Ten years of publishing... TODAY!

I am celebrating my tenth anniversary in publishing today!

On July 14, 2009, I published my first novel, Something Missing, with Broadway Books, a division of Doubleday, thus making a seemingly impossible dream come true. I can still remember walking into the now-defunct Borders Books and seeing my book on the shelf for the first time.

This was followed in 2010 with the publishing of my second novel, Unexpectedly, Milo, also with Doubleday.

In 2013, I switched to St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan, and published Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, my most successful book so far. In 2016, I published The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, also with St. Martin’s Press, and in November of this year, I’ll publish my fifth novel, Twenty-one Truths About Love.

Sometime in 2020, my sixth novel The Other Mother, will publish here in the United States. It’s already been published abroad.

I also published Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling in 2018 with New World Library.

Six books in ten years. It’s been an amazing decade.

in addition to publishing in the United States, my books have also been published in more than 25 countries overseas, and three of my four novels are currently optioned for film.

I’ve also become the humor columnist for Seasons magazine and an advice columnist for Slate magazine. I’ve published pieces regularly in Parents magazine

The Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists has awarded me first prize in the opinion/humor writing category in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was the 2014 Dolly Gray Award winner and was a finalist for the 2017 Nutmeg Award in Connecticut.

I say all this because despite a decade of consistent work in the publishing world, here’s the crazy thing:

I still don’t feel like a real author. I still feel like at any moment, I will be discovered for the fraud that I surely am and be unceremoniously kicked out of the literary world.

Isn’t that crazy?

I’ve often wonder when the day will come when I will feel like an honest-to-goodness writer and rid myself of this persistent imposter syndrome.

Then again, maybe imposter syndrome isn’t such a bad thing. It keeps me on the knife’s edge, working like hell to stay relevant, valuable, and in the game.

Still, it would be nice to answer the question, “What do you do for a living?” by saying “Teacher, writer, and storyteller” and not feel like the writer part of that answer isn’t real.

Either way, it’s been ten years today. A decade that I never would have dreamed possible and still seems kind of impossible when I reflect back upon it.

And would’ve been impossible if not for the support of friends, family, editors, publicists, booksellers, Elysha, and my agent and friend, Taryn Fagerness.

Hopefully I’ll be writing a similar post in another ten years, and perhaps by then, I’ll be feeling like the honest-to-goodness author I’ve always wanted to be.

Are my books a window into my soul?

Elysha met a person who read my first novel, Something Missing, and refuses to read any more of my books because after reading the first, she is worried that I'm a nefarious person.

I wrote a novel about a burglar who breaks into home and only steals items that wouldn't be noticed missing (and ultimately becomes a guardian angel to these homeowners), and in response to this work of fiction, this individual, who knows me and once respected me deeply as an educator, is now concerned that I am a man with criminal inclinations and a devious mind.

I had two thoughts:

  1. That person is crazy.
  2. Damn. Do other people read that book and reach the same conclusion? Do people think I'm a bad guy because I wrote about a professional criminal (beyond the people who thought I was a bad guy long before reading Something Missing, of course)? 

A person is crazy only until everyone else agrees with their particular brand of crazy. 

And if this is the case, what other conclusions are people drawing from my books?

Also, my next novel is not going to sit well with crazy people like this, either.   

On this Thanksgiving, I choose to be thankful to Taryn.

I've made it an almost annual tradition to spend a portion of my Thanksgiving writing about the people, places, things and institutions to which I am thankful. 

On this Thanksgiving, I'd like to give thanks to just one person:

My literary agent, Taryn Fagerness. 

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It occurred to me while writing the acknowledgements for an upcoming book that Taryn is directly responsible for making my wildest dreams become a reality. 

This is no exaggeration.

When I was a boy, I dreamed of one day becoming an author. The writer of books. A person whose thoughts and ideas and stories would be of interest to others.

It was a ridiculous dream, of course. I wasn't given the opportunity to go to college after high school. At the age of 18, I was already on my own, living without a safety net, struggling to make ends meet. I was managing McDonald's restaurants, working 60 or more hours every week, constantly dreaming of bigger and better things.

But even so, I was writing. Since my senior year of high school, I have written every single day of my life without exception. In those early days this writing took the form of letters to friends, journal entries, zines, newsletters, and even a blog (though it would be years before "blog" would even become a word) on an early, localized version of the Internet called a BBS.      

I wrote constantly. Still, I never thought my writing would amount to anything of value. 

A few years later, I found myself homeless, jailed, and facing a possible prison sentence. I didn't have a penny to my name. My ridiculous dream of one day becoming an author seemed utterly impossible. 

Years later, after a lot of hard work, the impossible became possible again. I finally wrote my first novel. But it turns out that writing a book is only the first step. It's a huge step, to be sure, and worthy of celebrations, but without a champion of your books, it is likely that your stories will go unseen and unread by the world.

Enter Taryn.

Taryn was working at a large literary agency on the west coast in the summer of 2007 when she discovered my query letter and the first three chapters of my first novel, Something Missing, in the slush pile, alongside hundreds of other letters from hundreds of other hopeful, desperate writers. It was Taryn's job to read through these unsolicited submissions, searching for a diamond in the rough. She liked my query letter, and she liked my first three chapters, so she wrote to me and asked to see the rest of the book. 

Other agents had made similar requests, but as the summer drew to a close, nothing had materialized. After sending letters to 100 literary agents, it looked like I'd be sending out my second batch of 100 letters before long.

Then, on the very last day of my summer vacation, Taryn called and said that she would like to become my literary agent. 

There have been many important phone calls in my life, but as I look back on my life, Taryn owns the top three spots in my personal pantheon of life altering phone calls:

  • That night when she called and became my literary agent
  • The afternoon when she called to tell me that my first novel had sold to Doubleday
  • A frantic, excited phone call she placed immediately after reading the first half of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, telling me that I had written something great.

Each of these phone calls changed my life. 

In each instance, Taryn changed my life. 

Yes, it's true that my hard work was also required. I had to write the books. I spent 17 years of my life writing every single day before ever publishing a story. But Taryn has become the champion of my work, and that role cannot be overstated.

Taryn is not only my literary agent, but she is also my collaborator. My co-conspirator. My friend in words. Before an editor ever sees one of my books, Taryn sees it first, offering her advice on plot, characters, and story. 

She makes my stories better. She makes my writing better.  

Taryn is also directly responsible for the publication of my novels in more than 25 countries.

She is responsible for the film options on three of my novels.

When my third novel didn't sell and I thought my writing career was over, Taryn's words to me were perfect:

"You just need to sit down and write your best book ever."

