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

Those Many Books

My good friends, bestselling authors Michael and Kathleen Gear, recently posted a photo on Twitter of their 32,000-volume home library. At the time of this writing on February 1, it was trending to the tune of 4.1 million views and thousands of retweets.

Sparked by people’s fascination with such a massive personal library, comments came fast and furious, to the point that digital fistfights broke out and trolls attacked the couple for a variety of bizarre reasons including, “why do you have so many that you can’t possibly read all of them?”

I’ll answer that one for the Gears. “Because they wanted them.”

But thousands were envious and climbed upon their own ramparts of books to repel the attacks and support the couple and their collection.

I’m a reader and collector as well. We moved into our new house four years ago and I contracted with a master cabinetmaker to build bookcases in my office. The polished cherry built-ins reach twelve feet high, wrap around two walls, and the builder constructed a ladder and rail system to reach the upper shelves. He said it was the tallest cabinetry he’d ever designed to hold the weight of so many books.

It is a dream library, though I fall far short of the Gear’s 32,000 mark. Conservatively, I’d estimate my book collection might reach upwards of 5,000, mostly hardback volumes. Lacking enough shelf space even now, some are still packed away in an old quilt box built by my great granddaddy. They’re also scattered throughout the house on bookshelves, barrister bookcases, on other shelves and cabinets.

And yes, I’ve read them all except for those on my TBR stack. I’ve even written a few that are properly alphabetized, that take up almost an entire shelf.

The first paperback books that started my first adult collection came from a married couple, Don and Sally, who lived around the corner when I was in high school. Of course I had a library card, and I’d like to think I was one of the most prolific readers who ever checked books out of the Pleasant Grove Public Library, but I wanted my own.

Don loved westerns and gave me my first Louis L’Amour novels. He bought them for a few cents off a rack at the Rexall, read them, and passed them on to me, after Sally first made sure there wasn’t anything in them that high schoolers shouldn’t read.

But for high school boys, hope springs eternal to find some of those words and scenes Sally worried about. In my case, however, they didn’t show up in anything that came from that generous couple. I had to read The Dirty Dozen (1965) to finally see the “F” word in print, the word “whore” in Drums Along the Mohawk, (1936) and the mild sex scenes in Harold Robbins’ novels (1960s and 70s), that made me go “humm.”

Today there’s a huge push here in the Lone Star State to remove such books from school library shelves, and that kind of book burning nonsense is starting to worry me, because books have been a source of information and entertainment since I was a little critter. Honestly, I don’t need low-level politicians tell me or anyone else what to read.

My first real salaried position was working as a page in the Dallas Casa View Branch library, and shelving books was the best job I ever had. Reporting for work after school, then college, was never tedious, and at least once a week I told myself that someday I’d have my own personal library. Many of those books with bad words in them.

I’ve collected ever since, and prefer physical books over eBooks. For a while there, as Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and a host of other mom and pop outlets closed their doors to the behemoth Barnes and Noble, I thought bookstores might be a thing of the past.

When B&N bulldozed whole sections in their stores and filled them with big empty tables holding a few tablets, the end seemed inevitable. Physical books might be going the way of the dinosaurs. Good lord, my personal library might be a museum piece before long.

But now stores are coming back, and the market has steadied between eReaders and books. Now the Twitter comments on the Gear library make me wonder. Why is that people can’t believe some of us have our own libraries. And why not? Amazon will sometimes deliver them right to your door only hours after you order them.

It pleases me to look up at the books I’ve collected for the past fifty-plus years. No, I won’t read most of them again, but the familiar titles and covers are my security blanket full of memories filled with the pleasant recollections of the stories between those covers.

There are collections by Robert Ruark, Donald Westlake, William C. Anderson, Douglas Jones, Edward Abbey, and Bill Bryson that I’ve gone back and re-read. Other authors who’ve become friends are there, as well as a collection of first editions by the King himself. I still read his old stuff now and then.

I have books by Owen West, Brian Coffey and Leigh Nicols that make me grin, for those are the early pen names of Mr. Dean Koontz.

Other single titles have sustained me through the years when things looked to be spinning out of control. Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis by Howell Raines was a gift from the Bride who knows all things. My Health is Better in November, by Havilah Babcock and anything by Mr. Gene Hill were there when things became bleak.

I still go back and read The Old Man and the Boy by Robert C. Ruark. Talk about comfort food (books) for the soul.

This personal library is a close friends= my kids will have to deal with when the Bride and I are gone, but with one daughter who is a high school librarian, and another who understands personal belongings that are important to us, they’ll know what to do.

So with that said, here are some questions for the hive mind.

Why the big hubbub about the Gear’s personal library?

How big is your personal library?

Are there authors whose works have been instrumental to your personal career or well-being?

And finally, which authors were the foundations of your own writing or reading world?

So with that, happy reading!

 

Boz

Larry Bozka died of cancer on January 5, at 4:30.

I know the time, because I’d checked my phone at that exact moment, waiting for an electrician who was keeping me from going to my deer stand.

Outdoor enthusiasts, hunters, and fishermen in Texas knew about Boz, because he was an outstanding photojournalist with credits in countless outdoor publications, Past President of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association, former editor of Texas Fish and Game Magazine, and the author of Larry Bozka’s Saltwater Strategies, before launching into a long list of successful photographic and video endeavors too numerous to list here.

Boz gave me a chance, way back in 1992. I’d reached out to him via snail mail to see if he was interested in allowing me to write for a pulp outdoor newsletter I can’t name today. It was a statewide publication and I thought it would give me the opportunity to get my name out there, since I was working hard to expand my self-syndicated newspaper column.

He called long distance from Houston a few days after getting my packet, and hired me on the spot to write for him. We talked for an hour on the phone that day, on his dime, and from the moment I heard his voice, we were friends.

Taking a pretty much unknown writer under his wing, he gave me the opportunity to expand my imagination. I wrote humor for his paper, and we spent hours in the field, planning our next adventure, story ideas, and where we wanted to be twenty years from then.

From there Boz moved over to become editor of Texas Fish and Game, and brought me along, giving me the opportunity to write whatever I want. He was a gentle editor, who taught me much.

Then we lost our minds and took figurative shots at everything we could think of in an insane satirical publication called the National Fish Rapper. He was encouraging to a budding author, always there when I had a question or thought. He was a mentor, editor, friend, and never knew what he did for me.

Hang in here with me as this meandering trail brings me to my days as a middle school photography teacher. This was the late 1970s and early 80s, a time full of great rock and roll, parachute pants on the boys, Calvin Klein jeans and long bangs on the girls, and a troubled kid named Mark B.

