Writing advice from a toddler that authors should heed carefully

When my daughter was three years old, still unable to read, she taught me three invaluable lessons about the craft of writing. Specifically, she offered three specific pieces of criticism made an impression on me as an author and remain with me today.

1. Don’t overwrite. More importantly, don’t refuse editing. 

After watching some of its more famous musical numbers on YouTube, Clara and my wife sat down to watch Mary Poppins in its entirety for the first time.

Three years later, she still has yet to see the complete film.

While her interest admittedly waned throughout the film, her most telling comment came just over thirty minutes into the movie when she stood up from the couch and said, “Too long!”

She’s right. At 139 minutes, the film is far too long for most three-year old children, and it might be too long in general. As much as I loved Mary Poppins as a child, a two hour and nineteen minute children’s musical probably could have stood a little more time in the editing room.

Authors often have a great deal to say. We try to restrain ourselves as much as possible, but it often requires the expertise of an agent and an editor to bring our stories down to a length that will maintain a reader’s interest. It’s not an easy process. My agent has chopped whole chapters out of my book. My editors has murdered my characters. Hours and hours of work and strings of carefully honed, treasured sentences lost forever.

But better to lose an entire chapter than to have a reader toss down the book and shout, “Too long!”

2. Conflict is king. Backstory and resolution are secondary.  

With almost any television show that Clara watches, she exhibits the same pattern of interest:

As the conflict in the story rises, she remains riveted to the program. But as soon as the resolution is evident, even if it has not yet happened, her interest immediately wanes. She will walk right out of the room before the resolution even takes place if she can see it coming. 

It’s a good lesson for authors to remember. It is conflict that engages the reader. Backstory and resolution are necessary, but these elements should occur within the context of the conflict as often as possible and should probably occupy the fewest number of pages as possible. Keep the tension high throughout the story and keep the conflict ever-present in the readers’ minds and you will hold their interest throughout.

3. Keep your promises to the reader.

Clara does not appreciate when a television show goes off-book or changes genres midstream. Her favorite show for a long time was The Wonder Pets. It’s a program about three preschool class pets who moonlight as superheroes, saving baby animals around the world who are in trouble.

But occasionally the writers of The Wonder Pets decide to step outside this proven formula. In one episode, The Wonder Pets save an alien who is trying to return to his planet. In another, two of The Wonder Pets must save the third from peril. One episode is essentially a clip show in which the baby animals that they have already saved return to thank The Wonder Pets for their help. 

Clara hated these episodes. The alien episode scared the hell out of her. She fled the room saying, “Not this one! Not this one!” The other more experimental episodes never manage to keep her interest.

Clara is invested in The Wonder Pets because of the promise of baby animals being saved and returned to their parents by the three characters who she adores. 

It’s a good lesson for authors who sometimes offer the reader one thing but then give them another. This can happen when authors fail to remain faithful to the genre in which they are writing, infusing their fantasy novel with a sudden splash of science fiction or bringing serious social commentary into what was supposed to be an escapist detective or romance story.

Authors make promises to readers and then must deliver on them because readers are not simply empty vessels awaiting for the author to impart whatever wisdom he or she deems worthy.  Readers are discerning customers who need to be able to trust an author before investing time and money into a book. There are many reasons that readers purchase books, but it is rarely because they think the author is a wonderful person and whatever he or she has to say will be worthy. Most often, they buy books because of a promise made by the author. A promise of genre or character or plot or quality of the writing.

Authors must be sure to keep these promises or risk having their readers shout, “Not this one! Not this one!"

Stop it, teachers: 3 things educators must stop doing now.

As a teacher, I admire the hell out of my colleagues. I've been teaching for almost two decades, and the vast majority of educators with whom I've worked during that time are outstanding professionals who care deeply about their students.

This does not mean that all teachers and school administrators are perfect, and sometimes they can be downright stupid. 

Here are three things that educators do that need to cease immediately:

1. Stop using writing as a form of punishment.

Just last week, a friend told me that her daughter - a middle schooler - was required to write a five page essay as punishment for a recent infraction.

This is backwards and asinine, and it needs to stop. It also flies in the face of all research done on this subject. 

It's hard enough to get students excited about writing today. With so few teachers of writing actually engaging in the writing process in an authentic and meaningful way, writing instruction is often boiled down to a simplistic, uninspired, unrealistic, formulaic approach. Add to this the idea that writing is also a viable means of punishment, and we have all but guaranteed that students will stop all meaningful and expressive writing once they are done with school.

Writing is not punishment. Writing is a glorious means of self expression. Writing represents the ability to exist beyond the moment. It's a means by which to process thoughts and feelings on the page. It's a way to create something new and remarkable in this world. 

When it is allowed to be just that, students will learn to love to write. 

When you turn writing into a form of punishment, you're an idiot who doesn't understand writing. Or kids. Or education in general. 

