Tag Archives: mentors

Getting Up Again

I reached a milestone yesterday: I finished a novel.

Let me explain. Yes, if you look on the sidebar, you’ll see I have novels for sale. And yes, they are finished novels. So what’s the big deal?

A little something called a slump. Or writer’s block. Take your choice.

A few years back, as I was writing my fourth novel about Lyle Villines (part of the Rural Empires setting with a working title of Hillbilly Hunt), I was shopping the novel Startup around to agents in New York. One of the submissions was to Aaron Priest, who rejected it, but didn’t send me a form rejection. He said that he loved the writing, but didn’t feel like anything happened for about the first one hundred pages.

Knowing it was against etiquette, I wrote back, asking if he would take another look (all while pointing out I knew it was against etiquette) if I rewrote that first part. The answer came from an assistant, who said she would read the rewrite, and if she judged it good enough, she’d forward it to Mr. Priest.

Fair enough. More than fair, in fact.

Long story short, I was rejected again. And I could see no way around it.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Priest did point out, in his original rejection notice, that this was his opinion only and another agent might well pick it up.

But I had stars in my eyes. Aaron Priest is Robert Crais’s agent—and Robert Crais is one of my favorite authors. Who wouldn’t want to share an agent with one of your heros?

The second rejection did something to me, and in the ensuing years, writing has been hard to do. I know it’s mental, that I need to find a way around it. Add to that the fact the novel I finished is a mystery—my first—and that compounded everything. I’ve never written a mystery, and they require some finesse. You don’t want to give it away, but you don’t want it to be impossible for the reader to solve, either. It’s a fine line you have to walk.

I kept getting closer and closer, but I’d write a passage or two, then stop for months (or longer) before I went back to it. I had to drag the last quarter or more of the novel out kicking and screaming.

Then, last week, my mentor died. I wrote about him in my last post. I won’t revisit all that, but I will say this: when Dusty Richards died, he’d written over 160 novels.

Let that sink in for a minute. One hundred and sixty.

Dusty’s philosophy? Keep writing.

No matter what happens in your life, keep writing. You’re a writer, so write. It’s that simple. He cranked out three or four books a year that way. Yes, they were westerns and some of them were short. But not all of them. Not by any means.

His dying changed something in me, something more than what happens when you lose someone who means that much to you. I realized that all the people Dusty had ever encouraged to keep writing were his legacy. And that most definitely included me.

I had to make him proud of the time he’d invested in me and others. Yes, many of them no doubt gave up. Make no mistake, this is a tough business, and you have to grow a thick skin. You’ll see far more rejection than you will acceptance.

But, as Dusty admonished so many budding writers, keep writing. Why? Because it’s your dream. Not everyone is cut out for this. Heck, not everyone who writes should be doing it. Let’s be honest here. But many, possibly most, are. And even those who can’t write very well yet will improve if they fall in with the right people, people who give them constructive criticism and encouragement.

And above all, keep writing.

Chances are, if you keep at it, you’ll run into a situation similar to mine, where you hit a wall and have trouble putting words on paper. Maybe life interferes. Maybe you get sent to Eastern Europe to spy on the Russians (if you do, mine that shit for stories). Maybe you have your first child. Maybe someone important to you dies. Maybe the rejection notices keep piling up and you wonder if it’s worth it to keep doing this.

Whatever the cause, for some reason, you can’t write. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to enough of us that there are endless articles about it and methods to deal with it.
The simplest solution is to do as Dusty told so many of us.

Keep writing.

I don’t care if it’s recipes, or crap you delete the next day, a frown of disgust on your face. And maybe you do it again the next day. And the next. And the next.

The point is, you’re doing something creative, and eventually it’ll turn into something you read, then nod to yourself and think, I’m keeping this.

It has taken me two, maybe three years to finish Animal Sacrifice, despite knowing, in general, how it was supposed to end (if your read this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m what’s called a pantser—I don’t outline my novels). I wrote some other things in between. I have a couple other novels started, and I managed to crank out a few short stories to keep the creative juices flowing at least to an extent.

