motorcycles ate up the distance between them and the SUVs. Fourteen of the cyclists wore all black from head to toe. Three others had brown, yellow, or gray helmets.

Power windows rolled down on each SUV. Men poked their heads out or leaned out the windows, rifles or pistols at the ready. Barrios waited until the motorcycles were within range.

“Open fire!” he yelled into his radio.

*****

Gilstrap again. Okay, there’s a lot to like in this piece. I think the author chose an interesting place to start the story–certainly none of the throat clearing that I talked about in a piece I critiqued a few weeks ago. The prose is reasonably crisp, and the descriptions of the desert mostly work for me.

That said, I think are serious plot issues. This reads to me a bit like a reimagination of the 1960s television show, “The Rat Patrol,” where a tiny squad of six (?) guys, all in different (but very cool) uniforms drive aimlessly through the North African desert looking for fights with Nazi tanks. I loved it as a kid. I’ve since watched it as an adult. Lots of WTFing in every episode.

I’m kind of in that same place with these first pages of THE MIRAGE. I’ll stipulate that ATF agents are trolling the deserts of Mexico (though my ATF buddies tell me that such would rarely if ever be done). What bothers me most is the lack of planning and the lack of discipline. Federal agents of all ilk are buttoned down tight in these kinds of operations. The chit-chat on the radio would be a huge no-no. Even in the fire service, that was a no-no. The whole world listens in on radio traffic.

We don’t yet know what this mission is, but it is inconceivable to me that they would not have some sort of air assets in place to know what was coming at them. The SRT is one hell of a polished team. Like all such teams, they pride themselves in denying their opposition forces anything that remotely resembles a fair fight.

Then there’s the whole notion of firing without being fired upon. That’s just not done. And if it were done, shooting moving targets from a moving platform is a recipe for disaster, especially given the lack of clear firing lanes.

If this is the beginning of a serious book that the author wants to be taken seriously, lots of research remains to be done. A good place to start is to embrace the fact that anything you’ve seen in any movie in the “Fast ‘n’ Furious” franchise ranks high on the wouldn’t-ever-happen scale.

Now, let’s get down to some line-level stuff . . .

The caravan of seven black SUVs drove through the empty desert. The road they followed was little more than a ribbon of heat-cracked asphalt winding through the barren, rolling hills.

Details matter. Seven black BMW X5s paints a different picture and leaves a different impression than seven black Suburbans or seven black Escalades. Also, is there a way to combine these two sentences into one? Something like, “The seven-Suburban motorcade sped through the barren, rolling desert hills on a ribbon of road that was little more than crumbled asphalt.”

Captain Jaime Barrios stood half-way through the open sunroof of the lead vehicle, a pair of binoculars pressed against his aviator sunglasses.

This is pure “Rat Patrol.” Why would he do this? It’s hot and windy and car windows are clear. Also, the current tacti-cool look is Oakley shades. The aviators remain popular mostly among older generations. That said, it’s really hard to get a good image through binoculars while wearing any form of glasses.

Also, how far out the hatch is he? He’s standing on the center console, right?

Finally, how certain are you that the ATF has captains within their rank structure? As far as I know, they’re all variants of the rank of “special agent.”

His dark mustache hugged lips made puffy through hours of gun chewing. Scorching sun made the letters ATF gleam yellow against the back of his navy blue jacket.

For the sake of argument, I will assume that the author really meant “gum chewing” because gun chewing leads to explosions of brain pizza. That said, I’m not familiar with gum chewing causing swollen lips. Assuming that Barrios is wearing the ubiquitous G-man windbreaker, I believe the letters are yellow whether seen in the sun or by candlelight.

A voice squawked from the radio bud he’d jammed into his ear.

“Jammed” is the wrong verb here. That would hurt.

“Captain Barrios. This holding mode is holding a little long, no?”

Note the comment above about the captain thing. This bit of dialogue is exclusively for the reader. Everyone in the scene knows exactly how long they’ve been there, so what is the motivation in asking this? Also, it’s chit-chat. Finally, I don’t get the “holding mode” here. Seems to me they’re on the way to somewhere.

Barrios thumbed the mike button at his lapel before giving a curt reply.

The appropriate spelling is “mic” when you mean microphone. I’m getting conflicting information throughout this piece about their wardrobe. Assuming they’re wearing ballistic armor, “lapels” don’t really exist.

“We’ll be going kinetic in another minute. Just sit tight.”

So, now the bad guys know the good guys’ plan–because they transmitted it over the radio. I’m confused as to how Barrios knows this already. If what we’re reading here is a mission to murder the folks on the crotch rockets, you’d do well to set it up in some narrative.

He looked to the three other cars in the front of the caravan. 

There’s a lot here. From one paragraph to another, the SUVs became cars. How?

Two of them had Special Response agents also standing out of their car sunroofs.

This paints a picture of two sedans, each with multiple agents standing out to the sunroof. I’m think clown car.

When you write “Special Response agents” I presume you mean agents assigned to the Special Response Team, the elite of the elite within ATF. If so, I would point that out.

Each wore a bullet proof vest and carried an M4 assault rifle slung. The other agents inside the SUVs were similarly armed and armored.

“Bullet proof vests” do exist in the real world, but I’m certain that’s not what your guys are wearing. Your team is probably wearing “ballistic armor.”

Let’s talk about those slung M4s. Question One: Why are they slung? When you’re driving into a gunfight, you want to enter it with your weapon fully prepared for deployment. “Slung” generally means “at ease.” Question Two: Since slung rifles are carried with muzzles facing down (remember, our guys are doing the prairie dog peek out of their vehicles), I see the muzzle pointing at the driver’s ear. That would be disconcerting.

The radio crackled in his ear again.