2. Stop telling kids what they can't be.

It seems like every other week, I hear some highly accomplished person in an interview or as a part of their memoir tell the story of an idiotic teacher who said they didn't have the talent to succeed in their chosen field.

"You'll never make it in the music industry."

"You just don't have the talent to compete in the literary world."

"You should think about a more reasonable career. Maybe in sales or marketing?"   

A teacher has no business telling student what he or she can't do. Even if every fiber of your being says that the kid will never play the French horn in the New York Symphony or doesn't stand a chance in the world of investment banking, shut the hell up. It's not your business to squash dreams. Teachers are in the business of creating as many possibilities as possible for their students through education, inspiration, and enlightenment.

If the kid will never play the French horn professionally, let him discover that for himself.

If your struggling math student won't ever be hired by even the shadiest of investment banks, let that happen in its own time. 

While we don't want students putting all their eggs in one basket, we have no business stomping on any eggs, either. It is only through incredible arrogance and ridiculous hubris that we should even begin to think that we can predict the future of a 15-year old kid.   

Had you asked my high school teachers if I would ever become a novelist, storyteller, wedding DJ, business owner, or even a teacher, I suspect few would have seen any of those careers in my future.

Thankfully, none of them told me what I couldn't do. Instead, they tried to fill me with the knowledge and skills required to do whatever I damn well pleased. 

3. Stop acting like bigots.

Last week a high school in Pennsylvania barred a student from attending her prom because she chose to wear a tuxedo rather than a dress.  The school says the student, Aniya Wolf, failed to follow a clear dress code for the prom that was laid out months in advance. “The dress code for the prom specified girls must wear formal dresses,” the school said in a statement. “It also stated that students who failed to follow the dress code would not be admitted.”

Even if that's true - and there is some evidence that this dress code was only imposed after learning that Wolf would be wearing a tuxedo - this is a bigoted, ass-backward policy that can only be described as homophobic and stupid. 

Two weeks ago a North Carolina school banned transgender students from using their preferred restroom, even though the student in question had been doing so for years without incident. 

Another North Carolina school system has adopted a policy allowing high school students to carry pepper spray this fall, a policy one board member said may be useful for students who encounter transgender classmates in the bathroom.

This is insanity. Schools are supposed to be places of enlightenment. They should be looking to make this world better for all students regardless of their gender or sexual preference. Instead, these school systems and others like it are standing in opposition to reform that has already been accepted by much of the country and the world.

If the White House or IBM or Disney or Apple or Ford Motor Company was hosting a black tie gala, do we think for a moment that they would bar a woman from attending the event because she chose to wear a tuxedo?

Of course not. 

If a transgender person at one of these same black tie galas chose to use the restroom that matched his or her gender, do we think that President Obama or Ginni Rometty or Michael Eisner or Tim Cook or Mark Fields would require their guest to use the restroom that best matched their genitals?

Of course not.

The world is moving on and changing rapidly. We have begun to accept differences in gender identity and sexual preference at a remarkably rapid rate, but in certain corners of the world, educators are taking ass-backward stances and clinging to ancient values that only serve to marginalize students who don't quite fit their 1950's paradigm of appropriate behavior. 

It's an embarrassment. It's a disgrace. It's a black eye on an otherwise noble profession. Teachers, administrators, and school boards must stop it now or otherwise be forever be remember as people who were on the wrong side of history when so many people were moving so quickly to the right side.

I was bullied by a bunch of middle-aged pencil pushers. And it hurt.

About eight years ago, I was in search of a writer's group. I had just sold my first novel and was hoping to find some colleagues of sorts to meet with and share my struggles and seek solutions. I was new to the writing business and had many questions.  

Also, writing can be a lonely business. I was hoping to find some friends. 

While wandering through the local library one day, I notice a flyer for a local fiction writers group that was looking for new members. I'm thrilled. Exactly what I was looking for. I had sent my request into the ether, and the universe had responded. 


On a cold, winter night, I trudge through snow and ice over to the library, where I find about a dozen people meeting around a table on the upper floor of a local library.

I couldn’t believe it. Writers excited about their craft, gathering on a weeknight, notebooks piled around a large, oval table, presumably filled with brilliant ideas, finely crafted sentences, and unexpected word choices.

I thought I had found heaven.

The meeting begins with a gentleman at the head of table welcoming the writers. As far as I can tell, he's just another writer, somehow acknowledged as our moderator and leader. Everyone seems to know one another, laughing and chit chatting like old friends. I appear to be the only new face this evening.

Presumed head honcho explains that we will begin with introductions. "Please tell us who you are, what kind of writing that you do, and any recent success that you’ve had with publishing." 

People around the table tell us their names, a little bit about their current manuscripts, and news about contests entered, contests found, and in one case, a contest won. Flash fiction. A prize of $10 plus the story will appear on the contest sponsor’s website next month.

Light applause.

Then it’s my turn. Less than six months ago, I sold my first novel to Doubleday, but not wanting to grandstand, I try to downplay my accomplishment.

