Gird Thy Loins

This writing business was a significant learning curve for me, and I suspect, for others as well. Few authors stepped into it fully capable and informed on every aspect of our chosen careers. I’m fear you’ll see some letdowns as you gain experience, but be prepared.

There were great successes at the outset when I published my first newspaper column in 1988, but before that I suffered a list of minor and major disappointments that sometimes almost made me throw my hands in the air and give up.

I wish I hadn’t thrown away a box full of decades-old rejection slips and letters back around 2000, when I was at a low point in my sputtering career as a novelist. I was ready to chuck it all one day, soon after my newspaper column was on the brink of national syndication through King Features, who discovered that I was self-syndicated in more than 50 papers in Texas and Oklahoma. However, that new beast called the Internet sucked the life out of newspaper publishing, and the first thing managers did was drop columnists.

So from that high point, I went to three papers where the columns remain to this day.

Big Disappointment Number 1

Instead of being the “Outdoor Dave Barry,” as a King Features agent called me, I was almost back to square one when they called to say thanks, but no thanks now, and good luck. Feeling sorry for myself, I opened that box of rejection slips and read them one by one.

Many were from Readers Digest in the late 1960s Another was a single sentence typed in 1969 under Playboy letterhead to a 16 year-old kid, “Thank you for your submission, but it does not meet our needs at this time.” Encouraged that there was a coffee stain on one of the submissions (somebody read it, huzzah!), I continued pelting them with submissions through the next few years, there were many more from that magazine.

Other rejection slips came from outdoor periodicals, national magazines, large daily newspapers, and finally, book publishers. At first I considered those polite but milquetoast rejections as a form of encouragement (somebody was actually reading my efforts), but sitting in the hot attic on that low-point day, they mocked my attempts to be published.

When the columnist market collapsed and my papers dropped off at an alarming rate, I had to start writing how-to “hook and bullet” articles for outdoor magazines in order to keep my name out there. Those photo/copy packages paid well, but they took a tremendous amount of time and research to produce, so I looked around to find a bigger brick to throw.

It had been right there in front of me for years. I had to write a novel.

In the late 1970s, I hammered on a Smith Corona portable typewriter, then migrated to the new technology of a 1980s-era IBM Selectric nestled on a makeshift desk in the second tiny bedroom/library/office of my 900-square foot frame house. There I started half a dozen novels that fizzled out by page 40. They simply wouldn’t hold even my interest, let alone others.

One is still in a drawer. Titled Smoke and Ash, it’s an unreadable apocalyptic draft and I only keep it in a file to occasionally torture myself and remember how it was.

I experimented with humor, science fiction, and short stories. My frustration was that I constantly needed to go back and correct typos, or insert ideas and dialogue that came to me later.

My soul was freed when I bought a 286 computer. It didn’t take long, but I figured out how to write on a Sperrylink word program and the words flowed.

Big Disappointment Number 2

Then one day I began The Rock Hole and when it was finally finished years later, I hit the save key one final time, only to find that the dinosaur word program’s 5½ inch floppy disk wouldn’t hold so much information and overwrites. It malfunctioned and the entire work disappeared in a technological burp.

I had to re-write the entire manuscript from memory, but I like to think it was better than the original. With document saved this time on a Zip drive, I submitted that new manuscript to a number of publishers. Most said thanks, but no thanks, but a Texas university press was interested in the novel, and here’s where I screwed up.

Big Disappointment Number 3

Remember, I was green as grass, and hadn’t even spoke to more than two or three writers by then, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the editor at that time communicated with me via old school letters at first, suggesting edits and offering encouragement. I did some more editing, sent it, and she asked for the manuscript.

I printed and mailed her the 140,000 word manuscript of what was then titled Center Springs, Texas, and waited. Yeah, I know it was way too long…now. The first hundred pages came back from a copy editor, with a list of problems. That individual picked the manuscript apart, much like a high school English teacher, and it looked as if she’d been in the process of turning into a werewolf at the same time she read it. The pages bled red ink, scalding comments, and I swear there were claw marks across some of them.

That individual wasn’t good at stroking writers. It seems she hated such repeated words as old, real, porch, and just, that I’d used over and over. I recall a number of suggestions and ways to tightened the work, and so I threw those pages on still another makeshift desk and gave up.

I gave up on an editor at that university press who was interested in publishing that work long before it was picked up in 2010 under a different name by Poisoned Pen Press. In essence, I didn’t know they were on the verge of accepting it for publication. I still slap my head in my sleep, when dreams arise and I see those communications from them in the trash.

