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

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.”

“Huh?”

“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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uewrSagO-r4

 

 

 

 

Fishing For That Agent, Part Deux

So there I was at my inaugural writers conference back in 2011, sitting in the audience at Sleuthfest gathering in Florida, waiting for a panel to begin. I’d met John Gilstrap the day before and we closed down the bar (the first of many…and I mean many bars), and was sucking down a large coffee to absorb some kind of food for the brain.

Another swallow of scalding coffee. It was some kind of flavored stuff, but that didn’t matter, because I’d scalded my tastebuds with the first sip, so the black liquid was essentially flavorless.

Panelists drifted up to the front and took their seats. A gentleman on the front row opened a tripod and attached a video camera (yeah, it was ten years ago). I watched with interest as he dug out a stack of notebooks and settled himself in for the event.

The room filled. The panel on finding an agent began. I wondered why I was there. I’d just met my new agent, the one John said I needed to fire, so I didn’t need to be in there, but I couldn’t help myself.

I wanted to hear what Miss Lily had to say (of course that’s not her name, but I have to call her something). She was a presence in the bar the night before and people gathered around as she held court, but I was too green to join in, so I figured that she’d have plenty to say in that session.

The moderator barely had enough time to welcome everyone when the back door opened and a tardy Miss Lily blew in and made an entrance.

How do I say this delicately…humm.

Somewhere around six feet tall, she had a mane of dark hair, and wore oversize, comfortable clothes that were accessorized by lots of concealing scarves and big earrings. She came down the aisle like an expressive train.

Miss Lily took control of the conversation, and fielded dozens of questions as the hour progressed. I had a hundred questions, but the session recessed, leaving me reeling and feeling as if I’d been drinking from a firehose. With John’s previous recommendation about putting Starter Agent in a shallow grave, I was already wondering if I’d made a mistake.

I was in over my head.

The next panel didn’t interest met, and since I it was around two in the afternoon there in Florida, I wanted to absorb a little sunshine. The hotel had apparently learned their lesson and the bar was open. Taking my drink, I found a shaded table beside the swimming pool and settled in to ponder this new career.

That’s when Miss Lily blew through the doors and into my serene world. Cigarette and highball glass in one hand, and a cell phone in the other, she paced the pool, sending out great puffs of smoke and talking somewhere around AC/DC decibels.

She noticed that I was near the deep end of the pool, and established her territory near the shallow water. After ten minutes, and half a dozen cigarettes, she ended the call and shot me a look.

I gave her a smile in return.

She took a table several yards away and lit another.

I waved. “You can join me if you like.”

“No, thanks. I’m smoking.”

“The wind is in your direction. It won’t bother me.”

The Hairy Eyeball. “No, thanks.”

“Look, I know you’re an agent. Heard you inside a few minutes ago, but I won’t pitch to you. I already have an agent. I’d just like to talk about the business for a little while and get to know people. I’m on a learning curve since I recently sold my first manuscript. Come on. Sit down.”

A beat.

A second beat.

A third beat, and she gathered up a pack of toonies, cell phone, and a purse big enough to hold a case of beer. “All right.”

She joined me and noted my hat that was resting crown down on the table. “You a cowboy? You write westerns?”

“I’ve cowboyed some. I’m from Texas, but I don’t write westerns.”

We introduced ourselves and she lit another. “So what do you want to know?”

“So much I’m not sure where to begin.”

We talked for the next forty-five minutes or so, about writing and her end of the business. She told me how to write a query letter, though I didn’t need that particular bit of info, then we drifted on to our lives and exchanged brief histories.

My glass was empty, and so was hers, when conversation kinda dried up. “I need another drink.” I stood. “Can I get you one?”

“Sure.” She opened her purse.

“I’ll get it.”

“No. Men don’t buy me drinks, and especially writers.”

“Like I said, I’m from Texas. I’ll get it.”

Half expecting her not to be there when I returned, I crossed the patio. “Here you go.”

She took the glass and peered at me over the rim. “So, what’s your manuscript about?”

“It’s a historical mystery.”

“Tell me about it.”

*

Now, in the shade of an oak fifty years earlier, my Old Man taught me how to fish. Sitting by a lazy creek, he cast a bright top water lure. “Bass like things that are big and flashy. The idea is to throw your lure out into a likely looking place and watch it splash down. Be patient. Let the ripples expand and disappear until the lure is still.”

I’d unconsciously pitched out a big, flashy lure to Miss Lily. “Can’t tell you about my book.”

“Why not?”

“I said I wouldn’t pitch to you.”

*

The Old Man’s lure drifted slowly with the current. The rings expanded and disappeared. He shifted the chew in his cheek. “Then you give that lure a twitch. If nothing happens, give it a second twitch a few seconds later.

If you’re lucky, the water will explode when that big ol’ bass blows up from underneath.

*

“Who’s your agent?”

I told Miss Lily.

“I’ve never heard of her. You should get someone with more experience.”

“Someone’s already told me that.”

“They’re right. Get someone in New York. Like me. So what’s your book about again?”

*

The bass that had been eyeing the Old Man’s lure launched itself toward the surface. The water exploded and it grabbed the lure. “Then you set the hook!” He yanked on the rod and the fish was his.