This could be merely stylistic, but to my ear, radios haven’t “crackled” in decades. To my ear, they “pop” or “break squelch.”

“Captain,” one of the agents complained, “No one said this raid came with a side of skin cancer.”

I think the author is going for lighthearted banter here, but it comes off as whining.

Barrios smiled mirthlessly as he continued to scan the desert. “Ha. The Chihuahuan desert welcomes your Boston ass, McKinney.”

Now I see the source of the lack of discipline. It starts at the top. For the world to hear. And surely there’s a better word than mirthlessly.

“Shit. Who needs a fuckin’ border wall when you have this sun?”

Got it. Maybe they’d be cooler if they took off those jackets.

Most importantly: Beware the F-bombs. I did a whole video for my YouTube channel on the perils of using high-end profanity in popular fiction. It turns off an astonishing number of readers. I used to be an offender, but after literally hundreds of letters and emails from readers, I stopped. I haven’t written an F-bomb in probably my latest 15 books. These are hard-edged thrillers, and no one has ever complained that the bad language isn’t there.

A gleam from far behind caught Barrios’ attention.

Be specific. “Far behind” means nothing.

Dark dots appeared against the bright yellow landscape, growing larger with each second. His pulse quickened as he realized that their waiting was over.

I get that the author is playing coy here, but for me it’s too coy by half. I’d like to know who these people are–if not by specific identity, then by a throw-away reference to why it’s important to engage them.

“They’re coming up at six o’clock. Everyone, get ready. It’s game time.”

Barrios stamped his foot twice. At the signal, his driver accelerated.

So, everything else can go out on the air, but he has to stomp his foot to say “go faster”?

The force of the wind grew as he tucked away the binoculars and readied his assault rifle.

I have no idea what this means. Where did he tuck the binoculars? No one thinks of their weapon as an “assault rifle” and what readying does he need to do? He’s going to war here, so it seems a little late to oil the action. He’d probably think of the weapon as his M4 or his Colt (the manufacturer that supplies ATF with their M4s). By the time Barrios peeked his noggin out of the hole, he’d have the puppy chambered and ready to go. One quick move of his thumb against the safety lever, and he’d he ready to rock.

“Fuck,” he swore. “This looks like a lot more than eight bikes!”

“No kidding,” McKinney put in. “I count seventeen crotch rockets.”

The Hayabusa 950 motorcycles ate up the distance between them and the SUVs. Fourteen of the cyclists wore all black from head to toe. Three others had brown, yellow, or gray helmets.

Here again, the author is presenting information through dialogue that is really for the benefit of the reader. They’ve come a long way from seeing barely discernable black dots to a specific count of precisely 17 Hayabusa 950 motorcycles, plus a breakdown of their wardrobe.

But wait! As we’ll see below, McKinney got all of these details BEFORE they were in range of the M4s. That would put them at at least 200 yards. I want McKinney’s ophthalmologist!

Power windows rolled down on each SUV. Men poked their heads out or leaned out the windows, rifles or pistols at the ready. Barrios waited until the motorcycles were within range.

The clown car image has returned. Brave author, I urge you to go to your car and act this image out. The bad guys are screaming up from behind (from “six o’clock”). Imagine being packed into your vehicle with all the gear. Some people are “leaning out” of windows, others are only showing their heads. And they all want to shoot the same direction.

“Open fire!” he yelled into his radio.

Yelling into the radio does not extend the range of the signal, but it does garble the transmission. Yelling into radios is unprofessional.

Okay, Brave Author, I’ve been hard on you, but know that it comes from a helpful place. I’m on the record here and elsewhere stating that “write what you know” is perhaps the worst advice ever given, but this is an example of when the advice spot-on.

When a writer enters the world of weapons and tactics (or technology or space flight or any one of thousands of topics that people think they know but probably don’t), little mistakes add up quickly.

Okay, TKZers. Your turn.

+8

Branding Redux

By John Gilstrap

Last Wednesday, Terry O’Dell wrote a wonderful piece on the importance of branding to an author’s work. This week’s post from me started out as a response to her post, but as it grew longer, I decided to make it my topic for this week.

A lot of writers, I believe, misunderstand one key element to this branding business. They spend tons of time and money on trying to make their books and their characters well known–which is fine, if you’ve got the scratch to spend–but they forget that books have a short shelf life in the brick and mortar world. Even popular series get canceled by publishers. After the dust settles on all of that, there will stand the author, still talented and still anxious to write.

But will anyone know? That will depend in large measure on whether or not the author himself has left an impression on people.

I attended a conference a few years ago where a major publishing bigwig addressed the fairly recent trend among franchise-name authors sub out their storytelling to others, often giving cover credit to the visible ghost writer. He revealed in that talk that he couldn’t think of a single case where the success of a book written by one of those cowriters inured to the benefit of the cowriter himself when he reverted back to writing under his own name. The cowriters I know make pretty good money from those deals, but “writing as” does little to make them more visible to the readerverse.

So, what’s a body to do to make an impact in among all the published books as well as all the other entertainment options that dilute the pool of available readers?

Truthful answer: No one knows.

But I have some thoughts:

Consistency. I’m a thriller writer. Hard stop. I’ve spent a quarter of a century developing a reputation (such as it is) of telling fast-moving, action-filled stories that I hope also show a lot of heart. Too many authors, I think, dabble in too many genres. If I were inclined to write a romance, I would have to write it under a pseudonym, if only to not confuse the repeat customers who would feel that they’d bought a book under false pretenses.

Pick your lane and stay in it. This is a follow-on to consistency, but to me, it’s different. My chosen lane within the thriller highway is military(ish) action with lots of cool toys for my characters to play with. The brilliant Brad Thor writes books similar to mine, but he dips more into the realm of technothrillers and hardcore military action. Because he was an active duty SpecOps guy, he can pull off stuff that I can’t simply because I don’t have access to the source material that fuels his fiction. I recognize that and I stay away from it.

