About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in 2017. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

A Sea of Squares

by John Gilstrap

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the honor of teaching two of my six-hour classes entitled, “Adrenaline Rush: Writing Suspense Fiction.”  The first was at the always-wonderful Midwest Writers Workshop which is held every July on the campus of Ball State University, and more recently at the Smithsonian’s marvelous S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, DC.  It’s a fun, interactive course that includes four writing exercises that are designed to help students understand the issues of voice and characterization.

A large part of that discussion by necessity deals with point of view (POV).  I find that students inherently understand the relative strengths and weakness of first-person story telling, but when they shift gears into the third person, they have difficulty creating as intense a relationship between reader and character as they can with the first person.  I tell them that it’s largely a case of writing the same sentence and changing the pronoun (“His heart slammed in his chest as he opened the door” vs. “My heart slammed in my chest as I opened the door”), and while they get it intellectually, they have difficulty pulling it off on the page.  They tend to slip into that omniscient, reportorial space.

While teaching at MWW, I hit upon an analogy that I liked, and the students seemed to bond with.  I urged them to pretend that we were writing about a very intense chess game, along the lines of that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where the chess pieces are living things.  I explained how the point of view of the chess master–the guy with the strategy–is entirely different from that of the pawn.  In the case of the latter, the poor guy just stands there, oblivious, staring out at a sea of squares until some unseen thing grabs his face and moves him forward.  After a few iterations, he finds himself kitty-corner from a guy who looks just like him, but in a different color, and now he’s supposed to kill him.  Hell, he never even met the guy!

That’s the close third-person, I told them.  Now, if you add the point of view of the knight who can’t move, but is exposed to certain death at the hands of the bishop on the other side of the sea, all because the pawn stepped out of the way, you’ve got a thriller told in shifting 3rd-person POV.  And it’s potentially much more interesting than the story that would be told through the omniscient view of the chess master.

What should I add in the next class to illustrate POV choices?


Always Be Marketing

By John Gilstrap

When a writer decides to produce books and articles as his primary source of revenue, he has, in effect, started an independently-owned small business.  All the elements are there, from product development to design to distribution and sales. If the company owner doesn’t tend to the details, then who will?  The burden of such things arguably falls more heavily on indie authors, but even those of us who ply the trade via the traditional publishing route have to keep a strong hand on the tiller if we’re going to have adequate funds in the till.

Last month marked the publication of Final Target, the eleventh entry in the Jonathan Grave thriller series.  I’m delighted to report that I’ve seen more copies in grocery stores and what I call secondary venues than I ever have with any of my previous books.  This story also is published simultaneously in both hardcover and paperback (and e-book and audio . . .) so there should be no sticker shock for those readers who’ve come to read about Jonathan’s adventures as a paperback original.

I’m calling this post “Always Be Marketing” because that’s what I always feel I’m doing this time of the year, immediately after publication.  With two decades of this business under my belt, I thought I’d share some marketing strategies that have worked for me, and those which I consider to be utter duds.

First, the duds:

Bookmarks.  These have never made sense to me.  While I’m a big believer in bookmarks–and I believe there’s a special place in hell for readers who turn down pages to mark their place–no bookmark I use has any value to me.  It could just as well be my most recent airline boarding pass, a napkin, or my own business card.  I cannot imagine a circumstance where a bookmark with an author’s name on it would inspire me to buy a book.

At writers’ conferences, hungry authors hand out their custom-made bookmarks like candy.  “Here, have five of them.”  They litter the swag tables near the registration desk.  Some writers hand them out as business cards.  Think about that last one.  Business cards need to fit into business card-shaped wallet slots. More on that later.

On the other hand, I think that bookmarks are brilliant marketing gimmicks for bookstores themselves.  If I enjoyed the customer service, I would most definitely go back.

Big Box in-store signings.  I avoid them these days.  It’s hard to conceive of a more soul-sucking experience than sitting in the middle of a store, surrounded by stacks of my own books while people avoid eye contact on their way to the science fiction section.  Or maybe the bathroom.  Case in point: early on, I was signing in a Walden Bookstore in a mall–essentially blocking everyone’s entry through the door–when a distressed woman approached me and asked where the manager was because she wanted to return this terrible book.  It was mine.  Ouch.

