My first library book: Desperately seeking the title

When I was a child, there were very few books in our home, and almost no children’s books whatsoever, so when I was finally able to ride my bike to the public library and receive my first library card when I was ten, it was an important day for me. I remember that first visit to the library like it was yesterday. My hometown library was little more than a single, poorly lit room in the lower level of the town hall, and while it contained more books than I had ever seen, it only consisted of about half a dozen aisles of books.

Today, the library occupies the building that was once my middle school. It is enormous, modern, multi-leveled and bright. I did a reading there a few years ago when my first book was published, and while it is vastly superior to the library that I had growing up, I still love the thought of that small, dimly lit room that opened the world of literature to me.

I still remember the first book that I checked out of the library, but I cannot remember the title, and for years, I have been trying to find it. It was a dystopian science fiction story in which the tallest buildings in the world begin to liquefy, starting with the Sears Tower in Chicago, the tallest building at the time. The very tip of the building first begins to liquefy, and as the height of Sears Tower comes even with the second tallest building in the world, that building begins to liquefy as well.

Eventually all the buildings of the word begin to liquefy at exactly the same rate, throwing the planet into terror and chaos.

Ultimately, it is discovered that this is the work of an alien race that feels obliged to ensure that mankind does not advance technologically beyond a point that is considered safe. By keeping building no taller than six stories, the aliens believe that the technological advancement of the human race will be curtailed. Ultimately, every building of the world is liquefied to this point.

Thirty years have passed since I read that book. While I’m sure that it is out of print and nearly impossible to find, I would at least like to know what the title of that first library book was.

If you happen to know the title, could you let me know?

And if you know a librarian or someone who might know, would you mind inquiring for me?

I would be forever grateful.

Put yourself out there

In 2011, I suggested on this blog that I might make an excellent professional best man and offered my services to anyone interested. Thus far I have received three inquiries from grooms interested in hiring me in this capacity.


In 2009 I decided to become a life coach after listening to a woman with a great deal of training but very little life experience describe how she was graduating from a life coaching training program at a local college and starting her business. Listening to her describe her qualifications, I decided that I was more qualified than she.

Humility is not my forte.

Today I have two clients, and two others have inquired about my services.


In 1997, my best friend asked if I wanted to become a wedding DJ. We had no experience in the music or wedding industries, nor had I ever considered this line of work, but he had been unhappy with the DJ at his wedding and thought we could do better. I explained that I had a paper to finish for my English class, but sure, I’d give it a shot.

To date, Bengi and I have entertained at more than 400 weddings throughout New England, and I have enough wedding memories to fill three books. The DJ business eventually led me to become an ordained minister in order to marry clients, and to date, I have married a total of twelve couples and officiated three baby naming ceremonies.

One of my closest friends and fellow Patriots season ticket holder is also a former DJ client.


Ever since I began listening to their weekly podcast, I had wanted to tell a story for The Moth, a storytelling organization based in New York that features true stories told live in a competitive format. For years, I considered starting my own version of The Moth here in Connecticut rather than facing my fear of a New York City audience. Eventually I realized that I was being stupid and drove to New York one night to compete in one of The Moth’s weekly StorySLAM competitions.

I won.

I competed in a subsequent GrandSLAM championship, where I placed second.

Less than two years later, I have competed in more than a dozen StorySLAMs and have attended still more as a member of the audience.

I have won three so far and placed second in all three GrandSLAMs.

Just like that, I have become a member of The Moth community. I have developed friendships with fellow storytellers that have led to other opportunities to tell stories to live audiences, and I have even become a recognizable figure to Moth audiences.

All I ever wanted to do was take the stage, tell a story and walk away feeling like I had accomplished something. Instead, I feel like a small part of something much bigger and more meaningful.  In a short period of time, I have become a part of their storytelling community and met some remarkable people in the process.


Why am I writing about these things?

Because I almost didn’t do any of them.

When my children are old enough to understand, I will try my best to impart to them the value of putting yourself out there and trying as many things as possible in life, regardless of how difficult or frightening or absurd they may be.