Back then I had a reputation as a hard teacher who was a disciplinarian, and one who taught a fun class at the same time. Because of that, a number of floundering students appeared in my room who needed whatever it was that I could offer.

Mark was one of them. He’d been kicked out of most of his classes at one time or another and was no stranger to expulsion. Tougher than boot leather, he was always in trouble and tended to fight other guys at the drop of a hat. With a squad of toadies following behind, he cut quite a swath through the school.

I didn’t put up with much back then, and he and I butted heads almost on a daily basis. Once night he broke into the school, kicked through walls to access the principal’s office. I won’t go into details about what he left in the principal’s desk drawer, but suffice it to say that everything in there had to be thrown away.

Finding success and satisfaction in breaking through sheetrock that night, he turned his attention to my classroom. The hole in my wall reminded me of the Road Runner or Coyote punching through billboards. He tore the room apart to teach me a lesson.

For his enthusiasm, he wound up being expelled for the remainder of the year, and I never heard another word about Mark.

Four or five years ago the Bride and I went to Billy Bob’s dance hall in Ft. Worth to see Mark Chesnutt. I met the country music star through Boz (wait for the connection…) and we became friends. Mark loves to fish, and so do I, so the three of us had a great time in Rockport, Texas, sharing the outdoors and creating stories that should never be told.

At Billy Bob’s that night I sent word backstage to Mark, telling him I was there and would like to come back and visit with him before the show. I got a note ten minutes later to come through a specific stage door.

Note in hand, the Bride and I went backstage and were stopped in a dark hallway by a big deputy sheriff who looked at the note, then down at me.

“You aren’t going back there right now.”

I looked up at the bear-sized lawman. “This note came from Mark himself. Here’s his handwriting.”

“Nope. You’re not going in there.”

Face flushing with anger, I looked at the Bride for support. For once she didn’t have any answer except for a raised eyebrow, so I turned to the big guy. “I’m not sure what I’ve done to offend you, but we’d just like to go back and visit with my friend.”

“Mr. Wortham, you and I have something to talk about first.”

I paused. “Do I know you?”

“You did, Mr. Wortham. I’m Mark B.”

My eyes widened in shock.

The big guy grinned. “Thought I was in the pen, didn’t you?”

“Frankly, yes. But you’re a deputy sheriff. How….?”

“Because of you, and the principal. I was out of control when I was a kid, but you two talked to me, and listened, and y’all stayed on me. You encouraged me in class, and it stuck, though I didn’t know it at the time.

“All that kicked in a few years later when I got in trouble again. It wasn’t pretty, but the judge sealed my records and I straightened up. If it wasn’t for y’all, I’d be in prison, but you helped turn me around.”

Then he hugged me, and I disappeared as that big guy wrapped his arms around me. I had only one thing to say.

“Don’t hurt me.”

He pushed me back and grinned. “I just want to thank you for taking the time to work with me.”

We talked for a few more minutes before he allowed us backstage, which is another story that evolved that night.

Part of my point is that Boz introduced me to Chesnutt, who in a roundabout way allowed me to talk with Mark B., a success story I would have never know about.

The second point is that we don’t know what impact we have on others. One student in my photography class eventually became the Chief Photographer for Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, who has a connection with…Larry Bozka.

Boz’s passing leads me to this observation. We don’t know what future impact a kind word, or a kind act can have on someone. Giving a writer positive feedback might be all they need to continue trying to make it. Honest critiques can make all the difference. Maybe nothing but a sincere, encouraging word is all we need to offer.

I’ll always hear his encouraging voice that was supportive and full of life and humor. Helping and encouraging freshmen writers was always part of his mission, and it should be ours as published authors, too.

It was because of Larry Bozka, and others who believed in me, that I’ve achieved success as a newspaper columnist, magazine writer and monthly columnist still for Texas Fish and Game, and an author 15 novels and counting.

He was one of a kind, and readers everywhere will miss that twinkle in his eyes and his distinctive writing voice. We

I lift my glass to Boz. Another fine writer and friend gone.

That Amazing Word, and other Vocabulary Issues

I fear the English language is in trouble.

My old daddy likely said the same thing when us kids used such words as cool, far out, gnarly, bummer, or any number of late 1960s slang.

He didn’t like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin, either.

But I’m not talking about just kids here at the beginning of this new year. Those old saws about 2023 resolutions are all I’ve seen on television this week. I’m glad they won’t go on for months like those slanted political ads that don’t provide all the real information, just the sound bites they want you to remember.

I don’t make resolutions, because I don’t intend to fail. What I do pledge each January, is to do my best in whatever I do, and to never give up.

There are a few things I wish would fade away here in this new year, and the first is my biggest irritation, the abominable word amazing. Unlike the abovementioned slang, this word crosses all ages and genders, and is annoying no matter where it comes from.

A couple of morning ago, I was half-listening to an inane TV talk show and ginning around the house without paying any real attention to the program. Those people with starry eyes and unnaturally white teeth were talking about nothing. But That Word was used a dozen times in less than thirty minutes, referring to makeup, someone’s appearance, a pair of shoes, a movie, a fake celebrity who’s done nothing in her life but be in the news, and the weather.

Annoyed to no end, I switched it to HGTV for background noise. I have an architectural background, and am a serial home renovator, always working on some project around the house, so I occasionally enjoy watching a few of those home improvement shows to get ideas.

I also like to see the results after they bring in a thirty-man crew to work eighteen hours a day for six weeks to finish a three-month project during a one-hour television program.

When the married hosts took their clients through the completed project during the final segment known as “the reveal,” everything was That Word again, only to excess. Someone should have written a better script for these reality clients who feigned excitement and surprise about everything.

They had a limited vocabulary, mostly limited to amazing. The exterior of the house was amazing, the plants were amazing, the living room was amazing.

“This kitchen is amazing!”

“This table is amazing!”

“These chairs are amazing!”

“The fireplace is amazing!”

“This wallpaper is amazing!”

“You two are amazing!”

Tired of reading That Word? You can’t imagine how it makes me feel, and as I like to point out to the eye-rolling dismay of my Bride, if everything is amazing, then nothing is.

How about we lift our vocabulary this year in both writing and conversation, and find another way to express ourselves, or even think about a different way to say something.

The Grand Canyon is stunning, magnificent.

The Grand Tetons in Wyoming are spectacular.

Arches National Park is impressive.

A bright silver color of a 43-pound salmon caught on a flyrod is exquisite.

In my opinion, the overuse of That Word is due to laziness, and society’s increasing inability to think for themselves. It’s watering down the English language.

