Trouble Shooting

A First Page Critique by

John Ramsey Miller

Before I was published, I wrote several novels that I thought were awfully good. Looking back I see how wrong I was. But I kept on, seeing every manuscript as practice, and I read a lot and listened to the criticisms I received, naturally giving more weight to those flaws pointed out by people who knew what they were talking about. And I persevered and kept right on plugging away. Perhaps, due to my advertising background, I have a thick skin and I want only blunt honesty from my readers so I can make my work better. I always say, “Tell me what you really think.” I mean it. It is far better to hear something from another author or agent than it is from an editor who is turning your book down for some reason I wish I’d have known about and could have fixed.

At some point all authors are handed someone’s writing to evaluate, often believing we will (or can) hand it to our agents who will take it on, or that we can send it to our publisher with a demand it be on shelves forthwith. This is a hard business, and years ago I went out of my way to encourage everybody who presented me with their babies. A lot of them (perhaps buoyed by my encouragement) went on and had their teeth kicked in by agents and publishers. A lot of them deserved writing careers, but so far have yet to have a house agree. Even some with talent had their teeth kicked in. Only a small fraction of those who think they can write, can or should. While I hate to give people false hope, I don’t like the idea of shooting at dreams. Sometimes I am too negative (ask my children or friends) and I’m trying not to be a curmudgeon. The truth is that, as with all endeavors, not everybody can perform them as well as they think they can. Some people cannot drive a nail, rebuild a carburetor, or create a painting worth looking at. Some people cannot tell a story, and some may just need encouragement, practice and they will get it and can write professionally. But criticism should always be constructive. While I am not an expert on writing, I have learned some things the hard way.

Before I get into the anonymous page I’ve been given, let me say that there’s nothing that turns off readers––and editors are the most critical readers––than too much information presented too soon (or too little too late), under-drawn settings, under-defined characters, choppy or confusing choreography, telling instead of showing, shocking transitions, clichés, stilted dialog, defying logic, using coincidence to solve problems, typos, unorthodox formatting, or misused words. As a writer you’d better know much more than you put on a page, and you should think about what the reader is seeing or may be missing because of something you knew and didn’t bother to put in. Not that I found all of those “avoidable” problems here, they are just things to look for and to avoid.

Without further foreplay, I present…

Buried Trouble

By An Anonymous Author

From the tip of the peninsula you could see the entire bay and the surrounding metro areas. Hugh had bought the property for a song. Opportunity awaits for those who have ready money in a bad economy. As he looked side to side he could take in the high-rise buildings downtown contrasting with the water. What a perfect development site. Turning and walking back towards his Lexus, he could see the company black SUV speeding his way in the distance. Even though the windows were heavily tinted, he knew it was Bill.

“Mr. Garnet I think you need to see this report,” said Bill.

“We’ll tell me about it, god dammit. That’s what I pay you for.”

Bill revealed the details over lunch. They had to be careful not to talk too loud above the crowd noise. After the waiter had picked up their plates, the conversation continued.

“So, who else knows about this report?” Hugh asked.

“I can’t say for sure. I had to do a lot of digging to find it,” Bill said. “But, as they say, its open source. You know, publicly available. So it’s out there on the internet.”

“Would anyone else do the same digging?” Hugh asked.

“I doubt it. Right now everyone wants the development to go forward. It’s not in their best interest to find out anything like this. It would blow everything.”

“Well, make sure you burn that copy,” said Hugh.

Hugh excused himself from the table as the waiter returned with the check. Bill knew the routine. Hugh never paid for anything he didn’t have to.


Growing up in Tampa, Travis had known all of the great fishing spots in the bay since the fourth grade. But today fishing was the farthest thing from his mind. Looking at the project on the Garnet Property Development website, he could take in the whole picture.

“See what I mean, Sam,” he said. “There’s no way out.”

“What do you mean?”

“If a storm came towards the bay like Elaine in 1985, this land floods. And there wouldn’t be enough egress roads to move the population in time,” said Travis.

“We’ll that’s nothing new. Throw a dart at the map of Florida and it’s the same everywhere,” said Sam.

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” said Travis. “But not quite like this, though. The SLOSH model for a Cat 2 storm shows the entire peninsula under water.”

“Excuse me for asking, but what’s a slosh model?” Sam asked.

Travis motioned Sam to come over to his desk. “Take a look.”

They both looked at the computer screen. Travis clicked the mouse and in slow motion the Interbay Peninsula became a collage of blue, green and yellow.

“It stands for Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes. It’s a computerized model run by the National Hurricane Center to estimate storm surge heights. If it’s colored…it’s under water.”

“So why aren’t the developers paying attention to this?” asked Sam.

“As always,” said Travis. “Money. It doesn’t pay to see it. Besides, the property used to be an air force base with only 3,000 people living there. Then it didn’t matter so much. This development will have 30,000 residents.”

