The most difficult (and possibly inappropriate) question asked on book tour thus far

If you've ever attended one of my author talks, you'll know that I encourage strange, difficult, inappropriate, and challenging questions during the Q&A portion of the evening.

I even award a prize for the most challenging of questions: foreign editions of my books, books I have read and will never read again, and once $2 because I had forgotten to bring a prize. 

This tradition was started in honor of a woman at my very first author talk who asked, "How do your ex-girlfriends play a role in your fiction?"

Surprised by the question, I responded, "Why do you ask that question?"

Her answer: "You look like the kind of guy with a lot of ex-girlfriends."

I'm still not sure if that was meant to be a compliment or an insult.

Either way, her question gave me the opportunity to tell a couple of funny stories about my ex-girlfriends, which is what I always do when asked a question. I tell a story.

During the most recent book tour for The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, I've been asked a fair number of challenging questions, including, "How many of your students have been inspired enough by your success to become writers themselves?"

I think the answer is none, though in fairness, the oldest of my former students are still in their early twenties. I didn't become a published author until I was 37.

But the most surprising, challenging, and possibly inappropriate question asked so far came a couple of weeks ago at a bookstore when a woman said, "You're such a sarcastic person. Do you ever make people cry?"

Sadly, the answer was yes, followed by a couple of funny stories about times when I ended up in trouble because of my mouth.

Most famous Newington resident?

Last week I received an email from a fellow Newington resident and fan named Tony that read:

I have an oddball question for you that I've been thinking about for a long time - do you think you are the most famous current Newington resident?  The reason this question occurred to me is that I was parked in front of Cugino's one Saturday evening back in the spring, and I'm pretty sure you were parked next to me and were coming out of Goldburger’s with a to-go order.  So I said to my wife, somewhat excitedly, "Hey, I think that is Matthew Dicks."  She said "Who?" and once I reminded her of who you are she remembered as she is also well aware of you.

Since then I have been trying to think of a more famous resident of our fair town.

The email made me chuckle, and I immediately assumed that there must be someone in Newington more famous than a guy who has published a couple of novels and writes a blog in his spare time.

But perhaps not. Since that day, I have yet to come up with a more famous Newington resident. And I’ve tried. If I’m the most famous person in Newington, what does this say about my town?

Quite an indictment. Huh?

So I leave it to you.

Is there someone more famous than me currently residing in Newington? I challenge you to find someone or support Tony’s assertion.

Oh, and there are rules, outlined by Tony.

He writes:

Famous" means on some national level. Someone like the mayor of Newington or a local newscaster who lives in Newington may be known of by more people, but it is very localized.

Also, I am defining famous to mean someone will recognize your name and will know what you are known for. They wouldn't necessarily have to recognize you in person if they saw you, or know that you live in Newington. I'm not sure I'm totally comfortable with this qualifier, as you could easily argue that someone would have to be recognized in person. I would counter that many writers are famous without necessarily being physically recognizable. For example, I think most people could pick Stephen King out of a line up, but not necessarily Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton (when he was alive) or John Grisham.

So, the ultimate question would be are you the most well known Newington resident on a national level?

That’s it. Good hunting.

I was right! (insert self-congratulatory jig)

I received the following email (links added by me) from a reader this morning, who gave me permission to post it here absent his or her name: _____________________________________

Your post entitled Top 3 Blogger on this Blog really upset me. I thought that it was- and that’s where I got stuck. It was- rude? No. Condescending? No.  Inaccurate? This is where I thought my hopes lay. But then I had to admit that it wasn’t inaccurate, either. In the end, I realized that I was angry because it was true. I am a guy who likes to say “my jeweler.”

I’m taking a vow to never use those two words again. And you’re right. I think the only people I’m impressing with those words are the ones who also like to say “my jeweler.” And they tend to be my least favorite people.

Damn you and your highly-attuned magnifying glass on the world.

But at least I knew what a combine harvester was. Jerk.


There’s nothing I admire more than a person who is willing to submit himself to honest self-examination.

And there’s nothing I like more than being right.


An anonymous reader recently asked:

You write a lot about your mother-in-law but not about your own mother. What does she think of your success?

