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?

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!

No Target Escaped Alive

By John Gilstrap

There are perks to writing in my little corner of the thriller genre.  Three or four weeks ago, I got an email from an active-duty U.S. Navy SEAL named Steve telling me how much he liked the Jonathan Grave books, and wondering how I did my research.  He said in his email that I was “spot on” the details.  Wow.  As compliments go, it doesn’t get a lot better than that.

This started an ongoing correspondence, and after I told him about the tour I got of the First Special Forces Operational Detatchment-Delta compound at Fort Bragg (the Delta Force compound), he offered me a tour of the SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, a mere three and a half hour drive from my front door.  He learned not to make such offers lightly.  I said not just yes but hell yes, and the details all came together last week.

First a few details about this amazing community of heroes.  Steve is now preparing for his fourteenth deployment since 2001, having only recently returned from Afghanistan.  He’s an E-9 (a master chief, the highest enlisted rank available), and he just won the Legion of Merit with Valor Device for an operation he’s not allowed to talk about.  When I asked him about it, his first concern was how I knew that he had won the award.  He seemed almost embarrassed.  They don’t do what they do for the glory of it; they do it for the honor of serving.  I know it sounds corny, but when you’re with these elite Special Foces guys for more than ten minutes, you know that they’re speaking from the heart.

Like the Unit compound at Bragg, the SEAL compound is the land of broad shoulders and no necks.  It’s also where you’re far more apt to see long hair and mustaches than the high-and-tight clean-shaven look.  Within minutes of checking into my hotel on Thursday afternoon, my cell phone rang.  It was Steve, asking me if I was in town yet (I was), and if I wanted to go watch a training exercise (I did).

He picked me up at the front door of my hotel and we drove into the hinterlands, through a couple of security chcekpoints, until finally we were in a simulated Iraqi village.  With snow on the ground–okay, there’s a limit to simulation.  Within a few minutes we met George (all of these guys go by nicknames–remember Maverick and Iceman?–but I’m not sure what’s appropriate to pass on, so none of the names are real), the guy in charge of running the training scenario.  George said, “Nice to meet you.  For the full training experience, do you want to be an insurgent?  We can get you the gear.”

“Sure,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” Steve said.  That brought a big laugh.  Turns out they use turbo-charged paint pellets, and it’s never pleasant.  They also deploy the god-awful meanest dogs I’ve ever seen.  Muzzles notwithstanding, I would have needed a change of trousers.  Still, I got to watch the training, and I learned a lot–much of which will appear in future Jonathan Grave books.  And I had yet to begin the real tour.

Friday began at 8:30, with a tour of the administrative areas, and then the shooting range.  I got to see the squardron team room where Uday and Qusay Hussein’s gold-plated weapons are on display.  There’s also a very cool picture of a SEAL team in the prison yard of Carcel Modelo in Panama City, taken within 24 hours of the events I wrote about in Six Minutes to Freedom.  That was very, very cool.

But let’s be honest.  The shooting range was the best of all.  My firearms instructor was a former SEAL who goes by Turbo.  A hero of the famed Roberts Ridge engagement in Afghanistan, he’s the nicest guy in the world, and has the coolest toys on the planet.

The attached videos show me shooting the Heckler and Koch (HK) MP-7 (4.6 mm/17 caliber) and then the HK 417 (7.62 mm/.30 caliber).  I also shot the HK 416 (the 5.56 mm/.223 caliber carbine that is replacing the Colt M4, which replaced the venerated M16 as a soldier’s best friend).  These are all very, very cool weapons.  The coolest weapon of all was one for which I have no video.  The .300 WinMag is a standard sniper rifle for the SEALs, and let me tell you it is a cannon.  It fires a .30 caliber magnum round that is deadly accurate at 1500 yards.  (I say with no small degree of pride that I shot the snot out of my target at 200 yards.)

Having never served in the military myself (no source of pride there, I assure you), whenever I visit those who do the nation’s bidding, I always leave inspired.  Cool toys aside, my new friend Steve will be heading into harm’s way in two weeks, and he won’t be home for his family again for four months.  Modern technology lets him communicate every day–with live pictures, even–but nothing substitutes for the touch and smell of the people you love. 