The page opens with “Hugh” surveying his land, which is on a peninsula across the bay from an unnamed major city. He bought this piece of prime real estate for a song because he had cash money in hard times. How this prime parcel was invisible to other developers for decades (and while a city was springing up right over there) is not explained in this opening paragraph. Where are we? I need more. know that Hugh has a Lexus (I’m wondering if he had his accelerator fixed) and that a black “company” SUV with blacked-out windows is approaching with “Bill inside”. “Hugh” is either psychic, or only Bill drives around in hiding. Without opening the window or stepping out of the SUV, Bill opens the dialogue with a message that he has a gloomy-doomy report. Hugh demands to know what is in this report, but before Bill can tell him, they go to a crowded restaurant, and wait until after they have eaten to tell the reader that Bill had to “dig hard” to find out something that explains why Hugh’s primo location is a dog of epic proportions. Bill assures Hugh that nobody else knows about the BIG problem with the land because they have not dug it up––hence the title of the book, BURIED TROUBLE? We get that Hugh is so evil and powerful that he leaves the restaurant before the check comes, and Bill is left to pay …as always. It seems that Hugh is perhaps able to buy land because he never pays for anything but land and the occasional Lexus.


In the second segment we meet “Travis” whom I suspect will be the protagonist. This individual had known the greatest fishing spots in the bay since the fourth grade, which perhaps is when “Our greatest fishing spots” was taught in Tampa’s schools. Seriously, this intro needs a lot of work, but it is fixable.

The author does not tell us where Travis and sidekick Sam are, or immediately whether Travis is looking at a computer screen, a chart on a wall, into a shallow hole Bill forgot to cover up after digging out the report, or gazing into a crystal ball. We do find out later that the two men are at desks and that Travis is looking at a computer screen. Still there is far too little information and there is no physical description of the characters or their actions to allow us to form a picture of them in our minds.

Here we learn that Bill’s report detailing his uncovered secret about the land is in fact known by the National Weather Service and probably everybody with a developer’s license except Hugh. The problem is that the secret that threatens Hugh’s deal needs to be more of a secret. It’s buried and hard to find but Travis found it easily. So others could as well.

Keep it believable. If the peninsula is a death trap, and the military kept 3,000 people in until they abandoned it, there would be no secret as to why they left and it wasn’t developed immediately, and why it went for what Hugh felt was a song. If the parcel, located across the bay from Tampa, was never developed there’s a reason. I think the author needs to reexamine the logic right here, because the deeper you go using a flawed premise, the farther the story goes into the unbelievable. As it appears to me, unless Travis and Sam can somehow stop Hugh, 30,000 people who somehow don’t discover what the world can know {and should know) will rush buy homes from Hugh and be trapped with no way out when a hurricane (they can’t be aware of) hits and they perish en masse, unable to get to safety …in Tampa. And the reader wonders, “why the developers aren’t paying attention to this “buried trouble” Bill and Travis have uncovered.

“So why aren’t the developers paying attention to this?” asked Sam.

“As always,” said Travis. “Money. It doesn’t pay to see it. Besides, the property used to be an air force base with only 3,000 people living there. Then it didn’t matter so much. This development will have 30,000 residents.”

One additional note:

“We’ll tell me about it, god dammit. That’s what I pay you for.” I think there should probably be a capital “G” in God. I think either dammit, damnit, or damn it are fine, but with the “god” attached I’m not sure. “We’ll” instead of “Well” crops up twice in the page, which makes me wonder if the author knows the difference. Again, don’t depend on spell-checking. Use your eyes when you are fresh and focused.

I would suggest that the author see this opening page as a story possibility and examine it and mull it over looking for the holes in the story before they write the novel. Think long and hard on your story premise and examine it from every possible angle. Play the “What if” game. Then play the “why or why not” game because you can bet your readers will.

There are problems here. I think story line feels all too predictable, but many successful novels (Louis Lamour is a good example of predictable working for his audience) are just that and are enjoyed for other reasons than being stunned and surprised. Not that this effort couldn’t have twists and turns later in the book. It needs a lot of things I’m not seeing to get me to want to know more than I do at the end of the first page.

Most of us have written a book filled with mistakes, or came to a grinding halt at a solid wall, because we didn’t take the time to think everything through to make sure the logic holds before we wrote ourselves into corners. It can be avoided by taking the right steps.

Would I keep reading this book?

In its present form, I would not.

Is it fixable?

Most things are. I wish the author good luck.

Okay, Guys and Gals, what did I miss?


Pirates Ahoy

by Michelle Gagnon

I received a Google alert last week for a website called, “” I clicked on it, and lo and behold, it led to a file sharing site. And there were all three of my books, in their entirety, available for free download. Including THE GATEKEEPER, which was just released two weeks ago.

Obviously this is not a rarity, I know plenty of other authors who have been the victims of piracy. And to the site’s credit, as soon as my publisher’s legal department contacted them, the files were removed. But still–who knows how many free copies were downloaded during the few days that the files were posted? Ebook downloads still constitute a small portion of overall sales–but did the free files make a dent in my Kindle and/or Sony Reader sales? Impossible to say.

