“Git off my beach or I’ll shoot you.” — Ethan Gilsdorf on why you should set your novel in New Hampshire.

Much like the Bob Dylan world tour that began in July of 1988 and has continued ever since, my planned summer-long Reverse Blog Tour to support the release of World of Trouble is threatening to become a Never Ending Tour, unanchored from any specific purpose or unifying principal, much like the whole rest of the Internet. Well, so be it! Especially if it means I can keep soliciting entries from people like Ethan Gilsdorf, the Boston-area journalist and memoirist and cultural critic and goodhearted Somerville fella—who besides being all those things is a native of New Hampshire, where I set my Last Policeman books. 

People kept asking me why I set the trilogy in the Granite State, so I asked Ethan to please answer that for me, and here’s what he says: 



But Ethan! If you’re from New Hampshire, where’s your big bushy beard?

I began writing this postduring a visit to my former home state. The Granite State. The Mother of Rivers. The White Mountain State. The Switzerland of America.

Yes, I mean New Hampshire. Tax free, lawless, kooky, flinty, opinionated New Hampshire.

Land of no sales tax and no income tax. Land of no motorcycle helmet laws and no laws against selling fireworks. Land of cheap liquor. Land of the first presidential primary. Land of “Get your government out of my [insert latest Big Government tirade here].”

At least, that’s the popular image of New Hampshire.

The state’s inspiring and absurd slogan, “Live Free or Die,” certainly hasn’t helped change that perception. You’ll find that phrase imprinted onto the state license plate (presumably by inmates in the state’s penal system), just above an image of the now-crumbled Old Man of the Mountain. The Old Man used to be a granite cliff outcrop on top of Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains. Viewed from a certain location, the rocks formed a profile of a face that I always thought looked like Abe Lincoln (who was not from N.H.). The Old Man’s face collapsed in 2003, but that craggy dude has not died. Not only on the state’s license plate, he’s also emblazoned on the state route signs, the back of New Hampshire’s Statehood Quarter. I’m guessing he’s also tattooed on the backside of Lyndon LaRouche, the famous political moonbat and New Hampshire native.

Alas, my home state is no longer my residence. I live just over the border, in Massachusetts, aka “Taxachusetts.” From that healthy remove, I periodically gaze northward to my mother country. I cross its borders, too, to visit my family who still resides there. And I see that despite my years living away, my N.H. DNA remains strong. I cut my teeth as a writer here. Some of the first serious books I read were written by New Hampshire residents, who set their plots in the state’s small towns, bucolic boarding schools, and tangled woods and political backwaters.

What makes New Hampshire a great state for writers to set their stories?0

Think of the novels, plays, and poems that take place here (in addition to Ben’s Last Policeman trilogy). Probably the most famous is Peyton Place, the 1956 novel by Grace Metalious. There’s also Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover; several novels by John Irving, including The Hotel New HampshireA Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One YearA Separate Peace by John Knowles; Labor Day by Joyce Maynard; River Dogs by Robert Olmstead; Affliction and Continental Drift by Russell Banks; Before And After by Rosellen Brown; The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis; Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult; and Sea GlassThe Weight of Water, and The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. Don’t forget the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and two Newbury Award-winning kids books, A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32 by Joan Blos and Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Not to mention, the many poems which take place here by Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall. (Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in Vermont, but published it in a volume of poems calledNew Hampshire – take that, Vermont! — and the tome earned Frostie the first of his four Pulitzers.)

Among other books. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.

A Separate Peace was the first book I ever knowingly read that was set in my home state. In 1979, this novel was 8th grade required reading at Oyster River Middle School. I didn’t get that Knowles had modeled his Devon prep school after Phillips Exeter Academy, just down the road from where I lived. Still, the story of Gene and Finny’s macho-competitive friendship, their strange game of “blitzball,” and Gene having a hand in Finny’s death, rocked my world as a 12-year-old. (Partly because that same year, my own mother had become dangerously sick.)

So how does New Hampshire lure writers? I think New Hampshire’s appeal as literary place is partly due its contrasts. You can still find that craggy, iconoclastic, “Old Man” persona. Even if the state’s id has largely shifted from redneck-only, Libertarian-leaning right winger to Target-loving bedroom community for Boston (at least in the southern part of the state where I’m from), the state’s ego is still grumpy old man.