They do what they do because it is a job for which there is no comparison.  The nature of their jobs requires violence, but the violence is not something they crave.  They take solace in being the best of the best, and they, more than anyone else, pray for peace.

I’m a better person for being able to call a few of these heroes my friend.  I pray that they succeed in their mission, but more than that, I pray that they all come home safely. 

Little White Scholarly Lies

By John Gilstrap

One of the few undeniable, irrefutable take-to-the-bank rules of the publishing industry is that nonfiction is easier to sell than fiction. It’s as true in the bookstore as it is on an editor’s desk. If you’re a celebrity, your book is a slam-dunk, even if you have precious little to say. If you’re just an average Joe, on the other hand, you’d better have a pretty enticing angle.

James Frey had just such an angle in his explosive memoir of addiction entitled, A Million Little Pieces. You might remember that book as the target of the Greatest Oprah Meltdown Ever, when she found out that the ridiculously unbelievable, over-the-top autobiography was, in fact, fiction. The world learned this when The Smoking Gun did a little elementary school-level fact checking. Frey’s publishers, Doubleday and Anchor Books, were shocked—shocked, I tell you—that a book with their name on the spine (and its earnings in their coffers) was not everything that the author had crossed his heart and hoped to die and pinky-swore was absolutely true.

After all, if it weren’t true, they couldn’t have marketed it and promoted it as vastly more profitable and easily promoted nonfiction.

Stephen Glass had gasp-inducing angles, too, on all the wild news items he wrote for The New Republic in the late nineties. For a kid in his twenties, he had remarkable access to some of the world’s most interesting people and fascinating stories. After stories were published—many of them fantastical and negative—the subjects (victims?) wrote letters to the editor complaining about inaccuracies and fabrications, but hey, isn’t that what people always do when they’re called out by hardworking investigative reporters? It took different elementary school-level fact checking from a Forbes Magazine reporter to knock down that house of cards.

The Stephen Glass scandal rocked the journalistic world. So many investigative reporters, quoting so many unnamed sources, all of them looking for a marketable angle, were shocked—shocked, I tell you again—that one of their brethren had cheated.

Truth is, I expect a fair level of fabrication from young and hungry “journalists” who are looking for their marketable angles. What’s the harm in a little fantasy, after all, if you’re giving the editors and the audience what they want to read? Isn’t the fact that targets can never confront their accusers part of the beauty of using unnamed sources? And if anyone presses too hard on the accuracy thing, there’s always the convenient excuse that the 24-hour news cycle demands corner-cutting, thus transforming the reporters into victims themselves.

Sorry, Killzoners, but you don’t live and work in Washington, DC for as long as I have without becoming cynical.

Even my cynical outlook, though, didn’t prepare me for the New Yorker’s revelation in April that the late, presumably great Stephen E. Ambrose was himself a serial fabricator of facts. His claim that his benchmark autobiography of Dwight D. Eisenhower was based on “hundreds and hundreds of hours” of one-on-one interviews was a bit overstated. The real number of interview hours, while apparently hard to nail down specifically, numbered “less than five.” I understand that we all succumb to hyperbole from time to time, but even the forgiving, non-cynical among you have to concede that there’s no innocent way to exaggerate less-than-five into hundreds-and-hundreds.

Ambrose cheated. Apparently, his many Eisenhower-related books (I confess I’ve never read them) are replete with footnotes and annotations referring to these one-on-one interviews that never happened. All those quoted passages, then, really are only quotes from Ambrose’s imagination—a representation of what he thought Ike would have said if asked.

This one hurts, folks. We’re talking about the author of Band of Brothers here. The author of D-Day. The guy was a freaking brilliant author. He just, you know, made up a lot of his nonfiction facts. The income from his work, however, was very real, and I’m sure that continuing royalties will continue to pay a lot of bills for his descendents.