The publishing industry is entering a new phase. They’re now confronting issues that the music industry has been wrestling with for the past decade. Year after year, total music sales have declined, and industry insiders attribute much of that loss to the continued popularity of pirated songs. According to a report issued in January by the IFPI, fully ninety-five percent of all online music downloads were unauthorized.
The statistics are much lower for pirated books, but it’s only going to get worse. As eBook readers come down in price, chances are they’ll become as ubiquitous as iPods. And when that happens, this type of piracy will become more and more prevalent.

Most authors who renewed contracts in the year since the financial meltdown saw their advances slashed by thirty percent or more. Combine piracy with the impact of the book price wars, and it’ll become nearly impossible for most writers to eke out a living from their work.

Last week Declan Burke posted a poignant message about why he’s decided it’s no longer feasible to pursue a career as a writer. Unfortunately, there’s a chance that more and more authors will be forced into making the same decision. Our own John Ramsey Miller recently posted about the difficulties writers face today, and how it only seems to be getting harder.

Some people argue that self-publishing ebooks will fill this void. To be honest, I have my doubts. First of all, the benefit of an advance is that it enables an author to pay the bills while writing the book. You also receive editorial assistance, marketing help, and distribution. I can say for a fact that without that editorial help, all of my books would have suffered. Sure, I could hire an outside editor–but that would involve more money out of pocket. Throw in cover design, formatting, marketing materials…and my ebook would enter the marketplace down a few thousand dollars. So I’d need to earn at least that to see a profit.

And if the marketplace is flooded with self-published books (which is already happening), how does an author stand out among the crowd? Even if you manage to claw out a niche for yourself, how do you sell enough books to earn a living? I know authors who are garnering a few thousand dollars a year from their ebooks, but that’s clearly not enough to survive on. And it’s only going to become more difficult.

Sorry to be all doom and gloom, but the truth was that seeing my work posted for free struck me as a harbinger of worse things to come. I spent a year of my life on each of those books. If you factor in the total hours worked on them, I earned less than minimum wage for their creation. And now someone was giving them away, completely disregarding all of that effort. Someone was basically saying that they were worthless, so people might as well have them for free.

I realize that “Rachell” probably didn’t have all this in mind when she converted the files so they could be shared. But think of it this way. You can’t leave a restaurant without paying for a meal, otherwise the next time you go, the restaurant will likely have closed since they couldn’t pay their bills. A good meal costs money to produce; so does a good book. If you don’t pay for things, down the road they won’t be there for you. So if you love books, and want to continue enjoying the same wide selection down the line, for God’s sake buy them. If you want to read them for free, get a library card. Anything else just makes you a thief, and in the end you’ll be stuck eating mac and cheese.


The Liar’s Club

by Michelle Gagnon


No really, you shouldn’t have. I mean, sure, it is our…


What do you mean, you forgot? Yes, it was just a year ago today that I wrote the inaugural post for The Kill Zone. And to celebrate a year of rants, raves, and other miscellany, my fellow bloggers and I decided to do what we do best- make stuff up. Below is a series of questions. One of the answers to each question is an outright, baldfaced lie. Your job is to guess who’s fibbing.

For each correct guess, your name will be entered in a drawing for signed editions of each of our latest releases (including my coffee table book on macrame. It’s not just about macrame, it’s MADE of macrame. Patent pending).

Because after all, what anniversary would be complete without fabulous gifts?

Note: despite the outrageous nature of some of these responses, there is only one liar per question. Hard to believe, but true. The winner will be announced in my post next Thursday.

So good luck, and thanks for making this an amazing year!

1. What’s the most “outrageous truth” about yourself, one few people would ever guess?shootist

Kathryn: I once hid in the bushes outside Ted Kennedy’s home, spying on him for a Boston TV station.

John Gilstrap: I was featured in John Wayne’s last filmed performance.

Clare: I was runner up in the 1989 “Miss Melbourne” beauty pageant.

James: I’m a descendant of the Duke of Wellington

Michelle: I was a featured guest on the Maury Pauvich show.

2. What’s the strangest interaction you’ve ever had with a fan or reader?

James: A man approached me at a conference and said God told him I was chosen to write his story. I told him I didn’t get the memo.

Clare: During an radio interview for Consequences of Sin, the host claimed he had predicted 9/11.

Michelle: At a conference, a Ted Kaczynski look-alike handed me a manila envelope filled with xeroxed diary pages outlining ominous apocalyptic predictions.

John Gilstrap: After giving 20 minutes of advice to a young writer at a signing, he walked away saying, “Huh. Well, I don’t read shit like you write.”

John Ramsey Miller: In 1997 I had a stalker who followed me on a book tour to 5 cities out of 11. She changed her appearance each time and asked me to sign a book to whatever name she was disguised as.

Kathryn: During a radio interview for DYING TO BE THIN, one caller claimed there is a conspiracy to keep America fat. I said thank goodness for that, otherwise I’d have to blame my sweet tooth.

3. What’s the craziest/most dangerous thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

John Gilstrap: I intentionally leaned against a prison fence and walked around the perimeter to see how long it would take for a guard to respond.

