A week from today I will celebrate my 45th birthday. I usually like my birthday, but it has obviously taken a back seat to other events in our family calendar over the years. More often than not, I have to do math in my head when someone asks me how old I am, but, I won’t likely have to do that next Wednesday at least. Any of you who’ve known me, read my books, blogs, or simply paid attention to the middle-aged gentlemen in your lives will know that we have a penchant for anniversaries. Maybe it’s just me but generally I think we mark events all year, especially now that Facebook makes it so easy to know what stupid thing we were doing “on this day” every single day.
My father died when he was fifty years old. He was the strongest and healthiest man I knew until about May 1990, after which cancer mangled us all, culminating in his death in October. I was seventeen. I’ve written about the mess I became and the nonsense that my difficulty in managing that whole part of my life has wrought. But this isn’t about that. This is about what it means to be a grown-up. Sort of.
Technically, I suppose I’m a grown-up. Certainly, I’m an adult, but I don’t know that I feel like one all the time. I spent so many years as a stay at home dad, living in the world of my children: their play, their imagination, their amazing creativity, much of which, I’m glad to say still continues to this day. I was all ways kind of a goof. My wife has said on several occasions that I’ve helped her learn how to be more fun. I won’t argue the point. I also spent so many years working in schools that I know my mind and schedule were locked into school-time, which is really similar to ‘young people time’ and promoted a sense of being youthful at times, at least for me.
I’m now a few years away from the age my father was when he died of cancer. I never had the chance to have an adult relationship with him and that saddens me when I think about it. I think he’d have been a spectacular grandfather and I believe he’d have really loved my wife.
So, as I think of it all, I’m at an age that my father was, for that one year. What’s funny to me though is that I still feel very much like myself. I still feel like the kid who did stuff as a kid: played sports, was in clubs, performed in shows and stuff like that. I still feel like the kid who grew up with a whole lot of dreams and plans. I was all of those kids until I became that kid who lost his dad on a breezy day in October. I still feel like the kid that had to figure out life with my mother for years after dad died. I still feel like the young man that had to navigate both of their deaths. I still feel like that same young man at times, despite what returns to me when I look in the mirror. It’s sometimes very strange to see it all in the moments we stare at ourselves.
I know that my father once turned 45, just like I’m getting ready to do. I don’t remember his 45th birthday, but it would have the winter of 1984 and I was in sixth grade. There was likely a steak dinner and a homemade Chocolate cake that my mother made for special occasions. There may be similar things on my birthday next week but the challenge I’m facing is that I find it nearly impossible to think about myself in the same context as my dad. He was a grown-up. Mom was a grown-up. Sister Jane, Father Dave, Mrs. Chorley, Mrs. MacFarland, Mr. Hartz, Jim the Mailman, Sal from Sal’s Pizza: these were grown-ups. Mr. Bedford, our bus driver for SPS, Mrs. McGinn, Grady at Trinity Church-those were grown-ups. I can’t be one of those now, can I? I suppose I am, but I don’t exactly feel like I’m a shining example of adulthood, like I remember them being. But what if they all felt like me? Maybe they still felt like the young person they’d been, inhabiting the body of an adult they hadn’t anticipated becoming? I don’t know that I’ll ever know the answer to that one, but I hope that makes sense.
“Don’t ever grow up completely.”
A good friend of mine wrote that to me in the yearbook the year she graduated high school. I’ve always liked the idea behind it. I used to take it to mean that I shouldn’t ever completely lose touch with the young person I was at the time. That strikes me as a totally reasonable explanation. Thinking about it right now, however, I wonder if there’s more to it than just that.
Maybe part of not “growing up completely” is allowing myself to look at the adults I knew as a child with similar wonder and respect, as opposed to looking at them with eyes that are much closer to the age than they were when I knew them. Maybe it’s that I shouldn’t lose my inherent sense of wonder and silliness, which was a big part of my persona then. I’d like to think it still is now. Regardless, as I grow older, I hope I grow wiser and more patient and more kind, but I hope I also hold onto some of the aspects of my youth that have survived all these years and challenges and flourished, especially in my life as a parent. I still have no plans to ever “grow up completely” but I’m intrigued now by the idea of how others might approach the question, so I’ll ask directly: What does being a “grown-up” mean to you? And are you one? Feel free to answer in the comments section and as always, thanks for your support.
What a difference a year makes.
At this time a year ago, I was getting ready to head to New York City for one of the largest annual writing conferences in North America. I had a novel in hand and a desire to bring it, and myself for that matter, back into the game that is publishing. I’d attended a smaller conference in Philadelphia earlier in the year and received some good advice and worked on a few things with my book pitch and the book itself. I’d then consulted with a major industry insider who worked with me on the overall scope of the book, my synopsis, and helped me make a few significant structural changes that made the book a lot better.
The weekend of the conference, I took the Acela up from DC on a Friday and arrived in Manhattan with a full head of steam. I was there to learn, network, cheat on my diet, and pitch my book to a roomful of editors and agents in what they call “Pitch Slam.” It’s essentially book-related speed dating.
Overall it was a great conference and I learned a lot and met some very cool people and ate some amazing food. I got to meet and talk with Richard Russo and a number of other writers and agents and editors, many of whom I’ve gotten to know a bit through their social media and web platforms in the months since. It was a valuable experience.
I did well at the Pitch Slam. I had worked on my pitch and felt like I had it down tight. I like to talk, so I had to really work on not rambling and getting off topic because there needed to be time for conversation. You’re given only a couple of minutes so you have to make the most of them. I ended up with requests for partials from five agents and one request for the full manuscript. That was about a 95% success rate for the day so I left the event feeling ecstatic. The cocktail hour later that evening was boisterous and many toasts were raised. It seemed as though almost all of us had met with some level of success. It was a good feeling and it permeated all of the remaining sessions during the conference.