“We only got 13 miles of coastline, see?” The Old Man still grouses. “But that’s the way we like it. Now git off my beach or I’ll shoot you.”

Who is the Old Man telling to get of his property? The Massholes. The outsiders. The folks who dare to tread on me.

0This includes candidates for the highest office in the country. Presidential hopefuls must flock here, if they want to win. They must jibber-jabber with the locals at diners and VFW halls, and endure the sometimes frosty reception from locals, because all roads to the White House begin in the crucible of New Hampshire. We’re the underdog, but despite our obscurity and seeming insignificance, N.H. gets its say.

One of the earliest works set here is Coniston, a 1906 best-selling novel by American writer Winston Churchill (no relation), who was a state legislator in the 1900s and an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate. Naturally, Coniston is about N.H. politics. I have not read it.

The other reason I think N.H. appeals to writers is that it embodies conflict. You might say N.H. is the evil twin doppelganger of similarly-shaped Vermont, whose politics are about as polar opposite to N.H.’s as you can find. Within its borders, there’s always been a marked tension between New Hampshire’s rural, hardscrabble, working-class image and its use as a playground for prep school kids and tourists hitting the trails, lakes and ski lifts. In their novels, Irving and Knowles often tapped into the highfalutin “gown” side. Other writers delved into the townies.

Most kids who grow up in any small N.H. town learn to straddle that fence. My parents arrived in N.H. from the Midwest because my father got a job teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Half of my childhood pals in my tiny neighborhood had professional parents who lived in refurbished historical colonial homes; the other kids lived in dilapidated ranches and had parents who worked as mechanics, ran the general store, drove snow plows and hunted deer. Our leisure time vacillated between intellectual pursuits, like reading books, and redneck ones, like setting things afire in the sandpit.

As I’ve established, we don’t got much oceanfront property in New Hampshire, so don’t expect plots of novels to twist in the cool breezes of quaint seaside towns. Rather, stories tend to be set in small, isolated hamlets, miles from anywhere. Many novels take place in [insert name of fictional of small town here], N.H. In that town, you’ll find: general store, town hall, church, gas station, guy selling roses for $5 from beat-up van. Coniston takes place in the fictional small town of Coniston. Our Town is set in the made-up Grover’s Corners. Peyton Place’s imaginary “Peyton Place” is a supposedly a composite of several small towns: Gilmanton, Gilford, Laconia, Manchester and Plymouth.

One of my favorite story collections, Leah, New Hampshire: The Collected Stories of Thomas Williams, is set in the fictive “Leah,” just a letter away from my own hometown of Lee. Like my father, Williams taught at U.N.H, and his “Leah” some have compared to Masters’s Spoon River and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Williams, a Minnesota native, called New Hampshire, “a state that can be cruel, especially to its poor, or sick, or old. In its public, or collective stance, it can act as a skinflint and a buffoon among its neighbors.” But he also found that Granite Staters “can be decent and generous if, for a moment, they forget dogma, forget ‘conservatism,’ and sanctimony, and the myth of an imaginary history.”

Why this literary focus on the wee New Hampshire town? Perhaps it’s because events in N.H. towns, at least in the minds of novelists, occur in a time-space wormhole. Whatever happens in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town] stays in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town]. Our hamlets and villages and “corners” are trapped in amber. So, too, are our small town weirdos, who drive half-rotted pick-up trucks, shoot guns into the night, live in trailers, and go mad in the woods. They run well drilling companies out of their homes and mow cemeteries (one of my former jobs). They hold down two jobs. They yearn for upward mobility, while nursing their Bud Lites.

While the rest of the world has progressed, these characters are still hanging out at the store at the town crossroads, just as I did growing up. Growing up, I knew of a village store not far from where I was raised called “Liar’s Paradise.” It’s still there.

The small, isolated town died in the rest of America, but in New Hampshire, it survives.