“I’m a novelist, though I write some poetry and non-fiction too.”

“Any publishing credits?” someone asks.

“Sure. A few op-ed pieces and a couple articles in some educational journals. I’m a teacher.”

“Anything else?” head honcho inquires.

“Well, I sold my first novel a couple months ago, but it won’t be out for more than a year.”

At news of this, everyone sits up. The questions come fast.

"Who bought the novel?"
"How much was the sale price?"
"Hardcover or paperback?"
"Is it a multi-book deal?"
"What was your advance?"
"How did you find a publisher?"
"Do you have a co-author?"
"How old are you?"

I answer as many questions as I can, declining to talk finances but explaining the process by which I found an agent and eventually sold the book. As the group asks clarifying questions, two things become clear to me:

  1. These people do not like me.
  2. I am not in heaven.

I explain that after finding an agent, things got a lot easier, as she was able to guide me through the revisions that the manuscript needed. A woman fires back. “How the hell did you find an agent? Did you know somebody?”

“No, I didn’t know anybody.”

I explain the process I went through for finding an agent, and as I do, it becomes clear that the group cannot fathom me writing the whole book before ever finding someone to represent me. Though everyone in the group seems to be writing to one degree or another, they all seem to believe that short stories and flash fiction are they way to go until they find a literary agent. All seem to loathe the idea of spending the time to write a novel before being paid by a publisher upfront.

I begin to wonder how I might leave early, as this meeting is scheduled to last three hours.

In the midst of my interrogation, a woman describes her plan for a three book project: two novels and a nonfiction compendium that would later delve into some of the nonfiction elements of her fiction. She asks me for the best way to proceed in finding an agent to represent and sell her ideas.

“How about writing the first book first?” I say.

It’s as if I have shouted blaspheme from the rooftops of the world. She actually snorts a combination of disbelief and annoyance in my general direction.

Eventually the group turns its attention to the three writers scheduled to be critiqued and their pieces: a science fiction story, a piece of flash fiction, and a short story about a grieving protagonist who eventually drowns himself.

Though I have not received copies ahead of time, the work is passed to me and I am able to read it and make some comments as the group discusses. The flash fiction, 526 words in all, is quite good, but when I make a suggestion for revision, I realize that my critical remark is the first of the evening, and it is met with scorn. Apparently this group is less interested in critical exchange and more interested in congratulatory commentary.

The science fiction is a little overdone but clever nonetheless, and when I suggest adding simulated newspaper accounts to the story, perhaps in a sidebar, to move the plot forward, I am again given the cold shoulder.

Not simply a polite rejection of the idea, but a dismissive wave.

There is no hope for the suicide by drowning story. It's awful. But when I offer a joke referencing Ophelia in Hamlet, it’s met with bewilderment and at least one eye roll.

Thankfully, the meeting breaks half an hour early.

When I arrive home, Elysha greets me with a smile. "How did it go?" she asks like a mother asking her son about his first soccer practice. She's beaming. She's so happy for me. 

"I hated it," I said. "They were mean to me. Angry at me. They didn't like me."

Elysha consoles me. I don't go back next month. 

Two years later, I return to the group for another try. Maybe it just was a bad night. An aberration. Maybe the membership had changed in the two years since I had attended last. Maybe I'm simply a glutton for punishment. 

No change. Same people. Same response.

Oh well.

The very best way to earn a dollar

I have a friend who is a successful attorney. He earns an excellent living. By all standards, he is doing very well for himself and his family.

He is also a screenwriter. He has yet to sell a screenplay, but he has an agent, a manager, and a successful writing partner. He has been paid to work on various film-related projects in the past.

In short, he has potential. He writes well. He's producing screenplays. Putting in the time. Doing the work. Waiting for his big break. 

Last week he was hired to write the trailer for an upcoming film. He earned $500 for his efforts.

Writing trailers is not exactly screenwriting. It's not even creative writing. It's more like creatively writing about someone else's creative writing. 

And $500 is not much of a paycheck. In comparison to his salary as an attorney, it's not a lot of money at all. It's not a small amount of money, but it's not going to make or break his holiday season.

But when I spoke to him about the job, he said, "It's the best $500 I've made in a long time."

I understood perfectly. As much money as I might make as a teacher or public speaker or wedding DJ or tutor or life coach or minister, there is no better way to earn a dollar than to be paid for something you made up in your head.  

I'll say it again:

There is no better way to earn a dollar than to be paid for something you made up in your head.  

Resolution update: March 2015

Each month I post the progress of my New Year’s resolutions here as a means of holding myself accountable. The following are the results through the month of February.


1. Don’t die.

Didn’t even come close to dying.

2. Lose 20 pounds.

I remain just one pound down. At this pace, I will miss this goal by a lot. It’s mostly been my inability to get to the gym regularly in March due to illness and scheduling.

