Monthly Archives: August 2013

Getting an agent

I know some of the people following this blog are fellow writers or would-be writers seeking to get published, so I’ll share my experience along those lines. If you don’t go the self-publishing route you need an agent. I was successful in getting an agent for my first book, Held for Ransom. For me it turned out to be simple. That was 2001 and things were very different back then.

I read a book by a fellow ex-FBI agent that I thought was particularly interesting. As a retired FBI agent I have access to contact information for other agent retirees so I looked the agent-author up in a directory and was able to find his email address. I contacted him and he very graciously gave me his agent’s name and email information. The literary agent, Jay Acton, was interested in my concept and asked me to send him the manuscript. I did so. It was that easy. Unfortunately, Jay was unsuccessful in selling my book. I’ll write more about that whole process later. I ended up self-publishing in 2011.

Nowadays a different procedure is in play. The standard method is to look up literary agents using various Internet search tools and databases, select some who handle your genre, and make queries. You must go to the website of each agent to find out how to submit a query to that agent. They all have their preferences. Some use a web form. Others give out email addresses for this purpose. Some want the first chapter or a certain number of pages included. Some don’t. Usually they want it pasted into the email rather than as an attachment, in order to avoid viruses. Expect to send out dozens of queries and to get few actual responses; most responses, probably all, will be negative.

For my second book, since Jay was no longer to be found, I followed this process. After dozens of queries I did get a positive response from one agent. However, she said my book was too long and if I could cut it down she wanted me to resubmit it. I had already cut it down in size and just didn’t want to cut any more so I ended up self-publishing that book, too. I still think your best chance of getting published is to get referred to an agent by someone in the business, such as a successful author, someone who has worked in publishing, or an agent who doesn’t handle your genre but who knows someone who does. It’s much the same as getting a job. But I’ve gotten jobs just by seeing an ad and applying, and authors get agents by submitting online queries every day, so keep on trying.


I love wordplay of all types: word puzzles, puns, crosswords, double-crostics, epigrams, and especially ciphers. I’ve been a member of the American Cryptogram Association (ACA) for decades and enjoy solving all the constructions (“cons”) in the bimonthly ACA magazine The Cryptogram. In addition to the challenge of deciphering them, the cons also often provide a clever quote or funny joke as a reward. I’ll feature a few of them here. Today I’ll stick with amusing definitions.

A bore is someone who persists in holding his own views after we have enlightened him with ours.

A cannibal is just someone fed up with people.

A celebrity is a person who works very hard all his life to become famous then wears dark glasses to not be recognized.

Adolescence is that awkward age when your child is too old to say something cute and too young to say something sensible.

A pedestrian is a person who insists he should walk on the suicide of the street.

Wall Street definitions: a recession is when you have to tighten your belt; a depression is when you have no belt; a panic is when you have no pants.

The Cliff Knowles Mysteries

I started this blog in part to promote my books, so perhaps I should include a reference to them in my posts. Both novels are mysteries in the “police procedural” genre. My purpose in writing them was largely to show the real FBI, not the versions shown on TV or in the movies. Actually, there are usually two versions: the good FBI and the bad FBI. The good FBI is usually depicted as all-American superheroes, engaged in car chases and shootouts, going after serial killers, and emerging victorious. The bad FBI is shown as arrogant, lacking street smarts, spying on citizens or constantly trying to horn in on the big “glory” cases that the local police are actually solving. Neither portrayal is accurate.

They say to write about what you know, so I did. Both books are pure fiction. I often get FBI friends tell me they know who that character is, or who it is “supposed to be.” I have incorporated elements of some real-life people into my characters, but none of them is supposed to be anyone in real life, or even closely modeled after anyone. The cases — the mysteries themselves — are largely based on real events, if not real characters, although I have taken considerable literary license to spice things up. Rather than go into further detail, I’ll just suggest you read my books to get the real picture. There’s a link to my books, the Cliff Knowles Mysteries, in the top menu bar. If you’re waiting for a third Cliff Knowles mystery, you won’t be disappointed. More news on that later.