Oh, and the overused phrase, “You look amazing” means nothing, because when the speaker can’t think of anything original, the result is as familiar as air. It’s reminiscent of an unprepared speaker addressing an audience.

“I, um, well, um, this is great, um, my amazing boss came in the other day and um, he said that preparation is the key to performance and, um, well, that’s amazing, isn’t it?”

Um. Amazing. Is the word filler, or an overused adjective defined as “causing great surprise or wonder? Why don’t we say it’s astonishing?

That tie is astonishing? Or, this room is astonishing.

Is a new paint scheme on a house astonishing? Do the contrasting colors cause a feeling or great surprise or wonder? I doubt it. The viewer may like the colors, but I can’t imagine them making a person giddy.

People say amazing because it requires no thought. For example, during a conversation a couple of months ago a young man felt the need to fill in a pause in conversation by saying, “It’s amazing.”

I couldn’t help myself. “What’s amazing?”

The blank look on his face was explanation enough. The words meant nothing.

Good lord, maybe my daughters are right. Maybe I am a curmudgeon.

While we’re at it, young folks, let’s eliminate the word, literally.

“I literally died laughing.”

No you didn’t.

To be fair, I don’t see “amazing” or “literally” used in print that often, it’s mostly in speech, but there are a few words we can eliminate in print. They’re words that creep in early drafts, and somehow duck, bob, and weave to avoid extraction during re-writes or proofing.

They’re mostly adverbs, but a few that crop up in my own first drafts have no business being there.

Very, just, and really are the worst, in my opinion. And again, properly edited novels usually don’t include these three weeds, but I’ve heard them from newscasters this new year and it drives me crazy. My question, did someone write this copy?

“It was a very terrible accident.”

“In a really horrible incident today…”

Some adjectives are non-gradable. You can’t be a bit dead, or very dead. Something is either finished, or it’s not. It can’t be a bit finished or very finished. A woman is either pregnant or not, she’s not a little bit pregnant.

I know these are usually spoken issues and not written, but when writers develop an ear for misused words or tragically constructed sentences, (as Pee Wee Herman said, “I meant to do that.”) they can improve their own works.

Again, simply choosing the right word is the best medicine.

There are more, but today I’m easily distracted and this discussion reminded me of homophones, which crop up all the time. Thankfully we don’t find them in many released novels, but there are those times when we see:

Here/Hear.

They’re/their/there.

Cite/sight.

It’s/its’/its.

Peak/peek/pique.

Bored/board.

Principal/principle

The old folks here in Northeast Texas used to say that what you do on the first day of a new year is what you’ll be doing for the next 364 days, and it looks like I’m a little crabby, but I write this on January 4, so I missed that blessing…or curse.

So with that rant over, I hope y’all have a safe, fun, happy, and profitable new year.

Weirdness

My reading preferences have changed over the decades. When I first began checking books out from my elementary school library, it was all Cowboy Sam, which evolved to explorers and pioneers like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Kit Carson.

As a Baby Boomer, my tastes changed when I discovered science fiction and the Gemini Space Program. Then it was Heinlein, Andre Norton, and a host of authors who sent me in search of the stars and worlds beyond our own.

The years passed, and I discovered Texas authors, more old west by Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, and Clay Fischer, then mysteries and thrillers. During college I laid down my change for apocalyptic paperbacks, horror (I’m embarrassed to say I read a lot of John Saul), and fantasy (sword and sorcery).

Suffice it to say, I read what I wanted, and what appealed to me at any particular time in my evolution as a reader. When I finally decided to write that first novel, I honestly didn’t know what it was until three quarters of the way through when I realized it was a historical mystery.

Historical in the sense that the first one took place when I was a kid, back in 1964, which I reckon is history. That reminds me of when I asked the Old Man what it was like back in the Olden Days and the War, and he’d grin and tell me about growing up in the 1930s and fighting in the Pacific Theater, which was then only twenty years in the past.

How’s that for perspective.

So as a published author, I wrote mysteries for a while, before moving on contemporary thrillers set in the west, and now I’m dabbling in westerns. Why?

Well, there was that period in high school when I devoured a host of western authors who reinforced my interest in those old black and white television shows from the late 1950s and well into the 1960s.

But I’ve attempted something different after writing a couple of traditional westerns. I spun off and blended genres, reinforcing that old saw that you don’t chase what’s hot. You write what you want.

I wrote a Weird Western.

What the heck is that!!!???

Thanks for asking.

It’s a throwback to my comic book days, when I absorbed The Rawhide Kid, Weird Western Tales, Weird War, and Western Thrillers. And no, I wasn’t one of those kids that haunted comic book stores, because they didn’t exist as such when I was a kid.

Those comics I collected came off wire racks in the drugstore, or shelves in the grocery store. There was one little bookstore that popped up in our neighborhood around 1968, full of paperbacks by Mickey Spillane and Donald Hamilton, and other authors who would eventually rule the world of hardbacks, like Donald E. Westlake, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Back in the corner were the comics and a couple of cast-off chairs that I homesteaded for hours, before finally deciding to plunk down my hard-earned 12 cents for those brightly colored pages that were destined to be mine.

When I got the idea for that weird western, it came in a flash and I hammered it out in six weeks. But now I have this creative, fun, oddball of a manuscript that has yet to find a home.

Oh, I know it will, because I never, ever give up, but publishers are cautious these days, and they work closely with algorithms that reflect sales and public interest. If Idea Number 12493 works, why not publish Idea 12494?

But let’s face it, not every manuscript will see publication. All authors have those first drafts buried deep in a drawer somewhere. I have three secreted away, though one still has potential and some day I’ll dust it off, make the changes that will elevate it above a Drawer Book, and it’ll get out there.

I’m confident there’s a publisher out there who will read my weird western manuscript, leap to his or her feet and shout in appreciation. They’ll likely run around the office, hands in the air bellowing, “Thank you for this innovative work!”

But until then, I’ll keep bringing up this story of a Texas Ranger who dies at the hand of a demented medicine man and is cursed to walk the earth forever with a bit of the Comanche’s dead son lodged in the lawman’s chest.

So with that, here’s an interesting article from the Western Writers of America’s Roundup Magazine about this cross-genre idea. Happy reading!

aug20-weirdwesterns.pdf (westernwriters.org)

Due Dates

Leaning back in my recliner, I’m typing this post on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving 2022, as the world spins like the blurry view from a municipal park merry-go-round every time I move my head. I’m suffering another bout of vertigo.

Adding insult to injury, I ache all over with a flu virus the Bride contracted from one of the grand-critters a few days ago, before passing it on to me.