But Animal Sacrifice sat there in its file, mocking me, it seemed. I knew what needed to happen, but getting the words out was all but impossible.

And yet, I kept writing.

Why?

Well, I have four finished novels prior to this. That’s proof I can do it. And it means I can do it more than once. Plus, I believe in this story, think it’s a good one, and it needs to see the light of day. Yes, there will be rewrites to turn it into a real mystery a toddler can’t solve in the first twenty pages, but the straight-line story is there, and it’s a good one. I say that without ego.

But I also saw my mentors, Dusty and Velda Brotherton—the two who started the writing group I’m a member of—turning out books, no matter what went on in their lives. Dusty spent a month in the hospital with pneumonia last spring.

He kept writing once he was out.

Velda has lost her husband, and her health has put her in a wheelchair.

She keeps writing.

That’s inspiration, folks. That’s drive.

That’s what we need to emulate.

I finished my novel, regardless of how hard it was to write. So go out there and finish yours, and finish the one after that, and the one after that, ad infinitum.
Keep writing.

Later,
Gil

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The Passing of a Legend

I’ve been quiet over the holidays for a couple of reasons. Partly, because it was the holidays. But mostly… well, you’ll see.

About ten years ago, I walked into a writers group in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was ready to get serious about the writing, ready to improve my craft. I can’t remember now how I heard about this particular group, at least not this time. I’d heard of it once before from a friend, but I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet, wasn’t ready to let strangers see my work.

But by then I was. I’d worked on a space opera, had written quite a bit of it, and wanted to see what others thought. I was arrogant and timid all at the same time. Part of me thought I was gonna knock em dead—that audacious part that every writer has to possess to have the courage to put his words out there for somebody. But the majority of me just hoped I would be up to snuff.

I knew no one there. I sat at one end of the group of tables in a room they used in the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. A member of that church was also a member of the workshop, and that’s how they had access to this building.

I had no idea how fortunate I was to happen on this group. The two who ran it, Dusty Richards and Velda Brotherton, had been published in New York, Velda years ago under a pen name just before the bottom fell out, and Dusty under his own name, writing westerns.

I’d known of Dusty since I was a teenager. I’d worked an FFA rodeo once in I think it was tenth grade, and Dusty was the announcer. He was a local celebrity even then, appearing on a regional morning show, doing the farm report. He’d been a biology teacher at my alma mater, Huntsville High School, as well as a field man for Tyson, traveling around to the chicken farms, helping them raise better chickens.

Over the next decade—or close to it—I stayed faithful in that writers group, and I came to know Dusty more. He became a mentor, a friend, a father figure, especially after my own father died. Time after time, I watched him encourage new writers, and he always told them the same thing: It’s good. There are problems, but don’t worry about that. Just write. Get the story out. You can fix it later.

There were times when I wondered how he could do that, because I thought some of them were horrible writers. But Dusty never said that, never discouraged a single one of them, regardless of their quality. I think perhaps he could see something the rest of us—or at least that I—couldn’t see: the potential of every writer to become more than they were when they walked into the group.

I watched a lot of writers come and go, and Dusty never failed to encourage them. He had a heart, as my boss Casey Cowan says, bigger than the western skies he wrote about. He was generous to a fault, and optimistic like few people I’ve known. To once again steal from Casey, Dusty woke up every day thinking of it as a new opportunity.

On December 19, Dusty and his wife Pat were on their way home from a lunch meeting with Casey and the Oghma business manager, Venessa Cerasale, when he apparently passed out and left the road. He crossed oncoming traffic—luckily not hitting anyone else, and, in one of life’s ironies, the Ranch Boss—as we affectionately called him—crashed through the fence of a horse pen.

I’ll spare you the medical details, but suffice it to say he and Pat lingered a time longer, and even looked to be improving briefly.

Then came the news that Pat had died.