It is no exaggeration to say that the relationship that Taryn and I have is the envy of so many of my author friends. They cannot believe my good fortune. While they often describe their literary agents as difficult-to-reach, slow-to-react, and less-than-supportive, Taryn is exactly the opposite.

I have often described our relationship like this:

Taryn and I own a company together that publishes books. We are partners in the creation and dissemination of stories. I admittedly own more shares in the company than Taryn, but the company would not operate without each one of us doing our job. 

Taryn is my business partner. She is also my creative partner. She is also my friend. We stand together. We make stuff together. 

On this Thanksgiving, I give thanks to Taryn Fagerness, a person who has made so many of my dreams come true. I have become the thing I never thought I could be. 

I hope you are all lucky enough to find your champion. Your creative co-conspirator. Your dream-come-true maker. 

I am not talented.

I don't believe in talent. I believe in hard work. 

In speaking to a writer recently about her struggles to get published, I said, "Maybe you should write another book. Not everyone publishes the first thing they write."

"You did," she snapped.

While it's true that I managed to publish the first novel I wrote, Something Missing, the road to publication was not so easy.

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I began writing in November of 1988, and since then, I have written every single day of my life without exception.

In high school, I started a business writing papers for my classmates. I wrote for the school newspaper. I started a shortly lived magazine in the spirit of Mad. I wrote political satire. Short stories. Poems. Letters to girls. Lots and lots of letters to girls.  

After high school, I began writing a blog on a bulletin board system: a small scale, localized precursor to the Internet. During that time, I filled journals with stories, memoir, poems, and rants. I wrote hundreds of letters every year to friends around the country and next door. I wrote monthly newsletters for all of my friends. I wrote Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Short plays. Parodies of songs and movies. Comedy bits.   

When I was homeless and without a phone or address, I wrote letters to keep in touch with friends. I wrote long accounts of my life for my attorney, who was defending me against a charges for a crime I did not commit. I wrote long, sad pieces of memoir about how hopeless and alone I felt.   

When I finally made it to college, I studied creative writing. I wrote for the school newspaper and their online magazines. I wrote short stories, speeches, short films, and several failed, unfinished novels. 

In 2004 I took a blogging class at Trinity College and have written a blog post every single day since. For six years, I wrote a daily post to my children on a separate blog.

I've written children's books. A book of poetry. Personal narrative of every length. In addition to the four books I've published and the three that will publish next year, I have two unpublished novels, a unpublished memoir, an unpublished book of poetry, several unpublished picture books, and an unpublished book of personal essays. 

I have been writing a lot for a long, long time. 

I published Something Missing in 2009, 21 years after I committed myself to the craft of writing. I practiced writing on a relentless, daily basis for more than two decades before someone finally paid me money for my work. 

Am I talented? 

If I were talented, would it have taken me two decades of practice before reaching my goal?

My former editor bristles at my assertion that everyone can be a writer, and with enough hard work and practice, perhaps a published writer, too. 

Friends and former colleagues think I'm foolish to believe that anyone is capable of writing good, meaningful, important stuff.

I remind them of how it took my two decades of constant, relentless practice before I was able to write things worthy of publication.

I don't believe in talent.

I believe in my ability to keep my ass in a chair longer than most people.
I believe in my desperate, unwavering dream to be a published author.    
I believe in my refusal to give up. 
I believe in the power of practice, repetition, study, and failure.
I believe in grit, tenacity, determination, and persistence. 

The path to success can often seem short and simple. But when viewed through the longer lens of time, talent will almost always give way to hard work. 

If you can't publish your first novel, write another. And another. And another. 

Or quit and fail. 

The choice is simple. The path is not. 

Pulling back the curtain on the translation process

I've been fortunate enough to have my novels translated and published in more than 25 countries around the world. Just this week I heard from readers in Mexico, France, Brazil, and Australia, including two students who are reading Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend in school and one woman who strongly believes that Something Missing must be made into a film.

It was recently optioned again for film, so perhaps she will be proven correct.

But when it comes to the actual translations, I have almost no say over specifics, including the cover art. In the past ten years, I've spoken to translators two or three times in Germany and France when they had questions, but for the most part, I receive a check, and most of the time, I eventually receive the foreign edition of the novel. 

It's a process very much out of my hands.

This is why I enjoyed this video so much. It sort of pulled back the curtain a bit on the process of turning a book written in English into one that can be read by people in countries around the world..

While I have not sold quite as many books as JK Rowling, I'd like to think that translators are making just as many thoughtful decisions as the translators of her novels. 

Great first sentences (and an analysis of the first sentences of my own novels)

I have no definitive favorite first line of a novel, though I am partial to the first line of Slaughterhouse Five:

"All this happened, more or less."

Also, Fahrenheit 451

"It was a pleasure to burn."

Of all my books, I like the first sentence of Chicken Shack, my unpublished novel that will hopefully see the light of day someday, the best: 

"They tried not to receive corpses on the same day as chicken, but since it was impossible to predict when a logger might fall from his bucket truck and break his neck, the two deliveries occasionally coincided."

I like to think that it works well because it’s unexpected and a little mysterious but contains enough specificity to make the initial image real for the reader. Why chicken and corpses would arrive anyplace on the same day is strange, but the specific image of the logger’s fall is enough to also establish the reader within the story. 

At least I hope. 

I also like the first sentence of Unexpectedly, Milo:

"The moment that Milo Slade had attempted to avoid for nearly his entire life finally arrived under the sodium glow of a parking lot florescent at a Burger King just south of Washington, DC along interstate 95."

Again, the sentence contains that combination of mystery and specificity that I like. The moment that Milo has been trying to avoid for his entire life is left undefined, but the setting is clearly established. In doing these two things simultaneously, I like to think that I both intrigue and ground the reader in the story at the same time. 

However, this sentence was not originally the first sentence of the book. Prior to the addition of the prologue, this sentence appeared closer to the end of the book than the beginning. The original first sentence was:

"When he spotted the video camera the first time, sitting on the end of the park bench beneath the dying elm, Milo didn’t take it."

While I like the new first sentence better, this isn’t bad. The use of the phrase "the first time" lends an air of mystery, yet I again attempted to make the specifics of the scene (park bench beneath the dying elm) clear to the reader. 

The first sentence of Something Missing reads:

"Martin opened the refrigerator and saw precisely what he had expected."

I don’t like this one nearly as much, but it accomplished the goal at the time. Compared with the other two books, I put in significantly less thought into the first sentence of Something Missing, but my intention was to begin with action, knowing how much of the story would take place within Martin’s head. I also revised the sentence much later to include the words precisely and expected, knowing how appropriate they are to Martin’s character. 