Sadly, my mother never got to see my book in print, nor did she read a word of the manuscript. I lost my mom two year ago from complications caused by muscular dystrophy. Unlike the type of MD that afflicts children, my mother had an adult-onset form of the disease. It’s a genetic condition, and a year ago I learned that I also carry the problematic gene. There is a great deal of research being done on the disease, so there is hope that by the time it begins to impact my life (twenty-plus years from now), there will be a treatment for me.

I also left home at the age of eighteen, and so my relationship with my mother, who was married to my evil step-father, faltered quite a bit. I rented a townhouse with friends in a neighboring town, but my parents never once came out to see the place. For reasons that I will never understand, their interest in my life almost disappeared after I left home.

Three years later, my own life was falling apart. My friends had left the state for bigger and better things, I had no job, and I was forced to move in with a family of Jehovah Witnesses after living in my car for two days. They rented me a room off the kitchen, where I lived with a guy named Rick and their pet goat for more than a year.

By then, my evil stepfather has squandered my mother’s disability pension, lost the family home, and left my mother destitute. She was living in a two-room apartment in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, barely making ends meet. Muscular dystrophy soon raised its ugly head, thus ensuring that the last decade of my mother’s life was difficult at best. Though alive at the time of my wedding, she was unable to attend due to her condition, and she never lived long enough to see my book finished or meet her granddaughter.

My feelings about my mother are unsettled at this time. I loved her, of course, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. But I also feel disappointment, anger, and confusion over many of the decisions that she made in her life, and her seeming lack of interest in mine. In many ways, I feel that she squandered her opportunities just as badly as my stepfather squandered her pension, and this makes my thoughts and memories of her a mixed bag.

I guess it’s not surprising that Martin’s mother is dead and Milo’s mother is nearly non-existent. I can’t imagine wanting to write about the intricacies of a mother-son relationship until I come to terms with my own.

Finding the right literary agent

Brian, via email, asks:

Can you tell me how the writer-agent relationship works? How did you go about finding an agent?

First, please keep in mind that I can only speak about the relationship that I have with my agent, Taryn Fagerness. Being new to the publishing world, I don’t know if our relationship is typical of most writers and agents, so please be prepared to accept this with a grain of salt.

In the spring of 2006, I finished Something Missing, and with my school year coming to a close, I made it my goal to find an agent before the end of my summer vacation.

I began online, researching the process by which writers find agents, and initially, I was discouraged. Based upon my findings, it seemed as if many writers got their start by knowing someone in the industry. A professor recommends a talented young writer to an agent. A magazine or newspaper editor sets up a meeting between a staff writer/fledgling novelist and an agent who once worked at the magazine as well.

I had no such contacts. I was living in Connecticut, writing on my dining table, with no friends or colleagues in the literary world. I knew that finding an agent wasn’t going to be easy.

And so I began. I spent the entire month of July reading through The Writer’s Market, circling the names of prospective agents, researching their agencies online, and writing and sending query letters. Almost one hundred in all.

My goal was to target my search to those agents who were most likely to like my manuscript, and this plan paid off enormously. What I have learned is that any old agent won’t do. You must find an agent who loves your work at least as much as you do, if not more. I have been asked for the name of my agent by would-be writers more than once in hopes that a name might be enough to for them to find an agent, but each time, I have refused.

I refuse for a couple of reasons. First, and foremost, I wouldn’t want Taryn to hate me. Passing on her name to others simply wouldn’t be very nice, nor do I think it would be professional. But I also believe that the name of a literary agent is meaningless. Taryn is the right agent for me, but she is not necessarily the right agent for everyone. Or even for most. And I think she would agree.

At their core, literary agents are people who like books. But like all people, they each have particular preferences and tastes. Taryn loved my manuscript, and as a result, she decided to work with me, much the same way an actor might choose a movie or a musician might choose a song. She had to love the material to make it work.

I sometimes think Taryn loves my book more than I do. This is a very good thing.

So when choosing agents to whom I would send my query letters, I targeted those whose taste best matched my work. The Writer’s Market, as well as the agency websites, can be enormously helpful in this regard.

Taryn works for the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, which, according to Writer’s Market, accepted unsolicited submissions at that time. After identifying this agency as a possibility, I went online to read about each individual agent. There were several from which to choose.

I started by eliminating the agency’s founder, Sandra Dijkstra. I thought that since I was new to the publishing world, I might have a better chance and be better served by someone less established. Sandra Dijkstra’s biography is impressive. Too impressive, I thought, for a little guy like me.