Book trailers.  These have never made sense to me.  First of all, in my experience, 90-plus percent of book trailers I’ve seen have horrible production values and are ten clicks too self-reverential.  Stock art combined with poor acting and royalty-free music are not effective vectors to direct me to buy a book from an author I don’t know.  Besides, movies and books are entirely different art forms.

Now, let’s shift to the positive, stuff that has worked for me:

Business cards.  I put this at the top just to counter my shot at bookmarks.  Actually, I believe in carrying several business cards–and the design of the cards depends on where a writer is in his or her career.  If you’re new to the business, in that stage where you’re trying to find an agent or a publisher, then I think the business card should be of the standard format: Your name, address, phone number, email–as many ways to reach you as possible.  Because at this stage, your prospective customers are industry people, not the public.

Later, in the time after you’ve got a deal and a career, I believe in two different business cards: One is for industry people or research sources, where you want to make yourself as accessible as possible.  This card will be more or less the same as the one you used in your rookie years.  The second card you need is a “fan” card, one that you hand out to people you meet who want to stay in touch, but fall outside the category of people you want knowing your cell phone number.  To these folks, I hand out a card that introduces me as “John Gilstrap, author of the Jonathan Grave Thriller series”, and gives my contact information as my email address.  That’s plenty.  Oh, and there’s a list on the reverse side of my last 10 titles, more or less.

Something special for every book.  Currently, for Final Target, I’ve laid in a couple hundred pens that are marked with www.johngilstrap.com, and also have a built-in flashlight.  The theory is that when I sign a book, I will hand the buyer the pen with which I signed it.

A high-value giveaway for special people.  Some people need a very special thank-you because they have done something very special to help you out.  They need a cool bit of swag.  For this corner of my universe, I designed the Jonathan Grave Challenge Coin, of which there are very few, and whose distribution I take very seriously.  Follow the link if you think you might be interested in owning one.

Really cool book launch party.  No book-selling event ever pays for itself in real time with book sales.  Not one.  Book events are about giving fans and friends a good time, and providing an opportunity for them to buy a lot of books.  With this in mind, my wife and I budget for a blow-out party that is attendant to the release of every new book.  We’ve thrown parties at restaurants, wineries, coffee shops, and, most recently, at our home.  Roughly a hundred people showed up, and everyone had a terrific time, complete with catered food and open bar.  And the bookseller we brought in to provide the books–One More Page Books in Falls Church, VA–had a very good sales day.   That’s always a good thing.

Another book.  And then another and another . . . This is the best marketing gimmick of all: Write more books.  One of the primary reasons rookie authors find themselves at a disadvantage marketing-wise is that even the most devoted fans have no other books to turn to when they’ve turned the last page of your Opus One.  Having done this for as long as I have, when a fan discovers my writing via, say, the 11th book in my Grave series, they have ten more plus four stand-alones and a nonfiction book to consume before they run dry.  By the time they get through those, I should have a new one out, and the most effective strategy to reach them is to announce the launch of the new book.

What say you, TKZers?  What works and doesn’t work for you as a consumer?  As a writer, what do you find to be worthwhile marketing strategies?


Lee Harvey Oswald and Me

by John Gilstrap

November 22, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of one of my great research obsessions—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Last name notwithstanding, I am of Irish Catholic heritage, and in my house growing up, the Pope and President Kennedy were held in equal esteem. When the news came that the president had been killed, my mother was devastated. I was six at the time, and while I couldn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the crime, I knew that Mom was upset and I found her grief unnerving.

In the years that followed, Mom became quite the conspiracy theorist. She consumed all the books by Garrison and the others, and by extension, I likewise became a conspiracy theorist. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew that there were at least two gunmen and as many as three. I steeped my geeky self in the research, even as I was penning stories on the side. (Look up “babe magnet” in the dictionary. My high school picture is there, labeled, “Not Him.”)

Once I got my acceptance letter to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I realized that freshmen had to write a major research project in their first semester, I knew that JFK’s murder would be my topic. Living in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and working a night job in telephone sales, I was in a perfect position to do primary research at the National Archives downtown. In the morning, I would take the bus to Constitution Avenue, and then I would head inside the massive Archives building to the reading room.

