Rules of Prey — Behind the Scenes

The Order of the Books

This is the first novel in the Prey series. It is the first of his novels to get released in any form. It is not, however, the earliest of his novels that ended up getting released eventually. [1] That honor goes to The Fool's Run, which he wrote from mid-1987 to early 1988. Rules of Prey was written later, in the autumn of 1988.
Sometimes, when an author becomes famous, the publisher will ask for older, unpublished writings to release as "new", on the grounds that it's new to the audience. This is not one of those cases. Rather, the author had two books simultaneously in the publishing pipeline with two different publishers. This is rare, [2] but it makes sense when you know all the details.
Starting in 1987, the author wrote The Fool's Run with the specific goal of producing a saleable thriller. He finished it early the next year, and sent it to his agent. She shopped it around, and it sold for a modest amount. He then wrote Rules of Prey over the following summer.
Rules of Prey sold much faster than The Fool's Run had, for a larger amount, and to a different publishing company than the one that had purchased The Fool's Run.
At this point, neither book had come out. The Fool's Run was slated for a late 1989 publication. [3] Rules of Prey, however, was put onto the fast-track to publication by G.P. Putnam's Sons. [4] It came out two months before The Fool's Run.
This led to a problem. [5] The company publishing The Fool's Run (Henry Holt & Co.) had a stronger claim to his real name, since they'd had a contract first. If Putnam published a novel under that same name, Henry Holt could conceivably get free publicity from it. They asked the author to come up with a pseudonym, and he chose "John Sandford", the surname being his paternal grandmother's maiden name. [6]
So in July of 1989, Rules of Prey came out from Putnam under the name John Sandford. The following September, The Fool's Run came out from Henry Holt under the name John Camp.
The pseudonym went on to become the more famous of the names, and eventually the novels that had been published under the Camp name were reprinted under the Sandford name. That led to its own set of difficulties, but that's a discussion for another page. [7]

The Original Ending

The story did not change much from its first to final drafts, [8] except for the ending. Here's how the original ending worked:
Despite having interfered with Vullion's "master stroke", the police have no hard evidence linking him to the other crimes: he hasn't left a note, the style of attack is different, and so on. Lucas knows that Vullion is guilty, but he can't do anything about it.
In a contrived situation — I do not remember the specifics — Lucas and Vullion end up together in Lucas's office, with nobody else there. I believe it was ostensibly so Lucas could interrogate him. Lucas, of course, has other plans.
Vullion knows that the police have no hard evidence, and even gloats about getting away with it. So Lucas just shoots him, using a throw-down gun (as in the final) to make it look like a genuine firefight.
In the end, the circumstances surrounding the "shootout" were altered to make it less contrived, and the result makes it less cold-blooded than the original. Given how cold-blooded the final product is, that really says something about how it went down the first time.

Naming the Book

Until 2004, all of the novels were stored on 3.5" floppy disks, first for Amiga [9] and later for PC. This was one of the novels done on an Amiga, and the files took up a large number of disks. I don't think they needed to, but at that point there were still only a few chapters per disk. For Rules of Prey the disk labels were:
Cop I (1) chap 1-8
Cop I (2)
Cop I (3)
Cop I (4)
Cop I-1 revision chap 1-8
Cop I-2 revision
Cop 1-3 revision
Cop 1-4 revision
Cop Archive
... and all of those had duplicate disks, for safety. So in total, eighteen disks were used when writing the first novel, all neatly labeled with a marker. [10]
Alas, none of the names on the disks are good names for a thriller novel, so the author had to come up with something different for submission. He settled on The Maddog's Game, based on the nickname of the bad guy. [11] The publishing company changed it to Rules of Prey, which is more thriller-generic, and that was pretty much that. [12]