Alas, then it was time to head home to continue our work as writers and prepare our submissions to the agents/editors that were about to make our dreams come true.
I left town on Sunday on the Bolt Bus. It was not as luxurious as the Acela, but it got the job done and I tried not to think of it as a commentary on how the weekend had gone. It had not been an inexpensive venture, which is why I’ve only gone to this conference twice in my life, and saving a little on the back end was really just fine.
After a week or so of fine-tuning my manuscript, I sent out the requested partials and the one full manuscript request. I personalized each letter with details from our conversations in New York, details I’d learned about other books and authors they’d represented or worked with and how I saw x, y, or z as something that indicated that we’d work well together. I did my homework and I respected the process. I believed in myself and I believed in my book, The Last Good Day.
I’m tempted to completely skip over the part where most of the agents didn’t respond, as this is not really about agents or that process. Literary agents work extremely hard and every single one of them I’ve met has been pleasant and professional. The ones who responded to me were kind and generally thoughtful in their replies. A few were clearly cut-and-paste passes, but again, I know many of them get over a 100 blind queries from people like me a day. It must be daunting and don’t envy them their inboxes. I heard from two of them within a month, another after four months and yet another seven months later, long after I’d made some changes I’ll discuss in just a moment. The other two I’ve still not heard from. I sent nearly forty more blind queries between August and December with no appreciable response.
It was getting close to Christmas and as I often do around that time of year, I began to take stock of things in my life. The family and I had some time off planned after the holidays and I brought all of my notes and everything related to both The Last Good Day and a few other projects I’d been playing with on vacation with me.
After our first day of vacation down the shore, everyone else went to sleep, leaving me and the dog awake to tackle the thing in front of us. Maggie, our very sweet yellow lab, promptly fell asleep on my foot. While certainly a supportive gesture, she was of little help.
The first question I asked myself was: “Do I believe in The Last Good Day?” I did, but I didn’t see a way forward with it in that moment, but the characters in that book have never really allowed me to let them go.
The next thing I thought about was “What do I really want out of all of this writing stuff?” Throughout my life, I’ve always written. I remember writing a book about dinosaurs on my Grandmother’s old Smith-Corona typewriter when I was five. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t take it up to the bookstore so everyone could have one. Writing was about the only thing I was good at in school, or at least the only thing I took any real interest in, besides music, and I didn’t get that at school. So, I’ve always been writing-stories, novels, journaling, blogging, and more-I’ve always written stuff and I likely always will. So, if writing was likely to serve as a constant anyway, what is it I really want from it?
I sat with that question a long time over a glass of Jameson’s Caskmates with one giant ice cube that looked a little like the Death Star. The answer I finally came to was, “I want to give my book a chance to find an audience.” I could almost feel the characters inside my head give me a slow and semi-sarcastic ‘golf clap,’ as they are occasionally smartasses, but it was the next moment that I remember more clearly.
Full disclosure: I talk to myself sometimes. Everybody does it but I do it more than most people, probably. I find it to be a healthy way to brainstorm and flesh out ideas and I usually only do it when alone.
Anyway, I leaned back in the really uncomfortable dining room chair, causing the dog to reposition herself onto not just my foot but my entire ankle, and said aloud to myself, “So what exactly are you going to about it?”
I sat with that question a while before my eyes settled on a chair in the living room. It’s one of those older, cushioned rocking chairs that were popular forty years ago. I don’t even know when or where we got it, but rocking chairs in general make me think of my grandmothers. In that moment I remembered my mom’s mom, sitting in that same room, probably in that same chair and for some reason, after midnight, during Christmas break, I had a flash of her reading her favorite children’s book to me as a little kid.
She read it to me so many times. She’d passed away years ago by that point but for some reason, I remember looking at that chair and flashing back to the first time I could remember her reading me The Little Red Hen.
If you’re not familiar with the story, the gist of it is that the Hen grows some wheat and all along the process she asks her friends if they are going to help her with it: planting, sowing, milling, and then baking it into bread. All of her friends say, “Not I!” None of them will help her so she replies to them all in turn, “I will do it myself.” Then, when she’s finished baking the bread, she asks who’s going to help her eat the bread and predictably, everyone is down for that part. But that Little Red Hen, she’s not having any of it since they couldn’t be bothered to help her along the way. As a result, they weren’t going to enjoy the delicious bread she labored on, so she said “I will eat it myself”
“And she did.” That’s actually how the book ends. I know why that story resonated so much for my Grandmother, though that’s not a story for this space. I remember looking at the chair and thinking about her and missing her very much in that moment and remembering how we’d shared that story. That was when I really started thinking about maybe, just maybe it was time to do it myself. Like the Little Red Hen. Like my grandmother.
I won’t go into my entire employment history here as that couldn’t possibly be of interest to anyone, but I’ll say this: that moment was not the first time I thought to myself, ‘If I don’t take charge of this, it’s all going to be a mess so I better make myself in charge of it.’ I was possessed of a “I can fix that” complex in many of the jobs I held in my younger years. I was often wrong but I think I’ll leave it at that.
I’d been wary of Independent/self-publishing for years. I didn’t have any real reason to be, but I found that going it alone in an industry I was still learning wasn’t all that appealing to me until that moment when I felt my grandmother remind me that, “I can do it myself.” It felt ok then. It felt like acknowledging the fact that I’ve always been better when I can be in charge of the things that matter the most to me and that my characters would probably find no fiercer advocate than me, might just matter enough to make a difference.
So, with no formal business training and less sleep, I wrote a business plan in the middle of the night. OK, first I googled, “How to write a business plan.” Then I googled “How to start a business.” Then I emailed my accountant and asked her to explain it all to me. She’s pretty awesome.
