Busy Town update gets my enthusiastic seal of approval

I never understood Richard Scarry's Busy Town. I didn't have a lot of children's books growing up, so I missed out on the series for the most part.

But I also made no effort to get my hands on the book for one specific reason:

Even as a kid, I always thought it was stupid when animals in books and movies just did things that regular human beings already did.

Books like the Arthur series were similar. 

I would think: You're going to let animals talk and do stuff, and the best you can do is send them to school every day like me? Give them homework? Make them eat dinner at a table with their parents? Why? 

I also thought as a kid that Richard Scarry's books were falsely advertised. A guy named Richard Scarry wrote these books, but there not a single scary thing in any of these books. What gives?

However, I recently ran across to updates to Richard Scarry's Busy Town online, and these I can support. I love both, but I really love second one best. 

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Seinfeld gets it

Jerry Seinfeld explains with perfect clarity why I'm constantly standing on stages, telling stories, delivering talks, and performing standup. 

I wouldn't go so far as to call the writing and publishing of books the "definition of hell," but he's correct about the lack of immediate, specific feedback from your readers. 

When I stand on a stage and perform, I know how I did immediately, in real time, and that is a beautiful thing. 

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Biggest fan and greatest nemesis meet. Results are climactic.

I first wrote about this story back in 2012. It's one of those stories almost too strange to be believed.

It involves two people.

One of them is a woman from Wisconsin named Charity.

The other is a man from Connecticut whose name I will avoid using in order to protect his identity, though I would take great personal pleasure in naming him.

But I will refrain. I'll simply refer to him as Mr. Mensa. You'll see why. 

The woman in the story, Charity, is one of my biggest fans. She has read all of my books, reads and comments on my blog and social media regularly, and has written me some of the kindest and most generous emails about my work that I have ever received. She promotes my work to her friends. Even her mother is a fan of my books. 

I met Mr. Mensa in the green room of a local television studio a few years ago. I was doing a promotional spot for an upcoming literary festival, and he had recently appeared on a game show and was being interviewed about the experience. He is also a writer. He publishes supernatural detective novels and other things. 

After chatting in the green room for a while, we exchanged contact information and became friends on Facebook.

Over the course of the next year or so, he began commenting on my blog posts and status updates with great regularity. His comments were almost always negative. He attacked my positions, criticized my writing, and challenged me at every opportunity. His comments were often biting and sarcastic.

Truthfully, I didn’t mind much. I like to fight. But the consistency of his attacks were admittedly disconcerting. He never let up, no matter what I was writing about. Elysha came to despise him for his constant rants. Friends asked me who this man was and what he had against me. He had quickly become my online nemesis.

Then one day Mr. Mensa went away. Honestly, I never even noticed. I wasn't exactly looking forward to his frequent comments.

Two years later, I received an email from Charity:

From her email:

I met a guy online a few years ago. He was nerdy and Mensa, and I was single and have never minded boyfriends who are 5'6" compared to my 5'10" frame. We got to know each other on Facebook for a year and a half. Sometimes things we were reading in our spare time would come up.

After more than a year of getting to know each other, he flew out here to Madison for a few days for a date weekend. He flew out here from Connecticut.

He saw one of your books on the table and said, "I know this guy."

I said, “Oh, I am obsessed with this guy's stories. My mother discovered his first book at an ALA convention and I cannot get these stories off my mind. I'm into book three, and it's good, but this author has me spinning because I never know what to expect.”

My friend said, “I know this guy. He is a know-it-all, and I hate him and even unfriended him on Facebook.”

I was like, “Oh! I'm sorry to hear it. Please tell me more.”

He said that you thought you knew more than he did. Period.

The weekend did not end well because he spent most of his time playing video games on his phone. I asked him about this and he said there's nothing wrong with this.

His books make no sense to me and are not interesting.

I can't get 40 pages into his books.

He was a rotten date, boring dinner company, and played video games all evening long.

First, what are the odds that these two people, with such divergent connections to me and separated by such great distances, would come together, entirely independent of me?

Slim at best. Right?

But best of all is what Elysha said when I shared the story with her:

“Your biggest fan and your arch nemesis went on a date!”

She’s right. Even though they live about 2,000 miles apart, my biggest fan and my arch nemesis came together for possible romantic entanglement.

I like to think that it was the presence of my book on that table that saved Charity from years of dating misery, but I suspect that even if my name had not come up, she would’ve jettisoned this guy.

It’s an incredibly small world, especially when you write stories that crisscross the globe.