If you write crime fiction and you’ve got a quirky sleuth whose voice is unique to your imagination, resist the urge to wander into realm of Thomas Harris or Michael Connelly.

Be visible. The world will soon be back to normal with regard to public mingling. When that happens, get your butt to conferences. Even more than that, choose the same conferences year after year. Whether you’re looking for comradery, professional guidance or an increased fan base, you’ll be forgotten if you’re a one-off presence. But if you’re always at Conference X, and if you’re outgoing, you’ll meet people and people will come to recognize you.

In her post, Terry mentioned her trademark cowgirl hat. That resonates with something a publicist told me years ago when I asked her what I should wear when I’m in public and in author mode. She told me that it didn’t matter what I wore, but everybody should be able to tell which person in the room is the writer.

Don’t be an a-hole. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised at how elusive this is to some. Clearly, you’re going to be kind to fans, but it’s equally necessary to be kind and giving to fellow writers and industry professionals. The writing community is a very small town, where people talk and rumors spread with blistering speed and accuracy. You want to be easy to work with and easy to talk to. NEVER speak unkindly about other authors or their agents or editors. As the great philosopher Thumper the Rabbit preached, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Okay, TKZers, what am I missing?

Oh, and it’s Launch Week:

+10

Flying Too Close to Reality

By John Gilstrap

A trait common to Gilstrap men is that as we age, we get cranky. The madness of 2020 added fuel to my ever-smoldering fires, manifesting itself as a pervasive need to scream my frustrations into the night. NOTE: The night doesn’t care. I’m pretty sure it didn’t even hear me.

To be honest, the certain malady-that-shall-not-be-named played nicer with me and mine than it did with many, but it upended so much and introduced such angst that there were times when I didn’t know what to do with the stress. Alcohol and Netflix helped, but there are limits, you know?

I react to the news of the day, and those reactions sometimes make writing especially hard. In times of major stress and distraction, I have difficulty summoning the concentration necessary to write fiction. In the months following 9/11, I wondered if I’d ever be able to write a convincing scene again.

When the state and federal governments shuttered all of industry back in late February and early March of last year, people who trust me with information that I probably shouldn’t know shared with me the terrifying reality of what many intelligence professionals thought was going to happen. The United States came this close to a total collapse of our food distribution system.

We all saw how petty and feral our neighbors got over toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Imagine the consequences if no food made it to supermarket shelves and no drugs made it to the pharmacy–and that there was no immediate means to repair the system.

Yeah, that almost happened.

And it almost happened in the exact same sleeve of time when I was writing a book about the collapse of American civilization in the wake of an apocalyptic event. It felt a lot like writing about a house fire as flames were rolling over my head. Unnerving, to say the least.

I managed to finish that book, more or less on time. It’s called Crimson Phoenix, the first entry in a new thriller series, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. It hits the shelves on February 23. A click on the pictures or on this link will take you to a full description of the novel, but very briefly:

A rapid-fire series of communication fumbles leads to World War III, which lasts all of eight hours. By the time it’s over, the Unites States is in ruins. Millions die, yet millions survive. With all the infrastructure gone, elected leaders are unable to communicate with people outside of the bunkers that protected official Washington. It falls to individual citizens to figure out a way to continue living.

It doesn’t take long for the weak to turn feral. In one corner of West Virginia, though, a single mom named Victoria Emerson turns out to be the leader that everyone’s been looking for. Here’s the thing, though: She doesn’t want to lead. In fact, she quit Congress that very day because the rules of the Annex—the bunker to which the House and Senate are evacuated to—would not allow her children to accompany her. All she wants is to protect her family from harm. But when a community of desperate refugees instinctively look to her for leadership, she cannot turn away.

In writing Crimson Phoenix, I came to realize something that I guess I always knew, but never gave a lot of thought to. I call it the Concentric Circle Theory. As a husband and a father, my job is to protect my family from harm, which puts me in direct conflict with other husbands and fathers (and mothers and wives) who feel the same duty. One of the things that make nightmare scenarios so nightmarish is that human beings can turn every bit as feral as any other animal. The strong will prey on the weak every bit as viciously and reliably as wolves will prey on smaller animals.

Sounds dark, doesn’t it? But that’s not the way it turned out.

By the time I finished writing Crimson Phoenix, I realized that rather than writing about disaster, what I really ended up writing about was hope. Even in the worst of times, there’s good to be found in people, and great leaders will help others find that good in themselves. Great leaders also understand that many of the trappings of “civilized society” are contrived in comfort, and become irrelevant once the balloon goes up. When people are pushed hard enough, violence is inevitable. It’s understandable and even forgivable. It falls to Victoria to recognize the times for what they are and to help people understand that for every evil and for every act of violence, there are at least equal elements of kindness. Sometimes, though, the kindest approach is to wreak violence on offenders.

This introspection on human nature led me to a much calmer mental state than I occupied before I wrote the story, though perhaps at the cost of an even deeper cynicism.

  1. People are inherently good. A sense of justice and fair play is one of the elements that separates us from other roamers of the earth. Within our individual contexts, love, personal responsibility and acceptance by our peers is a driving force in our lives. We don’t want to let people down.
  2. If pushed hard enough, even the most mild-mannered and peace loving among us is capable of extreme anti-social behavior. Whether the behavior manifests itself in multiple baskets filled with toilet paper and hand sanitizer or in shooting someone perceived as a threat in the front yard, I think the vast majority of perpetrators feel genuine remorse when the hot blood cools. While I feel no need to forgive their actions, I think I’m obligated to understand their motivations.
  3. Each of us is wired to handle crises differently. My instinct is to evaluate, analyze and act on data that I have seen with my own eyes, or has been relayed to me by a source that has earned my trust. Others act on what they hear from politicians and television news reporters. My way is not right, theirs is not wrong.
  4. When all is said and done, each of us is on our own to make the decisions that are right for us. This is where I found my peace. If others take foolish or destructive actions on behalf of themselves and their families, that is on them, not on me. I will share my thoughts when asked, and I accept the fact that so few people ever ask.