*

It was at that moment that understanding dawned on me in Florida that day. I’d pitched out a lure, and Miss Lily couldn’t stand it. She wanted it, and struck. But unlike fishing, I wouldn’t set the hook.

“Said I wouldn’t pitch to you. I keep my word to people. I was raised by folks and grandparents who borrowed money from the bank on a handshake. That sense of honor reaches into many corners.”

She frowned, not understanding. “I’d consider representing you. If you write like you speak, I can market that voice.”

“I’m honored. And two or three months ago, we’d get serious about this, but I’ve signed with someone else. You understand.”

She didn’t. Miss Lilly spent the next two days working on me, trying to get me to pitch my manuscript. I was polite, but turned her down, the same way I’ve done it in the years since. Every time I run into her at a conference, we talk and she invariably asks me to send her something if my current agent and I part ways.

So, like I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, do your research, talk to agents if and when the opportunity presents itself, but don’t come roaring in with pitches in inopportune places. Go to the bar, or the pool, or anywhere we gather and meet those agents. Talk to them. Get to know them. They’re hammered on a daily basis by hopeful writers. Be restrained, but have that pitch polished and shiny and ready when they ask.

Then throw out that lure and give it a twitch.

 

 

 

Writing is the Easy Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woo hoo!

Pop the cork!

Champagne for everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scotch, when it gets here.”

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

“You leading one?”

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

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

“Good. Name’s John Gilstrap.”

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

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

“Talk to my mom about that.”

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a look at PublishersMarketplace.com

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

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

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

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

The Rhythm of Writing

A few days ago I was pounding away at the keyboard when the Bride came in through the garage where she was met with a wall of sound as AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blared from my computer. “Hey! Turn it down!”

I didn’t hear her at first, but from my desk I saw her with two hands filled with groceries in plastic bags. “What was that?”

“I said. Turn. It. Down!”

“Oh.” I lowered the decibel level so she wouldn’t shout. “I didn’t hear you. The music was too loud.”

“Oh, that’s what it was.”

Snarky.

“Sorry. I’m…”

“Writing the climax.” She’d been there before.

“Yessum.”

“How can you think with the music at that level and him screaming at the top of his lungs?”

“I wasn’t listening.”

She gave me The Hairy Eyeball. “So why was it so loud?”

“Background music” I glanced down to lower the volume even more. “There’s lots of action and shooting and…” I was talking to the empty hallway. I finished my answer anyway. “It’s how I work.”

She couldn’t hear me in the kitchen, so I turned the music back up (but not as loud) and went back to my fictional world.

I seldom write in silence. For one thing, I need something to cover the sound of snoring from Willie the Guard Dog (our rescue Shih Tzu) who sleeps beside my desk while I work.

My office opens to the front foyer and there are only two walls, both filled with bookshelves, floor to ceiling. Some authors require walls and doors to cobble together their sentences. That works for them, but I’ve never had that luxury. I’ve mentioned that I can write anywhere, so distractions aren’t an issue, but I need music to fill the void.

The genre differs with my mood, the day, and where I am in the manuscript. When I’m working on the Red River books set in the 1960s, it’s classic rock and roll from the year I’m writing about, or before. This tenth book in the series is set in 1969 so the music is revolutionary and dark with the last vestiges of the bubble gum era, along with a few country songs from that time.

It’s my hope that faithful readers are drawn into that period with the mention and recollection of the song. Music is a time machine and can often transport us to a past time and place such as cruising with high school friends, at an outlaw party when staying over with a friend, or that time (and we’ve all been there) when listening to the same song over and over after that moment’s love dropped you like a hot potato saying, “I think we need to see other people.” (But I’m not bitter after all these years.)

Adding musical spice to a manuscript is sometimes enough to set a scene in the reader’s mind, or as Jerry Jeff Walker said at the beginning of London Homesick Blues for the second time after someone forgot to start the tape, “I gotta put myself back in that place.”

Playing period music also puts me in that time period during the creative process, and though I don’t pay it much attention, it usually brings something to the piece I’m working on. It seeps into my characters actions, phrasing, or mood.

I once had an interviewer ask why I hadn’t considered releasing the newest book along with a CD of the music mentioned throughout the novel. I explained how it’s all right to use the title and artist, but the cost of licensing the music would be astronomical.

As I worked on The Texas Job (February, 2022), I played music that was popular in 1931, during the Great Depression. Those tinny, scratchy old sounds put me in that place I’d never visited and even sparked bits of dialogue through those period lyrics.

The last few years, when working on the contemporary Sonny Hawke novels mostly set along the southern Texas border, I played a lot of country music as I worked.

Brief note: I’m referring to real country such as George Strait, George Jones, Dwight Yoakum, Tammy Wynette…essentially music released before the year 2000, because I can’t stand this new pop-bubble-gum-rock and roll-rap-crap that passes for country music these days.

Whew. Now I feel better.

Back on task. There was lots of music that set the Sonny Hawke scenes in my mind. Carmelita by Yoakum, Cowboys Like Us and The Seashores of Old Mexico by Strait, What a Crying Shame by the Mavericks, or the new Marty Stewart concept album, Way out West, all played over and over as I worked through the first two acts of each book.