Looking back, though, I guess it was a good thing I didn’t go with the university press, because that would have likely been a one-book deal. Instead, Poisoned Pen offered me a series that continues to this day.

Big Disappointment Number 4

That wasn’t the end of letdowns for me, though. Not by a long shot. A production company that had finished filming Winter’s Bone liked The Rock Hole, and called me direct to offer a movie deal!

However, my starter agent (which I fired not long after that offer) started playing games with the company and they quickly threw up their hands and backed away from the project.

But I had the Red River series with Poisoned Pen, and found an excellent agent who was experienced in the publishing world. Together, we worked on a second series that was picked up by Kensington. Frustrations faded to memories and I was a busy guy for a while, and still am, but I wanted to do something different.

Through friends who are bestselling authors, I heard about an up and coming eBook publisher that was looking for something different. They arranged for a face to face meeting at a conference in Colorado. I drove up, met the publisher, and we went out to dinner.

Big Disappointment Number…oh, what the hell.

The next day he agreed to publish something completely different for me, a weird western that he loved. We shook on it, with the promise from him to contact my agent and hammer out a contract.

Two days later, he crawfished on the deal with a lame excuse I won’t write here, and refused to take calls or emails. I was raised by people who survived the Great Depression, World War II, and fickle weather, and grew up with the absolute understanding that a handshake was a legal bond, a man’s word.

Apparently, he didn’t see it that way, and that series evaporated into the wind, but it didn’t stop me. Why? Because I refuse to give up and give in to setbacks.

Now, get back on that horse and ride.

If you continue on the path to being an author, you’re likely to ride that rollercoaster of highs and lows, it’s simply part of the business. But remember, never let ‘em show you’re wounded, and never, ever, give up.

Good luck and happy typing.

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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 “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

25 thoughts on “Gird Thy Loins

  1. Morning, Rev. One of the early ‘lessons’ on the writing path is to develop a rhinoceros hide.
    When we moved to Colorado, I left my file folders of rejection letters behind, but I think this was the worst:
    “We did review your proposal, and for some reason we don’t feel we can represent it. Some of them come close, and yours may well be one of those, but we do have our reasons for declining.”

  2. I’ve been lucky-ish in that I haven’t gotten that many rejections, it’s been more like “can you do more of this and less of that” which I did. Between acting, the military, and being the youngest, I’m good at taking direction.

    But now I think I haven’t been sending enough out and I’m willing to take the risk. I acknowledge the fact that I’ve been pretty spoiled but that has also made me risk-averse in that I don’t want to ruin my record (that’s a zillion years of Catholic school in a nutshell).

    So y’all heard it here. I’m jumping out of the perfectly good airplane (which the Air Force taught us never to do and my Marine Corps son says automatically makes me a wuss) and hoping like heck that danged parachute works!

    Thanks, Rev. You give me hope.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, Rev. Very interesting…and inspiring.

    “Never ever give up.” – persistence, the secret to success.

    After a series that included a small press going bankrupt, an agent who forgot me, and agents in a “professional” organization who wanted more from the female writers than the manuscript, I turned to indie publishing. The sales aren’t there, yet. I’m still learning. And I’m happy where I am.

    Carpe typem!

  4. The writing life strikes me as being similar to a rat in a maze. You’re trucking along then run into a wall, have to back up and try something else (I often feel like this just writing some manuscripts. LOL!), etc. This despite the fact that in the writing world, there are innumerable people out there to help you on your journey. We have awesome blogs such as this one, untold books, articles, conferences. You still have to get out there and do, and make your own mistakes in order to learn from them and keep going.

    Plus you have to wonder what the next big game changer is. You mentioned the Internet’s mass impact on newspaper columns. Then there was the impact of e-books on physical stores and next? Who knows. It’s trite to say ‘expect the unexpected’ but I’m not sure how much you can really ‘prepare’ for these types of curveballs. It goes back to the very thing you ended your post with–never give up.

    • We can’t prepare for everything. Writers have to shrug off these setbacks and move on. Determination is the key and to write as much as possible to polish, polish, and then polish some more.

  5. Happy Saturday, Rev! Your post today shows the value of persistence in the face of setbacks, of which we all face, multiple times and in different ways. I’m slowly reading Seth Godin’s “The Practice,” which is all about focusing on the process of creation/production, and then “shipping,” i.e.e sending it out into the world. Rinse and repeat. Because the writing is the one thing we have control over.

