So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

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

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

And for heaven’s sake, keep reading.

Free Fall

On American Idol the other night—yes, I’m a fan and I’m proud to admit it—I heard a bit of advice delivered to an Idolette by one of the industry mentors that rang a resounding bell of truth in my head.  The mentor, a famous drummer that I’d never heard of, told the singer that she was thinking too much.  He said that the secret to a great performance was to prepare, prepare, prepare before the show, but then to “free fall” once she hit the stage.
Hearing those words made me realize what’s wrong with my writing when it doesn’t work, and what makes it euphoric when I’m in the zone: When I think too much, the writing suffers.  I believe that’s one of the reasons why I vastly prefer rewriting to writing.  In those later drafts, I already know where the story is going, and I can allow myself the luxury of playing the in world I’ve created for my characters.  I get to step into the story and free fall.
Sometimes, the free fall happens on first drafts, too.  Actually it happens frequently.  Perhaps that’s how I’m able to write a book per year and still have a demanding Big Boy job.  I don’t know.  That’s one of the things that I try not to think about too much.
I am on the record here in TKZ regarding my thoughts on writing classes and such—that at the end of the day, successful writers are created exclusively through the act of writing—but this throw-away line on American Idol fine-tuned the point in my head. 
Books on writing and classes on writing can be of enormous value, but only as part of the preparation for free fall.  But if the class assignments and the reading invade the writer’s consciousness during the process of writing, those taught words and techniques thrust a giant wind break into the airstream of the free fall.  The writing becomes the fulfillment of an exercise rather than the flow of the writer’s imagination.
I think that’s why so much writing that flows from MFA classes feels stilted and leaves its creators  so frustrated in the long run.  The danger of the wind break is why I tell new writer to quit searching for rules, and to search instead for their own voices.  The only way to do that is through butt-in-the-chair writing.
Let me be abundantly clear: workshops and writing books can be of enormous value, but only insofar as they provide an intellectual foundation for what is essentially an emotional experience for the writer.  If the writer does his job correctly, that emotion will transfer to the reader.
I used to tell people in classes and speeches that the single major difference between the first three (unpublished) books I wrote and the first book to get published was that when I wrote Nathan’s Run, I was less concentrated on Writing A Book (that phrase should be read with rolled Rs and an exaggerated English accent) and more focused on telling a story.
From now on, I’ll tell people that the difference was that with Nathan’s Run, I allowed myself to free fall.  I inserted myself into the world I’d created, and I wrote from the heart.
So, dear Killzoners, what do you think?  Are you ready for a free fall?  You’ll note that I never mentioned anything about a parachute—or about the potential for a very hard, very uncomfortable landing.

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?

Can You Feel the Love?

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

Lots Of Opportunity in 2012

By John Gilstrap
Fair warning: What follows might be categorized as shameless self-promotion.  I prefer to think of it as seeing pretty lights on the horizon.  Either way . . .

If 2012 lives up to its potential, it could be a terrific year for me, career-wise.  It’s the kind of potential that I hesitate to talk about for fear of jinxing things, but among my resolutions for this year is to be less locked-down about things in general.

Let’s start with book news.  Nathan’s Run, my first novel (released in 1996), is now available in all eBook formats, with a paper version to follow sometime in the future.  As an added bonus, the eBook contains a link to my original ending to the story, which should answer the single most-asked question about Nathan’s Run.

On the Jonathan Grave front, Kensington is yet again stepping up to give the series as big a push as the market can sustain.  Damage Control (June, 2012) is featured in a two-page spread for the catalog, and will be released in a premium mass market format–not quite trade paper, but taller than the standard MMPB, which, if nothing else, allows for a more readable font size.  This is what happens when a professional sales force truly gets 100 percent behind an author and his books.  I couldn’t ask for more.

Hopefully, there’ll be movie news in 2012, as well.  New Year’s resolutions notwithstanding, I have to be a little circumspect here, but we seem to have taken a giant step closer to seeing a version of Six Minutes to Freedom on the big screen.  The rules of the movie game dictate that official announcements come not from me but from the producers.  Suffice to say that meetings are going very well, and that all the players seem to truly get the story.

Then there’s the television series I’m developing.  This, too, seems to have real legs with intense interest from all the right people.  We’ll actually be doing some shooting later in the month.  If it goes well, y’all will be among the first to hear.  If it doesn’t, well, I probably won’t say much because I think it’s a very good, very stealable idea.  (Is stealable a word?)