Too many people, myself included, fail to take risks in life and blaze their own trails.

I have learned that I find my greatest joy and sense of accomplishment in trying something new, and the more outlandish, frightening or absurd that thing may be, the better.

Not everything that I propose has worked out. My desire to become a double date companion and grave site visitor, for example, have not worked out yet. But I have not given up hope.

After my most recent Moth victory, a friend in the publishing industry suggested that I consider teaching classes on storytelling, for would-be storytellers as well as corporations who need to be able to communicate more effectively. A couple other people in the business world agreed with her suggestion, insisting that there would be a market for this kind of service, and so I am considering giving this a shot.

Do I expect much to come of it?

Probably not.

I was forced to turn down all of my professional best man clients because of geographic distance, and I’m not sure when and if another client will come along, but just knowing that there were people interested in my services is enough for me to push this career path a little more.

So maybe I will make millions becoming a storytelling consultant for corporations around the world who need to communicate clear, meaningful and  memorable messages to employees and customers.

More likely, I will end up teaching a few people about effective storytelling for more familiar venues like author appearances and The Moth.

Actually, most likely nothing will come of it.

But I’m putting myself out there, as I have done so often in the past, because when these things work out, it can be a thrilling ride.

Pole vaulting, mailbox baseball and going to the prom are just a few of my ideas.

I was a pole vaulter in high school, and a fairly good one at that. I was a district champion my junior year, but my senior season was wiped out by a serious car accident. As a result, I was never able to take note of my final vault. When I walked off the pitch at the end of my junior season, I thought I still had another season of pole vaulting ahead of me.

Sadly, pole vaulting is not a sport like basketball or baseball that you can continue playing well after high school. Pole vaulting is one of those sports typically relegated to a vaulter’s high school or college career.

Nevertheless, I want to vault again. One more time. And I want to do it before it’s too late. At 41, I am in excellent shape, but I know that my window on pole vaulting is closing fast. There will come a time in the not-so-near future when pole vaulting will be a physical impossibility for me.

I have to try it one more time before that day comes.

This got me thinking that my window of opportunity is probably closing on other things from my past as well, and that perhaps this might make for an interesting book:

A 40-something man attempts to recapture and relive moments from his youth one more time before it’s too late.

Pole vaulting would be a perfect subject for the book. I could spend the spring working out with a local high school track team, relearning and re-mastering the skills required to execute a successful vault. I would gather amusing anecdotes about interacting with kids half my age and coaxing my body to do things it probably shouldn’t be doing, and I could recount stories from my own vaulting past, all while attempting to successfully clear opening height, which was 8’6’’ when I was vaulting.

It might actually make a decent book in its own right, but I think it could also serve as the heart of a book that deals with my attempts to foolishly recapture other meaningful moments from my life as well as I fail to come to terms with getting older.

Coming up with those other subjects for the book is the next step. So far I have two:

1.  Marching and playing the drums in a competitive marching band.

I played and marched with my high school’s drum corps from seventh grade through my senior year.  In that time, our band won a number of Massachusetts state championships and two New England championships. We also marched in the Rose Bowl, the Macy’s Day Parade, halftime at several Patriots home games, and down the streets of Disneyland. Marching competitively again would require that relearn to play the drums at a proficient enough level, which would probably mean spending a full season with a local marching band. I could document my struggles and successes as I attempt to integrate myself into a marching band filled with people half my age, and at the same time share the plethora of amusing, heartbreaking and even tragic stories that I have from my days with the marching band.

2. Mailbox baseball

While my wife is supportive about most things I do, she has made it clear that this would be a non-sanctioned activity. Growing up, a friend and I played a lot of mailbox baseball. Though I realize how destructive and dangerous this game was, it was incredibly thrilling at the time. To hang out of a car window just one more time with a baseball bat and obliterate just one more mailbox with a single crushing blow might make my life complete.

I have a few other ideas as well, but none nearly as good.

Attending one more prom is a possibility (I attended many of them while in high school), but there might be a serious creep factor involved with taking some high school girl to the prom (if I could even find one willing to go).

If you have ideas or suggestions that you think might work well, please let me know.