That’s the myth, anyway. Of course, New Hampshire has been gentrified, and strip-mall-ified. These days, you can get decent organic produce at Hannaford’s or even the troubled Market Basket (once the strike is over). But for every Dartmouth or Exeter graduate, there’s a family living in a double-wide set on concrete blocks just a mile from some fairyland campus, and a working class kid who is struggling to get through community college, if that.

Embedded in that small N.H. town are enough conflicts between stock characters — the wizened Yankee farmer versus the button-down vacationer — to fuel the plotlines of a thousand stories.

Salinger literally about to punch an intruder.

Salinger, literally about to punch an intruder.

In a previous entry on this blog, Lori Rader-Day eloquently suggested that the “Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread” lurking behinds its friendly and smiling populace. New Hampshire has never pretended to be friendly. Outspoken and abrasive, sure, but cheery, never. We also don’t have those big open spaces. N.H. is claustrophobic. Sub in for the wide-open expanse of Iowa cornfields a truck stop by the rotary, or a freshly denuded house lot carved from a thicket of pine trees and poison ivy. Not necessarily creepy, but depressing and hermetic.

New Hampshire breeds this kind of existential loneliness, and it’s a force that many writers tap into. Great for poets who take walks in the woods. Great for novelists who dream of a better life. Great for writers to end their careers. New Hampshire is where J.D. Salinger went to disappear. Want to re-live his life? His former house is for sale. 

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Perhaps New Hampshire is like a lot of small town America everywhere. But it’s my homeland, and my tax-free haven. In the minds of some writers, the New Hampshire small town will never change. Of course everything has changed. To paraphrase Robert Frost, and that has made all the difference.



To learn more about Ethan and the mangy things he knows about—he writes better on Dungeons & Dragons and nerd cultural topics than most anyone living—visit Ethan Gilsdorf on his website. (And while you’re there congratulate him on his recent engagement!) 

Keep checking back with me for more essays from more writers who I dragoon into contributing, and yes even the occasional blog post from me, the putative owner of this space.


Want a signed book?

MYsteriousPressCom_mediumI’ve just put two boxes in the mail, full of signed copies of World of Trouble and The Last Policeman, bound for New York City’s famed Mysterious Bookshop. So if you’re in New York and wanting a signed copy of one of my books, head down to Warren Street and get one. (I bet if you call over there they’ll even reserve one for you.)

While I’m at it, here are the other stores that (probably) still have signed Ben Winters stuff on hand, for in-store or mail order purchase

Me being grilled at Poisoned Pen in Arizona.

Me being grilled at Poisoned Pen in Arizona. See if you can zoom in and find the stain on my shirt.

* Mystery One Bookstore, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

* Maclean and Eakin, Petoskey, Michigan (Ask those guys, when you call, about their remarkably affordable shipping rates).

* Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, California.

* The Poisoned Pen, Scottsdale, Arizona. (If you’re there, eat at the taco place across the street. I did, and got guacamole on my shirt right before my appearance at the store—because I’m a professional.)

* Murder by the Book, Houston, Texas.


* IndyReads Books, in my adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana.  The great thing about IndyReads, of course, is that every purchase goes to support the IndyReads literacy charity, so you can catch up on my work AND help people learn to read.

me and Katz

Me and Richard Katz at his store, Mystery One.

I think it’s worth noting— in the midst of our current controversy about the future of publishing, and in particular about book retailing—what the specific value is of privately owned, community-based local bookstores. Like, for example, they will have special events where they invite hustling authors to come do readings and meet fans and earn new ones; and like how, for example,  they will then have signed editions of books available.

So here’s an opportunity to take advantage of that value: buy one of my books—or one of anyone’s books—from one of the stores listed above.


Home again, home again

At some point I will post some sort of complete report on my World of Trouble book tour, which I kept forgetting to officially call the Trouble Man World Tour, and now it’s too late.

For now I’ll just say I met a lot of terrific people, including a lot of Detective Henry Palace fans, plus a lot of smart and enthusiastic booksellers (and librarians!), a healthy reminder of how important it is to have an active (and interactive) “book culture,” in which real humans recommend books to each other, drink wine together and talk about the books they loved, go see authors and ask them questions, and all of that great stuff.