Finally, I would love to make this my first two-book year.  I’ve had an idea knocking around in my head for years, and if I don’t get it on paper, it’s going to make me crazy.  For that to happen, though, I need to write the next Grave book in six months instead of a year.  If all the other stuff comes to pass, this one might not be doable, but for now, in the first week of a brand new year, anything and everything is possible.

Here’s hoping that everyone’s dreams are realized in 2012!

Reader Baggage

By John Gilstrap
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a “fan” who loves my books, but is deeply annoyed that I allow my “left wing liberal politics” invade my work. I’ll give those who know me well a moment to stop laughing.

As evidence of my “politically correct bullshit” he notes that in Threat Warning, my fictional terrorists are “God fearing Christian men and women” when “we all know” that the true terrorists are Muslims. In my reply, I ignored the substance–including his assessment of who my fictional terrorist truly are–and thanked him for reading my work. Some conversations are just not worth having.

For the record, I work very hard to keep politics out of my writing. It just doesn’t belong. I’ll leave that subgenre of the thriller market to Brad Thor and Barry Eisler—between the two of them, the ends of the political spectrum are well covered. Still, I guess it makes sense that because Jonathan Grave is a former Delta operator and he uses a lot of weaponry, people might assume that he’s a right-winger, but that would be based only on the clichéd assumptions made about groups of people. Truth be told, I don’t think that Digger would have much time for any politician.

This email got me thinking, though, about how much of our reading is informed by the baggage we bring to the material we choose. We’ll all give a second (or third or fourth) chance to a writer whose earlier work impressed us, but think about how hard it is to give that same break to the same author who everyone loves, but whose first effort you experienced was sort of meh.

And it’s not just true of books. I like just about everybody, but there are a few folks on my shit list whose email correspondence always seems snide or hurtful. I have to remind myself that it’s entirely possible—maybe likely—that no offense was intended, and that where there’s no intent, there’s no foul, right?

When I was in junior high, I read my first Great Novel: Lord of the Flies. I was a better than average student, and as I read it, I remember being so proud of myself for catching on to the social subtext—the symbolism—of the book. My cousin was a high school English teacher at the time, teaching Lord of the Flies to seniors. When he told me that the pig-killing scene had Oedipal overtones, I thought he was making it up. Even after he explained it, I didn’t get it. That’s because I was reading an adventure story while he was teaching literature.

In Threat Warning, I wrote a thriller that my fan apparently read as a political treatise. At a book signing years ago, a very enthusiastic fan lauded Nathan’s Run for its symbolic depiction of the plight of the American Indian. She meant it as a compliment and I took it as such.  I never told her that American Indians never once entered my consciousness as I wrote the book.

I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that once my words are published, my opinion of what I meant to say has no more validity—perhaps even less validity—than the opinion of those who read the words through their own filters. That’s the nature of art in any form, I think. I get my shot when I create it; after that, it’s all up to the observer/consumer.

What do you think? If a book arouses in you an intense emotion, does it matter that it might never have been the author’s intention to do so? Do authors’ intentions for their own work matter at all after the book is published?

Nathan Is Running Again

By John Gilstrap
As part of our larger plan to carpet bomb the planet with Gilstrap fiction, NATHAN’S RUN, my first novel, originally published in 1996, is once again available–first as an eBook, and then next year as a mass market paperback.

My publisher, Kensington, is trying a few cool marketing gimmicks for this release. Most notable is the fact that it will be exclusive to Barnes and Noble’s Nook for the first five months–through the end of 2011. Then, in January, it will be available on all eBook formats.  I guess this is a way to gain favor with the world’s only remaining behemoth bookstore.

When the Kensington team and I were discussing the plans for the rerelease, we came up with another idea that I thought was exceptionally cool: the alternative ending. My original ending for NATHAN’S RUN was significantly different than the ending in the published book.  Readers of the new version will be directed to a site where they can read my original version. It will be interesting to see what kind of response I get.

Truth be told, I’m not one hundred percent comfortable doing this.  A printed book lives forever locked in the version that was printed and distributed. There is no alternative version, and part of me thinks that’s the way it should be, with the artist’s vision locked down and reflecting his or her world view at the time.

On the other hand, I’ve always been fascinated with the process that produces art. I love, for example, reading the line edited works of the masters to see how their thoughts evolved over time.

What do you think?  Is it intriguing to see what “might have been” in a work of fiction, or would you prefer that the original version stand alone forever?

