The Harsh Reality of Snagging a Literary Agent in the Year 2020
I am writing this blog to summarize my recent experience trying to find a literary agent to market my latest thriller, Retribution Times Two. To provide perspective, I offer some background. After a career as a research scientist for the Navy, I changed professions, pursuing my dream of writing fiction. Initially, I spent five years penning short stories to learn the craft. Emboldened, I next wrote a trilogy of thrillers that I self-published. As self-published books go, they were moderately successful. I next tried historical fiction, with a novel that revolves around the Japanese internment of World War II. For this book, I found a traditional publisher, Cedar Fort, who treated me well. All four novels received minor awards.
Fast forward to October 2020. After a three-year effort, I completed the sequel to my thriller trilogy; it’s called Retribution Times Two. My elevator pitch: What if the United States fell victim to two simultaneous terrorist attacks? Two individuals who will never meet in space, by chance cross paths in time—and bring the planet to the edge of oblivion.
As previously for the trilogy, I went in search of a literary agent. (Thrillers are not a Cedar Fort priority.) I knew the drill because I had been through this process with each of my thrillers years earlier. Starting this past July and finishing in October, I queried 164 literary agents, ones who had indicated an interest in the thriller genre. Each received a formal, one-page letter. As of this writing, I’ve heard back from less than a third; NOT ONE has asked to read the entire manuscript. As you may be aware, most agents request a synopsis and a chapter or two to decide whether to request more.
So! What’s going on? From my side, I considered two possibilities. One is that I had written a poor query letter. I doubt that because, over the years, I’ve had a lot of practice; besides, several agents complimented me in that regard. A better reason would be that I had written a lousy book and, without thinking, had foolishly positioned the worst chapters at the beginning. However, there is reason to believe that wasn’t the case either.
For this book I decided to hire a professional fiction editor, someone who delves into the book’s innards to make sure the story works. Long story short, I stumbled across a story editor by the name of Bill Thompson. As you’d expect, Mr. Thompson provided many good suggestions to improve the story line. However, he also said the following and gave me permission to quote his words: “Retribution Times Two is terrific. I read the script watching for problems in characterization, dialogue, plot developments, pacing. I didn’t find any, which may be a first for billthompsonediting. I was absorbed in the story from start to finish.” Why, you ask, was I jumping up and down when I read this compliment? Because Bill Thompson was the editor who jumpstarted the careers of Stephen King and John Grisham.
So here I am. I know that my novel is worthy of at least a read by an agent. But what I have learned is apparently no secret. Mr. Thompson (and others) tell me that today’s publishing world is far different from that of yesteryear. These days, publishers seem to be especially interested in making quick money, with either proven authors of fiction, or perhaps from someone who, let’s say, has a famous relative. Alternately, if you have finally decided to expose your secret affair with Osama bin Laden, there is a good chance you will find an agent to represent you.
It therefore seems that, for the above reasons, literary agents choose not to push manuscripts for which they know publishers consider the odds of creating a blockbuster to be low. For authors who have not already achieved significant success, it is a sad—and discouraging—situation indeed.
Stories From My Life, #14: How the pop star Tony Orlando played a part in snagging my wife, Becky
I met Becky in early 1983. I was thirty-seven years old at the time, and my parents were convinced that I would never marry. As the months passed, I realized that my chances of ever again finding another female as beautiful and smart as she were tiny indeed. Add to that the fact that she had the stamina to tolerate the antics of a classic Virgo (all ducks in a row, that sort of thing) was noteworthy. And so, I started to make plans. Somehow, I needed to trick her into thinking that I was worthy of consideration as a long-term mate.
Fast forward to the fall of 1983 when I decided to impress her by taking her to Lake Tahoe for a weekend, to see some live stage shows. One that was playing at Harrah’s was Tony Orlando. Many of you will remember Tony Orlando and Dawn and their 1970’s hits, including “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” and “Knock Three Times.”
Determined to demonstrate that I was someone who could get things done, I made sure that Becky saw me slip the maître d’ a bank note of significant size, accompanied by my whispered comment: “Any chance of getting a better seat somewhere near the front?” I expected a better seat, but was surprised indeed when he marched us up to the very front tables. So far, so good!
Before the show began, we had the usual drinks served at the table. Soon the show began. Not long into the show, Tony began perspiring, took off his jacket, and threw it back to the band leader. Becky and I were having a good time, particularly being so close to the stage. And then it happened! Tony asked for someone from the audience to join him on stage. After making a show of looking around, his eyes found mine, and he motioned for me to come on stage. My mother raised no dummies; I was keen to the opening I was being presented: Here was my chance to impress the hell out of one Rebecca Ann Tolbert.
I arrived on stage, and Tony explained that he wanted me to help him out, but that I needed to be more relaxed and casual. I was wearing a jacket and tie (common back then). In one smooth motion I took off my jacket and hurled it directly to the band leader standing to the rear, just as Tony had done earlier. When the audience started whooping it up, I knew then that I had them where I wanted them. Tony then mentioned my tie. I took it off, balled it up, and flung it into the audience. By then, the audience was howling and thought that I was a plant.
The rest of my appearance involved leading a song that had me alternately leading the left and right sides of the audience. That went well. Because there was music involved, I proceeded to dance and displayed a fancy slide step I had developed years earlier. Tony seemed particularly impressed with that and tried in vain to duplicate my move. The excitement ended with me returning to my seat where Becky and I shared (with others at our table) a bottle of champagne that I had earned for my hard work.