But hey--I made a decision that night and it was not, “Hey, lemme publish my book!” The decision I made was, I’m going to start a publishing company. Yes, I’m going to publish my own book but that’s not the long-term goal. I’m not in this to write one book. I’m not in this to just say I did it once and go back to my other jobs. I’m in this now to publish multiple books and eventually help other writers do the same. Once I figure out how to do it effectively.
It’s been a challenge but it’s one that I’ve relished in, to be honest. I’m in my forties and I’m learning new things. I’ve published a book, the first in a series, and it’s done well. But I didn’t do this for one book. I’m here for good. I know it may take a while to become profitable, but I have time.
One year ago, I was looking for someone to VALIDATE me. I was looking for someone to WANT me as a client. By heading to New York, I was attending what one of my peers called, at the time: “Writers Fantasy Camp.” That moniker bothered me a lot at the time.
Today, I run a business. I’ve invested in my writing, my characters and perhaps most importantly, my belief that anything is possible. For now, I am the best shepherd for my sheep, the best “hype man” for my brand. It’s going to take some time and I might fail. I am learning a lot of new things and I’m not good at all of them. But stepping out on faith as an adult who’s already had and left several careers behind is really pretty darned exciting.
I might fail. I could run out of money and then I’d have some decisions to make. I might succeed beyond my wildest dreams and then I’d have some decisions to make. But you know what the fun part is? It’s that I don’t really know what’s going to happen. That’s a pretty fun place to be as an adult. Starting a new thing that’s based on the thing I’ve always done? To me, that sounds like living the dream.
I plan to remain my own best advocate. I plan to continue playing the long game. I plan to continue to learn how to market The Last Good Day effectively. I’m already working on book two in the Avery & Angela series and beyond.
I’m always going to write. My hope is that I’m able to look back on this time in my life and reflect on the beginnings of a sustainable career as a writer as opposed to a glorified fantasy camp. I’m optimistic.
Doing what you love and having it not feel like work: isn’t that the dream?
Well, I’m working on it and it’s never felt closer.
A few weeks back, my friend Ginny of NotSoFormulaic.com asked me to contribute a column to post for a series on her site on the topic of being a parent to a “twice exceptional” kid. It wasn’t a term I was initially familiar with but after a quick google search, I understood what she was going for and I was all too happy to help.
It was a fun diversion from the work of running a small business and writing the next book. It reminded me of my old blogging days when we first moved to Oahu. I was writing several blogs a week, mostly about our transition to life in Hawaii and my own bumps in the road being, apparently, the only stay-at-home dad on the island. I wrote a lot about being a parent and reacting to the things that the kids were doing, among other topics. It was fun and in many ways it helped me develop some good habits as a writer that I still employ today. Several of those columns are now available in a small release I put together earlier this year, which you can check out HERE, if you’re interested.
This new column, "There are No Boring Days" can be found on Ginny’s site, NotSoFormulaic, right HERE. It was well-timed, considering the rather turbulent trip the family and I just took to Busch Gardens. Let’s just say I may never visit another amusement park again. Ever. In perpetuity. I’m serious.
I encourage you to check out Ginny’s site and leave loads of comments on my blog so that I get asked back. I enjoyed writing it and it reminded me that I need to make time now and then. I’ve got deadlines for the next novel and a lot of other plates spinning (do people still get that reference?) but I need to remember to step away now and then and write about the real things that are happening in our lives. I really treasure the old Aloha Kugs writings as they really do a nice job of chronicling our story from those years. I’m truly glad that I have them to revisit.
My son takes his Black Belt test in Tae Kwon Do this Saturday. He’s been studying with this school for seven years. That’s more than half of his life to date.
That’s a lot of time. We’ve invested a great deal of time, energy and money in his training and while this is a big moment for him as a student, it’s an equally big moment for my family as a whole.
Here’s why: Just being on the threshold of this moment at all is a testament to how far we’ve come as a family. In many ways this test encapsulates the journey our family has made over the years. It hasn’t always been pretty but we are a fairly tough group of people.
It’s a grueling test where he has to demonstrate everything he’s learned in seven years of training including various forms (increasingly intricate ordered groupings of movements in a specific order, sometimes set to music), move combinations, sparring, basic skills, counting in Korean, physical challenges, endurance challenges, making a speech, copious paperwork, and more. It’s a lot of information but he’s ready.
There’s a picture of him on the wall at his school taken in February of 2012, the day he joined the “Black Belt Club” which is a special level of membership where the student (and family) commit to advancing to black belt. He was seven years old and we as a family were still acclimating to life in Virginia after our years in Hawaii. We were all still finding our places here then. I hadn’t begun at Mount Vernon yet, the wife had not been promoted to her current position, the twins were in first grade and their sister was in preschool. We didn’t have the dog yet, I didn’t have the Duster, my mom was still alive, I hadn’t started a business yet and the Eagles were nowhere near winning the Super Bowl. Many of the people we are closest to now here were not yet a part of out lives. But we had the tae kwon do school.
At one point, all three of the kids were taking classes there but it became apparent pretty early on that it was not really the girls’ thing. They moved on to other sports and activities but my son had found his place. Despite all of the other challenges our family would face, and I’ve covered them copiously over the years between IEP’s, engaging life on the spectrum, scoliosis and a litany of other things, my son found his spot before all of us. I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it in that context until now. He was leading by example even then.
