Writing Tight

Those who’ve grown familiar with these posts over the past few months realize that I have severe diarrhea of the keyboard, but that’s only here on the Kill Zone blog where I let my mind free. My Red River and Sonny Hawke novels come in somewhere around 90-100,000 words. They aren’t Tom Clancy-size doorstops.

I also write short bursts of weekly self-syndicated mostly humorous outdoor columns (though there are plenty of serious columns) that began back in 1988, and so through the decades…

…good lord. I’ve written those for decades, and I’m from the generation who said, “Never trust anyone over twenty-one years old.”

Anyway, in those columns for The Paris News, The Rockport Pilot, and Country World (a rural newspaper distributed across the entire Lone Star State), I have to tell an entire story in less than a thousand words. They usually come in at around 850-950 words and most of them are in the right order.

Now there’s a lot of info packed in there containing the traditional three parts of a story, beginning, middle, and end. It can also translate into the three acts of a novel, something I hadn’t consciously considered until I’d written three of my books.

Here’s where we pause to make fun of myself. Gilstrap and I were drinking scotch outside at a conference somewhere after the release of my third novel, and talking about books and writing. We were alone (thank the Lord), when I mentioned that I’d recently noticed an interesting structural component in my work.

“They seem to be divided into thirds, somehow.” I took a sip of Glenlivet. “It just happens, and I didn’t notice it until I was proofing this last one. Then I went back and looked at the other manuscripts I’d sent in. It’s like my high school English teacher taught us. There’s a beginning that’s about a third of the book, then the second part seems to arc up, and in the third part, all the action races downhill to the end.”

He took a delicate sip of Lagavulin and cut his eyes at me giving me that country bless your heart look. “Rev.”


“Those are the three acts in a novel.”

“Oh, yeah. Uh, let me pour you another drink.” A torrent of long-forgotten memories rushed through the haze of single malt peat. “Good Lord! Now I remember those lessons. I’d completely forgotten!”

But I hadn’t. They were still chugging away in my subconscious and I’d been applying those lessons for years as I developed my newspaper columns and magazine articles without knowing it.

If I’m writing those humor columns, the three acts are the setup, the story arc, and the punchline (and that sometimes translates to the punch-paragraph). To accomplish all this with enough detail to put the reader in place and time, I learned to write tight.

That’s hard for novelists, and so in a way, it worked in reverse for me. Two thousand columns taught me concise structure, and that’s the way my mind works, no matter what I write. So when I was hammering out my first novel, I decided to abandon the write tight rule and put it behind me, so I could include everything I wanted.

There were broad, sweeping descriptions of the world I’d created. In my mind, I wanted to preserve the way my Old Folks spoke, so I added a lot of their phraseology and words. In addition, I went into great detail about how to render lard in large cast iron pots, or how my grandmother canned vegetables and fruits, and how the house smelled and felt through the seasons.

I ended up with a tome that required severe editing. Once I was finished, you couldn’t tell anything had been deleted and the manuscript flowed like a spring-fed creek.

In the years since, I construct novels with an eye toward an 80,000-85,000 word length in my first draft. That gets the structural foundation in place. Then I go back and add more conversation in places, tightly controlled descriptions, and elements left out in the first frenzy of construction.

But back to compact construction. While pounding away at the keys this morning to meet my weekly newspaper deadline, I registered a song playing in the background and stopped to listen. It’s a fine example of writing tight, a song that’s the perfect structural foundation for a novel. A story written tight.

I use this song and those lyrics when teaching classes how to construct a story (and I even tell those in attendance it’s the textbook outline, if outlining is easiest for them).

The structural foundation for this popular song (in my part of the world) could become a short story, or a screenplay, is titled, The Lights of Loving County, by Charlie Robison. (I really hope someone approaches him to buy the rights for a movie). It’s a song with three full acts circling back to mesh with the beginning with an astonishing connection. The song was written by Charlie Robison, too (I’m trying to give as much credit as possible so as not to get sued here). Read this as a story, and not as a grand poem set to music, and I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.