But here comes the Third Act and the downhill slide to the climax. That’s where the action picks up, and the music helps drive pace. Nothing but AC/DC works. I play it over and over and over and over….

…letting the beat soak in. I have an album (remember those large, black fragile discs we played at parties or alone in our rooms at 33 1/3 on things called a record player?) titled Let the Good Times Roll that features interviews with a number of people about rock and roll. One unnamed official in some small backwater town in the late 1950s, goes on a rant about rock and roll, “It’s driving the kids to ruin, and when you ask them (the kids) what they like about it they all respond with, “The beat, the beat, the beat.”

We were so right.

It’s the beat (or the pacing) that drives the novel you’re reading right now. It’s the beat that drives the story for me when I’m working. It’s the beat of your own writing rhythm, the beat of your own works. Music and writing are similar in many ways. They both have rhythm and pacing, ingredients that are necessary for a successful novel or short story.

I received an email from a fan this morning which sparked today’s blog. He wrote, “I’ve listened to (your novel) The Rock Hole at least forty times. What I figure is that people listen to songs over and over, so why not (novels). Your work sings like a song.”

What a humbling comment.

The music. The music of creating fiction. The music we see on the page and hear in our minds. The music of writing.

I don’t listen to the words as I work, and don’t sing along. Most of the time I can’t tell you what specific title is playing, but I get lost in the rhythm, the beat, the driving pulse of the song I’m working on. I oftentimes find myself sitting on the edge of the chair pushed back from the desk, as if ready for action, while the music thunders and riffs repeat over and over again, digging into and driving my story forward.

At times I take my fingers off the keyboard for a few seconds as a break at the end of a sentence, idea, run of dialogue, or chapter, and I find myself playing air guitar for one or two moments, just a flick of the fingers, which might be a different form of subconscious writing.

Hummm…

Thank the good lord there’s no video to record those moments.

Sidenote: A few minutes ago, I was pounding away on an action scene in the WIP when the idea for this post popped into my head. It was my subconscious reminding me I needed something for this week. I opened a new page and typed the first sentence I didn’t know was waiting to get out, leaving Hells Bells playing at a level guaranteed to cause partial facial numbness and hearing loss. The Bride came in from her walk and passed by, eyes rolling, hands on her hips.

“Climax?”

I selected at least two answers that was guaranteed get me the Hairy Eyeball again, and cast them aside before telling her the truth. “Kill Zone column.”

“Can you turn it down, then?”

“What’d you say? Can’t hear you.”

Telling me I was #1, she left and…

…where was I. Oh, yeah. Now I’m not saying it’s always loud music that’s necessary. There are quiet, insightful times when youngsters are talking to older folks, when the story slows, or an emotional moment develops between two characters.

When that happens, its ballads, soft and low, or soundtracks to such movies as Last of the Mohicans, Lonesome Dove, or The Natural. John Fogelberg, John Denver, and Michael Martin Murphy are here with me, and always, at some point, the most haunting song I’ve ever heard by Zane Williams, Pablo and Maria. Old, barely-healed wounds that still seep from time to time and are drawn to the surface by just the right piece of music.

I’m consumed by emotion. My stomach tightens. Quivers. A lump rises in my throat…

…as music drives the narrative.

When I’m finished with that chapter or scene, I have to take a break from the manuscript. That’s when I knock out a solemn, reflective newspaper column. Maybe something recalled from a time when old men took kids to fish from wooded creek banks and talk quietly as memories are made. Family time.

The music can get me in trouble, also. I once wrote a newspaper column about dogs I’ve known, and have lost. I related the day my oldest daughter who was around seventeen at the time had to put her Lab down. Eaten up with cancer, Ditto was nearing the end of her days and the Redhead was forced into adulthood. She couldn’t do it alone. I drove her and Ditto to the vet and sat in the floor with them both as that sweet old dog put her head on my sobbing daughter’s lap one last time and said goodbye with sad brown eyes telling her, “It’s all right to let me go.”

Dammit! There’s that lump again.

It was a heartfelt column driven by music my readers never heard that garnered more emails and letters than any of my columns before or since.

So what’s the purpose of this post that’s bounced back and forth like a pinball in play? (You think this was chaotic, you should see inside my head.) Use whatever works for you to be creative and don’t let anyone tell you that writing requires silence encapsulated by four walls and a door.

Write while listening to music, or sitting at your desk, or in your favorite chair, or even in bed. Writing is personal, and no matter if it’s show tunes, classic music, hair bands, rock, country, or kids songs, (B.I.N.G.O and Bingo was his name-o…) find what works for you!

Now, where was I in that manuscript I was working on just a few minutes ago. Oh, yeah, Hells Bells and that shootout.

Here we go again.

Your Characters, Real or Imagined

Writing is easy for me. I don’t mope around the house, struggling with a story, and have never accepted the concept of writer’s block. The question of what to write about has never entered my mind. There are a million things to include in a manuscript, and I spend more thinking time on what not to add.

For me, writing is fun, and the creative process is always fresh and exciting. In my experience, it’s as simple as putting the characters on a mental stage, then sit back to watch a river of words flow onto the page…er…screen. I don’t outline or pre-plan what will happen. My characters take care of that, and far be it for me to interfere in their (usually) chaos-filled lives.

