The scrupulous Scotsman said he was never overwhelmed by a writing project . “If that happens, you’re in deep trouble. It’s tough, sure, but if you’re a real pro, you develop a story sense, and know your limitations. Build up that which you know, skim over the difficult, or possibly the impossible. It takes a neat balancing act.”
The days of bestsellers coming forth from unknown writers in slush piles is about as extinct as the do-do bird, he said. “Where, or where, does a fledgling gain access to an editor with a first book? Most top houses only take [manuscripts] from established writers, or from reputable agents. I’m afraid that publishing is such big business that most editors don’t have time for writers unless they are MacDonalds, Stones, or Micheners.”
Shirreffs told aspiring writers to “learn the English language. That one sentence can stop more young writers than anything else. Some of them don’t want to bother with the one prime tool they can’t function without. It might be like a Grand Prix aspirant wanting to race, but doesn’t want to bother learning to drive. There are no formulas. Pick out the writers you like best and study their style. I studied Kenneth Roberts, James Warner Bellah, C.S. Forester, Ernest Haycox and others.
“Don’t attempt anything too big,” he warned. “Some of the best writers of westerns were fortunate enough to learn in the pulps—speed, description, paucity of words, clean, sharp prose. Start small and write a lot. It takes time to learn the technical aspects, but don’t let them get in the way of the story. It ain’t easy, but in time, one learns how.”
A full-time professional writer is a rare bird, he said. It takes years before he or she can expect any real remuneration. Writers, like actors, battle fierce competition in a declining job market. Shirreffs would not have advised anyone to get into the western genre unless they have other means of income.
“An analysis of the western market today, as compared to twenty years ago, will show a vast decrease in outlets. ” The narrowed field of westerns was caused by a 90% decrease in publishing outlets, he said in 1985. “I don’t think I’d want to attempt the western market if I were starting out today. There is not enough demand and too few publishers. Rates of pay have hardly changed in twenty years or more, and many western editors are now women—and I believe in equal rights—but many of them are graduates of Eastern colleges who are handed the lowest category on the scale—the western—to earn their spurs.”
Shirreff’s fourth novel in his Southwestern series, The Ghost Dancers, was his seventy-ninth book. His wife thought it should be his last, but his agent and editor disagreed. “Gordy” was caught in the middle. “In any case, writers are like artists, actors, and professional athletes. One just can’t quit. I look at my writing room and view the backs of books filled with ideas for stories, filing cabinets crammed with notes, thoughts, germinal ideas, and I think, ‘My God, someone has to take advantage of all this Lost Dutchman’s Mine of information.”
Although he decided to retire from writing after each of his last books, Gordon Shirreffs probably met his maker while pounding his computer, “like my mother,” he said, “with a smile and a joke. And if Saint Peter asks me, ‘Why are you here, little man?’ I will say quietly, ‘I wrote Now He is Legend and The Untamed Breed.’ He just might let me in.”