3. Do at least 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups five days a week.

Done. I’ve added a plank every morning as well.

4. Stop drinking soda from two-liter bottles.

I didn’t drink soda from a two-liter bottle in March, and my soda consumption remains cut by well over half. I’m also drinking more water than ever before.    

5. Practice yoga at least five days a week.

I tried last week to restart my yoga routine after healing from an injury and  realized that I could barely remember it. I’ll be meeting with my yoga instructor in April, I hope.

6. Learn to cook three good meals for my wife.

No progress


7. Complete my sixth novel before the end of the summer 2015.

The book remains about half finished, and I am about to launch back into fiction, but for reasons that are complicated, I may actually be putting that half-finished novel aside temporarily and beginning a new one.

It’s crazy. I know  

8. Complete my seventh novel.

This book remains about half finished as well.

9. Sell one children’s book to a publisher.

I have three books written and ready to go. I have three new ideas that I plan to work on in 2015. We will submit one or more of these books to editors at some point soon.

10. Sell a memoir to a publisher.

The memoir is written and is being polished now.

11. Sell a book of essays to a publisher.

My book of essays did not sell, but the responses that we received from editors were exceptionally positive. In a few cases, it was not a pass as much as a request that the book be reorganized and written slightly differently than it is currently constituted. I will do so. Fiction is now my main focus, but this remains a priority in 2015.  

12. Complete a book proposal for a book on storytelling.

Progress continues.

13. Write a new screenplay.

I’m still revising my first screenplay based upon film agent’s notes. No progress on the new one.  

14. Write 50 pages of a new memoir about the years of 1991-1993.

I have 25 badly written pages for this memoir that must be transformed into 50 good pages in 2015. No progress yet.

15. Write a musical for a summer camp

Excellent progress. It’s moving along well.  

In addition, I completed revisions on the musical that my partner and I wrote last year. In the fall, it will be produced by a local theater company.

We also have interest in our first musical – a rock opera – from another local playhouse.



16. Publish at least one Op-Ed in a physical newspaper.

I published three more pieces in the Huffington Post last month.

How to be a Grownup

12 Things Teachers Think But Can’t Always Say to Parents

Why “Your Child is Not As Gifted As You Think” Is the Worst Thing That a Teacher Can Say

Again, this is not a physical newspaper. Writing pieces for physical newspapers is part of the plan to launch my next novel, so this may happen in the fall if not before.

17. Submit one or more short stories to at least three publishing outlets.

No progress.

18. Select three behaviors that I am opposed to and adopt them for one week, then write about my experiences on the blog.

My first idea: Backing into a parking spot. I rightfully assume that anyone backing into a parking spot is a lunatic of the highest order. I shall spend a week backing into parking spots and see what wisdom I can glean.

I have not begun this experiment yet.

19. Build an author mailing list.

Third email sends today. Things are good. The job remains twofold:

  • Create engaging content that will keep readers interested.
  • Build my subscription base.

20. Build a new website for matthewdicks.com

Nearly finished. I will be migrating my blog and website over to the new website at some point in April.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will open this blog one day in April and find an entirely new look. I hope you like. 


21. Produce a total of eight Speak Up storytelling events.

Two down and six to go. We have two more shows scheduled in April, at both Real Art Ways and Connecticut College, and we have two new partnerships with local venues that we will be announcing soon.

22. Deliver my fourth TED Talk.

I will be delivering a TED Talk at Boston University in three days. I have also pitched talks to two other TEDx events in 2015 and await work.



23. Build a website for Speak Up.

Done! It’s a single page on my new author website, and it’s not nearly as robust as we want it to eventually be, but Speak Up finally has a webpage where you can find dates of events, ticket information, an opportunity to sign up for the mailing list, and more. You can find our webpage at speakupstorytelling.com.

24. Attend at least 10 Moth events with the intention of telling a story.

I performed in a Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works in New York and a GrandSLAM at The Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA, bringing my total number of Moth events in 2015 to four.  

25. Win at least two Moth StorySLAMs.

I’ve competed in one StorySLAM in March, receiving the two highest scores of the night from two judging teams (9.6 and 9.4) and the lowest score of the night (7.9, which is also the lowest score I have ever received) from the third team, which landed me in second place. I still cannot understand what happened, and when I think about it, I still get a little upset.

26. Win a Moth GrandSLAM.

Like the February GrandSLAM in NYC (and six before it), I placed second in the March GrandSLAM in Boston. I was chosen to tell from second position, which is an exceptionally difficult spot to win from, but I was still in the lead when the seventh storyteller took the stage and beat me by a tenth of a point.

I compete in another GrandSLAM in NYC this month.



27. Launch at least one podcast.

The MacBook Pro has arrived, complete with GarageBand, which was critical to my podcasting efforts.

I have crossed over to the dark side, at least in terms of podcasting.  

My website is nearly ready to receive podcasts.

This will happen soon.     