I hear a lot about building characters. Some folks spend days or even weeks developing a written backstory for each fictional person they create. It’s how they write, and there’s no way I’m gonna say this method is right or wrong. If that’s the way it works for you, more power to you. Writers write, and they create in their own way.

However, my characters appear as the story progresses. Some might begin as secondary characters who help move the story along. Others are around for a single chapter, to help establish a scene, or to prod a reaction from the protagonist or antagonist, and they often are there to simply add spice and provide comic relief.

They are young, old, strong, weak, craggy, funny, lanky, portly, and always with distinctive voices. Many are part of an ensemble cast that grew over the years as the Red River and Sonny Hawke books matured.

But who are they, these fictions that I construct without conscious thought or planning?

One is Retired Texas Ranger Tom Bell, old, grizzled, tough as a bootheel.

He developed over the course of a few days. Building Tom Bell (I always refer to him by both  names) was like snapping mental Lego blocks together one piece at a time until he matured on the page. He’s partly a real deputy I once knew, partly drawn from life, and wholly cobbled together from actors I’ve seen in a hundred movies.

My daughters insist Tom Bell is my alter ego. Honestly, I hope I’m as spry as he when I reach his advanced age.

Early on, many of my characters were loosely based on people I’ve known, such as The Hunting Club membership. I used several old hunting and fishing buddies as the basis of my 33-near-old newspaper column giving them nicknames at the outset, and stretching the truth about our adventures. But as the months, then years (good lord, then decades) went by, those characters took on a life of their own, and are now so far removed from the boys that only friends and family can tell the differences in the two entities.

By the way. A word of caution belongs here. I once wrote a column about the time when Hunting Club members and I went to the Texas panhandle for pheasant season. On the way, we discussed a thousand things, including an acquaintance who often told his wife he was hunting with his friends, only to spend time with a girlfriend.. We made a lot of cracks about it, and the next weekend I wove those stories and observations into a completely fictional character. The Membership’s wives read the column and immediately cornered the boys in order to find out exactly who I was talking about. They soon cornered me and explained that if I ever wrote anything so close to home again, I’d walk like John Wayne for the rest of my life.

In the Red River series, Neal Box, Floyd Cass, Oak Peterson, and Deputy John Washington were all based on real people who have since passed away, but I changed their names. It was enough in those situations, because I molded the resulting characters to fit the storyline.

But human nature requires readers to look for familiarity in an author’s characters, and though most of the time they’re completely made up, folks often think they recognize themselves or someone else.

Our house phone rang one night about eight or nine years ago and my elderly Aunt Millie (not her real name) was on the other end of the line. She’d been in an assisted living facility for years, and I was remiss in visiting her. I thought that’s what the call was about when I saw her name on the caller ID, but cousin, was I wrong.

“Hello Aunt Millie!”

“Reavis Zane, I got a bone to pick with you.”

Sigh. When the old folks who once changed your diapers use both names, you done messed up in some way.

“I know. I’m sorry I haven’t been by. How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine.” Those two words were short, clipped. “That’s not why I’m calling.”

I flipped through a rack of mental files, trying to identify some other transgression, but came up blank. Another sigh. It’s what you do when there’s a whoopin’ coming and all you can do is take it. “Well, go to pickin’. What’d I do?”

She straightened me out right quick. “You’re telling family secrets in them books you’re a-writin’.”

Maybe. In those early years, lot of what I used as the framework in the books happened in some way to myself or others, and were based loosely on tales spun by the old folks. I draped those recollections as best I could to conceal what was real, but a lot was made up from whole cloth.

In this instance, I had no idea what she was talking about. “Which secrets are those?”

“Why, you know what I’m talkin’ about.”

It was the classic Older Adult Strategy used on me by parents, teachers, and at least one high school principal. Pile on the guilt and wait for a confession. I knew better. I’d survived my larval years by either begging forgiveness, or feigning complete innocence.

Volley back into her court. “No ma’am. I don’t know what you mean. Tell me so I can remember.”

“You wrote in this last book about Maxine and T.J. getting together and runnin’ off with one another.”

Growing up, I must have heard a dozen stories about marital infidelity when the old folks forgot us kids were listening to their conversations and drifted off into juicy details. But in this instance, I made up the couple who left their spouses and started a new life.

“Really. Aunt Maxine and Uncle T.J. did that?”

“That’s right.” I heard ice tinkle in a glass and figured she was drinking iced tea, or had gone to hard liquor (where she was driving me). “I just read that part in your book where a couple run off together. You’re talking about kinfolk. You cain’t go opening doors like that. Family skeletons need to stay where they are.”

“Hummm…so Maxine and T.J. ran off together?”

A low gasp. “You didn’t know?”

“No ma’am.”

“Well, I’m not gonna talk about that!”

And she hung up.

After a little digging, I learned what happened way back in the early 1960s, but I swear to you all, they weren’t in mind when I made up those people.

So here’s a little advice. Basing characters on long dead historical figures is a common occurrence for writers. Amy Cook, Writer’s Digest legal analyst, says: “You can write about historical people because the two main legal areas you need to worry about when writing about real people—defamation of character and invasion of privacy—only apply to living people. The deceased’s heirs cannot sue under those causes of action either.”