The first sentence of The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs is a good one, too:

"Caroline Jacobs rose, pointed her finger at the woman seated at the center of the table reserved for the PTO president and her officers, and said it."

Truthfully, though, it's really the first paragraph as a whole that works well. The first sentence contains that same blend of mystery and specificity, but it works even better in concert with the four other sentences that make up the first paragraph.  

The same holds true for Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. The first sentence is:

This is what I know:
My name is Budo.

This is the beginning of a list of nine things that comprise the opening page, and these items work well together. In fact, the last item is the sentence that hooked by editor when she was considering the book. 

Sometimes a first paragraph is more relevant than a first sentence.

One of my favorite first lines of a book (and many people's first line) comes from Charlotte's Web:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

It’s probably my favorite because author EB White appears to have the same goal in mind as I do when writing a first sentence. "Where’s Papa going with that ax?” is certainly intriguing, but White also firmly establishes character and setting in the second half of the sentence.

My wife’s favorite line is the classic line from Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

I recently attempted to challenge the merit this line, claiming that it may have a foundation in sexism, patriarchy, and materialism, but my wife threatened to go out to the shed and get Papa’s ax if I said another word.

But still, doesn’t it?

An alternative to this line can be found in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the retelling of the Jane Austin classic with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem!” Expectedly, the famous first line of Austin novel was re-written for this retelling:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

No question of sexism there.

Do you have a favorite first line to share?  If so, please do.

Book Club Adventures on Planes and Trains and Automobiles (sort of)

Since I published my first novel in 2009, I have attended well over 100 book club meetings both in person and over Skype with people from all over the world who have read my books. While I love speaking in book stores and libraries whenever given the opportunity, it's always a special honor to be invited to one of these book club meetings. These are folks who have already read my book and are armed with interesting comments and questions that I love to listen to and answer.

What I have discovered over the years is that no two book clubs are exactly alike. Each possesses a unique personality and culture that is often surprising and oftentimes unimaginable.

Simply put, I have witnessed a great many things over the years while visiting with book clubs. Occasionally, Elysha will join me for a book club meeting, making these experiences even more fun.

The methods by which book clubs choose the books they read are fascinating. From debates to democracy to diplomacy to the simple process of taking turns (the preferred method of my own book club), these decisions are fascinating to watch and sometimes a little overwhelming. I have witnessed two PowerPoint presentations at the end of book club meetings, filled with slides arguing why a particular book should be chosen next. I've watched people read book reviews aloud in an effort to win over their fellow book club members. And I've watched one woman offer to buy the book for all of the ladies in the club if they agreed to read it next.  

I have participated in living room game shows of sorts, designed by book club members to test their fellow members' knowledge of the plot and characters of the book. One of these games included theme music, an enormous scoreboard, and electronic buzzers.

I've attended book clubs where the only food served was food mentioned in the book.

I've attended book clubs where members skinny dipped in the adjacent pond. Granted that was my own book club, and one of the skinny dippers was my wife, but still. 

I've visited the book clubs of colleagues and friends. High school classmates and former students. Elysha's first babysitter. My ex-girlfriend. A fellow author.   

I visited a book club that rates the books they read on a 10-point scale, and these scores are averaged, giving the book a final score. In addition to assigning a number, each person also gives a reason for their determination. Members not present who finished the book can email in their rating and rationale. One of their members on the night I was there was in Korea but still took the time to email a score and a paragraph explaining her thinking.

At the end of the year, this book club meets for an awards night of sorts. The members vote on the books read during the year in categories like best and worst book, best passage from a book, best and worst male and female character, best discussion, best cover, and more. They run this awards gala like the Oscars. Members vote, and presumably one member (unless they also enlist the services of Price Waterhouse) collects the votes and places the winner’s names in Oscar-like envelopes for the dramatic reveal.  

I've Skyped with readers in at least half of the 50 states, plus Canada, Mexico, the UK, Denmark, Brazil, and Germany. I've spoken to a bookclub of women in Saudi Arabia who were all donning full burkas for the entire discussion. I've spoken to students in on the other side of the country and prisoners behind bars. 

I've often thought that I should write a book about my book club adventures. I have more than enough stories to fill the pages, 

And I continue to experience new and interesting moments with book clubs all the time. Last week I had two such experiences.

Early in the week, Elysha and I were invited to attend my first book club meeting on a boat. We traveled to Coventry, CT, where we boarded a small boat on Lake Wangumbaug and went for a ride on a warm, summer evening with about half a dozen ladies and two of their husbands. Barbecue chicken and other tasty morsels were served, as well as Blackstone wine, in honor of my hometown and the setting for The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs.

It was a beautiful summer evening and a picturesque setting for a chat about books, writing, schooling, and more. We met some fantastic people that evening and hope to see them again sometime soon.

Later in the week, I was scheduled to Skype with a book club in Strasburg, Ohio, but a mix-up on my part regarding the date of our meeting caused me to be double booked. I was supposed to be at a Moth StorySLAM at the National Black Theater in Harlem that night while also speaking to a group of library patrons who had just finished reading Something Missing.

So in another book club first, as we drove into Harlem, Elysha called the group via Skype on my phone and pointed the camera in my direction while I sat behind the wheel. While I navigated the surface streets of Harlem, I answered questions from the group about Something Missing and my writing process. And when things became dicey because I was traveling into unfamiliar sections of the city and needed to consult my GPS, Elysha turned the phone on herself and answered questions from the group.

Book clubs folks love to ask her questions. 

One of the questions asked was this:

"Is Matt as funny at home as he is in his books?"

Elysha's response:

"No, not really. But he makes like interesting."

Two weeks later and I'm still stinging from that answer.

But it was my first book club conducted from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, and while it caused Elysha to panic a few times, it was exciting, and the readers in Ohio got a kick out of listening to me speak while catching glimpses of New York that they only see in TV and movies.

I like to think that I turned a problem (double booking the evening) into something better than originally planned.  

I also offered to do a more traditional book club meeting with them anytime they want.

I've yet to meet with a book club while on a plane, train, bicycle, or horseback, but I'm sure that day will come. 

If you'd like to invite me to one of your book club meetings, either in person or Skype, simply send me an email. I'd be happy to get together with you and your fellow readers.

Today I feel like a real author – which doesn’t happen often – and not for any reason that you might imagine.

I’m not sure if other authors feel this way, but most days, I don’t feel like a real author.

Its ridiculous but true.

I’ve published three novels – two with Doubleday and one with St. Martin’s Press – and I have a fourth publishing in September. My last book was translated into more than 25 different languages and was an international bestseller.

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All three of my novels have been optioned for film or television.