This was 1975. The Zapruder Film had still not been seen by anyone outside of official Washington, and the House Select Committee had not yet convened to re-examine the Warren Commission evidence. This was all new territory for me, and I hoped to forge new territory for my future professors.

Here’s how it worked: I would fill out a sheet of paper for what I wanted to look at, whether Warren Commission documents or FBI interviews, or re-enactment photographs, and then I would hand the sheet to a pretty young clerk-lady, and then she would bring my requests to me. It was table service, and as an 18-year-old with braces on my teeth, this was pretty heady stuff. They even called me Mr. Gilstrap. Very, very classy.

After four or five days of taking up space and making copious notes (no photos allowed, and certainly no copiers), I was sitting at my spot at a study table when the cart full of stuff I ordered arrived not with a pretty clerk at the helm, but rather it was pushed by an old guy.

“Mr. Gilstrap,” he said.

I thought I was in trouble. “Yes, sir.”

“You’ve been the source of a lot of curiosity here,” he said. He then went on to introduce himself as Marion Johnson, the curator of the JFK exhibit at the National Archives. He observed that they didn’t often see someone my age being such a dedicated researcher.

I explained to him about the paper I had to write, and about my family’s obsession with all things assassination-related. He seemed interested, and then he said, “Come with me. I think I have some items that you might be interested in.”

I followed him into the bowels of the old building, into a large locked storage room that was under-lit, and stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and file cabinets. “This is all of it,” Mr. Johnson explained. “This is our John F. Kennedy exhibit.”

I don’t remember the place itself well enough to give dimensions, and at the time, I didn’t have a frame of reference, but the room housed a lot of stuff. When he unlocked an area within the storage room that was set off from the rest by a chain link barrier, I knew I was in for something special. Mr. Johnson pulled a wooden case off of a shelf and placed it on a clear spot in an otherwise cluttered table. He donned a pair of cotton gloves and handed me another pair. When the snaps on the box opened and he lifted the cover of the box, I realized right away that I was looking at a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 millimeter rifle bearing the serial number C-2766.

That was Oswald’s rifle.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

“You can lift it,” he said. “That’s all.”

That was plenty. At age 18, I got to hold the rifle that killed John F. Kennedy.

I noticed the .38 caliber pistol that was also in the box. “Is that the gun that killed Tippitt?” I asked. J.D. Tippitt was a Dallas police officer who Oswald shot to death shortly after the assassination.

“It is,” Mr. Johnson said. “But you can’t touch that one.” It seemed rude to ask why, and to this day, I don’t know.

From there, Mr. Johnson led me to a smaller room—a double room, really, with a few chairs on my side, and then a second room I was not allowed to enter that was separated from mine by a glass panel. It reminded me of the perp interview room in every cop show.

“Have a seat,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’re going to see something that very few others have seen.”

Within a minute, it became clear that the room on the other side of the glass was a projection booth. The lights dimmed, and then the screen on the far end came to life with the Zapruder film. Now that those few seconds documenting the fatal shots are so ubiquitous, it’s difficult to explain how thrilling—how heart-stoppingly shocking—it was to watch the events unfold in that little room. There’s no sound on the film, and there was no sound in the room—not even the clacking of the 8mm projector, thanks to the glass—as the motorcade swung the turn from Houston Street onto Elm, and then disappeared behind the traffic sign, where a still-unknown stranger opened his umbrella.

When the president’s limousine emerged from behind the sign, I watched his hands rise to his throat, just as they had in the countless stills I had seen of that moment. Jackie looked over, concerned, and then the top of the president’s head vaporized. Having by then seen stills of Frame 313 of the Zapruder film, I knew about the eruption of brain and bone, but those stills did not prepare me for the violence of it in real time.

I had held the gun that inflicted that wound.

I left the Archives impressed yet shaken that afternoon, and I was more fully emboldened to do my research the way it was supposed to be done. I stated above that I was a telephone salesman during the evenings, hawking Army Times magazine to people who loved to hang up on salesmen who sounded like they were eighteen years old. I hated that job, but it gave me access to a WATS Line, which was a huge deal back in the day—long distance phone calls to anywhere for very little cost. Extraordinarily little cost to me since I wasn’t paying for the service.