#2 in the Cliff Knowles Mysteries

Cached Out

Book #1 in the Cliff Knowles Mysteries

Held for Ransom

Consent allocation

Recently I read a letter to the editor in our local paper. It began “I am disturbed by the consent allocation that the farmers of California are wasteful of our water.” When I first read it, I thought that the writer was upset by the government allocation of our precious water to California farmers, who in the writer’s opinion were wasteful. I didn’t know the details of that “consent allocation” to which she referred, but that was all I could figure it could mean. I did not read further. It turns out there is no such “consent allocation.”

My wife is the one who decrypted it. The writer actually meant she was disturbed by the constant allegations that the farmers wasted water. It became apparent later in the letter that the person was a farmer and was defending them. The writer actually meant the opposite of what I thought. How could this happen? I can think of a few ways. My wife thought the writer used voice recognition software, which was imperfect. I thought perhaps the letter was just so poorly spelled that the editors couldn’t understand it and made the corrections as best they could. A third possibility is that the writer used spell check or some autocorrect feature and the spelling or typos were so bad that computer made bad guesses at correction. The writer clearly failed to proofread and correct. The editor of the Letters section obviously was unfamiliar with the details of the dispute or that mistake would have been caught. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

All of these have a common feature: sloppiness of language. Whether it’s failure to spell correctly, failure to speak clearly, or failure to proofread, sloppiness of language hurts you in many subtle, unexpected ways. Here the writer’s point was not just lost, it actually turned into advocacy for her opponents’ view, at least to my ears. Maybe some farmer out there, or their kids, think learning to spell, learning grammar, or learning to read and write well aren’t important since they’re “only” farmers. Think again. You may be persuading people to cut off your water when you mean exactly the opposite.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice – a review

Just before I retired from the FBI I worked a case on a woman named Roomy Khan. We caught her red-handed faxing insider financial information on her employer, a major electronics firm, to Raj Rajaratnam, who ran the Galleon Hedge Fund. There were a number of bad turns of luck in that case that I won’t go into here, but before I left I interviewed her and got her to agree to cooperate with the government in an insider trading case against Raj. I then retired from the FBI to take another job, but after I left she was convicted of wire fraud. She did no jail time then and I suspect only pretended to cooperate. I lost track of what happened in that case for a few years, but as it turned out she was caught again doing insider trading and the second time “came to Jesus” if that expression can be used on a Hindu. She agreed to what is known as consensual monitoring of her phone calls to Raj, which proved he was engaged in insider trading. That in turn led to wiretaps on his phones, the first wiretaps in US history used on an insider trading case. By that time Raj was a billionaire and the network of his insider contacts who share non-public information was huge. He was eventually convicted of insider trading and sentenced to eleven years, the longest sentence ever for insider trading. Over twenty defendants, including many Silicon Valley executives, were convicted in the case. It turned out to be one of the biggest cases of my career, although it didn’t come to fruition until more than 10 years after I retired.

Recently, a book about the case was published. This review is the one I published on I hope to publish more book reviews in this blog.

The Billionaire’s Apprentice:
The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund

by Anita Raghavan

The author has done a superb job of detailing the crimes of a small cabal of Indian-Americans at the highest echelons of business and finance in America. Her account is unrelenting and unforgiving despite her admitted difficulty in broadcasting the dark side of her own community. That she has been a professional writer for a major financial magazine for years is evident in the clear prose and accurate reporting.

The book will probably be of primary interest to those in the South Asian community, especially Indian-Americans in the world of business and finance. It focuses largely on the three Indian defendants in the largest insider trading case in American history, Rajaratnam, Kumar, and Gupta, and it includes their family backstories in rather great detail. This was of little interest to me, not being a member of that community and having almost no familiarity with India, its culture, and its broad diversity of culture, religion, language, and geography. Considerable emphasis was also placed upon the irony of the role of major Indian prosecution team players. Both the lead SEC attorney and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney were Indian-American and dogged in their pursuit of the insider traders.