Overall, this is new territory for me. It’s rare that I learn valuable life lessons through the act of writing. I hope it’s not like this again anytime soon.

What say you, TKZ family? Have your writing adventures ever led you to significant self-discovery?

+14

Are You A Phil Or A Doug?

By John Gilstrap

I dedicated most of my high school years to the pursuit of nerdhood. I was editor of the Valor Dictus, our school newspaper, I sang 1st tenor in the choir and I was a district champion debater. Home life was a bit odd, so I spent as much time away from it as I could, and despite doing crazy stuff that would get teens thrown in jail these days, I managed to stay mostly out of trouble.

During my senior year, I decided it was time to shift gears, so I threw my hat into the ring of the musical theater. I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of Godspell. The show was so popular that it sold out its initial weekend run and we extended to a second weekend of sold-out shows. Quite the head rush.

One of my fellow cast members was a guy named Phil. For whatever reason, we never crossed paths outside of rehearsals and performances, but I was fascinated by his skills on the piano. He could play anything, including a rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” that rivaled the great Jerry Lee Lewis. After he heard a song once–whether Beatles or Beethoven–he could make the ivories sing. But he couldn’t read a lick of music. Didn’t know a quarter note from a crescendo. I have no idea what happened to him or where he went after high school, but he expressed no interest in studying music.

By contrast, my brother knew a guy in his high school–Doug–who could read a symphonic score the way you or I would read a book. The staves on the page transformed into music in his head as he read them. Some years later, I learned that he was a teenager before he understood that not everyone could do that. He went on to Julliard and later earned two PhDs in music. He recently retired from being the artistic director for one of the premier choral organizations in the DC area.

Unlike Phil, Doug has never enjoyed being the guy at the party hammering out show tunes and Beatles favorites while people sing around the piano. I don’t know why, and I won’t presume to guess. I have a number of friends who love to play their instruments of choice, but need to have the music in front of them to make it happen, and so would likely sell an unimportant body part to be able to play anything anywhere.

There’s an analogy here to writing prose. We have our own Dougs and Phils. On one end of the spectrum you have that set of MFAs and PhD grad school professors who know everything there is to know about literature and writing theory, yet are unable to publish works that appeal to the masses. On the other end, you have the lawyers (or safety engineers) whose study of literature begins and ends with what they like to read and somehow are able to hammer out stories that find an audience. Most writers toil somewhere in the middle.

I’m a Phil. I’m not especially proud of that, but I’m not ashamed of it, either. Early on in my writing career, when the inevitable question came up about what authors most influenced me, I would lie to avoid the dismissive looks and talk about Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. To be sure, those were wonderful authors and I have enjoyed their works, but none of them carried the clout of Alistair MacLean, Stephen King or even Franklin W. Dixon. These days, I tell the truth and endure the dismissive eyerolls. A few years ago, I was introduced to an MFA class as “only a commercial fiction writer”, but with the modifier that I had some thoughts worth listening to. Boy howdy, did I! Curiously, I have not been invited back. Must be the pandemic.

I have always read to be entertained, and have always written to return the favor. My job begins and ends with taking readers on a great pretend adventure. I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.

I’m being completely honest when I tell you that of the few implements I recognize in my writer’s tool box, I use precious few of them. I understand the major parts of speech like nouns and verbs and adjectives, but don’t ask me what a participle is, dangling or otherwise. That knowledge is of no use to me. If you groove on that stuff, then God bless you. It’s certainly not harmful, but it’s stuff I just don’t need to know. Ditto the three act structure, which to me means a beginning, a middle and an end.

I understand very little about the process of writing stories. I don’t know how I know that action and dialogue drive character development, but that’s how it works for me. I often tell people that I don’t want to think too hard about the creative process for fear of breaking a machine that I don’t know how to fix. If it ain’t broke . . .

Remember the motto of the famed Faber College: Knowledge is good. My preference is to learn craft by reading books that I wish I’d written, but I would never discourage anyone from studying craft. We all learn differently and we all follow divergent paths.

But formal study is not for everyone. For some, it can be harmful. Remember always that the voice in your head is unique to you. Even a well-meaning teacher can ruin that voice if you’re not steadfast in your defense of it. Any creative advice that includes the phrases “you must” or “you cannot” is wrong. Hard stop. If you’re in school and such is the opinion of your teacher, then earn the A by giving him or her what they’re looking for, but then erase the rules from your brain. If something inside you is driving you to create–if something inside you won’t let you not create–then trust that the same driving force will help you find your own way, whether through schooling or sheer force of will.

Irrespective of which route(s) you follow, the one constant is that your early efforts are going to suck. Everyone you ask to help you un-suck it will have bits of advice that vary from others’ bits of advice. That’s a lot of well-meaning voices in your head. At the end of the day, you’ll still be stuck with the task of choosing on your own which is the best path to take.

What say you, TKZ family? Are you a Phil, a Doug, or somewhere in between?

+11

When The Dog Catches The Car

By John Gilstrap

A couple of days ago, Brother Bell posted a compelling piece about the process of writing. It got me to thinking about the strange transition that happens when writing evolves to be more than a passion, and becomes a means to pay some or all of the bills.