28. Pitch at least three new projects to two smart people.

I pitched one of my projects to one person in January. No further progress.

29. Host at least one Shakespeare Circle.

Nothing scheduled yet.


30. Enroll in the final class needed for certification as a high school English teacher.

No progress. 

31. Set a new personal best in golf.

There are rumors that the golf course may open in April. .  

32. Post my progress in terms of these resolutions on this blog on the first day of every month.


Teachers of writing at any level: Read this immediately. Nothing is more important.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, who had this to say about the writing process during his acceptance speech:

Writing is a strange and solitary activity. It is a little like driving a car at night, in winter, on ice, with zero visibility. You have no choice, you cannot go into reverse, you must keep going forward while telling yourself that all will be well when the road becomes more stable and the fog lifts.

Similarly, here are some other comments on the writing process from a variety of accomplished and respected authors:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
~E. L. Doctorow

Start before you’re ready. ~Steven Pressfield

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.
~ William Faulkner

There are hundreds more like this.

Why do I bring this up?

In hopes that all of the teachers who require students to complete graphic organizers or planning sheets or move little pencils across bulletin board displays of the writing process or force their students to work on one piece at a time or assign their students specific topics for their writing assignments will knock it off and learn to write themselves instead of subjecting their students to their bizarre, inaccurate, nonproductive, and likely damaging perceptions of the writing process.

This is not to say that organization and planning should never be used when writing. About half the writers of the world plan in some way. Mystery, historical fiction, and many nonfiction writers plan their stories with great detail before they begin writing, but not all, and even when they plan, this process is often as amorphous and convoluted as the writing process itself. Rarely does it fit into little boxes and pocket charts. 

If you are teaching writing but not writing yourself on a regular basis, you are probably – no, definitely – doing more harm than good. Your ignorance of the writing process – coupled with the way you teach it – is turning out ineffective, uninspired, under confident writers.

You have made the ability to write well and love writing a rare commodity. You have made people like me more singular and valuable than we should be.

The writing process is not some finely delineated series of steps. It is not a codified system of applying words to the page. It does not adhere to structure or schedule or graphic representation. It is none of these things.

If you teach writing to students of any age, my advice is simple:


Write. Write. Write. Learn about the process that you are teaching instead of making bizarre and wildly inaccurate assumptions about it or replicating the terrible instruction that you received long ago that never actually turned you into someone who loves to write or you would already be writing and wouldn’t be forcing students to do such ridiculous things.

Just write.   

See how often you use a graphic organizer.

See how much you appreciate being assigned a specific topic.

See how productive you think it is moving a little paper pencil across a bulletin board from one facet of the writing process to another.


See how much you value the notion of prewriting.

See how un-delineated things like writing and revising and editing are. See how amorphous and undefined the writing process is, and how stupid stupid stupid it is to force students to work on one of these parts of the writing process and not another.


Please. Just write.

Either that or your choice is simple:

Stop teaching writing altogether. You’re doing more harm than good. Just let your students write, absent any instruction or interruption. Sit at the back of the classroom and read. Or eat a sandwich. Or take a nap.

Your students have a far greater chance of leaving your classroom loving to write than if you open your uninformed mouth and do all the ridiculous things that non-writers think belong in the instruction of writing.

A student wrote something that made me cry while reading it aloud. And thanks to the rules of my “Make your teacher cry” contest, my tears were caught on video.

For the past five years, I have offered a challenge to my fifth grade students:

Write something that makes me cry.

The contest was born from Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a book I once read to my students but no longer do because I always get weepy at the end.


There is nothing wrong with crying. There’s nothing wrong with crying in response to something you read. There’s nothing wrong with crying in response to something you have read many times before. 

But crying in front of two dozen merciless fifth graders?

Not good.

Rather than reading Love That Dog, I’ve challenged students to write something that will make me cry in the same way Sharon Creech’s story makes me cry.

Here is how the contest works:

If you write a piece for the contest, I will read it aloud to the class while the writer records my reading on video. If I cry or get weepy in any way during the reading, I agree to post the recording of the reading to YouTube with a caption of the student’s choice.

For five years, dozens of students have tried. All have failed.

Until now.

Here is a recording of me, reading Julia’s piece aloud. Unlike previous contestants, Julia decided to write memoir rather than fiction. Clever girl. And in my defense, Julia begins weeping in the middle of my reading, which may or may not have contributed to my tears as well.

Regardless, I got weepy, so Julia wins. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, so she deserves the glory that comes with her victory. Enjoy.


The prize for my latest writing contest is the threat of tears and possible humiliation. No wonder my students are writing up a storm.

It’s that time of year again when I encourage my students to make me cry.

Parents and teachers often ask me about how my students so consistently fall in love with writing. The answer to this question could probably fill a book, but here is one tiny example:

Each week I sponsor one or more writing contests in my classroom. I choose the topics for these contests, and a panel of three independent, anonymous judges (usually teachers and former students) determine the winner. There is a standard prize for every contest, consisting of a certificate of achievement, a privilege of some kind for the following week, and the winner’s name added to a plaque of previous winners that is displayed in the classroom forever.