I’ve been watching him learn and grow in the martial arts for years and of course, in every other conceivable way, all of his life. One of the cool things about TKD is that there are belts. There are points where you test what you learn and then you go learn the next group of things and then you test that. I think that sense of order is one of the things that’s always appealed to him about it. I do these specific things, I advance. But over the last few months as we’ve barreled forward towards this test, I’ve watched his training more closely and I’m just so amazed by what he can do! The raw information and the muscle memory involved in what he’s preparing to do this weekend is really staggering. This week in particular as they’ve practiced some of the very specific things they’ll do in the test in the way that they’ll do them, kind of like a dress rehearsal, I’ll admit, I’ve gotten pretty emotional.
As any parent would be, I’m proud of all of my kids for the amazing things they do. I was proud of his twin sister recently when after months away from rock climbing after her spinal surgery, she attacked the walls once she was cleared. The pride did that thing where it wells up in your chest and then has nowhere to go apparently except your throat, nose and eyes.
I was proud of his younger sister recently when, during her equestrian training, she got thrown off her horse and climbed right back up, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?” And she canters and jumps like her aunts and grandmother before her. Again, that pride thing puts something in your eye. It’s tricky like that.
Even now, writing this rambling and rather uneven blog, I feel emotional thinking about him taking this test on Saturday because this journey has been long, it’s been laden with occasional detours and lessons learned and it’s just been so darned representative of everything that is awesome about my family and more so, everything that is amazing about my son. Whether or not he earns his black belt this weekend, I am so proud of him. I’ve had to control myself somewhat, always a dicey proposition, as he’s a kid uncomfortable with superlatives, embarrased by too many accolades and a little wary of being paid too much direct attention. He didn’t get any of that from me, to be certain. To be honest, he reminds me of my father in that respect and I hope that sounds like the compliment I mean it to be. Not for the first time, I wish my parents were here to experience this with their grandson and the rest of us. My dad never had the chance to know the kids at all but my mother did and attended a few of his belt tests early on. I think she’d have enjoyed this with him.
It’s Thursday night right now, which is my usual blog/newsletter night. I usually post things on Friday morning but I’m not going to post this ahead of the test. I may not post it at all, but I’m writing it now. If I post it after the test there will be an epilogue at the end.
So, I know I’m going to lose it on Saturday. Whatever happens I am simply proud in a way that I never thought possible. It’s not pride because I was responsible for any of this. It’s not pride because I’m earning anything. It’s really just being proud of my kid. I’ve been that a lot. All three of them are great kids but this journey is one that we’ve all taken, not necessarily as students of Tae Kwon Do, but as members of this family. We are in a very different place today than we were in 2010 when we came to Virginia.
But watching the things he can do now; the things he can say now; the things he knows now: It’s all so much more amazing when I look at the picture of that little guy in his first Black Belt uniform. He was a little kid then and he’s a young man now. Time passes and children grow, just as we all do. Someone said to me recently “Getting older stinks” to which I said, “Yeah, well it beats the alternative.”
I believe in my son and I have every confidence that he is ready. Watching his classes this week, I’ve worked on not losing it as I watch him fine-tune the tasks he’ll be performing. I’ve done pretty well but I know it’s coming. Whatever happens in the test itself, I know I’m going to burst with pride because of the perseverance and character it’s taken to get even here.
Years ago, when this test was a long way off, I told him that when he got his black belt, we’d throw a huge party. I like throwing parties and I’m a believer that you should celebrate both big and little things whenever possible. Over the last year he’s made it clear that he’s not really feeling a huge party, but he’s invited me to deliver to him in cash whatever funds I was planning to spend on said party.
So yeah, he’s a comedian too.
Whatever happens, I’m proud of him. One of the neat things about being a parent for me is the constant surprise at how much my heart can be filled by the things they do. Just when I think they’ve maxed me out, I find another level to deal with their awesome.
I just hope I can contain it this weekend. I don’t know that I will. Pass or fail, despite and because of all the bumps in the road to here, I like where we’ve found ourselves.
I’ll update things after the test but these are my thoughts now.
He did it! My son earned his black belt tonight. The test took over two and a half hours and was pretty stressful for me to watch, to be honest. I felt almost exactly the same as I did in the waiting room while his twin sister was having spinal surgery last winter. Might have been worse as I couldn’t do anything to distract myself. Every parent there was completely zoned in on their kid.
But he did great and I’m really proud of him. I held it together though. This was helped by the fact that we had to wait for the results, which was excruciating. The policy of the school is that if every student passes, they announce the results right then. If someone doesn’t pass, they post the results later on their website. So, I didn’t get that moment where they shook his hand and gave him his fourth stripe, which would have been emotional.
Instead, I got read it online almost three hours later after refreshing the website over and over while we watched “The Goldbergs.” A nice moment, but not one that led to me losing it. That might still come next month when he gets his formal black belt, with his name embroidered upon it. Stay tuned.
I’m really proud of him and of our whole family. One of the other candidates talked about how getting her black belt was a “checkpoint” in her life and not an “end point.” I liked how she phrased that a lot. It’s a huge accomplishment for him and an even better reminder for all of us about how far we’ve come and how much else there is to look forward to in our life as a family.
I’m living the dream. But I didn’t lose it…yet.
So, how’s it going?
I’ve been asked this question more than any other over the three-plus weeks since my novel, The Last Good Day launched. The question has come in a variety of forms including the general “how’s it actually going?” to the more forward “how’s it selling?”
It’s been an interesting couple of weeks to be sure. We took a week off and went to visit New Orleans with the wife while our kids were enjoying their annual comic book camp in New Jersey. It was a very good trip. New Orleans is a very interesting city, though I learned that summer is not generally the best time to visit. It was beyond hot. I think our next trip needs to be somewhere that is 60-70 degrees in June. Please give me suggestions in the comments section below. Seriously, I need them.