I also had dinner with some librarians at a Ukrainian restaurant in Cleveland, and I just wanted to write that because originality is important to me, and I doubt anyone has ever written those words in that order before.


“All that outward friendliness could hide any number of secrets. ” Lori Rader-Day on the murderous Midwest

For most of my life I have lived in the eastern part of the country—most recently Boston, and before that Brooklyn, and before that Philly, and I was born in D.C. and grew up in Maryland. I did go to school in St. Louis, though, and I currently live in Indianapolis, which, like many thriving, cosmopolitan cities in the Midwest, is nevertheless a half hour drive in all directions from eerie fields of corn and dark midnight skies.

When people think of the Midwest they think of county fairs and kindness, not murder and mayhem, but in this installment of my Reverse Blog Tour, the very clever Chicagoan Lori Rader-Day (author of the brand new The Black Hour and the Vice President of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America) explains why they better think again.  

After enjoying her piece, you’ll want to go catch Lori TONIGHT (Friday, July 25) in Indianapolis, at the incomparable IndyReads Books.


Rader Day_Lori 2

Under the sweet Midwestern smile, Lori is plotting dark plots.

Do mystery novels make you think of Miss Marple, of Hercule Poirot, of nosy ladies in pearls and mustached men pulling all the suspects into the drawing room of an English manor to hash out a killer’s identity? Or maybe your heart belongs to the seedy underbelly of Chandler’s lonely Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett’s boozy New York?

But have you considered the darkness between the rows of a cornfield? Or a barren North Woods lake? If you’ve never been the lone figure walking hunched against the wind coming off a frozen Lake Michigan, you may not know that the Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread. Check out the bookshelves. The Midwest’s dim corners make for sinister reading: William Kent Krueger’s Boundary Waters, Minnesota. Steve Hamilton’s Upper Peninsula Michigan. Clare O’Donohue’s urban Chicago TV filming locations, down Lake Shore Drive from Sara Paretsky’s South Side stomping grounds. Don’t forget Michael Koryta’s Indiana landmarks. Gone Girl? Heard of it? Gillian Flynn’s small-town Missouri was as creepy as anything the New York Times bestseller list has seen in a while.

What makes the Midwest so mysterious? It’s not necessarily that Midwestern people are more criminal or that terrible things happen here more than other places. I think it’s only the Midwest’s varied landscapes contains so much potential for darkness. Serious potential. Acres and acres of potential. Sure, Chicago gives off whiffs of New York-style organized crime. St. Louis has a few bodies buried. Cleveland? Have you not heard what horrors Cleveland is capable of?


This stock photo of a barn is probably not a meth lab. PROBABLY.

But in between these middle cities lies all that wide-open space, all those tidy small towns where everyone knows everyone else—and their business, you betcha. Look around: 4-H fair prizes, tractor-shaped mailboxes, flags flying from the porch. And smiles. Too good to be true, don’t you think? All that outward friendliness could belie any sort of emotion, any number of secrets. Those barns make excellent meth labs.

By all means, mystery writers, let middle America hand you a favor. A small town, population 380 or 1,500, creates a tidy closed community reminiscent of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. And if you want tension and heightened circumstances? In Chicago, there were 40 murders last weekend. In a small town, a murder changes everything, and an unsolved murder means forging on with life knowing that one of the people you know—and you know them all—did the unthinkable. You might go to church with the killer. You certainly went to high school with him. Your children will continue to go to school with the murderer’s children.

I just gave you, like, five story ideas.

In short, mysteries are about seeking the truth when it’s being hidden. Where’s a better place to hide the truth but in all that empty space among all those reticent people?

As a writer, you’ll find the empty space is also a fine place to get your work done. The pace of life is just a little looser, a little more laid back. A lot fewer cocktail parties. A lot fewer bookstores. Spotty internet service.

It’s quiet out in the middle of nowhere. Have you ever heard the sound a breeze makes rustling the dried autumn husks of a cornfield?


Sometimes maybe a little too quiet.

Black Hour cover web***

Thank you, Lori! And thank you also for writing The Black Hour, which Publisher’s Weekly called “an exceptional debut…an irresistible combination of menace, betrayal, and self-discovery.”