I receive emails and tweets from readers all over the world daily about my books.

And yet when I’m completely honest with myself, I don’t ever feel like a real author. At best, I feel like I’ve fooled people into believing that I’m a real author, and at any moment, the literati will discover the truth and my last book will be my last.

Someone recently asked me, “When did you know that you had finally made it?”

Without any attempt at humor or self-deprecation, my instant response was, “You’re probably the only person on the planet who thinks I’ve made it. I’m not even close to making it. I don’t even know what making it looks like. I don’t think I’ll ever make it.” 

I have no evidence, but I suspect that these feeling are true for many authors.

Thankfully, there are moments when this stupidity is challenged. Yesterday a reader send me a photo of her Book of the Day calendar. March 18 had been given over to my last novel, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.

Oddly enough, this tangible mention of my novel, sitting atop a reader’s desk on a square of paper, made me feel more like a real author than many of the moments that should’ve convinced me long ago.

And I have no idea why.

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I have 15 jobs. So you probably require my services in one way or another.

As the New Year approaches and the endless possibilities of the coming year loom on the horizon, I always like to take a moment and reset my current occupational status, in the event that you or someone you know will require my services in 2015.

While occupations like teacher and writer seem like fairly obvious inclusions on the list, there are also several less obvious jobs on the list that may seem a little silly at first, but let me assure you that they are not.

Many people thought it was silly back in 1997 when my friend and I decided to become wedding DJs, even though we had no experience, equipment, or knowledge of the wedding industry whatsoever. We simply declared ourselves wedding DJs, bought a pile of equipment that we didn’t know how to use, and began the search for clients.

Nineteen years and more than 400 weddings later, we’re still in business.

The same could be said about my decision to become a minister in 2002. Or a life coach back in 2010. Or a professional best man in 2011. Or last year’s declaration that I was a public speaking coach. Or last week’s announcement that I am now a presentation consultant.

All of these positions have either become profitable ventures or at least received interest from potential clients.

The lesson: If you want to do something, just start doing it.  

So here is a list of my 14 current occupations and an explanation of my services. I hope I can be of service to you in 2015. 
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Teacher. Sorry. I’ve got a job teaching already, and I love it.

But in about four years, a partner and I plan on opening a one-room schoolhouse for students grades K-5, so if you’re looking for a school for your child at that time (or looking to donate money to build the school), contact me.

Writer: In addition to writing novels, I’ve also written a memoir, a book of essays, a rock opera, a tween musical, and a screenplay. I’m also the humor columnist for Seasons magazine.

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I’m always looking for additional writing gigs, in particular a regular opinion column and/or advice column, so if you have a writing job in need of a good writer, contact me.

Wedding DJ: My partner and I are entering our 19th year in the business. We’ve have entertained at more than 400 weddings in that time. We’ve cut back on our business in recent years, ceasing to advertise or even maintain a respectable website. Almost all of our business these days comes through client or venue referrals, as we prefer.

If you’re getting married and need a DJ, contact me. 

Storyteller and public speaker: I deliver keynote addresses, inspirational speeches, and talks on a variety of subjects including education, writing, storytelling, productivity, and more. I’m represented by Macmillan Speakers Bureau.

I’m also a professional storyteller who has performed at more than 60 storytelling events in the last three years and has hosted story slams for literary festivals, colleges, and more. I’m a 15-time Moth StorySLAM champion and GrandSLAM champions whose stories have appeared on The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life.

If you need someone to entertain, inspire, inform, or emcee, contact me.  

Founder and producer of Speak Up: My wife and I produce a storytelling show called Speak Up. We are based in Hartford at Real Art Ways with additional shows at venues throughout the region, including local schools and The Mount in Lenox, MA.

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If you have an audience that would be interested in storytelling, or you’re a storyteller looking to pitch a story for one of our shows, send an email to speakupstorytelling@gmail.com.

Minister: In the past ten years, I’ve married 13 couples and conducted baby naming ceremonies and baptisms. I’ll be marrying two more couples in 2015.

If you’re getting married and are in need of a minister, contact me. 

Life coach: In the past four years, I’ve worked with four different clients, assisting them in everything from goal setting to productivity to personal relationships to career development.

If you’re looking to make changes in your life and become a happier and more successful person, contact me.  

Tutor: I tutor students in grade K-12 on everything from general academics to college essay writing.

If you’re the parent of a student in need of academic support, either regularly or occasionally, contact me.

Storytelling and public speaking coach: For the past two years, I’ve been teaching storytelling workshops and coaching storytellers on an individual basis. People often take my workshops in hopes of performing in storytelling shows and competing in story slams, but they also take these workshops to improve job performance, enhance communication skills, and get their friends and family to finally listen to them.

My real mission is to eliminate the scourge of PowerPoint from this planet, one story at a time.

If you’d like to improve your storytelling, public speaking, and/or communication skills, send an email to speakupstorytelling@gmail.com and get on our mailing list. 

Writing camp coordinator and instructor: Last year my wife and I launched Writer’s Abroad, a four week long summer writing camp for students ages 11-16. We had an outstanding inaugural season and plan on an even better second year in 2015.

If you are the parent of a child ages 11-16 who loves to write and/or could benefit from four weeks of intensive writing instruction designed to improve skills and inspire writers, this camp may be for you. Contact me.

Presentation consultant: Since posting about this position a week ago, I have heard from two people who have expressed interest in hiring me for their fairly new companies at some point in the future. I may also have the opportunity to take on a partner in this business.

If you are a person who delivers content via meetings, presentations, workshops, etc. and would like to improve your communication skills, contact me.

Professional Best Man: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2011, four grooms and two reality television producers have inquired about hiring me for their weddings and television shows that are wedding related. Geographical constraints forced me to reject all their offers thus far. I am still awaiting my first gig.

Productivity consultant: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2013, I’ve had one inquiry about my services.

If you would like to become a more productive person in your personal or professional life and are willing to make changes in order to achieve this goal, contact me.

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Professional double date companion: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2011, I have had no inquiries. That does not mean the job is a failure. Just that it has yet to succeed.

If you’re dating someone for the first time or have been on several dates and need that important second or third opinion on the person in question, contact me.

Professional gravesite visitor: Since posting about this position on this blog in 2011, I have had no inquiries. That does not mean the job is a failure. Just that it has yet to succeed.

If you have a gravesite in Connecticut in need of visiting, contact me.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is an understandable but impossible-to-answer question for authors. But “Nuns at Scout camp” will be one of my answers someday.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas for books, which is an understandable but impossible question to answer.

There is no well of ideas. There is no secret formula. There is no one answer to that question, as much as fledgling writers seem to want there to be.

