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.