Using living people can be legally hazardous. Apply a little common sense and don’t be defamatory if someone is still sucking air and kicking. But I dassent go any deeper into this rabbit hole right now. There are dozens of detailed and well-researched articles online about using real people.

Be careful of your own family, too. They might have a crow to pick with you.

Tighten Up

I didn’t know anything about writer conferences until after I’d signed a contract for my first novel back in 2011. It never occurred to me that writers would gather somewhere to discuss the craft and maybe learn from others who’re successful at spinning stories for fun and profit. It should have, because in my previous life as a communications professional, I went to a lot of Public Relations conferences.

My first mystery conference was Sleuthfest, in Florida, and I only knew about it because I had to go there to meet my editor, Annette Rogers. She arrived bearing a ream of white paper in her arms and recognized me by the hat hanging from the back post of my chair.

My eyes widened when she thumped the thick stack of papers on the tabletop. The title page was red, with either paint, or a thick application of crayon. A huge question mark rose above the manuscript’s title.

The folded corners rose thick on the upper right side, with fewer on the lower right.

Good God! She’s graded the damned thing!

I checked the upper left-hand corner, but there was no accusatory grade of F there to mock and embarrass me.

Whew.

Annette shook my hand and positioned the papers in front of her. She broke into a smile. “We absolutely love this manuscript.”

Good, because I did, too. I’d hate to see what it looks like if you didn’t care for the stinkin’ thing.

“We’re going to publish, so we need to get busy on a few things.”

Those words were a symphony. “Sure.”

Green as grass, I laced my fingers to listen.

She flipped the title page out of the way and launched into a discussion of the plot and characters, referring to them as real people. No one had ever spoken about those figments of my imagination in such a way, and I was stunned to hear her discuss their fictionalized lives.

She even frowned when she noted that Miss Becky, one of the older protagonists in the multi-level cast of characters, had to do her wash on the front porch of an old farmhouse, because there was no running water inside.

I hung my head. I am ashamed I did that to her.

“Now, Rev, I’d like you to consider a few changes.”

Wait, what? Changes!!!??? I’d written a great novel. You said you loved it. Did people change Stephen King’s work? Did they ask David Morrell, who was sitting only two feet to my right to make Rambo a little tougher, or taller?

I swallowed. “What are those?”

She began with specifics about plot and characterization that came as thick and fast as a swarm of bees. Completely unprepared for an editorial meeting, I plucked an envelope from the inside pocket of my jacket and took a few notes on the back. By the time she’d reached page fifty, I had to unfold the piece of paper and write on the inside. Napkins came next.

We eventually reached the end of the manuscript and I wondered why she even bothered to tell me they were going to publish that piece of garbage.

But there was more to come. “Now, there’s a couple more things I need you to do.”

Good lord. More?

Wilted in my seat, I could barely raise my head. “What’s that?”

“Well, the word count is a hundred and forty thousand.”

140,000. Yep, that was about right. I wanted to produce a good, hefty book worthy of the aforementioned Stephen King.

She put down her pen. “I’d like you to pare it down by fifty thousand words.”

The number was staggering. 50,000! What she didn’t know, and I haven’t discussed here, is the fact that during the Pleistocene age, I finished The Rock Hole and hit save, only to see my computer screen go a nice shade of royal blue before two words appeared.

File Corrupted.

I didn’t know enough back then to save the work in another place back then, because I’d never heard that a 5½” floppy disk and my dinosaur program couldn’t hold several years of changes along with that much data. It was all gone, vanished in an electronic hiccup.

I re-wrote the entire manuscript from memory, so in essence she was asking me to delete 100,000 words.

I swallowed. What was I gonna say?

“Sure.”

“Great. A good mystery usually comes in at around ninety thousand words. Maybe ninety-five, but no more.”

“You want me to take out whole chapters?”

“No. I have a suggestion, and I’m sure you’ll find the right way to delete the rest. Try removing most of the attributes such as ‘He said,’ ‘She asked,’ ‘He exclaimed,’ and such as that. It slows the pacing for the reader. Give your character something to do instead like, ‘Ned crossed his legs,’ ‘Norma Faye tucked a strand of hair behind her ear,’ or even, ‘Cody lit a cigarette,’ since it’s set in 1964 and Cody smokes.”

She knew Cody that well already.

Hummm.

“I can do that. What else?”

Pleased, Annette took a sip of iced tea and gave me a bright smile. “I’d like you to re-write the ending.”

Worn to a frazzle, a raised eyebrow was all I could manage.

She picked up the pen and tapped it on the pages. “You killed everyone off at the end.”

“They were supposed to die.”

“Right, but if they’re all dead, we can’t continue as a series. This won’t be a standalone novel. I’m offering you a three-book contract.”

They’ll want two more of these to mark up?

I didn’t realize she’d just offered me the brass ring without having to ride the merry-go-round.

“Find a way to keep them going, and by the way, tighten up your writing. By writing tight, you can show us everything we need to know with as little fat as possible.”

I write fat?

“Remove the fat, and welcome to our publishing company.”

Yep, she said I write fat.