John Ramsey Miller: In the mid to late eighties I set up a formal portrait studio at a series of KKK rallies across the south and at the Annual Celebration of the Founding of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski Tennessee.

chuck norrisKathryn: I logged onto wild and wooly web sites that gave my computer a nasty virus.

Michelle: I volunteered to be tased to see what it felt like.

James: I asked Chuck Norris to show me his Total Gym workout

Clare: I navigated piranha infested waters in a dugout canoe.

4. What’s the worst line you’ve ever read in a review or rejection of your work?

John Gilstrap: An agent offered to represent NATHAN’S RUN if I would change the protagonist from a 12-year-old boy to a divorced woman.

Joe Moore: “Weak and simple plot, unbelievable and boring characters, and poor writing make this book difficult to finish.”

James: Dear Mr. Bell: Enclosed are two rejection letters; one for this book, and one for your next book.

Kathryn: Agent rejection: “I really wanted to like your story. But I just didn’t like the voice. Or the main character. I just didn’t like anything about it at all.”

Clare: “It’s painful to read more than one or two pages at a time.”

I have to say, I was impressed with my fellow bloggers’ ability to lie with aplomb. Since I could only choose one lie per question, I was forced to omit some real humdingers. Next week I’ll include outtakes/elaborations in the post.

On a side note, Clare just officially became a US citizen (and that’s the truth). Welcome and congratulations!


Sunday Writing School

We’re having another one of our periodic Sunday Writing Schools today at the Kill Zone (See the link to our inaugural school).

Here’s how it works: We post a couple of writing-oriented questions that we’ve collected over the weeks, and do our best to answer them. Readers can post more questions in the comments. Feel free to chime in with your own opinions, including snarky ripostes to our advice. This is basically intended to be a free-for-all exchange of ideas about writing, not a serious-minded Fount of Wisdom.

We’ll just have some fun.

The first question in the mail bag is from Win Scott:

Q: I know some writing books say not to use prologues, but I need to open my story with an event that precedes the main story. This event is also much more dramatic than my first chapter, and it lays the groundwork for everything that comes next. Can I use a prologue in this case?

A. [From Kathryn]: I’ll admit my bias here–I don’t like prologues. I think they’re old fashioned, and you risk turning off screeners if you use them. Readers don’t care when you start your story, so why not make your Prologue your “Chapter One,” and then turn what was your first chapter into a “forward flash” in time? You can add a date-anchor at the beginning of the chapter to orient the reader in time. I’ve seen many thrillers use this technique, and the effect is much more immediate and dynamic than if you use a prologue.

But that’s just my two cents. I’ll let the other Killers chime in.

Here’s a question from Joy F.

Q. What are some methods of getting over writer’s block?

A. [From Joe] Getting the juices flowing can be tough sometimes. We all experience it. Here are a few tips that might help. Try writing the ending first. Consider changing the gender of your character or the point of view. Tell the story or scene from another character’s POV. Just for grins, switch from third person to first or vice versa.

You don’t have to keep the results of these exercises but they might boost your imagination and get you going again.

(If you would like to ask other questions today, feel free to add them in the Comments. We’ll answer them there.)
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, James Scott Bell, Alexandra Sokoloff, and more.

The Dying Art of Writing…Letters

By John Ramsey Miller

I have a letter I keep in a lock box that my mother wrote to me thirty years ago just after she discovered that her breast cancer had returned in a big way. That letter arrived in the brand new lock box a few days after she died, handed to me by my father. In the letter she tells me how wonderful her life was and no regrets, and how much she loved me, and how everybody needs a lock box for important papers so here’s one I bought for you. That letter is still in that lock box under my bed––a prized possession. I like to read it. My mother’s penmanship was flawless. My own is quite good.

Thirty years ago people still wrote letters, but as long distance calls grew less expensive, it became easier to call and talk than to write a letter. With cell phones we are always near enough to a cell tower to talk whenever we feel like it. With the Internet, people send electronic messages. I get e-mails from friends almost every day, and I almost never print them out. Mostly the communications are short blurbs, and messaging on the cell phone means even briefer information passing.

Back when we wrote letters, we put a week’s or a month’s worth of news in the letter. We wrote our feelings and what life was doing to us. You’d sit with a pen imagining who we were writing to and thinking about the person who’d be reading it. You opened a letter, you unfolded it and you read the letter in your hand. The paper was in the hands of a under the pen belonging to the person who’d written it. You could fold it up and open it again later, as often as you wanted to for as long as the paper held up. Think of the archives filled with personal letters from the famous and not so famous. I think of Ken Burns’ Civil War series for PBS and what it would have been without the personal letters from the time. We are losing history. The e-mails are being deleted almost as fast as they are read, which probably goes to what they are worth. We don’t compose e-mails the same way we did letters. I officially name it “jit-jotting.”

Recently I sent my step-mother a letter. She is in an assisted living facility in Dallas, and I love her dearly. Her daughter told me that she reads that letter over and over again. That letter connects us in a way no telephone or e-mail on a screen can. After my father passed away my brother went through his papers and he gave me several letters I’d written to him over the years, along with pictures I’d sent in the envelopes. I could tell he’d read them over and over, and I found myself wishing I’d written him more of them.

