Towery on Fiction: Is that a spaceship in your garage?

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Once-upon-a-time

Authors note: This is one of an occasional series of articles on fiction writing by Peorian Terry Towery, a budding novelist and veteran of more writing conferences and seminars than anyone should ever have to attend. Towery's debut novel, the psychological thriller "The Final Victim" is currently being shopped to literary agents in New York City. Two are actually reading it right now. Wish him luck. He's going to need it.

Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, I was leaving the gym when an old friend of mine stopped me for a chat. I was glad to see her, since we hadn't spoken in several years. We caught up on our spouses, our kids, our health. And then, as often happens, the discussion turned to work. Our careers.

She's very successful at what she does.

I used to be.

I was a journalist for more than 25 years, most of them spent toiling for the Peoria Journal Star. I was a sports writer, copy editor, city desk reporter, assistant Sunday editor, columnist and, ultimately, assistant city editor/assignment editor. I won awards. I uncovered things that helped send a couple of deserving morons to prison. I made a name for myself. I did okay.

"Are you still at the paper?" she asked, smiling.

"No," I said. "I left more than six years ago."

"Oh." She looked uncomfortable. "Were you laid off?"

"No," I said. "I quit."

"Oh."

I knew what was coming next. She was going to ask me what I do now. It's something I hear a lot of these days. Hmmm. Let me see. I do a bit of freelance writing. I cover things for the Associated Press. I dabble in politics (I've managed a congressional campaign and did communications work for another). I also do a lot of charity work, including yearly trips to the Yucatan Peninsula to build things alongside Mayans. Yep. Real Mayans. That all sounds sort of cool. And it is.

But none of it constitutes a career. Not really.

So. What do I do now?

I write books. Novels. Thrillers.

When I say this to people, they smile and take a tiny step backward, as though I'm contagious or crazy (doubtful on the first, quite likely on the second). They look at me as though I've just told them I'm building a space ship in my garage, which I intend to pilot to Mars first thing next summer.

And for the record, I AM NOT BUILDING A SPACE SHIP IN MY GARAGE.

It wouldn't fit.

My friend at the gym looked at me and asked, "So. What do you do now?"

"I write books," I said, shrugging as I often to do let them know I realize it sounds crazy. "Novels. Thrillers."

"Oh," she said. "How interesting. Where can I buy one?"

See. That's the other thing people ask me. Because, you know, it's been six years since you started that first novel. Surely you've had several New York Times bestsellers by now, right?

Uh. No.

I looked at her and smiled. "You can't. I haven't gotten it published yet. And actually, it's my second completed novel. The first one sucked, as first ones often do."

"Oh," she said. "I'm sorry."

Here's what I never have time to say. Writing is easy. I'm doing it right now. You've probably done it a thousand times today. On Facebook. Twitter. Texts. E-mails. Store lists. Ransom notes. Blogs.

We all write.

Good writing, though, is incredibly rare. And great writing is like pornography — I know it when I see it, but I can't really describe it.

Take singing, for instance. Anyone can sing, right? Hell, even I can sing. But when I do, the dog next door howls and my family leaves the house at a dead run. My singing voice strips paint from walls. It's awful. But I can sing. And there are those among us who think they are good singers. Some are. Most aren't. Some think they are great. The vast, vast majority aren't. Dude, I've been to the Basket Case and I've heard your karaoke. You suck. Sorry.

But only a chosen few singers are otherworldly.

You hear them on the radio.

See, you have to have the gift. You can teach an average singer to be a competent singer about 50 percent of the time. But you cannot, under any circumstances, teach a good singer to be great. It ain't happening.

Because it's a gift.

Few people are born with it. You might think Justin Bieber sucks. He might not be your cup of tea. But he has the gift, I don't care what you say. You might not like it, but millions of screaming little girls aren't wrong. Neither is his bank account, for that matter.

It's hard to get a major singing contract with Columbia Records. Don't believe me? Try it.

And it's just as hard to get a book contract from Doubleday or Viking or whomever. You know, the ones with the sweet seven-figure advances. They happen. But not often.

Look, I'm going to be honest here. Anyone, even me, can pay to record a song and sell it to my friends and family. Not that they would remain friends once they heard my voice. But you get my drift.

And anyone can pay to publish their book. And there's nothing wrong with that. I know many good writers who have done just that. But that's not what I want.

Here's the kicker. Great writing isn't good enough these days to get you a major book deal. Let that sink in for a moment. Great writing isn't good enough these days to get you published.

You have to be otherworldly.

The odds of landing a New York City literary agent (which you need to in order to stand even a tiny chance of getting a traditional book deal) aren't good. Most agents (and there are only a few hundred in the world) get anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000-plus novel queries from aspiring writers every year. Most of them suck. But a tiny percent are very good. An even smaller percent are great.

From those 10,000 queries, an agent is likely to sign one new client a year.

One.

The otherworldly one.

But see, I know all that.

I have an admission to make. Everything I have done in my professional life has been geared toward this moment. I became a journalist to eventually write novels. And I have always understood that my chance of succeeding is miniscule. I really do. In later columns, I'll tell you how I got to this point. But suffice it to say, I am here.

So how did that chance meeting at the gym end up, you ask?

"When you get it published," she said. "Please let me know. I want to buy it."

"Thanks." And I really meant it. I loved that she said "when" instead of "if."

She hesitated. "And I want you to know that I wish I had the guts to chase my dreams. So many of us don't, you know."

Dreams are a big deal.

This is mine. I have no idea if I have the gift. But I suspect I'll find out soon enough.

I've worked all of my life for this moment. And I am doing the hard work to get it done.

This is my shot.

#30

About the Author
Terry Towery is a novelist, political hack, former union boss and newspaper editor. He’s also a treasure hunter. He might also be a pirate. We’re not sure. But there are two things we are sure about: 1) he’s cynical in the most awesome way, and 2) he’s married to the cutest roller derby skater you’ll find anywhere.