5 amazing fantastic things that I stupidly misjudged or prejudged initially

In the spirit of admitting that you can be exceedingly stupid at times (a quality I wish more people possessed), here is a list of five things that I initially misjudged or prejudged incorrectly. 1. Wait Wait Don't Tell Me: My wife insisted that I would love this NPR program for years, but I refused to listen, explaining that I have never liked game shows.

“But it’s not a game show,” my wife would say, and I would dismiss her claim.

Finally, I agreed to give it a try, just so I could say, “I told you so.”

Today, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is one of my most cherished podcasts.


2. Audiobooks: Back in 1990, my best friend and roommate began listening to audiobooks on cassette and suggested I do the same. I told him that listening to a book was stupid. I thought that it was akin to cheating. I suspected that recorded books were meant only for morons who could not read. As a person who hoped to one day write novels, I couldn't imagine spending my days listening to the great works of American literature through a set of headphones.

Three years went by before I gave my first audiobook a try, and only then because I was on a road trip with a friend who happened to be listening to a book.

Today I listen to more books than I read, not because I don’t read often, but because I am almost always listening to something, and that something is most often an audiobook.

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: My friend, Coog, suggested that I watch this television show back in 1998, but I thought it sounded stupid and childish. After much debate, I finally agreed to watch one episode and immediately confirmed my suspicions.

It was stupid.

A year went by, during which time I continued to read and hear about the greatness of this show, so one summer day, when I wasn’t feeling well, I decided to give it one more try.

I loved it. And I understood something fundamental about the show that I had missed in my first viewing:

It’s supposed to be funny.

Serious and dramatic as well, but funny for sure.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer went on to become my favorite television show of all time, and ten years later, it became my wife’s favorite show of all time, too.


4. Snow pants: My friend, Shep, began wearing snow pants to Patriots games three years ago in order to stay warm. I told him that snow pants were for little kids and people engaging in winter sports like skiing. I told him to man up.

After freezing my ass off for two years while watching Shep sit comfortably in frigid winter temperatures, I conceded that snow pants may have merit.  Shep and my friend, Gary, purchased me a pair for my birthday last year, and I was decidedly warmer during this past NFL season.

5. Brie: I used to think that brie was a disgusting half-cheese-like-substance that looked awful and probably tasted twice as bad. Since there were almost always other cheese options available, I avoided brie and never even gave it a try.

Then I was having dinner at a friends a few years ago and my wife insisted that I try just a little bit.

I was hooked. The rind is disgusting, but the cheese itself is fantastic.  I couldn’t believe that I’d missed out on the greatness for brie for over 30 years.

Where do you get your ideas?

I am often asked where I get the inspiration and ideas for my stories, especially considering that I am fortunate enough to have so many ideas from which to choose. This is 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 quandaries, 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 pair. I said, “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 have 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 it 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 handled 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, 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:  The manuscript that I am currently working on (please know that until a book is published, these are all working titles, CHICKEN SHACK included) 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.  Ultimately, I may bring in elements from my own life into the story, or I may weave in an additional idea or two from my Ideas for Stories list, but being so early in the process (less than 5,000 words so far), that conversation on the playground of my school has been enough to get me going.

BETTY BOOP:  The idea for this manuscript, which I am 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 institution of the 2009 law, 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.

How I found my literary agent

I spent this past week visiting the Lucy Robbins Welles Library in my hometown of Newington and the Portland Library in Portland, CT.  Both events were very well attended, and I had the chance to meet many readers who enjoyed SOMETHING MISSING and are anxious to get their hands on UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO. One of the most interesting comments made at both appearances came when I described the means by which I found my agent.  After being asked to describe the process, I explained that after finishing the book, I spent the summer identifying 200 potential literary agencies using the THE WRITER’S MARKET before winnowing the list down to the top 100.  From there, I began researching each literary agency, trying to identify the specific agent to whom my book would most appeal.

Using the Internet, I scoured the names of agents and then cross-referenced them on other websites for any information I could find that might tell me what their interests and preferences were.  For example, I identified Taryn, my agent, from more than half a dozen agents at her previous agency (she’s since gone on to start her own agency) using a number of factors.

