Once more, unto the breach…

In retrospect, I should have known something was wrong–but when you’re an unpublished writer, you have lots of hope and not much else. It’s only later, after you’ve been kicked through the ropes a couple of times, that you develop a literary “spider sense” that tells you when you’re being gladhandled. Until that happens, you’re shark bait and you don’t even know it.

First clue? Rejection slips.

Yes, rejection slips. That most dreaded (and most often collected) souvenir of the aspiring novelist. While they admittedly suck, they do perform a few valuable functions. First off, they’re a pretty good gauge of how your work is developing. If you’re getting form letters of the “Dear Author” variety, chances are pretty good that the editor in question got a chapter or two into your book and didn’t go any further–a strong hint that you need to seriously work on your craft. If, however, you get a more personal note with an attached critique–anything that suggests a human being actually read your book–that’s a real sign of progress. Most editors work inhuman schedules, and aren’t likely to waste time on a manuscript that doesn’t grab their interest on some level. It’s still a rejection, but at least they think you have potential. Plus you’ve just made a valuable contact who might be willing to read your next book when the time comes.

Secondly, rejection slips tell you that your work is getting out there. If you’re representing yourself, this isn’t a big deal, since you’re the one making the calls and sending out the manuscripts; if you have an agent, however, this part is essential. Through painful experience, I’ve found that it’s far better to have no agent at all than an agent who is less than excited about your work. Read on, and you’ll see why.

When it was obvious that The Trinity Project wasn’t going to sell, my agent at the time suggested that I start working on something else. I was way ahead of her, having outlined and started a new novel called Executive Privilege–another tech-heavy thriller, this time dealing with a foreign service officer who is accused of murdering an Israeli diplomat he once had an affair with. It was filled with spies, counterspies, the CIA and a good dose of police procedural–pretty cool stuff, or so I thought. When I finished, I sent it off to my agent and thought she might share it with some of the editors who had kind words for my previous novel. After all, their rejection letters had some nice praise for my writing style, and seemed very encouraging.

A few months passed by, during which I didn’t hear all that much–no surprise, given the pace of the publishing business. I checked in with my agent a couple of times, wondering how things were going, who was reading the manuscript, that sort of thing. Her responses were a bit short on specifics, usually in the ballpark of, “Oh, it’s with three or four houses right now. I’ll give you a call when I hear something.” All that sounded pretty fair–but after about six more months, I started getting antsy. Still no news. More importantly, still no rejection slips. I figured if things were taking this long, somebody must have turned it down–but I got zilch.

It was pretty tough facing the truth, but I concluded that my agent wasn’t doing much with Executive Privilege. I began to wonder if she had sent it out at all. I hated to think that way, because she had done some admirable work with my last book. Maybe she just thought she was doing me a favor by not dumping me as a client. Of course, that was the worst thing she could do, as neither one of us were getting anything out of the relationship.

I discreetly sent out a few queries to other agencies, and found one who wanted to take a look at the book. At that point, I called my agent and told her I wanted to terminate our contract. Even if the new guy turned me down (which he eventually did), I didn’t have much to lose anyway. Maybe my agent had been waiting for me to make the first move, because she agreed to the split without any argument. We parted ways, and I was on my own yet again.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. I was back in charge of my own destiny, and now I was armed with a list of names–editors who had read and liked Trinity, and who might be receptive to another query. I soon discovered that one of them–a guy named Todd Keithley–had left his job at Dutton to become a literary agent himself, so that seemed like a good place to start. He remembered who I was and agreed to read my new manuscript. Two weeks later he sent it back, saying that it wasn’t for him, but asked if I had anything else he might like.

I did. It was an idea for a contemporary science-fiction novel, though I had nothing on paper yet. Just a once-sentence pitch: “An FBI agent who profiles psychopathic computers instead of people.” Todd loved the idea, but thought I should set the story in a far-off future instead. I agreed, and proceeded to draft a story outline. The working title was Terminal Space.

A name I eventually changed to HAMMERJACK.