Writing is the Easy Part

People talk about how writing is hard. For me, it was easy. The hard part was finding an agent, and then when I did…

Sitting at an empty table in front of the bar in the conference hotel back in 2010, I watched the activity that was busy as a Texas fire ant mound. Folks passed by on a variety of destinations. Some pulled rolling suitcases toward the bank of elevators on my left.

I need to get one of those. Hauling that canvas bag on my shoulder’s getting old.

Attendees wearing name badges came by in singles, pairs, and small groups talking about this new writing world I’d recently joined. I’d already picked up my own badge at the Sleuthfest conference for mystery writers and readers, looked into the book room, and settled at the bar table to study the conference schedule.

The whole thing was so interesting that I forgot the schedule and watched people pass, wondering if one of the ladies might be my brand spankin’ new agent I’d only talked to on the phone.

Well, she was new because I’d never had an agent before, since I’d only recently finished my first manuscript. After sending out twenty-nine submissions and acquiring twenty-eight rejection letters and notes, I received an email from Starter Agent saying she’d represent me.

Woo hoo!

Pop the cork!

Champagne for everyone.

Pack up the house! We’re soon to get that giant advance I’ve always dreamed of. Big house, here we come!

A month later, the manuscript sold to Poisoned Pen Press and I flew out to meet Starter Agent at the Sleuthfest conference in Florida. Green as grass, I didn’t know what to ask her, other than when I’d bank my first million on the sure-to-be bestseller. She talked. I listened, and after an hour we agreed to meet at the bar later for drinks.

So there I was, waiting for her when I saw a gentleman pass, carried by the flow of attendees. He noted my presence in front of the closed bar and nodded a hello. I nodded back and he disappeared.

I checked my watch and ran my finger down the list of workshops and panels. The same guy came back against the flow. He gave me a slight grin and was gone.

Should I go to this panel? Naw, it looks boring. This one? Naw, I don’t write romances.

He passed in the flow once more. We made eye contact again. Nods.

Here’s one about bombs and gun stuff. I’m in! Check the watch. Fifteen minutes from now.

Two minutes later he was swimming upstream again. Eye contact. Half grins. This could get creepy.

Dude must be walking for exercise, like those people in shopping malls.

I still had a few minutes before the explosion session, so I read the bar menu. They opened at 4:00.

He returned, this time with a folder in his hand, but things changed. He stopped. “You know the bar’s closed, right?”

“I do. But it opens at four, which means it’ll be open when I get out of this next session.”

“I’ll be finished then, too. What’re you drinking?”

“Scotch, when it gets here.”

“That’s my favorite. I’ll be back after my session.”

“You leading one?”

“Sure am. It’s on things that go boom.”

“That’s the one I planned to attend. I’ll be there.”

“Good. Name’s John Gilstrap.”

“Reavis Wortham, but call me Rev, it’s easier to pronounce.”

“You should have a name like John. That’d be easier.”

“Talk to my mom about that.”

At 4:30 we were sitting at the same table, this time with drinks. The conversation wandered, as they do in conference bars whe strangers find they have something in common. We talked books, writing, and the business itself.

Honestly, he was the first published author I’d ever exchanged ideas with, and I found it more than a little interesting and informative. I asked lots of questions and soon gained an education that still continues to this day.

Starter Agent joined us and I invited John to stay. The three of us talked for an hour before she excused herself to meet with a potential client she met earlier in the day. I’d asked all the questions I knew to ask, and her answers sounded good to me. I felt like a real author, and took a sip of Glenlevit.

John sipped his scotch. “Rev, you don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but would you like some unsolicited advice?”


“She’s terrible. Fire her and get a new agent.”

What!!!??? I just got this one, and that ain’t easy, and you want me to put her in a shallow grave right off the bat?

We closed that bar that night, and I gained an education in this business. I also received a lesson in agents for the next eighteen months, as Starter Agent screwed up contracts and eventually blew a movie deal by playing games with the company that was interested in filming The Rock Hole.