Abusing the largesse of my employer (who subsequently fired me, not that I cared), I was able to find and call the key players from the assassination at their homes, and like the staff at the National Archives, they were each impressed that someone my age would be so dedicated to a research project. Among the people I interviewed for that paper were Admiral J.J. Hume, USN (ret.), who performed JFK’s autopsy, Malcolm Perry, the Emergency Room physician who treated the president when he arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital, and Cyril Wecht, MD, a forensic pathologist from Pittsburgh, who was a serious critic of the Warren Commission’s processes and conclusions. We’re talking long interviews, here, and not one of them ever lost patience with me—not even Admiral Hume, when I asked him what he thought about the accusations that he had botched the autopsy. His answer to that question, in fact, left an impression on me. He painted a picture of enormous pressure and emotion that I have later come to see as similar to the so-called fog of war. They were, after all, human, and the ravaged body of the president of the United States lay naked on a steel slab. I realized what a horrible moment that must have been for everyone in an official capacity.

By summer’s end in 1975, I had already made good progress on my paper. As I recall, it weighed in at something like thirty pages, and it contained photographs ordered from the National Archives, and the content of the multiple interviews that I had performed. When my mother read the paper, she was less than pleased by my conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman—a conclusion I stand by today, and which has been reinforced by every bit of reliable new evidence that has since been released.

When I turned the paper in, I had no idea that it would nearly get me thrown out of college before I finished my first semester. My professor, Mr. Greene, as I recall, did not believe that a college freshman would do that level of research, and he called me in my dormitory to tell me that he was reporting me to the Honor Council. It took nearly three hours on the phone to convince him otherwise, defending every quote that I collected on my own, and every conclusion I drew.

In the end, I got an A.


On Vacation

by John Gilstrap

Good morning, everyone.  It was my intent to have a compelling piece posted here this morning on the topic of marketing.  In fact, the title of the piece is “Always Be Marketing.”  But here’s the thing: I’m on vacation, and the current draft kind of sucks.

So, rather than posting something that is sucky, I thought I’d take this week off.  See you in two, with a well-considered and edited piece on marketing.  Happy Independence Day!


Tell the Damn Story

By John Gilstrap

Building on PJ Parrish’s post from yesterday, it occurs to me that the casual discussion of writing poses many false dichotomies.  Is your work character-driven or plot driven?  Is it about action or about vivid storytelling?  If your story meets its potential, the answer to all of the above is simply, “Yes.”

I also hear a lot about rules that don’t really exist.  We all know that prologues are a mistake–unless they work.  We know that we should never start with the weather or with backstory.  Bull.  Anything that works for the story will work for the reader.  Countless works of successful fiction break the rules, thus proving that the rules were never truly rules in the first place.  Take a hard look at the latter Harry Potter books.  While I am an unapologetic devotee of Harry and his exploits, there is no objective evaluation of the prose itself that could rate it any higher than average-plus.  JK Rowling never found an adverb that she didn’t like, and she’s quite the fan of passive sentence construction.  A TKZ First Page Critique would not make her happy.

Yet her books work–really, really work.  Why?  Because the story and the characters are so compelling that we’re willing to overlook some of the basic mechanics.

When I teach writing seminars–as I will next month at the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University, and again on August 5 at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC–I reveal two basic truths that I hold dear: 1) that no one can teach a person to write; and 2) that successful writers get out of their heads and out of their own way and just tell the damn story.

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none.  Some people are not wired for storytelling.  I say this from the point of view of a writer who is entirely self-taught and was driven by my unblinking desire to make my writing better by reading the works of others and dissecting them.  And I whole-heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all.

Some of the most creatively constipated writers I’ve ever spoken with have spent gobs of money over the years attending writing classes, yet paradoxically have few stories–and often no books–to show for it.  I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they believe in the rules and the dichotomies.  They value perfect sentence construction over compelling characters.  In short, they spend too much time stressing over getting it right when maybe they’d have been better off if they’d just gotten it written.