Best Advice Redux

By John Gilstrap

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that today’s post start as a response to Michelle’s post from yesterday regarding the best and worse writing advice we’ve received. Michelle pretty much nailed everything on the head, but there’s one more that plays to the heart of this whole author-as-marketer thing.

When my first book, Nathan’s Run, was published in 1996, the Internet as far as I knew it, consisted of the AOL Writer’s Club—singularly the best virtual writers’ hangout I’ve ever been affiliated with. Those were the days when you paid for online time by the hour. Between the newness of my writing career, the newness of the technology, and the overall coolness factor of it all, I spent a lot of time with my friends in the Writer’s Club. Enough time, in fact, that it prompted my editor at the time to issue the following bit of advice:

Don’t let being a writer interfere with actually writing.

Writing the next book is the single best thing you can do to gain support for the previous book. After a while, an author’s body of work becomes sort of a self-sustaining marketing tool. The poster child my editor named as the antithesis of this advice was Truman Capote, whose writing quality was, he believed and I agree, inversely proportional to his fame.

This advice resonates loudly with me every year when conference season rolls around. Properly selected and managed, I think that conferences are the single greatest marketing tool available to writers—both budding and established. The real work is done in the bar, whether you’re a drinker or a teetotaler. You just need to screw up the courage to talk to people. It’s not the place to pitch your books, but it is the place to meet and impress fans and industry people alike.

Even though I recognize the value of conferences, it would be entirely possible for an author to spend 75% of his annual allotment of weekends traveling the country and talking about himself. There comes a point of diminishing returns. I have my favorites—ThrillerFest, Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder—which I try to make every year, and I might throw in one or two more if I’m invited or if it’s close to home, but that’s it. It has to be.

Standard book signings are to me a waste of time. Ditto book tours.

Facebook and Twitter are great as tools, but I believe they work best as subliminal pleas for business. If you post and say something smart, I might try your product. If you send me a direct request, the likelihood drops dramatically. For the life of me, I don’t understand why writers flog their work on writers’ boards. One or two posts per day on social media are ideal because I don’t think anyone does more than two things per day that are interesting enough to tweet about.

When all is said and done, I think the truth about effective book marketing is harsh news for new writers: You’ve got to build a fan base, and the only way to do that is to churn out a consistent stream of good product that is appropriately priced. Every minute of self-promotion that takes away from your ability to churn out at least one book per year (but probably no more than two), is doing so little good as to perhaps be doing harm.

Shameless Self-Promotion Alert

by John Gilstrap
A few times a year (but only a few times) I devote my slice of intellectual real estate here on The Killzone to shameless self-promotion.  Today is one of those days.

This will be a three-book summer for me.  Threat Warning, the third installment of the Jonathan Grave thriller series, will hit the stands on July 1; but before that, in hopes of whetting readers’ appetities, Kensington will rerelease my 1998 novel, At All Costs, on May 1 (next week!).  The pBook rerelease will follow in 2012.

We chose At All Costs for the first rerelease (Nathan’s Run will come out again in eBook form in August) because it actually shares literary DNA with the Grave series.  That’s the book where Irene Rivers–now the director of the FBI, codenamed Wolverine in the Grave books–was first introduced.  In At All Costs, she’s my protagonists’ worst nightmare as she continues to pursue them for crimes that only they know they never committed.

The rerelease strategy was my editor’s suggestion–well, sort of.  During a meeting at last year’s Bouchercon in San Francisco, she mentioned that she’d like to see a story about Irene’s past.  When I told her that I’d already written it, but it was now out of print, Kensington re-bought the rights, and here we are.

I’ve blogged before that it’s a daunting task to edit page proofs of a previously-published book.  In the end, I didn’t change much beyond a significant reduction (but not elimination) of the F-bomb.  I tried hard to keep my substantive changes to a minimum, but a few were irresistable.  Take the throw-away reference to the “US Air Arena,” which, at the time I wrote the original story, was the hope of the Washington Capitals hockey team and the Washington Bullets basketball team.  Since then, US Air became US Airways, the Bullets ceased to exist.  The facility itself was abandoned and ultimately torn down.  Last time I drove through there, it was an empty lot.  I changed the throw-away reference to “a stadium.”  That should stay relevant for a while.

The most interesting part of the editing process was the realization that the story would have been largely different if I had written it today.  A huge section takes place at a hazardous waste site.  In 1996, when I was committing the story to paper, that hazmat stuff was very much a part of my life.  As I was reading through the vernacular and the images, I realized that there’s a verisimilitude there that I don’t think I could have created from my now-stale memories of my moon-suit days.  Forgive the immodesty, but there are passages in the book that cause me to pause and think, “Wow, that’s really good.”

