So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

By John Gilstrap

I tell my students in writing classes that you know it’s time to stop writing when you’ve run out of things to say. It seems reasonable that what applies to fiction should likewise apply to blogging, and thus, this is my final post as an active duty Killzoner. It’s been close to three years, which means something along the lines of 150 Friday posts, and, frankly, I worry that I have begun to repeat myself. Y’all deserve better than that.

As one of the founding members of this corner of cyberspace, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I value each of the friendships I’ve developed over that time, both real and virtual. I feel as though I’ve come to know our regular posters, and I hope that we continue to communicate. To reach out directly, please feel free to email me at john@johngilstrap.com. I really do answer every email I get, though sometimes I’m admittedly a little slow.

If you’ve got some spare time, I hope you’ll make a chance to visit www.johngilstrap.com and join my mailing list. I don’t send out a lot of newsletters, but when I do, I work hard to make them short, relevant and interesting. Also, I encourage everyone to “like” my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/johngilstrapauthor. When I get the urge to write a blog-like essay, that’s where I’ll be posting it. And, of course, there’s my Twitter account, @johngilstrap; but I must confess that the usefulness of Twitter continues to elude me. (That semicolon was for you, Mr. Bell.)

I should point out that I’m really not going anywhere. I’ll continue to be a regular visitor to TKZ, and I’m sure I’ll be adding a few cents-worths from time to time.

It’s been a privilege, folks. For those of you who write, keep writing.  Never lose sight of the dream and remember my mantra that failure can never be inflicted upon another person. It has to be declared by oneself.

And for heaven’s sake, keep reading.

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My Unsettling View on Self-Publishing

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, my Killzone mate Clare Langley-Hawthorne asked how prolific a writer should be, to which a commenter responded, unprovoked, “. . . you can always just go indie/self pub yourself . . . Of course, then you wouldn’t be able to post about how self-pub writers are ruining it for the ‘real’ writers.”

Oh, please.

On this, my penultimate post as a Killzone blogger, I want to dedicate my precious slice of cyberspace to a toxic trend that has really begun to bug me: the tyranny of self-righteous do-it-yourselfers. More specifically, I want to say my piece on why I continue to believe that self-publishing is an expensive road to frustration and failure, particularly for writers who do not have an established base of readers.

First, let’s define success. For me, that means thousands of books sold. If a few dozen to a few hundred is your ultimate goal, then self-publishing is your only option. No traditional publisher is going to invest their cash in such a tiny career.

Second, let’s establish the parameters of my argument: For my purposes here, my argument does not apply to anyone who has previously published books through traditional publishing. The sagas of Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler and others with established readerships have no relevance.

Charlatans Prey On Dreams

With the birth of the cheap-n-easy eBook, charlatans with dreams to sell are rising like weeds to capitalize on the desires of under-cooked writers to see their words in print(ish).

They’re all over the Internet, and they remind me of carnival barkers: “It’ll only cost you a few hundred dollars here, and a thousand there, but ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll follow my blog and buy my book and hire the editors I recommend, I guarantee that your book will be on a cyber shelf where millions of people can see it if they know to look for it. Don’t be fooled by those predatory publishers who take the lion’s share of your money! Come with me, and I’ll only take 30% for doing nothing and taking no risk.”

Deals don’t come sweeter than that. For the self-pub conduit.

Here it is for the record: 1. Not all self published books are crap. In fact, some of them are very good. Of those that are very good, the vast, vast majority are written by journeyman writers who have had experience in the traditionally-published world. 2. Not all proponents of self-publishing are hucksters, and neither are all freelance editors. Though some kind of warning label would be helpful.

I get all of that. I really do. But none of these factors make self-published freelancers any more courageous, noble or dedicated to their craft than those who do things the old fashioned way.

Desire Does Not Equal Talent and Persistence

I respect anyone who can squeeze some coin out of any corner of the entertainment business. There’s a guy outside the parking garage at the Vienna Metro Station in Northern Virginia who seems to enjoy the daylights out of playing hymns on his saxophone to greet customers on their way home after a long day. More times than not, there are a few bucks in his open case, so I concede that he is a professional musician. He may well be the best musician his family has seen in generations.

