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:  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.

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?

The Art of the Editorial Letter

By John Gilstrap
I believe that the editorial letter is an art form unto itself. This is the missive that a writer’s editor sends ahead of the marked-up manuscript to give a general sense of direction, and to pass along thoughts for ironing out rough patches in a story.

I’ve had a lot of editors over the years. One in particular loved to hear himself write, producing a 9 page editorial letter for me, single-spaced in 10-point Times New Roman. These were the days when you received an actual letter—you know, the kind with an envelope and postage. It was excruciating to read, and a nightmare to decipher.

For an editor, I imagine that the letter is a balancing act.  It’s tough to offer enough input without being too bruising to the writer’s ego. It also means knowing how sensitive your author is to such bruising.

My current editor is Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing—truly the best in the business—and she has granted permission for me to share her letter regarding my next novel, Threat Warning (July, 2011) with our dear Killzoners. Her text is italicized here only as a means to keep her comments separate from mine. (I have omitted sections of the letter that might serve as spoilers to the book.)

I think it’s interesting to note how much of her input to my work parrots what we’ve been discussing in this space over the past year. Here we go:

Dear John,

I have greatly enjoyed rereading the ms of THREAT WARNING. It is an outstanding thriller.

Note to the sensitive among you: This is the last purely positive statement in the letter, and that’s the way it should be. “Outstanding thriller” is plenty enough affirmation from a big honkin’ New York editor. Hearing what works is pleasing, but in this context, it’s a waste of time. This is a repair mission, not a teaching moment.

Cuts are needed for pace throughout. Don’t over-explain. Your action and dialogue speak brilliantly for themselves. Keep pace moving.

I can hear Jim Bell shouting, “You go, girl!” Like authors everywhere, I have a tendency to over-indulge on explanation. She’s not telling me anything I don’t know in principle, but I can’t wait to see the sections she’s talking about. I thought it was pretty damn tight already.

Jonathan’s dialogue and internal monologues sometimes sound pompous. I understand that he’s a thinking reader’s action hero, but I don’t think he should talk or think like a Ph. D. candidate, especially in the middle of an action scene.

Translation: Quit slowing down your own story, Gilstrap! The reader will get it!

Some names struck me as odd or inappropriate.

She goes on to list the names that she thought were difficult, but I cut that section because the discussion gives away too much. The bottom line is that names need to be pronounceable, even when they are read.

Don’t resort to overused gestures such as shrugged, nodded, sighed, shook his head. These are ok occasionally, but in general, seek more vivid gestures that tell more about a character, help set a mood, and create visual dimension in the scene.

Guilty as charged. My problem here is that the ones she notes are the only conversational gestures that I know of. I stipulate that I overuse them, but if anyone has other gesture arrows that I can add to the quiver, feel free to speak up.

You know how I feel about adverbs. I’ve crossed out enough for a small country. Keep them to a minimum.

Comments like this make me smile. They show that my editor likes me enough to make fun outright.

I am also something of a nut about “moment.” It should not be overused. “Long moment” hits the same raw nerve with me as “very unique.” Use it if you want, but not too often, ok?

Again, I know I do this. I just have a hard time stopping myself.

Scenes in . . . need to move much faster. I don’t think thriller fans will want to sit through . . .; and the static scenes of . . . need to be kept short and punchy.

I know that’s a lot of truncation, but there was a lot of spoiler material in there. Note the emphasis on pacing, pacing, pacing. In a thriller, the phrase “static scenes” is synonymous with “scenes that suck.” Also, Joe, note her use of the semicolon. I’m just sayin’ . . .

Some other scenes also got too preachy for my taste. I’ve marked suggestions for cuts.

Pacing again.

Language: I suggest deleting the F-word and “Jesus” when used as an exclamation. I was surprised at how often the F-word appears in the ms . . . My advice is not to use it. Some people will object to it. But no one will object if it does not appear in the book. I’ve never seen a reader letter or email saying the book would have been better if it had a few more F-words.