Simply put, I hear something. I read something. I see something. The flicker of an idea is born.

Something Missing was born from a conversation with a friend over dinner about a missing earring.

Unexpectedly, Milo began with a memory from my fourth grade classroom.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was born from a conversation with a friend and colleague while monitoring students at recess.

My upcoming novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, originated with a story that my wife told me about her childhood just before falling asleep.

My unpublished novel, Chicken Shack, began with a dare.

All of these are simplifications of the actual origins of these novels. There are more complex stories behind the origin of each book. In all cases, additional ideas were grafted onto the original idea to create a more complex story.

But in terms of the initial spark, that was how each story began.

Which leads me to this poster, which is displayed in the Yawgoog Heritage Museum at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, the camp where I spent many of my boyhood summers.

I suspect that someday in the future, this poster will be added to the list of initial sparks for one of my novels.

A nun’s day at a Scout camp? How could this not be the basis for a novel?

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Dungeons & Dragons brought me back to writing and saved my career.

The New York Times reports that Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz is a former Dungeons & Dragons player.

So too was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire.

Many more.

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

It’s an impressive but certainly not exhaustive list.

Not exhaustive, for certain, because it does not include me. I am also a former Dungeons & Dragons player.

In fact, D&D brought me back to writing and saved my writing career.

I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, when a friend  introduced me to the game. I rolled some dice, created a character, and played The Keep on the Borderlands, an adventure that I can still remember to this day. I fell in love with the game immediately, and before long, I had stopped playing and had graduated to Dungeon Master, the leader of the adventure. The arbiter of the rules, the invisible hand of fate, but most important, the storyteller. I began by using pre-purchased Dungeons & Dragons adventures (called modules) but was soon writing my own adventures for my players.

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In many ways, I was writing stories for the first time.

I played D&D throughout much of my childhood, becoming a scholar of the game. When cars, girls, and high school sports injected themselves into my life, Dungeons & Dragons was pushed aside. I briefly played again after high school with friends who were attending college. Then my manuals, modules, and multisided dice were packed away and moved to the basement, never to be seen again.

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Or so I thought.

Fast forward about 12 years. It’s 2002. I’ve graduated from Trinity College with a degree in English and creative writing, and for the last five years, I have been trying and failing to write my first novel. Nothing I seem to do works. Nothing I write makes me happy. After many failed attempts, I have given up on my dream. I’ve come to the realization that as much as I want to be an author, even I don’t like the things I write.

I quit. I decide that I will never be an author. 

Then I get a call from my friend, Shep, a former Dungeons & Dragons player in his childhood. He has gathered some of our friends (also former players) and wants to try playing the game again. He asks me to join the group.

At this point in my life, I am single and hoping to find the right girl, and I don’t see Dungeons & Dragons as the path to romance, so I decline.

He calls back a few days later. He tells me that I don’t need to play. “Just write our adventures. Maybe serve as Dungeon Master, if you want, but at least write some adventures for us.”

I suddenly have an audience for my writing. People want to read the words that I write. People are asking to read the words that I write. Something stirs inside me. I say yes.

I write D&D adventures for my friends for more than a year, and yes, I am convinced to occasionally reprise my role as Dungeon Master, too. I write hundreds of pages of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, and as I do, the writer in me awakens. I start to feel good about writing again. I start to wonder if I can still be the writer that I dreamed of being when I was in high school.

It’s an exciting time in my life.

About a year after my return to Dungeons & Dragons, I call Shep. I tell him that I can’t write D&D adventures anymore. I tell him that I need to try writing a novel again. I tell him that I feel that pull toward the page that I have not felt in so long.

He understands. He offers to read whatever I write. Shep becomes my first reader. He remains an early reader and one of the most important readers of my work to this day.

I start writing Something Missing in February of 2005. I finish writing it in June of 2007. It publishes in 2009.

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I have made my childhood dream come true. My writing career has been launched. I am an author.

Would I be writing today if it hadn’t been for Dungeons & Dragons? I would like to think that I would’ve eventually returned to the page, but I’m not sure.

Maybe not.

A friend in middle school introduces me to the game.

More than twenty years later another friend brings me back to the game.

I find my chops. I rediscover my love for writing. I start the novel that launches my career.

Take away either one of these friends and I shudder to think about what might have happened to my dream/

Take away Dungeons & Dragons and I wonder if I would be sitting here today, writing these words.

Maybe not.

The career of an author is not all angst and loneliness. Some of the time.

I am not a starry eyed author. I expect little from my publishing career. When I published my first novel, Something Missing, in 2009, I was not under the illusion that I would be quitting my day job anytime soon. I saw that book as a small, uncertain, precarious step into a new career that came with no guarantees.

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With each successive book, my attitude has changed very little. My most recent novel, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, has sold well and has been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide, and I still view every book as possibly my last.

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There are no guarantees. If I don’t write an excellent book every time, this career could end tomorrow. 

This pessimistic attitude means that I am rarely disappointed by my writing career and occasionally surprised and elated about truly unexpected surprises that my writing career brings. This week has been just such a week.

On Monday I made arrangements to Skype with a book club in Saudi Arabia about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. Saudi Arabia! The fact that people around the globe are reading my stories never fails to excite me. 

On that same day, one of my former students told me that her college roommate was discussing my most recent novel in her English class.

That same night I drove to New York City to compete in a Moth StorySLAM, and I won. My fifth won in  a row! I wouldn’t be nearly the storyteller that I am today without my writing career. 

On Tuesday I scheduled meetings with two local book clubs to talk about my my books and my writing career.

Yesterday I received updates on the film options on two of my novels. While there are absolutely positively no guarantees when it comes to Hollywood and movie deals, the fact that talented people are working hard to adapt and  develop my material is thrilling.

Last night a college student sent me a book trailer for Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend that he created for class.

This has been an unusual week in terms of happy publishing moments. Most of the time, I am sitting at a table, fighting with words, struggling to find a few more minutes in my busy day to write. It’s hard, it’s lonely, it’s frightening and it’s always uncertain.

That said, weeks like this help a lot.

Where do you get your ideas?

I am often asked where I get the inspiration and ideas for my stories, especially considering that I’m fortunate enough to have so many ideas from which to choose.

A few years ago I wrote a post explaining my process. Since I continue to be asked this question almost more than any other, I thought I’d update that post here. I’ve completed two more books and a short story since then, so I have more to share on the subject. 

It’s rally the kind of question that is impossible to answer with a single sentence, because I never know when I might stumble upon an idea that could make a great book. I tend to be the kind of person who asks a lot of “What if?” questions, and through these questions, many of my ideas are born.

