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John Gilstrap's Run
By Scott Nicholson

John Gilstrap is one of those rare creatures in the writing business: an overnight success. But Gilstrap will be the first to tell you that the night may have been wonderful, but the day leading up to it was actually twenty years long.

Gilstrap had never sold a word he'd written until he finished a thriller novel called Nathan's Run. The manuscript was rejected by twenty-seven agencies before finally landing with a top agent. Gilstrap got the representation offer on a Friday, the book was sold the following Wednesday, and movie rights sold in a bidding war two days later. The book was an international bestseller, and Gilstrap hasn't looked back since. He recently released At All Costs, and is currently writing screenplays, including a prequel movie to the Hannibal/Silence of The Lambs property.

At a recent seminar for aspiring writers, Gilstrap wrote on the chalkboard: "Step One- Write the novel." Beneath that: "Step Two- Rewrite the novel." Then: "Steps Three Through Twenty- See Step Two." It's that kind of persistence and attitude that carried Gilstrap to his well-deserved success.

SN: How did you make the transition from "working man" to published writer?

Gilstrap: I've always written. It's what I've always wanted to do. In fact, when I went to college, I studied history with the idea of becoming a journalist. I'd gotten some bum advice, as it turns out, that the best way to get into journalism was to study history or political science or something that would give you some perspective on the news. No one told that to all the journalism school graduates who do the hiring at the major dailies.

I couldn't get a job with a real newspaper, so I ended up working for a trade journal that deals with the construction industry, and they paid me food-stamp wages. I ended up leaving the writing business and my career went into safety and environmental engineering, but I always wrote. People tinker in their garages, people work in gardens, I would write. Nathan's Run, which is much touted as my first book, is really my fourth. The other three were just extended writing exercises that never went anywhere. I would read them, and they just didn't seem right.

SN: Were you submitting work for publication during that time?

Gilstrap: I never submitted anything, because the work never did much for me. Nathan's Run was a story that I'd carried with me for a long time. There was a seminal event for it. I was chairman of a local committee that oversaw budgets for the women's shelter and human services in the county where I was living. Since we were cutting the budgets pretty drastically, I wanted to see what we were cutting the budgets for. One of the facilities I visited was a juvenile detention center. I was intrigued, if not appalled, by what I saw. These kids had very adult problems in very child-like packages. You've got eleven-year-old truants occupying the same spot as eighteen-year-old murderers. Out of that came the story of Nathan's Run.

I guess I was forty or fifty pages into it when I discovered that it was a strong story and in a narrative voice that was working. I would read what I wrote the day before, and I would like it. So the idea grew that one day it would actually get published.

When I finished with it, I loved it. Whether it was good or not was for someone else to decide, but from my eyes, I had nailed it. I had done exactly what I wanted to do. So it was time to go sell it.

SN: You wrote both the novel and the screenplay for Nathan's Run. What are the different challenges?

Gilstrap: A screenplay, by definition, is a collaborative effort. Especially the kind of screenplays that I do. I have yet to start a screenplay with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Plotting does not come easily to me. So when a plot comes to me, it goes in my book file, because writing books is primarily how I make my living. The screenplays that I've done have been adaptations of books, or like the one I'm currently working on with Dino DeLaurentis, who has a premise for a movie that he wants to make. I'll write the script around his premise.

When I write a book, my job is to take the images from my head and bring them to life on a page. When I'm doing a screenplay, my mission is to take the images in the producer's head, and interpret them on a page. As a screenwriter, I'm a hired gun.

But on one level, it's more gratifying. I'm a huge movie fan, and screenwriting is much less work than a book. It's six weeks as opposed to eighteen months.

SN: What's your writing schedule like?

Gilstrap: On the average day I commute to my basement, and I usually start work around nine o'clock, and I usually finish around six in the evening, with breaks in between. It's what I do. The hardest thing about becoming a full-time writer is there's no place to hide. There's no reason not to be writing.

Some scenes don't come out easily. When I was writing Nathan's Run, I was working a ten-hour day and I was writing in my spare time. If a scene was going to get written, I had to do it in this short amount of time and I had to make it work. Now, there's nothing really pressing on my time, although these short screen projects have really made me a much more efficient writer.

SN: For beginning writers, let's say their novel is finished. What now?

Gilstrap: First, make sure it's finished, not that you're just done with it. Then find the agent, and once you have an agent, you're done. You just sit and wait for the phone to ring.

The very first question my agent asked me, when she called to say she liked the book and ultimately asked to represent me, was "Have you shown the book to any publishers?" When I said "no," that's when she asked to represent me. If I had said "yes," and I had sent the work to some of the major houses and they had rejected it, she can't submit it there. I've already poisoned the well. If she can't go to the editors she knows and likes, then what's the point?

SN: So a beginning writer should look for an agent?

Gilstrap: A beginning writer should look for an agent before selling book-length fiction. To not have an agent greatly diminishes the chances of your work being read. And if it is read and you beat the impossible odds and find an editor that wants to buy the book, you don't know what you're negotiating. You can't know the business as well as an agent.

Ten or fifteen years ago, the publishing houses had staff readers, which is essentially what the agents do now. The people who gave the manuscript an honest, solid, comprehensive reading are gone now.

SN: There's a big controversy over agent's reading fees. How do you feel?

Gilstrap: If you want to hire an editor, then hire an editor. But never pay an agent a reading fee to look at your material. That just doesn't make sense to me. Now, you're going to pay your agent a commission, and with luck, the commissions alone will make your agent a very wealthy person. Then there are expenses that the author should be prepared to pay after the sale. But to pay the agents up-front is considered unethical.

SN: What's "step one" for being a writer?

Gilstrap: Be true to the artistic and talent-related part of what is essentially a craft. You've got to work at it. You've got to write, you've got to be brutally honest, and understand that your first efforts are probably not good enough. If you've only got one or two drafts, it's just not possible for that to be good enough. Just have a very professional attitude. Never release anything to anybody, outside of a classroom environment, that's not ready to be seen. Because all you do is diminish the expectations of the potential audience.

Gratification for most writers is in getting feedback from others that what you've done is good. If it's a patronizing "that was good," who needs that? On the other hand, if it's an honest "that was terrible," it's really demoralizing. Either way, you haven't done justice to yourself.

SN: Any other advice?

Gilstrap: Stay with it. Understand the business aspects of what you're trying to do, understand the market aspects of what you're trying to do, read books like the one that you want to write. If you find a passage you like, stop long enough to take the passage apart. It's just words strung together. There's a lot of mechanics that go into the way a particular passage "feels," and that's really what writing's all about, particularly fiction. The idea is to make the reader become part of the book. There's a magical thing that happens when you're reading and the words disappear, and you're in the scene. It's your job as a writer to make that happen, and never break the spell.

For more information on John Gilstrap, visit his home page

-copyright 1998 by Scott Nicholson


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