My dead mother is alive in that letter. Like the letter from my mother, they only matter to me now––the living half of the communiqué. I suppose after I’m gone my children will dispose of them, and that’s okay with me since nobody else will feel the connection or its importance.

I think of the books written from the collected letters between two people, mostly famous, and I wonder how many will be written in the future from the collected e-mails or telephone conversations of famous people. There is a style in written letters that aren’t reflected in most e-mails and lost forever with telephone calls.

My wife and I do send text messages through the week days because they are less intrusive in her work place or to my writing time. We can just check our cell phones for them at our convenience. I also text with my sons.

Maybe part of the reason we authors write books is to leave something of ourselves behind. We are all jit-jotting our way through our days and our lives, and are leaving a thinner and thinner trail as we go. And I think it somehow diminishes us, and our importance to each other when we communicate through quickly typed electronic transmissions.



By John Ramsey Miller

I have been guilty of having the smell, or swirling of, Cordite in the air after gun play. The other night watching TV I heard one of the techs on CSI (someplace or other) saying that she smelled Cordite in a room, which is more than unlikely since Cordite hasn’t been around since WWII. There is no Cordite whatsoever in modern ammunition. With modern ammo you can smell the pungent Nitroglycerin after firing. Modern powder is basically sawdust soaked in nitro coated with graphite. In very simple terms, the shape and coatings control the burn rates. Of course, you won’t get any smell when using air guns (for the best ones click to read the review here) but with real guns, there’s definitely a smell.

To smell Cordite you’d have to have people firing very old ammunition. According to a quick check under Cordite on Wikipedia: “The smell of Cordite is referenced erroneously in fiction to indicate the recent firing of weapons.” So from now on, unless I am writing a period piece, it will be “The pungent smell of nitroglycerin, sawdust, and graphite swirling in the air.” Or I’ll just say, “the smell of gunpowder.”

We’ve discussed accuracy in fiction here before, and maybe it’s worth a second go-round. There are more mistakes made about guns than most other subjects in modern fiction. Maybe that has to do with the fact that the majority of authors are not gun familiar, or comfortable with guns. When it comes to guns, I don’t know everything about them, but I do know enough to safely handle Airsoft Guns all of my adult life. I am hardly an expert on the subject, but I know several (Scotty Boggs, Jason Parr, and Gary Reeder) and never hesitate to ask them for technical advice.

Modern gunpowder is slow burning and non-explosive until it is put into a confined space to allow compression and a spark is introduced by a primer. If you put black powder into an ashtray and put a cigarette in there, your fingers will throb for a very long time and the blackening will be burned into the skin. It explodes without being compressed when a spark is introduced, or rather it burns so fast it seems to explode. John Gilstrap can write here about explosions as he is an expert in energetic materials. When I was in college I put a cigarette into an ashtray I’d poured black powder into.

Here I present a few basics, and probably as much information as an author really needs to know to keep gun owners from laughing out loud and maybe never reading that author’s books again. The two handguns depicted below are my own: the revolver is a Smith & Wesson K-22 Model 17 in .22, and the semi-automatic is a Colt 1911 Model 80 in .45 ACP.

REVOLVERS are guns with cylinders that turn (clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the manufacturer, model, and date issued) to allow a new bullet to present itself before the firing pin in its turn before the barrel. They are also called “Wheel” guns, and may or may not have an exposed hammer. Some hammers are shrouded so the hammer won’t get caught on clothing. They will hold from five to nine rounds depending on caliber and model. Revolvers do not usually have safeties. Not being cocked and/or not having the trigger pulled back is the revolver’s sole safety method. Older guns may be fired if the hammer is struck by force and the firing pin hits the shell’s primer. That is why most cowboys carried the cylinder under the hammer empty. Modern revolvers have a block between the pin and the primer unless the trigger depressed when the hammer falls. There are two types of revolver: the DA, for double action and the SA, for single action. With an SA you have to cock the hammer to move the cylinder (think cowboy gun) or the DA, whose cylinder turns as you squeeze the trigger, or when you cock the hammer.

A SEMI-AUTOMATIC handgun has no cylinder, but is fed cartridges (bullets are the nose of a cartridge) from a magazine (housed in the handle), which holds the cartridges in a stack under pressure from the spring. As each bullet is fired, the receiver slides back from the pressure of the explosion and the extractor grabs the rim of the casing to pull it from the chamber, and flip it out to the right. (There are a few left-handed 1911s whose casings flip to the left). The receiver then moves forward under spring tension and, as it goes, it pushes the next cartridge in the magazine into the chamber and leaves the hammer (or striker assembly in the Glock) cocked for the next trigger pull.

