Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My first novel: James Reasoner

Some of you know that my first novel was TEXAS WIND, and that's true as far as it goes. TEXAS WIND was the first novel I finished, and the first novel of mine that was published.

But it wasn't the first novel I started.

As 1978 rolled around, I had been selling short stories for a little more than a year: mysteries to MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE and men's magazine stories (basically sex stories, some with a crime or mystery angle thrown in) to several different markets. I hadn't made much money yet, but by golly, I was a professional writer.

As such, I bought the big WRITERS MARKET volume published every year by Writers Digest, and I would sit and comb through its pages for every potential paying market I could find. Since I'd started out writing short stories, as many people do, that's what I concentrated on, but I began to get the idea that I ever wanted to make a living writing (which I certainly did) I was going to have to start writing novels, too.

That still seemed like a pretty daunting task. At this point I hadn't started writing the Mike Shayne novellas in MSMM. The biggest thing I'd done was a 10,000 word private eye yarn that failed to sell. So the idea of writing a 60,000 word novel just seemed like more than I could tackle.

So as I'm going through WRITERS MARKET I come across a listing for a publisher in San Diego that's looking for erotic novels. Some of you know the publisher I'm talking about. The company published a dozen or so novels each month (some of which were retitled and re-bylined reprints, I suspect now), so they needed material. They wanted 35,000 word manuscripts, for which they paid the princely sum of $400.

In 1978, 400 bucks would buy a considerable amount of groceries for a young couple, and hey, 35,000 words was a lot but it seemed like a book of that length might be within my reach. And at least the pay was a little better than the penny-a-word (or less) I'd been getting for short stories. I was already writing sex stories for magazines. Surely I could write a novel in the same vein.

Now, as a young guy growing up in the Sixties, I'd read porn novels occasionally, of course, but not with an eye toward ever writing them. I figured I'd better study up on the market. So I went to a newsstand in Fort Worth that sold books from the publisher I'd set my sights on, and I bought several of them. I wasn't joking when I said I planned to study them. I read every one pretty closely, making notes about the characters involved and breaking down the plots into chapter-by-chapter outlines so I'd be familiar with the formula used in the books. Once I had done that, I came up with characters of my own, wrote an outline, and sat down to write the actual book.

A week or so and 30 or 40 pages later, I looked at the stack of typing paper that had built up and said, "Nope." I put the book aside and never went back to it.

That decision had nothing to do with any sort of moral judgment—I'd written sex fiction before and would continue to do so as short stories—but rather a feeling that, hey, a writer only gets one first novel, and I wanted mine to be something else. I had set out a couple of years earlier to be a private eye writer, so I decided to cling stubbornly to that goal.

Right about then fate, in the person of Sam Merwin Jr., stepped in. Sam, the editor of MSMM, had become a friend and mentor, and he asked me to write one of the Mike Shayne novellas for the magazine. 20,000 words for "a flat, lousy 300 bucks", as Sam phrased it in his letter.

Heck, that was even better than what the porn novel would have paid. I told Sam I'd love to write a Mike Shayne story, he sent me the series bible, and a couple of weeks later I had "Death in Xanadu" ready to send to him. That experience convinced me more than ever that I needed to write a private eye novel.

I wanted it to be set in Fort Worth. I didn't know nearly enough about New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco to write a novel set in any of those places, even though the classic PI novels I'd grown up reading were set there. Why not Fort Worth? There were private detectives in Texas, weren't there?

So in October 1978, writing with a fountain pen in a spiral notebook like the ones I'd carried in high school ten years earlier, I began writing TEXAS WIND. I was working for my dad at the time, managing the office of his TV and appliance sales and service business, so I wrote nearly the entire book sitting at the desk in that office, scribbling a paragraph and then answering the phone, writing another paragraph or two and then helping a customer carry in a TV that wasn't working, doing another few paragraphs and then adjusting the horizontal or vertical hold—or both—that another customer had gotten 'way out of whack on their set, writing another paragraph and then taking the back off a set with sound but no picture, pulling the cap off the horizontal output tube, plugging the set in with a cheater cord and checking for arc, replacing the tube if it was bad, writing up the bill, carrying out the set, then back to the desk for another paragraph...

I tell you, it's a wonder that book makes any sense at all.

When the handwritten first draft was finished, I typed a second draft, revising as I went along, then made notes on that second draft. Livia worked from it to type a clean submission draft. Early in 1979, the book was finished and ready to go. But we didn't have a carbon copy—I always hated carbon paper and hardly ever used it—so we gathered up a bagful of dimes and nickels and took it and the manuscript to the Thrifty Drug Store in the Monnigs Oaks Shopping Center in River Oaks (the suburb of Fort Worth, not the one in Houston) where there was a coin-operated copy machine and stood there feeding coins into the thing as we copied the entire manuscript page by page. We kept that, and the original Livia had typed was our submission copy.

Boy, did we submit it. I hauled out the ol' WRITERS MARKET book again and sent the manuscript to every publisher that did mysteries and some that didn't. Back it came, usually pretty quickly. Finally I sent the manuscript to Manor Books. I didn't know anything about them other than the fact that I'd seen a few of their books around and they were in New York, which was where all the real publishers were, right?

At the time we didn't have a mailbox at our house, so we got all our mail at the post office in the little town where we lived. Since I got manuscripts back in the proverbial SASEs pretty regularly, I didn't want them rolled up and stuffed into a small box, so we rented a drawer—P.O. Drawer C, our address for a number of years. A couple of weeks after sending the manuscript of TEXAS WIND to Manor, I opened the drawer at the post office one morning on my way to work, and there was a large manila envelope in it from Manor Books. I could tell right away that it wasn't the manuscript being returned. Could it be...could it actually be...a contract?