I wrote about that encounter back in 2012. Two years later, in 2014, I had the honor of traveling to Maine on a perfect August weekend to serve as the minister in Charity's wedding to her husband, Brent. I had never met Charity or Brent in person up until that point, but Charity wanted one of her favorite authors - who also happens to be a minister living in New England - to perform her marriage ceremony, and I agreed. 

How could I not?

In addition to marrying them on the edge of a beautiful lake, I celebrated their nuptials with food, drink, music, and a late night fire-swallowing demonstration by one of their friends that frightened the hell out of me.

Charity remains in occasional contact with Mr. Mensa today. He reportedly likes to brag about his Mensa status (calling his Mensa status seriously into question), and he presumably still despises me and my work. 

But who knows? Had Mr. Mensa appreciated my fiction as much as Charity does, perhaps my biggest fan and my arch nemesis date for a while, and Charity misses her chance at meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Brent.

Maybe Brent meets Scarlet Johansson at a roadside corn stand and they hit it off. Elope. Create beautiful music together.  

It's fun to imagine. Right?

Less money. More connection.

I hear from a lot of readers and storytelling fans from around the world. 

Just this week, readers from Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Columbia, and Ecuador wrote to me about my books an stories. 

Add to this folks from Orlando, Seattle, Dallas, and the "mountains of West Virginia."

There was a time in publishing when books held decidedly greater attention and appeal to the American public, as evidenced by these disturbing statistics:

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Though I wish the public still treasured books as much as they did 50 or 100 years ago, I take solace in the fact that writers like Hemingway, Dickinson, Baldwin, and Fitzgerald were never able to wake up to an email from a Mexican teenage girl who was dying to know if characters from their first novel ever got married.

This happened yesterday. 

Or a Facebook message from a woman in Australia who spent the evening binge-watching my YouTube channel. 

That also happened yesterday. 

Or the email from Canada who told me that page 181-183 of my new book, Storyworthy, helped her to release an awful burden and perhaps save a friendship.

I received that about a week ago. 

Or a photo from a woman in Ecuador who loved their third novel and sent a photo of where that book resides on her shelf. 

I received it about a week ago, too.

Yes, I wish more people read books, and I wish more people read my books, but the daily communication I receive from people around the country and the world is pretty amazing.

A lot less profitable, but pretty amazing nonetheless. 

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Low life cretins steal stories.

At a book talk about a week ago, a woman asked me if I'm ever worried that someone might steal my stories and use them for their own purposes. "Your stories are so good," she said. "How do you protect them from someone who might try to tell them as their own? Or write and publish them? Or write a novel based upon your life?"

I was amused by the question. Copyright, I explained, protects me. There is no need to file any official paperwork in order to establish copyright. If I were to write a poem on the inside of a box of cereal, it would immediately be copyrighted. If I stand up before nine people in a bar and tell a story about my life, I'm instantly protected by copyright.

Copyright is a beautiful thing. 

Then I added something like this:

Besides, who would be so desperate and pathetic to steal one of the stories? What kind of sick person would pretend that my life was their own? Even if someone wanted to steal one of my stories, I spend a large portion of my life trying to convince people to write. To tell stories. To preserve their own stories and their own voice in some way for future generations. But the vast majority of these people - almost all of them - ignore my warnings, continue to stare at the television, and live lives of eventual, lamentable regret.

People are lazy, I explained. If a person can't take the time to write or tell your own stories, why would they ever find the energy or initiative to tell my stories?

I liked this answer a lot. I thought it was funny and honest and a little pointed. All characteristic that I adore. And it made the audience laugh, hopefully in the way you laugh at things you know are terribly true. 

Then I went home and told Elysha about my impressive answer. Waited for her to express as much admiration for my response as I was feeling. 

Instead she said this:

"But Matt, someone did steal one of your stories. Don't you remember?" 

She was right.

About four years ago, a low life scum of a human being was speaking to two of my friends when he launched into an amusing story about his childhood. My friends listened in horror, quickly realizing that he was telling one of my childhood stories as is own. They allowed him to finish before calling him on it, at which point he attempted a few feeble excuses and slithered away like the worm that he was and still is.

Damn. That lady at RJ Julia Booksellers was right. People steal stories. 

Correction: Low life cretins steal stories.  

It admittedly takes an especially sad, despicable, and rotten human being to do such a thing - someone who hates their own life so much that they will steal the life of another - but it's a real possibility.

My clever, cavalier answer was nonsense. 

My only hope is that the number of low life cretins looking to steal stories is low. 

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A celebration of so much more than just a book

On Saturday night, I took the stage at the release party for Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, and told five brand new stories to an audience of more than 200 friends and family.

It was quite a night. 