To answer the second question, the book is doing well. It’s a first novel and it’s #1 in a series that no one knows about yet, so my expectations are not immense. As I wrote recently, I’m playing a long game here with my writing. I didn’t start this business or this process in order to publish one book. I’m all about the tortoise: slow and steady. If I can stay on target, I’m hoping to have book #2 (tentatively called The Next Good Day) ready in December. That story takes place over winter break so I’d like to have it available then, just like The Last Good Day is a summertime story, and it’s out now.
My son keeps asking me if I’ve made back the money that I invested in creating the book. I’ll share with you the answer I gave him which is “not yet.” That was always a long-term goal. A few more months like June and that will take care of itself but the goal here was never about money. It was about sharing my work and developing a platform and market for the books I’ve yet to write. I think we are on target there and a lot of that is due to the support I’ve received from friends and family, obviously, but also to support I’ve received from a variety of communities: the online writers of the world have been very helpful.
Perhaps most exciting is that my undergraduate alma mater, The College of Wooster, is going to be featuring all of my books in a new alumni section of the bookstore on campus. I have to tell you that the moment I see a picture of my books on sale in the Florence O. Wilson Bookstore in Lowry Center, a dream will have come true.
I’m not kidding. One of my first goals as a young writer while at Wooster was to someday create something that would earn shelf space at the Flo. Wooster is an amazing place and was instrumental in my life, not just for what I learned there. Meeting my wife and several of my best friends there was a tremendous bonus to the amazing education I received, especially as a writer. The day I can see my books sharing shelf space with other alumni and faculty and just the everyday books of a great college education is one I am truly looking forward to with all my heart. I’m really, really excited about that. I honestly wish my mom was here to see that. Beyond any other accolade the book may or may not earn, I know that Mom would have really liked my book being for sale in Wooster.
So, how’s it going? I think it’s going pretty darned well! I’m still learning a lot about marketing and social media and how to continue to develop my platform and there are areas of this I’m struggling with. In the end, it’s going well but if you or someone you love is really good at online marketing please be in touch. I have a lot to learn and there are things I could be doing better. Playing the long game makes sense to me now. I’m grateful that I have characters who are continuing to boss me around as I tell their story.
So-my first book signing? Well, at work today, I had two friends bring in their copies of The Last Good Day for me to sign. I am so grateful for their support. These were the first copies of the novel that I’d been asked to sign. I was a little nervous to be honest. I’ve been collecting signed books from authors I admire for years! I’ve been the guy on the line or walking up after an event more times than I could count. It’s always fun and someday I should tell the stories of some of my more entertaining signed books stories, but I digress.
I’ve been the guy asking for the author’s signature so many times--when it was my turn to sign my own book, after a moment of awkwardness, I realized what every author who signs a book for anyone is saying when they sign that book. It was so simple once I took a breath and looked at the page and took out my pen. I understood it all in that moment and it was a bit of a sea change for me.
I wrote a note to my friends and included a few shared jokes we have but all of the words I wrote are easily boiled down to one simple sentiment:
“Oh my God, THANK YOU!”
That’s what I now believe every single signature on every single book in all of time in perpetuity really means, forever and ever and I don’t think it’s just me. I think James Patterson, John Green, Steven King, Kaui Hart Hemmings, John Scalzi, Harper Lee (I have a signed book from her!) all of them—Every writer ever who’s signed a book is thinking that same thing as they sign their name. Whether they personalize it or it’s just a signature, they’re all thinking it! “OH MY GOD! THANK YOU!”
And I felt a real, almost tangible sense of gratitude as I handed them back and watched as they flipped through to see what I’d written. It was like the coolest kid at school wanted you to sign their yearbook and then couldn’t wait to read what you’d written to them.
Even better is that all this led to wild discussion of the book around the bar and I passed out several cards and two guests ordered the book while still sitting there. Not a bad shift, to be sure.
To those of you who’ve supported the book I’ll say this: whether I ever get to sign your copy or not: OH MY GOD, THANK YOU!
I get it now. It’s a level of gratitude I didn’t know I was capable of but I’m really very grateful. So yeah, it’s going well. Thanks so much for your support and stay tuned.
I’m just getting started
Yes, I used SPECTACULAR Twice! It's spectacular!
As you may have heard, my first novel, The Last Good Day is now available! You can find it by clicking the cover page above.
Now that that's out of the way, let's have some fun! My novel is littered with what they call "Easter Eggs," little references to either things in my life, things in the world, people in my world, etc. For example, if you've been to Wildwood, lived in Mercer County, NJ, known me at all, or just have a sharp eye for details, chances are, you'll pick up on a few. Some of you may even recognize references to characters that my Facebook family helped me name through one of my "Let's name a Character" games. They were fun and the end result is that there are almost zero names or references that don't, as they say "Come from somewhere."
So, let's make it interesting. As you find them, please post them in the comments below. I will work to curate them over the coming weeks and months. Perhaps I'll set an end date of September 1, for now. Whoever finds and identifies the most "eggs" will win a prize pack that will include swag from Wildwood and a signed copy of book #2 in the Avery & Angela Series, The Next Good Day, which I hope to have available by Christmas.
So-Good Luck and may the odds ever be in your favor....
Full disclosure: I’ve never been known for my patience. That’s not to say that I don’t have any, I do. Probably more now than I ever have, considering the life we live, but if you know me at all in real life, I don’t imagine it would be among the top five words you’d use to describe me. Of course, I’m just guessing here, but I feel pretty confident in that assertion.
Oddly enough, I suddenly find myself facing the publication of my first novel with a great deal of appreciation for the fact that I have done something I didn’t expect out of myself. It’s fun to surprise yourself, not to mention everyone around you.