Truthfully, this one surprises me a little. First off, I’m surprised that the F-bomb appears as much as it apparently does, and secondly, Michaela has never objected to it before. I think it’s a point well-taken. Clearly, I’ve got some crossing out to do.

Thank you for taking these comments into consideration. After you’ve had a chance to think about them, and to review the edited ms, please send me a new Word document incorporating all changes. I look forward to turning it in for production as well as rights submissions.

Okay, here’s the thing: I don’t have to make any of these changes. My name is on the cover, after all, and the things we’re talking about in the editorial letter are not of the magnitude that would cause the manuscript to be rejected. I will make the changes, however, because they’re all valid comments. Folks, there is nothing more valuable to a professional writer than a professional editor.

If possible, I would love to receive the revised ms the week of Nov. 29.

Well . . . I’ll try.

Last Lines

By John Gilstrap
Over the years, we’ve devoted a lot of space here at The Killzone to the importance of first lines, but in the grand scheme of things, I spend far more time in my own writing fretting over the last line.  I’ve lost track of the books that have held me solidly in their spell all the way till the last couple of pages, only to betray my devotion by short-changing me on the ending.  I vow never to do that.

As a writer of thrillers, I think it’s my job to give my readers a wild ride, filled with exciting twists.  I work hard to make my characters seem alive to readers, and I’m often harder on the good guys than I am on the bad guys–at least for a while.  I owe it to my readers to bring the story to a satisfying ending.  That doesn’t mean that I promise a “happy ending” necessarily, but I do guarantee a sense of peace when the journey is over.  It’s the kind of commitment that I think breeds trust between a writer and his readers.

Now that I’m writing a series, I face the additional challenge of leaving enough of a cliffhanger to compel readers to look forward to the next book without also incurring their wrath by making them feel baited and switched.  To pull all of that off within the time constraints of my contract, I have to know the point to which I am writing the story.

All too often these days, I read books by brand name authors who seem to end their books by running out of words.  The plot develops, climaxes and then . . . I’m at the back cover.  One of the most egregious examples in recent years is John Grisham’s A Painted House.  I actually wondered if I had picked up a defective book where the last chapter had been removed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Grisham is a great story teller, and as I read it, I thought that House was one of his best.  And then . . . thud.

An even more famous example is Stephen King’s The Stand.  There I was plowing through hundreds of thousands of words, loving it, loving it, loving it, and . . . what are you kidding me??

Here’s the thing about this three-act structure most of us adopt in our writing: A story had a beginning, a middle and an end, and each part is equally important.  There’s no room for laziness.  Every component of every scene needs to pull the reader forward.  The last scene is most important of all, I think, because that’s what the reader will remember forever.

I haven’t always gotten it right, either–at least not if you read some of the letters I’ve gotten over the years.  Nathan’s Run in particular has generated a number of letters from fans who wanted one more chapter.  In fact, the chapter they craved was in my original draft.  I took it out and reinserted it four or five times before I decided to leave it in the drawer.  Without giving too much away, I thought–and I still think, but am less sure–that the story ended when the action ended, and that the final feel-good knot-tying chapter was a step too far.

Of course, I’m the curmudgeon who believes that JK Rowling’s biggest misstep in the largely-wonderful Harry Potter saga is the final chapter–the coda, really–of The Deathly Hallows.  I would rather have imagined the future instead of having it spelled out for me.  It didn’t ruin anything for me; it just felt like one too many bits of storytelling.

What do y’all think?  Any favorite endings out there?  Terrible ones?

For me, the best closing line ever written, bar none, comes from To Kill A Mockingbird: “And he’d be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”  It tells us everything we need to know, and let’s us just float on the satisfaction of time well spent.

Page One . . . Again

By John Gilstrap
Threat Warning is in the can now (look for it next July), and now it’s time to get on with the next book in the Jonathan Grave series. I’m calling it Untitled Grave 4 for the time being, but I’m reasonably certain that I’ll come up with something more compelling before the pub date rolls around in 2012.