That’s when I fired her and called John. I expected him to say I told you so (but he didn’t) and learned to listen to those with experience. Today John is my brother-from-another-mother and a dear friend, and I’m still listening to the voice of experience.

My problems stemmed from not knowing enough about finding a quality agent. I took the first person to show an interest in my work without doing my due diligence. If you’re to the point of looking for an agent, take it from me, do your research and don’t automatically jump at the first person who offers to pick you up.

There are a lot of ways to find an agent, and there’s a ton of info out there on the internet. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.

Buy a copy of Writers Market. If you haven’t discovered this valuable tool, order one today.

Check the acknowledgement page on books by your favorite authors, or those who write in the genre you’ve chosen. Then send a polished, succinct query letter.

Take a look at PublishersMarketplace.com

Attend a writers conference and sign up to meet agents who are there looking for new writers. At that same conference, go to the bar and talk with folks. Most will be there for the conference, and more than a couple of agents are likely to drop in for a drink.

NOTE: Don’t attack them with a memorized pitch. Have a drink (soft drinks if you prefer), and engage them in conversation. If they’re interested in hearing about your book, then make the pitch.

Just remember, my excellent agent gets hundreds of emailed query letters a month. It might take a while to find the right one, but don’t give up. Like I said at the outset, writing is the easy part.

Good luck!






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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

37 thoughts on “Writing is the Easy Part

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Rev.

    You certainly know how to put a reader in the moment. Suspense? I was all but on the edge of my seat this morning during your account of…waiting for an agent. And bringing John Gilstrap into the mix in the manner that you did was perfect. What a great story, all the more so for being true.

    Have a great weekend, Rev. See you in two.

    • Thanks so much, Joe. It was a great day in one way, and a huge disappointment in the other. Meeting John was the great part. I’m not much on explanations of how things work, or the mechanics of writing. I tell stories that hopefully explain what I mean. Thanks for taking the time this morning to read my post! Have a great weekend yourself.

  2. Writing IS the fun part. I’ve tried to avoid work (unsuccessfully) since I retired, so if this becomes too much, I can always back off. Right now, I’m having a ball!

  3. A bad agent is worse than no agent. I’ve seen a few over the years at conferences, and held a tight smile when a conferee was giddy, telling me so-and-so “has requested a full!” That wasn’t the time to give them the Gilstrap Slap (“Thanks. I needed that.”) That goes down better with a Scotch anyway…

    • The Gilstrap Slap! Outstanding! I felt the same way, many times. I was teaching at a conference in Odessa, Texas, about four years ago when I heard my Starter Agent was upstairs, taking pitches. One lady was excited about talking to her, and I couldn’t let her go up without relating my experience with that particular agent. The lady listened, and went up anyway. Her choice.

      The funny part is that I was a featured teacher and speaker at that conference, my name and photo on the program and the walls. Starter Agent never came downstairs, not even for the lunch they provided. It was a good thing.


  4. Just the first of many bars we have closed. I’m normally not so brash, but Starter Agent set my Spidey sense on fire. I hope you one day tell the story of the agent whose pitch YOU wouldn’t take.

  5. Excellent advice, Rev. I’ve never looked for an agent, but one of my oldest friends spent several years on the query-go-round, finally landing one only to have that person flake out on them right before the book in question was going to be shopped to publishers. My friend dropped the agent, and a few months went by. I noticed that a previous agent who had expressed interest but passed on the novel was going to be at our local writers conference and I mentioned that to my friend. They met up for coffee, and she decided to represent him after all . I guess the moral of that story is that, like everything else in life, things can change.

    I can relate to the other takeaway from today’s post–what you truly get out of a conference or convention is often not what you came looking for. You made a friend for life with John Gilstrap at that conference.