I went home at the end of that weekend and started to carve away everything Annette thought was wrong with the book. The Delete Button removed the vast majority the attributions and I fleshed the characters out with actions, giving them personality, habits, and worry lines.

However, the work swelled again, because “he said” takes a lot less space than a description such as the one below:

 

Cody plucked a pack of Chesterfield’s from his shirt pocket, lipped one out, and lit it with a gold Zippo. “We have to be careful, Ned.”

Ned speaks, but we have even more to read.

Ned rubbed his bald head in frustration and glared at Cody. “I’god. I’m always careful. You’re the one who goes off half-cocked.”

 

But what just happened!?

Lordy mercy, I soon learned that an incredible amount of information can be delivered in just a few words. Cody smokes. He has style when he lips one out. You can imagine him shaking one free without me telling you that part. He carries a Zippo. Cody is cool.

Ned is older. Bald. Frustrated by what is happening around them, and even by Cody himself. Does he not like him smoking? Is he frustrated with Cody’s spontaneous action? Is that going to lead to some kind of twist?

This was great!

As the conversation continues, the pacing takes over, as well as the character’s voice and I found that I’d streamlined the storyline, much like the way Elmore Leonard wrote lean, mean, sparkling conversations. The slow, fatty conversations in the first manuscript woke up with fresh dialogue that people actually use.

In the last chapters, I came into my own. Here in the Third Act, crusty Judge O.C. Rains questions his old friend, Constable Ned Parker, about what happened in the dark river bottoms only an hour earlier. Exhausted by what he’d experienced that night, Ned is half-carried into the house and placed in a rocking chair in front of the fire by Deputy John Washington, who retreats to the kitchen when Judge Rains arrives.

I’ve changed the antagonists name to avoid spoilers.

 

O.C. knelt beside Ned. He put a hand on his friend’s knee and leaned forward to whisper in the constable’s ear. “Ned, was it Jack for sure?”

Slumped in the rocker, Ned had little energy to answer. “Yes.

“Did you do for him?

“Yes.”

“Where is he?”

“With Cody.”

O.C. looked at his old friend for a long while, studying on what he might have done in the bottoms. “Is Cody all right?”

“Yes. I’m supposed to tell you something.”

“What?”

“Jack got away.”

O.C. thought for a moment about the conflicting answers, and then understood. “It’s over.”

“Yes.”

“But Jack’s gone.”

“That’s what I said.”

“This can’t come back.”

“It won’t.” Ned opened his eyes and they went flint hard. “Cody said. I believe him.”

“All right, then.”

“Something else.”

“What?”

“Cody weren’t there…because of what was done down on the creek.”

O.C. rose. “All right, then.”

 

What had taken up almost four pages in the original manuscript was distilled down into a tense, revealing conversation stripped down to speed up the pace, and cut words at the same time.

I edited with a vengeance.

The word count dropped but I needed to cut more words that took up space and nothing else. That’s when I remembered something Stephen King said in his book titled, On Writing.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

I was never a big fan of adverbs (still not), so away they went as I tightened up The Rock Hole even more. Within a month, the book was 90,000 words and ready for publication, all because those quick lessons from a master editor.

It was an education I could have used years earlier.

I Did It My Way

My sixty-seven-year-old memory is somewhat fuzzy on distant particulars, but I recall sitting beside the open windows in my un-airconditioned freshman high school English class, listening to Miss Linda Adams talk about writing. Had I been sitting on the inside row with the other reluctant students against the wall that first day of class, we would’ve enjoyed the dubious luxury of hot air pushed by a large fan.

Instead, I got to look out the window, at the same time keeping an eye on my fresh-faced, just-out-of-college teacher. Miss Adams was…splendid…in a short skirt, white top, and loose blond hair enhanced with what back then was called a “fall” that came down past her shoulders.

I also recall white go-go boots, but that’s probably from an adolescent dream, long forgotten and dried. Teachers couldn’t dress that way back then, and even the girls in my class couldn’t wear jeans. The school district reluctantly allowed pant suits instead, as long as the top came down below their…um…buttocks.

Anyway, pardon my digression that sets the scene for My Awakening. I fell in love with when she leaned back against her desk and crossed her arms that distant day, finished with outlining what we’d do that semester. “We’re going to have some fun, too. Y’all know the rules of writing, and we’ll practice them in this class.”

Moans filled the room.

Her lips were red, as were her fingernails. I’m afraid my concentration was mostly on her appearance until the sweetest words I ever heard fell from those lips at the same time a bright beam of light illuminated her person, followed by an angelic chorus of beautiful voices.

“But when we get into creative writing, I want you to break all those rules you’ve learned in the past and explore the creative process as much as you can.”

That statement sizzled through my brain, yanking me back from a particularly enthusiastic fantasy and into class.

What’d she say!!!???

Since I’m a Gemini, I answered myself.

She said there were no rules in creative writing.

That means I can do what I want!

Apparently.

She’d freed me! I could break those dusty old shackles of formal writing and be myself.

Huzzah!

I rose and did the Happy Dance, a unique blend of gyrations taken from Snoopy, American Bandstand, and Elvis movies.

Not really, but I wanted to.