In my own case, my “first” book–the first to be published–was in fact the fourth book I’d written.  Those other three were my own private master class in fiction.  But the single biggest difference between Nathan’s Run and its unpublished predecessors is that that was my first effort to forget about WRITING A BOOK (read that with a rolled R) and instead tell the story the way I would tell it orally, using the same turns of phrase and the same rather cynical squint that pretty much defines my worldview.  As I wrote each scene, and I found that I liked them, I began to realize that I’d discovered that elusive “voice” that people always talk about.

At that point–before agents or sales–there was no way for me to know if the book was any good, but I knew that it was exactly the book I wanted it to be, exactly the book I’d set out to write.  And because I have always been a voracious reader, I had enough confidence (hubris?) to believe that it was as good or better than any book I’d read that year.

A good part of this writing biz is about attitude, I think.  It’s about believing from your own experience that the book you’ve written is exactly the book you want it to be.  If you know its close and you know what’s wrong–or at least you think you do–then by all means workshop the manuscript and attend classes and seek guidance.  Similarly, if you want to be introduced to the basics of the craft–the literary equivalent of learning how miter joints in carpentry–then classes and workshops are a terrific resource.

But never lose sight of the fact that if you truly believe that a scene or a chapter or a whole story is exactly what you want it to be, yet others in your group disagree, only one name goes on the spine.  Only in workshops do people sit down to read with an eye toward nit-picking and changing things.  In the real world, when people sit down to read, they have every expectation of a good story well told.

Don’t let them down.



Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight

By John Gilstrap

Let’s get back to talking about how to kill people.  It is, after all, what our characters do, right?  This week, the topic is knife fighting.

That’s a pig carcass wrapped in a leather jacket (the one on the right).

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to train on guns and knives with Steve Tarani, whose martial arts skills are the stuff of legend.   My most recent training was about a year ago at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, where I spent a week training with carbines, pistols and . . . wait for it . . . knives.  While I’ve done a lot of shooting in the past, this was my first exposure to knife fighting, and it was, frankly, terrifying.  As you might imagine, on the pistol and carbine courses, there’s no shooting at each other, but when it came to the knife sessions, there was sparring among the students, albeit with practice knives.  In part because Tarani and I are friends–and in part because my nickname was “Writer Boy”–I was frequently called out to be the victim during demonstrations.  The most embarrassing of those episodes was when Tarani disarmed me and “killed” me with my own knife before I even knew he’d moved.

The 21-Foot Rule

Same pig carcass but with an overhand thrust.

A long time ago someone did research to show that within 7 yards, and attacker with a knife can close the distance and kill a skilled shooter before the shooter can clear his gun from his holster.  Our class proved that to be a bogus number.  The real number is closer to 30 feet, and once the attacker with knife skills is within arm’s length, the shooter doesn’t have a chance.

Fair Warning: It gets a bit gruesome from here.  While there are no upsetting pictures, there are some toe-curling concepts.  Read on at your own risk.

Once you’re close enough to touch your gun-wielding opponent, slash the tendons of his wrist and the guy can no longer hold his weapon.  We were taught to next slash his eyes to blind him.  From there, it’s a matter of evaluating the threat.  If he’s done, then so are you, but if he’s still got fight in him, you go for the kill.

The (Other) Kill Zones

A knife fight is an exercise in exsanguination.  The last one to bleed out is the “winner”. Thus, knife fighting is geared toward severing major blood vessels.  Arteries produce a more crippling blood flow than veins, but they arteries lay buried significantly deeper in the body than veins.  To get to an artery, then, you’ve really got to want it.  To sever the carotids, for example, we were taught to start the strike with the fist of your knife hand in direct contact with the victim’s neck and push through.  Same thing with the femoral arteries, which made for some awkward posturing while sparring.

Best access to the subclavian arteries is via the arm pits.  Like the carotids, they branch directly off the aorta, but I found the armpit thrusts difficult to execute.  There’s also a belly thrust that will take you through the navel to the abdominal aorta, but it involved the assistance of a knee strike to get the blade deep enough, so we didn’t practice it.

Defensive Moves

While all of the above applies to defense against a lethal attack, we were taught potentially less lethal moves to be employed if we’re more interested in discouraging an attack than engaging in one.