My friend, storyteller, and producer Erin Barker once told me never to produce a show and perform in that same show. I've been violating her rule ever since launching Speak Up five years ago, but there have been nights when I fully understood what she meant. Preparing to perform while managing the multitude of problems that can occur in the process of producing a show can be challenging.

So it shouldn't have been surprising that being the only storyteller of the night, telling five BRAND NEW stories in addition to a brief lesson after each story, is extremely difficult and mentally taxing. I've done solo shows before, many times, but never before had I taken the stage with completely new material. Stories Elysha had never even heard before. 

It was a lot to hold in my head. 

Thankfully, once I stood behind that microphone, everything quieted in my mind and I knew exactly what to do. The stories were there, just waiting for me to begin telling. 

Happily, I wasn't the only performer that evening. Andrew Mayo of Should Coulda Woulda opened the show with a reconfiguration of his band consisting of three of my former students (and his children), the parent of a former student, and the siblings of a former student. 

They were brilliant. The perfect way to begin the night. 

But the highlight of the night came when Elysha took the stage in the second half of the show and played her ukulele and sang in public for the first time.

The story that I told just before she performed was about the months following a brutal armed robbery. I was battling post-traumatic stress disorder at the time but didn't know it. I was clawing my way through life, not sleeping or eating, and oddly not able to pass from one room to another without suffering incredible fear and mortal dread. 

Then one night I found myself standing before an iron door at the bottom of a dark stairwell in an abandoned building in Brockton, MA, wondering if I could find the strength to walk through that door to the room on the other side.

I was there to compete in an underground arm wrestling tournament (crazy, I know) with the hopes of winning some money and taking one step closer to paying off a $25,000 legal bill after being arrested for a crime I did not commit. 

I found the courage to do the hard thing that night. The impossible thing, really. That was the hardest doorway I've ever walked through in my life. And even though I would continue to suffer from PTSD for the rest of my life, that doorway in the basement of that building has made every doorway since so much easier to step through. 

I wanted the audience to understand the value of doing the hard thing. I wanted them to put aside any fears that they might have. I wanted their dreams of someday to be dreams of today. I wanted them to understand that every hard, frightening, seemingly impossible thing that I have done in my life has always yielded the greatest results. 

I was terrified about taking the stage for the first time at a Moth StorySLAM in July of 2011 and telling my first story. But doing so changed my life. 

So I asked Elysha to perform for the first time that night to show people what the hard, frightening thing looks like. She's only been playing ukulele since February, and she's never sung in public or taken singing lessons. It was hard for her. Frightening. Yet she stepped through that door and was brilliant. 

Elysha performed Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and during the final chorus, the audience joined her in singing. When the song was over, everyone leapt to their feet in the loudest applause of the evening.  

I was so proud of her. I still am. 

It was a wonderful night for everyone involved. I can't thank everyone enough for the support.

We recorded the evening and will release the audio in two parts as episodes for upcoming Speak Up Storytelling podcasts so that you can hear the stories and the lessons and Elysha and everything else.

Storyworthy in my hands!

One of the many most exciting moments as an author is the moment when the first copy fo your book arrives at your doorstep. This was the fifth time that I experienced such a moment, and I remember each of them with perfectly clarity. 

The tearing open of a box. The ripping of a mailing envelope. The nervous excitement as you reach for an object that took years to create. 

Behold. My first nonfiction title. I couldn't be more excited.

The forward is written by my hero, author and storyteller Dan Kennedy.

It's dedicated to the founder of The Moth, George Dawes Green, the host of The Moth's podcast, Dan Kennedy, and the storytelling genius and creative guru of The Moth, Catherine Burns.

It was written on the shoulders of Elysha Dicks, who supports everything that I do. 

Hidden within the pages is the editorial wisdom of so many of my friends, including Matthew Shepard, David Golder, Jeni Bonaldo, Amy Miller, C. Flanagan Flynn, and others who I am forgetting. 

It's filled with the lessons of storytellers who have stood beside me on stages around the world and students who have joined me in workshops to learn the craft of storytelling.

Each one of them has taught me so much and contributed so much to this book.   

Now it's real. It's been transformed from idea and thought to a device that is capable of conquering the barriers of time and space.

Think about it:

Ten years from now, in some city in northern China (where we recently sold the foreign rights to the book), a future storyteller will pick up this book and read the words of a writer living half a world away who wrote those words a decade ago.

Books are magic. I'm holding magic in my hands. I'm so excited.   

My daughter meets Chelsea Clinton.

These are photographs of our little girl asking Chelsea Clinton a question about Malala at a lecture at Central Connecticut State University yesterday.

“Best day ever!” she shouted.