But since that is a relatively meaningless answer, I thought I’d give you some specific examples of how some of my stories were born.

SOMETHING MISSING: Over dinner several years ago, a friend bemoaned the loss of one of her earrings. She opened her jewelry box and could only find one of the two earrings that made up the pair.

In an attempt to make her smile, I asked, “What if someone broke into your house and stole your earring but left the other one behind so you wouldn’t suspect theft?” As I gnawed on a dinner roll, I found myself trying to imagine the kind of person who would break into every home in America and steal just one earring from every woman’s jewelry box.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, that was the moment that Martin Railsback and his story were born.

UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO:  For a long time, I wanted to be a film director.  At one point I had the idea for a movie in which three less-than-savory characters steal a video camera from a family on vacation in New York City.  After watching the videotapes in the privacy of their cockroach-infested apartment, the trio realizes that the memories captured on the videotape mean more to the family than they could have ever imagined, and they decide to return the tapes to their owners. They watch the footage in order to glean clues as to the owner’s identity, and in doing so, they become uncommonly attached to the family as a result. This idea served as the basis for UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO.

However, I also dipped into my own life for major pieces of the plot, including:

The separation and divorce from my first wife in 2003.

The two months spent in fourth grade helping a friend plan his escape to an uncle’s house in the Midwest. Chris wanted to run away from home, something he had done before, and though he never made the journey that we planned in the back of the classroom, I often wondered what might’ve happened if Chris had run away from home and had disappeared in the process. How would I have felt knowing that I had a hand in my friend’s disappearance, and how might that have impacted the rest of my life?

This became a major plot point in the story.

CHICKEN SHACK (an unpublished manuscript): There was once a potato chip factory in my hometown of Blackstone, Massachusetts that produced a brand of potato chips called Blackstone Potato Chips. The factory closed years ago, and on a trip back to Blackstone, I noted that the factory was now a funeral home. “Wouldn’t it be great if they still sold potato chips and embalmed dead people at the same time?” I said to my wife as we drove by. A moment later, the idea of a funeral home that also sells fried chicken landed in my mind and CHICKEN SHACK was  born.

Once again, I dipped into my own personal life for other key elements to the story, including:

The disappearance of my brother, Jeremy, who I had not seen for more than five years after my mother died.

A public, and in the words of many attorneys and law enforcement officers, unprecedented attack on my character and reputation by an anonymous source several years ago.

My occasional forays into amusing and ultimately meaningless forms of vigilante justice, mostly as a teenager but occasionally as an adult.

MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND:  This book began with a simple conversation with my student-teacher about an imaginary friend that I had as a child. In the span of about four sentences, the idea for Budo and his story was born.

I also managed to take advantage of my experience with autistic children when writing my book, and on an unconscious level, my constant, persistent existential crisis became a key element in the story as well. 

THE PERFECT COMEBACK OF CAROLINE JACOBS: My next book began with a conversation that my wife and I had in bed one night. We were talking about her childhood home, and she told me about something cruel that a friend had said to her during a sleepover.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could find that girl today and finally tell her off?” I asked.

Just like that, the book was born. 

My next book is the story of a woman who suffered at the hands of a bully in high school, and much later in life, decides to finally do something about it. I used some of the bullying and hazing that I experienced in high school as inspiration, but most of the story was born from that simple question asked to my wife while lying in bed one night.    

BETTY BOOP:  The idea for this manuscript, which I am still tinkering with on the side, was born after reading about a 2009 law outlawing prostitution in the state of Rhode Island.  Prostitution was actually legal in Rhode Island between 1980 and 2009 because there was no specific statute to define the act and outlaw it, although associated activities, such as street solicitation, running a brothel, and pimping, were still illegal. With the passing of the 2009 law banning prostitution, I found myself wondering what a prostitute in Rhode Island might do now that his or her previously legal means of earning a living were suddenly forbidden. I came up with an solution for my theoretical prostitute, and that is the basis for this book.

Farewell to Arms: I recently wrote a short story that is currently under submission to several literary journals. It is an uncharacteristically dark story of an armless soccer team.

It was written on a dare.

Someone at work commented that soccer is so popular around the world because you don't need anything to play. Even a crumbled-up bit of newspaper can serve as a ball.

"You don't even need arms," I said. "That would be a story. Huh? A soccer team with no arms."

"Even you couldn't write that story," my friend said. 

I took up the challenge and wrote the story in three days.

The friends who have read the story like it a lot. I’m waiting to see if the literary magazines agree. 

“Book club date night” is probably not the most romantic way to spend an evening with your wife

Since publishing my first novel in 2009, I’ve visited with more than one hundred book clubs throughout Connecticut and beyond, oftentimes in person and many times via conference call, Skype or a similar platform. I’ve video chatted with books clubs in Canada, Finland, Australia and the UK as well as clubs throughout the United States.

Last week I joined 23 women in my home state who had read my first novel, SOMETHING MISSING.

This particular meeting took place on a late Wednesday afternoon, but when the book club meets on a Friday or Saturday night, I make every effort to bring Elysha along and declare it “book club date night.”

Don’t try this at home.

Essentially, I’m asking my wife to join me at a stranger’s home and spend two hours listening to women (it’s always women) ask me questions about my books and my life while telling me how much they enjoy my work.

It’s rare for someone to tell me that they did not like my book. I try to arrive about 15 minutes late to every book club in order to allow any detractors to have their say before I arrive, but there have been a couple of women over the years who have been less than enthusiastic about my work and not afraid to tell me so.

I always admire these women for their moxie while simultaneously questioning their taste in literature. 

I’m always honored to be invited to attend a book club, and it’s fun to be able to talk to people who have read my novel already. The conversations tend to be deeper and more specific, and the food and drink is always surprisingly elaborate and good. Book clubs have even gone so far as to decorate the space in the theme of the book and design games for us to play related to the story.

It can be a lot of fun.

But still, asking your wife to join you for a stranger’s book club meeting on a Friday night might not be the best way to win points with your spouse. To her credit, Elysha almost always agrees to join me and always seems to have a great time.

Many times she almost becomes a part of the book club, sitting apart from me and chatting with the women like she’s known them all her life. Occasionally questions will be directed at her as the spouse of the writer, and sometimes she will even direct questions at me as well.

At the book club pictured below, the love seat was set aside for the two of us, but Elysha refused, choosing instead to sit amidst the ladies on the soda and chatting them up all night long.

I complained about her unwillingness to sit beside me, but I shouldn’t.

Getting her to agree to join me is always a victory.