    I’ve made a number of friends at conferences, workshops and conventions. One of my writer’s group pals I met at a writer’s workshop up in Seattle, the other at our local science fiction convention here in Portland. A few years after meeting both, I attended a terrific two week novel writing workshop in Kansas, and when I came back, I wanted to replicate the group brainstorming experience. I thought of both of these ladies, and a third friend. They didn’t know each other, but they all knew me (I guess I played the part of Kevin Bacon that time 😉 and liked the idea of being in a “brainstorming and support writers group.” Everyone hit it off and they are all long-time friends with one another now, too.

    Thanks for another informative post which was also another a very fun read. Have a great Saturday!

    • Thanks so much, Dale. Every writer I’ve met has an “agent story,” some good, but most bad, but that doesn’t reflect on all agents. There are sometimes issues with personalities, or Life Its Own Self.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. In college, I learned that I retain material better if it’s part of a story, or a mentally painted picture. There was a history professor that had my attention from the time I walked into class, until he closed his notes. I don’t know if he wrote his own stories, or expanded his notes into something magical when he spoke, but I tried to learn from him.

  6. Brilliant revelations. Love the “combining two-fisted action” with “the striking phrase” in your bio, and your memory of the random, mine-pocked path to proper representation.
    Mixing with established authors—along with reading, of course—is the best way to learn the craft. And the business!

    • Afternoon, Carole.

      I’m afraid I’m random in a lot of things, but structured in others. When I’m working on a manuscript, it goes all over the place in the first draft. I rein it in and get rid of some extraneous material, but sometimes the branches lead to different stories and destinations that come together at the end of the project. It’s all very confusing, even to me. Glad you hung with me!

  7. Thanks, Rev, for the deja vu.

    In the ’90s, I attended a number of conferences, trying to snare the elusive agent. Finally found one with years of experience and a good reputation. I was thrilled when she took me on.

    Then nothing happened. She said she’d sent my ms out but never specified where. When I asked questions, she evaded. More nothing. We finally agreed to part ways, a difficult choice for me since finding an agent had taken so long.

    Then I heard rumblings among her other clients whom I knew. Turns out she’d fallen off the wagon with a big splash, embezzled $10K from her partner, moved–no forwarding address, and wasn’t turning over royalties owed to her clients.

    The way it’s supposed to work is, by contract, the publisher pays royalties to the agent, the agent takes her cut, then pays the author. Your paycheck is in her control. If she doesn’t pay, you have to sue her.

    My disappointment soon turned to relief with the realization I’d dodged a bullet that she hadn’t sold my book.

    As Jim says, “a bad agent is worse than no agent.”

    • Absolutely!

      In my case, since I fired Starter Agent and her company dissolved soon after, I was able to get the contracts for The Rock Hole and Burrows in my name. Those checks come straight to me, and the rest of my books go through my Excellent Agent. Right now, all is well in the Universe.

  8. My first agent was mediocre at best. But she did seem to be working for me, and I held onto her, probably longer than I should have. I find “no” is the hardest word for me to utter, so ending our relationship was tough. I ended up with digital-first publishers who didn’t require agents, and then with Five Star. I’d met their editor (unknownst to me) while waiting for the elevator at a conference, and when he’d asked “what are you writing?” it didn’t register that he might be anyone other than another attendee, since that’s a normal icebreaker question. Maybe the suit and tie should have been a clue–this was at a beach venue. At any rate, he gave me his card, told me to see the appointment desk and he’d make sure they worked me in. After we talked, he asked for that coveted “full” and I had a foot into the world of being published.

    • Isn’t that the way it works! My next post will be about an agent that really wanted me to send her a manuscript, but I wouldn’t, and still won’t, though I hear she’s great. Hang on for a couple of weeks!

  9. Had the worst agent back in 2011. I put everything on hold until recently because of that experience. For me, it was actually a good thing, because when I was on pause, I was able to hone my skills. Did lots of self-evaluation of what kind of author I really wanted to be.

    However, life got in the way of writing – 3 kids and few promotions in life – my head is still spinning. It’s all good.

    Going to give self-pub a shot this time around. I want to see if I can generate that self made experience first before I trust my writing ventures to other people. Maybe traditional publishing might not be my tumbler or scotch.

