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 john@johngilstrap.com. 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 www.johngilstrap.com 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, www.facebook.com/johngilstrapauthor. 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.

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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.

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My Coolest New Internet Toy

By John Gilstrap


A few weeks ago, I posted about my adventure with Jeffery Deaver in which we got private instruction on tactical shooting while at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas.  Well, now there’s videos evidence: http://tinyurl.com/clxzbry.  You can also find a link on the News Feed on my website.


If it looks like slow motion, that’s because it was.  We were using live ammo in a car, assuming shooting positions that could easily have made our own legs the primary target while drawing.  The “quick draw” contest at the end–also rather slow–was a one-shot, three round accuracy contest.  The first to hit the gong won the round.  While the video shows Jeff winning the first shot, the next two, which I won, somehow ended up on the cutting room floor.  I’m just sayin’ . . . 


This brings me to the stated purpose of this week’s post: my coolest new Internet discovery: Dropbox.  Like everything else that dwells in cyberspace, I’m confident that I’m one of the last ones to the table here, but my goodness, is that cool!


You go to www.dropbox.com and download the program free of charge, and Bingo! you have cloud storage for your files that is accessible from any computer anywhere.  You can even share files, which is how I was able to give my web mistress access to the 100MB video of our shooting adventure.


I still depend heavily on my thumb drive as primary storage, backed up to whatever machine I’m working on at any given time, but it’s great to have Dropbox, accessible from anywhere.


What are the other cool Internet toys that I’m behind the times on?  Which ones are indispensable toyou?

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Writers, Awards and The Journey

James Scott Bell


This past week TKZ blogmate John Gilstrap and I received the lovely news that we are finalists for a 2012 International Thriller Writers Award. Even lovelier, we are not in the same category, so we can root for each other without tight smiles. John’s novel, Threat Warning, is up for the Best Paperback Original. I’m up in the short story category for One More Lie.
Which prompted a few thoughts on awards, kudos and the writing journey.
Of course, every writer––indeed, anybody who does anything––likes awards and recognition. That’s our nature, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Used rightly, it can be a motivation to good work and striving to get better.
But it should never be a dominating drive, in my view, or it might become a snare and a distraction.
One of my heroes is the late UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. When I was in high school I got to attend his basketball camp, and talk to him a bit. Coach Wooden gave all of us a copy of his Pyramid of Successand taught us more than just the fundamentals of the game.


“Individual recognition, praise, can be a dangerous commodity,” Coach Wooden once wrote. “It’s best not to drink too deeply from a cup full of fame. It can be very intoxicating, and intoxicated people often do foolish things.”
He was just as clear about losses. Never measure yourself by what you lost, but by how you prepared. That’s the only thing within your control and the only thing you can change.
“I never mentioned winning or victory to my players,” Wooden said. “Instead I constantly urged them to strive for the self-satisfaction that always comes from knowing you did the best you could do to become the best of which you are capable.”
That’s his famous definition of success, and it’s rock solid. When we work hard and know we’ve taken whatever talents we have and pushed them further along, that’s achievement. It’s one of the reasons I teach writing classes and workshops. I love helping writers get to their own next level, whatever it may be for them.
So regardless of what happens at this year’s ITW Awards, I will be happy for the trip to New York with my wife, for hanging out with John and other writers I admire, and appreciating the privilege of being included in such august company.
But then it will be time to come back to L.A. and hit the keyboard again, working hard to be the best I can be. It makes each day its own challenge and, in striving, its own reward. Don’t miss that by letting an inordinate desire for recognition mess with your head.
“I derived my greatest satisfaction out of the preparation, the journey,” Wooden wrote. “Day after day, week after week, year after year. It was the journey I prized above all else.”
*Quotations are from Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Courtby John Wooden and Steve Jamison (Contemporary Books, 1997)



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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?

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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.
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The Scoop on Agents

By John Gilstrap


Last week, our friend and frequent-poster Terri Lynn Coop posted the following comment:


“You’ve talked about becoming agented and querying. However, what happens once your novel or non-fic is sold to the publisher.
What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? What sort of public face does your agent and publisher expect you to maintain from contract to release (is there a difference between fiction and non-fiction)? When do you see your advance?”


It’s a great bunch of questions. I’m going to take a shot at some answers.  The underlying assumption of my answers is that this is a first published book we’re talking about.  The rules don’t change a lot after you have a chip in the game, but they do change a little.  I’m also going to juggle the order of the questions a little:


What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? 


Understand that a lot of negotiation goes into what a publishing contract looks like.  What rights will be sold?  More importantly, what rights will be retained by the author?  Is this a one-book contract, or a multi-book contract?  What will the pay-out schedule be?  If it’s a multi-book contract, will they be individually accounted or jointly accounted?  (Joint accounting means that Book #1 would have to earn back its advances before you could start earning advances on Book #2.  It’s by far the least preferable method, but first-timers often don’t have a lot of heft there.)


The agent is the go-between for all uncomfortable transactions.  For example, in fifteen years, I have never discussed money issues with an editor, and no editor has had to tell me to my face that I wasn’t worth the money I was asking for.  The agent keeps the creative relationship pure.  Beyond that, if everything goes well, the agent doesn’t have a lot to do after the contract is negotiated.


But things rarely go well.  What happens if your editor quits or gets fired?  What happens if you really hate the cover, or if the editor is getting carried away with his editorial pen?  On a more positive note, the agent will continue to pursue foreign publishing contracts, movie deals, etc.