All handguns have some safety mechanism. Some have magazine disconnects (won’t fire without at least an empty clip in place) or some firing pin block (to prevent firing when dropped) is usually incorporated. Most semi-automatics have one or more safeties, and some have none to speak of except a lack of trigger pull. A Colt 1911 (They come in several calibers including .45 ACP, .38 Super. 9MM, and .22 LR) has several including a thumb safety, a grip-strap safety, and on some a half-cock, and one that involves pushing back the receiver a fraction of an inch to prevent it from firing. The latter would be a last ditch to keep the gun from going off, and if you miscalculate and the gunman is lucky, the bullet will pass through your palm. When semi’s last bullet is fired and its case ejected, the receiver locks open to let the user know the weapon is out of ammunition. Slap in a mag, release the receiver, and there’s a new round in the chamber.

You will hear over and over that “Glocks do not have safeties.” But they do. Glocks do not have “external” safeties, but they have the two-part “safe-trigger” which actually is a safety. On a Glock the “Striker” (no internal hammer) is half cocked by the first 1/4″ of slide retraction while chambering a cartridge. The other “half-cocking” of the striker is the first stage take up of the trigger pull. On a Glock you get ONE SNAP, then you have to jack the slide resetting the half cock on the striker to have another snap. With some practice you can only pull the slide back just enough to reset the action without ejecting the “dud” round for another try. Interesting isn’t it? There may be exceptions to what I’ve written, but I think it is accurate enough to get a writer around in a shootout. And probably more than most of you want to know.

A cartridge is made up of four parts: Casing, Bullet, Primer, and Gunpowder. The bullet is the projectile that is seated in the casing, but the cartridge is never accurately called a bullet. A shotgun round is referred to as a shell. A shotgun shell (or round) that has been fired is often called a hull. A shotgun shell holds either pellets or a single slug.

A magazine can hold as many rounds as its length and width accommodates. Some mags hold bullets in a straight line and some are wider to allow staggered rounds. Low capacity factory magazines hold from six to eight rounds. You can keep one on the chamber to add an additional round to the gun’s capacity. Hi-capacity magazines hold more shells than a standard mag. I have had fifteen round mags, and some handgun magazines hold twenty or even thirty rounds. Some handgun drum magazines hold more …a lot more.

A magazine can be called a clip. In the military a rifle or machine gun has a Magazine, handguns can have clips. People rarely say clip any more but it was once common to call any magazine a clip. There are clips that hold .45 ACPs in a half moon for use in .45 LC revolvers, and to shoot 9MM rounds in a 38, but they are rare enough that an author shouldn’t need to concern themselves with those.

There’s lots more to know like available calibers, shotgun gauges, How a barrel length’s effects powder burn and velocity, range, knock-down values, recoil, and trajectory. There are enough bullet types and weights to fill several books. And every author who writes weapons should buy a copy of Gun Digest so they can read about and look at the weapons they write about. Write it off as reference material. Get the latest one you can find because they add new gun models yearly, but anything in the past ten years is plenty for most applications. Any bookseller has them and EBay has lots of them used. Here’s the link:

You can study guns for the rest of your life, but the truth is, authors don’t need to know very much to keep from writing someone shoving a clip into a revolver, playing Russian Roulette with a Glock, or just writing convincingly about what a character has in their hand, handbag, or holster, or how that gun works.


At the beck and call of…

By John Ramsey Miller

In the early fifties William Faulkner once answered the question as to why he didn’t have a telephone by saying, “I won’t be at the beck and call of any son of a bitch with a nickel.” Calls were cheaper then, and people who couldn’t get a private line often used public phones. I know Bill did have a telephone because there’s one on the kitchen wall at his home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, with his friends names and numbers penciled on the wall by his and his wife’s hand. Well, he may have said that before his wife decided she wanted everybody with a telephone to be at her beck and call. While there was bourbon in his writing room, there was no telephone.

Recently when I wrote a phone booth into a manuscript and my editor told me there were no such things in New York City any more, just kiosks, which are becoming rarer these days due to cell phones in every pocket––even those pockets without the price of a public phone kiosk call in them. We can communicate with anybody any time, and even pre-tens have cell phones. One crisp winter morning while I was sitting in a stand in the woods in Mississippi deer hunting I got a call from my agent telling me that the first draft of SIDE BY SIDE had been accepted as written. Ten minutes after hanging up, I shot a deer. After I pulled the trigger, I got a second call, this one from a friend on another part of the property asking if that had been my shot he’d heard. Not long ago I was on a panel in New York at Thrillerfest when my son decided to call me to see what I was doing. I covered the phone with my hand to mute it until it fell silent, then I took it out and turned it off. Holy Moto interruption, Batman.

A couple of years back I saw someone using their cell phone to take a picture and I commented to them, “I have a camera that does that.” Today’s cell phones do everything but mix drinks. I’ve been told that mine has games in it, a 5 megapixel camera, a video camera, texting capabilities, a calculator, access to the internet, an audio recording feature, a choice of ring tones, an alarm clock, a clock-clock, and more, but I merely use mine for phone calls. My kids laugh at me because I don’t know what I can accomplish with the tiny privacy invader. And nothing bugs me more than getting a pocket call from someone who sat on the phone and I have to listen to their conversation with someone else, or background noise, while I’m hollering into my phone at them trying to get their attention to complain. Evidently sound enters a pocket easily, but doesn’t travel from one worth a damn.