The Windmill. Say you’re at the bus stop with your kid or your mom or with your significant other, and that skeezy guy who’s been eyeballing you approaches in an unsettling way.  You tell him forcefully to stay away, yet he keeps coming.  You want to break off the encounter, and you certainly don’t want to fight the guy.  This is where the move I call “the windmill” comes in (if Tarani gave it a real name, I don’t remember what it was).  You draw and open your locking blade folding knife–if you don’t carry one, I think you should–and hold it in a thumb-support or fencer’s grip (the blade on the thumb end of your fist, not the pinky end) and as you back away, you make slashing motions in the air.  Big figure X’s at face-to-shoulder level.  You tell him over and over to stay away.  No sane person would walk into that razor-sharp windmill.

Which brings us to The Filet.  So, Mr. Skeeze keeps coming and he gets a hand around your free arm or he gets a fistful of your clothing.  You bring the edge of your blade down perpendicular to his arm bone and dig deep.  Then, in one fast, continuous motion, you pivot your blade to be flat against the bone and you slice from wrist to elbow, separating the flesh and muscle tissue of his arm completely off the bone.  I’m told it’s not a fatal wound, but goodness gracious it would be an ugly one.

Zero Resistance

On the final day of classes, Steve Tarani brought in a bunch of pig carcasses and dressed them up in clothes from all seasons.  Pigs in T-shirts, pigs in leather jackets, that sort of thing.  The point was to employ the lessons of sparring with real blades on actual flesh and bone.

While I always carry a sharp knife, I’m not obsessive about the edge.  I certainly couldn’t shave with the blade.  So I was surprised–shocked, actually–by the ease with which I could slash through the heaviest clothing all the way through the carcass’s thoracic cavity.  On one of my slashes, in fact, I thought I had whiffed it, only to find out that I’d gone through to the bone.

Now I Need Input

I’m told sometimes that my filter for that-which-is-disgusting is out of sync with those of normal people.  If posts like this are a step too far into the violent side of reality, I can tone them back. All input is welcome.

And I have mentioned that I have a YouTube channel called A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.  Feel free to visit and subscribe!




Endings Really Matter

By John Gilstrap

I just finished a book that was sent to me in search of a blurb.  It was one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve read in a long time, and because the publisher was on tight time constraints, I gave the book a rave blurb when I was only about three-quarters of the way through.  I mean, this was a pulse-pounder.

Until the last 30 pages.

“Before you kill me, you’ve got to tell me why you did it, and how all of your compatriots fit into the puzzle.”  Okay, it wasn’t that on-the-nose, but it was close.  Such a disappointment.  I don’t regret the blurb, and I would read the author again because of the exciting 9/10 of the storytelling, but I really felt let down.  And no, I won’t share the book title or the author because I don’t think that would be fair.

Folks, this show-don’t-tell trope holds from the beginning of a story all the way through to the last page.  I think that writers sometimes get tired of their own stories, or they’re leaning face-first into the fan blades of a submission deadline and they sort of eject from the plot and characters, settling for, “Well, it’s good enough.”

And you know what? I get that.  I’ll readily forgive that of an author I’ve followed and whose works I enjoy, provided it’s a one-off.  I’ll write it off as their Mulligan book, their bye.  But at that point, they’re on notice.  The next book better be up to standard, or they lose their spot on the TBR pile.

This is why the bar is set especially high for new writers.  Rookies don’t get a Mulligan on their first swing.  They’ve got to slam that baby three hundred yards straight down the fairway.


Um . . . oops

By John Gilstrap

I, um, forgot.  See, I’m late on a deadline for an anthology submission, and I’ve got two interviews to write up in support of next month’s release of Final Target, and I retreated down the rabbit hole that is The World of John, where there is no light, no sound.

I even checked TKZ this morning, and finding yesterday’s post still up, I wondered if someone had dropped the ball.  Didn’t occur to me that I was the fumbler until I got an email from a TKZ colleague asking if this was, in fact, my day to post.  See, the thing is, in a shared blog like this, I guess we’re all on the feather edge of, “Oh, shit, did I forget?” so when something goes wrong, we instinctively worry that we’re at fault. With the occasional exception, it seems, of the person who actually is at fault.

So, this one’s all on me.  Sorry, folks.  Now, back down the rabbit hole . . .