But sometimes I vary the prizes.

There was a time when I would read Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog to my students, but after finding myself unable to get through the final pages of the book a few years ago because I was in tears, I ask my students read it silently now.


Whenever I cry during the reading of a book, my kids never let me hear the end of it, so it is to be avoided whenever possible.

Inspired by the ending of Love That Dog, this week’s contest requires students to write a piece that will make me cry. Poem, story, song… whatever they want. 

Here are the rules: 

  1. I agree to read every contest entry aloud to the class while being recorded to video. 
  2. If I cry, get choked up, become verklempt, or produce even a single tear during the reading of the piece, I will post the video of my reading to YouTube with the title “Big Baby Grown Up Cries Like A Big Baby” and credit the student for his or her achievement.

In the four years that I have run this contest, no student has made me cry yet.

Since announcing this contest yesterday, the kids have been working feverishly. Some have even begun researching me online in order to find my “weak spot.”

This is one tiny example of why my students love to write:

I give them good reason to write. I make it profitable and fun.  

Storyteller Interruptus

I don’t have an office. I have a sad, little room attached to the side of the house with ancient windows and no heat that would require a hat and mittens in order to spend any time in. So when I am working at home, I do the majority of my writing at the dining room table.


This is a mixed bag. Part of me loves working while my children are running around and playing underfoot, but the constant interruption of the workflow makes things extremely challenging at times (and sends me scurrying to the library or McDonald’s or my classroom in order to get things done).

Thankfully, I do a lot of my work before and after everyone is asleep, but during the day, even an benign question from my wife can bring things to a grinding halt.

In our next home, I will have an office, damn it. A heated room where I can escape and work when necessary.

Clara felt my pain the other day when she tried to use materials from school to retell a story for us. She was doing such a lovely job (perhaps she will be a writer someday, too) while her rotten brother tried to spoil everything with his rottenness.

If only the world would treat us storytellers like the delicate flowers that we are. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here is a list of my 14 current occupations and an explanation of my services. I hope I can be of service to you in 2015. 

Teacher. Sorry. I’ve got a job teaching already, and I love it.

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

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

image image image image image 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why does writing instruction so often suck?

Slate’s Matthew J.X. Malady offers any number of reasonable answers to this question, but I think the answer is far simpler:

Writing instruction at the elementary, middle, and high school levels is taught primarily by teachers who are not writers and do not engage in writing on a regular basis.

Most teachers are readers. We read for pleasure. We read novels, nonfiction, magazines, and endless amounts of text on the Internet. We are forced to read the material that we assign to our students in order to evaluate comprehension, lead discussions, and answer questions.

Most teachers are also mathematicians. We add, subtract, multiply, and divide on a daily basis. We work with fractions in the kitchen. We measure at the workbench. We solve the same problems that we ask our students to solve in order to teach, model, and diagnose errors.

Few teachers are writers.

A third grade teacher requires her class to write a fictional narrative that includes a magic key and a hole in a tree.

When was the last time that teacher sat down and wrote a fictional fictional narrative using a pre-assigned plot point?


A middle school teacher assigns his students an argumentative essay on the death penalty. When was the last time that teacher wrote a five paragraph essay on a pre-assigned topic?

A high school teacher requires her students to write a 15 page paper on the differences between Julius Caesar and Macbeth in Shakespeare’s plays. When was the last time that teacher wrote a paper on a pre-assigned topic, using pre-assigned readings, with a strict page limit?

How often does any teacher write anything similar to what he or she assigns students? How often do teachers write for pleasure?

When I conduct workshops on the teaching of writing, the first thing I tell my workshop attendees is that listening to me talk about the teaching of writing is not the best way to become a better teacher of writing. I invite them to flee my workshop immediately. Run away! Find a writing class at a local college, a museum, or in their town’s adult education program. Enroll. Start writing. Start writing every day. Becoming a writer, and learning to become a better writer, is the best (and perhaps the only) way to become a better teacher of writing.

When I assign my students an essay, I also write the essay and share my work with them. When I assign my students a series of open-ended questions, I will always answer at least one of them. When I teach my students about poetry or playwriting or personal narrative, I write alongside them. I invite them to peek over my shoulder and watch what I am doing, like I do to them. I understand the struggles and frustrations of a writer. I understand what is important to a writer. I understand the challenges that an assignment presents. I quickly learn about where I need to focus and redirect my instruction.

The question I get most often from teachers in my workshops is about how to motivate the reluctant writer. It’s always been the most difficult question for me to answer, because I have no specific strategy to recommend. I have no intervention to deploy. No tricks of the trade.

My students are always motivated to write. I do not say this to boast, and I am not exaggerating. In my 16 years as a teacher, I can count the number of truly reluctant writers in my classroom on one hand.

