Thursday, September 20, 2018

Sten: The Fast Turnaround Caper




THE EIGHT NOVEL STEN SERIES that Chris and I are probably most known for, was almost dead on arrival.

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 - 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?"

Good question.

We both sat behind our typewriters, reflecting on our actions thus far.


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.

Then we looked at the genre markets. Westerns? We dearly loved Westerns. But in those days - both in books and the movies - the Oater, as they called it, was done. Westerns just weren't selling.

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.

Sir Arthur came to hate Holmes so much that he killed him. The storm over that literary assassination eventually led to Holmes' miraculous revival. Ms Christie loathed Poirot, but wisely let him live. Fleming killed Bond in 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.

Although the books were written out of order, when Forester was done he had traced the career of an early 19th Century British midshipman (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.

During the months we considered all this, the first great gasoline crunch came slamming down. International politics hit the fan, oil stopped flowing, and pretty soon tens of thousands of American motorists found themselves sweating and cursing in long lines that sometimes stretched a mile or more trying to get into a gas station.

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.

As Chris put it, "You can grow so fucking old and so fucking senile you forget what your fucking book is the fuck about."

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.

Got it?

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.

So, I confirmed the news. "Partner, mine," I said. "We just sold Sten."

"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 #1
Sten #2 - The Wolf Worlds
Sten #2.2 - Sten And The Mutineers
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.

Sten And The Star Wanderers - short story


The Alex Kilgour Jokebook
The Sten Cookbook



Between February and May of 1942, German U-boats operated with impunity off the Florida coast, sinking scores of freighters from Cape Canaveral to Key West and killing nearly five thousand people. Residents were horrified witnesses of the attacks—the night skies were aflame and in the morning the beaches were covered with oil and tar, ship parts and charred corpses. The Germans even landed teams of saboteurs charged with disrupting war efforts in the factories of the North. This novel is based on those events. For my own purposes, I set the tale in the fictitious town of Juno Beach on the banks of the equally fictitious Seminole River—all in the very real Palm Beach County, a veritable wilderness in those long ago days. Among the witnesses were my grandfather and grandmother, who operated an orchard and ranch in the area. 


The year is 1778 and the Revolutionary War has young America trapped in the crossfire of hatred and fear. Diana, an indentured servant, escapes her abusive master with the help of Emmett Shannon, a deserter from the desperate army at Valley Forge. They fall in love and marry, but their happiness is shattered and Diana Shannon must learn to survive on her own. From that moment on she will become a true woman of her times, blazing a path from lawless lands in the grips of the Revolution, to plague-stricken Philadelphia, to the burning of Washington in the War Of 1812.

Tales Sometimes Tall, but always true, of Allan Cole's years in Hollywood with his late partner, Chris Bunch. How a naked lady almost became our first agent. How we survived La-La Land with only the loss of half our brain cells. How Bunch & Cole became the ultimate Fix-It 
Boys. How an alleged Mafia Don was very, very good to us. The guy who cornered the market on movie rocks. Andy Warhol's Fire Extinguisher. The Real Stars Of Hollywood. Why they don't make million dollar movies. See The Seven Pi$$ing Dwarfs. Learn: how to kill a "difficult" actor… And much, much more.


THE TIMURA TRILOGY: When The Gods Slept, Wolves Of The Gods and The Gods Awaken. This best selling fantasy series now available as trade paperbacks, e-books (in all varieties) and as audiobooks. Visit The Timura Trilogy page for links to all the editions. 

NEWLY REVISED KINDLE EDITIONS OF THE TIMURA TRILOGY NOW AVAILABLE. (1) When The Gods Slept;(2) Wolves Of The Gods; (3) The Gods Awaken.


A NATION AT WAR WITH ITSELF: In Book Three Of The Shannon Trilogy, young Patrick Shannon is the heir-apparent to the Shannon fortune, but murder and betrayal at a family gathering send him fleeing into the American frontier, with only the last words of a wise old woman to arm him against what would come. And when the outbreak of the Civil War comes he finds himself fighting on the opposite side of those he loves the most. In The Wars Of The Shannons we see the conflict, both on the battlefield and the homefront, through the eyes of Patrick and the members of his extended Irish-American family as they struggle to survive the conflict that ripped the new nation apart, and yet, offered a dim beacon of hope.



What if the Cold War never ended -- but continued for a thousand years? Best-selling authors Allan Cole (an American) and Nick Perumov (a Russian) spin a mesmerizing "what if?" tale set a thousand years in the future, as an American and a Russian super-soldier -- together with a beautiful American detective working for the United Worlds Police -- must combine forces to defeat a secret cabal ... and prevent a galactic disaster! This is the first - and only - collaboration between American and Russian novelists. Narrated by John Hough. Click the title links below for the trade paperback and kindle editions. (Also available at iTunes.)


A novel by Allan and his daughter, Susan

After laboring as a Doctors Without Borders physician in the teaming refugee camps and minefields of South Asia, Dr. Ann Donovan thought she'd seen Hell as close up as you can get. And as a fifth generation CIA brat, she thought she knew all there was to know about corruption and betrayal. But then her father - a legendary spymaster - shows up, with a ten-year-old boy in tow. A brother she never knew existed. Then in a few violent hours, her whole world is shattered, her father killed and she and her kid brother are one the run with hell hounds on their heels. They finally corner her in a clinic in Hawaii and then all the lies and treachery are revealed on one terrible, bloody storm- ravaged night.

BASED ON THE CLASSIC STEN SERIES by Allan Cole & Chris Bunch: Fresh from their mission to pacify the Wolf Worlds, Sten and his Mantis Team encounter a mysterious ship that has been lost among the stars for thousands of years. At first, everyone aboard appears to be long dead. Then a strange Being beckons, pleading for help. More disturbing: the presence of AM2, a strategically vital fuel tightly controlled by their boss - The Eternal Emperor. They are ordered to retrieve the remaining AM2 "at all costs." But once Sten and his heavy worlder sidekick, Alex Kilgour, board the ship they must dare an out of control defense system that attacks without warning as they move through dark warrens filled with unimaginable horrors. When they reach their goal they find that in the midst of all that death are the "seeds" of a lost civilization. 



Venice Boardwalk Circa 1969
In the depths of the Sixties and The Days Of Rage, a young newsman, accompanied by his pregnant wife and orphaned teenage brother, creates a Paradise of sorts in a sprawling Venice Beach community of apartments, populated by students, artists, budding scientists and engineers lifeguards, poets, bikers with  a few junkies thrown in for good measure. The inhabitants come to call the place “Pepperland,” after the Beatles movie, “Yellow Submarine.” Threatening this paradise is  "The Blue Meanie,"  a crazy giant of a man so frightening that he eventually even scares himself.

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