Each time I get up, I stagger like a college freshman on spring break, but thanks to the benefits of modern chemistry, I’m now able to keep my stomach from turning wrong-side out.

It’s not a great day to write, but here I am, because I have a deadline for this blog on Saturday, November 26.

I first started showing symptoms of this most recent bout of vertigo three days ago and as luck would have it, I had a newspaper column deadline to meet. Propped up in the bed up at our Lamar County cabin in Northeast Texas (five miles from the Red River and Oklahoma), I kept my eyes closed and pecked out a nine hundred-word Thanksgiving recollection from fifty years ago.

Finished, I hit send after a cursory scan and faded into a deep sleep. Far from recovered the next day, the Bride drove us home. That’s when everything in my body started aching.

Vertigo isn’t something new for me. The first time it attacked was maybe five years ago in Key West, while we were on vacation with the Gilstraps. John and I have a tendency to wreck our livers when we’re together, and early one morning I rose to find myself on the deck of a ship in high seas. Bouncing like a pinball from a wall, to a chair, and finally the bathroom, I upended the contents of my stomach and wondered how much I really drank.

Wait, I’m not in college anymore.

Flipping through mental files with one cheek on the cool toilet seat, I counted up the number of drinks I’d consumed the night before and realized the symptoms weren’t alcohol related. The Bride located a Doc-in-the-Box a mile away and I soon joined the flow of a dozen college kids reeking of booze and heading for the front door. As one, we staggered into the waiting room and the participants collapsed on the nearest horizontal surface.

In once instance, a young lady curled up in the fetal position on the floor and wept.

The tired doctor surveyed the room, took note of my age, and after a flurry of questions, escorted me into an examination room.

“Lay back on this table and turn your head to the right.”

Urk!!!”

“I thought so. You have vertigo.”

He was glad to see something besides alcohol poisoning and sever dehydration which seemed to be going around that January. After poking a handful of pills down my goozle, he gave me a prescription for dizziness and nausea and launched me back into the world where I managed to function with respectable fortitude for the remainder of our trip.

My second round of vertigo happened again nearly two years later when I was the master of ceremonies at one of the world’s largest book club conferences held by the Pulpwood Queens in Jefferson, Texas. Again, I slept flat on my back the night I arrived and the next day stumbled into the enormous hall containing 500 attendees to take the stage.

I told them up front I wasn’t drunk, though I wished I was. I played off the symptoms, and many thought the organizer, Kathy Murphy, brought in Foster Brooks’ son as the MC. I introduced a panel every hour on the hour beginning at nine that morning, then wove my way outside to sit behind the wheel of my truck and doze for fifty minutes until time for the next panel to begin.

Some of the ladies took pity on me after the second hour and poured copious amounts of coffee into this bod so I could hold up my end of the bargain over a three day period. If memory serves, and recollections are somewhat fuzzy, I ended the conference to a standing ovation.

But that might have been a hallucination.

Today I told you that, to emphasize this. If you’re going to be a writer, or become involved in any aspect thereof, you have to meet deadlines. Whether it’s a weekly newspaper column, a magazine article, a personal appearance, a Zoom panel, a conference, or the delivery date for a book, you must meet that deadline.

Show up for work. Play hurt, or don’t play at all.

Again with John Gilstrap, I wrote a newspaper column at four in the morning, riding in the backseat of an SUV, on the way to join up with a Florida SWAT team and participate in the arrest of an accused purveyor of kiddie porn. We were there to train with those fine men in blue, I had to get it written, because I was on deadline.

I’m close friends with a well-respected, successful novelist and he managed to bring in a novel after building a house, moving twice, attracting Covid, and surviving a disastrous injury to a family member. Because of his track record, his publisher granted a small deadline extension which he met, and he survived with his reputation intact.

I suspect that because that request was granted because he’s been meeting other deadlines for about twenty-five years, or more.

Writing is a business, and we can’t let the public or publishers down because of a few unanticipated obstacles.

And with that, I’m going through the required steps to post this blog, and leaving this stable chair for the rolling deck of my living room. If I make it far enough, I’m crashing again until the crystals stabilize inside my skull.

Even if I’m not completely up to snuff, I’ll write tomorrow, propped up in bed like Mark Twain with his newfangled typewriter, because I have a March 1 deadline for the second Tucker Snow novel.

That’s what I do.

Oh, and Happy Holidays to you all!

 

Here There Be Dragons

I’m a hack, a terrible writer.

This is a horrific novel. My god, I never could write in the first place and someone gave me a contract.

 This part of the book is a wasteland that sucks all the energy from my soul. Nobody cares about these characters, and I hate them myself.

I’m gonna write The End on this stupid career and get a job mowing the sides of highways. At least I can look back and see positive results.

Many writers reach that point in the oft-dreaded second act. It’s where we stall, put off going to the home office or computer, and wonder why we ever invested so much time getting to that part of the manuscript.

Whether your own second act is fifty percent of the novel, or in my case crawls out of a dark, dank hole at the 30,000 word mark and taunts me until somewhere past 60,000, it’s a struggle for many authors, no matter how many books they have out.

And we wonder why the same thing happens every single time. It does for me, even though I’ve set everything into motion and breeze through the first 30,000 words. Then I hit the wall. The pace of my writing slows, and I force a thousand words at each sitting, but it isn’t pleasant.

One foot after the other. Keep on. Write something. I’ll be through this slow wasteland in thirty days if I just keep on keeping on.

The second act is the confrontation point in which your established characters and antagonists are on set, and in my case seemingly wandering without direction, as the protagonist says to hell with it and sits down with a cigarette and a glass of scotch.

Wait, that wasn’t the protagonist, it was me halfway through the last novel I wrote.

At this point, your characters are reacting to what’s happened in the first act and are now pursuing their assigned goals, whatever they may be, and if you don’t outline, it could be anything.

Here there be dragons.

Many times this part of the work in progress is a yawning blank wasteland requiring dedication to complete. Look at it this way, no matter what kind of novel we’re writing, the easy part was the first leg of a roller coaster ride that pulls us to the top. It’s fairly fast, because the author knows where s/he’s going, starting the excitement with that idea that leads to…something.

At the pinnacle of this elevated point of our amusement park ride, we look back from the lead car to those behind to see our hero, secondary characters, supporting members, and of course, the bad guys either out in the open or in some kind of concealing costume (hopefully not clown suits).

But when we reach the top, the ride doesn’t head straight back down, though we wish it would. The incline is shallow, but quickly turns to the left, a slight jolt in the plot if you will, but now we’re just cruising along in the wasteland.

