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.


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.

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.

Pure Coolness

By John Gilstrap

I’m writing this blog post on Sunday, January 15 knowing that when you read it, I will be in the middle of a very, very cool day.  Actually, a warm day, I hope.  In Las Vegas, where I’ll be signing books this morning at the 2012 SHOT Show.  According to the show’s website, www.shotshow.org, “The Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT Show) and Conference is the largest and most comprehensive trade show for all professionals involved with the shooting sports, hunting and law enforcement industries.  It is the world’s premier exposition of combined firearms, ammunition, law enforcement, cutlery, outdoor apparel, optics and related products and services.”  Last year, over 50,000 people attended.

I was invited to the show months ago by the nice people at 5.11 Tactical, a well-respected manufacturer of tactical apparel–the very kind of geat that Jonathan Grave wears as he charges through my imagination.  In fact, in preparation for the show, 5.11 tactical sent me a carton of gear, including shirt, pants, jacket and the best pair of boots I’ve ever worn.  I’ll be wearing the attire for the book signings and the press conference.

I’ve never enjoyed this kind of VIP treatment before, so I confess to being a little giddy.  Take a look at my official itinerary from yesterday:

6:30am — Firearms instructor will pick you up at the hotel
7:00am — arrive at range, setup/meet with range staff, gear check, etc.
7:00am-7:30am — Orientation, area familiarization, safety briefing, etc.
8:00am-11:00am — Firearms training
11:00am-12:00pm — Knife training
12:00 — depart back to hotel for lunch and classroom training
12:30-1:30 — Prefense Technologies — lecture, PowerPoint presentation, student interactive, etc.
1:30-2:15 — Prep for author panel
2:30-3:30 — Author Panel Press Conference, Venetian Murano Room 3306.

Really, how cool is that?  As I write this, I’m hoping that the knife training comes complete with either thick padding or fake knives.  You’ll know the answer, I suppose, if you see a post here next week.

Tally ho!

Choosing the Best Point of View

By John Gilstrap
Stories are collections of moments the propel the plot through the eyes of characters.  One of the critical decisions that an author has to make dozens of times over the course of a book-length manuscript is to determine which character each moment belongs to.  I don’t think this issue applies to first-person narration because the POV is forever locked in the head of the protagonist.  For third-person storytelling, though, the decision is paramount.

It’s also a key element of the overall strategy of a book.  For example, in my Jonathan Grave books, Jonathan’s is almost always the primary POV for scenes in which he is involved.  The exceptions are limited to moments where I want to reveal other characters’ impressions of Jonathan.  I never write a scene from the point of view of Boxers, however–Jonathan’s best friend and protector–because his character works better through the eyes of others.

Because these books are a series, I have the luxury of developing my primary characters over a multi-book arc.  That’s not the case for the secondary characters–the guest stars, if you will, the people who are the focus of Jonathan’s current adventures.  I have to bring these focus-characters to life, make the reader love them (or hate them) and resolve their entire story arc within the confines of the current book.  Plus, I have to do all of that without letting the story sag under the weight of obvious characterization.  If I don’t plan well, it can become a nightmare.

As an example, whose POV is more compelling during a hostage rescue scene, the hostage or the rescuer?  If the bad guy is going to be killed in the shootout, should some of the action be from his point of view, too?  If so, then that means I needed to give him some scenes earlier in the story so that I don’t have to introduce his worldview to the reader in the middle of an action scene.  (As far as I’m concerned, an action sequence combined with exposition isn’t an action sequence at all–it’s a muddled mess.)

These choices aren’t just limited to chases and shootouts, either.  If male and female characters we both care about are meeting for the first time, whose POV is more compelling?  If the meeting doesn’t go well, is it better to see the rejection from the point of view of the rejectee or the rejector?

There are of course no right or wrong answers because this writing game has no rules.  There’s only what works and what doesn’t, and even that decision is bound only by artistic choice.  In my heart of hearts, I think that we all know the difference, but there are few among us who haven’t on occasions stuck with the wrong choice for fifty pages too long.

Good Guy PDC

By John Gilstrap
Good morning, everyone. Now that you’ve had a chance to mingle and meet, let’s take our seats and get started. Welcome to the first annual Good Guy Professional Development conference. Mr. Grave, Mr. Rapp and Mr. Harvath, I need you to leave your weapons at the check station. You, too, Mr. Massey. Yes, all of them. Mr. al-Jawadi will take good care of them.

Mr. Rapp, I don’t appreciate that kind of talk here. Not all . . . Okay, apology accepted.

I’d like to offer a special welcome to President Ryan. It’s a real honor, sir. And congratulations on your son’s success as well. I think we all can agree that the world is a much safer—

Excuse me. Yes, Mr. Pitt? Because they’re Secret Service agents, that’s why. They are the single exception to the no weapons rule. Surely this makes sense to you. I thought it would. Thank you.

Moving along, this morning’s agenda includes—

Oh, good God. Who’s pounding on the door? Oh. Just ignore her, and maybe she’ll go away. What? No, I’m not being sexist. Jessica Fletcher is not welcome in any gathering that I run. Certainly not where food or tea is being served. It’s just not worth the risk.

Who locked the doors, anyway? Ah. And why did you do that, Inspector Poirot? Uh huh. I see. Well, technically, Inspector, there’s more than one killer in this room. Quite a lot more than one, actually. We don’t need a locked room, thanks. It’s a fire code violation.

Mr. Lockwood and Mr. Pike, please sit down. I don’t need your help. And Inspector Poirot does not “talk funny,” as you say. He’s Belgian. And meaning no offense, why are you two here in the first place? This conference is for lead characters. A sidekick conference is in the planning stages . . . My apologies, Mr. Pike, you’re absolutely right. I’d forgotten. You’re welcome to stay. But Mr. Lockwood—may I call you Win? All right, then, Mr. Lockwood, I need to ask you to leave.

Getting back to the agenda, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, beginning with a panel presented by Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne discussing the difficulties of living a dual life. That will be moderated by Peter Parker.

I see you, Mr. Bolitar. Please put the laser pointer down. The red dot on my chest is certainly a riot, but it’s distracting. Thank you.

The dual life panel will be followed by a technical workshop called “How to Get 500 Rounds Out Of A 30-Round Magazine Without Reloading.” That will be jointly taught by two of my favorite Johns: John “Hannibal” Smith, and John Rambo.

Our luncheon speaker is the ever-entertaining Captain Ahab, whose keynote is titled, “Manic Monomania.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been thinking about little else for days.

In the afternoon, we have . . .

The afternoon sessions are up to you, dear Killzoners. Let’s have some fun. Trying to stick to the voice of the speaker, post your suggested courses and presenters. Or interact some more with the attendees.
This could be a hoot.

(FYI, I’ll be away from the keyboard all day today, so I’ll be kinda quiet.)