Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I remember as a boy reading a gripping account of the 1956 collision of two passenger ships off the coast of Nantucket, the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm. The book, Collision Course, was a best-seller, and deservedly so.

The author, Alvin Moscow, told his tale in a straight-ahead journalistic style (he was a former New York Times and AP reporter), shifting from ship to ship, bridge to bridge, explaining the fateful decisions, or nondecisions, that led up to the disaster.*

(* In doing so, Moscow was likely following the blueprint of Walter Lord’s best-selling Night to Remember, which details a more famous maritime collision, between the RMS Titanic and a Newfoundland iceberg. Night was published just a year before the Andrea Doria-Stockholm tragedy.)

Ever after, the phrase “Collision Course” was mated in my mind with Alvin Moscow’s riveting tale.

Flash forward many years. I was wandering the bookstalls of London’s Heathrow Airport looking for a paperback to help pass the 11 airborne hours from London to Los Angeles. I settled on a Jack Higgins thriller titled Solo about a concert pianist who moonlighted as a contract assassin. Seriously.

The choice was good. The pages turned in tandem with the great globe below, and Higgins’ climactic finale arrived just as we dropped into the LAX glide path.

What made Solo such sure-fire fun for me was the fact (obvious from chapter two) that Higgins had crafted a classic collision course story. Chapter one introduced the lethal virtuoso. Chapter two brought on a special forces bloke charged with hunting him down. Hero and antihero, both top-drawer assassins. And, as simple as that, the “game was afoot,” as Holmes would say. In reading terms, the hook was set and I was happily being played by an old pro.

Of course I’d read, and watched, the collision course formula applied a thousand times before, on TV, in movies and stories. Holmes vs. Moriarty, Superman vs. Lex Luthor, Captain Marvel vs. Dr. Sivana, Batman vs. the Joker, North vs. South, Cavalry vs. Indians. And in a thousand action movies—boxing, samurai, spy vs. spy, even understudy vs. leading lady. Always the formula worked, but it never coalesced in my mind as a story structure until Higgins’ Solo. When it did, it turned on a lightbulb thought: “I want to write one of these!”

Reading The Virginian several years later sharpened that resolve.

Owen Wister, an Easterner and Harvard classmate of Teddy Roosevelt, is generally credited with creating the western novel—and the iconic western hero. His “Virginian” (played by Gary Cooper in the 1929 film) was the fully fleshed prototype of all those rangy, rough-hewn paragons later enshrined in the works of genre masters like Zane Grey, Max Brand, Luke Short, Ernest Haycox and Louis L’Amour.
More to my point, Wister’s 1902 novel also contained a series of recurring and escalating duels between hero and antagonist—the Virginian and Trampas—each time with higher stakes until the final showdown, which marshaled all the signature elements of High Noon.

A collision course story, The Virginian, if ever there was one.

My turn at bat came years later, after a surprising run of good reviews for my first novel, Lair of the Fox. Publishers were suddenly interested in me. What was my next book? they wondered.

I didn’t have one. So I thought of Higgins and Wister. Why not update that plot, two guys on a Cold War collision course? White hat vs. black hat. Better yet, have them switch hats, defect to each other’s country. Cossack vs. Cowboy. Pitted against one another in a series of escalating showdowns, each time with different weaponry, all laid out in easy-to-follow symmetry, chapter by chapter.

A plot came together swiftly in my mind, set against a high-stakes political backdrop. I wrote a 10-page synopsis, followed by a 10-page sample chapter, and shot it off to my impatient agent.

That brief proposal, which would eventually culminate in DUEL OF ASSASSINS, was (and still is) the single most lucrative piece of writing I have ever produced. Those 20 pages landed me a two-book contract that exceeded even my fantasies. (Reverses of fortune in my writing career were lurking not far down the road, but that’s another story.)

I had the idea, I had the contract. I only had to write the book. Not a small matter. So I set to work. Well, not really. I quit my job and set off on a research trip.