Rules of Prey: The Movie

There has not yet been a movie made from Rules of Prey. This doesn't mean that people haven't considered it, or purchased rights, or developed scripts. Given what we saw of the attempts to do so, it's probably just as well.
In 1990, the paperback was doing extremely well, the hardcover for Shadow Prey had just been released, and the whole thing appeared, from a Hollywood perspective, to have "hot property" written all over it. One company, Film & Television Ltd., purchased the movie rights without optioning them first. That's a relative rarity, and usually means that the purchasing company is very confident that they will end up making a movie, rather than just throwing ideas around.
Film & Television Ltd., was owned by Dino DeLaurentiis. [13] To say that he has a hit-and-miss record would be to understate it rather substantially. His production company was behind some very fine movies (Three Days of the Condor, Blue Velvet) and a succession of extremely bad movies (Orca, King Kong (the 1976 version), Amityville 3-D, and many, many more). Still, nobody wanted to pass judgment until we saw a script. [14]
They sent us a script. It was terrible.
It was the most cliché-ridden pastiche of bad cop shows and movies any of us had ever encountered. Examples? Well, in order:
  • It opens with a car chase. Because, you know, nothing says "originality" like opening with a car chase. [15]
  • The car chase ends at an abandoned warehouse. When Lucas corners the bad guy, the bad guy surrenders, and Lucas throws down his gun to show that the bad guy is no threat to him. [16]
  • The bad guy, however, has a hidden weapon. And he almost shoots Lucas. But Lucas has cheated: he himself has a concealed weapon, and manages to shoot the bad guy first. This obvious loose-cannon behavior gets him fired from the force.
  • He is almost immediately brought back to solve the Maddog case because "He may be a loose cannon but he's the best we've got." [17]
  • The Maddog ends up going after Jennifer, because she's Lucas's girlfriend. So he kidnaps her and takes her to the top of a tall building. [18]
  • Lucas finds out where he is, and has a dramatic confrontation but manages to take the Maddog alive, just to show that he's not just a loose cannon.
  • When tending to Jennifer, the Maddog gets up (Lucas had apparently not restrained him, and just assumed him unconscious), pulls a concealed weapon, and Lucas has no clue. But Jennifer sees this, and she shoots the Maddog with Lucas's gun. [19]
  • Rather than just die, the Maddog then stumbles backwards, crashes through a window, and plummets to the ground far below, [20] in front of the watching eyes of the media (who are there covering this for some reason).
  • Lucas comes out looking like a hero for ending the Maddog's reign of terror, prevailing over both evil and his superior's by-the-book stiff and bureaucratic attitudes. The loveable rogue.
... and all that is leaving out the crappy jokes, the godawful dialogue, [21] and the feeling that "Well, this is nothing at all like Minnesota in the real universe."
We complained. The author said that it was nothing like the books, that it was full of clichés, and so forth. He included examples. The production company, to its credit, flew the screenwriter out to consult with him on changes. A month or so later, we received a second script that was a huge improvement but still really bad.
And then the entire project got cancelled for reasons that were never fully explained, [22] and that was the end of it.


1. And even though The Fool's Run was his first novel to eventually get published, he does have a few prior novels that have never been published [23]. Perhaps someday they will be released [24].

2. And by "rare" I mean "I can't actually think of any other cases ever in which this has happened this way, but since I don't actually know that it's a unique case, I won't claim it as such."

3. In a real-world coincidence, it came out on my 20th birthday: September 8, 1989.

4.G.P. Putnam's Sons was purchased by the Penguin Publishing Group a few years ago, and the whole conglomerate is now PenguinPutnam. The hardcovers just say "Putnam" on the side.

5. A problem, that is, aside from the fact that coming out with essentially two debut novels around the same time could be seen as tacky.

6. In interviews, he'll sometimes say it's taken from his great-grandfather, and technically that is true. But just as technically, he did have four great-grandfathers. My way of specifying it is more exact.

7. In particular, it's a discussion for the comment pages for The Fool's Run. Which I haven't yet reposted. Alas.

8. I suspect, years after the fact, that this had a lot to do about how quickly the whole thing went. First draft in three months, some minor revisions, and that's it. It is by far the shortest writing time for any of his novels. Nowadays, he'd probably take longer to write it, and take a full month or two to polish it.