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The Secret to Effective Research Is . . .

By John Gilstrap

Last Friday, I spent the better part of seven hours hanging out with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team at their headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.  In addition to getting a tour of the facilities, I got a peek into their tactics, and, most importantly, into the new technology that has evolved for breaching all kinds of doors, from residential to ship-board to prisons.  Given the focus of my Jonathan Grave series, it’s hard to conceive of a day better spent.

Which brings me to the question, how did I stumble into this opportunity?  Which, in turn, triggers the question, how does a writer access research information that will make his books believable?

Okay, here it is, the secret to worthwhile research: Listen and ask questions.

Here’s how the HRT gig originated.  I was on a flight coming home from the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, and the guy in the seat next to me was reading a book by a friend of mine.  I asked him to hold up the book and smile so I could take a picture of him with the book and send it to my friend.  The guys seemed a little put off by my request, but when I explained the circumstance, he agreed to pose, and then shared with me that he was friends with the author’s brother.

Let’s call the guy with the book Mike.

It didn’t take long for the conversation with Mike to morph into my own line of work as a writer, and yada, yada, a connection was made.  Mike has a certain tactical look about him.  Forty years old, give or take five years, he’s got the physique of an operator and sports a battle beard.  I presumed that he, too, was returning from the SHOT Show, but he told me that he was not.  He was in Vegas for other business, but had dropped into the show for an hour or two.  I’m hearing code at this point: He’s spooky, but doesn’t want to talk about it.  Okay, that’s cool.

More conversation revealed that he lives fairly near me, and that he works at Quantico.  There are only two “industries” in Quantico, Virginia.  One is the United States Marine Corps and the other is the FBI.  When I asked Mike when the Marine Corps started allowing beards, he smiled.


We talked about books and about the writing process, and when I told him what I wrote, he lit up.  He is a fan of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction book about the rescue of Kurt Muse.  More conversation.  It wasn’t till we traded contact information at the end of the flight that I found out that Mike was with HRT.  Our parting conversation was about coming down to Quantico for a tour, and now, several months later, that’s what we did.

Two weeks previous to my exploits with HRT, I was in Austin, Texas with a former SEAL friend–also met at the SHOT Show, but several years ago–who taught me the ins and outs of modern night vision technology.  On that flight home, I sat next to a guy whose specialty was defending against explosive and chemical weapons threats posed by standard commercial aerial drones.  I hadn’t given that a lot of thought, but wow.  I learned about jamming technologies, about what was legal in the continental US and what was not.  In that case, once he learned that I was a writer, he clammed up.  But that was okay.  I had germs of thought that intrigued me.

One of the most common questions I receive from fans and readers deals with how I learn what I know.  These two anecdotes are merely examples of dozens of others over the years.  People love to talk about what they do and how they do it.  Since I’m not a reporter with a notebook, most speak freely because I have assured them that I wish only enough information on a topic to not embarrass myself in front of knowledgeable readers.  I am genuinely interested in what they tell me, and that interest tends to trigger more detail.

If you want to know how doctors talk and behave in clinical settings, volunteer to work at your local hospital and get to know people.  Talk to them.  Ditto cops, firefighters, or any number of other professionals whose careers are interesting (yet nowhere near as interesting in real life as we imagine them to be).  Go where they are and hang out.  Listen.  When an opportunity arises, ask an honest question from an honest place.  Don’t take notes.  Chat them up.

I think you’ll be pleased with the response.


First Page Critique: NUTTER BODINE

Bu John Gilstrap

Another brave soul has stepped up to the plate and volunteered for a First Page Critique.  The Italics are all mine, just to separate the author’s text from my comments, which appear on the far side.  Here we go . . .


’tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free

     Eighteenth century Shaker song


“I think I killed someone.”

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

Out at his desk, Gus Temple, made the “crazy” sign with his finger, careful to make sure the big man didn’t see him. Will Ed frowned at him, but the skinny dispatcher just grinned.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

Will Edd took a sip from his warm Dr. Pepper, sighed and said, “Come on in, Arvil.”