The ride may be flatter than the opening chapters, but those on this roller coaster fill the air with excitement, anticipating what’s to come as they interact with each other and push the plot forward. This is where our hero develops a relationship with any secondary characters that we introduce and motivate.

Not every part of the story has to be about the protagonist. This is the time we can shift viewpoints, to see through the eyes of those other characters, and even wriggle inside the evil mind of the antagonist.

Maybe that’s what they’re doing back there in those cars.

Someone calls from behind. “Where are we going?”

The author shrugs. “Hell if I know. It’s the middle of the story. You tell me.”

We’ve arrived at the point where the characters will clash, providing much needed action at this juncture. Others go to work together, knowing there’s a drop ahead and preparing for it. They’ll agree we have a solid story structure, even though the author is doubting the entire project. Past a peeling sign proclaiming we’ve reached 50,000 words, halfway point, there’s another clatter of wheels on the rails as the cars lean right.

Yep, it was about time for a twist.

We’re building toward the climax, the rushing drop to the end, but before we can get there, a couple more things need to happen. Those folks behind the lead car will evolve and develop in order to push the story forward. They’ll collude, fall out with one another, or even branch out on their own for a short while until the author reels them in.

This is where an even more detailed world will develop as the entire cast of characters reacts to what happened back with that first major plot point in the first act.

But now as authors we need to be persistent and keep things interesting. Despite our misgivings, we show up for work because something needs to happen, because dialogue and discussion alone can’t hold our interest, and Michner-like descriptions get old fast.

So what does the author want out of the second act?

To get through into the third act, the fun part.

Hotamighty! Though persistence, either with our writing or the characters doing what they’re supposed to do, plot points converge. We finally look ahead from the cars and see nothing but sky, horizon, that razor edge of the drop and with it, exhilaration, action, and the big reveal in a mystery, or in thrillers, and that fast, breathtaking plunge to justice, Act Three.

The faded wooden sign reads, Over 60,000 words. We’re through it!

The third act writes itself with that fresh rush of adrenaline, and the manuscript soon flashes away in an electronic firehose of bits and bytes to its final destination. Weeks or months later, after copy edits, we open the file and read what we eked out in the course of several dismal weeks.

Dayum!

It works!

The first act sets everything up, and despite what we recall, the plot points and characters don’t mill around in the middle of the book because they hold our interest and make sense. It successfully leads to that exciting ending that satisfies.

So are you there right now? Still stuck slightly beyond that rotting sign that reads Act II, and creeping along one sentence at a time? I’ll leave you today with an alleged discussion that occurred at the Algonquin Round Table.

A few guys are talking about the same three act premise in screenwriting.

One asks, “How’s the play going?”

Another answers. “I’m having second act problems.”

Everybody laughs and another comments. “Of course you’re having second act problems!”

In summation about this discussion on Act Two, here’s a quote from Lone Waite, a character in Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales.

“Endeavor to persevere.”

You’ll get through it.

Critical Mass

There are many pitfalls for authors in this strange writing world. Bad agents (and there are more than a few), bad contracts, broken contracts and agreements, writers block, lack of ideas, lack of confidence, competition in the market…

Depression will set in if I list any more.

But here’s one you can avoid, if you can avoid it.

Yeah, I intentionally wrote it that way. We all have to deal with reviews, and bad reviews are like ear worms, they get inside your head and keep digging deeper and deeper, causing problems and self-doubt until the only thing you hear are strange, unidentifiable rock and roll riffs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers that seem to have originated with Chuck Berry’s My Ding-a-Ling.

The one true thing about being an author is that you will get bad reviews, or some of those backhanded reviews that folks tend to dwell upon.

Children, I can promise I’ve had some doozies, but I don’t read reviews to wallow in the gloom they might bring. I find them entertaining.

Here’s a one-star wonder for one of my books. “Not what I expected.”

Not a lot of meat in that one.

Another one for my most recent release needs a little setup. It takes place in Northeast Texas back in 1969 and seen through the eyes of multiple characters including two teens, two adults in their late twenties, and of course Ned Parker who’s in his late 60s, Tom Bell (advanced age), as well as John Washington who clocks in somewhere in his early forties.

The Review: Southern euphemism overkill. This was a police procedural mystery…

…it is???

…but half of the book focuses on a group of teens which really doesn’t add to the storyline.

Now, I could weep in the fetal position in one corner of my office while sucking my thumb, but I found this one damned funny, because the teens are the trigger for several plot twists. They’re the foundation of the entire novel.

Then there are a few one and two-star reviews that could sting, but the truth is, I don’t care, because the vast majority of those posts are right up there in the four and five-star range.

I’m writing the best novels I can produce and if you look at the hundreds of reviews for each one, those few old soreheads who miss the entire point of the story don’t amount to a hill of beans.

It even happens in the music industry. Dwight Yoakam released a song back in 1991 titled You’re the One. He repeats those three words thirty times in the course of this wildly successful hit. Instead of reviewers taking him to task over these repetitions, party-goers made a drinking game out of it.

Success!

I know one NYT bestselling author who told me he got a one-star review his newest novel, not for the book’s content, but because it arrived with a torn cover.

Good lord. That’s not a review. It’s a complaint against the company that shipped it. That individual should have simply returned it for a replacement, but the crime falls on the shoulders of the author.

Negative reviews are inevitable, so ignore them and go on about your business. They might come from folks who’re mad at the world, or mad that you made it and they can’t, or simply don’t like your genre.

Maybe they’re challenging you because they dislike what they view as your own political beliefs. Another author once told me she got a bad review because the reader thought her antagonist was based on the author herself and they had differing political beliefs.

I once read a review of my work accusing me of being an Obama groupie.

Another came in only a few days later, saying I was a gun-toting, bible-thumping Republican.

All right, I’m a Gemini, but still…

Folks like that read their own biases in my work, projecting them onto me and not the characters I’ve developed. If you create a serial killer, does that make you a serial killer in real life?

Prolly not, but there are a few names on a list in my drawer.

Here’s the deal, if you release a novel, you’ll draw both fire and accolades from all directions. Revel in it. You’re published!

Teddy Roosevelt said it best. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strives to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither knows victory nor defeat.”

Just for grins, look up your favorite author, or title, or famous titles, and read what others have written. That should put it all in perspective for you.

The Stand by Stephen King, One Star. “This is a horrible book. I was thinking of giving it two stars, mainly because the idea was so intriguing that it made me read it in the first place, but anything more than one star would be condoning the many serious problems that make this book an utter disgrace.”

Not one specific. This individual obviously lost sleep over the course of many nights to pen such a generic review that says absolutely nothing.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick. “This is a book that seems great until you read it. There’s nothing brilliant or profound that I found.”