Then there was the emotion of revisiting that creative space in my mind.  My son–now 25–was ten years old when I wrote At All Costs, and it’s impossible to read some passages without being taken back to where I was in my life when I penned them.  Those were heady days, when the publishing industry was all hope an opportunity and unbridled success for me–the days when I was first meeting so many of the then-up-and-coming writers who would soon become fast friends, and staples of your local bookstore.  I’m not one to long for turning the clock back, but I’m not above bouts of nostalgia.  The act of revisiting At All Costs felt like a bit like piloting a time machine on occasion. 

As I write this, I fear that I’m not explaining it well, but it’s the best I can do.

I hope you have a chance to read the book.  More than that, I hope you enjoy it if you do.

Second Chances

By John Gilstrap

My first two published novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, are out of print, and the rights reverted to me several years ago. Thanks to the somewhat startling success of the first two books in the Jonathan Grave series—No Mercy and Hostage Zero—Kensington Publishing purchased the reprint rights, and both will reappear on the shelves in 2011, first as eBooks and then as pBooks.

They’ll be published in reverse order, however, with At All Costs scheduled for a May release and Nathan’s Run coming out in August. The rationale here is all about practicality: At All Costs introduces FBI Agent Irene Rivers, a secondary yet pivotal character in the Grave books. With the latest Grave book, Threat Warning, coming out in late June, the reverse order seems like an attractive marketing platform. I guess we’ll see.

Enough shameless self-promotion for now.

It’s an interesting exercise to revisit stories I wrote thirteen and fifteen years ago. I have the opportunity to change anything I want—whether to merely put on a fresh coat of paint, or to pull down the Sheetrock and move the walls. I tell you that it’s tempting. If I were to write either of those books today, telling the same story, they’d be structured a lot differently. I’m startled by the degree to which my storytelling instincts have evolved.

But I’m going to resist the temptation—mostly. Fact is, I’m still very proud of both books, and I still think they’re well-written, even if I would write them differently today. They are, in fact, the books I wrote at the time, and the purist in me wants them to remain blazes on the trail I walked in the 1990s. They reflect the sensibilities and the world view of a young father with a small child, written at a time that was in so many ways different than today.

But I can’t leave them alone entirely. In fact, I think I’d be foolish to leave some elements untouched. For example, there’s one scene in At All Costs that I put in specifically under pressure from my editor at the time. I never liked it, and after the book was published, I cringed that it was there. Well, it’s not anymore. It wasn’t mine to begin with, so I don’t apologize for taking it out.

A little trickier are the changes I plan for the ending of Nathan’s Run. My original manuscript ended with a wrap-up chapter—a coda, if you will, much like the codas that end most of my later books. I took it out under pressure from everyone in my publishing food chain—from my then-agent’s assistant, through my editor and beyond. Since then, I have received hundreds of letters and emails from readers who wanted to know precisely the information that I had originally included in my manuscript. I’m putting it back.

Because it’s the ending, though—literally the last images of the story—this change makes me nervous. Part of me wants to put in some kind of note that says, “This used to be the end of the story,” but the rest of me acknowledges that it’s a mistake to interrupt the reading experience. I’ve got three weeks to figure this out, so there’s room for advice (hint, hint).

Most appropriate to threads that have been discussed here in the Killzone is my plan to largely defuckify both books.

Now, before any of you start slinging accusations of hypocrisy, let’s make this clear from the beginning: I told the publisher I wanted to do this, not the other way around. In fact, defuckification vastly complicates things for Kensington.

Again, my rationale is simple and practical: Hundreds (and hundreds) of letters and emails from fans telling me that they loved the books and believed that their children/mother/father/sister/brother would love it, too, if only they could share it. The language was the dealbreaker.

And you know what? They’re right. There’s a lot of gratuitous profanity in those books. In Nathan’s Run—a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist—there’s a passage that rhymes with “you trucking punt.” The story doesn’t need that. Perhaps no story needs that. (For the record, when I wrote that passage in 1994, I don’t think the C-word was as loaded as it is now. And, for the record, the epithet is directed from one male character to another male character.)

By way of full disclosure, a few F-bombs will remain, but in each case, I feel that they’re essential to the scene. In each case, I test-drove the scene sans F-bomb and they didn’t work.

My question to Killzoners is this: Is it okay for authors to “improve” upon their work when given a second chance, or should the first go-around live on forever?