But he will never get a recording contract, no matter how much he really wanted one. It’s a talent thing. Or maybe it’s a training thing. Either way, I wager that traditionally-compensated musicians lose no sleep worrying that this guy and his subway-playing buddies might “ruin” the business for them.

As has been demonstrated in this very blog many times over the years we’ve done our First Page Critiques, a solid proportion of works whose authors felt confident enough to submit them are nowhere near ready for prime time. Like it or not, folks, writers like these represent most of what sits on self-published shelves. I say this with confidence because they represent the bulk of work proudly submitted to every amateur writing contest I have ever judged.

Yes, there are exceptions, and it you’re one of them, you deserve better company. But every time a reader takes a chance on a free download or views a free sample and learns how awful most of the choices are, the odds are stacked even more heavily against every other independently published author.

Self-published authors don’t threaten to ruin anything for the traditionally-published authors. They threaten to ruin each other by association. It has been that way since the very early days of vanity presses, only now the barriers to entry are lower. That means there’s more awfulness in play than ever before.

Freelance Editors Can Only Help A Little

Big Publishing editors reject authors who just don’t have the chops. Freelance editors adopt them as cash cows. Big Publishing editors stake their reputations and their mortgages on quality. Freelance editors live on process and improvement. I’m not suggesting malfeasance—ethics are tied to individuals, not to professions—but the difference in motivations is significant. There’s a world of difference between making a work better and making it publishable.

And how many freelance editors will reject a project outright?

Commonly Accepted Falsehoods

All too often, the debate about the merits of self-publishing are driven specious assumptions. Among them:

Standard eBook royalties dwell in the neighborhood of 17%. Not so, if you have an agent who is worth her salt. The true number is (or at least can be) much, much higher.

Agents are a thing of the past. Also false. (See above.)

Traditional publishers are irrelevant at best, dying at worst. This is simply not true. Their business model may be shaken, but every single one of them is adapting. When the dust settles, the public will be hungry for anti-dreck gatekeepers, and the keys will be in the hands of publishers. There might be different names on the doors, but the route to success will still be guided by professionals who know what they’re doing.

A 70% self-pubbed royalty is the route to riches. This is the most specious argument of all. Sure, at that rate, a book priced at $2.99 earns the author $2.09 for every sale. That’s a significant sum until you throw in the recent data that the average self-published eBook earns its author less than $500. That translates to fewer than 240 books sold, despite all the blogging and the book trailers and the social media stuff the author put into selling them. Seventy percent of very little is even less.

Think Value, Not Cash

Time has value, too. One of the reasons why publishers give smaller royalties is because they’ve already paid the author cash up front in the form of an advance that is going to be far north of $500. And that’s money the author never has to give back. Meanwhile, the publisher also pays for the cover art, layout, marketing, advance readers copies, catalogue copy, and the million other moving parts that give a book a chance at life.

Yes, publicity departments are shrinking and the pressure is increasing for authors to do more of their own publicity, but by working through a publisher, that work by the author is launched from a platform that is orders of magnitude more expansive than anything a first-timer could launch on his own.

I’m Not Trying to Run Any Author’s Life

Let me be clear: My point is not to rain on people’s parades. Everybody has a right to spend their money however they want, and everyone gets to define “writer” and “published” by their personal favorite lexicon. My opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s.

But if you’re a writer who has faith in your talent, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to exhaust all the traditional routes before you even consider the self-publishing dream that for so many has become a self-publishing nightmare.

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Pixar Story Rules

By John Gilstrap

My son, Chris, sent me an interesting set of writing rules that he found in a blog called The Pixar Touch.  It presents one storyteller’s view on how to create compelling stories.  Here it is in its entirety:

Pixar story artist Emma Coats has tweeted a series of “story basics” over the past month and a half — guidelines that she learned from her more senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I think this is about as complete a list of “rules” (even though there are no rules in a creative endeavor) as I’ve ever seen.  What do you think?

==

P.S., I learned yesterday that Damage Control made the USA Today Bestseller List.  Yay!

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Leave Your Warm-Up in the Gym

By John Gilstrap

Week before last, I had the honor of serving on the staff of the Writing Away Retreat in beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado, where we awoke to snow, only to have it melt in the 70-degree afternoon sunshine. 

