Navigating Rough Waters

Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey, Esprit Whitewater

By Debbie Burke



What does whitewater rafting have to do with writing?

For one thing, rafters and writers often endure blasts of icy water in the face. For authors, the cold, wet shock is metaphoric—a stinging rejection, a hideous review, a kiss-off from a publisher.

Today’s story begins when my pal, former river ranger Susan Purvis recently sent me a link to a podcast about whitewater rafting. Susan often leads me into adventures that always pay off in unexpected rewards so when she recommends something, I listen.

That day, with a crammed to-do list, I didn’t have a spare hour for a podcast. Yet once I started to listen, I couldn’t stop.

The interviewer is Barry Kruse, entrepreneurial coach of Leading Steep, and his subject is Jim Coffey, founder and owner of Esprit Whitewater, a Canadian rafting company.

Jim’s rafting business began in 1992 and survives nearly three decades later, a rarity in the field. A seasonal operation is especially tough because he has to earn enough income in four, maybe five, months to last the entire year. Plus, recreation-oriented businesses are hit hard during recessions when people can’t afford vacation trips.

Jim believes entrepreneurs who succeed have “a high tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” He proves his point when he relates the setbacks he’s experienced that would tank most businesses— a fire that destroyed part of his facilities, a couple of floods, the Covid shutdown, and, last summer, his own diagnosis of throat cancer.

His attitudes and coping tools struck me as helpful advice for authors. The following are a few gold nuggets from his podcast.

Jim: “You never know where that first step is going to lead.”

When you’re stuck in your writing, take a step.

Inertia is not healthy for writers, in body, mind, or word production. If you’re bogged down, take a step in a new direction.

Write a public service announcement for a charity you admire. Write ad copy for a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause.

If your own ads don’t pan out, analyze what authors with similar books do for promotion. Try new avenues.

Learn a new skill—make a video, add fresh features to your website, try a different software writing tool, create an audiobook.

First steps sometimes lead to dead ends. But they can also lead to new universes.


Jim: “You never know who that [most] important customer is going to be. Treat every customer as if they are that person.”

Readers are the author’s customers. Building their loyalty and trust is key to selling books.

A major breakthrough opportunity for Jim’s company occurred when a particular customer was impressed with the fledgling operation. That man turned out to be an influencer who booked more trips for large groups and retreats, as well as recommending Esprit Whitewater to colleagues. A single customer hugely expanded Jim’s business.

For authors, treat every reader as your most important customer. They might place your book in Stephen King’s hands for a blurb. Or convince Oprah to feature it in her book club. Or catch Reese Witherspoon’s attention for a new movie production.

Not likely? Okay, but how about these possibilities?

A reader invites you to speak to their book club. That results in more sales and more readers.

A reader from that book club works for a major media outlet and wants to interview you.

The leader of a civic or professional organization hears/reads your interview and invites you to talk to their 500 members.

And so it can go.

When you treat each reader as that most important customer, their reach and recommendations carry you and your books into markets you never imagined.


Jim: “We manufacture our own luck. Preparation collides with opportunity.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Preparation can mean: take a class; read a new craft book; attend a conference; research new marketing angles.

When you’re doing the work, opportunities pop up in unexpected ways in unexpected places.


Jim: “Be unselfish and generous with your skills and pass them on.”

Help other writers.

The writing community is a continuum of authors at different levels of accomplishment, from beginners to multi-published bestsellers. We have all been helped by authors more experienced than ourselves and, in turn, we can help others less experienced than ourselves.

Freely share what you’ve learned. Teach a workshop. Write a guest blog post. Produce a newsletter for a charitable organization. Mentor a struggling writer.

You might think you’re too new at the craft to offer anything. Not so. You can beta-read. Judge a writing contest. Offer to talk to schoolchildren—most teachers are delighted to host writers and kids are eager to learn.


Jim: “It’s easier to train a great person to be a great whitewater guide than to take a great whitewater guide and turn them into a great person.”