I am old enough to remember when Dick Tracy wore a wrist watch with a radio in it and how ridiculous and futuristic that seemed at the time. I remember how badly I wanted one, and now for less than $200.00 I can have my choice of several. They make one that also plays music. Check it out:

The worst thing about writing modern fiction is the problem of instant communication. You can write a technology that doesn’t exist and nobody bats an eye. In one book recently I devised a test (not yet accepted by courts, but in a beta existence) that gave my protagonist DNA results in hours instead of a couple of weeks, and nobody said anything. Because everybody who watches CSI “anywhere” thinks that instant DNA results and access to everybody’s DNA in that city is in a fancy computer database along with fingerprints. If you watch any fictional cop show you see technology at use that (if it existed) would cost cash strapped departments millions of dollars. On TV they do autopsies using holographic images they can view from any angle. In one thriller two men exchanged their actual physical features like they’d exchange two-dollar masks. This is despite the fact that the actors had totally different voices, body types and facial bone structure, and they totally fooled people who’d known them for years. How many cops and criminals are that good an actor.

I use modern technology in my plots because––in a world of nanny cams available for a few dollars–– you can’t ignore it, but I have to admit a burning desire to write a book set in the time of scarce phone booths, mobsters who have to be found by their bosses, villains who can’t listen in on the good guys by merely aiming a laser at a window, can’t use GPS to monitor people’s movements from a distance, fire a rifle and kill someone 1500 yards away, make a bomb that can fit into a tube of lipstick, move around the country in private jets, hack into computers, and all the things that make life easier for all of us. I wanted to set a thriller in 1917 a while back––against the backdrop of a famous murder trial––but was informed that period thrillers didn’t sell. Truth is, I’d love to be able to set a thriller during the War Between the States one of these days.

For a long time we have been living in a world catering to instant gratification, and nothing proves that like our need for immediate communication. I have seen people out in the middle of nowhere take out a cell phone and freak out when they can’t get a signal. I have to admit, it’s odd not to be able to get a signal anywhere these days, and it’s getting to where the absence of a signal is very unusual even out here in the middle of nowhere. I only get irritated when I’m doing something important to me and I am interrupted by someone who basically just wants to break up their day by chit-chatting. I don’t mind being called by someone with something to say––especially when I want to hear what they have to say, but sometimes I, like old Bill Faulkner, resent being at the beck and call of…. Well you know.


Civilization collapsing is great material.

John Ramsey Miller

I think Cormac McCarthy has already written the best end-of-the world book I’ve ever read. But in the future I may write something about the end of the world from my own perspective. It won’t be about a meteor striking the earth, which I personally believe was the cause of the state of the earth in THE ROAD. Looking into the future with accuracy is impossible, of course, but it doesn’t take a psychic, just an ability to look at the present and imagine what the consequences of our actions might lead to something ten times worse. We’re living in a world where every country with the money is developing nukes, or will buy them from Iran, Russia, or North Korea. Once all of the countries who can beg, borrow, or buy them, have them, it’s just a matter of time before they use them the way they use IEDs or AK-47s. If you’ve been paying attention to world affairs, and not living on an Emu farm, you know that’s not merely possible, but highly likely. So there are a thousand end-of time plots not involving meteors striking Florida.

When I was in Great Britain I went through The Tower, and I visited several museums and galleries because I love art and because studying the masters by looking at the actual pieces is a spiritual experience. One overcast afternoon in March my wife and I walked out of the Royal Gallery and looking down at Trafalgar Square I had a vision of something that could be happening in that very location in the future. My flash was of bearded men in robes who were taking the paintings from the museum and feeding a giant fire with the art. I imagined marble statues being shattered by men using sledgehammers, and bronzes being cut into pieces using cutting torches. I could imagined the streets as far as I could see filled with Brits who had lost control of their country and could only stand by as watch as their history was being destroyed due to a decree from the Islamic British Government who were radicalized after having taken over in stages and were ridding Britain of its graven images. This was only after they had killed the animals in the zoos and turned Windsor Palace into a goat ranch. Great background for a thriller. It may not be so far out as I read the other day that there is now Sharia-based court in London ruling on Moslem disputes. I have no idea where it gets its legal authority, but if it’s Moslems on Moslems, I’m sure (as long as there are no executions), most Brits will let it go on. If radical Islamic extremists have their way, it could happen someday, and someday is coming soon in the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain.

I think about the future a lot these days and how systems can break down, and how that might impact me and those I love. It’s smart to prepare for contingencies as though they could become realities, because they certainly can. For instance for the past two weeks there has been a serious gasoline shortage in the Southeast, and finding gas has been a challenge. The closest station to me hasn’t had gasoline since Hurricane Ike, three weeks ago. There are no five gallon gas cans for sale anywhere.