To say we were shocked is an understatement. Pat was Dusty’s rock. As loud and boisterous as he could be, she was the only one who could control him, the only one who could rein him in. She was a quiet influence in his life, his bride of fifty-six years. While he was the center of attention, Pat would sit off to the side, reading her romance novels, the only kind I ever saw in her hands. Bodice rippers, as they’re known. She loved them, but I never really heard her talk about them.

Pat died January 10th. Dusty followed her on the 18th. Immediately after the wreck, he was in a coma, and once he woke up, he sometimes knew himself, sometimes didn’t. But, as another friend of mine said, I believe his spirit knew Pat was gone. Two days later, he was moved into hospice care, and we all knew it was a matter of time.

That’s Dusty’s story. But there’s more.

As I mentioned above, Dusty became so much more than that guy at the writers group for me. I had the honor of riding to Cheyenne, Wyoming in June of 2016 with him for the annual Western Writers of American convention. I drove him to hospital when Pat had to go a couple days before we were due to leave. She stayed Friday night, Saturday, and into Sunday morning. We left Cheyenne, made it to Hayes, Kansas, where she had to go back in the hospital. This time, they found the real problem, and she was able to continue home the next day.

But while we sat in the waiting room at Cheyenne, Dusty leaned over and said, “Gil, I hear you’re having money problems.” I was. I worked part-time then, twenty-four hours a week at nine dollars an hour, two twelve-hour shifts on the weekend. I was effectively giving up an entire week’s paycheck to go to the conference, but was determined I wouldn’t miss it.

I explained this to Dusty. He pulled out his wallet, handed me one hundred dollars.

“You take this,” he said. “Use it for whatever you need. Don’t worry about paying me back for it.”

And then, not two months later, he had me meet him at Best Buy and bought me a laptop when he saw I had no way to write if I wasn’t at home. On the way out of the store, he said, “Me and Pat talked about it, and we decided you needed to have that to help you write.”

I tell this as a way to show you how generous, how giving, this man was. He gave, and didn’t ask for anything in return.

After the accident, when we posted news of the wreck on the Oghma Facebook page, I happened to go there to look at another post and saw that one. Over seven hundred comments, and I’m told there were thousands of views. I’d known Dusty was a celebrity, but I had no idea he was that well known. I scrolled through the posts, and comment after comment had to do with how generous he and Pat were, how they’d helped this person or that one in some way or another. One even posted that her family wouldn’t have their farm if not for Dusty and Pat.

It’s been a hard few weeks. I think the conferences will be a lot different without Dusty and his loud laugh. There’ll be something missing from them. But his legacy will live on. We intend to see to that, finding a way to give back to this man who gave so much to so many, a way to keep his generous legacy going.

In the spirit of that audaciousness I first exhibited by going to that writing group, I’m going to do my best to step into Dusty’s shoes and encourage new writers, do my best to help them set their feet on the path he helped so many travel, including me.

Knowing Dusty Richards was an honor, one I didn’t fully realize until this happened. I don’t know if I can ever approach his generosity, his optimism, but I’ll do my best and try, because he had faith in me, believed I was a good writer. I will cherish every memory I have of him, and every time I help a writer, it’ll be in his name, for his legacy. Not mine.

The Ranch Boss is gone. A legend has passed from this earth, a legend I had the distinct honor to know. I believe we all go to whatever we envision to be heaven, and I’m sure Dusty is sitting around a prairie campfire somewhere, spinning tales as he always did, conversing with his hero Zane Grey, and I’m sure people like Luke Short, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, and who knows who else, are sitting around that campfire, each taking his turn, telling tales to one another the likes of which we’ll never know. At least not until we join them.

Adios, my friend. You had a long ride, and a good one. I’ll miss you, and so will so many more. My heart is heavy, even though I know you’d want me to smile. The pain is sharp now, but it’ll fade, and I’ll be left with so many good memories.

And I’ll tell the stories like you did, passing them along to a new generation of writers, so they’ll know what kind of man you were.

My friend. My mentor. My second father.

Hold a spot for me at that campfire. I want to hear more stories.

Later,
Gil