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

First the good:

There’s a lot here to like.  The first line is everything a first line should be. It’s short, to the point and engaging.  I get a real sense of place, a sense of atmosphere.  The writing is journeyman like (that’s a compliment), though it needs tightening (see below).  It’s a compelling setup.  If the point of a first page is to drive the reader to turn to the second page, then this is a success.  Except . . .

Now let’s talk about strengthening the already-strong writing:

Not what Police Chief Will Edd Pruitt wanted or needed to hear first thing on a scorching hot Monday morning with the department’s A/C on the fritz. He’d positioned an oscillating fan next to his desk, but it only made his small office feel like a convection oven.

  1. Is his middle name Edd or Ed? You present it both ways.
  2. Pruitt just heard some startling news, yet he’s more concerned about the heat and the fan.  I’m not sure I buy it, but I’m thinking like a critiquer (critic?), not a reader. If this were from an author I liked, it would not be a deal breaker because I would assume that the author wanted me to think Pruitt is something of a prick.  If that’s not your point, consider changing it.
  3. “Scorching hot” is superfluously redundant. Pick one, drop the other.
  4. “He’d positioned…” Who’s “he”?

He silently cursed Jim Beam for last night, and waited for the caffeine and four aspirins to kick in. His eyes hurt as he tried to focus on the giant standing in the doorway to his office. He was shirtless, wore faded, grime-stained bib overalls meant for a much smaller person, and his sockless feet were stuffed into laceless brogans. His square head reminded Will Edd of Boris Karloff in the old Frankenstein movie.

  1. The adverb in the first sentence weakens it, and the second part of the sentence weakens it further.  Consider: “He cursed Jim Beam for last night. The caffeine and four aspirins hadn’t kicked in yet.” Maybe it’s just my style, but I think breaking the one sentence into two strengthens them both.
  2. I think you need to give the giant man a name in this paragraph.  Consider: “. . .  in the doorway. Arvil LeRoy Bodeen.  He was . . .”  Note I deleted “to his office” because we already know that.
  3. Sentence construction that begins, “He was . . .” is inherently weak.  Consider, “Shirtless, he’d stuffed his sockless feet into laceless brogans.  Faded, grime-stained bib overalls barely contained the man’s girth, making Will Edd wonder if the man had dressed himself in someone else’s clothes.”  By eliminating the passive voice, the images become more vivid and the prose snaps a little more.

His name was Arvil LeRoy Bodeen, and he wasn’t crazy, just slow—— the result of a teen-age mother who consoled her unwanted pregnancy by snorting meth and drinking cheap wine. His eyes darted nervously around the room like a frightened kid on his first visit to the dentist.

  1. By introducing Arvil’s name earlier, you eliminate the need for more passive construction.  Consider: “Arvil wasn’t crazy, just slow . . .”
  2. This whole sentence, from Pruitt’s POV, presumes knowledge of backstory that doesn’t jibe with future paragraphs. Knowing about the unwanted pregnancy and the meth is pretty personal stuff.
  3. I would end the final sentence of this graph at “room”.  The simile about the frightened kid seems over-worked. (That is a simile, right?)

Arvil LeRoy Bodeen lumbered in and plopped down in the visitor’s chair. It groaned in protest. In the closeness of the room, the smell that rolled off him was a mixture of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits. Will Ed scooted his chair back as far as he could and tried to breathe through his mouth.

  1. More passive construction. Not bad, per se, but not strong to my ear. Consider: “A toxic bouquet of cheap booze, old vomit and unwashed armpits made Will Edd’s eyes water.  He scooted . . .”

“My friends call me Nutter,” Arvil Leroy Bodeen said, his voice seeming too high pitched for his massive body. “You can too, if you want.” 

Will Ed doubted the man had any friends. He frightened the women and scared the men. Over the years, the town had learned to accept him as they would a stray mongrel—— let it sleep under your porch, but never let it into the house.

“How ‘bout I just call you Arvil?”

“Okay, but you can still be my friend.”

  1. This is the part that confuses me.  Does the chief know him or not? That equation needs to be equalized somehow.
  2. Also, is it necessary to use all three of Arvil’s names at every mention? It feels awkward to me.

Fearless Writer, congratulations on a fine start.  These edits are of a polishing nature.  You done good.

What say you, TKZers?