I know the basic bones of the story, and I’ve already mapped out the kick-ass final sequence in my head. Having spent all of July and August in a panicked writing frenzy (the price of procrastination), I harbor a dream of digging right into the story and hammering it out right away, delivering a finished manuscript a few months early, thus buying time to take a more leisurely pace on the book to follow that one. Recognizing that I wrote the last 300 pages of Threat Warning in about seven weeks, I should be able to have this next book finished by April and not even be out of breath.

I should be able to do that. So, why can’t I do that?

I think it’s because I don’t like me very much during the frenzied times. Every waking hour that I’m not dedicating to my Big Boy job is dedicated to the book. I’m not much of a husband or a friend during those times, and when the pressure is finally lifted, the pleasure of not writing—the pleasure of dinner table conversations and occasional nights out—is so overwhelming that I find it difficult to sit down and write again.

Thus far, I figure I’ve written about 200 words of the next opus. Soon enough, I’ll be pulled away to respond to the inevitable editorial letter for Threat Warning, and when that’s done it’ll be the Holidays, and shortly after that, two nights per week will be consumed by American Idol (yes, I’m a rabid fan), and then, come May, if this year mimics previous years, I’ll be about 200 pages behind the power curve, and the race to catch up will begin.

Come July and ThrillerFest and the release of Threat Warning, I’ll become impossibly distracted, and then the panic will begin again. I’m beginning to think that maybe I need the crippling pressure to be motivated. Is it really procrastination if you know it’s going to happen?

As I write this, I really hope that I’ll find a way to pace myself and write consistently and regularly, so that when summer rolls around next year, I’ll be able to enjoy it. In fact, that’s the plan.

I wonder if I’ll be able to make it happen . . .

A Whole New World

by John Gilstrap

Michelle had a schedule conflict, so she asked me to switch blogging duties with her this week. She’ll be posting tomorrow in my spot, but we should be back to normal next week–or to whatever masquerades as normal among Killzoners.

I am amazed and grateful and totally baffled at the thing that keeps on keeping on with my eBook sales. As I write this post on Wednesday evening, No Mercy continues to hold the #4 slot in Kindle sales, while Hostage Zero holds the #17 slot. That’s nine days in the top five and top fifty, respectively–much higher cotton than I have seen in a very long while. Making the deal even sweeter, I received an email yesterday from the folks from Books On Board, the world’s largest independent eBook retailer, informing me that Hostage Zero is the #3 bestseller there. That’s all wonderful. I even got a brief mention in the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s where it gets confusing: On, the sales rankings for the print version of my books seem to be going the wrong way. Mind you, I have no idea how any of the rankings translate into real sales, but as I write this, the Hostage Zero sales ranking is well into five figures, while the print version of No Mercy sits at 2,896. (FYI, 2,896 in total sales means, according to the site, that it’s #72 in Books>Literature & Fiction>Genre Fiction>Action & Adventure. How’s that for splitting hairs four times?)

My point is that there seems to be a disconnect between print popularity and eBook popularity on I have no idea why, but I suspect that the mean demographic of the eBook buyer/reader is significantly different than that of the hardcopy counterpart. I think that the marketing model between the two camps is entirely different. For example, among eBook community (of which I am an enthusiastic member), word of mouth buzz–the Holy Grail of book sales–is many times more efficient. You hear a rave review of a book that sounds interesting, and you have it in your hands with a couple of clicks of a mouse. Combine the buzz with a price point that allows readers to buy two eBook thrillers by a new-to-them author for less than the price of a single eBook by a franchise author, and a runaway critical mass is easier to achieve. From there, the author and publisher pray that the momentum becomes self-sustaining.

If my suspicions are correct that the marketing models between print and eBooks are dramatically different, I think it’s clear that the difference is one-way–that eBook readers are aware of what print readers are reading, but not necessarily the other way around. When you look at the Kindle Top 100, the vast majority of titles are bestsellers in their own right in the bricks-and-mortar world, and became eBook bestsellers as a matter of transferred momentum. Problem is, it’s difficult for that momentum to transfer the other way.