While you’re at your favorite bookstore, pick up World of Troubletoo.

“Finding Them Early is NOT Enough” — Professor Joel Marks on Asteroid Detection

I’ve gotten a lot of nice emails from fans of the Last Policeman books, but most of them are not from people who have spent years studying the fascinating (and terrifying) real science of asteroids. I couldn’t resist asking Professor Joel Marks to contribute to my Reverse Blog Tour

Here’s his bio: 

“Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven, a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University, and an amateur astronomer. His Website is www.docsoc.com. He wishes to express his indebtedness to the GaiaShield Website athttp://gaiashield.com/two.htmlHe also notes that this is the twentieth anniversary of his having seen with his own eyeballs Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 striking the planet Jupiter.”

And now here’s the professor: 


UNH Faculty and Staff Portraits April 11, 2012Aside from being a page-turning thriller of detective and science fiction, Ben Winters’Last Policeman trilogy is a case study of a very real threat. What is that threat? It may seem obvious that I am referring to Armageddon by asteroid. But that is not quite what I have in mind. I think Winters’ tale points us to a crucial gap in humanity’s current preparations for planetary defense. For despite extraordinary gains in recent decades in our knowledge of what space rocks could do to us and of their near-Earth population, we are wedded to a strategy that guarantees failure sooner or later.

The strategy I am talking about is usually attributed to Donald Yeomans, NASA/JPL, to wit: “There are only three ways to increase our chances against an asteroid aimed at Earth: ‘Find it early; find it early; find it early’.”  The reasoning behind this seems straightforward enough, although it contains several components. One (alluded to in Winters’ books) is that just blowing up an incoming rock of sufficient size to do us serious damage is not likely to help matters; in place of one monster rock we might just end up with several humongous rocks, with total worldwide damage the same. Another part of the argument is that we would need to know the specifics of an incoming object – composition, speed, direction, etc. – in order to be able to counter it. But most important: Whatever known technologies we could employ would require a great deal of advance warning to apply to the threat at hand: not just months but years, decades, possibly even a century. The widely touted gravity tractor, for instance, could only nudge a Mount Everest size object a teeny bit per year into an orbit that would eventually bypass the Earth.

Nevertheless there is optimism in the planetary defense community because the vast majority of large near-Earth objects have already been discovered and none of them is on course to collide with the Earth in the next century. But here is where the reasoning becomes flawed: doubly so. First is that one of those small-minority-not-yet-discovered rocks could turn out to have our name on it. The other is that a completely different kind of threat could suddenly appear: a comet targeting Earth. (The doomsday object in Winters’ trilogy is really an amalgam of these two, as the 75-year orbit of his asteroid is more suggestive of a short-period comet. However, my main concern is long-period comets.)


The asteroid 253 Mathilde.

Yeomans and everyone else working to protect us know this. But they have reasons for acting as if these were not pressing concerns. As regards asteroids: Projects like B612’s Sentinel space telescope may soon reveal all of the current crop of NEOs. (Please donate to the B612 Foundation to help make this a reality.)  As regards comets: They are much rarer than asteroids in the inner solar system where we reside, and their early detection would require a far more extensive undertaking than anything contemplated or budgetarily feasible in the current political climate.

The problem with this reasoning, however, is that the apparition of a comet is a completely random event, and so its statistical rarity does not tell that the next one won’t happen for millions of years. It could happen tomorrow. And once a comet does appear and enter the domain of near-Earth objects, it will be too late to do anything about it, because, unlike asteroids, which have fairly circular orbits around the Sun, comets coming from beyond Neptune have highly eccentric orbits that assure a much quicker closing time with our planet. In his 2013 book Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them before They Find Us, Yeomans tells us that a comet discovered at the typical distance of Jupiter’s orbit could reach us in nine months. And as if called to order, Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), discovered only in January of last year and originally thought to be dinosaur-killer size, will narrowly miss colliding with Mars this coming October (on the 19th, not the 3rd!!). Had it been heading towards Earth instead, we could be living The Last Policeman.


Comet image from the Jet Propulsion Lab.