Maybe not best day ever, but possibly top 10 for Clara. Not only does she know Chelsea Clinton as a remarkable humanitarian, but her picture book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, is one of her favorites.

Clinton's newest book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, also features Malala Yousafzai, who Clara also loves. She's read several books about Malala and has even read portions of her adult memoir, I Am Malala

A special day for our girl.

Later, Clara met Clinton personally when she had her book signed. She shook Clinton's hand and exchanged a few words. Charlie, too. 

As an added bonus, Clinton loved the shirt that Elysha was wearing (and that I designed and gave to her for her birthday) and asked to take a photo her to show her mother.

I think Elysha was almost as excited as Clara at that moment. 

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Three continents in a single day

There is something to be said about the golden age of literature:

The time when television, film, video games, and the internet did not steal away eyeballs of potential readers.

Authors like Fitzgerald, Hughes, and Austin had enormous audiences of readers just waiting for their next books, aching for a new story or poem, because reading was one of the primary sources of entertainment in the world.

Today we have to shout and flail just to be noticed above the noise. More than a quarter of Americans report not having read a book within the past year. And more books are published today than ever before.

It ain't easy finding an audience. 

But there are some distinct advantages to publishing books in today's world. Yesterday was a fine example: 

It started with an email from a teenage girl in Columbia, who wanted to know if my upcoming book, Storyworthy, was going to be translated into Spanish. She's read Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend and The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs (both available in Spanish) and was hoping for the same from my next book. 

We exchanged emails throughout the day. She asked me questions about my novels and my writing process, and I asked her about the town where she lived and what she wanted to do for a living when she was finished with school. Despite the fact that we lived on two different continents and spoke two different languages, we connected in a way that would've been impossible just 20 years ago. 

I ended my day with an interview via Skype with an Australian-based podcast. The host of the show and I discussed Storyworthy and my storytelling career. Specifically, we talked about the teaching of storytelling, the components of an effective story, the best means of delivering presentations, keynote speeches, and the like.

I was able to engage in a face-to-face conversation with a woman on the other side of the world, and that conversation will be turned into a podcast that can be listened to by anyone in the world. 

Remarkable.    

But the moment that best illustrates the good fortune I feel about being alive today came in the middle of the day, when I received a Facebook mention from a reader in India.

He wrote:

"Awestruck seeing how the basic human emotions n stories are the same across continents and time zones and developed and developing countries.. one of my favourite author Matthew Dicks feeling the same in America which I sit and feel here in a corner in India.. Nostalgia is universal..."

This says everything.

A reader in India is reading my blog.

A reader in India is reading my books.

I'm the favorite author of a man in India. 

Best of all, thanks to the internet, enormous distances, multiple time zones, and countless cultural boundaries are pierced rather easily, bringing two people together in both thought and sentiment in a way that could've never happened before the twenty-first century.

I can't tell you how excited and surprised I was to see this appear on Facebook. Thrilled, even. 

Fitzgerald and Hughes and Austin had larger, more attentive audiences for sure. There were far fewer books being published in their day.  

But none of them could've connected with readers on three different continents, in two different languages, in a single day. If given the choice, I would absolutely take a larger, more attentive, more voracious audience of readers, but if that can't happen, I'll take days like yesterday and consider myself blessed. 

Book clubs on boats. Book clubs in cars. Book clubs complete with game shows and nudity.

In the past nine years, I've attended hundreds of book clubs to talk about my books. It is by far one of my favorite ways to meet readers, because unlike a book store or library appearance, these folks have already read my book and are prepared to ask some interesting questions.

I've also learned that not all book clubs are alike. I've seen some strange and fascinating things over the years while visiting with book clubs, including:

  • Game shows - complete with theme music and large, colorful props - designed to test book club members' knowledge of the story
  • Power point presentations arguing in favor of the next book
  • Buffets only containing foods mentioned within the book
  • Skinny dipping (admittedly, that was my own book club, and not me)
  • End-of-year, Academy Award styled awards shows for favorite books and characters from the previous year (voted on by secret ballot by members of the book club)
  • Heated arguments (and one woman storming out of the house) over disagreements about themes and plot points, (even though the author was there to definitively answer the question)

I've attended book clubs in living rooms, restaurants, backyards, libraries, community centers, and churches. I've joined book clubs via Skype with people from all over the country and the world. I once spoke with a group of Saudi Arabian women wearing head scarves that covered everything but their eyes.

Twice I've attended a book club hosted on a boat.

Perhaps the strangest book club I ever visited was one who I joined while driving through the Bronx. Elysha and I were on the way to a Moth StorySLAM and planned to arrive early so I could join the group via Skype on my phone to answer a few questions before the show. Traffic slowed us, so the call from the book club came as I drove through the Bronx to the show. 