I really am playing the long game with all this. According to one of my mentors, who I had the pleasure of catching up with recently, I’ve always been a “long game/big picture” guy. This was news to me but I think it’s pretty cool to learn new things about yourself as you grow older and I’m a big fan of living a dynamic life. But I’d never really thought that I was playing the long game until recently but it matters to me because, none of what I’ve spent the last years doing has been about releasing one book.
Turns out I’ve got a series on my hands and I’m already writing book two and have a framework for a third book. There’s a reason these characters wouldn’t let me go and now I finally know what it is: they weren’t done with me. There’s more to say through these characters and I’m very excited for the future.
And I have a plan. I’m not going to dive into the details of my overall business plan for the company or the books here but it’s very exciting to have a plan. It’s a lot of work but I’m finding that there are aspects of it all I really enjoy. After all, who doesn’t seek out a fourth career in their forties?
Yeah, I know I’m kinda nuts, but I wrote a few weeks ago about how it was exciting to be learning new things, especially the ones that are hard. If I make enough in the future there are absolutely areas that I will be all to happy to farm out. But for now, I’m doing the best that I can with the resources I have.
In addition to a plan, I have some specific goals. One goal was to write a good book. I hope when you read it you’ll agree with that. Another was to learn everything I can. My short-term “reach” goal for this book was to make back what I invested in it.
But the long game involves this book leading readers to the next book and then the next book.
Someone once asked if I just wanted to hold my book in my hands, wondering if that would be enough for me. Well, I’ve held it in my hands, in a variety of states along the way. The early proofs were brutal and obviously we had some issues with the cover, but we learned. We improved. We got help. And while it initially felt good to hold in my hands, it made me more driven than ever to be able to place it in yours.
The book you’ll be able to order next Tuesday is the product of many, many years of work and reflection and I went through so many beginnings and endings with it, to the point that I put it away for over a year at one point. It’s been a long journey to this point and it has been one that’s taught me a lot about myself. That’s a column for another day, however.
The Last Good Day is here. I’m proud of it and grateful to the many, many people who helped me along the way. I hope it does well and that people like it but I am definitely playing the long game. There are more stories to tell and more days to talk about. I hope to see you along the way.
This ride is just getting started.
If you'd like to start that ride click HERE!
If, after that, if you're ready for more, AND you can keep a secret until Tuesday the 12th, click HERE!
My daughter had spinal fusion surgery last February. It was areal challenge on a number of levels. She's doing great now and sees her surgeon for follow up very soon. She's hoping he will clear her to do two of her favorite things: go rock climbing and ride roller coasters. My fingers are crossed for her as she's been a real trooper through a challenging recovery. She's definitely been my hero.
In reflecting on that as we approach her surgical consultation, I'm revisiting my thoughts the day after her operation. Here's hoping for rock climbing!
Yesterday was a very long day. Actually, it feels very much like I’m still experiencing the same day without interruption. They’ve made some real strides with those hospital fold-out chairs over the years, but there’s little one can do to block out the lights and sounds of a hospital recovery wing, while still keeping one’s ear finely attuned to the sounds of your child.
Dad was proud to serve as the first line of nausea defense. Vomitus is normally my kryptonite, but as I said yesterday, I had my “game face” on and I was on point. Only had to change my shirt once, which was good as I only had one extra.
I won’t spend much time getting into the medical details except to say that she did phenomenally during surgery and was a trooper all day. Sleep was difficult for us both, and as I write this she’s asleep in her new fancy room upstairs, the recovery center now behind us.
The wife and I were together when her surgeon came out and told us that she was in recovery and that it went “pretty straightforward and she did great.” I didn’t, as I thought I might, lose it. I did however feel an immediate relief upon exhale, and it felt like I’d been holding my breath just a little for the past two months. I felt an immense sense of gratitude.
I felt thankful for her doctors and nurses and all the staff here at the hospital that have cared for out family in a variety of ways for years. I thought “Thank God” pretty much right away and I meant just that. I felt grateful to our friends and family who’ve supported us all and my firstborn in particular of late. Honestly, I was just so grateful that the surgery part was done and we could then focus on the “taking care of her” part. The recovery, which won’t likely be a cakewalk began in earnest yesterday, and that, at least, is something we can be a part of. We can hold her hand. We can remind her of how loved she is. We can help her stand up and walk down the hall and feed her ice chips and stroke her hair and show her Hamilton clips when they need to draw blood again. We can be understanding and patient and all of that stuff. But she had to get clear of the surgery first. I felt such a sense of relief when the doctor came out and told us she was ok. It was like I’d been wearing ankle weights for two months and then, upon taking them off discovered that while I still can’t dunk, I can hit the backboard. It was a huge relief.
Overnight was a challenge. It’s bright and noisy and it was too warm in our shared room. There were moments overnight where it felt like morning would never come. They had to reposition her body every two hours, so between that and dealing with the nausea, there was very little time to sleep without interruption, if one could fall asleep at all.
We’ve had two mottos over the last few days that we really tapped into last night. The first one is a line I’ve known for years, and it really fit. It’s attributed to like 5 different sources, so who knows where it came from, except that I’m certain it came from someone who went through some stuff.
“The only way out is through.”
The only way to get her spine situated is through the surgery. The only way to the nice room upstairs is through the recovery room. The only way home is through the PT and recovery. The only way back to activity and school is through healing up and learning to move again. She seemed to connect to this one a lot, especially late last night when all she wanted to do was something other than lay there and try to sleep. We made it though the night and she’s sleeping much more comfortably now that we are through the recovery wing.
The other one was given to me by a good friend earlier this week as we were talking about the impending surgery. She mentioned something that had been told to her before she’d faced her own surgery. She said, “Let her know that while it will hurt, it will only hurt for a little while. And you can do anything when you know it’s only for a little while.” I told this to my daughter on the eve of her operation, and it really seemed to help. We’ve repeated it several times since then. It’s really helped. She’s been a trooper about her pain and a rock star with the nurses, who have the unfortunate responsibility of making her uncomfortable on purpose at times.