Well, I loved a girl,
She lived out in Pecos, and pretty as she could be.
And I worked the rigs on out in Odessa
To give her whatever she needs.

But that girl, she run with an oil company bum
‘cause a diamond was not on her hand.
And he left her soon ‘neath the big loving moon
To go out and X-ray the land.


Now I sit in my car at the New Rainbow Bar downtown.
And the frost on the windshield shines toward the sky
Like a thousand tiny diamonds in the lights of Loving County.

Well, l walked in that bar and I drank myself crazy
Thinking about her and that man.
When in walked a woman, looking richer than sin
with ten years-worth of work on her hand.

Well, I followed her home and when she was alone,
I put my gun to her head.
And I don’t recall what happened next at all,
But now that rich woman, she’s dead.


Now I drive down the highway
Ten miles from my sweet baby’s arms.
And the moon is so bright it don’t look like night,
And the diamond how it sparkles in the lights of Loving County.


Well, she opened that door and I knelt on the floor,
And I put that ring in her hand.
Then she said, “I do: and she’d leave with me soon
To the rigs out in South Alabam’.

Now I told her to hide that ring there inside,
And wait ’til the timing was good.
And I drove back home and I was alone
‘cause I thought that she understood


The next night an old friend just called me to wish us both well.
He said, he’d seen her downtown, sashaying around,
And her diamond, how it sparkled in the lights of Loving County.

Well that sheriff, he found me out wandering
All around El Paso the very next day.
You see, I’d lost my mind on that broken white line
‘fore I even reached Balmorhea.


Well, now she’s in Fort Worth and she’s just given birth
To the son of that oil company man.
And they buried that poor old sheriff’s dead wife
With the ring that I stole on her hand.

And sometimes they let me look up at that East Texas sky.
And the rain on the pines, oh Lord, how it shines
Like my darling’s little diamond in the lights of Loving County.


God, I wish I’d written that. There it is, an entire novel in one neat little package. An outline, if you will, just waiting to be fleshed out. This is a prime example of writing tight with just enough detail to bring the story to life, and yet not too much fat.


In there, we see the harsh West Texas landscape, and a hardscrabble life in the oil business. Charlie shows us the two main characters who set this story into motion, a man who loves a woman deeply and despises another suitor, and a woman who sees worth in the baubles men provide to make her feel better out there in the desert.


Then the action begins. The jealous protagonist needs two things on a cold winter night. Booze and money. One to sooth his emotions, and the other to buy the girl he’s crazy about. It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? In an alcoholic blackout, he commits murder. He has what he wants, but at the same time is struggling with right and wrong, soon to be overcome guilt and mental breakdown after she starts flashing that diamond around town.


Murder, intrigue, and a brilliant twist that leads to his capture and final incarceration in Huntsville State Prison where he sometimes can see rain caught on the pines that surround the penitentiary. It’s the dichotomy between the dry west and lush eastern part of our state, still another level in this multifaceted story.


I’ve provided a link below so that you can hear the original version of the song. It needs nothing else, except to be fleshed out with a minimum of instrumentation, another brilliant version of writing tight. As my young daughters heard until they gagged, “Less is more.”


Hope this quick little lesson has some impact on your writing.







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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

17 thoughts on “Writing Tight

  1. Thanks for a great way to start the morning, Rev. When you describe John I feel as if he is sitting here at the table with me.

    Charlie Robison may not be a household name outside of Texas, but he is in mine. “I Want You Bad” is always on heavy rotation in casa del Hartlaub.

    Hope you have a great one, and several more.

  2. Great post, Rev. Great story. And good lessons on writing tight, and three-part structure. If your girls refuse to listen to you preach that “Less is more,” make them watch Father of the Bride.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Morning, Steve.

      Those two “girls” are now in their early thirties and moms, but I still hammer them with great old sayings. The oldest known as The Redhead in my newspaper columns, was sometimes overwhelmed with her class loads and assignments in high school. My response was always, “You know how to eat an elephant?”

      The rolled her eyes every time. “Yeah, one bite at a time.”

      The world leveled for me when she called one day after a class and said she had an overwhelmed student who needed some words of encouragement. Those were about how to eat an elephant.

