Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A writer's secrets for his not so overnight success

Having previously heard North Texas writer Reavis Z. Wortham speak, I anticipated nothing but fun from his recent appearance before the Dallas chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Did his raucous humor seem strangely at odds with his blood-soaked preferred genres—mysteries and thrillers? It's not. Before the first volume of his Red River mystery series appeared in 2011, he had spent decades pounding out award-winning humor columns for newspapers and outdoorsman magazines.

If Reavis were a power-pointer, he might have summarized his discussion like this:

  1. Hold on to what inspires us
  2. Take (good) advice
  3. Be open to new ideas
  4. Never give up!
But he’s a storyteller, not a power-pointer. So, he told us stories instead.

“I was the kindergartener who was ready to go to the library on day one,”—he said. Nevertheless, he refrained from voicing his ambition to be a writer until at age 10, an aunt at a family reunion pressed him to declare what he wanted to be when he grew up.  “A writer,” he said. Mercifully, no one in his family fainted. At least not immediately.

Reavis Z. Wortham
Maybe they thought he’d grow out of it. He didn’t.

Pencil in hand, he scrawled stories on Big Chief writing pads throughout his elementary school years, sending them to the likes of Reader’s Digest and men’s magazines, “in those days the ones with adventure stories.” (He was astonished when a childhood friend first showed him Playboy, but promptly started a correspondence with that journal as well.)

After years of fruitless mailings, he was thrilled to finally receive a rejection letter, which gave him his first piece of good advice, “kid, you need to learn to type.” He got a typewriter.

More good advice arrived in his high school years, in the form of his freshman English teacher, Miss Linda Adams, who told her students, “find your writing voice and then break the rules.”

In college, however, after years of failing to achieve publication, “I decided not to be a starving author and got a job in education.” But he never stopped writing.

During a meeting at work, (one of those boring ones, he confided) he noticed a co-worker busy with a yellow legal pad. “Writing for a newspaper,” she told him, boasting that she would be published before he was. Stung, Reavis took a stab at writing a humor column, and in the 1980’s offered it to the Paris, Texas, newspaper, whose editor snapped it up for $25 and informed him that he now owed the paper a weekly column as well.

Unable to think of a topic for a column one day, he recalled another piece of advice from his high school teacher. “If you can’t think of anything to write, just start putting words down and more words will come.” He found himself describing a character and a setting that became the backbone of his first novel, “a story that just evolved, without any thought.” His wife told him it was the beginning of a novel.

After more struggles with technological limits (remember the typewriter?), with finding an agent, firing the agent, finding a new agent (not to mention a new wife), he found he had written the first of his Red River mystery series.

At his first book signing in 2011, an older woman approached him. Did he know who she was? She introduced herself as his long ago high school English teacher, Miss Linda Adams. She had always believed he would write books, she said. She just didn’t think it would take so long. . .

Thrilled, he asked if she could stay after the signing for more conversation. Sorry, she said. She was on her way to the races, so would he hurry up and get his show on the road? Who but Reavis would end an inspirational story on that note?

Yes, he still writes humor. He’s also added a new thriller series to his still-running mysteries, and is working on a stand-alone novel, clicking out an estimated 4,000 words daily. For more about Reavis, check out his site. And for more about local mystery writer groups and their programs, or to find a chapter in your local area, click here.

And remember to keep writing!

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