Think about it. In my recent travels, I was disappointed to discover that Hostage Zero and No Mercy were both absent from every airport bookstore I visited. The spaces where they might have been stocked were filled instead with the paperback versions of the hardcovers that occupied the same spots a year ago–and then, only if the hardcover predecessor made The List. Given the price per square foot of retail space, it makes sense that airport bookstores would dedicate real estate only to the surest sales. In order to ride the momentum of a runaway eBook, those stores would have to order new stock and take a new risk in an economic environment that punishes risk takers. Extrapolate that logic out to drug stores and grocery stores and all the other retail locations that used to be outlets for paperbacks, and I think it’s clear that the mass market original is a format on life support.

On the flip side, though, I think the market for $25 hardcovers is likewise pretty bleak. It’s the price, not the format. As it is, bestsellers are discounted down to $15 or less in the Big Box stores, a number that is feasible only because non-bestsellers are still sold at full price to offset the lost revenue. The print side of publishing seems to be creating a retail environment where bestseller prices are unsustainable, cheaper options are difficult to obtain, and full-price hardcovers will have an ever-shrinking market consisting only of people who are willing to shell out five times more than they need to for the same entertainment.

It’s a whole new world indeed. What do you all think? When you look into your personal crystal ball, what does the publishing world look like five years from now?

#1 Paid in Kindle Books

by John Gilstrap

A couple of weeks ago, I posted our marketing strategy for Hostage Zero which included a limited time free giveaway of the ebook version of No Mercy in all e-formats. In principle, it seemed like a good idea: We’d let people have a risk-free peek at the first book in the series, and with luck, they’d have whetted appetities for the second installment.

Well, apparently the strategy worked. Within hours, No Mercy shot to #1 on the free-book Kindle list, where it stayed for its entire free-book run. The attention brought some very hot reviews to the No Mercy page, and sparked some favorable cyber word-of-mouth. That’s all good, but free is free. Then a funny thing happened.

When the free-book status expired on July 5, No Mercy stayed at the #1 slot, only this time in the PAID Kindle Store, outselling Stieg Larsson’s Tattoo series books. I told myself it must be an anomaly. After a couple of hours, I figured it would slip off the list. Only it didn’t. The book stayed at #1 for over two days. As I write this, 4:37 on July 8, it’s still at #3 in the Kindle Store.

It gets better. Hostage Zero–my new release–is currently at #61 and climbing (falling?) in the Kindle Store. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is #62.

All of this is very cool, but I have no idea what it means in the larger sense. Hopefully, the trend will contine and my books will become one of those word-of-mouth sensations that sets the world on fire; but it’s also possible that this is a brief flash–fun for a while, but ultimately not a big deal.

It’s not at all clear to me whether the ups and downs of the ebook market has any effect on the paper-book market. When a Kindle reader calls her Luddite Aunt Betty to say that she just read this amazing book, Aunt Betty will need to be able to find that book in the local bookstore in order to share the experience. I venture to guess that No Mercy will be a hard find this far after its initial publication. Can a runaway ebook prompt a bricks-and-mortar bookseller to restock a title? I guess we’ll see.

Hell, I don’t even know how much I make off the sale of an ebook.

Whatever this is that is happening, though, is very, very exciting.

Unlimited Free Book Giveaway

By John Gilstrap

Once a year, in late June, I embark on a post of shameless self-promotion. This would be that post for 2010.

Hostage Zero, the latest entry in the Jonathan Grave thriller series launches next Thursday, and I am pumped about it. Fueled by a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, which was kind enough to put on Hostage Zero’s product page, and excellent advance reviews from other publications, this feels to me like it could do some real business. Let’s all take a moment to cross our fingers on that one.

Good reviews help, but it takes more than that to really get people to take notice of a book. It takes promotion, advertising, and word-of-mouth sales. I don’t mean to presume, but I hope I can count on y’all to help with that last one. C’mon, it’s an investment of $6.99. How can you go wrong?