Here’s how it works: Twenty writers (as many as 31, actually) gather in this massive mansion of a house just off Main Street, where they spend five days together in the most nurturing, creative environment that I have experienced outside of teaching I used to do at Virginia’s Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts.  Cicily Janus, the Retreat’s creator and hostess, is a gourmet chef who creates outstanding meals out of only fresh and natural foods.  We’re not talking granola and seeds here, folks, but rather fresh beef, fresh eggs, fresh fruit and vegetables.  Mac-n-cheese lunch day is a nearly religious experience.

As faculty—a position I shared with a number of other professional writers, editors and literary agents—my job was to critique 10,000-word submissions from the attending writers.  That accounted for a few hours of every day, and the rest of the time allowed me to write nearly thirty pages of HIGH TREASON, my Grave book for 2013.  I confess that it was a little intimidating to consider offering an honest critique and then dining and partying with the people on the other end, but I was thrilled to see that this was a group of realists, who understand that honest criticism is part of the writing journey.

As far as I can tell, no one ever turned on a television, unless it was in their private bedroom (this is a BIG house), and every attendee found the inspiration they needed to take the next step forward on their manuscript.  Folks, if given the opportunity to attend one of these events, I recommend that you pounce on the opportunity.  (I have no idea what people pay to attend, but when you factor in the four-star lodging and five-star food, I’m sure it’s worth the price.)  I will forever have fond memories of the alcohol-infused marathon 8-Ball tournament with Andre, Signe and Eric.  I’m sure I didn’t win, but I have no idea who did.

There’s a talent bell curve in any event like this, but I have to say that overall, I was highly impressed with the level of talent among the students.  Two stories in particular have what I think is tremendous commercial potential.

While strengths and weaknesses vary, though, nearly 100% of the submissions shared the same weakness: a first-chapter digression to backstory.  They’d launch with a terrific hook, they’d get some good momentum going, and then they’d slam on the brakes to tell me stuff that I really didn’t need to know.  The rationale was always the same: “I need the reader to understand where my character is coming from.”  Or some variation thereof.

No, they don’t the reader needs to be pulled along by compelling real-time, on-stage action.  Motivation can wait.  Motivation can always wait.

We all do it, folks.  very writer on the planet makes the same mistakes.  What separates the professionals from the hopefuls is the ruthless, critical eye that allows us to carve up our beloved creations with a dull machete.

Of the submissions I critiqued, a full 30% included the recommendation to kill the first chapter and start with the second.  In one case, I suggested that the book start on page 25.  It’s as if we address the daunting task of writing a book with 2,500 words of warm-up.  Twenty-five hundred words of tuning.  Rehearsal, maybe.  That’s fine.  Whatever gets the creative juices flowing.

And now that the juices are flowing, erase the rehearsal from your recording CD.

**

Okay, now there’s one bit of shameless self-promotion (as if I need to burden you with more of that).  I learned earlier this week that Threat Warning was nominated for a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.  It’s one of the big ones, and I’m totally jazzed.

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Lift-Off

By John Gilstrap

If you wander into your local Barnes & Noble this weekend, you will, with luck, trip over the copies of Damage Control that are stacked in racks near the front of the store.  It’s launch time, and I’m thrilled to report that B&N has taken a big position on the book.  They’ve also posted the Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal videos I talked about in last week’s post.

And yes, today’s post is going to be pure, breathless, shameless self-promotion. It only happens once a year, folks, so please hang in there with me.  Onward . . .

If you check the book section of USA Today next week (or maybe it’s the following week), you’ll see an ad for the book.  USAToday.com, too.  And lots of other places.

Are you a subscriber to Goodreads.com?  If so, in the next few weeks, you’ll see this ad:

Damage-Control-Ad (1)

I love that ad.  It was designed by MJ Rose with Authorbuzz.  Folks, if you’ve got a few extra bucks in your pocket for promotion, I highly recommend you give her a shout.  I’ve used her with great success for all of the Grave books, and she’s really good at what she does.

Now, all that has to happen is for the stars to align, for people to like Damage Control and tell all their friends.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.  And next week, I promise I’ll be back to regularly blogging.

