It was kinda-sorta like one of those The End Is The Beginning deals. And like almost all things bad - and good - that happen in Writer's Land it started with a phone call.
Chris answered. I think he was in his "Bunch And Cole's Funeral Parlor… You stab 'em, we slab 'em," phase. If so, that's what he said.
Then I heard him say, "Aw, shit, Larry. Don't mind me. Just fucking around."
He motioned for me to pick up, and when I did I heard our agent say, "I'm really sorry, guys… I know you were counting on this - but… you know… we just got rejected again."
Chris said, "Fuck!"
I gulped, then asked, "Which one?"
Larry said, "Del Rey Books. The Rejection Letter is from the Senior Editor, there - Owen Locke. Bad news, I'm afraid, but it's really a very nice letter."
Chris and I were so numb that we let him go on.
There was a rustling a paper, then Larry said, "I'll give you the bottom line first. He said although he found the Sten Series proposal very original, and well-written, that at this time he doesn't feel it is quite the direction that Del Rey Books is heading in."
More paper rustling. More silence from us.
Then he said, "Oh… he goes on to invite you to submit any other suitable projects you might wish to explore in the future."
"Fuck!" Chris said again.
I said, "That's the last one, isn't it, Larry?"
He said, "Yes, Allan. Of the seven Sten packages we sent out, Del Rey Books is the last rejection." Larry paused, then added, "Guys - if you come up with any other publisher, let me know and I'll be happy to help."
Then he went on to tell us that he saw good things ahead in television land. And that after our sale to Quincy and Sheriff Lobo, he thought more opportunities ought to be coming in any day now.
"Thanks, Larry," I said. Chris mumbled something suitably polite as well and we hung up.
"Shit!" Chris said. Apparently he felt he'd worn out the "fucks" for now.
Writing books - not television - was the future we saw for ourselves, so I said, "I'll get us a drink," and got up and went to the kitchen.
We were working out of his house in Manhattan Beach, then. Later, we'd switch over to the Santa Monica apartment I shared with Kathryn - his sister and my fiancé. Mainly, because it was a helluva lot closer to the Studios where the bulk of our income would be earned for the next ten years.
We had about half a fifth of J&B left. I made a couple of stiff ones, which I brought back to the office.
After a couple of honks off his drink, Chris said, "The guy's an asshole."
I didn't have to ask. The asshole he was speaking of was the afore mentioned Owen Locke.
Chris said, "They're all fucking assholes."
This would mean Owen and the other six science fiction houses that had rejected us.
No disagreement from me.
In the silence that followed, we both finished our drinks and Chris went into the kitchen to make us a couple more.
When he returned, he said, "Where the fuck did we go wrong, Cole?"
We both sat behind our typewriters, reflecting on our actions thus far.
FREEZE SCENE FOR FASCINATING AND EDUCATIONAL BACKSTORY
The failure to sell our novel series wasn't from lack of trying. In fact, we went about breaking into Bookworld with the same fervor that we had attacked Hollywood.
We went at it with hard work and cool (ha) logic. Young and dumb as we were, we thought we could conjure up the key to literary success that has eluded countless wannabee writers, past, present and future.
The first thing, we decided, was that if we came up with a series - instead of a standalone novel - there was more of a chance that all the books would remain in print. A little bit true at the time, but just plain wishful thinking these days.
Detectives, then? We were ardent fans of Chandler and Hammett - all the hard boiled guys.
Again, at the time mysteries and detective stories had a limited, if passionate, audience. A flurry of rack sales, then the local library, where the sale of one book serves a legion of readers, but does not impress your banker one damn bit. You had to have a second job - like teaching - if you wrote that sort of thing. That's generally true to this day.
Thrillers? Coming up with a series of world-threatening disasters and intrepid heroes to avert said disaster, didn't appeal to us. Or all those serial killers. Yech. Better to save that sort of thing for Hollywood, which generally pays better for fewer words. (A 60-minute Prime Time script goes for about $38,000. A first time novelist back then - and also today - will get maybe $5,000 for a 500-page book. Time factor? Script, maybe three weeks for all drafts. Novel? Six months, more likely a year. Our Vietnam novel took three years.)
We finally settled on Science Fiction - fantasy was still waiting for Terry Brooks to break that genre out of the doldrums. Plus we had been ardent science fiction readers since childhood.
Next, we examined the nature of book series. In our opinion, there was a tendency for writers to grow to despise their main characters after a few books.
From Russia With Love, only to resurrect 007 in Dr. No to appease his publishers and fans. And so on. There are countless examples. (The death of Bond in From Russia is still hotly disputed. Some say Raymond Chandler convinced Fleming to keep Bond alive. Others say it's just a myth. For the purposes of my point in this MisAdventure, however, I will take Bond's intended death as gospel.)
Why did the authors wind up harboring murderous thoughts about their series heroes? Chris and I concluded it because their literary children never made it past adolescence. Bond in the first book, is basically the same Bond in the last Fleming-written novel. Ditto the others. Permanent adolescents all. A helluva thing to live with your whole writing career. (Ask any parent, or teacher about the joys of raising a teenager.)
Then we asked ourselves: were there examples of successful series where the character grew up to delight his Creator? There were several, but our favorite was the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester.
Midshipmen Hornblower)through the Napoleonic Wars until he was a middle-aged admiral.
So, that's what we settled on. A series inspired by C.S. Forester, except we would kick it three thousand years into the future, and instead of wooden ships, we would have rocket ships.
What power those oil sheiks wielded.