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “What an utterly terrible novel. Racist, sexist, poorly written, and absolute trash moralism. Steinbeck has as much command of adjective as a fifth grader, and his understanding of the subject this book focuses on, labor economics, is about that of a fourth grader.”

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing. (Cut and pasted) “This appears to be a used book based on its condition (substance and fading on cover, be t cover, book doesn’t lay with pages flat). I purchased and paid for new, so it’s disappointing to not receive when I ordered. It’s only $.50 cheaper to get used, not about the money. With Covid, I purposely wanted a new book to be sure nobody else had their hands all over the pages.”

Good. Lord.

And for the same incredibly successful novel one reviewer said, “Crawdads don’t sing—a fiction at best and an anthropomorphism at worst. She knows it. Animals do not take on human characteristics. Only the truly ignorant…”

We can stop there. This kind of stuff makes me want to give them more cowbell.

Finally, here’s one last thought, and most authors will agree with me. No matter how bad the review, do not respond! You will gain nothing in a back and forth, and will likely drive away readers and fans, and at worst, become the target for those with even more perplexing axes to grind.

Read it and weep. Read it and smile. Read it and wonder at the mental stability of those who posted those inexplicable negative reviews, but then go on and write your next novel.

It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It just is.

Evil begone!

 

 

 

 

The Draft

I was teaching a writing class a couple of years ago and during a break, one of the middle-aged students came up to me with a question.

“Can we talk about the draft?”

“It sent a lot of people to Canada on extended vacations when I was fresh out of high school.”

“How long do you work on a draft?”

“Oh, that. Until I get through it.”

Budding Writer paused, thinking. “I mean, how long does it take you to get to the end?”

“That depends on Life. If everything lines up and I can really sit down and work, I can get a first draft finished in about three months, and the way I do it, the manuscript is pretty polished by the time I reach the end. I once wrote a draft in six weeks, but that’s rare.”

She wrote that down in her notebook, “Do you outline?”

“No.”

“I have to.”

“Well, you and I work differently. I sit down and put my fingers on the keys and start writing. The story unfolds, and I go with it through that entire session, however long it might be, fifteen minutes, an hour, or even three or four hours. Then the next morning I read through what I wrote the day before, and use that as a launch pad for the current day’s work. I do that every time until I type, The End.”

“What if your writing group has a suggestion about those pages and you have to go back and change them?”

“I don’t have a writing group, and you really don’t have to go back and change anything. Those are suggestions.”

Two deep lines appeared between Budding Writer’s eyebrows. “You just write all by yourself.”

“Yep. All alone.”

“My problem is that I keep changing things after my group makes suggestions, and I find that I spend weeks on one chapter.”

“Have you finished your first draft?”

“No.”

“How long have you been working on this manuscript?”

“About three years.”

“My suggestion is to simply sit down and finish your first draft without stopping for any more edits.”

“But….”

“Right. Butt. Put your butt in the seat and finish your first draft. In my opinion, you can come back and re-work those chapters that might be giving you trouble. You see, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. You have to find what works for you. I promise, there’s no formula, because if there was such a thing, everyone would be on the bestseller list with every book.”

“So is that’s how it’s done?”

“That’s how I do it.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking writers groups. I know many readers of this blog, and several of those who post each week, belong to such groups that offer much-needed support in writing, or simply in providing the camaraderie to discuss this strange, wonderful business we’re in, but it’s not for me. I just want to write.

Budding Writer needed that support, but it seemed as if she was caught in a loop of well-intentioned suggestions that tightened like a boa constrictor named Self Doubt until she couldn’t move beyond those few chapters.

Your first draft is just that. It’s a firehose to some as it pours out in a great torrent of words, a trickle to others as they struggle to craft that perfect sentence, but writers need to reach the end, to get it all down, however full of errors, typos, or plot kinks. Once it’s done, then you can go back and add all that’s necessary to streamline and fill out the story and make the manuscript readable. Then edit with a vengeance, but the completion of that first draft is absolutely necessary both physically and psychologically.

I understand Budding Writer’s issue. She likely juggled a job, husband, kids, dogs, bills, friendships and any combination thereof, including Life it’s ownself, putting down a few words here and there and not seeing the continuity of her work as a whole.

Then that chapter, or collection of chapters and all those suggestions began to gnaw at her and she needed to get it just right before she could move on.

It just doesn’t work that way for me. I wrote my first novel over a few fitful years, lost it to an electronic hiccup, and started over to recreate the whole thing from memory. Maybe that’s where my writing regime came from, because I hammered that second draft out within about a year.

Today I begin with fingers on the keys and get that rough draft down as the story unfolds in my mind. I follow it, pounding away at the keys as the characters develop and the story moves forward, not worrying about little details, until I get to the end.

I did all that alone, but after my first novel was released, I learned of an annual event called NaNoWriMo, which translates to National Novel Writing Month, which is sponsored by a nonprofit organization that “promotes creating writing around the world. Its flagship program is an annual creative writing event in which participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript during the month of November.”

I like the idea, though I never signed up on their website, but the premise is solid, in my opinion, and it boils down to one true thing.

Sit down and write the damned novel!

Better yet if you can do it in a month. Fifty-thousand words translates into those old mass market paperbacks of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Think Louis L’Amour, Micky Spillane, and even more recently when Nicholas Sparks wrote a short novel that did pretty well, coming in at 52,000 words. The title was The Notebook.

Robert James Waller’s blockbuster novel, The Bridges of Madison County also came in at 52,000 words. Hummm, is there a connection here?

Take a look at this list of 50,000-word novels that I lifted from WikiWrimo, they aren’t Stephen King-size doorstops, but they’ve all been pretty successful.

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyby Douglas Adams (46,333 words)
  • The Notebookby Nicholas Sparks (52,000 words)
  • The Red Badge of Courageby Stephen Crane (50,776 words)
  • The Great Gatsbyby F. Scott Fitzgerald (50,061 words)
  • The Apostle Paul’s Epistles from the Bible (43,293 words. 50,190 if you count Hebrews.)
  • Lost Horizonby James Hilton
  • Shatteredby Dean Koontz
  • Fight Clubby Chuck Palahniuk
  • Of Mice and Menby John Steinbeck
  • Slaughterhouse-Fiveby Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • The Invisible Manby H. G. Wells
  • Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E”by Ernest Vincent Wright
  • As I Lay Dyingby William Faulkner (56,695 words)
  • The Giverby Lois Lowry (43,617 words)
  • Speakby Laurie Halse Anderson (46,591 words)
  • A Separate Peaceby John Knowles (56,787 words)
  • Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury (46,118 words)

My own novels come in at 90,000-100,000 words, but like Mr. King, I get kinda wordy as the story progresses and the action builds. But here’s the bell I’m trying to ring. Your first draft does not have to be long. Hit that 50,000 word draft. Now you have a novel.