I have the ability to grow food on my land, and have chickens and guns and the bullets for them and I have the mindset to use them if necessary. It’s dumb to think the police can protect you and your loved ones, any time, but if the system is under strain, forget it. You have the right and the duty to protect yourself from outside forces using whatever force that requires. If you are anti-gun you I guess you’ll have to wait however long it takes for the cops to come shovel up your corpse. I have several friends who believe people should not be able to own handguns, and every time there is a story in the news about some wing-nut shooting innocents they join the herd of people who think the killer would have been peaceable had they not had access to guns. In Jamaica more people are killed with machetes than guns, because it’s hard to get a gun, and they are expensive. I believe everybody is free to believe what they like, even if it’s unrealistic and they end up being a victim.

My books are about violent people, and about people who are touched by violence and react in order to survive, sometimes by employing violent means. My protagonists are not by nature violent people, but to stand around and let violent people do them harm without trying to save themselves or others by whatever means are at their disposal is out of the question. My readers wouldn’t enjoy my stories if evil people ever won. I understand that my personal feelings come through my writing. My feeling (in case you care) are that if someone comes to my home, or approaches me seeking to do me harm, odds are better than 50/50 that they will not succeed because I am not a pacifist and, if I decide I have to draw my gun, I will have already decided to shoot to kill, and I will do that. I have trained with a handgun for most of my adult life. I was trained first in the 1970s by the training officer for SWAT teams. I have carried a badge, and I have had concealed carry permits for decades. So as often as not I often go out onto the world with a handgun concealed on my person.

So, in my end-of-the-world book, many will die, but only the bad guys and gals, and there will be hope that the good guys can start over and succeed, which in the real world may be a fiction-dream. I hope the end of the world isn’t around the corner, and I hope it looks nothing like Cormac McCarthy’s.


The Blank Page––Make That The Blank Screen

By John Ramsey Miller

I have never had writer’s block. I have had my share of fits of laziness, but I can always sit down at my computer and knock out a chapter or three. I credit my time, in the late eighties, that I spent as an advertising copywriter with Hoffman/ Miller Advertising. Each day I would sit at a typewriter––an IBM Selectric first, and later an Apple Lisa–– and I would knock words out in short or long lines. I knew I wasn’t writing The Catcher In The Rye, but I took what I was doing seriously because I knew that companies and their employees depended on what I did to communicate what they offered, and that they depended on my judgment and creativity to grow their sales.

In those days, in a booming New Orleans, I would work on several accounts every day, so my mind was constantly changing gears between real estate, to jewelry, Italian clothing, oil & gas, tank storage farms, banking, foods, hot tubs, parking decks, mayonnaise, coffee & tea, chemicals, hospitals, restaurants, and other private, retail and wholesale clients whose needs varied. I wrote or directed to be written, brochures, catch lines, jingles, TV and radio spots, body copy and point of sale ads. There were always deadlines that couldn’t be missed no matter what else was going on, and we never missed one, although our suppliers did on occasion.

Most importantly, I learned to take rejection, and never to take it personally, and to get on to the next thing with enthusiasm and a clear head. We were a young agency and we often went up against other larger agencies and often we lost out, not based on our creative solutions, but because other larger agencies were seen as “safer”. We rarely had the advantage, but we often won with our creative approaches.

We’d begin campaigns by asking ourselves questions about what the client’s target customer was going to stop and look at, and what they might act on or would likely pass over. I was fortunate that I had a partner, Nathan Hoffman, who was and had a remarkable work ethic, and we didn’t care who came up with or got the credit for an idea that made sense.

I learned to take criticism of my ideas and copy and to make changes based on what other people who knew thought without feeling offended or slighted. If you don’t have a thick skin you can’t be successful in advertising or writing commercial fiction. Once we sold a new logo and accompanying campaign to a CEO of a large company, but before we left, he asked the cleaning lady who was emptying his trash can which one she liked, and she picked the old one and said she hated the one we’d agreed on because she “didn’t get it.” Even though she was accustomed to the old one because she knew it, she planted a bad seed in his mind and shook his confidence in the new logo. He had a point since a logo had to make sense to everyone and might be too radical a change too fast and leave some old customers baffled. We ended up doing an updated variation of the old logo, and nobody was lost in the shuffle. Once we had to throw out a campaign that was unfolding over several months because the client’s wife had a friend she trusted who was “bored” with the campaign and thought it ought to be more exciting. Explaining numbers of impressions needed over time to establish the client’s products was a waste of time. The client ate the expense of starting a new more exciting campaign because, and I quote, “I have to sleep with my wife.” All we could was what the client asked for.

I had one client, David Rubenstein, whose Rubenstein Bros. clothing stores told me. “John, you can agree with my ideas and do what I think is best against your better judgment, which is what I am paying you for, but if it fails, I’ll blame you. If you disagree, just say so, and if I go against your suggestions, I’ll take the blame.” Clients as perfect as David Rubenstein were indeed rare, but treasured by our agency.

So I think back on those days and what I learned, and realize that it helped me become the writer I am. I am easy to work with because I understand that it’s the end product that counts. Although I have a lot of control of my stories, I always listen to my agent and my editor because they know more than I do, and I am always ready to make whatever changes they feel will improve my work. And, you know, so far they have always been right.

When I am called upon to give advice to new authors, I can only go back to what worked for me, and most of it all goes back to those days when I was filling blank pages without knowing there was such a thing as writer’s block.