First, she was young.  I knew I wanted to find someone who was new to the business and hungry.  At almost every agency, I addressed my query letter to one of the youngest agents on staff.

Second, I looked at the books that she had already worked on with other authors.  In Taryn’s case, there were two:  A book on compulsive hoarding and a book written by a woman who managed a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat.

Both books appealed to me.

I knew that my protagonist, Martin, was obsessive-compulsive and excessively methodical, and I thought that he might appeal to someone with an interest in and knowledge of compulsive hoarding.  The two seemed to fit together well, occupying the same space in a person’s mind.

I also liked the sound of a book about a woman rowing solo across an ocean.  Since so much of SOMETHING MISSING takes place in my protagonist's head, my manuscript was very light on dialogue, and I assumed that a book about a woman alone in the rowboat might also be dialogue-light.

Lastly, I liked the look of Taryn.  I found a photo of her online and thought that she looked like the kind of woman with whom I tend to be friends.  I know this is the least logical of my reasons for choosing her, but I believe that gut reactions are important.  I took one look at Taryn and thought that I might have a chance with her.

I followed this process for every one of the 100 queries I sent out that summer.  In many ways, it became a fulltime job for me.  It was two months of researching, tracking, analyzing, writing and assembling exactly what was requested by each agency.  A query letter and the first fifty pages to one agent, a query letter and the first three chapters to another, and a brief synopsis of the story to a third.  Each agency has its own specific requirements, and I catered each query letter to the agent I was addressing.

I described this process to the people who attended last week’s library events and received a similar reaction from both audiences:

People thought that my persistence, determination and attention to detail were remarkable.

I do not.

As I explained to one woman, I had just spent three years of my life committing 120,000 words to the blank page.  I had a story that I liked a lot, and I had always dreamed of becoming a published author.  Sending those letters in the manner that I did, maximizing my efforts in every way I knew possible, was simply a reasonable and practical approach to the challenge of finding an agent to represent my work.

To have done any less, I explained, would have been stupid.

Sadly, I have met many people who fail to work hard once their manuscript is complete.  A few months ago, I met a rather angry man who had sent out twelve query letters and had them all rejected.  I explained to him that I sent out 100 queries and was preparing to send 100 more when Taryn’s call finally came.  I told him that of the 100 queries, I received about 80 rejections, 10 non-responses, and 10 agents expressing some form of interest, albeit quite mild in most circumstances.  Ultimately it came down to about three agents who expressed some serious interest in the book, and Taryn’s call came on the last day of my summer vacation, which had been the target date that I had set for finding an agent.

I offered to help this angry man by offering some advice and proofreading his query letter, but he was hell-bent on having me walk his manuscript through the doors of Doubleday and plopping it on my editor’s desk.

If only it were that easy.

Ultimately I told the man that I would be happy to offer more advice once he sent out 88 more queries, thus matching my own total.  Not surprising, I have yet to hear from him.

When someone asks me for advice on finding a literary agent, I tell them this story, and more often than not, they tell me how they simply don’t have the time to undergo such a process.

Somehow, these people manage to find enough time to write a novel, an accomplishment in itself, but are unwilling to find the time to go the last mile.

My goal at book appearances like the ones I did last week is to present myself in as ordinary a fashion as possible.  I want aspiring writers to know that there is nothing special about the way in which I found my agent and ultimately got my books published.  It was good old fashioned hard work.

Nothing more.

Invariably, however, some member of the audience will raise a hand and attempt to refute my remarks as needlessly self-deprecating or silly, but I always do my best to swat those hands away.  If you’ve written a book and you think it’s good, do everything you can to get it published.  Send out 100 query letters, and be prepared to send out another 100 if needed.  Eventually, you might want to look into self-publishing, a means by which many authors are getting their work into the hands of readers today.

But please don’t spend months or years writing a book and then give up after twelve rejections.

Pressing on after hundreds of rejections demonstrates persistence.

To do any less demonstrates nothing more than a lack of desire.