Let’s be clear: I don’t begrudge the Ambrose estate a penny. Nor do I begrudge the incomes of Messrs. Frey and Glass. They’re gifted writers who understood the markets they were selling to, and they gave their publishers exactly what they craved. I think the authors did a crappy unethical thing, but I know a lot of people who make their livings doing crappy unethical things. (I mentioned that I work in Washington, right?)

When Kurt Muse and I wrote my only nonfiction opus, Six Minutes to Freedom, I made it clear from the beginning that while the story would be 100% true, I was going to take shortcuts for the sake of pacing. Since I was changing names anyway—a requirement of many of the participants before they would agree to be interviewed—what difference would it make if I combined some personalities and created dialogue that represented the gist of what was said, even if the direct quotes were fabricated? Hell, in the “true” movie The Perfect Storm, Warner Brothers took us into the wheelhouse to witness the conversations of people who never lived to be interviewed, and the world ate it up.

Unlike the other examples I mention of fabrication, when I wrote Six Minutes to Freedom, I was protective enough of my integrity as an author to clearly explain my shortcuts in my Author’s Note. I was honest. And I paid a price. More than a few nonfiction purists objected to my admitted juggling of reality, preferring, no doubt, to read works of history by true scholars like Stephen E. Ambrose. He used footnotes and everything.

So, Killzoners, what do you think? Borrowing from the great Stephen Colbert, is “truthiness” a high enough standard in the world of nonfiction? On a scale that measures ethics alone, absent personal preference, are the offenses of Frey, Glass and Ambrose all equal? And the depressing, distressing elephant in the room: Does any of it matter in the end if the little white scholarly lies sell books?

My Fumble Recovery

By John Gilstrap

A couple of months ago, I ran into a longtime friend I hadn’t seen in years, and he asked me why I’d stopped writing. The last book of mine that he’d read was Scott Free, which came out in 2003. When I told him that I’d written two books since then, he expressed shock and asked why I hadn’t told him.

In the pantheon of really good questions, that one shoots right to the top. I thought I had told him. I mean, I’m on Facebook, right? And I tweet and I’ve got a website. I spent a lot of money on publicity and advertising for No Mercy. How could he not know? Even as I type those words, I realize how impossibly naïve I sound.

When At All Costs was published in 1998, my wife and I developed a comprehensive mailing list of 1,500 people. This included everyone from family to old high school classmates I hadn’t spoken to in years. It even included my wife’s old classmates. We entered all of the data into a mailing list program, and we mailed a ton of postcards announcing the birth of the book. Hands down, At All Costs was my bestselling book.

Running into this longtime buddy was my wake-up call to how thoroughly my publicity efforts have deteriorated. When I really looked, it’s obvious where I dropped the ball.

In retrospect, I made a couple of critical errors. First, it was a mistake to use a mailing list program instead of a simple Excel spreadsheet. After a series of computer upgrades, the mailing list became unreadable. We failed to collect email addresses at all, but given that it was 1998 and email was not the ubiquitous presence that it is today, I cut myself a break there. Finally, we had no way to keep track of people as they moved. If you don’t actively farm your mailing list, it becomes useless with astonishing speed.

My biggest mistake along these lines came in 2004 with the publication of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction collaboration on the rescue of Kurt Muse from a Panamanian prison. I talked myself into ceding the lion’s share of promotion to Kurt himself, figuring that people would rather hear from the coauthor who actually lived the story than the guy who merely put it in writing. I neglected to consider that my fans are my fans, not Kurt’s.

As a practical matter, then, until No Mercy was released last summer, fans of my work thought I’d disappeared for six years. And publishing years are like dog years. Never again.

A week ago, I sent my first email newsletter. Even though I’ve lost most of my old snail mail list, I’ve captured lots and lots of email addresses over the years, and I’m letting everybody know what’s going on in my writing life. I haven’t yet decided how often the newsletter will come out, but I’m pledging two things: 1) that I won’t release one unless I have something to say; and 2) it will never be longer than a single page.

I’ve been resistant to such emails in the past primarily because of the hassle of keeping the mailing list current. Who needs the agony of removing people who unsubscribe, or culling the addresses that are no longer valid? Even adding individual subscribers is ultimately time consuming.