      The great circle of life.

  3. Wired or acquired, the three-act structure is built into us. It’s how we experience life. We wake up in the morning, work all day, relax and go to sleep at night. We have childhood, a long second act (to be hoped) and then our final destination (remember the Riddle of the Sphinx?) You came to it naturally—or naturally, it came to you—through your columns.

    Thanks for the tip on the song, Rev. I’ll give it a listen.

  4. Gobsmacked by that song, Rev. I’d never heard of him, but man, that boy can write. As for your epiphany–too cute! How John remained stoic I have no idea. Hilarious!

    Thanks for yet another enjoyable post. Enjoy your weekend!

  5. A really insightful post, Rev, and a great story. Writing tight can generate so much narrative power. My first sales were flash fiction stories to online science fiction/fantasy magazines. The flash fictions usually took place in a single scene, with its own little mini-three part structure. Working a full story in a thousand words or less was a real challenge, and helped me improve so much as a writer.

    Thanks for another great post. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Thanks Dale.

      I still get too wordy. I thought today’s post was short until I saw it here on the page. Dang. I need to learn how to write tight!

      You have a great weekend, too!

  6. Good advice. Stupid advice on how to cut your manuscript word length, I once heard, was to cut four sentences out of every page. If your writing is that bloated, you’ve got considerably more problems than word length. Writers are like butchers. We need to cut the fat without harming the meat and muscle of the writing.

    • I meant to add that newer writers tend to write more for themselves, than the audience, but they fail to recognize that. All those details are them fixing and figuring things out. It’s much easier to edit clean when they realize that.

    • The more we write, the more we learn to trim our work as it progresses. Never heard that global cut advice, but we can all cut something, or rewrite the sentence.

      I taught my former secretary that trick when she’d come to me with the draft for a letter and say she was stumped, because the sentence didn’t read right. My answer was always, rewrite the sentence and it flowed every time. It was already rewritten in her mind, but she was trying to force that square peg into a round hole.

      Have a great weekend!

  7. Great post, Rev, for us newbies! Write Tight is always a lesson I can hear again and again, and still learn from.

    It occurs to me, as I amble down the path of this life, that it’s good advice for living, too.

    Live Tight.

    We go at it with abandon when we’re tadpoles, for all we’re worth, adding this, that, & the other, then we back off, get wise, & trim the fat (sometimes literally!). Narrow our focus down to the essentials, what’s important.

    That’s how I wanna go out.

    But I probably philosophize too much. It’s that kind of Saturday morning. Have a good one.

  8. I love your example of writing tight, Rev.

    So many of my ideas are born of riffing off classic country songs. Those songwriters learned storytelling at the knees of their parents and grandparents.

    I fear we live our lives in such a rush that no one takes the time to sit down and recall stories our ancestors told. When I ask, aunts and uncles no longer remember the stories my grandfather told. Their children have never heard them at all.

    I miss those summer afternoons spent under a shade tree where extended family and friends would wait out the heat of the day. Someone would lean back in a green metal lawn chair and start.

    “Y’all remember that time when Cousin Cooter took his hounds onto ol’ man Higgins bottomland. Seems he heard tell there was a ‘coon the size of a bear the ol’ guy was keepin’ as a pet. So Cooter, he done decided he was gonna find it and train it to . . . .”

    No matter how boring or exciting the adventure, the narrator always embellished those memories just a bit. The garnishments grew with each new telling and each new raconteur. That’s what made the tales eternally memorable. A touch of comedy, the hint of pain or suffering, the adversity survived. Mini-novels of lives lived to the full.

    Long live the singers of song, the writers of books, the word masters who keep the creativity of imagination fresh for all of us who craft our stories from almost whole cloth.

  9. Thanks for another great post, Rev. And thanks for including the lyrics. What a riveting story!

    The three-act structure does seem to be built in to us, doesn’t it? I tend to write sparse (my current ms is 60K words, but I aspire to have it flow “like a spring-fed creek.” Love the metaphor.

    Have a nice rest of the weekend.

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