Dusting off In His Shadow
In ’96 while I was writing short stories, I also dusted off In His Shadow with the expectation of revising it and finding an agent for it. In the original version that I wrote, I start the book pretty close to my protagonist’s psychotic breakdown, and one of my friends who had read it suggested I start the book off with my protagonist more as a hero so that readers can initially like him and be shocked at the depths he later falls to. I liked that idea for an additional reason also--it allowed me to make the book even more a deconstruction of the hardboiled PI genre. This new work added 50 pages to the front of the book. Again, this was back in ’96, and I can’t remember which version of MS Windows I was using, but whichever one it was it was buggy as hell, and I wasn’t making backups of my new work. When I was done with those 50 pages, I powered off my system before the operating system had finished shutting down, and I lost my revisions. Those 50 new pages were gone. After sitting there feeling sick to my stomach for a while, I started typing away. There’s no way I’d ever be able to do this today—and I can’t swear that the 50 pages I typed the second time matched exactly what I had done earlier, but I’m pretty sure it did. Anyway, now that I had my new and improved version of In His Shadow I started looking for an agent.
I don’t think the agent search ever gets easy—maybe when you’re a bestselling author, but for most of us I think it’s always tough. Back then I made the mistake that probably most authors make—I jumped at the first agent who showed interest. Getting the right agent is critical, the wrong agent can be deadly to your career—especially a new writer. A good agent will have credibility with editors, the books they send out will be looked at seriously, and they’ll send the books to the right editors at the right houses. A great agent will help guide a writer’s career and let them know when their book isn’t the right one for them to start off with. I read a story recently how when Michael Palmer was looking for an agent for his first effort, the agent he sent it to called him back to tell him how much she liked the writing, but the book wasn’t the right one for him to have published. She ended up inviting him to her office to discuss other book ideas, and helped work one of his ideas into what became his first published (and I think bestselling) book. Christ, I fantasize about having an agent like that!
One more thing about how damaging the wrong agent can be—most good agents won’t touch books (at least by newer writers) that have already been sent out by another agent. It doesn’t matter whether the other agent had sent the books to the wrong people or to the wrong publishers, your book basically becomes dead—or something you have to sell yourself to smaller houses.
Getting back to the agent I jumped at the chance to sign with—he was earnest and sincere, but I think I was his first and only client, and probably had little to no chance of selling In His Shadow (or any other book I might’ve written). I also don’t think this agent stayed with being an agent very long, and had other plans for his life. To be fair, there were probably only a small number of good houses where In His Shadow would’ve been a fit—Serpent’s Tail (yes, my editor, after buying Small Crimes and Pariah read Fast Lane and liked it enough where he might’ve bought it), a few other UK houses, Black Lizard/Vintage Crime and maybe one or two other NY houses, but the book was too dark and too different to fit with the majority of houses. Anyway, In His Shadow went nowhere. But this agent did push me into writing what ended up becoming Bad Thoughts—more about that next week.