What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? 


Deadlines are part of the negotiation process.  You’ll have to agree to respond to your editorial letter by a certain date with a corrected manuscript, and then you’ll have copyedits and page proofs, all while making your commitment to deliver the next book in the contract if it’s a multi-book deal.  I consider deadlines to be inviolable.  I’ve had to push the delivery date by a couple of weeks once, but I hated doing it because it inconveniences so many people, and it makes me look unprofessional.  Here is another instance where a track record of performance keeps people from losing faith in the author.  For first-timers, blowing a deadline can kill a career.  Remember, by blowing the deadline, you technically violate the contract, which the publisher would have the authority to void.


Writers need to understand that publishing calendars are set 12 to 18 months ahead.  Working backwards from those dates are the in-house deadlines for the production side of things (cover design, copyedits, publicity, ARCs, reviews, and a thousand other details).  If a deadline is blown by as little as a month, publishers may pull the author’s book from the calendar and replace it with another, thus potentially adding months to the publication date.


When do you see your advance? 


This is another  negotiated deal point.  Advances are paid out in pieces.  There’s always one piece on signing.  After that, the milestones vary from author to author, often depending on the horsepower of the agent, and on the “importance” of the author.  Other payment milestones can include: submission of edited manuscript (this is the “D&A payment–Delivery & Acceptance); hard cover pub date; softcover pub date; and even, in some cases, some period of time after the pub date.  If there’s a second book in the contract, there’ll likely be a payment milestone for the submission of an outline for the second book, followed by submission of an acceptable manuscript.


Meanwhile, if you’re happy at the publishing house, sometime while writing the second book of a two-book deal, your editor and agent will start negotiating the next deal.


What sort of public face does your agent and publisher expect you to maintain from contract to release (is there a difference between fiction and non-fiction)? 


This is where the issue of an author’s platform comes in.  If you’re a celebrity writing your autobiography, the pressure will be high to be out there to flog it.  Similarly, if you’ve written a book about a presidential candidate during an election year, the publisher will press hard for you to have media face time.


On the other hand, if you’ve written a novel featuring a feline crime solver (or about a freelance hostage rescue specialist), chances are that you couldn’t buy publicity outside of your local newspaper.  In that regard, an author’s public face is only as public as the author wants it to be.


I think that’s all of it.  Okay, Killzone comrades, let’s hear from you.

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NEWS FLASH: There Are No Shortcuts to Success

By John Gilstrap

Everyone who does anything for a living owes it to himself to take advantage of learning opportunities.  Even after one has attained journeyman’s status, to rest on one’s laurels is to invite disaster.

Last week, I had the honor and pleasure of attending SleuthFest in Orlando, Florida.  I taught a class on pacing, and sat on three panels.  And I hung out at the bar, of course, because that’s where all business is conducted, irrespective of chosen discipline.  I met a lot of talented writers I’d never met—Heather Graham and Charlaine Harris among them—and hung out with old friends.  And, of course, there are our own Kathleen Pickering and Nancy Cohen, whom I finally met in person—Nancy in a meeting room, and Kathleen in the bar.  A lot in the bar.  I’m just sayin’ . . .

For me, the big learning moment—the a-ha moment—came during Charlaine’s luncheon keynote, and it reinforced something I’ve known and admired about Jeff Deaver for years (Jeff and Charlaine were guests of honor, along with Chris Grabenstein).  If I did my math correctly, the first book of Charlaine’s True Blood series—the one that launched her into the authorial stratosphere—was her twentieth book.  Give or take a couple of books, that was the same number of novels that Deaver had published before he became a household name with the Lincoln Rhyme series.  As Charlaine put it, she’d spent many years with $4,000 advances, pursuing what her husband had come to think of as a “well-subsidized hobby.”

I am currently pounding away at my tenth novel (fourteenth, if you count the ones that no one wanted).  I’m proud of them all, but the recent ones are so way better than the older ones.  And the ones that were never published?  Well, thank God they weren’t.

At SleuthFest, I learned (again) what I’ve long known to be the truth: writing is a business, and the only way to succeed—and success to me means hundreds of thousands of copies sold—is to keep writing and playing by the rules. Agents are more important than they’ve ever been, and brutal, professional editing is what makes the difference between passable and entertaining.

Even in these days of new media and instant gratification, the bottom line is the bottom line: There are no shortcuts to success.

All comments welcome . . .
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The Pain of Rejection

Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom.  The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick.  I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference).  I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice.  The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.

My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.

I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell.  The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call.  When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left.  I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.

I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.

It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment.  It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them.  It felt so . . . unfair.  Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then.  Thanks, John.

I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:

FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I’d had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.

When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead.  It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were.  In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.

Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.

I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories.  When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable.  It feels like there’s no future.

But of course, there always is.  The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it.  The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities. 

After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.
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The Pain of Rejection

Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom.  The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick.  I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference).  I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice.  The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.

My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.

I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell.  The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call.  When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left.  I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.

I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.

It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment.  It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them.  It felt so . . . unfair.  Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then.  Thanks, John.

I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:

FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I’d had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.

When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead.  It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were.  In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.

Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.

I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories.  When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable.  It feels like there’s no future.

But of course, there always is.  The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it.  The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities. 

After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.
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