Elysha pointed the camera at me, and as I navigated my way through the streets, I answered questions about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. The group even asked Elysha some questions about being married to an author.

We spoke for about 15 minutes. In that time, I found the theater, parallel parked, and wrapped up the call in the car while Elysha went to get a spot in line. 

I've often thought about writing a book about my wide and varied experiences with book clubs: both my own book club and the ones I've visited. It wouldn't be a terribly long or especially profound book, but that might make it the perfect book for book clubs everywhere.  

A call to action! Please? Pretty please?

I'm writing to you today for a different kind of reason today. I hope you don't mind. And it's storytelling related. 

I have a book coming out on June 12. It's my first nonfiction title, and I'm excited and nervous. 

  • Excited because I've wanted this book to exist for a long time.
  • Nervous because it's a departure from my fiction. Something new. I don't want to fail miserably.

I need your help.  

The book is entitled Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling. It is a book about the art and craft of storytelling.

Part instructional guide, part memoir.

It's written for everyone, because over the past four years, I've discovered that everyone can utilize storytelling to their advantage.

  • People who want to perform at The Moth or a similarly styled storytelling show
  • Salespeople who want to connect with their customers
  • Presenters who want to connect and engage audiences
  • Ministers, priests and rabbis
  • Teachers, professors, and therapists
  • Yoga instructors, cooking instructors, and camp counselors
  • TV, radio, and podcast personalities
  • Attorneys
  • College and job Interviewees
  • Real estate agents
  • Nonprofit leaders and professional fundraisers
  • Politicians and activists
  • Archivists, museum docents, and curators
  • Grandparents who want their grandchildren to listen to them
  • People looking to get beyond the first date
  • Folks looking to make new friends or simply become more interesting

All of these people and more have taken my workshops to learn to tell a better story

A woman once attended a workshop because she wanted to make friends at work but couldn't seem to get anyone's attention. "I will never stand on a stage and tell a story. I just want to tell a better story at the cafeteria table."

Not only did storytelling help her make friends at work, but she went on to perform in our storytelling show and now tells stories as part of her job.

I've written this book for everyone. No matter who you are or what you do, storytelling can help you. 

A few testimonials:

"I laughed, gasped, took notes, and carried this book around like a dear friend—because that's exactly what a Storyworthy book should be. As a novelist, I've studied my craft in countless ways, but never before have I seen its marrow revealed with such honest, approachable charisma. Matthew Dicks has written a perceptive companion for every person who has a story to tell—and don't we all?" — SARAH McCOYNew York Times and international bestselling author of Marilla of Green Gables and The Baker's Daughter

“Matthew Dicks is dazzling as a storyteller and equally brilliant in his ability to deconstruct this skill and make it accessible for others.” ― David A. Ross, MD, PhD, program director, Yale Psychiatry Residency Training Program

"Offers countless tips, exercises, and examples to get you on your way to better stories. Anyone who wants to take the stage, become a better writer, or simply tell better stories at Thanksgiving, will benefit from Storyworthy.” ― Jeff Vibes, filmmaker

See? Seemingly intelligent, presumably real people endorse the book. If they like it, you will, too.

And now... how can you help:

1. Preorder the book. Preorders help to determine the size of the first printing and increase my chances of getting noticed right out of the gate. The book is currently available for about $10 via preorder. Please consider purchasing now and having it arrive on your doorstep in June. Buy a bushel, in fact. Give it as a gift. A graduation present. An awkward, unexpected projectile. I've been told that every time you preorder the book, an angel gets its wings. I don't know if that's true, but let's find out. 

You can preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at your favorite indie bookstore. You can use these links below:

2. Tell your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, and enemies about the book. Ask them to preorder. Share the links on social media. If you know of someone whose company or school or university might be interested in the book, pass on this information. Any and all buzz would be appreciated. 

Thanks so very much for your support. It means the world to me. Truly. Every writer needs readers and every storyteller needs an audience.

You have been remarkable in both regards. 

4 good ideas and 4 bad ideas about book clubs

PopSugar's Elyssa Friedland offers 10 tips for a successful book club.

I've been a member of a book club for more than a decade. Six people - three couples - meet and talk about books over dinner 6-8 times per year.

I've also visited with well over 100 book clubs over the course of my publishing career. It's been interesting. I've learned that book clubs are as diverse as the books themselves.

I've seen some crazy things.  

I love my book club, and I love visiting with book clubs. That said, I'm not a fan of this PopSugar list.  