Anytime I’m in the hospital, I reflect back on my own visits there over my life. My own back surgery in 2001, the birth of the kids, the wife’s surgeries. Inevitably, I come back to the time I spent in the hospital with my father during the end of his life. I think of the years my eldest sister spent in the hospital. She died when I was a newborn, so I never got to know her, and I can only imagine what that was like for her and my parents and sister. I always think of these things when I’m in the hospital. I wonder if I’m the only one who does that.
I thought of them last night in particular when things got a little extra challenging. I thought of my dad and my sister and thought, if they can get through their challenges with grace and dignity, which they did, I can aspire to the same. I’m not even the patient this time.
The only way out is through. And this is only for a little while. And my kid is a rock star.
I’m supposedly old and well-adjusted enough now to understand when I need to ask for help. That said, I’m also apparently old enough to make the same mistakes I did as a younger person.
What a time to be alive!
In all seriousness I learned a valuable lesson this week, one that I hope I will continue to use as I move my writing and my publishing business forward.
I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, The Last Good Day for the better part of six years. Now, I wasn’t working on it at the beginning the way I am now. There were periods of dormancy in the middle years and there were times I was focused on other projects. Over the last two years, I decided to really focus my energy, attention, and most recently, my resources onto completing and publishing this book. Along the way, I asked for help regularly from friends and family and people in the industry. My team of Beta Readers is a wonderful group and they’ve been remarkable. I’ve asked everyone I know at one point or another to either review something or give me a general opinion. Heck, if we’re friends on Facebook, you may have even named a character along the way. It’s taken a village to be sure.
As we get closer to book launch I find myself looking more deeply at things I can do myself and things I need to hire someone to help me with. My company is small and we are just starting out so, the budget is somewhat limited. Wherever I can learn something new and save myself money, I try to do just that. Learning new things at my age is pretty exciting and occasionally intimidating, but it has saved me money.
So, when it came time to design a cover for my novel I figured, sure, I can do that! I had an idea what I wanted it to look like and there was a template to follow so I gave it a whirl. I liked what I came up with and felt so good about it that I shared it in one of my online writing groups. I didn’t exactly ask for critical feedback but I sure got it, in the kindest and most supportive and positive way possible. That made a real difference.
The group, “Create If Writing,” operates on Facebook and it’s one of several such groups I’m a part of. This one has been particularly helpful over the last year. The people are kind and encouraging and we run the gamut from people just starting out to others who have been in the game for many years. This is significant because there are many such groups online and they all have their own, well, let’s say they have their own “flavor.” Some are very aggressive about marketing and using data analytics. Some suffer no questions from “newbs.” Others are focused on self-promotion and still others are all about writing. They all have their place. The “Create If” group has simply occupied a very helpful place in the process of this book and that was nowhere more evident than when they got me to hire someone to design the cover of my novel.
After I posted my cover pic on the group site, things started out nicely, with several “Congratulations” and “Yay!” comments. There were a few questions about what genre/audience the book is aiming for but discussion remained pretty basic until the comments moved, very gently into: “have you looked at the top-selling books in that genre?” and “It’s pretty, but it looks more grown up than a YA book would usually be, but, hey, good for you!”
They were right. Once I read their comments and really thought about it, I knew that my cover wasn’t right for a book targeting John Green fans. Young adults and the people who love them weren’t going to see my cover and say “gotta have this!” But I didn’t WANT to hire someone for this! I didn’t WANT to have to pay a brilliant artist at this point! I just wanted to be done!
But I wasn’t done. I was just getting started. I didn’t want to hear it. They told me anyway. As a result, I realized that I needed help. It just took a while.
The leader of the group actually messaged me and said something like “Listen, send me your basic cover photo and give me five minutes.” She created a mock-up of a new cover using my image and it was so much better than what I had made. My first response was “Wow, that’s way better!” Then I had a brief moment of “Man, what I had really stunk! Aw…” And then, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that over the days that this conversation went back and forth on the group page, everyone had been trying to help me, for no other reason really than that they could. And they wanted to. I clearly needed the help but I don’t know most of these fine people in real life. I only know them as part of an awesome community of writers. I clearly hadn’t asked for input and honestly, I was really just hoping everyone would love it so I could move forward.
But I clearly needed help. Once again, I had to get out of my own way and let others, who knew better, help me. That seems to be a theme I keep coming back to, over and over and over again, not just asking for help with the book cover, (which I’ve done and the initial proofs look great. I’ll share it once it’s perfect. We are close.), but the idea of getting out of my own way. That one keeps popping up for me.
I made a big move in founding Four Leaf Publishing and it’ll be another big move releasing The Last Good Day. Big moves have always been easier for me. They are big! They are dramatic. They are easy to get behind in the moment of passion and inspiration that defines them. The everyday moves, the day to day moves, the learning and the moments when I’m faced with crippling self-doubt; those are the ones that are more challenging. Those are the ones I need help with and it was really amazing to find that help, unsolicited from the Create If group. It was a truly effective reminder of the fact that I simply can’t do it all because I can’t be good at everything, no matter how much I might want to.
The bigger learning is that I don’t have to be good at everything. I’m not knee-deep into all this only to publish this one novel. I’m in this to build a company and a platform that means something. I know I’m at the starting line now but this is not a sprint. I’m already working on book two and three and beyond. I’ve got more stories with Avery and Angela and other stories with characters that are dying to get out into the world. My goals are modest in scope but go far beyond this one quirky little novel but I won’t get anywhere going it alone. I won’t learn anything that way either.