9. Part of my job is keeping permanent archives of all the books in digital form, for all the various revisions and rewrites they go through. One stumbling block has been the books written on the Amiga — Rules of Prey and Shadow Prey. I wasn't ever able to read the discs before they degraded beyond salvaging. There might possibly be an old manuscript around, but I sort of doubt it.

10. I'm not using the word "labeled" in a strictly accurate sense here, since he did not use disk labels. Rather, he just wrote on the disk with a permanent Sharpie marker. Disks were cheap enough that this wasn't a problem. On occasion, however, he would use a Sharpie to make temporary notes — phone numbers, addresses, that sort of thing — on far more expensive items, such as his computer monitor [25].

11. Two of the foreign translations have stuck to the "Maddog" theme. There's the French Le jeu du chein-loup ("Game of the Dog-Wolf") and the Welsh Blaidd Drwg ("Bad Wolf") [26].

12. That's really all the information any of us have about the title. There's a joke that somewhere in New York there's an old lady who does nothing but think up titles for books, all of which are stored in a large bin until someone needs a title. Any title. For all I know, it's actually true.

13. I say "was" because it was apparently part of the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group (DAG), which collapsed shortly after they sent us the script. I can't prove that there was a connection.

14. That said, there was still a general feeling of "Dino DeLaurentiis? Uh-oh..."

15. I am being sarcastic for comedic effect. As the internet is a poor medium for conveying subtleties such as sarcasm, I feel it necessary to point this out.

16. Okay, Lucas may be a loose cannon. But no cop would ever throw down his gun. Ever. At least, not in the real world.

17. This is best said in a gruff voice, as of a veteran street cop arguing with the bureaucratic and cowardly chief of police. When my sister and I were mocking the script, we'd re-enact bits of dialogue with over-the-top voices. It says something about how bad the dialogue was that we could never get it over-the-top enough.

18. It may in fact have just been the attic of a church. You know, because that makes so much sense [27].

19. The original ending for the book may have been contrived, but this raises contrivedness to an art form.

20. When my sister and I were visiting our parents for Christmas many years ago, we happened to catch the movie Off Limits (1988) on some movie channel. The bad guy, when shot, falls backwards through a stained glass window of a church, to the ground below. We both thought it hilarious, because it seems like such a cliché that it's almost like an urban legend: everyone knows about it, but nobody can pin down where it actually happened in a film. Well, Off Limits is at least one movie in which it does.

21. It's not exactly that it was bad. It's that it was overly dramatic all the time. Imagine, if you will, a movie wherein the dialogue is nothing but catchphrases and taglines from famous movies [28]. "I'll be Back." Or maybe "Do you feel lucky, punk?" That's what it was like.

22. That's not quite right. It's not that the reasons weren't fully explained. It's that after receiving the second script, we never ever heard from them again. Eventually the author asked someone, and they said that it'd been scrapped a long time ago. Whatever.

23. Their titles are The Wheel Key Number [29] and The Chippewa Zoo. He also has an unpublished novel that was written after he was established as a thriller writer. It's a ghost story tentatively called Night Moves. It will probably never, ever be published.

24. Actually, they probably won't.

25. Seriously, he did that. Not on the screen of course, but on the beige bezel surrounding it. He also wrote a few things (in permanent marker) on the computer itself, on the keyboard, and so on. Never anywhere that would cause functional impairment, but it really ruined the look.

26. "Blaidd Drwg" is roughly pronounced "Bly-th droog". The "dd" in Welsh is a discrete letter — a voiced "th" sound, as in "there" — and is based on the old letter ð. The "w" is a vowel that is literally a double-u. Now you know.

27. I am being sarcastic again. I should really curb this tendency.

28. Actually, that sounds like a kind of neat idea. The result would certainly be post-modern enough to get it a cult following, even if the movie was total crap. Still, please don't take it as some kind of challenge [30].

29. The title looks ungrammatical until you know that Wheel Key is one of the Florida Keys.

30. Unless you want to, of course.