    • I never wanted to self publish, but I have a couple of friends that are doing well in that endeavor. Hope it works for you, but get back on the rails! Good luck!

    • I wish I’d kept the boxes of rejection letters from short stories and that novel that never worked. They’d make a great visual aid, or door stops for a dozen doors.

      Thanks for reading!

  10. My advice to new writers is that writing is the fun part, but the business sucks. If the writing isn’t fun, it’s not the business for you.

    I had nothing but misery with agents. My two major highlights. A friend’s agent handled the anthology a group of us wrote for funsies then decided to sell. And, yes, that’s not how anthos happen, but it was a very good antho. She “sent” it out a few times, didn’t tell us where she sent it, then ghosted us. So, it was dead in the water until I used a contact with ImaJinn Books and sold it. ImaJinn was bought by Belle Books and BY FATE’S HAND is still in print.

    I signed with an up and coming agent who was really making a name for herself in the romance industry. She thought that STAR-CROSSED would be the next big thing and the start of a stellar career, and she started sending it out. Meanwhile, another of her authors discovered she’d embezzled the advance for a big three-book deal because “she needed the money more than the author did.” The author was stuck writing three books for free. She never even got any royalties.

    I pulled STAR-CROSSED and began to contact the editors who expressed interest in it. Crickets. Later, in one of those weird moments of coincidence, I heard an editor chatting at a writing conference about this agent and found out that all of her former authors had been blacklisted among the traditional publishers. Because? Everyone in the business knew what was going on but didn’t pass along the info to her writers. My career went dead for years because of this b*tch and the stupid herd mentality of traditional publishing.

    Anyway, that’s a major reason I decided to give e-publishing a chance, became an ebook pioneer, and never looked back. STAR-CROSSED had a happy ending by winning most of the major awards for science fiction romance, having 5-star reviews, and becoming what passed for a bestseller in digital publishing.

    • When I read your comment, Marilynn, it reminded me of a line from the Clint Eastwood movie, “Outlaw Josey Wales.” One character played by Chief Dan George quoted a line of dialogue referring to the character’s visit with President Lincoln, who told him to “Endeavor to Persevere.”

      That’s what we have to do. Endeavor to Persevere. If we do, it usually turns out just right.

  11. I signed up at conference for a paid meet-an-agent thing. One agent was billed as having repped a best-seller in the obscurancy* genre. I had an obscurancy novel so I paid the $x for a y-minute sit-down with that agent. When I pitched my novel, I was told, “Oh, I don’t represent male MC obscurancy, only female MC.” I should have gone into reverse and asked for a refund, but chatted for the rest of the time to be polite.
    That evening, at a pirate workshop, another writer of obscurancy told me she’d pitched her novel to the same agent, only to be told, “Oh, I don’t represent adult obscurancy, only YA obscurancy.”
    My advice for anyone seeking an agent: Get on AgentQuery or QueryTracker and follow their links to the agencies. Check out the books and authors they’ve represented. Read their agency “About” statement very carefully. Check out individual agents and what they want. Make sure what’s most important to you is most important to them. Prioritize.

    * not its real name. hope you didn’t try to look it up.

  12. Good evening, Rev!

    I enjoyed your post, but I have to disagree on the “easy part.” I love writing. It’s loads of fun, but I find it to be very hard. Lucky for me, I love hard work.

    I hope things will loosen up soon and we can return to writing conferences. Despite the fact that I’m an introvert, I seem to find my stride when I’m talking to other writers.

    • Isn’t it interesting how writing comes to each of us. I’m in no way putting myself into his category, but Hemingway struggled for years with manuscripts. So much so, his cadence is recognizable to my ear, while others write with ease, Stephen King, and he grabs me at the first sentence.

      Like you, I hope we get back to some semblance of normal. We all need to sit down with other writers to fill our cups.

  13. A boozy evening with John Gilstrap sounds great. Agent hunting, not so much. Maybe sell a few ebooks and let a good agent look for you?

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