Thursday, July 29, 2010

Greetings From Testicle Tech

By John Gilstrap

I write this from Muncie, Indiana, where I'm serving on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference, sponsored by Ball State University (Testicle Tech--get it?). Please forgive the vulgarity. A buddy of mine who grew up in this area shared the local parlance, and I couldn't resist.

This is my third or fourth time at MWW--twice in a row, actually, as I'm pinch-hitting for Sean Chercover, whose father died recently (God rest his soul). It's a great conference, and a great time.

As part of the gig, I've been asked to critique 10 manuscripts. A couple show great prmoise, and a couple more could be great if the authors are willing to work hard. It would be inappropriate to go into detail here, but I have to say that the cardinal sin that I see being repeated over and over again is front-loading back story at the expense of action in the opening scenes. Honestly, as a writer, it's easy to lose sight of how pernicious a tendency this is until you see it happening at the hands of other authors.

Folks, I can't emphasize it enough: the most beautiful description in the world amounts to nothing unless it's tied to action in the story. Remember that the first twenty pages of any book are exclusively about the reader. Once you hook them to likeable characters who face diffult time, you'll have their hearts and minds in your grasp. If you fail to do that, then the rest of the stoyr is just that much noise.

Dare to be different. Dare to excel.


  1. Good advice, John. I know that sometimes we sound like a broken record on this subject, but it seems to be the major stumbling block for so many new writers. Like Jim says: Act first, explain later.

  2. Preach it, John and Joe. I see this all the time, too. Writers think readers have to know a lot about the background of a character before they'll care. That's wrong. They'll care about a character facing trouble, challenge, change, etc., a lot faster.

    Cutting chapter 1 and starting with chapter 2 is a simple exercise that often works wonders.

  3. Hey John- I just downloaded the preview for No Mercy yesterday- you don't have a problem with that. That is what I call a starter! So I bought and downloaded the book and then found out it was book 2, naturally I had to go grab Hostage Zero also. As soon as I finish Fresh Kills, they're next. I also wanted to mention that I'm only about a third done with Fresh Kills, I finally got it downloaded yesterday. I haven't read anything but stunners so far. I find that even good novelists aren't always good short story people. You guys (and gals) are all EXCELLENT! It's like a class in class, suspense, and action. I'm ready to go back and tackle my revision now, armed with hard core goodness. Thanks.

  4. John, I think that learning not to overload the first pages with back story is one of the craft techniques that writers simply must learn if they want to get published. Of course, there are always exceptions that one can point to, just like there are always best sellers that open with a dream or the weather. But it's best to avoid.

  5. "Testicle Tech"?

    I thought that referred Marine Boot Camp where the unofficial motto is "Once we're finished with'em even the women have balls."

    I am in the process by the way of following this exact advice and have "actioned up" the front end of two of my novels. The re-submission process is starting.

    If it works I will give you guys credit for constantly repeating certain mantras until I actually heard and applied them.

    If it doesn't work....that sound you hear beneath your feet will be me as I shuffle away to the subterranean chambers of Gopherville and live as a kindly hermit among the beasts of Underland where I will write newspaper ad copy for near sighted moles and teach eastern meditation to ground squirrels.

    Squeak, Squeak, squeaken Eek.

  6. :John, I positively love the last three paragraphs of this post. I copied them and sent them to someone I know who is just getting into writing. I'm also keeping them on my own laptop for future reference.

    Everyone should read them.

  7. John -
    Thanks for the instruction.
    Hope I'm not too late to get further input.
    Please expound on the statement "the first twenty pages are exclusively about the reader".

    I can take a guess as to what you mean but would appreciate clarification.

  8. John, you'll be happy to know that this bookstore I was in the other day in Salisbury, NC had copies of both of your books. I was looking for a copy of 6 MINUTES and they didn't have it in stock. The person I was with wanted to buy one of my books, but they said they didn't stock that author, but could order a book. So Gilstrap 2, Miller 0.

  9. That's the exact advice you gave me last year and the story is all the better for having taken it.

    I guess we noobs just don't trust ourselves yet that the reader will "get it" without massive explanation.

    I whipped it around and now the calm, serene shopping mall is in flames within the first 1000 words.

    Sorry I couldn't make it to Muncie this year, thanks for stepping in.