I settled on Taryn after reading that in her bio that “In a fiction project, Taryn is drawn to highly original concepts and voices; she likes an element of the unexpected.” While I wasn’t sure how to characterize my book or writing style yet, I thought that my main character, Martin, and the means by which he engaged in his profession (thievery of an unusual sort) was an original concept. And while I’m not sure if I would describe the novel as a suspense story, it certainly contains elements of the unexpected throughout.

I was also intrigued by the word quirky. Taryn’s bio indicates that she is drawn to quirky nonfiction topics, and while my novel is fiction, it had been described by some of my early readers as amusing and quirky, and the elements of nonfiction that it contains might meet this description as well.

So I wrote to Taryn, and about eighty other agents, and once my query letter was out, I waited. Two weeks later the responses began rolling in.

Of the eighty or so letters that I sent out, about seventy of the agents responded to me, usually in a form letter or postcard, but some with personal letters as well. In all, I received ten responses that contained some kind of personal remark, whether it was a hand written addendum to a form letter or a two page letter directly specifically to me. Sixty-seven of those responses were rejections of one sort or another, sometimes with offers to resubmit once the manuscript had undergone revisions, but most were flat-out rejection nos. Three agents, including Taryn, showed genuine interest in the manuscript, and it was during this courting process that Taryn wrote to me and later called.

I knew immediately that Taryn was the right fit for me. And on the last day of a difficult summer vacation (a long story), Taryn called, informing me that she and her agency would like to represent me.

I couldn’t have been happier. She was enthusiastic, honest, full of ideas for revision, and most importantly, she got me. Understood me as a writer. Appreciated my work. I spent three years at Trinity College in a Creative Writing program and many more hours in writing classes and workshops at various colleges, museums, and other locales, and no one has been more effective at helping me edit and revise than Taryn has, despite the fact that we have yet to meet face to face.

And this surprised me as well. After selling to book to Doubleday, I was contacted by my editor, Melissa Danaczko, who has also been nothing but the best for me and the book. Her first message to me, which I still have on my answering machine, informed me that she anticipated a “light edit” of the manuscript. Light edit, I can assure you, only because of the months of work that Taryn and I spent in getting it ready for sale. I never realized how important an agent can be in the revision process. I was under the impression that an agent simply takes your book and attempts to sell it to a publisher as is.

Thankfully this has not been the case.

For more than five months after signing on with Taryn, she and I worked on editing and revising the manuscript together in order to prepare it for sale. This began with long conversations over the phone regarding her thoughts on the book, followed by dozens of emails back and forth as the process continued. Even today, as I begin to get close to finishing my second book, Taryn is with me, reading the first draft and making many excellent suggestions.

I know the search for an agent isn’t easy, and for many, the process can take considerably longer than it did for me, but I urge you to continue your search and seek out the right person for the job.

Someone who will be a fan of your work.

It can truly make all the difference in the world.

Character first

Penelope Pudding (a genius pseudonym) writes:

Do your books evolve as you write them, or do you know how they will end in advance?

Interesting question. As you probably know, every author is different. Perhaps the story behind my Something Missing will answer this for you.

The idea for Something Missing began on a November evening in 2004. My wife and I were having dinner with close friends, Charles and Justine. During the course of the meal, Justine told us 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.” This idea lodged itself in my mind throughout the evening, and when I arrived home later that night, I jotted down the idea on my ever-growing list of possible story ideas.

Fast forward three months later to February of 2005. My wife and I are in Boca Raton, Florida to spend a week with her grandmother. After a day without Internet access or cable television service and a dearth of decent reading material, I found myself in a desperate search of something to keep me busy. With my idea of a thief who steals items that go unnoticed still rolling around in my mind, I decided to give the story a try. 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’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. A few years ago this would have sounded like nonsense to me, but now I believe it. There were many moments in the writing of Something Missing that I literally did not know what would happen next until I wrote it. In fact, as I closed in on the end of the book, I still didn’t know what my main character’s ultimate fate would be. I was writing the 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 you are: one word at a time.

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.

This philosophy seems to be working well in the book I am writing now as well. My main character, Milo, actually began his existence as a funeral home director, but after wrestling with him for three chapters, I finally put that book aside and planted Milo into the story in which he belonged. A story that’s still revealing itself to me.

Weird, huh?

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?