My publisher, Pinnacle/Kensington, is really stepping up to the plate with this one. From June 29 through July 5, in an effort to build the buzz for Hostage Zero, they are giving away free e-books of No Mercy through Kindle, Sony E-Reader, B&N’s Nook and Kobo. That’s free, folks; as in, you know, FREE! Gratis. No charge. That’s a free copy of the book that is one of five nominees for ITW’s Thriller Award. How cool is that?

The real marketing push for Hostage Zero begins July 6, when the co-op money kicks in to get great placement in Borders, Walden and Books-A-Million. There’s talk of other placements, but they’re not yet firm. You should see a fairly significant online ad presence, as well.

So, the boat’s in the water, and everyone is pulling on an oar. Will Hostage Zero become a bestseller? Lord, I hope so; but then every author hopes so. That’s the really scary part of this business. Think of the hubris. Each of us believes that out of the thousands and thousands of titles that are published every year—out of the hundreds that are published in our own genre alone—this one product of our imagination will somehow break through all the noise and find a breakout audience. Who do we think we are?

On the other hand, it always happens to someone; why not us? Why not me?

Jonathan “Digger” Grave is an old-fashioned kind of hero, whose sense of right and wrong does not necessarily factor in the prevailing laws of the land. If your loved ones are kidnapped, Digger will move heaven and earth to bring them back, and he won’t mind sending people to heaven or hell if they get in his way. A former Unit operator, he is a gentle philanthropist who is intensely loyal to his friends and lethal to his enemies. He is, if I may say so myself in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, a lot of fun.

And starting next Tuesday, for only one week, you can download No Mercy for free. I like to think this is an easy decision. What do you say?

Page One, Chapter One. Again.

By John Gilstrap

You’d think I’d get used to it, sooner or later. With Hostage Zero in the can and due to arrive in stores in July, 2010, it’s time to push the elation and sense of accomplishment aside and get back to the business of writing another book. This will be Number Eight in my personal bibliography and Number Three in the Jonathan Grave series. I don’t have a title yet (regular readers of this blog know how titles do not come easily for me), but I know what the story will be.

This idea came to me out of nowhere—as they usually do—at a time when I was looking for one, and when it arrived, it came fast, in the form of a terrific opening set piece that ties into a very cool larger story. I even have the new characters well formed in my head. All of this after just a couple of days of development. We’re talking Writer Nirvanna here.

Given the above, you’d think that it would be a snap to sit down and start writing, wouldn’t you? Having done it so many times in the past and with relative success, you’d think that I’d be ready to start the coming journey at a dead run.

Not so. It’s the damn cursor. It mocks me.

I’m staring down the pipe at something like 120,000 words, and none of them are written yet. It’s all looking good in the outline, but I know that there are tough times coming–as they always do around page 200. I know that there will be some huge plot holes to be backfilled, and character motivations to be reconsidered. I know that I will, somewhere in the process, throw out several days’ or several weeks’ work because I will have surrendered to temptation and pursued a new angle on the story that proved to be a waste of time. It always happens, so I’ve come to accept it as part of my process.

I know that I am going to become obsessive, and that as my new deadline approaches, I will become a pain in the ass to live with. There’s a lot of frustration on the way, and I’m bringing all of it onto myself. At present, I’m out of contract, so it is within my power to simply fold up my laptop and not write a word.

Except I couldn’t do that.

You see, I’ve got this story in my head now. I see characters and conflict and compelling action sequences, and such images cannot be ignored. In nine months or a year, I will hold a stack of pages in which all of it will have come to life.

I know that about the time when Hostage Zero is hitting the stores, I will be more or less at the end of the new book, and, God willing, I’ll again experience the thrill of writing that favorite of all phrases, “The End”, only then to face the challenge of discovering my next idea.

It’s frightening to face all of that work, but I suppose that any new adventure should be a little unsettling. I think I know where I’m going, but I can never be sure. It’s damned exciting, when you think about it.

All I have to do is stuff some letters behind that incessantly blinking cursor.

What about you? Every writer, published or unpublished, faces this same challenge at the beginning of a new project. Any secrets to share? Any coping strategies to make it easier? Does the daunting nature of the task ahead keep any of you from starting your journey?

Come on and share. We’re all friends here.