Thursday, February 10, 2011

Write What You Know by Allan Leverone

It’s July, 2008, and I’m in a hotel conference room in Manhattan pitching a manuscript—a paranormal thriller—to a high-powered literary agent. Agentfest is in full swing, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, that is the annual three-hour pressure-cooker of an opportunity offered up by the International Thriller Writers in which unsigned authors can pitch their manuscripts in three-minute intervals to dozens of top-flight agents.

Tables are lined up around the outside of the big room as well as in clumps throughout the interior. Behind each one sits an agent and in front of each one sits a prospective author, each doing his or her best to convince the agent this book is worth representing. It’s hot in the room and getting hotter, and you can feel the nervousness and determination of the authors. It’s like a physical presence.

And I’m pitching an agent. And the agent isn’t the least bit interested in my manuscript.

I get maybe thirty to forty-five seconds into my brilliant dissertation and he shakes his head and smiles. “It’s not for me,” he says, and suddenly I’m thankful the pitches are limited to three minutes. To make conversation until the speed-dating bell rings, he asks me about myself. “So, what do you do for a living in the real world?”

I tell him I’m an air traffic controller, working traffic into and out of Boston’s Logan International Airport. He gives me a strange look. It reminds me of Tom Cruise looking at Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, you know, like awe and pity are fighting for control of his face and pity is winning. All I can think of is the old commercial with the guy smacking his head and saying, “I could have had a V-8!”

But he doesn’t smack his head. Instead, he looks like he wants to smack mine. He says, “Duh. Why don’t you write an air traffic control thriller?” like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Okay, that part’s a lie. He didn’t say, “Duh.” But I know he was thinking it.

He goes on to explain that publishers love “experts.” It’s one reason why you see spy thrillers authored by former CIA operatives, cop novels written by ex-and-sometimes-current cops, PI mysteries from writers with investigative experience. He explains it patiently, like maybe he’s not dealing with the brightest guy in the room. He’s right about that.

So I take his advice. I go home and write an air traffic control thriller. The thriller genre is not overly populated with aviation-related books and most of the ones out there are written from the pilot’s perspective, the most obvious example being the many outstanding books written by John Nance, commercial airline pilot and aviation expert. There aren’t that many thrillers written from an air traffic controller’s perspective.

And damned if the agent isn’t right! Fast-forward a little less than a year-and-a-half, and I’m signing the contract with Medallion Press for publication of my first novel, an aviation thriller written from an air traffic controller’s perspective titled FINAL VECTOR.

I’m forever indebted to that agent, who wasn’t interested in the book I was pitching but still took the time to chat with me and offer some valuable advice. Of course, he was sort of a captive audience, but still.

I’d love to thank him in person, but there’s one problem. I pitched my manuscript to eighteen agents that day, and for the life of me I can’t remember which one out of those eighteen gave me that sage (not to mention free) advice.

So if you’re a literary agent and you’re reading this right now and you remember talking to a really clueless guy about being an air traffic controller and telling him to get off his dumb ass and write an air traffic control thriller, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

By the way, I still don’t have an agent. Interested?

* * *

Allan Leverone is a twenty-nine year veteran of the aviation industry whose debut thriller features an air traffic controller much braver, younger and better-looking than he. FINAL VECTOR will be available tomorrow from Medallion Press. Allan lives in Londonderry, New Hampshire with his unbelievably supportive wife Sue, three children, one beautiful granddaughter and a cat who has used up eight lives. Learn more at


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Al,

Thanks for sharing your great story and congratulations on your debut release! What do you have in store for readers next?

Carla Buckley said...

Hi Al,

I have to admit, when I learned what you did for a living, I was instantly impressed (and fascinated.) Good for you for taking that agent's advice, and running with it. You must have been running, given how quickly you turned a concept into a contract. When did you know you had a story, and are you planning a series?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Hi Al!

Well, I'm beyond thrilled you took the agent's advice even if you can't remember who the agent was. I can't wait to see what other things you will write about.

Al Leverone said...

Hi Tracey and thanks for having me! I'm forever amazed when anyone indicates an interest in anything I have to say. I'd say I think it indicates an obvious flaw in your judgment, but I don't want to ruin a good thing.

I strayed from that wise agent's advice following this book and wrote a traditional thriller that I'm shopping now, but I'm also smart enough (barely) to know that Nick Jensen, my protagonist in FINAL VECTOR, will ride again...

Hi Carla, I knew right away that I wanted to somehow tie in the fascination terrorists have shown for aviation as a way to spread their message of fear with the interest people invariably show in my job when they find out what I do for a living.

As a writer you probably know what it's like to have more ideas than time to write them all, and I'm planning another Nick Jensen adventure, as well as a separate aviation thriller I'm very excited about which takes place in the Cold War era and involves an air traffic controller (again) who gets involved in a plot by the KGB to prevent Russian President Gorbachev from sending something to U.S. President Reagan that they believe will destroy the USSR...

Hi Joelle, thanks so much for taking the time to skate through my post...the support I've received from you three and the rest of the ITW is incredible...

Tracey Devlyn said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story!