“Break the rules.” Her statement came to mind years afterward when I finally discovered my writing Voice in 1988 and published an inaugural humor column that was nothing like I’d ever read in a newspaper.

I was successful in getting published that first time because I broke the rules and created something no one else was doing in newspapers. I took a new and different trail again when I embarked on my first novel a dozen years later.

The opening chapter was in first person, from the viewpoint of ten-year-old Top Parker, and I learned pretty quick that writing the entire novel from Top’s POV was limiting, but I needed to see rural 1964 through a kids’ eyes. First person speaks to me, and the words flow with startling ease when I’m in those chapters.

But the next chapter switched to third person, the change was intentional, because I wanted readers to see the story from the boy’s granddad’s more experienced point of view. Both a farmer and the local constable in their rural community of Center Springs, Ned Parker’d already lived a lifetime before the youngster showed up.

The alternating POV worked well in my mind, and it never occurred to me at that time that I was breaking some sort of rule. I was simply describing what I saw as the first two chapters developed, because I think differently than many authors. When writing a novel, I see the story from different lenses, sometimes involving POVs for more than one character

I did the same thing in Burrows (a suspenseful and claustrophobic novel that people either love or hate, with no in between, but the critics loved it, so there) and I was on my way, blissfully ignorant of the fact that many editors, agents, and critically acclaimed and bestselling authors said it was wrong.

That little revelation came along as I was sitting in an audience between two well-known and very successful authors listening to a panel discussion at Bouchercon, the country’s largest conference devoted to mysteries and detective fiction. When it was his time to speak, one of my favorite and influential writers on the stage pulled microphone closer to his lips and stated with absolute authority, “You cannot switch back and forth between points of view. It’s a sin, and if you do it, Jesus won’t love you no more, and you’re going to Hell with your pockets full of dandruff and adverbs.”

He sat back to let that sink in.

Well, he didn’t say it that exact way, but the gist was the same. My friends on either side turned their heads to gauge my reaction, but I had nothing and refused to make eye contact. I was a sinner for sure and no amount of water was ever going to wash me clean.

But I didn’t care and I kept writing the way I wanted, because I had a Voice, and a style (which is dramatically different than these blog posts for some reason), and I wasn’t going to change. With twelve novels in print, one scheduled for release in February, 2022, and two others under contract for the next two years after that, I’ve continued this particular style of storytelling and have no intention of changing.

Because Miss Adams said it was okay.

 

 

Excuses

Howdy to all y’all from the Great State of Texas!

I’m Reavis Z. Wortham, and I write the Red River historical mystery series from Sourcebooks, the Sonny Hawke thrillers published by Kensington, and coming soon, the Tucker Snow series, also from Sourcebooks.

I’ve been published since 1988, starting out as a self-syndicated newspaper columnist for rural and small town papers before my work appeared in a variety of magazines including American Cowboy and Texas Fish and Game Magazine. I’m still on the masthead at TF&G as their Humor Editor. To date, I’ve written over 2,000 newspaper and magazine columns and articles, along with 13 novels and a handful of short stories.

I’ve been kinda busy, and continue to add to that worklist, because I love this profession.

Before the lockdown, I traveled the country, attending conferences where I served on writers panels and taught the craft of writing. It evolved into speaking to civic groups, writers groups, and book clubs, as well as signings for my novels.

Invariably, after my presentations or talks, someone will come up to visit while I’m signing books. “Would you sign this? It’s not for me, but for my Uncle Azariah. I just love your books.”

“Thank you! How do you spell that name? It sounded like you said Az-er-Yaw”

“Just common spelling.”

“Uh…”

“I’m gonna write a book someday about my Uncle Albert, though. He was such a character…”

“Good for you. Why some day? Why don’t you start it now?”

“Uh, well, because I have a job (you can also insert: husband, family, kids, grandkids, yardwork, cooking classes, hot-flash yoga, a future paint-by-numbers career, or anything else they can use as an excuse).”

“What’s the real reason?”

This is where they look somewhat constipated. “Those are the reasons. I don’t have the time right now to write a book.”

“Sure you do.”

“How?”

“I’d suggest writing instead of checking your Facebook page. Those are lost minutes, or hours. Or I have an idea, instead of thumbing through Instagram or Twitter, spend the same amount of time working on that novel about Uncle Yaws.”

“Uncle Albert, but like I said, I’m busy.”

“I completely understand. Let me tell you how I wrote my first novel…”

“Never mind. Bye.”

That brings us to the present. I’m writing this first Killzone column on an impending deadline, because I got the dates wrong. I’m typing in between a river of distractions. Right now I’m in my chair, pecking away at the laptop while our eight-month-old grandson chews on the toe of my boot.

He learned to belly crawl last week, and seems to have an inexhaustible supply of drool from a third tooth that’s coming in. This kid leaves a slime trail wherever he goes, and now the toe of my boot is soaked.

Oh, well, it’ll help with his immune system.

Another grandson is on the couch, stuffing strawberries down his neck and watching Paw Patrol which is apparently fascinating to a two-year-old, because he’s missed his mouth half a dozen times with the strawberries, making him look like a cute zombie.

Their parents are on vacation in Vail. Great timing.