It was. An absolutely terrible contract that offered a pittance of an advance and was set up so that Manor wouldn't have to pay me royalties until hell not only froze over but stayed below freezing for a month. Nobody in his right mind would have signed such a contract.

But they were offering to publish my book! It would be an actual printed book that people could walk into a store and buy! I would be a published novelist!

Of course I signed the contract. That day. And it went back to New York in that afternoon's mail.

Financially, the deal worked out every bit as badly as you might expect. Clearly, the folks at Manor never had any intention of paying me anything, not even the pitiful advance they'd offered. But a year or so later I got a box of author copies, and seeing that book with its awful recycled cover and its pages printed on the cheapest paper possible is still one of the highlights of my life. It was my foot in the door, and more than 300 novels later I'm still at it. Would I have gone on to that career if my first novel had been about horny cheerleaders instead of a world-weary Texas private eye? We'll never know.


Bill Crider said...

I remember well when this happened. James and I had already been corresponding for a while, and we were elated when our first books were published at just about the same time. James got a must earlier start at writing than I did, so he was a lot younger at the time. One major difference in our first experiences as published novelists is that I got paid for my book, and fairly promptly, too. I later discovered that it was translated into many languages and sold all over the world, so I'm sure it remains my best-selling book. Not that I got any royalties. It was work for hire, flat fee. And James will remember what I spent that flat fee on. At that time a VCR was a high-ticket item, and it took almost my entire fee. I bought it from James's dad, and James delivered it to Brownwood and installed it for me. Good times, good times.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Great story. So glad you started with a book to be proud of.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Mr. Reasoner's first novel experience is an inspiring and goal-oriented story. To write more than 300 novels after that first novel is really something.

Charles Gramlich said...

Loved reading this. Wow. I well remember the excitement of my first story acceptance. My first novel came out at a very bad time for me emotionally and I scarcely remember it, and certainly not with pleasure. I think it was the publication of the Talera series that made me feel like you describe here.

James Reasoner said...

That VCR I delivered to Bill would record for 2 WHOLE HOURS, on a tape that cost almost 20 bucks. It had a wired remote, and it was so big and heavy it almost took two people to carry it. Looked almost like something you'd find in Mission Control at NASA.


Great story. Always enjoy reading about these defining moments ...

Bill Crider said...

I still have that first tape I recorded, James. THE GREAT RACE. Nothing to play it on, though.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Reading about the career starts of fellow writers is always fascinating. Usually it makes me realize how much easier my own start was: straight out of school and into an opening in a major London periodical publishing house to take up a role being vacated by Michael Moorcock, who headed for grander things than copy-editing. (If you want to know more, click across to Tom McNulty's blog this week and next.) What your story tells loudest and clearest, James, is that perseverance pays off.

Kathleen Rice Adams said...

James, you wrote porn?! My starry-eyed fan self just collapsed. ;-)

This really is an inspiring story. Even though your first-novel experience wasn't optimal, it gave you enough encouragement to write another 299. I've especially enjoyed your westerns, written individually and with Livia. I hope you write 300 more.

Frank Roderus said...


James Reasoner said...

Kathleen, I wrote whatever I thought I could get paid for back in those days. I'm like Larry, his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl from NEWHART -- anything for a dollar.

Jim Griffin said...

Worth it all, though, wasn't it?

James Reasoner said...

It certainly was. I never wanted to do anything else.

RJR said...

James, I got $400 per porn story and paid my mortgage with that check for a while.


Jacquie Rogers said...

What a path! I can just see you scribbling in between hauling TVs around. Good thing you can read your own handwriting. ☺ How many sex stories did you write at the shop?
I can see the tagline now: "Sex and detectives--coming soon from your local television emporium." I'm thinking your dad must have had a good sense of humor.

James Reasoner said...

You were selling to a more upscale market than I was. I think the most I ever got for a porn story was $250 from CAVALIER (which just a few years earlier was publishing a guy named Stephen King). Most of my stories sold for $100 - $125, some for as little as $50 or $60. I remember once getting a check out of the blue for $35 for a story of mine that was reprinted. We could buy almost a week's worth of groceries for that in those days, so I was glad to get it.

My dad knew I was writing, but he never really knew what I was writing in those days. He never took much interest in my work until I starting writing Western novels. I don't know how many porn stories I wrote. A couple dozen, maybe? But I eventually sold every one of them, as I recall. I was never a big-time pornographer, though.

Phyliss Miranda said...

This is so fascinating. Thank you for giving us glimpse into your world as a writer. Although I've only been in the business since 2001 it brought back memories, especially when I got my first contract. One daughter asked the other "What is Mother doing?" The other told her that she's just left the house and I was fondling my contract. I kept running my fingers or the book's name and my name for hours. I just couldn't believe it. And, my first cover I danced a tune! Such memories, thanks for bringing them back to me. Phyliss

ChuckTyrell said...

Wrote my first novel in 1979. Sent it to a Louis L'Amour writealike contest. Didn't win. Put MS in bottom drawer for 20 years and wrote advertising and corporate literature. Said book was published in 2005. Went to a writing conference in 2002 or so and showed another MS to an agent. The agent couldn't say enough bad things about the book. It won the Global Ebook Award in 2010. I still don't like agents. I still write advertising. I write annual reports. I write IR and CSR reports. I write lots of nonfiction magazine articles. And I write four or five novels a year. I've yet to have a NYT bestseller, but I keep trying. Like Robert B. Parker, I hope to die with pen in hand, at my desk, writing.