Then go back if you want and expand it with character development, settings, new plot twists that might occur to you, and all those seasonings that make a wonderful, successful book.

Now, put your butt in the seat and get to writing that first draft until you plow through to the end. Fifty-two thousand might be your lucky number.

No Dumping Allowed

Info dumps will kill the pace of a novel in a heartbeat, in my opinion.

Hopefully our readers are lost in the world we’ve created, but when an author pauses to jar them back into the physical pages by including blocks of details that can be successfully distributed at other times throughout the book, we’ve done them a disservice.

When descriptions, backstories, or elements are released at the volume of an open fire hydrant, all of those specifics will stall the novel’s momentum.

Timing is also critical. Is it necessary to stop the story with details about a person’s clothes, hair, or wrinkles? Why not introduce those characters with a detail or two, them build on that description as we get to know them.

Why not show them those elements? By showing and not telling, you can include more action, and keeping it in your character’s point of view, those factors are less noticeable.

Your protagonist can run fingers through thick gray hair. He can pop a button on a soft, often washed denim shirt he’d owned since college. She can unconsciously touch a scar across the bridge of her nose that she received in an auto accident when she was six and is now terrified of Mustangs. He prefers a Beretta M9 because he carried one in the military.

Imagine meeting someone at a party.

“Hello, my name’s Reavis Z. Wortham and as you can see, I have gray hair, though thin on top, and I’m kinda lanky, measuring in at five foot eleven inches. My polished black boots are ostrich skin, but I wear jeans and my shirts lean toward blue, because that’s my favorite color. Since I’m a fifth generation Texan, I wear a felt silverbelly hat. These brown eyes can look right through a person if I dislike them, and the crows-feet at the corners of my eyes tell a story.”

Good lord! I’d run from myself, or pour a stiff drink and hope the next person I meet will give me information about themselves and their lives a little at a time as we get to know each other.

Think back to a first date. Would you finish the evening if that individual pours out similar information in long, boring paragraphs?

Instead, let’s seed your character’s past, interests, or physical descriptions that are throughout the story.

Now, with all that said, rules are made to be broken. I’ve heard that it’s terrible for an author to put their character in front of a mirror to describe them, and that’s true most of the time.

However, I cheated with a mirror in my novel, Dark Places (which was listed by Strand Magazine as one of their Top 12 novels of 2015, so I know it worked). But I cheated in a creative way that gives the reader a backstory and attributes of two characters who we met much earlier in the book.

In Dark Places, my teenage female protagonist, Pepper, runs away from home in the late 1960s to follow Route 66 from Texas to California. Her dad, James, granddaddy Ned Parker, and a tough, mysterious character named Crow are on her trail. They fear she’s been picked up by a gang similar to the Hells Angels, and one of the three have to go inside a biker bar in the desert to get her out.

Of course I sprinkled physical characteristics for all the players on stage throughout the first and second act to give them depth, but now I needed to drill down even more so we can see who is most qualified to take on a biker gang.

They argue in a room in my fictional mid-century motor court and we learn which one is hard enough to take on the gang.

Here’s that except from the novel.

*

Crow and James were arguing about who would go to the bar where the Devil Rattlesnakes hung out. Standing beside the window, James fumed. “It’s my daughter in that saloon!”

Expressionless, Crow nodded. “I completely understand. But for one thing, we don’t know for sure she’s in there, and I kinda doubt it. What do you do for a living?”

“What? I run a hardware store.”

“Ever been in a fight, other than the one in the courthouse?”

James squared his shoulders. “Yeah. More than one, too.”

“Um hum. I meant after you got out of school.”

“No.”

“Any experience in law work, like your daddy there?”

“No.”

Crow tapped the dresser with a fingertip. “Come here.”

“What?”

Softly. “Come here.”

James joined him. Crow pointed at the mirror. “Tell me what you see.”

“I see us.”

“Right. Tell me what you really see. Truthfully. Describe…us. Start with you.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“It’ll explain what I’m trying to tell you, James. What do you see? Describe your head.”

James Parker looked into the mirror. “A head.”

Crow nudged him with a hard shoulder.

“All right. Short, graying black hair of a man in his late thirties. Cowlick. Two eyebrows, also black. Brown eyes. A nose. Two ears that need trimming, I guess. Lips, and a chin with a dimple.”

“That’s about right. Now, describe me.”

“A guy with long hair.”

“More detail. Lots of detail, more than you used on yourself, but don’t stop at my chin.”

James growled in frustration, low in his throat. He drew a deep breath. “Long black hair, like an Indian.”

“I am Indian, but you’re right. Keep going.”

“Hair that looks like them hippies, then. A scar across your forehead from the middle to your temple. Black eyebrows. Almost black eyes. Indian cheekbones. No mustache or beard though, like those hippies, but that’s because you’re Indian again. A nose that looks like it’s been broke before…”

“Twice.”

“Huh. Square chin with a horizontal scar in the cleft under your bottom lip. Scar on one ear. Wide shoulders. Some kind of necklace under your western shirt that needs washing, but it was expensive when it was new. Shirt’s hanging outside your jeans. You look tough.” He looked down. “Levis and work boots.”

Crow flexed his hands. “These?”

“Big hands. Big knucks. Lots of scars.”

Crow turned them over.

“Rough. Calluses.”

“So between me and you, who do you think has more luck walking into a rough bar full of bikers?”

*

We already knew a lot about those two, but it was necessary at that point in the story to pit James and Crow against one another in front of that mirror. It was timing.

Yep, I threw a lot out there, but paragraphs of information didn’t stall the story. Instead, I chose to show and not tell by providing those details in conversation, which flows naturally, hopefully making the readers part of the story. With what I provided, you were able to build those characters and see them in your mind’s eye.

Weave your story elements as you go. One quick sentence or two to set a scene, a couple of sentences further down to provide a backstory for your protagonist, or a phrase here or there are the building blocks of a successful story.

Remember, no dumping allowed.

Lost in Your Own Work

Parking areas around open air shopping malls these days in our part of Northeast Texas are carefully constructed mazes with cul-de-sacs, small dead pockets with only two or three slots stuck into a grassy area, and long winding loops leading back to the main entrance and exits.

I firmly believe they are designed by intent to raise my blood pressure.