My students want to write because they perceive me as a writer. They see me write every day. I share my work with them. I tell stories about my struggles and successes. Most importantly, I know what a writer needs to write. I know what a writer wants. I know what it takes to motivate yourself when all of the words on the page look like garbage and all you want to do is play a video game or eat a cookie or read something, anything, better than what you are writing.


Instead of writing every day, teachers purchase books filled with prefabricated writing lessons and activities that no actual writer would ever even consider doing. They hang posters about some nonexistent, linear writing process on the wall. They attend workshops and expect that six hours spent in front of a successful teacher of writing will somehow fundamentally change their practice and improve their instruction. When I tell teachers that just 15 minutes a day, every day, is more than enough time to become a writer and begin to understand what their students truly need, they tell me that they don’t have the time.


There are no easy answers. No simple solutions or quick fixes. Writing is complex and emotional. It’s a struggle and a joy. It’s hard. Incredibly hard. If you want to help your students become better writers, become a writer yourself. Not even a good writer. Just a writer.    

That’s it. Just start writing.


Speak Up tickets, dates for upcoming shows, and a writer's workshop launch

For storytelling fans, and Speak Up supporters, some news for you today. 


First, tickets for our next show, Saturday, July 19 at 8:00 at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT, are now available. You can click this link to purchase tickets or call Real Art Ways directly at 860.232.1006.

Please order soon if you plan on attending, as we tend to sell out early. 

We're also pleased to announce our remaining Speak Up dates for the year, so that you can mark your calendars and perhaps pitch us a story. 

September 27 at Real Art Ways. The theme of the night is Coulda Shoulda Woulda. 

October 18 at The Mount in Lenox, MA. The theme of the night is Love and Marriage. 

December 6 at Real Art Ways. The theme of the night is Reunion. 

Also, By demand, we will be launching writer's workshops starting in August for interested writers.

Similar to our popular storytelling workshops, our writer's workshop is specifically for interested writers who are looking to launch a writing career, improve their writing skills, receive feedback from a professional writer and teacher, develop a work in progress, prepare a non-fiction pitch, or simply find an engaged audience who is willing to listen and provide feedback for their work. 

Whether you want to make your fortune writing the next great American novel or simply improve your ability to string together coherent sentences, this may be for you. We've modeled our workshop on a series of successful workshops conducted by a fellow author and friend who works on the Connecticut shoreline. 

The workshops will be held in our home. We'll put out snacks and drinks each week before food is good for thought and makes people happy.

We'll keep the group small, 4-6 writers per six week session, so we can be sure to devote the appropriate amount of time on each writer's work while also having time to teach mini-lessons and model good writing. 

Workshops will run from 8:00-9:30 on Monday evenings. 

Dates for our first session are August 11, 18, 25 and September 8, 15 and 22.

The cost of each 6 week session will be $175.  

If you're interested in joining us, please let me know.

Hope to see you all at Speak Up soon!

I may not be an author yet, but I write like one.

I’ve published three novels since 2009. All three were sold internationally, including the most recent, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, which has been translated into 25 languages worldwide and is an international bestseller.

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

My next novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, is in the final stages of revision with my editor.

I’ve even co-written a rock opera that was produced at a local theater last year.

Despite this success, I still don’t think of myself as an accomplished author. I feel like I have much to prove. I consider myself a rookie. A newbie. Possibly a pretender.

Maybe this is something all writers go through. I often wonder how many books I will need to publish before I don’t feel odd referring to myself as an author.

Oddly enough, it’s often not the success of any of my books that makes me feel most akin to other authors, but instead the discovery that we have something in common in terms of the craft.  

I read some facts about other authors much better than me recently that gave me hope that I might also be a real author, or at least I might begin thinking about myself as a real author.

Agatha Christie never owned a desk. She wrote 80 novels and 19 plays wherever she could sit down.

I own a desk in an unheated, insulated “office” off my living room. In the winter, the room is literally freezing. I don’t think I have ever written a single word of fiction while sitting at that desk. 

I do much of my writing on my dining room table, but I also write in libraries, bookstores, my children’s bedrooms, fast food restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, public transportation, the teacher’s lunchroom  and any other place that I can find.


I’m always amused by the writer who tells me that he or she can only write in a well appointed coffee shop while drinking a hazelnut latte. I’ve met many, many writers who claim that they can only under of specific conditions at specific times, but I have yet to meet a published author with such rigid requirements.

Stephen King writes every day of the year and aims for a goal of 2000 words each day.

I don’t have a daily word goal, mostly because I am often dividing my writing between two or three books plus this blog and another (and various other projects), so counting words would be hard.

But I have written every single day of my life for at least ten years, including my wedding day, every day of my honeymoon, and on the days that both of my children were born.

In fact, I worked on my second novel, Unexpectedly, Milo, in between my wife’s contractions in the delivery room.