NOTE WELL: None of what follows is intended as whining. I am fully aware of how fortunate I have been–and continue to be–to be 23 books into a 25-year career doing the very thing I’d have told you I wanted to do if you’d asked me when I was 12 years old.

But while I have the best job in the world, it’s still a job. There’s a relentlessness to it.

To start, I’ve over-committed. I wrote two novels and a 7,500-word short story last year. I have to deliver another Victoria Emerson thriller on April 15, followed by a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave novel. Plus, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m working on a fun Western novel with two other authors. As I write this, it’s my turn again to write a chapter. Tick tock. I’m also collaborating with another writer and a film producer to develop a very cool idea for a television series.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are building a new house that we’ll be moving to around this time next year. It’s in the West Virginia woods, about 90 minutes from our current house. In addition to the weekly (minimum) visits to the worksite to monitor the details, there are the thousands of decisions to be made from among infinite variables. Exterior stone, interior floors, appliances, design flow, and, and, and . . .

I must confess that the general malaise of the past 12 months worked its way into my soul more deeply than I would have expected. And I’m a news junkie. ‘Nuff said on that.

Crimson Phoenix, the first book in my new Victoria Emerson series drops on February 23, and my publisher is pulling out a lot of stops to promote it, which means lots of emailed interviews and (God help us) Zoom calls. I’ve got a YouTube channel to feed, social media stuff, and the rest of everyday life.

I feel sometimes that every time I sit down to write, another high-priority, time-sensitive thing pops up. My wife and I both work out of the house–our offices are no more than 30 feet from each other–and oftentimes, we won’t see each other until dinnertime, and then we usually go back to work after dinner. We do make it a point to relax and watch TV beginning at 8pm at the latest. Sanity lies in Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Okay, maybe I am whining.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook writers’ groups. (It’s a great way to bring traffic to my YouTube channel.) Those places teem with rookies who maintain that as writers, their sole job is to create stuff, and that marketing, promotion and the rest should be someone else’s responsibility. I don’t engage at that level because I have little to offer to the deeply clueless. We all know the reality that without all that other non-writing activity, success will never happen. (I’ll leave it to you to determine what your definition of success is.)

Then, when success does happen, complete with all the accoutrements, the world changes a bit. Maybe a lot. It feels unearned because you know there are way better writers than you who have not seen the same success. And because it feels unearned, it also feels fragile. Hell, it is fragile. Fragility is the nature of the entertainment business.

The past is the past, pal. What’ve you got for me today?

With success comes the burden of additional opportunities, all of which have a short shelf life. I say “burden” of opportunities with full knowledge that the phrase sounds oxymoronic. You work hard, you create work that resonates. Do it long enough, and it resonates with enough people that the work gets recognized by people higher than you on the creative ladder and they invite you onto their rung.

It’s terrifying, if only because saying no is not an option. You say yes to an invitation to submit to an anthology of stories by franchise names. You say yes to the offer to develop a TV series because if you say no, you may never get another call like that. Every effort for every project has to be the best you can give because anything short of that betrays the reason you were asked in the first place.

You lose sleep because you understand that no matter how much effort you put into those opportunities, they may come to nothing. You realize that your true loyalty must be focused on the longtime readers who helped you achieve your greatest dreams. They, too, perhaps more than any others, also deserve the best you can give. They’ve earned the best you can give.

“Sleep is for the weak,” a fire captain told me one time. I’ve been thinking about him a lot these past few months.

+17

What A Difference A Quarter Century Makes

By John Gilstrap

My first novel, Nathan’s Run, first hit the shelves in 1996–two millennia ago in book-time. To put it in perspective, Bantam, Doubleday and Dell were all different publishers back then. Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins were independent companies. Back then, the big money came to authors via mass market paperback deals because jobbers filled book racks in every pharmacy and grocery store, and everybody read paperbacks. Mass market rights often were sold to different publishers than the hard cover houses, and for much more money.

Borders Books and Barnes and Noble were just beginning to spread their wings, targeting local bookstores with extreme prejudice. In the mid-nineties, independent bookstores were the backbone of book sales. Every strip mall, it seemed, had its own bookstore. Some were generalists, selling all kinds of books, but others were specialty stores, targeting specific genres. Mystery bookstores grew like weeds.

When the superstore booksellers entered the scene, they were able to negotiate terms with publishers that allowed them to price books at retail for less than what the independents had to pay for wholesale. When really big books hit the scene, it seemed to me (though I could never prove it) that the superstores waded into predatory pricing, selling the books for less than what they paid as loss leaders that would force the mom and pop shops out of business.

Meanwhile, a guy named Bezos was a laughing stock throughout the publishing world because he had this crazy idea that people would buy books from their computers–no, really, their computers! Have you ever heard something so silly? As if book lovers would give up glorious trips to the local bookstore in favor of shopping on one of those squealy dial-up modem desk toys. At the same time, a kid named Steve Case was toiling like mad to create a platform that would give everyday people access to a thing called the internet.

In the mid-nineties, the competition among publishers to acquire the Next Big Book was cutthroat. Authors and their agents had so many big houses to choose from! And the result often ended in bidding wars or pre-emptive bids that routinely netted six- and seven-figure deals for first-time authors.

Money flowed in torrents. Big producers at major film studios paid real money to interns and assistants in the major publishing houses to steal manuscripts from the copy room to give the studios a leg-up on the inevitable bidding war for film rights. During the Christmas season back in the day, every publishing house threw lavish holiday bashes for their staffs, authors, agents and media.

Hands down, the most jaw-droppingly over-the-top book affair I’ve ever attended was a Christmas party thrown by Readers Digest Condensed Books at the New York Palace Hotel in New York (formerly the Helmsley Palace). Limitless beef, salmon, shrimp, caviar, Champaign, booze and desserts served to every author, editor and agent in the world, it seemed. There had to be a thousand people there, including every author who’d ever had a book included in a collection by RD. As a kid from Virginia whose first book was about to be released, this was heady stuff.