I didn't like the list right from the start because it has ten items. When it comes to list, I never trust round numbers, and ten is the worst round number of all. A list of ten items almost always means that that effort was made to bring the list to this round number, so it's likely that a less-than ideal item was added to the list to bring it to ten or a useful item was left off the list to reduce it to ten.

Why magazine editors like this number so much is beyond me.

Would "Want to Have a Successful Book Club? Here Are 9 Tips" been so bad?

I also strongly oppose some of the ideas on the list. The most egregious:

1. Don't do it with your best friends.

While I appreciate the idea that diversity in a book club can offer a variety of perspectives, a book club is supposed to be fun. If I can't hang out with my closest friends and talk about books, that's probably not going to be fun.

3. Send out advance questions and pass them out at the book club.

This sounds like an excellent way to turn reading into work, the equivalent of a teacher assigning a book report. Can you imagine being handed a list of questions prior to your book club meeting?

I can't.

If this happened to me, I think I'd find myself trapped between the desire to tear up the list in the person's face or fold it into a paper airplane and throw it at the person's eyeball.

Don't make a book club more than what it's supposed to be: A conversation about the book.

4. Do it at work.

I hate this advice. It presumes that most American workplaces offer employees control over their time and space. It's simply not true. Millions of Americans are working in factories, retail establishments, the service industry, and for the government, not to mention the enormous numbers of people who are unemployed, retired, or opting out of the workforce. For a majority of Americans, conducting a book club at work would be impossible.

Do you want your local DMV worker using taxpayer money to discuss the intricacies of the latest Jonathan Franzen novel?

Do you really think the sales rep at Best Buy or the waiter at Applebees or the mechanic at Pep Boys is going to be afforded the time to gather with fellow employees in the break room to debate the portrayal of racism in Huckleberry Finn? 

Do you really think that your hairdresser or furnace technician will be gathering at the end of the day to discuss the brilliance of the latest Matthew Dicks novel?

This is advice for the precious few whose boss might think it lovely for employees to gather and discuss literature or who have the opportunity to take a long lunch simultaneously. 

This just doesn't happen for most people. 

Also, alcohol always makes book club better. Can't drink at work. 

9. Have a cell-phone bowl (like a key party).

No, this is not like a key party at all. A key party is a strategy used by swingers to determine their sexual partners for the evening. Keys are randomly selected from a bowl, and the key you choose corresponds to the person who you will be having sex with later that night.

This sounds like an exciting new model for a book club, but I don't think it's what Elyssa Friedland meant when she proposed collecting phones at the beginning of the meeting.  

This is a proposal to treat adults like children, which never sits well with me. If your book club is populated by adults, and one of them is staring at his phone all night, say something. Ask him to stop. Un-invite him from the book club. Don't impose rules that stop adults from being adults. 

All that said, I like a few of Friedland's ideas a lot. 

2. Rotate who chooses the book (a policy my book club uses).
5. Call the writer (I'm often called and asked to visit).
8. Give ample time between sessions.
10. Venture into nonfiction.

These are all good ideas. Reasonable and doable ideas. 

Friedland says that book clubs sound amazing in theory but in practice tend to fall short. She gives the average book club about three meetings before the deterioration begins. 

This has not been my experience. My book club has not wavered in the slightest, and the book clubs that I visit are enthusiastic, tightly-knit groups of mostly women who love reading and discussing literature.

Even mine. Happily so. 

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Four books in two months has been challenging, and this isn't helping.

I'm working like hell to wrap up my first middle grade novel. It should be done in a day or two.

I'm excited about the idea of writing a book aimed at the students I teach. Although Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend and The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs crossed over into the YA market, this book is actually written with kids in mind.

It's a highly autobiographical novel entitled Cardboard Knight.

It's also a month late, which is not like me, but things got a little crazy at the end of 2018. Many books required attention all at once: 

My first book of nonfiction, Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, hits the bookstores on June 12. I'm proofreading now and will be narrating the audio version this spring. 

It's available for preorder. If you want to help an author out.  

I also finished my next adult novel, currently titled How I Ended Up Here: A List, just a few weeks ago. It's in the hands of my editor, so I'll be revising soon.  

I'm also in the process of revising a novel entitled The Other Mother, which will come out in the US in 2019 or 2020 but will publishes in the UK in November of 2018. 

It's a long story that I'll share someday soon. 

In short, it's been a busy couple months. 

Also, this is definitely not helping in terms of getting the work done.  

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.   

The Ugly Duckling sucks

I like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Dumbo a lot.