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The birth of Something Missing: Aimee Mann's theory on creativity matches my own perfectly

On a recent podcast, musician Aimee Mann said, “Being stuck in one place and bored out of your mind is the key to creativity.” I couldn’t agree more.

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My writing career only began because I was bored out of my mind as well.

It was February of 2005. My wife and I were spending a week in Boca Raton, Florida with her then 87 year-old grandmother. Much of our trip consisted of breakfast and lunch at the club and dinner at a restaurant somewhere in town.

Halfway through the trip, Nana left us for the evening. She had a date with a man named Joe and an opera class at the local college, which left us home alone and without a car. After days without Internet access or cable television service and nothing left to read, I found myself in a desperate search for something to keep me busy.

The previous November, my then-fiancée and I were having dinner with our close friends, Charles and Justine. During the course of the meal, Justine mentioned that she had lost an earring earlier that day and was hoping to find it when they returned home. I asked Justine how she knew that the earring had been misplaced. “Perhaps some clever thief came to your house and stole just one earring, so that you wouldn’t suspect theft.”

The idea of a thief who only steals items that go unnoticed lodged itself in my mind, and when I arrived home later that night, I jotted down the idea on my ever-growing list of possible story ideas.

The idea was still stuck in my mind while pacing around Nana’s home three months later, but I had no story. Just the idea for a character. Nevertheless, boredom defeated my belief that I had to outline any story that I was going to write, so with nothing but an idea for a character, I started writing.

I wasn’t sure if it would be a short story or something longer, but by the time the trip was done, the first three chapters of the novel were complete and I was well on my way.

When I began the book, I had no idea where the story might take me,. I simply began connecting sentences together and waited to see what might happen. This is a method of writing that no one had told me about during my time at college. Despite attaining a degree in English with a creative writing concentration, my professors had always taught me to outline before writing. Create character sketches. Research. Plan.

I’ve since learned to embrace the unknown and allow the story to come to me. Stephen King calls this “unearthing the fossil,” though I wouldn’t hear this expression until the book was nearly finished. I’ve also learned that about half of all fiction writers write this way.

Ten years go, this would have sounded like nonsense to me, but now I believe it with all my heart. There were many moments in the writing of Something Missing when I literally did not know what would happen next until I wrote it, and the same has held true for my subsequent novels.

In fact, as I writing the final chapters of Something Missing, I still didn’t know what my main character’s ultimate fate would be. I was writing the section of a chapter in which much of the plot would be resolved when my wife called.

“I can’t talk. I’m about to find out what happens to Martin.”

“Really,” she said. “What happens?”

“I don’t know! I’m still writing it!”

If you are reading this chapter someday, remember that I experienced it just like a reader would: One word at a time.

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Though many authors know exactly where their stories will ultimately go, I do not, and I’ve learned to trust this instinct. I start with character. I find a person who interests me, and then, in a vomit-provoking, disgustingly spiritual, earthy-crunchy way, I assume that the plot is already written in the character’s fate.

Once I’ve found the character, his or her fate is sealed. I just have to unearth it.

But it’s true. I’d been trying to start a novel for more than five years before beginning Something Missing, but each time, I thought that I needed to plan the story from beginning to end before starting to write. While many writers work this way, I have found that I am better off beginning with a glimmer of an idea and discovering the rest along the way. I leave the story to fate, and things have seemed to work out so far.

I like to tell this story because I worry that too many writers sit around, waiting for their one great idea to emerge, when that idea might already exist, waiting to be unearthed.

So if you’re waiting for the next great novel idea to reveal itself to you, why not pick up a pen and starting writing while you wait?

As for my, I’m eternally grateful that even at the age of 87, Nana was still driving, dating and taking classes. Like Aimee Mann, I needed to be stuck in one place and bored out of my mind for my creative process to finally reveal itself to me. Nana unwittingly provided me with just that when she left me at home that night.

She’s 92 today and little has changed. On Sunday night she was sitting in the audience at The Moth’s GrandSLAM, chatting with hipsters from Brooklyn while waiting to hear me tell my story.

I have friends in their thirties who tell me that they can’t stay up that late.

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Amazon’s new policy on book reviews did not impact me thanks to the quality of my friends and family.

You may have heard that Amazon has a new policy when it comes to online book reviews. From a piece in The New York Times:

Giving raves to family members is no longer acceptable. Neither is writers’ reviewing other writers. But showering five stars on a book you admittedly have not read is fine.

After several well-publicized cases involving writers buying or manipulating their reviews, Amazon is cracking down. Writers say thousands of reviews have been deleted from the shopping site in recent months.

Upon reading this,I immediately clicked over to Amazon to see the damage that this new policy had inflicted upon the reviews of my books.

Then I remembered: 

My friends and family don’t review my books on Amazon. Or anywhere else.

MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND currently has 131 reviews (a 4.3 average), and with the exception of my mother-in-law, I don’t think a single review came from a personal friend or family member.

SOMETHING MISSING currently has 81 reviews (a 4.1 average), and I don’t think  any of my friends or family members, including my mother-in-law, reviewed this book.

UNEXPEXTEDLY, MILO currently has a slightly anemic 25 reviews (a 4.2 average), but since there were so few reviews, I took the time to scroll through them all and did not recognize any of the names as being friends or family. 

While it may seem like I’m complaining about the loyalty and support of friends and family (and I sort of am), I also take a lot of pride in the fact that none of the reviews of my books on Amazon, Goodreads or anywhere else have been given by friends or family members, nor have I ever solicited a review from anyone.

It’s great to know that I’m doing just fine on my own, since I am apparently doing this on my own.

I never know what I’m actually writing about

Long after I finished writing my first novel, SOMETHING MISSING, I discovered, only after my wife and therapist pointed it out to me, that I had written a book about my battles with post traumatic stress disorder, my hatred toward my evil step-father and my longing for my absent father.

I didn’t know any of these things while actually writing the book. These revelations were only pointed out to me much later.

Upon finishing my second novel, UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, I discovered that I had written a book about the challenges that I’ve faced throughout my life as a result of refusing to conform. Though readers might think me crazy, it turns out that the most noble character in that story (at least for me) is Louis the Porn Fiend, a character who my agent suggested I cut and who only appears in one chapter. Louis’s nobility derives from his willingness to remain true to himself, even though the world around him may be repulsed by this essential truth.

As Budo says in MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, “You have to be the bravest person in the world to go out every day, being yourself, when no one likes who you are.”

In the process of writing MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, I discovered that I was actually writing about my obsession with mortality and my near-constant existential fear as a result of two near death experiences and a robbery at gunpoint. In fact, an armed robbery takes place in the book, but while writing the scene, it never occurred to me that I might actually be writing about my own experience and the fear still surrounding it.