(Teaser: The most opulent party ever was the three-day celebration of Dino DeLaurentiis’s birthday on the Island of Capri. That was beyond amazing, and a very funny story. Maybe in a future post.)

Within a few years, everything changed. I don’t remember the order in which they fell, but over the course of what felt like a few months, overseas corporations consumed dozens of imprints and the number of “Big Houses” started to contract. The contraction never stopped. The recent news of Penguin Random’s purchase of Simon & Schuster saddens me. All I see are diminishing opportunities for writers earn big advances for their books. Think about it. Penguin Random (a part of the Bertelsmann empire) has assimilated once-grand independent publisher names such as Penguin, Random House (duh), Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, Viking, Knopf, and others. And it doesn’t stop with the the Bertelsmann empire. Hachette is another, and there are still more.

Meanwhile, Karma being a be-otch, Borders Books is dead, and B&N is moribund at best. (In a happy bit of irony, B&N’s new CEO, James Daunt, is designing the company’s phoenix-like rise from its ashes on the direct involvement of on-the-ground booksellers in the decisions on what books individual stores should stock. You know, the way booksellers used to do it before the superstores ran them out of business.)

Independent bookstores are making a comeback (albeit very slowly and cautiously), and new publishing houses are being born every day.

While the bookracks in drug stores are gone, more books are published every year nowadays than have ever been published before. Ebooks, audio, graphic novels, and Lord only knows how many other new avenues for storytelling are exploding. While all these options bring limitless opportunity, they also bring limitless problems, not the least of which is discovering the new metrics and strategies for letting readers know that a new author has arrived on the scene. Those full-page ads in major dailies that used to grease the skids to bestsellerdom, are all but irrelevant now. Word of mouth has morphed into tweet-to-tweet (or something like that).

These are exciting times to be an author. But they’re also scary times. Million-dollar advances have gone the way of the dodo (or of Borders Books) and that’s probably a good thing in the long run. It makes a lot of sense to align advances with anticipated sales. Hollywood is an evolving train wreck, but it will straighten itself out, too. I’d hate to own a theater chain right now, but man oh man would I like to invest in big screen televisions for the home market.

As I write this post, it occurs to me that as the business fluctuates and expands and contracts, the one constant to all of it, through all of time, is the public’s insatiable desire for good stories, well told. And that, TKZ family, is where we come in. If we don’t think this stuff up and put it on paper, the whole of the entertainment business breaks down.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.

Finally, this is it for me here in The Killzone for a few weeks as we take our winter hiatus. Thank you all for making this blog what it has become. Contributors, you force the rest of us to keep the bar high. Readers, you’re the reason we do it, and your numbers speak for themselves. Thank you. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, and a prosperous, healthy and happy new year.

God bless us, every one.

+17

Throat Clearing

By John Gilstrap

This morning, we take a look at a few hundred words that were submitted by Valiant Author, looking for an honest critique. I think we all know the drill by now. First, I’ll present the submission as I received it, and then it’ll be my turn on the back end:

Chapter 1

Beginnings

There was a knock at the door. “Major Edwards? It’s 0600; you requested a wake-up call, sir.”

Elijah turned the lamp on beside him and folded back the covers of his bed. The stark contrast between the warmth of the sheets and the chill of the room caused him to shiver. He sighed heavily as he placed his feet in the slippers beside the bed. He drew a short breath as they touched his skin, feeling more of ice than leather, before slowly walking to the door. Opening it, there stood a corporal with a clipboard.

“Thank you, Corporal, I’m up now,” said Edwards.

The Corporal nodded, “Yes Sir, do you need anything else Major?”

“No, that will be all.” Edwards replied closing the door.

The day’s ritual had begun.

He could hear the corporal move down the hallway and knock on the next door. Edwards rubbed his face, trying to wipe the fog of sleep from his mind, the stubble of his beard scratching his palms as he did. He turned from the door and paused to look around his “home”. A bed, with a washstand next to it, occupied most of the room. On the far wall, a wingback chair and ottoman sat before a fireplace. The walls, covered by large red roses on blue-tinted wallpaper, meant to be cheerful and welcoming.

The wood floor reflected his mood of late, worn, bare, and darkened by the passage of time. An Orderly cleaned it daily, yet it always smelled the same. A thick musty odor hung in the air, a reminder, of the many lives that passed through before him.

Edwards glanced at calendar on the wall, his only reminder that the world still moved along, read Friday, March 3rd, 1944.

It’s been over two years since I arrived in 1942, just one of thousands of Americans. Each of us, full of piss and vinegar, ready to kick the Nazis clean back to Germany. It seems like a lifetime ago. The swift victory we all believed in never came and one day just became the next in this interminable war.

=

It’s Gilstrap again.

A common trait among first chapters is what I call throat clearing, akin to the moment in public speaking when you approach the microphone and deliver an ahem as your first message to the audience. It centers you as a speaker. It makes the vocal cords vibrate to assure you that they are in place and ready to go, but the noise itself does little to advance the message people have gathered to hear.

In fiction, throat clearing is often disguised as setting or, heaven forfend, a prologue. It happens to all of us in early drafts, and I wager these passages rarely survive the final edit. All of that is fine. It’s part of the process. And it’s the bulk of what we find in this submission.  It’s less story than it is pre-story.

I can’t begin to calculate the number of times various writers in this space have espoused the importance of beginning at a high point in a story. As one who writes a fair amount of violence into my books, I feel confident in proclaiming that the process of awakening from a sound sleep is rarely the high point in a book set in the midst of war. Even if what follows is not a series of shoot-’em-up action scenes, the fact of the war–and the sense of melancholy that flows from it–is the central theme of this opening. I would feel much more empathy for Major Edwards’s situation if he were blowing bloody snot out of his nose in a trench than having been rousted out of the rack by his orderly.