What to do? I see two implications: (1) “Find it early” needs to be reconceived to encompass comets as well as asteroids, thereby requiring a greatly enhanced detectioninfrastructure; and (2) “Find it early” needs to be understood as a necessary but not a sufficient means of planetary defense, since we must also begin development and deployment of a deflection infrastructure prior to detecting (“finding”) the next killer comet.But all of that will take money, which in turn will require political will, which in turn will require an informed electorate, and, in general, a greater sense of urgency about the threat. And surely one way to instill that urgency will be to encourage the widest possible circulation of books like the Last Policeman trilogy, for they show that “Find it early” is worse than useless advice if there is nothing you can do about “it” once you’ve found it!


Thank you so much, Professor Marks! I wholeheartedly agree, as I do with any scientific hypothesis that leads to more people reading my books. I also heartily second the suggestion to donate to the B612 Foundation; Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut and one of the founders of that organization, was hugely helpful to me in writing The Last Policeman.


“Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Save Them.” Eric Smith’s trilogy of things he learned from working on my trilogy

The official title of Eric Smith at my publishing house, Quirk Books, is Social Media and Marketing Manager, but I just think of him as Internet Man. He spends his days tweeting, posting, blogging about Quirk authors—except when he’s writing his own books, like the hilarious (and handy) Geek’s Guide to Dating, pubbed by his Quirk colleagues, and the upcoming YA novel Inked, which’ll come out from Bloomsbury in the spring. 

Since I spend a lot of time writing blog posts that Eric tells me to, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make him do one for me.

Take it away, Mr. Eric Smith Rocks:


Eric Smith

This picture makes it look like Eric lives inside a video game, which he sort of does.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the online marketing for The Last Policeman, getting the series up on blogs, producing the book trailer, arguing over cover redesigns in meetings, running giveawas across countless websites… and just having a blast throughout all of it.

When I’m not talking to the Internet about books, sometimes I like to write. Looking back at the marketing campaign for Ben’s fantastic trilogy (which I’m very sad to see coming to an end), I realized there are a few fun things writers can take away from marketing a trilogy.

So, here’s a list, in trilogy format, of what you can learn from about writing from marketing a book trilogy.

Part I: Never Stop Looking for a New Story to Tell: The tricky thing about working on a series, is that after the first book hits and you’ve roped in lots of people to talk about it… there are still potential reviewers out there who might have missed out or passed the first time around.

Going back and reintroducing a series can be tough, so you have to think of fun new angles and new stories to make it enticing. What’s an angle I missed that could be touched on this time around? Should I talk more about the genre or the character? What thrilled the people who read it earlier? What can I do to bring new people in?

As a writer, this is an obvious tip, right? That you should never stop looking for that new story to tell. If you constantly stick to the same thing, you can get stale. Keep things fresh.

Part II: Read More Books: Whenever I find myself working on a book in genre I’ve never really explored, I try my best to really delve into that genre.

When I worked on Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series, I started reading more YA. The book Taft 2012, which was a bit of political satire? Picked up some Christopher Buckley. The Last Policeman? It was time to check out more books about detectives, from novels by Duane Swierczynski to spending time with Bigby Wolf in Fables.

Why? It helps me out when I’m building those marketing campaigns. I can’t stand it when someone who is marketing something tries to infiltrate a community without at least knowing something about them.  If you’re familiar with the genre, then you can actually talk to people about these kinds of books. You can be genuine. You can be real.

Same applies to writing. There’s a quote someplace from Stephen King, where he says if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. True story.

Part III: Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Save Them: When a book is coming together, a lot of things go into it on the publishing side. The production, the design, the book trailers, the promotional materials… man, that list just goes on and on. And sometimes, something along the way gets cut. Maybe it’s a proposed cover you absolutely adored or some clips from a book trailer you thought were amazing.

Instead of dragging these things into the recycle bin, I always open up a folder, and save them for a rainy day. Those little extras can tell a brand new story. The covers that didn’t make it. The original ARC compared to the finished copy. Photo stills from the book trailer. These are all fun glimpses behind the scenes that real fans get a kick out of.