In addition to those distractions, my Bride also presented me with a list of honey-do items yesterday, and I’ll eventually get to them, but only after weeding the garden, repairing a number of shelves in the RV, mowing the back yard, installing a screen door over the entrance coming in from the garage so flies won’t get into the house, and trimming the hedges.

Here’s the problem today. We’re leaving twenty-four hours from now to spend the weekend with friends. The only way I can finish this particular installment in time is to grab onto brief bits of time to write between diaper changes, lunches and snacks, watching the oldest grand-critters swim in the pool when they get here a little later today, making sure the baby doesn’t pull up and fall back on the hardwood floors because he’s about as graceful and coordinated as the aforementioned zombie), and lastly, I need to pack.

But I’m writing when I can, because that’s what I learned to do when I had a fulltime job and decided one day to become a columnist and eventually, an author. Fate was on my side and I found a small-town paper that believed in my style. With The Paris News as a cornerstone, I built a readership across the Lone Star State one paper at a time until I was in over 50 publications. It was then that King Features Syndicate noticed my success in 1999 and vowed to make me the Dave Barry of the outdoor world.

Those columns still continue today in a few paper but that success ended with the arrival of the Internet, which killed newspapers across the country. At the same time, I had a full-time career, a second job on weekends and weeknights as a wedding photographer (brrrrr), and I contracted as a freelance photographer for school districts while at the same time dipping my toe into the magazine world.

To make things even more interesting, I started My Novel.

The Bride and I had two daughters who were in every social club and sport in the world. I spent an inordinate amount of time on bleachers, in auditoriums, or waiting the in the car, and those activities provided brief periods of time to write. I also wrote at stop lights, while eating lunch in the car, or in boring meetings. I wrote after the kids went to bed, before work in the mornings, and while they were doing homework in the evenings.

I kept a notepad close by, and jotted down dialogue or a paragraph or two any time I could find a few minutes. Without looking, I penned cryptic notes on that aforementioned pad resting on the console of my pickup as I blew down the Texas highways, heading for another photo shoot.

There were nights when an idea or bit of dialogue came in the early morning hours and I’d get up and write in my office in order not to wake the Bride (who really doesn’t sleep anyway and I think she’s part vampire, because no matter what the hour, I can look at her and those hazel eyes will pop open…creepy).

Months stretched into a couple of years, and using my time wisely (as my elementary school teacher Miss Russell always said while at the same time reminding me that all my screwups would eventually go down on my Permanent Record which I’m sure has followed me throughout my life), those little captured moments produced sentences and paragraphs that grew into a full manuscript.

I sold The Rock Hole in 2010, and it released in 2011, the year I met my mentor and brother-from-another-mother, John Gilstrap. My publishers liked the storyline and characters and soon they unexpectedly offered me an unlimited series that has now stretched to nine titles (#9, The Texas Job, releases in February, 2022).

I achieved a lifelong dream at 56-years-of-age. You know why? Because I quit talking about it and wrote.

So when someone tells me they’re too busy, it’s all I can do not to roll my eyes. Writers write. They don’t talk about it. They don’t find excuses for not writing.

We write.

I’m getting a feeling of déjà vu here hammering this out while the grand-boys are doing their thing. It’s not just this blog post, either. Our house is a central hub for a total of seven grandkids, two daughters and their husbands, and an assortment of friends, who seem to be here all the time (in fact, I’m not sure they ever go home).

I have to produce. Here’s how I do it. I write when I can. I’ve started and stopped on this column a dozen times of the past few hours since I typed the first sentence. At this very moment, the two-year-old is on the couch with me, his feet in my lap, as he watches P.J. Mask for a few minutes before nap time. To keep him still, one hand is on his legs while I type slowwwwly with the other.

Despite this chaotic and fun life, I do my best to add at least five pages to my primary work in progress.

At the same time, I’m working on other manuscripts and on good days, I can add a couple of pages on each of those WIPs, in addition to my weekly newspaper column, a bi-monthly magazine column, (now every other Saturday here for Killzone) and other projects that arise like bubbles in a boiling pot.

On “bad” days, it’s five pages on just one project. This is no brag. Just fact. I’m telling you this for a reason.

If someone wants to write that book, there’s no reason why they can’t. It’s called discipline. I urge those folks to quit finding excuses not to write and do it.

These cold hard facts might strike some people as harsh, but to me, it’s reality. To be an author, you have to sit your gluteus maximus in a chair, somewhere, and string words together.

But I need to be clear on one point. This works for me. You might be different, and can’t manage five pages a day. That’s fine. Go ahead on, though. Write anyway. Shoot for a page a day. At the end of one year, you’ll have a novel in your hands.

I’m reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Tuco (Eli Wallach), is in a bathtub when bad guys burst into his hotel room, guns drawn, and spend wayyyy too much time saying they’re going to kill him.

He shoots them all through the bubbles floating on the surface of the water and after they drop, delivers the perfect line with a slight shrug, stating the obvious. “If you’re gonna shoot, shoot, don’t talk.”

(I just had to quit writing and drag the eight-month-old out of the fireplace.)

So, channeling Tuco, I offer this advice. “If you’re gonna write, write, don’t talk about it.”

Thanks for reading. I’m glad to be here, and look forward to hearing from y’all soon.