Alas, I feel that Valiant Author’s actual story begins on the other side of the page turn.

That said, let’s take a look at the sample itself, ignoring the strategic location within the story and concentrating instead on the craftsmanship itself. My comments are in bold face.

Beginnings (Okay, this is purely my own prejudice, and I confess that I might be completely off-base, but I dislike named chapters. They seem trite and old-fashioned to me.)

There was a knock at the door. (This form of sentence construction–“there was . . .” is toxic to narrative. It’s so horribly passive. It means nothing. Room service knocks on doors, and so do SWAT teams when they serve a warrant, but each represents an entirely different variety of contact with the door.) “Major Edwards? It’s 0600; you requested a wake-up call, sir.” (A wake-up call? Is this in fact a hotel? And if so, why is a corporal doing the wakeup duty? Under the circumstances, not knowing what corner of the war Major Edwards occupies, 0600 feels a lot like sleeping in. While we’re here, another pet peeve of mine is the use of numerals in dialogue. I always spell things out–oh six hundred. Also a pet peeve: semicolons have no place in fiction. [Cue the arguments from English purists.])

Elijah (Because we’re not yet acclimated to these surroundings or these characters, we don’t know who Elijah is. I would write this as, Major Elijah Edwards . . .) turned the lamp on beside him and folded back the covers of his bed. (This seems at once precious and vague. Did he yank the chain on the lamp? Spin a knob? Was the knob knurled? Yellow light? Bright enough to hurt his eyes? And as for folding down the covers, is that really the image you’re after? That seems so very fastidious.) The stark contrast between the warmth of the sheets and the chill of the room caused him to shiver. (He shivered in the cold. We’ll understand why.) He sighed heavily as he placed his feet in the slippers beside the bed. (Generally speaking, sighs are a mistake. Heavy sighs are always a mistake in all genres but a few. As for the slippers, well, I guess we all must suffer in wartime.) He drew a short breath as they touched his skin, feeling more of ice than leather, before slowly walking to the door. (I don’t know where you intend to go with this story, so this might not be a criticism, but I hate this guy. He’s a whiny, privileged REMF [look it up]. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ve nailed it.) Opening it, there stood a corporal with a clipboard. (This is a tortured sentence. Notice the recurrence of the “there” construction.)

My recommendation is to kill all of the above paragraph–and the one immediately below–and replace it with something like, “Yup.”

“Thank you, Corporal, I’m up now,” said Edwards.

The Corporal nodded, “Yes Sir, do you need anything else Major?” (I wasn’t around in WW2, but this seems like a lot sucking up to a major. It’s not that senior a rank. Here again, I could be wrong.)

“No, that will be all.” Edwards replied closing the door.

The day’s ritual had begun.

Note: In over 150 words of text, nothing has happened. A guy heard a knock and he stood up. In 154 words.

He could hear the corporal move down the hallway and knock on the next door. (So everyone on the hall gets a wakeup call?) Edwards (He was Elijah above. Pick one and stay with it.) rubbed his face, trying to wipe the fog of sleep from his mind, the stubble of his beard scratching his palms as he did. He turned from the door and paused to look around his “home”. A bed, with a washstand next to it, occupied most of the room. On the far wall, a wingback chair and ottoman sat before a fireplace. The walls, covered by large red roses on blue-tinted wallpaper, meant to be cheerful and welcoming. (Still, nothing has happened. But I am hating him more. I mean, honestly. Who chose such awful wallpaper? I’m sure he’d take a trench any day.)

The wood floor reflected his mood of late, worn, bare, and darkened by the passage of time. An Orderly cleaned it daily, yet it always smelled the same. A thick musty odor hung in the air, a reminder, of the many lives that passed through before him. (Now, I might be thinking too hard. Are we in a hospital? Orderlies (never capitalized in the middle of a sentence) could be stretcher pushers, or, since this is a military setting, they could be folks who wake up officers and get their uniforms ready–though not likely for a major.

Edwards glanced at calendar on the wall, his only reminder that the world still moved along, read Friday, March 3rd, 1944.

It’s been over two years since I arrived in 1942, just one of thousands of Americans. Each of us, full of piss and vinegar, (cliche) ready to kick the Nazis clean back to Germany. It seems like a lifetime ago. The swift victory we all believed in never came and one day just became the next in this interminable war. (Quoted thoughts can be really tricky. We don’t think in complete sentences–at least I don’t. I think in feelings, images. I certainly don’t engage in eloquent internal monologues. If I were writing this, I would write it as close third-person narrative.)

It’s still me, but I took off the heavy dark coat.

Valiant Author, I hope you understand that honest feedback is intended as a kindness, not as a spirit-breaker. I encourage you to re-think your story’s opening–and perhaps the entire story, whatever that might be–to approach it from the point of view of readers who crave good tales and want authors to snatch them by the lower lip and pull them into drama from which they cannot look away. At each turn in your story–at each new paragraph, even–ask yourself if the words you’re writing are advancing either plot or character. In a perfect world, every passage advances both at the same time.

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn . . .

 

+14

Chapter One

By John Gilstrap

I just submitted the manuscript for Stealth Attack (July, 2021), the 14th installment of my Jonathan Grave series. As I await the copy edits, it’s time to embark on the second book of my new Victoria Emerson thriller series.

Every book I write begins by typing the words, Chapter One, written in bold type, centered on the top of page one. It is the only chapter I number as I write. Subsequent chapters are labeled Chapter with a space next to it, pre-formatted in bold face type. My very last chore before submitting a manuscript is to type in the chapter numbers. And yes, inexplicably, it’s important to me that the number be written out, as in Chapter Thirty-seven.