In a flash we could see it. We reasoned if a single person could control the source of a cheap plentiful fuel he could control the planet. And if he could control the planet, he could control other planets; and if humankind explored the stars, he could control those as well. Until he controlled a galactic empire.
This was all assuming that His Ultimate Majesty lived long enough. And that was no problem - we worked up a tricky system involving cloning and so on so we could produce a guy we ended up calling The Eternal Emperor.
After talking to some techie friends - especially, the late Bob Willy - we came up with the ultimate power source - a fuel wrested from an alternate universe. We called it Anti-matter Two.
Next, the hero. We wanted somebody young. A working class kid, who hated authority. We met him in Sten, son of migrant workers under contract to the bosses of a factory planet. His family would be killed. He would run afoul of the Powers That Be, eventually come to the notice of the Eternal Emperor, then rise through the ranks, novel by novel.
We outlined twelve books, which, like a good Bordelaise sauce, we reduced to eight over the next ten years. It would be one big, million word-plus novel.
You're probably thinking that the next thing we did was hammer out an outline and some sample chapters of the series to present to the publishers.
Instead, we conjured up a little trick.
We cozened our Hollywood agent into giving us some of his stationary. Then we came up with the Bunch & Cole Formula Hit Letter. (Pay attention class. This hit letter will be the most important thing you ever write.)
It consisted of three paragraphs. The first Paragraph: The story, told as excitingly as possible, with the fewest words. Second Paragraph: Why we were uniquely qualified to write it. Both of us were professional writers, plus I was a CIA brat and knew that world well; Chris was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and knew the military well, etc. The Third Paragraph was a single sentence: May we have our agent send you sample chapters and an outline?
This was done in one page, one page only, including the salutation. (Visit and bookmark my Query Letter Page for handy reference.
Then we mass mailed that sucker (with return envelope and postage) to every major publisher of science fiction in America. Which you were definitely not supposed to do. But publishers can take months to reply, if at all.
Next hurdle: It is nearly impossible to sell an unsolicited book without a New York literary agent. (Generally speaking, Hollywood agents don't count.) Basically, you are trying to sell across the transom, and that just doesn't happen.
Except, we figured it this way: Every publisher has people down in the basement where unsolicited book pitches and manuscripts are tossed. Most of the manuscripts are a mess. Some aren't even typed. The job of culling through them usually goes to some kid right out of college, hoping to make her bones so she can be a big time literary editor. All she needs is one good manuscript. Each day she works, the more she despairs of ever finding that elusive nugget of gold. (These days the mess would be electronic, but the principle is the same.)
Now, we imagined her getting our pitch letter. Not only perfectly typed, but no misspellings or other errors. Plus, it is only a single page. She reads the first paragraph. Not bad. Then the second - these guys are qualified, that's for sure. Then the third - a simple question, can we send her sample chapters and an outline?
Now this young lady spends her entire day saying no. No, no, no, and Heavens To Murgatroid, no! But we have just given her a chance to say - Yes. What's she got to lose? Plus it feels good, saying Yes. Just this once. So she does.
In record time, we got six or seven positive replies.
Then - and only then - did we sit down and write a hundred pages of sample chapters and a twenty-some-page outline. Sent them to all the publishers. Sat back and waited.
Eventually, they came back.
And one by one we were rejected.
Finally there was one left. Del Rey Books. At that time the most prestigious science fiction house in the country.
Then our agent called and said we were fucked on that one too.
Okay, now we can:
Chris said, "Found another bottle of J&B hiding in the cupboard."
It was a good thing too, because in our misery we had polished off what was left of the other fifth.
And this, in just a little over an hour since we'd received the bad news.
Chris exited the kitchen, ice cubes clinking in a pair of new Pity Cures.
And, damn, if the phone did ring again.
I picked up. And holy shit, it was our agent again. Twice in one day? Hell, twice in less than two hours? Unheard of.
As Chris got on the line with me, I heard Larry say, "Guys, I don't exactly know how to say this - it's never happened to me before in twenty years of agenting. But, I just got a call from Owen Locke at Del Rey Books."
"Yeah?" I said, more than a little confused. "He's the S.O.B. who told us to go to Hell, right?"
Chris said, "If he called to personally rub it in, I'll fucking fly to New York… track the sucker down… then rip off his head and shit in his neck."
He meant it.
Larry said, "No, no, Chris. It's not like that. Not at all."
He paused to take a breath - as if not believing what he was about to say. And then he told us:
"Like I said, it was the same Owen Locke who sent the rejection letter. But, he called to say how embarrassed he was. That he'd made a big mistake. He said he rejected the wrong book. He meant to send us an Acceptance Letter, not a Rejection Letter.
"Not only that, he says his boss, Judy Lynn del Rey, personally read the sample chapters and ordered him to buy the novel."
"You're shitting me," I said.
"No, Allan," Larry replied. "I am definitely not shitting you."
A few more words of amazement were exchanged - I don't remember what they were. But, finally, I hung up and turned to Chris.
If a person's face could be a great big question mark, then you know what Chris looked like right then. It was as if he couldn't believe what he had just heard.
"Far fucking out!" Chris roared.
And the bottle of Scotch we had opened to drown our sorrows, did not survive the ensuing celebration.
Postscript: The eight-novel series went on to sell more than twenty five million copies in thirteen languages. The books are:
Sten #2 - The Wolf Worlds
Sten #3 - The Court Of A Thousand Suns
Sten #4 - Fleet Of The Damned
Sten #5 - Revenge Of The Damned
Sten #6 - The Return Of The Emperor
Sten #7 - Vortex
Sten #8 - End Of Empire.
Here's where you can find links to all versions of the novels, from Dead Tree editions, to e-books, to audio books.