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Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal

By John Gilstrap
My next book, Damage Control, hits the stands on June 5.  In this edition of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, Jonathan steps into a trap when he and Boxers travel to Mexico to rescue a busload of missionaries from the hands of a drug cartel.  Someone in Washington betrays him on what should have been a routine ransom drop-off, and the result is a lot of dead hostages and kidnappers.  As Jonathan and Boxers escape with the lone survivor, the cartel and their sponsors in Washington move heaven and earth to stop him.  Publishers Weekly gave the book a glowing review, and I’m pleased to report that my publisher, Kensington, is pulling out some new stops in the promotion department.
One of the coolest things I’ve been asked to do is a video blog that brings readers deeper into Jonathan’s world.  I’m calling it “Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal.”  In two-minute segments, I’ll give overviews and demonstrations of the weapons Jonathan has at his disposal.  So far, I’ve completed videos highlighting Heckler and Koch’s 5.56 mm HK416 (designated the M27 by the US Marines), the Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber pistol, and the Mossberg 12 gauge shotgun.  By the time I’m done, the series will cover, at a minimum, the 7.62 mm HK 417 and the amazing 4.6 mm HK MP7.  I’d like to do some episodes on explosives, too, but I haven’t yet figured out the logistics of that, what with all those pesky ATF rules.
While I’ve written a few movies over the past decade or so, I haven’t actually shot one in a long time.  The last time I edited a film, I used a home version of a Moviola, literally cutting the film and splicing it with tape. 
When first approached about this video blog thing, I had no idea how I was going to do it.  Sure, I have a digital camera that shoots video, but I’d never actually shot video with it.  Plus, since talking heads are boring—and, in my case, shiny—I knew I’d want to do cutaways.
Well, lo and behold, my Windows 7 program comes complete with Microsoft Movie Maker, an editing program that is way more powerful than I would have imagined.  More than adequate for my needs.  You simply drag the segments you want to work with to the work window, and you can make precise cuts. 
With the first episode in the can, as it were, my next challenge was figuring out what the hell to do with the 60MB files.  They’d choke anybody’s email server.  Enter: YouSendIt.com.  For $149 a year, you can email an unlimited number of HUGE files to people.  The Kensington team is thrilled with the results.
My only frustration—and I’m turning to you dear Killzoners for help—is how to do voiceovers in Movie Maker.  From what I can tell, on the digital recording, the audio track and the video track are all together.  Is this correct?
Jonathan Grave’s Arsenal” will be exclusive to Barnes & Noble for the first few weeks of its existence, but then I’ll add it to my website and upload it to YouTube.
I feel a new obsession coming on.  I deeply don’t need another obsession.

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First Page Critique: END POINT

