By Chester Campbell
A long-running thread on several lists for mystery writers is the old question of whether or not to try and find a literary agent. I’ve mentioned in several places that I had four agents back in the early days who sold nothing for me. After that, I went the small press route and got a three-book deal. With my last two books, I switched to a new publisher who comes under the category of a micro press.
It’s been nearly 20 years since my first book and first agent, and my memory was a bit hazy on the experience. So I dug back into my files and pulled out the one labeled “Beware the Jabberwock.” It was an enlightening experience. Strictly a neophyte at the time, I had little understanding of the publishing business except what I had picked up through Writer’s Digest and its Writer’s Market directory.
The first thing I noticed in going through the file was that the query letter didn’t correspond to what is currently recommended. My opening paragraph said:
“I am a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor and have served on active duty in the Air Force and in the Air Guard as an intelligence officer. I am now retired and devoting full time to writing.”
I then quoted Sen. Jim Sasser, who was chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, as telling a local audience the previous night that Mikhail Gorbachev had told him, “I believe everybody who wants to leave the Soviet Union ought to be allowed to leave.” Sasser also said the Soviet Union was “verging on significant social and political instability” and its leaders “have absolutely no idea” how to shift to a market economy.
I then stated that those views tied in with the plot of my new suspense novel, which I proceeded to outline up to the last paragraph on page two, which concluded, “I am enclosing three sample chapters that introduce the plot and two of the main characters. The novel runs about 130,000 words. Please let me know if you would like to see the full manuscript.”
An associate handled the manuscript, and over the next few months he sent me interesting replies from several editors. Up to a point, I really enjoyed the first one, from Eamon Dolan at Harper-Collins.
“As discussed, I’m returning this manuscript to you. I simply can’t get over the timeliness of this book (I suppose I should say its prescience, given that it was written before the coup) and Mr. Campbell’s deep understanding of the American and Soviet systems is impressive. But this book’s writing and its characterizations seem very much in the traditions of the thriller genre. That’s hardly a bad thing, of course, but Harper, with its fledgling thriller line, looks specifically for books whose style and characterization are quite different from the genre as a whole.
“Thanks for letting me see BEWARE THE JABBERWOCK. I enjoyed it and I’m sorry I couldn’t quite see it for the Harper list.”
Then came this rejection from Natalee Rosenstein, Senior Editor at The Berkley Publishing Group:
“It is a very well written thriller, but this genre is just too hard to sell in mass market at the moment. Maybe this would work well in hardcover.”
Liza Dawson, Senior Editor at William Morrow, wrote:
“While Campbell’s scenario was creepily plausible and nicely audacious, this book did not seem quite as fast-paced and compelling as a thriller of this type should be. Also, given the speed with which global politics are changing these days, I’m reluctant to take on a thriller this topical—for fear that it would already be out of date by the time it sees print.”
Finally, this one from James G. Moser, Senior Editor for Grove Weidenfeld:
“As I mentioned yesterday, this isn’t the kind of novel we usually publish at Grove. It’s a competent and entertaining piece of work, however, and I wish you luck with it.”
The agent’s associate left after this one, and she decided to concentrate on non-fiction, leaving me dangling in the wind. What I found most interesting about this situation is that on re-reading the manuscript, which was lauded by all the editors, I found I had repeatedly violated many of the taboos I have since learned to avoid. Things like changing POVs within a scene (I think it was pretty clear whose head I was in, however) and using various dialogue attributions other than said and asked.
Granted, a lot of that could have been changed in the editing process had the book sold, but comments like “very well written” and “a competent and entertaining piece of work” left the impression that the editors were not put off by what seems currently unacceptable.
I continued to write topical thrillers that met the same fate in a market as tough as the present one. I’m wondering now, however, if Beware the Jabberwock might be resurrected as a near-historical thriller? It takes place in 1990. And I’ll always wonder what might have happened to my career if one of those editors had taken a chance and published that new 65-year-old author?