But eventually it got written. More than a year later, I was able to hand an advance reading copy to a colleague, best-selling mystery writer T. Jefferson Parker (see my blog post, “A Good Writer Who Keeps Getting Better”) and ask him if he’d be willing to read it and maybe give me a quote.

“Tell me one thing,” Jeff said, staring at my title, Duel of Assassins, “does it contain an actual duel?”

“Yes,” I was able to answer, “with fencing masks and sabers, and described play-by-play from en garde to touché.”

Jeff’s generous quote appears on the cover of the current ebook edition, just out on Kindle. To read it, and all the many words that follow inside, I invite you to click on this Duel of Assassins link and give it a download.

Friday, April 4, 2014


Side by side--in my dreams!

We’ve all heard stories about how celebrated best-sellers were repeatedly rejected before achieving their ultimate success and bringing untold pleasure to millions of readers.

The list of distinguished authors who struggled past initial rejections is surprisingly long. It contains legendary names like John Grisham, John D. MacDonald, Vince Flynn, Louis L’Amour, Tony Hillerman, Zane Grey, even J.K. Rowling—and a whole lot more.

A textbook case is that of Stephen King. His first novel, CARRIE, about a tormented girl with telekinetic powers, racked up 30 rejections; whereupon its disheartened creator tossed it in the trashbin. Only to have his wife fish it out and prevail on him to send it around again.

Shows you the value of a “Yes, dear” marriage.

These turnaround tales offer frustrated writers more than consolation; they are endlessly inspiring. They tempt us to construct a syllogism along these lines:

Many best-selling books were repeatedly rejected. My book has been repeatedly rejected. Ergo, my book will be a best seller.

Alas, 99.99% of repeatedly rejected manuscripts do not become best-sellers. (But maybe if they’d been submitted just one more time…)

Like CARRIE, my first book, LAIR OF THE FOX, was repeatedly rejected, yet ultimately—after I‘d abandoned all hope—was published. Alas, its sales trajectory and my writing career did not continue to parallel CARRIE’s and Mr. King’s. Not hardly.

And yet there are some additional and interesting parallels in the publication stories of LAIR and CARRIE.

I started my writing career with at least one advantage over the schoolteacher from Maine. When I began plotting and writing LAIR, I was working on the copydesk of the L.A. Times Syndicate, under a managing editor who had worked for some years as a successful book editor with a mainstream New York publishing house.

With some hesitancy, my boss agreed to look over my synopsis and three chapters—the accepted formula at the time for any book submission. It took several weeks, and a few followup nudges from me, to get her actually to open up the manila envelope I’d given her and read through my proposal, but in the end she was enthusiastic and agreed to send it, along with a cover letter, to a prominent New York agent.

This woman, head of her own agency, sent me an encouraging note several weeks later. I felt like Sally Field at the Oscars. Two savvy women in the book biz liked my novel—they really did! The New York agent even invited me to meet her for breakfast on her next West Coast swing at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

At that meeting, she gave me some good suggestions; I nodded my head vigorously at each one. “I can sell this,” she said, “but three chapters won’t do it. How soon can you give me 100 pages?” A month? Two months? I can’t recall what number I came up with. But, writing furiously before and after work and on weekends, I met the deadline.

Then I waited for the magic phone call.

What I got instead—every few days, it seemed—were No. 10 envelopes from my New York agent, each containing one or more Xeroxed rejection letters from big-time editors at big-time publishing houses. Not form rejection letters, mind you, but friendly notes to my agent, politely dismissing my book—for a puzzling variety of reasons.

How many major publishing houses were left? I wondered.

Then—hallelujah!—I got a Xeroxed letter from a publisher with an enthusiastic cover note from my agent. An executive editor at New American Library—a highly respected guy, she wrote—was willing to consider buying LAIR if the author would make a certain story change—a pretty major change, with drastic ramifications affecting the rest of the downstream plot.