When Anthony Trollope finished writing one book, he immediately started another. Henry James did the same thing.

When I finished my first novel, Something Missing, I resolved to take a three month break from writing and begin the process of finding an agent. I typed the final word of the book on a Saturday afternoon, closed the document, sat for about 30 seconds, pondering my next move, and then opened a new Word document and began my next book.

I have done the same for every book since.

A genius author and I have something in common. I’m not quite the hack that I thought I was.

Tom Perrota, author most recently of The Leftovers (which is about to become an HBO series), is a far better writer than me, but it would seem that he and I have something in common. When it comes to choosing the settings of his novels, Perrota tends to choose the locales that he is most familiar.

From a recent Wall Street Journal interview:

It's just laziness. This is what's right in front of me. I've chosen to live there. I've never been the kind of writer who goes off in search of a book.


I have often said that with all the stuff that I have to make up in order to write a novel, why would I spend time inventing a place when there are perfectly good places all around me?

As a result, all three of my novels are set within just a few miles of my home.

Is this laziness? Absolutely. But it turns out that Tom Perrota does this, too, and for essentially the same reason.

I feel like slightly less of a hack today.

The majesty and utility of the Baby Mum Mum

When I’m desperately trying to squeeze out a few more sentences of my manuscript and Charlie is demanding my attention, I can always depend on a Baby Mum Mum, a tasteless rice treat, to give me the the few more minute that I need to finish.

Charlie loves Baby Mum Mums. 

Unfortunately, he’s so damn cute while eating his Baby Mum Mum that I often can’t focus on the manuscript. 

A peek into the inbox of an author

One of the goals of my future podcast, at least until my theoretical listeners redefine my goal through their input, will be to offer unpublished writers, readers, and even fellow authors a glimpse into the daily life of an author.

It’s the kind of thing I would like to hear:

Successful authors talking about their careers, their daily routines, the nuts and bolts of the industry and the choices and challenges that they face on a daily and weekly basis.

Occasionally we will get a glimpse of an author’s life through an interview on radio or in print, but never have I been granted access to an author’s life over an extended period of time, probably (and thankfully) because they are too busy writing. I’m simply stupid enough to be willing to waste a few precious hours a week producing a podcast in hopes that someone wants the same thing I want and will care.

Oh, the title of the future podcast will be Author Out Loud, suggested by blogger Heather Clow.   

The first segment of the podcast will focus on the things that have happened in my writing career during the previous week. It will be that ongoing peek into an author’s life that I would like to hear someday. This could include a discussion of the manuscript that I am working on, the promotion for my latest book, a description of a recent author appearance, a lamentation about my latest second place finish at a Moth StorySLAM, the editing and revising that I am doing with my agent or editor, the progress of film and television deals related to my books, the machinations surrounding the rock opera that my friend and I are producing, my recent forays into children's literature, and many, many more topics. A week does not go by that would not be filled with material to discuss.

The collection of email that I received today is a good example of something I might talk about for a minute or two in order to offer a peek into the day-to-day life of an author.

First, an email from a reader in Greece who read the Greek translation of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND and wrote to me in perfect English.

Next, an email from the publisher of the audio version of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND informing me that the book is going to be on the Audible homepage for a second week in a row.

Next, an email reader in Singapore writing to tell me that every copy of MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND is reserved for the next seven months in his local library. In addition, the library has 17 copies of UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, and at the moment, all are checked out.

I should probably move to Singapore. 

Next, three emails requesting author appearances at their various establishments. Two are from booksellers and one is from a charitable organization.

Next, an email from a clever and enterprising PhD student who wants to sit down and chat with me for an hour about writing and opened her email by informing me of a typo in the bio on my blog as a means of getting my attention.

It worked.

Next, an email from a book blogger with a list of ten questions for me to answer as part of an author Q&A that will appear on her blog.

Next, an email containing feedback from one of the readers of my current manuscript.

Finally, an email from a reader in the United States discussing how much the character of Max in MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND reminds her of her son.

All that arrived today, and it doesn’t include any of the communication I received on Twitter.

As you can imagine, I am forced to dedicate a significant chunk of time to responding to email each evening, and while this admittedly takes away from some of the time I have to write, today’s batch of emails were neutral or positive in nature, making it much more enjoyable to respond, and they did not require a great deal from me in terms of time or effort. I also responded to almost every email while my three month old son slept in my lap, so it’s debatable how much actual writing I would have managed in that time anyway. 

The never-ending flurry of communication from readers and others related to my writing has been one of the most surprising aspects of my authorial  career. I never expected readers to reach out to me as often as they do, and the seemingly unusual emails like the ones from the Singapore reader or the PhD student are unusual only in their specificity. Tomorrow I will receive an entirely different but equally unusual set of emails from people I can’t begin to imagine.

I never know what to expect when an email arrives pertaining to my career as an author, and it makes the job persistently interesting, occasionally unwieldy and always surprising.