These are stories in which protagonists who look decidedly different from their counterparts ultimately accept their oddities and differences, and in doing so, force the world embrace and celebrate their oddities and differences as well. These are stories in which differences are honored. Diversity proves to be essential.

At first blush, you might think that The Ugly Duckling is a similar story, but no. It's not even close.

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The Ugly Duckling is actually a story about conformity, a process that I very much despise. In the end of the story, the ugly duckling transforms into a beautiful swan, thus unburdening itself of its oddities and differences through a blending in with those around him.

The duckling finds acceptance from its peers through that awful and pervasive process of conformity. 

There are no celebrations of differences here. No glorious victory of the strange over the common. No big-eared, red-nosed act of heroism. Just a duckling-turned-swan who finds happiness by emulating others, and through no real effort of his own.

The message is clear: The solution to your problems, children, is to find a way to look like everyone else. Find a way to appear conventionally beautiful and your troubles will be over.  

I found this utterly depressing. This classic children’s tale is nothing more than a treatise on the importance of conformity. Acceptance through imitation. The stripping of individuality in favor of submission to the collective. 

It's a disgusting book. Truly. 

I don't believe in the banning of any books, but if I were forced to ban a book from school libraries, it might be The Ugly Duckling. The duckling may be ugly, but the story itself is far uglier. 

Dan Kennedy is right. Reach out to people whose work means the world to you.

Dan Kennedy, writer, storyteller, and Moth host, tweeted earlier this week:

 (@DanKennedy_NYC) Gonna get better at sending notes to people whose work means the world to me. Feels fanboy, but beats waiting to send an RIP tweet.

I like this advice a lot. 

I receive emails, tweets, and Facebook messages almost daily from readers around the globe who have liked my books and/or have questions about my stories. Every time I receive one of these messages, my heart skips a beat and I find myself more excited than ever about writing.

It occurs to me:

Despite all of this generosity from my readers, I've never followed their example and done the same.

In short, I'm a jerk. 

Dan says that reaching out to people whose work I love feels a little fanboy, and perhaps that's why I've hesitated from doing so in the past.

That, and I really am a jerk.

But as a daily recipient of these messages from readers - this morning from a teenage girl in Newberg, Oregon - I can assure Dan and everyone else that it doesn't feel fanboy at all from the recipient's perspective. 

It's a joy. A blessing. A spark that often arrives at the moment I needed it most. 

Next month I begin deciding upon my goals for 2018, and I think this will be one of them. I will write to at least one person per month whose work I admire every month in 2018. 

It's a good goal. 

As a warm-up for 2018, I'll mention that Dan Kennedy - dispenser of this excellent advice - is someone who I admire a great deal.

I first heard Dan's voice back in 2008 when Elysha and I listened to his memoir Rock On: A Power Ballad together in the car. We loved that book. I listened to it again a few years later on my own.

I heard Dan's voice again in 2010 on The Moth's podcast. Each week he delivered new stories to my ears.

In July of 2011, I met Dan for the first time when I took the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and told my first story for The Moth. By then he was an icon in my mind. I couldn't believe I was standing beside him. Dan hosted my first Moth GrandSLAM a few months later (I lost to Erin Barker, someone else who I admire deeply and will probably write to in 2018), and then slowly, over the years, I've gotten to know him better and better as I attended and performed in more and more Moth events. 

Eventually we performed together on The Moth's Mainstage. I listened to him tell stories for the first time about the death of his therapist and his ill-advised trip to find an enormous snake, and I was blown away. Those stories are still trapped inside my heart. 

Dan is a brilliant performer. An incredibly gifted storytelling host. A talented storyteller. 

But it's Dan's most recent novel, American Spirit, that I love most. I listened to that book on the way back from Maine last year, and I have never laughed so much by myself. There are certain books that are so exquisite that you remember exactly where you were while reading or listening to them, and American Spirit is one of those books for me.

I will never forget that too-bright sun, that impossibly blue sky, the blessedly open road, and Dan's voice, making the miles melt away.

It's a hilarious, poignant, brilliant book. You should read it. 

Thank you, Dan, for sharing the book and your voice with the world.

I hope this doesn't feel too fanboy.  

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5 things that you can do to help me sell books (and one unusual thing that I do)

A reader named Sarah sent me this photo with the accompanying message:

"My friend wanted to go Black Friday shopping and I couldn't help manipulating this shelf."

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It means a great deal when a reader helps me sell books. In addition to this rogue redesign of the shelf so that my books are facing out, there are a few other things you can do to help an author:

1. Buy the book. Don't wait for a copy to be available in the local library. Just buy the damn thing. I can't tell you how many people - friends and family included - who have told me that they can't wait to read my book just as soon as it's returned to the library. 

