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Towery on Fiction: A good rule to live by

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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 novelist and journalist. His debut novel, the psychological thriller "The Final Victim" is about to go on submission, which means it will be pitched by
his agent to acquisition editors at the New York City publishing houses. Wish him luck. He's going to need it.

I found something recently in my first "plot notebook" dating back to when I was beginning to write my first
novel in February 2007. I don't even remember writing it. It was scribbled in the margin, and it said, simply:

"Remember, failure isn't the end of the world; giving up is."

It's hard to believe it's been seven years since I quit my cushy newspaper job and started down the long road toward becoming a published author.

What a schmuck, I remember thinking. I'm sure many of my friends and colleagues thought the same thing.

I'd dreamed of writing novels since I was a kid. It conjured images of smoking a pipe while wearing gray tweed, maybe sipping some green tea in the parlor. What a job it must be, I remember thinking. Just the word novelist gave me shivers. Its ranks are littered with my childhood and adult heroes: King, Chandler, Grisham, Connelly, Updike (God, especially Updike), Faulkner, Salinger, and Block—far too many names to list here.

They were writers who magically transported me into new worlds, far from the one in which I was living. I remember curling up on frigid winter nights while stationed with the
Air Force in Grand Forks, North Dakota, reading The Stand or The Last Convertible and forgetting for a while my fear and loneliness, forgetting
the howling wind and sub-zero temperatures outside my depressing little barracks room.

When it came to escape, a great book beat booze and drugs every time. Well, some of the time, anyway.

When I left the newspaper, I left with a dream, the same one that got me into the job in the first place. See, I became a journalist to hone my writing skills. But I fell I love with
newspapering and spent 25 years of my life in that newsroom. After leaving, I immediately started a novel, a thriller that was a barely disguised autobiography. It damn
near killed me to write it (it took me more than two years), but I limped across the finish line in August 2009.

And I couldn't land the Holy Grail of publishing, a literary agent.

The rejections piled up. I think I quit trying after 32 rejections. I shelved the book and spent a lot of time examining my life. I wanted to quit. This was too freaking hard. The odds
of getting a literary agent are estimated at 1 in 10,000. And that's provided you can even finish the damned book, since the vast majority of aspiring
novelists can't even manage that. I'd be better off buying a lottery ticket, I remember telling my wife.

I applied at Starbucks, but never heard back from them.

A week after giving up on the first book, I started writing again. Fits and starts that never amounted to much. I still have half-a-dozen first chapters on my hard drive, just waiting
for their moment in the sun. I even have more than 20,000 words of a political novel that I really love, just lying there. But it was a first chapter I had
written some months earlier, one that was slated to become the sequel to the book I had just finished, that stayed with me. It started with a bang,
literally. It was about a school shooting, and it was quite bloody and dark.

I remember sitting on our front deck with my wife in September of 2009, talking about what I could do with this "shooting thing." I had no idea where I was going with it, but it felt
like it had potential. A few of my writer friends online had read it, and they thought it was rough but very good.

I spent a few late nights smoking cigars and listening to a lot of music on the headphones. Thinking. Writing ideas and thought fragments in my "plot notebook." That's how the process goes for me.

And then it came to me. The whole damn story unfolded in my mind one night and I sat up until 3 a.m. scribbling it all down in my notebook with shaking hands.

I had my story, but did I have the strength to try it again? Could I spend a year or two (or three or four) pouring my heart and soul into a manuscript, only to be rejected again?
Could I bear to be humiliated again before my friends, my ex-colleagues, and my family?

Have I mentioned that I have the world's most supportive wife? Jennifer has always believed in me, no matter what. Even during the numerous hard times when I no longer believed in myself.

"Write it," she said at dinner one night. "I have faith in you."

And so, I wrote it.

The book became my obsession, my white whale. When I finished the first draft in early 2012, I sent it out to dozens of beta readers, many of whom were extremely helpful with their gentle criticisms. Then I rewrote it again, and sent it out to another dozen readers. And so on, for another year.

When I started querying agents, I was fairly confident I had an amazing book on my hands. So when the rejections started pouring in, I was heartbroken. Here we go again, I
thought.

I knew that the query letter itself is the gateway to landing an agent. It's a 300-word sales pitch for your book and for you, as the author. I swear it's harder to write a great query
than it is write a great book. You get rejected for your query, not your book. It sucks, but it is what it is.

After 30 rejections and a dozen different query letters, I was ready to give up again. I was sick to my stomach most of the time and couldn't sleep at night. I could literally feel my
lifelong dream dying.

But before I packed it in, I decided to give the query one more try. I took my coffee and cigar out onto my back deck one beautiful spring morning last year and wrote the cheesiest query I could think of. I mean, I really hammed it up. It sounded like the drivel one reads on the back of a cheap novel.

What the hell, I figured. Nothing else has worked.

Then I employed the nuclear option. I had ranked all of my target agents from most desirable to least years ago. I decided in a fit of sheer frustration (or perhaps stupidity) to send the cheesy query to my top five agents, figuring I could at least go out in a blaze of glory.

I knew that once they rejected me, I had nowhere else to go. The dream would die, unfulfilled. Like so many do in life.

The next morning, I got a request back from my Number Two agent, asking to read the book. The next day, I got a partial request to read the first fifty pages from Number Three.

And then, I got a partial request from Number One.

I was hyperventilating.

Number Three passed, but said it was a tough decision for her. Then Number Two declined because he thought it was too violent. He invited me to rewrite parts of it and resubmit it. I softened the violence a bit and sent it back.

Then Number One emailed me and asked for the full manuscript. That was on a Friday in early June of 2013.


On Monday morning, she called me.

She said she loved the book, but thought it had some structural issues. Would I be interested in hearing her suggestions and maybe spending the summer rewriting it again?

Does the Pope wear a tall hat?

But I had a decision to make. Two agents had my book, and both were interested. It was the kind of problem I had been dreaming about for decades.

I chose to stick with Number One and after a massive rewrite in which I deleted 61,000 words — words I had sweated blood, sweat and tears over for years — and replaced them with 62,000 new ones, I submitted it again.

And then I waited.

On October 21, at 9:03 in the morning, my first choice of all the literary agents in the world, Laney Katz
Becker, called me. She told me she loved the changes and asked to represent me.

I said yes with tears in my eyes.

I'm now on my second revision since that call, but it's getting close now. So very close. In a couple of
weeks, I will send it back, and Laney will begin shopping the book to the big publishing houses in New York. I still can't believe it.

Don't get me wrong. I could still fail. But the odds are in my favor now. And I know that if she can't sell
this book, I have what it takes to keep trying until I succeed. That's an amazing thing to learn about one's self, especially this late in life.

A couple of days ago, I found what I had written in the margins of my first plot notebook all those years
ago.

Remember, I had written late one night when I was so damned close to giving up, failure isn't the end of the world; giving up is.

That, my friends, is the absolute truth. If you give up on your dreams, they will forever remain just
that — dreams.

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.

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