Addendum Number One: As Becky and I left the table, we were presented with the picture you see above. I asked the photographer (Barb) if she would please ask Tony to sign it. She did, he did, and you see his written words.
Addendum Number Two: Becky and I were amazed at the number of people who afterwards came up to us and wanted pictures. A twenty minutes of fame kind of thing. The most common question: Was I part of the show (see Addendum Number Three)?
Addendum Number Three: To this day, Becky has no idea how much of that evening had been planned ahead of time and how much was pure coincidence.
Stories from My Life, #13: A Tribute to my Stepbrother, Bud Lancaster
We remember things differently, you and I. What stands out to one person from the distant past means nothing to another. This is often true for siblings. And so it happens that one will say to the other, “Don’t you remember when Dad did this or Dad did that?” “No,” the other says. “But surely you remember this.”
And so it is with my stepbrother, Bud Lancaster, who passed away about a week ago. I won’t embellish the accolades that family and friends have given him. They’ve emphasized how he was patriotic, how he and his wife, Therese, raised three wonderful daughters, and how much fun he was to be around. All of these statements are true.
To understand what it is that I remember about Bud, and to set the stage, I need to take you back some sixty-two years, to 1958 (I was thirteen). That was when my mother, Ottilie, remarried. She became Ottilie Tag, and her new husband, Herbert Tag, adopted me. He was my new father.
During one Christmas period around that time, I remember Dad putting together a package that he was mailing to California. I don’t remember when it was that I figured out that he had a son from a previous marriage to whom he was mailing presents. That son was Bud Lancaster.
Let’s now move ahead in time another two decades. In the late 1970’s, Bud made the decision to reach out to his original father and, in so doing, he met me. Coincidentally, through circumstances tied to my job, I moved to California in 1972. I lived just a two hours’ drive from Bud and Therese, who lived near San Francisco at the time. That marked the beginning of a friendship between me and the Lancaster family, which then evolved to include Becky (we married in August of 1984). That relationship continues to this day.
What happened shortly after Becky and I married is the point of this story. In December of 1984, Mom and Dad went for a vacation in Hawaii. As fate would have it, only a couple days into their vacation, it happened: Dad had a significant heart attack. He would not be going home anytime soon.
While Becky and I were coming to grips with the situation, Bud took immediate charge. My recollection tells me that he was on an airplane to Hawaii the next day. Long story short, he found an apartment for them, where they stayed for about a month before Dad was allowed to fly. Bud did not leave until he made sure that everything was in order and that Mom and Dad’s needs were taken care of. I arrived a week or so later.
Over the history of time, few will recall what happened back then. But to the people involved, it was a significant and thoughtful contribution. I am proud to remember Bud Lancaster as the unselfish person who knew what to do and made things right in that singular moment. I thank him, Therese, and his three daughters, Jenny, Kelly, and Andrea, for allowing me to become a part of such a generous and kind family. And knowing Bud and Therese as well as I do, I can report that the apples have not fallen far from the tree.
Ode to the Coronavirus
They call it coronavirus, a genetic aberration, a mutation damnation, an intimidation plaguing the world’s civilization. How long will this devastation affect each nation, halting transportation, mandating segregation and stay-at-home habitation? It came from the East, its birthplace origination, a gestation foundation seeking personal validation and world domination. It spread in every direction,… View Article
Stories from My Life, #12: My Uncle Gus, Killed in North Africa in 1943
Every year when Veteran’s Day rolls around, I think of my Uncle Gus Kern, who died in World War II. Over the years, the details that I heard were minimal: that he was killed in Tunisia, in North Africa, somehow involving military tanks. Also, that he was awarded a Silver Star medal for bravery. On… View Article
Rebecca’s High School Reunion: Reflections from a Spouse
My wife—AKA Becky—went to her high school reunion: rah-rah! to which she invited me, avoiding hints of complicity. (ha ha) To Kansas City on Southwest Airlines, via Las Vegas on the way, we eventually arrived in Emporia, Kansas, all on the same day. I learned that Becky’s school was not of the ordinary, but a… View Article
Class of ’63 High School Reunion
I attended my high school reunion, it happened last week: we’d graduated fifty-five years earlier, an amazing streak. It was good to see friends from a lifetime long past, when times were much simpler, and life wasn’t so fast. I saw friends, I saw girls whom I’d loved from afar, I saw those who’d been… View Article
The Heaven We Ignore
I’ve made an acquaintance named Jayne—not her real name— who’s seen troubles a plenty, that have set her life aflame. She struggles to stay on course, to fashion a stable life, but the curse of depression dangles over, a Damocles’ knife. That’s not to say there have not been good times as well; there have… View Article
At five years, petite and slender, she saw something more; she wondered, searched her brain for not having seen it before. Her cousins, her family, they must have known her history, so why had they said nothing, to help solve this mystery? Within seconds, she confronted her parents headstrong, who promptly confessed that they’d… View Article
Living Inside His Head
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania January 15, 2018 The sight gave Max pause: two men in black clothing plodding toward him in a dark parking lot at two in the morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—on his birthday. It seemed unlikely, but he considered the possibility that he might have been naïve, or worse, gullible. The earlier call from the… View Article