For authors, attitude is more important than skill. Approach learning as a humble student.

I’ve known many talented authors who were positive they were destined to knock Michael Connelly off bestseller lists. They were usually so busy talking about how much they knew and how great they were that, not surprisingly, I haven’t noticed any of their names in USA Today.

C.S. Lewis said: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”

That advice spans to entrepreneurs, military, industry, and, of course, writing. Nobody knows everything.

Before you become a great writer, you must first be a great student.


Jim: “You never know when people you’ve contributed to will come back and contribute to you.”

At the beginning of the podcast, interviewer Barry said Jim had recently undergone chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. While Jim was laid low during the busy summer season, his team kept the business going and took care of hundreds of happy whitewater rafting customers. He’d earned the loyalty of his staff who came through when he needed them the most.

At the very end of the podcast, Jim mentions he gave the interview while lying in bed… with a feeding tube.

Wow. Just wow.

That left no doubt Jim Coffey is off the scale in his tolerance of adversity and uncertainty.

 Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Jim’s actions:

Help others and never give up.

Works for authors, too.


Many thanks to Jim Coffey and Barry Kruse for their permission to quote and reference the interview which can be heard here:


TKZers: What is your favorite advice, touchstone, or belief that helps you over treacherous rapids and shoals encountered in your writing career?



In Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, her main character persists in spite of lots of cold water thrown in her face. Please check it out here.

35 thoughts on “Navigating Rough Waters

  1. Great piece, Debbie! Most inspiring! “Step by step” immediately made me think of Bird By Bird – Anne Lamont. Here’s a quote given to me a long time ago by a now gone friend that I have framed on my writing room wall:

    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manners of unforseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come their way.”

  2. Uplifting post, Debbie. Thanks for sharing. Jim Coffey is one determined man.
    I’ve been orphaned by publishers, had a terrible agent, but I’ve always regarded this writing gig as fun, and that’s kept me going. I’ve said it before, but if I wasn’t writing, I’d have to do housework.

  3. Debbie Burke your writing always impresses me. You have a knack for taking complicated subjects and making them relatable and on point. Great advise for writers, outdoor adventurers and business owners.

    I look forward to my podcast interview with Barry Kruse tonight from my hotel room at Snowbird Ski Resort where I am teaching avalanche courses to members of our armed forces. Part of our teaching model is Prep, Plan, Ride Safely, Debrief, managing Uncertainty in the backcountry, teamwork matters, pay attention to the little stuff. These are just a few examples of how we manage our lives in difficult environments.

    Thanks Deb for your post today.

    Writers helping writers.


  4. Sound advice, Debbie! Early on in my humble career, I determined that I would reciprocate follows on my blog, and to always, always be both truthful and generous with likes. It’s not just professional courtesy, but also good manners. And as you say, we writers should support each other — an occasional “attaboy” works wonders for one’s morale.

    • Mike, thanks for bringing up “good manners.” Sadly, common courtesy is anything but common these days. Fortunately, we’re part of a generous community where most writers are glad to help each other.

  5. Such an inspiring post, Debbie. I definitely needed this today. Jim Coffey’s wisdom definitely applies to writing and publishing. I’ve always striven to treat each of my readers as the most important customer, too. I reply to each email I receive from a reader, and very much appreciate the opportunity.

    I can’t recall who said this, but the advice which has really helped me over the years is that the one thing in the writing and publishing business that truly belongs to the writer is the writing process itself. No matter what happens, rejection, bad reviews, poor sales, etc., we always have the act of writing itself. We can’t control the reception of our work, but we can always sit down and begin writing on a new project, and see it through to completion.

    Thanks again for a very uplifting and encouraging post.

    • Dale, excellent observation that authors can’t control outside influences but can control what they write.

      Viewing readers as customers is sometimes hard for authors to grasp but is vital. Without readers, why write books?

      We used to have a poster at our business of a lion wearing a crown that read: “The customer is king. Without customers, there are no paydays.”

