I got an e mail yesterday asking me if I'd ever had trouble with an agent. I said that in almost thirty years I'd had trouble only once. I've had five agents and they've all done well for me with the usual ups and downs. The one exception was the agent who almost was. This is an archive post.
THE AGENT FROM HELL
April 07, 2004
Last night I talked a little about my early days as a writer. While I'd sold a good number of cheesy stories to low-scale men's magazines, and an equal number of unmemorable stories to low-scale literary magazines, I could never finish a novel. Here I was approaching my fortieth birthday with maybe (and I don't exaggerate) fifty unfinished novels. I usually gave up around chapter four or five.
Then I met Max Allan Collins, not only a pro but an important one. He let me read his books in manuscript and it helped me see that writing novels was not the result of magical spurts but rather the result of writing two or three or four pages a day, just the way I did with my short stories. Al (Max) gave me two pieces of advice that I still honor. Look at each chapter as a short story. And never look back until you've finished your first draft. Thus encouraged, I wrote and finished my first novel, ROUGH CUT (Al even gave me the title).
Al liked the novel, suggested some revisions, and offered to help me find an agent. The latter proved impossible. Nobody wanted to handle me. One agent said, "Your hero is more psychotic than your villain." And in retrospect, he was right. A deeply disturbed guy, my hero.
My novel sat on my desk for a couple of months until one day I read about this "hot" new agent who'd had a lot of success with first novels.
I wrote him a pitch letter, he asked to see the book. Then he called to say that he liked it. But. He liked it but he didn't know if he wanted to take it on because the voice reminded him of Dick Francis and he hated Dick Francis' books. At that time I'd never read a single sentence by Dick Francis. The agent asked if he could hold on to my book and think it over. I was encouraged, even though I thought his routine about Dick Francis rather odd.
He turned out to be the Hamlet of agents. For three straight months, sometimes twice a month, he'd call and go through this dramatic monologue of what he liked about my book--a very humble first mystery, truly--and what he disliked about my book. Once I said to him that I'd finally read a Dick Francis novel and liked it quite a bit--nothing profound but the guy was slick, fast and surprisingly dark; and he hated rich people as much I do--but that I couldn't see any similiarity between us. He said to please give him a few more weeks.
He called one day when I was in a black mood and I told him to forget it, no more Hamlet, no more Dick Francis, send the fucker back post haste. He seemed genuinely shocked by my anger.
I next sent the book to St. Martin's next where a very young assistant editor--one who would have one of the fastest rises in the publishing history--read it in slush and liked it enough to pitch it at the editorial meeting. This was only his second such pitch. He was, I imagine, nervous. It took him several tries, as I recall, but he finally got the job done.
Book appears, most of the reviews are good. I set about writing a second novel so self-indulgent that it almost ended my career. My editor gently suggested that I put it in a drawer and "think about it for awhile." I immediately set to work on a more straightforward mystery.
One Sunday I got an especially nice review in "Newsday" (I think it was) and my editor called to tell me about it. Then a little later I'm working away and the phone rings. I pick it up and it's Hamlet. He congratulates me on the review and tells me (I'm not making this up) that I owe him 10% of the advance and that he expects to handle my next novel. He claimed to have spent a lot of time on my book. In a rather loud voice I told him what I thought of him and then slammed the phone down.
This has been a True Agent Horror Story. I spent a long Sunday afternoon with four agents in a posh Chicago Loop restaurant a few years ago. They all got pretty sloshed and guess what? They spent a couple hours regaling me with True Author Horror Stories. Believe it or not, they have even more stories about us than we do about them. And they're all true, too.