Although not interested in the Indian diaspora per se, I was, however, fascinated by the crime itself — its brazenness, its sleaziness, the arrogance of the defendants, Raj Rajaratnam and Roomy Khan in particular. The lead FBI agent, B.J. Kang, is mentioned several times, but I would have liked to have read more about the FBI investigation. I was also disappointed that the scope of the investigation was not emphasized more. More than twenty defendants were convicted, and there may still be spinoff cases being pursued. I understand the author’s perspective was more on the Indian diaspora than the crimes themselves, but I do wish she had at least included in the afterword a list or table of all the defendants, their titles or employment while they were engaged in insider trading, and what their final sentences or job losses were. Danielle Chiesi deserves a few lines at least.

People have sex

Much has been said about how rapidly language has changed since the advent of social media, especially texting and tweeting. Some celebrate the change as a natural evolutionary process, while others deplore the bad grammar and spelling that has become rampant. While I lean toward the latter view, I have some sympathy for the former. I see it as a bigger issue than what’s right or wrong. At least it’s a different issue. As a writer I see language as a powerful tool, a tool to entertain or persuade, to instruct others or to express oneself. The texting-tweeting revolution has probably allowed many people who would otherwise never express themselves in writing to come out of their shells and write, freed from the scrutiny of the schoolmarm looming with her red pencil and grade book. So far so good. But by using bad grammar and spelling, even poor style, people limit themselves so much, often without being aware of it. I’ll be discussing this issue further in coming posts, but I don’t intend this blog to be a scolding lecture. Rather it is intended to be a celebration of language and, I hope (not “hopefully”), occasionally informative, but, most especially, fun.

So what does this have to do with the title of this post? Is that just a gratuitous usage of the word “sex” to get you to read this? Yes. It worked, didn’t it? Except it’s also relevant. It has become customary in recent years to talk about people’s gender. Male or female. The only problem is people don’t have gender. They have sex. Male and female are sexes, not genders. Masculine, feminine, and neuter are the three genders in English. Gender is a term of grammar referring to words: he, she, it = masculine, feminine and neuter. People, animals, and plants have sex – usually not together, but, well, let’s not go there. The point is that living things have sex, while words have gender.

This was standard for hundreds of years. When I was a teenager job applications always had a blank that said Sex __. Now they say Gender __. How and why did this change happen? It’s probably in part because of the erosion of decency and respect and in part political correctness. People, especially younger ones, began to fill in that Sex blank with “Yes, please” or “As often as I can” or other, lewder, witticisms. This became either offensive or obstructive to the staff who had to handle these non-responsive jottings so the forms slowly got changed. Others, like newscasters, also got on board, eschewing the word “sex” to avoid offending those who took it in its other meaning as a behavior instead of a state. Viewers got upset when little Sally asked mommy what the word sex meant when she heard it on TV.

Yes, yes, I know that the dictionary lists sex as one definition of the word “gender”. Of course we can all tell what the speaker means. It has come to mean sex in modern usage, and I’m not upset about it. I am upset that so often political correctness has come to dictate what we may or may not say (or write). We are losing perfectly good words, or replacing them with clumsy, imprecise, or flat-out wrong ones that are deemed less offensive to some group. Just think of all the words relating to race, sexual orientation (not gender orientation), disabilities, and so on that we can no longer use, even those that were originally coined or brought into common usage with the best of intentions to avoid a previously common word that became considered offensive.

I always laugh when I hear people rant about the need for gender equality, e.g. in employment. You want gender equality? Okay, that would be one-third masculine, one-third feminine, one-third neuter. All of you who want to volunteer to be neutered to qualify for all those unfilled neuter slots, raise your hand.

No, I can’t prove scientifically why this happened. That part is informed speculation at best. But I am not making this stuff up. You can see by this graph how the word “sex” was almost 50 times more common than the word “gender” in literature in 1950. By 1998 it was only slightly more common (23% to be exact). Click on the image to see the full-size graph.


Thanks for reading my blog. Have fun and get lucky. Take that however you want.