  6. Hey Debbie…boy, did I need this today! Why? Because on 3/12, I will pitch to a literary agent for the first time. And I’m suffering greatly from Imposter Syndrome.

    But, I do have a few quotes to share that I like to read and re-read:

    I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am. — Jane Austen

    A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. — Richard Bach

    We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. — Ernest Hemingway

    If these guys can say these things, I feel like I belong. 🙂

  7. Debbie,
    Thanks so much for sharing Jim’s interview with your readers. He has much to offer as a leader and outfitter.
    Bookmarking this piece as encouragement in my own bookwriting journey, as well.
    Best wishes to you and all your reader authors!

    • Barry, thanks for being the conduit through whom I “met” Jim.

      Best of luck with your own book! Keep us posted on your progress.

  8. What an inspiring post, Debbie. Jim Coffey is my new hero.

    As far as writing advice, I think you summed it up for me:

    “Help others and never give up.”

  9. So inspiring, Debbie! Jim Coffey sounds like an amazing human. You filled this post with timeless advice. Helping others feels wonderful for the giver, too. I spent my Sunday afternoon zooming with APPsych students about the psychology of serial killers, and I swear I had more fun than they did. 🙂

    • Sue, you are so right about the giver reaping more than the recipient. The students teach the teacher!

  10. Debbie, thanks for a great and inspiring post, (as usual for you). Many thoughts to ponder.

    We try to stay away from religion and politics here at TKZ, but you asked what advice, touchstone, or belief helps us navigate the stormy waters of writing adversity. I would say that faith and purpose are important for me. My father’s favorite Bible verse was:: “In all your ways acknowledge.Him, and He shall direct your paths.” Prov 3:6.

    • You’re so welcome, Steve. The writing biz can be discouraging and any tool that keeps us going is welcome.

  11. Good advice, even if you’re not a writer but just your average person trying to endure the pandemic. This post reminded me of an article I read this week about people who work in hyper-isolation and closed quarters (like scientists in the Arctic circle). They start to go nuts with what the writer called “third-quarter syndrome.” They know the end of their isolation and hardship is coming but it makes them crabby, listless and depressed. I’m seeing that in a lot of my friends right now as we navigate to what we can hope is the beginning of the end of the covid nightmare. But I’ve seen writer friends go through this when they are about three-quarters of the way through a WIP and lose steam. You have to plow on and gut it out. Here’s the article:,a%20long%20period%20of%20isolation.

    • Kris, I completely agree that Jim’s advice is a good way to live life in general, not just for writers.

      Thanks for the interesting article about three-quarter syndrome.

  12. Debbie, I loved this, particularly your call-and-response format involving Jim’s statements and your comments about how they apply to writing. Thank you.

    I hope Jim is fully recovered. I did a search and he seems to still be in business.

    Just for the record, my idea of whitewater rafting is the kiddie boat ride at Hershey Park. Still a great post, however!

  13. Great post! Made me think about my own attitude weaknesses and strengths. I will come back to these hints. Thank you Debbie!

  14. Thank you Debbie for what has become an insightful post. I am humbled by the kind comments and best wishes for my recovery.

    Since the podcast I have 1. Gotten out of bed and am off the feeding tube. 2. Chartered a helicopter to fly from Niagara Falls Ontario to Niagara Falls New York … shipped my van across the border, driven to my winter home in Mexico (through the Texas Ice Storm) 3. Arrived to teach rafting, canoeing, kayaking and water rescue on a 5 week training course. 4. I have started to regain some of the 60lbs I lost during treatment and 5. Am surrounded by the people, community and activities that I love and cherish.

    Moral of the story… don’t give up, if there is a will there is away, passion should not be easily extinguished.

    Thank you again for including me in your community. I am pleased and honoured you were able to connect my Leading Steep interview to your associates and community.

    Big smiles,


    • Wow, Jim, you brought tears to my eyes! I’m so glad you’re back kicking ass and taking names!

      Thank you not only for wise advice but for being so quotable. It was my pleasure and honor to share your words.

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