There’s a popular term in writing, a bit about killing your darlings. Don’t do it. Keep those bits of writing, and give them life somewhere else. Maybe those first two chapters that got cut can become a prequel short story. Or that character you really liked that didn’t quite fit… maybe he or she can appear in a new novel. Keep them in a folder, writers.


All excellent pieces of advice—thanks, Eric! For some more advice, this time from me, click here. To see me on my summer tour, click here. To read the last few installments of my 2014 Reverse Blog Tour , stay tuned!

“Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate category-one nerd.” Gabe Roth’s Totalizing Theory of Nerd Protagonists.

World of Trouble is out but my Reverse Blog Tour rolls on!

Gabriel Roth‘s debut novel, The Unknowns, got an amazing review from Janet Maslin in the New York Times, which probably sold a lot more copies than the cover blurb from me. But man, did I love this book. I also love Gabe, who I met through friends back when we both lived in Brooklyn and were young(er) and cool(er) than we are now. Now we are both novelists and both nerds, who write about nerdy characters. Read Gabe’s totally charming essay on the subject of nerdy heroes, and then read Exhibit A, his even more charming (and deeply devastating) novel on the subject


Ben asked me to write about creating a compelling nerd protagonist, which is the kind of question I really like because it allows me to do some retrospective theorizing. I could never in a million years sit down and say, “Now it’s time to create a compelling nerd protagonist — what would be a good approach to take?” But having spent a few years writing a book with a nerd for a protagonist, doing my best to make him interesting and sympathetic to readers, knowing that he’d have to carry the entire book on his shoulders, I am well positioned to make up a Totalizing Theory of Nerd Protagonists.

Gabe Roth

Funny — Gabe Roth doesn’t LOOK nerdish.

So here’s where we’ll start: There are two kinds of nerd.

Already I hear your complaints and challenges, and I sympathize with them: there are a billion kinds of nerd! Each nerd is a unique snowflake! For example, I like superhero comics and Doctor Who but I have never really gotten into Star Wars – what a fascinating man I am! Regardless, for the purposes of this discussion, I will be drawing an anayltical line between two kinds of nerd, and here’s where I’m drawing it: there is the nerd who is less sensitive than other people, and there is the nerd who is more sensitive than other people.

(We’re using male-nerd examples here, in part because female nerds have been neglected by literature and popular culture; I feel bad about exacerbating the problem in this discussion; really, if you want to create a compelling nerd protagonist you should make her a girl or woman because there’s a lot more fresh powder to ski on there.)


The smile of a man who needn’t give a fuck.

Category one (less sensitive than others) is Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom don’t seem to give a fuck what other people think of them. (The punk pretends not to give a fuck what other people think of him, but the effort he puts into his unconventional appearance suggests otherwise. If you really don’t give a fuck what other people think of you, you’re a category-one nerd.) Nerds of this type have traits associated with Asperger syndrome: highly specialized interests, difficulty reading interpersonal cues. The famous-software-billionaire examples sometimes obscure the fact that this is actually a very difficult way to go through life.

The category-two nerd (more sensitive than others) is less likely to become famous, so it’s easier to think of fictional examples. Peter Parker is a nerd of this stripe, and so are the characters Anthony Michael Hall played in John Hughes movies. This kind of nerd is more likely to have an anxiety disorder than an autism-spectrum disorder. In movies he might have a crush on the head cheerleader, because movies are like that, but in real life he probably has a crush on a normal-looking girl who is kind to him, although he’s still too shy to tell her how he feels.

Both types of nerd are isolated — that’s what makes them nerds — but they’re isolated for different reasons. The category-one nerd doesn’t talk to people because he doesn’t care what they have to say. The category-two nerd doesn’t talk to people because he’s afraid that they’ll laugh at him.

For a writer, the category-one nerd makes a difficult protagonist. The things he wants are things it’s hard to make the reader care about. His quests are intellectual quests, they take place in the rarefied air of high abstraction, and no one, not even the reader, can really follow him. (There’s not a lot of suspense to be generated from “Can he fix the bug in his code?”) Whereas the things he’s oblivious to are the stuff of fiction: relationships, feelings, communication between people.

Rathbone as Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Literature’s Perfect Nerd.