I also type the phrase, THE END, all in caps at the bottom of the final page. It’s cathartic. And it guarantees the copy editor at least one line to delete–as if there aren’t many, many others.

There is one very practical reason for leaving all but the first chapter unnumbered: The first chapter of the next book appears as a teaser at the end of the most recently published book. And it’s a payment milestone.

Here’s the thing, though: That teaser chapter often does not survive my ongoing writing/editing process. It always changes–sometimes significantly–and if it survives it is often bumped to later in the book. I can’t remember if it was on Amazon or Goodreads, but one reviewer pummeled me for un-shooting a character who was shot in the teaser for Hellfire. A lot can happen in eleven months and 100,000 words.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s sufficient to submit a first chapter for the teaser. It needn’t be the first chapter.

We’ve established here before that I am not an outliner. But I’m not really a pantser, either. Before I type those first two words, I know basically where the story is supposed to go–what the stakes are–but when I start writing, I have no idea how I’m going to make those things happen. This is why that first chapter evolves so much or occasionally doesn’t survive final edits. If I’ve started a story in the wrong spot, I generally won’t realize it until I’m around page fifty or so.

I know going in that Jonathan Grave’s world is populated by four main characters, each of whom has to have something to do by way of progressing the story. Then there are a couple of very popular supporting players that I try to bring into each installment. And the dog. I always get a few emails from concerned readers if JoeDog does not make an appearance.

Chapter One provides limitless opportunity, but it also poses limitless challenges. Yesterday, PJ Parrish wrote about the importance of verbs. (A brilliant piece, by the way.) I concur whole-heartedly, but in the vast emptiness on the far side of those initial opening words, thousands of other words await to be chosen, embracing every part of speech that need to be selected from among what feels like an infinite set of variables. If writing a book were a math problem, it would be unsolvable.

My next move is to step off the cliff. To write something. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if the words that spill out are utter crap. That’s part of my process. For me, creativity in general–and writing in particular–is a flow. Typing those first words is like priming a pump. The process will cavitate and make ugly sounds at first, but then we’ll get the bubbles out of the system and good thoughts will start to flow.

Then, on the good days, I’ll be so inside the scenes I’m writing that I’ll merely be channeling thoughts through my fingers. On those days, the spelling is atrocious and words are often dropped, but the story is there. And by story I mean characters I know doing things I understand for reasons that excite me.

As I write this, I realize that I have discovered for the first time why I can write the last one-third of a book in thirty days or so. At that point, I’m no longer writing–I’m merely reporting what I see. And somehow, usually just a day or two before my deadline, it all works out.

And then it’s time to do it again.

What about you, TKZ family? Got any quirky superstitions or must-do habits when launching into a new project?

+15

My Cynical View of Titles and Covers

By John Gilstrap

Whoever coined the trope that you can’t judge a book by its cover had to have been an academic. Certainly, the trope-coiner was not a reader of novels. Yes, it is true that some great novels come encased in ugly wrappers, but few of them find a broad readership.

What follows is based on zero research and even less science, but it reflects quite a few decades of personal observation.

People buy books in steps.

First, they have to know to look for it. This is the unicorn hair in the mix. I don’t know what drives me to look for a book. Certainly, there’s word of mouth, and I read a lot of books for blurbs, but I don’t remember the last time I went into a bookstore blind–without a target I was looking for–and scoured the shelves, hoping to be attracted to a cover. I don’t think I’ve ever done that in the virtual world, where online bookstores are not, in my opinion, very browsable.

Next, there has to be an instant attraction. Perhaps it’s the author’s name—which highlights the importance of “branding”. But that instant attraction is just that—instant. It’s fleeting. There and gone. This is where the cover comes in, highlighting the reason that genres exist in the first place. The title is important here, too. A thriller has to look and sound like a thriller. Ditto a romance or horror novel. In that brief second of instant attraction, the artwork makes a connection and causes the reader to move to the next step . . .

They read the plot description. In just a few words, the pressure is on to pull the reader into the story. To make them gamble their hard-earned money that the ride you’re going to provide is worth the money. How do they make their final decision?

They read the first pages. Yesterday, PJ Parrish posted a terrific primer on the elements of a good opening. Here’s where that pays off. Boom! Decision made, one way or the other. There’s neither the time nor the real estate to flub the opening and make it better later.

So, where is the cynicism?

Okay, here it is: The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. Some examples from my own work:

Hellfire is the Jonathan Grave book that hit the stands back in July. What does Hellfire even mean? The story is about two kids who are kidnapped to keep their mom from revealing a terrorist plot after she has been arrested. The word itself–Hellfire–is an oblique reference to an air-to-surface missile system. And it sounds cool. It positions the book properly in the minds of readers who generally enjoy the types of books I write.

The red cover makes it distinctive on the shelf–unless or until red becomes the cover du jour for the current crop of cover designers. It also lends itself well as a Facebook cover image. But if you really look at the image and its various elements, it could be for a reprint of All’s Quiet On The Western Front, or it could be a story about Satan.

Other examples from my oeuvre (today is Pretend-I-Know-French Day): The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it. The cover of Friendly Fire features the White House, yet neither the president nor his team are involved in the story. What we wanted to do is establish the book and its author as being “inside Washington”.

My point here is that storytelling and marketing are entirely different skillsets, with only distantly related goals. As an author, my job is to entertain my readers by giving them a helluva ride. To get that chance, I need to convince them (trick them?) into picking out my book from among all the others on the shelf.

Your turn, TKZers. Do you have any tricks you’re willing to share about how you convince readers to take the plunge?

+8