I telephoned her back and said yes. What the hell else could I say?

Then I set to work. Reconstructing my intricate plot proved even trickier than I’d imagined. The new structure kept collapsing. But, of course, it had to work. After several agonizing weeks I managed to cobble together a new synopsis and send it off to my agent, who forwarded it to the interested editor.

For days and days I didn’t hear a thing. Finally I called to check. “You took too long,” my agent admonished me. “He’s no longer at NAL, and his replacement isn’t interested.”

When the power of coherent speech returned to me, I asked her if she was going to continue to send it out to other publishers. Sure, she said, but added that there weren’t that many left on her list.

A few weeks and several rejection slips later my New York agent phoned to say that she was truly sorry, but she’d given it her best shot and there was nowhere else she could send LAIR.

“Write me something else,” she said.

So, just like Stephen King, weary of seeing his beloved CARRIE turn up in his mailbox yet again, I set LAIR OF THE FOX aside. Stuffed into a filebox, not the trashbin, but it amounted to the same thing—a quick burial without ceremony. Despair congealed around me like a straitjacket, but within a week I began plotting a new story. “Something completely different,” as Monty Python used to say.

Clearly I needed a new approach, a new voice, maybe a new niche. But my wife, like Stephen King’s, hadn’t given up on my firstborn. And she had an idea.

An interesting thing happened in book publishing just about then. The first in a brand-new genre, the “techno-thriller,” Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, suddenly shot to the top of the best-seller lists. The book bore an unlikely imprimatur—the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md. HUNT, it turned out, had been roundly rejected by all the mainstream New York houses before finding its modest home.

Why not, my wife asked, send LAIR OF THE ROX to the Naval Institute Press? And if that doesn’t work, what about other second- and third-tier publishers, university presses, and so on? What have you got to lose?

Of course, she was right. When isn’t she? So I wrote my New York agent and politely inquired—since she’d run out of places to submit LAIR—if she’d mind if I tried to agent it myself. Starting with the Naval Institute Press.

Two weeks passed without response. Okay, I thought, so I’m chopped liver, I’ll just go ahead on my own. Finally she called me—to tell me she’d just sold the book.

“It's not a major publisher,” she cautioned, “and not a big advance.”

I didn’t care to whom or for how much, I’d finally sold a book! Well, she had, but it was my dream that had just come true at last! Thanks to my wife’s advice, which had apparently prodded my agent into flipping beyond her favorite section of her Rolodex.

At that point I was scribbling the details—a small independent New York publisher, Walker & Co., was offering $2,500 for LAIR. Would I take it? Yes, I would.

Walker was giving me six months to finish it—remember, I’d written only 100 pages. No problem, I told the agent. The rest would be easy. After several days of celebrating and telling the good news to everyone I could think of, I set to work.

I’m a slow writer. Sometimes really slow—a fact that had already cost me the NAL sale. Knowing that, my wife began measuring my daily output against my six-month deadline. “You’ll never make it,” she concluded. “Not even close. You need to ask for a leave of absence.”

She showed me the math, and I saw she was right (what else is new?). I went to my editorial bosses and begged; they understood what a big deal it was, bless them, and a three-month leave was arranged. Even then, working full time—and double time the last few weeks—I barely made it, rushing down to Fed-Ex on the final afternoon.

My editor was enthusiastic. He loved my writing, he said. There was only one slight problem. The manuscript was too long. It turned out that Walker & Co., after careful calculations of their manufacturing costs against pricing structure, was forced to limit all their books to no more than 80,000 words.

LAIR OF THE FOX weighed in at 120,000. So 40,000 of those words had to be removed.

I was stunned, but my editor was treating this as no big deal. “If you like,” he said in a helpful vein, “I can take care of it. I think I can find a couple chapters you could do without.”

“No, please, don’t do that!” I protested. “I’ll do it. Just give me a week or two.”