Adding to the fun of trying to find a space and wishing the slots were angled instead of perpendicular to the lanes are those pesky little speed bumps that aren’t much for my pickup, but can drag the oil pan off of low-slung vehicles.

Personally, I feel it would be easier to drive into a lot reminiscent of amusement park waiting lanes. I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. Walk up to the entrance, turn left and walk alllll the way to the end, reach the post, and slog alllll the way back and reverse direction ad nauseum until it’s your turn to get on and ride of 90 seconds.

It would be preferable to creeping up and down a parking lot until you find a slot and then having someone whip in ahead of you, resulting in red faces and manic fury.

Why am I talking about parking lots and queues on a writing blog? Well, pour another cup of coffee brothers and sisters, and let me explain how my mind works.

These traffic swirls, eddies, and seldom clot-free lots are reminiscent of the plots in my books. They start with a good, simple idea that should be straightforward from Point A to Point B.

Should be.

Those who follow these blogs know I don’t outline, so the story’s progression is always an adventure for everyone concerned. I begin with a general idea, and hope the plot advances properly until the supporting characters appear at the right time take their places and guide the story. The first act usually comes together as everyone behaves themselves and sets a hopefully simple course.

It never does.

For some reason, my subplots grow like dandelions and as in the case of the project I’m working on at this writing, and I find myself turning left and right to keep up. Right now, I have a protagonist in a traditional western chased by three different bands of antagonists I didn’t anticipate.

Act II is usually difficult for me. Now at 30,000+ words into the manuscript, the loose ends that have been waving around for the bulk of that work in progress are starting to come together, and by Act III and 60,000 words, it should a fun downhill slide to the end.

But this time everything slowed at 75,000 words.

That’s unusual for me. This part usually writes itself as fast as polished steel, so I wondered why.

My characters are doing what’s necessary. For some authors, a stall in the plot is indicative of problems with character motivation. Some writers learning the trade place their protagonists in a place they shouldn’t be, forcing their creations to do something against their personalities or characteristics.

If you’re stalled because of those issues, the best thing to do is simply highlight those pages and hit Delete.

Good lord, Rev! We worked hard on those pages, sometimes sitting for days in front of the computer and staring out the window for eight hours at a time, and you want to send them into an electronic abyss!!!???

Fine then, maybe you can’t put ‘em into a shallow grave yet. Highlight, cut, and paste them in a fresh new separate document for later review, or when you’ve had a couple of cocktails and find the courage to finally hit the Big D key.

But I’m not stalled for that reason.

So I stopped, re-read all 300+ pages and realized I’d drifted away from my protagonist’s main strength. He doesn’t run. When cornered, or angered, he attacks. I’d drifted away from the one thing that makes Cap Whitlatch who he is.

We pause here for a brief recollection that directly ties into my solution and came to light while I was talking to my brother about an event that occurred back in 1976.

Feel free to pour another cup of coffee as I tell you about that night when…

…driving home from a friend’s house at two in the morning, a muscle car full of angry young men took offense at something I still don’t understand. They pulled up beside me at a light and the two on my side opened their doors and charged me. One had a tire iron, and the other carried a hammer.

Greatly outnumbered and shocked by the unprovoked attack, I hit the gas on my old ’69 Galaxie 500. The big 390-cubic-inch engine roared and I ran the light in a cloud of white tire smoke. They followed and tried to run me off the road several times for the next five miles. With no weapons of my own (and that was the last time that happened) I had few choices. There was no police station nearby and though I’d just left the house of a friend who was an officer, it as well before the days of cell phones.

I couldn’t run to my apartment, because it would still be me against four. I had no friends who lived nearby to offer assistance, but I had one ace in the hole. My old man, a veteran of the Japanese theater in WWII, lived close and slept with his windows open, with a double-barrel twelve-gauge always by the bed.

Using evasive driving skills taught to me by the aforementioned police officer friend, and relying on sharp 22-year-old reflexes, I stomped the gas as if trying to make a run for it. Just as I expected, the driver responded and soon we were running parallel at 80-miles-an-hour.

Nerves jangling, I hit the brakes at the last minute and whipped a hard right into Dad’s neighborhood.

They overshot.

Fast acceleration on my part, another quick left and a power slide to the curb in front of the Old Man’s little frame house. Tires squalling, I was out of the car in a flash. “Dad!”

A light sleeper, his voice came through the dark screen. “What’s wrong, son?”

“I need help.”

The muscle car rounded the corner and slid to a stop behind my Ford. The driver popped open his door and emerged with a makeshift weapon in his hand I couldn’t identify in the dark. The other three were out and coming for me as well.

Scared, furious, and finally cornered, I saw red and charged. “The driver’s mine!”

At that time I weighed in at maybe 135 pounds, but it was mad talking, even though that old boy was half again my size and looked as if he lifted baby elephants for fun.

From the corner of my eye I saw the Old Man step onto the porch in his drawers, but the twin bores of that big shotgun pointing at the other three was enough to make ‘em all stop. Fists doubled, I was heading for the driver when he turned and shouted.

“Gun!”

They jumped into the car, reversed, and spun out of there.

Lowering the shotgun, the Old Man watched the taillights disappear. “What was that all about?”

I was suddenly weak. “I have no idea.”

We went inside, drank a pot of Mom’s coffee at the kitchen table and wondered why those guys wanted to harm me. I still don’t know to this day, but the story doesn’t end there.

My paternal grandfather was a rural constable upon whom I based Ned Parker in my Red River mysteries. The Old Man told him what had transpired before I saw Grandpa again, and when I did, the old lawman gave me a wry grin and some great country wisdom.

“It don’t do to run a dog up on his own porch, does it?”

Remembering what happened that night gave me the conclusion to this stalled work in progress. Cal Whitlatch is on the porch (read here a rough western town) and he’s no longer running. He’s turned to fight.

Now those three subplot threads are coming together and I once again have control of what’s happening. Instead of wandering through that maze, looking for…something…the story is now clear. With that, I’m on the downhill slide to a whiz bang ending.

So here are a couple of final points.

Don’t force your characters into a situation or place they shouldn’t be. They’ll either dig in their heels, or wander around lost and confused as you put ineffective and listless words on the page.

Don’t lose your initial thread. It’s okay for the plot to veer (in that parking lot), if you come back to the final trail at the end.

It’s all right to stop, reverse, and find your way again through that maze.

It’s okay to either move stalled works to a new page for later review, or to delete them and start over. It might hurt, but you’ll get over it.

Writing something outside of that stuttering project, like this post, can jumpstart your subconscious to find the plot trail again, too.

I hope I’ve led you out of that confusing and frustrating parking lot in this ridiculously long post.