Success at Last

I bring you news of success, of dream achievement, of goal fulfillment. It’s not about me this time, but that’s okay. I will continue to plug away, old and feeble as I may be, until I either succeed (see below) or go face down on a keyboard, with my final words being psfdfkdadlfbldfbk. No, this week the fortune that comes from persistence and hard work was achieved by two people of my acquaintance: my friend John Gilstrap, and my younger daughter Annalisa.
Let me tell you about my friend first. John is a Kill Zone blogger emeritus, gone but hardly forgotten. John’s literary career over the course of ten extremely well written novels has waxed and waned, and is now very much waxing again, indeed. He had an itch to do just a bit more, however; and do it, he did. Yesterday John announced that for the first time a short story of his is being published in The Strand, the venerable mystery magazine which you should be reading issue to issue if you are not already. The name of the story is “In the After” and will be published in the Feb-May issue. Please join me in a tip of the hat and a toast of the beverage of your choice to John. It is John who on this very blog stated that “If failure is not an option, success is guaranteed.” Congratulations, John. We’re looking forward to reading that story.
Now we come to my daughter, who, by the way, quickly became sick of me quoting John’s truism to her when the going got rough. I think she feels differently now. Earlier this week, with less than an hour’s notice (lesson to be learned: check your e-mail hourly), Annalisa auditioned for a feature role in a production to be presented in a month or so by Shadowbox Live, the largest community theater in the United States. I asked her how she thought she did when she was finished.

 “I think it went fine,” she said. “I had to sing a song that I’d never heard before, but I thought I did okay.”

“Do you remember what the song was?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said. Annalisa then proceeded to favor me with a flawless rendition of the first verse of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops. I rendered it less flawless by attempting to harmonize with her. It was never one of my favorite songs — I preferred the Stax/Volt sound to Motown — anyone who listened to mid-1960s radio has that tune firmly ensconced in their memory. And now Annalisa does, as well.  A day later, she got the good news: she won the part. She’s been walking on air since. It was her dream to at some point be in a professional theater production and now she is on her way. Not bad for a fifteen year old high school sophomore whose prior acting experience consists of two high school plays, a high school performance review, work as an extra in a stage production and pretending that she doesn’t know me when I do the helicopter thing around a potential suitor. She sure doesn’t get it from me. I can perform for film, but I can’t do live theater acting. I’m okay in front of a digital camera, where I can forget lines or direction, but in front of a live audience?! Nope. So congratulations to Annalisa. May this be the first professional performance of many.

So my question to you is: what would success be to you, right now? For me…it would be to have a novel published and then adapted for film, where, in turn, I would have at least a supporting role. You? Yes, you. Step right up and tell us. Please.

The Before That Led to “In the After”

by John Gilstrap

When I was a kid—actually all the way through high school—I churned out short stories by the dozens, sometimes on command to meet the requirements of English class, but mostly because I loved writing. For me, a short story assignment was as close to a guaranteed A as one could reasonably hope for. I read voraciously in those years, and thanks in large measure to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and their ilk, I grew up steeped in short-form fiction.

I used to read Writers Market in the 1970s and mentally catalog all of the outlets for my stories, preparing myself for the day when I felt that my writing would evolve past high-school good and become professional-writer good. If I recall properly, Playboy was paying $1500 for short stories back then. Who knew that Playboy even had words? All of the big-format magazines carried short stories, too. I was in training to leave my mark on the world.

Unfortunately, when I got to college, my story production sagged precipitously, thanks to my libido and my love of a good party. My attentions were wildly diffused in directions that had nothing to do with academics, and when my grades started to nose dive, something had to go. After careful deliberation, I decided to stay with the dating and the academics and the booze (not necessarily in that order), and stopped my recreational writing.

Meanwhile, the market for short stories evaporated. That was just as well, because by the time I started writing again, my interests had shifted exclusively to long-form fiction. I never looked back—not until my editor at Kensington suggested that I write a short story for my website that would help promote my book, No Mercy, and its main character, Jonathan Grave. That story became “Discipline” and it introduces readers to Jonathan’s bizarre childhood. That was the first short story I’d written in something like thirty years, and I loved the experience.

Just a couple of months after I posted that story to my website, my blog mates came up with the idea of the anthology that became Fresh Kills: Tales from the Killzone (actually, I think it was James Scott Bell’s suggestion, but I can’t swear to it). My initial reaction was twofold: On one hand, I thought it was a great idea, but on the other, I confess that I bristled at the notion of joining the world of “self-published” authors. I worried that it would be read by some as a form of desperation. Let’s face it: self-publishing is not exactly held in the highest regard among my fellow authors, and the last thing I needed was for a good idea to inadvertently harm my career. Call me shallow, but the publishing business is scary these days.

I consulted with both my agent and my editor, and, to my relief, they were both very supportive of the idea. I think it was the uniqueness of the concept as much as anything else. I’m not aware of a similar project out there that combines the talents of established authors in a self-published book, and I think I can speak for the other Killzoners that we won’t complain if we get some positive buzz about this. So, with their approval in my pocket, I signed on.

And what a hoot it turned out to be! Initially, I thought I would do another story of Jonathan Grave in his youth, but that struck me as a conflict of interest—especially since “Discipline” is offered on my website free of charge–a pattern I want to continue. I went mining for ideas, tried a couple of them out, but remained largely uninspired. With our deadline approaching, I found myself with bupkis.

Finally, the muse found me where she often does: in the shower, when my mind was in neutral. I thought it would be really cool to do a story of delayed revenge, a high-tension thriller presented on a tiny canvas. The “feel” of the story hit me before the plot points did. I wanted the reader to feel frightened, and claustrophobic as the victim learns his fate. I wanted the victim in this case to be the protagonist, and I wanted his sense of loss to be enormous.

And because it’s a short story, I wanted it to have a huge twist in the end.

I was on travel on the occasion of this particular inspiration, and because I didn’t know exactly where I wanted it to go, I resorted to pen and paper—ever the best way for me to work through plot points. Twenty-odd handwritten pages later, the story was done. I call it “In The After” because, well . . . Actually, I can’t tell you without giving too much away.

I can tell you this, though: I’m already looking forward to Volume Two.