    You wrote and continue to wrote in the face of setbacks, and continue to send work out. Which all any of us can and need to do.

    Thanks for another inspiring post. Have a great day!

    • My pleasure Dale. I throw these stories out to illustrate rather than tell. We’ve all been through it. Every published writer has similar stores. I’m far from unique, but you don’t get a participation medal in this business.

  6. “I experimented with humor, science fiction, and short stories.”

    This is where I’m still at, but it’s fun. Trying to find my voice, my tone, my genre. Your story is encouraging.

  7. “Keep working. Keep trying. Keep believing. You still might not make it, but at least you gave it your best shot. If you don’t have calluses on your soul, this isn’t for you. Take up knitting instead.” – David Eddings

    When I was twelve and in love with baseball, I wrote an article for Sports Illustrated called “The Big Five of Baseball” — my profiles of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame. My mom typed it up, knowing that if I wanted to be a writer (like she was, in a minor way) I’d have to learn about rejection slips. But I was sure they’d snap up the work of a twelve-year-old literary prodigy.

    Well, a kind-hearted editor wrote me an encouraging letter. He took the time to gently suggest some things I needed to work on. I remember him saying the style was a “bit choppy” in transitions from paragraph to paragraph. He ended by saying that from this sample he was convinced I would be ready to submit publishable work well before many people are. I wish I still had that letter!

    • That’s an awesome story of a great mom and kind editor.

      When I was 14, and Kurt Cobain died, I wrote an article from a fan’s perspective for Rolling Stone. David Fricke, the editor, sent me a personalized letter on some awesome Rolling Stone letterhead wherein he told me it’s very hard for such a young person to sell work for publication, however, he added “your long-term prognosis, I would say, is good.”

      Boy do I wish I still had that letter. Still remember that one line, however.

    • We all thrive on encouragement. It’s the snappish comments or rejections that are hard to take, but I look at it like this…I’m at least trying. That’s how I treated my kids when I was teaching. Praise what you want to raise.

  8. Thanks for this encouraging reminder, Rev. Writers all have to inch our way up the ladder of disappointments but each one is a lesson.

    286 and 5″ floppies? Oh yeah, I had that same experience. But, funny thing, the redo usually turned out better.

    Dale said, “writing is the one thing we have control over.” That’s my mantra, too.

    Excuse me, I need to climb back on that damn horse.

    • That’s me, John. Glad you saw that. A person’s word should be their bond, and that handshake is the signature. It’s as solid as a written contract to me. I want so bad to warn people about this guy by name, but I won’t. I’ll see him again next year, and I doubt I’ll shake even in greeting. It means that much to me.

  9. So inspiring, Rev! If persistence and, perhaps, bullheadedness isn’t in the genes, then don’t become a writer. Rhino hide is also a prerequisite. 😉

  10. My collection of rejection slips is rather modest at this time but I hope to grow it substantially in the near future. I am thinking a small hillock of them would be rather nice. I’ve made the acquintance of a person who worked as a slush reader for a magazine for three years and I expect to be schooled mightily, the better to add to my collection. Which is fine.

    Treacherous people-we called em rat bastards in Jersey where I grew up- make great villains, though. I got a severe spanking from a “published writer” of my former acquaintance who thinks of herself quite highly and that experience formed the basis of a revenge story I cooked up.

    If there’s a point, it is to persist as Mister Wortham so ably says, and make contacts in your chosen field. And yes. A person’s word ought to be their bond, and if it isn’t, they are sorry people.

    • Being schooled by someone who has been there in the publishing world and/or is successfully published is invaluable. It’s those who are still trying in their own right, but critical based on what they’ve read or heard are still another issue.

      Don’t let too much criticism be detrimental. Rather, absorb it, then move on.

  11. Your post was recommended to me by author Debbie Burke. I had told her about my depression due to miniscule sales that stopped me from writing for over a year — until a bad fall knocked some sense into my head and got me working again. Many thanks to you and her for sharing your experiences!

    I write historical romance, not thrillers, but publishing is a rough road no matter the genre. Years ago, I submitted my first book to several publishers, went through two different agents and gave up. Yes, I’m too thin-skinned. Eventually, I self-pubbed on Amazon and did fairly well for a short time until Big A played with their algorithms and my sales sank. Still, I kept writing, encouraged by some very nice reviews, but at times I wonder why bother.

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