Buy the book. Please. Or at least tell me you did. 

2. Give the book away as a gift. Books are easy to wrap and make outstanding gifts. In the case of my books, I invite readers who don't live locally to forge my signature so that they can give a prized "signed copy" as a gift.

I'll never tell. 

3. If you discover that a bookstore is not carrying an author's titles or has run out of an author's books, mention the book and/or author to one or more of the employees. Tell them about the book. Tell them about the author. Tell them that they lost a sale today by not having the book available. 

4.  Preorder the author's next book. I'll be asking you to do that shortly for one of my upcoming books. Preorders help to boost production orders and increase the chances of a book landing on bestsellers' lists during its first week in print. 

5. Leave a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, or all of them. It takes just a minute to rate a book and offer a review, but the benefits to the author are enormous. 

This last thing won't help sell any books, but it will make an author feel good:

Write to the author if you loved the book. Just this week, I heard from readers in Guatemala, France, Mexico, and Florida. These emails mean the world to me. It's remarkable that a story once in my head is now being appreciated by people around the globe. 

Stephen King calls it telepathy, and he's right. I had a thought, and now that thought is entering the mind of someone in Central America or Europe.

It's amazing. 

This is the kind of thing that sends me back to the manuscript every day with enthusiasm and excitement. 

Here's something unusual that I do with my books that has unintentionally increased sales:

I occasionally drop real people into my fictional worlds rather than inventing new characters. I'm not talking about starting with a person who I know and transforming then into a fictionalized version of themselves. I insert the entirety of a human being into my worlds, making no attempt to alter them from their real life version in any way, and this has oddly generated additional book sales.

In Memoirs of an Imagery Friend, Mrs. Gosk is an actual teacher and friend who I worked with for years before she recently retired. The Mrs. Gosk in the novel is exactly like the Mrs. Gosk in real life, right down the mentions of her husband and children. As a result, friends and fans of Mrs. Gosk have bought the book just to read about their friend 

In The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, a man named Eric Feeney makes a brief appearance on the first couple pages of the book. He's the most minor of characters imaginable, but Eric, a teacher in my school, has made the most of his fame. He has attended my book signing and offered to sign alongside me. He has directed friends, family, and complete strangers to purchase the book. He has even signed stock in bookstores after telling the booksellers that he is featured in the novel.

He's worked so hard that I'm looking to include him in the next novel in another very minor role. 

Anything to increase the telepathy. 

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. 

Just the kind of conversation I want before sunrise

Nothing to see here.

Just a pre-sunrise conversation with my eight-year old daughter, Clara, about what the word "stillborn" means, followed by a flood of tears over the fate of Elizabeth Adams, the stillborn daughter of Abigail Adams.

I love parenting.

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Julian Edleman changes everything!

Each month my children each receive a free book from PJ Library, an organization that sends free books that celebrate Jewish values and culture to Jewish families across America and Canada.

Last week the newest books arrived. They tend not to be my favorite stories. Perhaps part of the problem is that I'm not Jewish, but while they do an excellent job teaching Jewish culture and values, they tend to be light on humor, antagonists, and conflict.

I find them a little boring.  

Elysha opened the latest books and began raving about one that she remembered reading at a child. "Yeah, yeah," I thought. "Another sweet little book with no stakes, no bad guy, no car chases, and no laughs."

A little while later I rose from my computer and took a peak at the book she had been holding. Just as I thought. No sword fights. No blood. No evil emperor. No underwear jokes. Blah.

Then I looked at the other book that had arrived. The one she didn't mention. My eyes immediately settled on the author of this book:

Julian Edelman.

"Julian Edelman!" I shouted. "This book is written by Julian Edelman!"

"Who's that?" Elysha asked.

"Who's Julian Edelman? Just the best receiver on the Patriots since the days of Randy Moss and Troy Brown! And apparently Jewish! Julian Edelman! I can't believe it!"

Flying High is the story of a squirrel named Jules who learns to overcome his physical limitations through hard work and the assistance of a goat named Tom.

If you know anything about the Patriots, you understand the genius of this plot. 

Julian Edelman is an undersized player - my height, in fact - who played quarterback in college and transformed himself into one of the finest receivers (and former two-way player) in the league.

Tom Brady is the G.O.A.T. - an expression in sports that means Greatest of All Time.  

It's true. There wasn't much conflict in the story and very little humor, but still... Julian Edelman wrote the book. 

I couldn't wait to read it to the kids. It was truly the first PJ Library book that excited me in the same way Elysha, Clara, and Charlie are so often excited about these books.

I guess even a blind squirrel can find a nut every now and again.

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