First the submission, and then my input: 
END POINT 
Mason Boll leaned forward in the driver’s seat of the van, squinting to get a better view of his target. Twenty yards away the focus of his attention—a tall, gangly youth named Brett Feinman—was chatting with a girl at the corner of two residential streets in a tony section of Santa Monica. The girl seemed to be doing all the talking. Feinman was mostly listening. Periodically he cast shy glances down at the sidewalk.  The girl wore a smug, flirty smile, as if she relished her power over the kid. She kept leaning in, touching his arm for emphasis.
Mason’s orders were clear: grab Feinman off the street and deliver him as promised. Today’s job would pay handsomely: well into five figures, with a promise of more to come. For that kind of money his employer demanded that everything go without a hitch. Feinman had to be delivered without any injury to the head. Not even a bruise. Mason wasn’t worried on that score. He prided himself on swift, error-free operations using the skills he’d honed as a military contractor in Iraq. 
From the van’s cargo bay behind him, Mason heard one of his crew crack his knuckles for the umpteenth time. What the hell were those two kids yakking about for so long? Mason wondered. Stifling a surge of impatience, he checked the van’s long side mirror for any sign of a cop or nosy Neighborhood Watch type. Except for some wild parrots doing acrobatics on an overhead power line, the street appeared deserted. Without taking his eyes off Feinman, Mason extracted a pack of cigarettes from the glove compartment. He lit a smoke. Then he settled in to wait.
There’s stuff to like here, storywise, but the author gets in his own way, stylewise, by reverting to passive voice, and non-specific language.  Consider this change to the first paragraph after a little cosmetic adjustment:
Mason Boll leaned forward in the driver’s seat of the van, squinting to get a better view of his target. Twenty yards away, a gangly sixteen-year-old named Brett Feinman chatted with a girl at a residential corner. Actually, Feinman mostly listened, periodically casting shy glances at the sidewalk while the girl flirted, occasionally touching his arm.  As in most adolescent conversations, the girl seemed to have all the power.
Okay, I added a detail there at the end, but by doing a little tightening and adding detail where there was only generality (sixteen-year-old instead of “youth,” for example), the piece feels more professional to me.
I would severely trim or even cut the second paragraph.  This is page one—the hook, the most important bit of literary real estate.  We don’t need to know that Mason had been a contractor in Iraq, and we certainly don’t need to know what his fee is.  If that stuff is important to the story, I would find a way to plant it somewhere else.  As for the mission to snatch the kid, let the reader piece that together from Mason’s actions.
Moving on, allow me to play with another paragraph:
Behind him, in the cargo bay, Paulie Knuckles earned his handle yet again, popping his finger joints for the umpteenth time. “Must you?” Mason asked.
“They get stiff,” Paulie said.  “You don’t want them stiff if I have to hit the kid, do you?”
“I don’t want you hitting him at all.  No bruises, remember?”
“No bruises on the head,” Paulie corrected.  “Everything else is free game.”
“I want this paycheck,” Mason said.  “Don’t screw it up.  We only hurt him enough to get him into the van.”
“Whatever.”
Mason let it go.  Paulie knew the rules, and he needed the money, too.  
“Come on, kids,” Mason grumbled.  “Either get a room or break it up.  I ain’t got all night.”
Okay, that wasn’t true.  He’d stay here for a week if it took that long to get the job done.
I tried to do a couple of things right there.  First, I gave a name to “one of his crew” and then gave some life to characters.  I have no idea if the changes reflect the specific desires of the author, but that doesn’t really matter in this case.  The point is that characters don’t become interesting until you hang a few details on the skeleton.

Note also that I was able to accomplish through dialogue and character interaction all of the important elements of that expository paragraph that I cut.  I’m still not convinced that the first page is the best place for that interaction, but this is a pretty clear illustration of how “showing” through interaction is better than “telling” through narration.
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My Coolest New Internet Toy

By John Gilstrap


A few weeks ago, I posted about my adventure with Jeffery Deaver in which we got private instruction on tactical shooting while at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas.  Well, now there’s videos evidence: http://tinyurl.com/clxzbry.  You can also find a link on the News Feed on my website.


If it looks like slow motion, that’s because it was.  We were using live ammo in a car, assuming shooting positions that could easily have made our own legs the primary target while drawing.  The “quick draw” contest at the end–also rather slow–was a one-shot, three round accuracy contest.  The first to hit the gong won the round.  While the video shows Jeff winning the first shot, the next two, which I won, somehow ended up on the cutting room floor.  I’m just sayin’ . . . 


This brings me to the stated purpose of this week’s post: my coolest new Internet discovery: Dropbox.  Like everything else that dwells in cyberspace, I’m confident that I’m one of the last ones to the table here, but my goodness, is that cool!


You go to www.dropbox.com and download the program free of charge, and Bingo! you have cloud storage for your files that is accessible from any computer anywhere.  You can even share files, which is how I was able to give my web mistress access to the 100MB video of our shooting adventure.


I still depend heavily on my thumb drive as primary storage, backed up to whatever machine I’m working on at any given time, but it’s great to have Dropbox, accessible from anywhere.


What are the other cool Internet toys that I’m behind the times on?  Which ones are indispensable toyou?

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Title Trauma

By John Gilstrap


I have a hard time with titles.  To date, of the nine books I’ve published, only three bear the titles I proposed.  Here’s the history:


Mine: Nathan!
Title: Nathan’s Run


Mine: Most Wanted
Title: At All Costs


Mine: Even Steven
Title: Even Steven


Mine: Scott Free
Title: Scott Free


Mine: Six Minutes to Freedom
Title: Six Minutes to Freedom


Mine: Grave Danger
Title: No Mercy


I confess that after No Mercy, I stopped trying.  My working titles became Grave 2, Grave 3 and Grave 4.  My editor came up with Hostage Zero, Threat Warning and Damage Control.  I love them all, but I’ve come to embrace my limitations.  And typically, the title is just about the last element of the book to be written.