Books can be funny this way. You think you’re writing about one thing and you’re actually writing about something entirely different.

It turns out that playwriting is the same.

While watching last night’s performance of The Clowns, I wondered why Jake, the play’s protagonist/antagonist, appeals to me so much when so many audience members expressed dislike and even hatred toward the character following the previous show. His likability has been a question that I’ve been considering for quite a while, and the answer finally struck me like a load of bricks last night during the first act.

Jake is me when I was his age.

The Jake who I wrote is far cooler than I ever was, and the actor playing the role is even cooler than the character written on the page, but at his heart, Jake represents someone who I once was, and in that instant, I understood the character completely and knew that needed to be done to mitigate the loathing that audience members felt for him and develop him further.

This couldn’t have happened had not the actor, Richard Hollman, not fully  inhabited the character to the degree he has. I don’t think I will ever think of Jake without thinking of Rich. There may be other actors who play the role of Jake someday, but in my mind, Jake will always be Rich, and Rich will always be Jake. It was only through his performance that I was able to truly see the character, and in many ways, see myself.

All this probably sounds a little hokey (and I agree), but I can’t adequately express how stunned I felt when this realization finally dawned upon me. Not only did the character of Jake become instantly clear to me like never before, but I suddenly understood myself in ways I had never even approached. 

It was an honest-to-goodness moment of epiphany.

Once again, I find myself thinking that I am writing about one thing when in reality, I am writing about another.

I should stop being surprised, but I can’t. It’s so bizarre.

Writing is a strange gig. I often say that I get paid for making up stuff in my head, and while this may be true to some extent, it turns out that writing is far more complex and mysterious than it ever seems.

At least for me. 

Never doubt a librarian

Apologies to the Denver Public Library for the previous post today.

A librarian kindly explained the purpose of the stamp placed upon my orphaned book:

The stamp is a quick way to let people know not to return it to the library. Many times public libraries buy several copies of a book when it is new and popular, but after circulation decreases, one or more copies might be removed to allow for more rooms on the shelves since most libraries don't have unlimited space.

More importantly, a search of Denver’s catalog reveals that that they still have 3 copies of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, 1 copy of SOMETHING MISSING and a whopping 32 copies of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND (only 8 available).

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I don’t know how I ever doubted them.

Can I re-write a book from my back list the same way Def Leppard re-recorded songs and now owns their rights?

Def Leppard, a band that provided much of the soundtrack of my youth, has re-recorded its backlist in an effort to regain financial control of their music.

With newly recorded "forgeries" of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Rock of Ages" now available, the quintet has begun a series of re-recordings of its catalog material and "wrestled control of our career back" from the Universal Music Group, which frontman Joe Elliott says the band refuses to deal with "until we come up with some kind of arrangement" over compensation, especially for digital downloads.

I had no idea that this was possible, but apparently, it is. A record company pays musicians for the master recording of a song but not for the song itself. If a band wants to record a new version of the same song (or attempt to record an identical version of the same song), then the band retains complete financial control over their new version and can do with it as they please, including allowing it to compete for sales with the original version of the song.

I find this fascinating.

Curious about the results, I purchased the re-recording of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” in order to assess the performance. Though it’s a creditable rendition of the song, it’s clearly not the same song that blasted from the windows of every car in the summer of 1987.

I think I’ll be sticking with the original.

But this led me to wonder:

Would this strategy also work in publishing?

Could I re-write my first novel, Something Missing, either word-for-word or perhaps slightly differently, adding or subtracting from the story as I wished, and create an entirely new work in a legal sense? 

Unable to read my books after publication because of my preternatural sense of perpetual dissatisfaction and an incessant need to revise, a strategy like this might allow me to take a book that I wrote a decade ago and refresh it, making the necessary changes that are now obvious to me thanks to an improved skill set and more finely honed authorial instincts.

I’m not necessarily interested in doing this, but is it possible?

Could I publish the new and improved Something Missing that would compete against the original version of the novel?

I can play favorites with my children but not my books

Yesterday a reader in Australia who has now read all three of my novels asked which is my favorite. It’s a question that I’ve heard authors asked many times before, and I’ve heard many of them give an answer. I don’t know how they do it.

Choosing between the three books that I have published so far (and even my unpublished manuscript) would be like choosing one of my children as my favorite.

Right now my favorite child is Clara, of course, but that’s because she’s three years old and plays with me. The only thing my two week old son wants is his mother, so while I’d defend him from a bear attack if necessary, I’d do it with grudging annoyance and a bitter heart.

By contrast, I’d defend Clara with a clear mind and an open heart.

But that will change. Eventually Charlie will do something other than sleep and eat, and when he does, choosing my favorite child will become impossible, as it is for choosing a favorite amongst my books.

Each one means so much to me.

Something Missing will always remain special to me because it was the book that launched my publishing career. It was the manuscript that my agent plucked from the slush pile and changed my life forever. It was the book that helped us buy our first home. Most important, of all the characters who I have ever written, Martin remains the most real to me. He is the protagonist who my wife and I still speak of as if he were a real person. Though my interest in writing a sequel to any of my books does not interest me at this time, writing a sequel to Something Missing would probably be easiest because Martin continues to live inside me like no other character I have ever written.

Unexpectedly, Milo is the book that explores themes that are most closely connected to me. I have always been interested in the idea that we encourage children at an early age to avoid peer pressure, be themselves, blaze new trails, and not worry about what others may think of them, but when these children continue to follow this advice as adults, they are often punished by society for being different. Unexpectedly, Milo is a book about a man who must hide his differences from the world lest he be expunged from it. It is also a book about a man’s search for someone willing to accept him for who he is. I am not Milo, but a great deal of Milo lives inside me, making this book near and dear to my heart. It was also the book that allowed my wife to stay home with our daughter for the first two years of her life, and that alone makes the book a treasure to me.

My upcoming novel, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, is the book I had the best time writing. Creating the world of imaginary friends was incredibly fun, and I suspect that I tapped into more of my imagination while writing this book than any of my previous stories. The book also reflects many of the existential issues that I deal with on a daily basis, and the fact that one of my closest friends and colleagues exists within the story as herself makes this book especially real to me. Memoirs is also written in the first person and not entirely grounded in reality, making it very different than anything I had ever written before. It was the book that taught me that I can be successful trying new things. It has also sold in thirteen foreign markets in addition to the US, making it my most financially successful book so far, and it will allow my wife to stay home for the first two years of our son’s life.

As you can see, choosing between these three books would be impossible. Perhaps someday I will write a masterpiece that I can declare my favorite.

More likely, I will write a clunker that I can exclude from my list of favorites.