I have a lot more to learn and I will need help along the way. I’m going to fail at things, but as Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl MVP quarterback Nick Foles said, right after winning the Super Bowl, “Don’t be afraid to fail…without failure, who would you be? If…you’re struggling-embrace it, because you’re growing.” (Fly Eagles, Fly!)
It’s been an interesting time getting ready to release this novel. When it’s finally ready I hope it does well and I hope people enjoy it. There were many hands and many hearts that led this story to the page. It’s a big step, but it is in the end, only one step of many. I am humbled by the good fortune that I’ve had to surround myself with good and generous people, all of whom seem willing to tell me the truth. I appreciate that more than they know because I needed their help. I didn’t ask for it at first but it was given to me anyway. It made a real difference.
I hope that I’m the guy that just asks for help next time.
Guest Post: Helenipa Stephens: “If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it!” Wisdom from an American Teenager
Today I have the pleasure of sharing my first ever guest blog, featuring the work of Helenipa Stevens. She’s the daughter of Jennifer McBain Stevens, who’s brilliant work can be found by clicking HERE and you can find her latest book, The Vitamix and the Murder of Crows can be found HERE. Please show them some Aloha.
Helenipa’s article was for a school assignment and focuses on a story of a Girl Scout trip she took with my daughter’s scout troop to Wildwood last year. From the stories I’ve heard from both my daughter and my wife (assistant troop leader along with Jennifer), it sounds like it was a pretty epic journey for all in one form or another.
I really enjoyed Helenipa’s take on the whole thing and her commentary about how “If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it” really resonates with me as I dive feet first into the world of independent publishing. My soon-to-be-released novel The Last Good Day is set in large part in Wildwood, NJ, and there’s a lot about what Helenipa wrote that hits home not only for me, but for my characters. Getting out of my own way and finishing the book, learning the industry, and building a platform are important parts of my journey to here. More so was learning how to turn away from my own often crippling self-doubt and anxiety. That’s a work in progress to be sure but I am inspired by this young lady’s take on her own journey outside of her own comfort zone. As Helenipa might say, “It was a thing that had to be done.”
Without further ado, I present Miss Helenipa Stevens, my first ever guest on the blog.
The Sea Serpent
I was going to New Jersey! I was kind of scared because I heard there was going to be a lot of roller coasters there. Let’s just say I don’t like dropping to my death. My girl scout troop from Virginia was going to “Beach Jam.” Other girl scout troops were sleeping at the amusement park. Luckily, one of our members had a beach house there, and we got to sleep in comfort. Well, sort of. It was cramped and hot, and I felt congested. But I thought it was better than sleeping outside. Little did I know I was about to go on the coolest, scariest, dropping to deathest roller coaster ever. I woke up the next morning and felt groggy. We quickly got ready and started walking. When we got there the leaders talked about some ground rules like, stay in a group, meet back here, don’t talk to strangers. Then we splitted into our groups. I believe we were split by the type of roller coasters we were comfortable with going on. There was medium and majestic (or something like that.) I was in medium (no surprise), then we were off. As the “medium” group walked farther into the park we walked past a monster. Not an actual monster of course, a ride. But it sure looked like one. I couldn’t see the name of the ride, (I assumed it was on the other side) but I felt like I had heard about it before. Then is struck me: The Sea Serpent! Oh my gosh, it was a monster. This was the ride my friend Jensen was talking about (the one who had the beach house). This was her favorite ride?!
It had a white skeleton-like figure, winding super high. I had to crane my neck to see the top of it. As my group was looking at it a cart on the ride zoomed by. I couldn't really see what the people looked like because they were going so fast. I shuddered. My mom who was chaperoning us smiled. She, unlike most of my group liked those kinds of things. The first ride my group had decided to go on was the swings. There was probably a specific name but I didn't pay too much attention to it. I remember when I was younger I would love swings (I still do). It was like you were flying. The ¨swing ride¨ was like a merry go round for swings. It looked super fun. We got to the front and buckled ourselves in. I sat next to Bryn. We went around and around and around. It definitely felt like I was flying.
We went on another series of rides too. Some, I was surprised I went on. As we were going from ride to ride my mom kept bringing up the Sea Serpent. I was to scared to even think about it. My mom suggested a really good bribe: if I went on the coaster, I could get my ears pierced for my upcoming birthday. It was hard to say no. My life was in danger! After many minutes of convincing, I decided to give in. I mean, it wasn't that bad right? It was bad. I got some of the people in our group to come. I sat with my mom, and my friends Nora and Bryn sat together. The lady came around and made sure all our constraints were strong enough. She asked a man about mine. What?! Are you saying I´m not safe? I wanted to shout. After they confirmed I was okay she left and a few seconds later we were off. My mom said something like, “Remember it’s less than a minute,” (we’d timed it before.) We were slowly rising, like when you are anticipating a “jump scare” in a horror film. I still had my eyes open. I knew I was going to close them when we dropped. We dropped. I closed my eyes and screamed. I remember being shaken around quite violently and thinking this isn’t that bad… Then we stopped at the opposite hill from where we started. I remember my mom saying, “Halfway there!” Then, I opened my eyes for a split second. Then immediately closed them as we headed down hill backwards. It was done.
I was so proud of myself, my friends, and my mom (even though she had done things like this before.) I turned around and faced my friends: Bryn look petrified and Nora looked slightly shaken (Nora being the bravest “child” in the group.) We unbuckled ourselves and left. As we did Bryn and I talked about how thrilling it was. We called it the “cycle”.
Do you know the phrase: “If you don’t do it, you’ll regret it”? Well, this was the biggest “If you don’t do it you’ll regret it in my life.” I mean, I totally would have regretted not going on it.
It was a thing that had to be done; and now I have my ears pierced.