When Damage Control hits the shelves in June, though, it will contain the first chapter of the book that will come out in 2013–the one I have been writing under the title, Grave 5.  That’s a little under-inspiring, so we had to scramble to come up with a title earlier than we usually do.  Since the book deals with some issues regarding the first lady, I thought I had a winner: First Traitor.


Everyone was excited until we said it out loud, and we realized that the title would be heard as First Rater.  That’s bad for radio interviews.


In the end, we decided on High Treason.  I love the title and I am utterly shocked that it hasn’t already been used for a big thriller.


Here’s what I’ve come to understand about titles: It’s more important for them to be compelling and cool that it is for them to apply directly to the story.  The clearest example of this in my writing is Hostage Zero, which actually means nothing, but sounds very cool.  The title has done its job when a reader picks up the book and reads the back cover and thumbs through the first chapter.  That’s where the buying decision is made.


What do y’all think?  I know writers who can’t write unless they’ve got the title nailed down.  I also know writers to fight for the title of their choice, even though their choices are often not very commercial.


How do you deal with titles?

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Can You Feel the Love?

One of the great pleasures of this writing game is to receive the occasional effusive email from fans who really enjoy my work.  Because my books so often involve adolescent protagonists (usually, but not always, in secondary roles) I hear from many young readers who are almost always complimentary of the stories and the characters.
Of all my books, none gets more fan mail from young people than Nathan’s Run.  In that story, the main character, Nathan Bailey, is a 12-year-old fugitive from the law, having admitted to killing a juvenile detention center guard and running away.  While it’s a thriller at its face, it explores some pretty complex themes about how little voice children have in society.  In schools where it’s not banned, it is frequently taught.  (The book contains, by one irate woman’s accounting, 409 unacceptable words.)
Whether in fulfillment of a class assignment or of their own volition, it’s not uncommon for students to contact me via email to “interview” the author.  On these requests, I am a sure thing.  I never say no, and I always try to respond promptly.
There’s a fine line, however, that I won’t cross, and that is the one where I sense that the student is essentially trying to get me to write his book report for him.  On biographical details, for example, I point them toward my website, or to other places where they would have found the information if they had tried.  I also shy away from questions regarding theme, symbolism, and other very English-classy subjects where I imagine the teacher wanted them to do some analysis on their own.
Last Sunday, I received this email from a boy named, shall we say, Tom:
hi john i have a question i have read yur book now i have a project to do wit it i kinda wanted to ask yuh how did nathan solve the problem and what was the turning point
That is cut and pasted in exactly the format I received it.  Clearly, it was easier to write an email than it was to read a book.  I have no idea how old “Tom” is, but if he’s been assigned to read Nathan’s Run, he’s got to at least be in middle school.  Plus, his email strummed another sensitive note: respect for the language.  I understand that kids are kids, and that texting language is different than real English, but I figure that I owe some allegiance to the rules of grammar.  So I donned my dad hat and took the high ground with the following response:
Hi, Tom.
Nice to hear from you–sort of.  Let’s start over, with you recognizing that I am an author, and that punctuation, spelling and grammar matter.  If you ask some properly formatted questions, I’d be happy to address them
Best regards,
John Gilstrap
That was me doing my part to be cooperative, yet not compromise my principles.  To this, he responded:
suck my dick Nigga
Again, that’s a quote; word choice and punctuation are his alone.
Well, goodness.  I confess that when I first read his response, I laughed.  It was so . . . startling.  But then I thought about the fundamental lack of respect, and my amusement turned to concern.  I’m sure that in his mind my reply showed disrespect, but come on.  To be really honest, I have second- and third-guessed myself about even posting this here, for fear of seeming like a bully.  At least I changed his name.
I’ll resist the urge to draw a larger conclusion about the state of adolescents today, and instead look to my son and his friends as the models for the actual norm.  (Okay, their adolescence is 10 years in the rearview mirror, but work with me.)  I have often thought that I would like to teach writing at the high school level, but when stuff like this happens, I have to check myself.  My hat goes off to those who do teach, and who find a way to control their anger despite their instinct to smack a kid out of his chair.
Yep, I’m becoming that old guy down the street.
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