Well, wouldn’t you know? There are websites that do all of that for you. I found one that is extraordinarily affordable. Of the 1,200 addresses in my initial email list, 200 turned out to be bad, and the program eliminated them. Twenty or so have asked to be removed from the list, and the program handled that, too. Thirty-five people have clicked the link to subscribe, which means that they’ve either visited my website or clicked the newsletter link to see a sample and subscribe.

Best of all, I’ve received emails from several dozen people who were unaware that I was still writing books. Of course, that didn’t touch the number of people who wrote to tell me about the typo in the first news item. Hey, at least they’re reading.

I’m sure there are a number of sites that do this sort of thing, but I’ll be happy to share this particular site with anyone who drops me an email.

So what about you? How do you keep in touch with your long-time fans? Do you like author newsletters, or are they annoying pains in the hindquarters? (I can go either way on that one.) Let us hear from you.

Betting On A New Strategy For Moviemaking

While we haven’t signed the papers yet, I recently closed a deal to option the screen rights to Scott Free–my second movie deal in three months after a ten-year dry spell in which I couldn’t give the rights away for anything I wrote.

This is very exciting. But equally exciting is the new strategy I’ve adopted for movie sales: think small and aggressive.

Back in the day, when I sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, my agent negotiated big bucks from big studios which bought the screen rights outright, “forever and throughout the universe” (that’s actually the contract language). They made big promises but never made the movies. And I’ll never see the rights again.

With Six Minutes to Freedom and, more recently, Scott Free, I sold options for the screen rights for a limited period of time to independent producers for whom filmmaking is still considered as much an artform as a business. I don’t get paid nearly as much on the front end, but if the film gets made, it’ll be champaign time. If they don’t get made, the rights will revert to me, where in the worst case they will moulder away in my closet instead of someone else’s.

Given the above, what follows may just be rationalization on my part, but it feels legitimate to me:

The future of filmmaking lies in the hands of aggressive new producers who are tired of what studio pictures have become. I believe that the exclusion of studio films in the last Oscar race portends the future of filmmaking. There will always be a huge market for the special effects-laden summer crowd pleasers, but it’s becoming clear that compelling stories lie in the hands of the indies.

We’ve been to this place before. Remember the 1970s? That was the decade when upstarts named Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas turn Tinseltown upside down. The revolution that started in the ’60s with films like Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night paved the way for ’70s classics like Jaws, Star Wars and The Godfather. These films set the old Hollywood model on its ear. While studio monoey was involved in all of these films, the creative momentum came from unknowns who shared a hunger for a new breed of storytelling.

But new breeds age. Spielberg and Coppola are brilliant filmmakers, just as John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock were brilliant in their day. Their enormous success brought billions of dollars to the box office and made mega stars out of countless nobodies, including themselves. But that kind of success ultimately leads to excess–not just in terms of expenses, but also in terms of leanness in storytelling. (The difference in directing technique between American Graffiti and the latest Star Wars installment is explained by more than just a limitless budget.) The studio films of today are in their own way every bit as bloated as the pageantry of Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the ’50s and ’60s.

Then along comes Slumdog Millionaire. And Doubt, and The Reader. The year before, the Academy nominated Juno and Atonement for Best Picture. Story for story’s sake is mattering again, and in every case, this new revolution is being led by relative newcomers–certainly by lesser knowns.

When I speak to the young, hungry producers who bought the film rights to my books I hear something I haven’t heard from Hollywood types in a long time: Enthusiasm. If, like the others, these movies never happen, I’ll know that the effort will not have failed for lack of that one key ingredient to success.

So, what do y’all think? Discounting for the summer blockbuster spectaculars, is it possible that we’re entering a new era of big screen storytelling where character and plot matter at least as much as the intensity of the explosions?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

The Query Quandary

By John Gilstrap

Before getting to this week’s real topic, I thought I’d preen with a bit of shameless self promotion. A while ago, I revealed that I had optioned the film rights to my nonfiction bestseller Six Minutes to Freedom. I can now announce officially that I have signed on to write the screenplay as well. Hoorah! For details, please visit my website (see above). I am thrilled beyond belief.

