Tuesday, March 15, 2011


When I first decided to become a writer, I was about 20 years old. That would be about 52 years ago now. A long time in a way, and a short time in another way.

My friend Bob Jacka introduced me to good books, mostly published by New Directions. I read "Crackup" by F. Scott Fitzgerald and stuff by Henry Miller and Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and more.

I was in college and I got a lot of encouragement from my creative writing teachers. I had an artist friend, Jim Davis, who spent a lot of time in Mexico and met some artists and writers there who published their work in The Plumed Horn, a literary magazine published by Margaret Randall and her then-husband, Sergio Mondragon.

I sent in some poems, and, lo and behold, they got published. Voila! I had found my passion. I became an artist, of sorts.

Over the years I got a degree in literature and sent out poems and short prose pieces, and they mostly got published. I went to graduate school and got an MFA and worked for Poetry In The Schools, an NEA program, and I met a lot of poets and writers. Great people.

It seemed I had found my milieu, my place in the world. Before I graduated college, I had pictured a dusty office, with a frosted-glass door panel that had my name on it and the word "Poet" underneath.

After being a newspaper reporter and traveling some and getting to know the world a little bit, and going to graduate school and writing avant garde fiction, I decided I wanted to make a living as a novelist.

Aye, there's the rub. Sometime in the mid-70s I started studying and trying to write popular fiction. My old teacher, Oakley Hall, didn't like that.

But I persevered. Spent about 20 years hard at it. Wrote drafts of three big novels. One was about some guys who stole a top-secret experimental fighter plane and tried to ransom it back to the government. Years later, a similar novel was published and a movie made. So I guess that was a good idea.

Then, in 1996, I finally worked my way up the food chain of agents. I had spent 10 years working on a novel called "The Disappearance of Maggie Collins," about cops, hookers and a serial killer in NYC.

Trouble was, an obscure ad guy named James Patterson had come along and created a new sub-genre of pop fiction about serial killers. He owned that market.

I had the vague notion that was going on, but I decided to persevere, bull-headed as I am. I was rep'd by a new young agent at the best agency in the biz. He sent out seven copies of my novel. The next day, the head of one of the other publishing houses called him and said, Why didn't you send us this novel?

He said, Well, you've seen an earlier version from another agent. She said, well, since you re being honest with us, we'll be honest with you. We have already pirated a copy and we are reading it now.

Ultimately, 13 publishing houses--all the big ones--read it. I got a lot of praise for the writing. One editor said, "I read every word over the weekend, and I never do that." Another editor said, "This is the best written thriller I've every read, and I've read 700 of them." 

One publishing house said, "We won't go as high as $500,000. But we like this writer, and we'd like to grow this writer."

Three editors at that house had to say yes. Two said yes--the acquisitions editor and the head of the house--but one said no. The paperback rights editor said he didn't think it was a "big-launch book." The two who said yes were women, and the one who said no was a man. I thought that was significant.

All of the other 12 publishing houses said there were too many serial killer novels in the pipeline. Hollywood said the same thing. James Patterson had not only captured the market, he had spawned about two hundred imitators. Success in this business draws a lot of flies.

My number one publishing house said they'd like to bid against somebody else. If anybody else bids, they would bid, too, they said. I told my agent that's like saying to your girlfriend, Honey, I don't really want to marry you, but if any other guy asks you to marry him, I will ask you, too.

No one else bid, so number one house didn't, either. And the deal fell through. No bid, no offer, no contract, no deal. No dream.

Let that be a lesson to you. If you're going to write schlock, study the market and love the schlock. Know the rules. Hew to the form, as one agent had told me years before.

But if you're going to write real novels, for Christ's sake write real novels. Write the kind of novel you want to read. In my case, that means a literary novel with crime elements, a type of novel that is rare.

-- Roger

© Copyright 2011, Roger R. Angle

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