So I went through my precious, polished, perfect manuscript again—line by line and word by word—with a predatory eye and a No. 2 draughting pencil. (For hints about how best to do this, check out my blog post on Kipling’s “Higher Editing.”) The first pass didn’t come close; radical surgery was needed. The second time through I became reckless. Sentences vanished, then entire paragraphs; long scenes turned into vignettes. I stopped just short of excising whole chapters, as my editor had so blithely proposed.

When I got to the magic number of 80,000 words, I Fed-Exed LAIR OF THE FOX-lite off to my editor. “I couldn’t have done it better!” he generously conceded.

More importantly, he thought the book was the better for the reductive process. He was right. Rereading LAIR today, I don’t miss any of those well-chosen words that aren’t there anymore.

Now it was time to start marketing efforts, because my little publisher didn’t have any budget for this, it turned out. Walker & Co. sold mostly to public libraries.

So I crafted letters to various thriller writers I admired, hoping to charm at least one of them into reading, and favorably commenting on, an advance reading copy or galley proof, when they became available.

These were purely shot-in-the-dark letters, addressed to famous names in care of their publishers. But two of these celebrity authors—Clive Cussler and the late Ross Thomas—eventually wrote back and said they’d be happy to look at a galley. Cussler gave me his address in Colorado, Thomas in Malibu.

Weeks later, after I’d sent them copies of the first galleys, both these generous gentlemen responded with timely endorsements which I use to this day.

My editor was impressed with this, but told me that reviews were far more important than author blurbs. “Keep your fingers crossed,” he said after the review copies went out.

I’d be lucky if LAIR OF THE FOX got reviewed at all, I thought. Why would Publishers Weekly, the New York Times, the L.A. Times et al., bother with a title from little Walker & Co.?

But they did. Not only that, they actually liked it—that Sally Field thing again. Publishers Weekly gave LAIR a starred review and pronounced it a “classic can't-put-it-down thriller.” The N.Y. Times and the L.A. Times provided similar superlatives. Only Kirkus was snotty—“they always are,” I was told. “Nobody pays attention.”

LAIR OF THE FOX was starting to look like a contender.

Good news continued. Not long after the hard cover was published (if you could find it), reprint rights were sold to HarperCollins for its brand-new paperback line. It wasn’t a financial bonanza, but several times what Walker had paid for the hard cover, and I was now under the aegis of a prestige publisher.

As an “added bonus,” in the tautology of the infomercial, the editor who bought my book at Harper was the same guy who had turned it down when he was editor-in-chief at another publishing house. I had a copy of his earlier rejection letter and the original of his new congratulatory letter to prove it!

“But wait, there’s more” (another infomercial refrain). A month or so later the agent sold my second “book”—this time only a 10-page synopsis and a brief opening chapter—to another major publisher, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.

This sale was a bonanza, at least in my world. “Are you sitting down?” the agent said over the phone, preparing me for her bombshell news. When I said I was, I heard those magic words I’d dreamed of for so many years:

“You can quit your job!”

Dizzy-making details followed, all about the hard-soft contract and schedule of payouts. And there was one final coincidence—the Pocket Books’ editor I’d be working with on the new book was the same guy who demanded I change the LAIR OF THE FOX plot back when he’d been at New American Library.

There aren’t many days like that, no matter what your profession. Considerable detours and reverses were lurking farther down my writing career path—remember, this is my story, not Stephen King’s or any of those other famous names’—but I’ll leave the dreary negative stuff for another post. The good news is that I did quit my job, and not long afterward my wife and I set off for a research trip to Europe and even splurged a bit.

Moral? One, for sure, is: Marry well—and listen to your spouse.

Postscript: Thanks to the digital publishing revolution, LAIR OF THE FOX and my other titles are now enjoying a second launching and are starting to build the kind of readership that I always hoped for. The last chapter has not been written.