We now return you to our originally scheduled blog . . .

I was chatting the other day with a writer-in-waiting who was distraught that “no agent wants to represent me.” Ah, the angst. She moaned, “I’m never going to be published.”

At that point, she’d collected 7 rejections. Seven. As in one less than eight. And they’re just cold-hearted form letters to boot. Can you imagine? Oh, please.

I wager most of us have a collection of blistering rejection stories. My favorite of the 27 rejections I accumulated before I finally landed an agent was the New York publisher whose rejection consisted of my own letter sent back to me with a stamp—you know, one of those rubber things that you pound on an ink pad—that said “No.” As if it would have broken her hand to actually hand write those two words.

Okay, I have another favorite, too: the one who sent me my rejection letter two months after my book had been published.

Rejections are a constant in this business. I know more than a few authors whose rejections numbered in the triple-digits before they finally made a connection. It’s just the way it is.

During this rejection stage, you often hear dejected writers complain, “Nobody wants my book.” Self pity aside, such is never the case. Nobody’s rejecting your book; they couldn’t possibly be. That’s because nobody’s seen your book. They’re rejecting your query.

In my experience, the vast majority of query letters suck.

They’re flat, lifeless bits of business correspondence that get lost in the shuffle of the hundreds of other bits of flat, lifeless business correspondence that litter an agent’s desk or email inbox every day. It’s astonishing, really, when you think that after spending months or years crafting a novel, a writer would quickly pound out a query letter and launch it into the world where creativity and originality of voice means everything.

At the moment when a query letter matters, it is the most important document of your creative life. It’s the only tool you have. It needs to be carefully nurtured. Carefully crafted. If you’re interested, I wrote an essay on query letters a few years ago. You can read it here: http://www.johngilstrap.com/essayqueryletter.html .

What about you? Have you got any inspiring (or frightening) rejection stories you’d like to share? C’mon, spill. We’re all friends here.

There’s No Such Thing as a Silencer

By John Gilstrap

Sometimes, I think I think too much.

Our job as authors is to create fictional worlds that resonate with our readers, and in the process tell stories that keep them turning pages. That means making sure that “the narrative spell” is never broken. If you throw in a twelve-dollar word in the middle of a paragraph, or if your subjects and verbs find themselves suddenly at odds, that spell is broken, and the reader realizes that he’s hungry and he puts the book down. I hate making it easy to put my books down. In fact, if we all do our jobs well, we bear responsibility for sleeplessness and ruptured bladders.

Okay, that last part is actually an unpleasant image.

Here’s my dilemma: Everybody who’s watched more than a dozen movies in their lives knows that a silencer can be fitted to any gun, and when it fires, it goes phut and no one in the next room can hear a thing. That’s the comfortable reality that will keep them turning pages.

But the comfortable reality is wrong. There’s not even such a thing as a “silencer.” There are suppressors, however, and they’re considerably larger than the ones that movie guys use. When you shoot one, that tiny phut is in reality a significant crack which will easily draw attention from the neighbors. It’s way better than the unsuppressed bang, but it ain’t no phut.

And that scene where the assassin makes the 700-yard shot with his “silenced” sniper rifle? Absolutely not.

Thing is, I want there to be a silencer. I want it to be on a pistol that is easily pulled from a shoulder holster, and I want to be able phut, phut my way through a shoot-out. It’s a crutch that would make my life as a writer easier, even though I know it violates the laws of physics.

Is it worth incurring the wrath of my buddy John Miller—or worse yet, the wrath of the people whose respect I gained in writing Six Minutes to Freedom—for the sake of a plot point that 98.999% of the reading public would accept as reasonable? Or is it better to shock that majority out of their spell by startling them with something new? I mean honestly, is it worth calling into question all the good done by the likes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin simply for the sake of accuracy?

Even though we write fiction, where does our obligation to research end? Is it just about what we can get away with, or is there a loftier responsibility to our readers?

Am I really just thinking too much?