An exception to this rule is the classic mystery story: Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate category-one nerd, and the fun of Conan Doyle’s stories lies in seeing how much smarter he is than we are. But in contemporary fiction, paradoxically, this kind of hyperintelligent character is typically dumb about the thigns that are important in stories, so, paradoxically, he makes readers feel like they’re smarter than him. This kind of nerd functions as an unreliable-narrator type, the kind of protagonist who makes the reader want to shout at him, “No, you idiot!” (That’s how Steven Moffat brings the Holmes stories up-to-date in the current BBC series: by making his Sherlock both impossibly clever and, “where it counts,” impossibly obtuse.)

The category-two nerd, on the other hand, is an ideal protagonist. He’s an underdog, so he automatically attracts a measure of readerly sympathy. He’s hypersensitive, which means that small emotional moments have a lot of weight for him and hence for the narrative. His experiences — humiliation, anxiety, fear of rejection — are universal; the only readers who can’t relate to them are the kind of people who are so frightened of their own feelings of weakness that they defensively refuse to identify with them in others.

It’s noteworthy, in the sense of “it provides evidence for my thesis,” that Aaron Sorkin, in writing about Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, had to change him from a category-one nerd into a category-two nerd. The real Zuckerberg seems to be chiefly interested in building systems and accumulating resources, which are difficult motivations to ask an audience to sign on for. So Sorkin invented a “Mark Zuckerberg” who built the world’s biggest website because he wanted to prove his worth to the girl who dumped him and the Ivy League snobs who wouldn’t invite him to their parties. And it made a pretty good movie, although it doesn’t tell us much about Facebook.

Because the narrator of my novel, The Unknowns, is an Internet millionaire, some people have assumed he’s a nerd in the Gates/Zuckerberg mold. In fact, he’s solidly a type-two nerd: desperate to make a connection with others, terrified that they’ll reject him. I hope readers find him convincing despite the fact that I am a confident, self-sufficient, athletic type to whom such feelings are entirely alien.


See, I told you Gabe could write, and I seriously can’t recommend The Unknowns highly enough. And if you want more thoughts on geeks in literature, you could read my blog post on the subject, from “Geeky Library” last week.

Release Day

Having a new book come out is an odd, odd sensation, because you’ve finished your work on it such a long time ago, and now here come all the people to check it out. It’s like opening night for a play that closed six months ago.

Wait, you sort of want to scream—from the present moment, where you’re working on something new, writing some short stories, focusing on your blog—THAT thing? You’re going to read THAT thing? But I haven’t been working on for months now! What if I want to change something? Nothing in particular, mind you, just…it doesn’t feel ready.

But it never feels ready, and yet there is nothing you can do about it now. Here it slips, from your hands into other people’s hands, and there’s no turning back.

So, anyway, what I’m saying is, if like me you’ve been waiting for World of Trouble to come out, here it is, and I’m really grateful.

“Whether it’s making a baby or a musical or a novel, we almost never do anything alone. ” — Kait Kerrigan on collaboration.

I don’t know how large the Venn diagram circle overlapping section is between lovers of crime literature and lovers of musicals, but it includes at least two people—myself, and Stephen Sondheim, who I include only because among his lesser accomplishments is co-writing the screenplay a mystery film, The Last of Sheila, in 1973. 

The first real writing I did, actually, was as a lyricist and librettist, and I had some mild successes, notably with a “jukebox musical” called Breaking Up is Hard To Do; a bunch of kids musicals; and one very adult musical called Slut (yes, that’s what it was called) which had a decent run Off Broadway, what now feels like a million years ago.

Among the many very smart people I met working in the world of musicals was Kait Kerrigan, who with her partner Brian Lowdermilk have written a half dozen musicals, that have produced all over the country; in fact, we recently got back in touch because my five-year-old son was taken on a field trip here in Indianapolis to what I later figured out was a Kerrigan & Lowdermilk show. They also have a legion of fans online, who watch their charming YouTube videos, buy their sheet music, and generally love them. 

I’ve thought a lot about how doing theater is different than doing fiction, but—as has been my strategy throughout the Reverse Blog Tour—I wanted someone smarter than me to actually write about it. Thus, here’s Kait:




Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan are so talented they don’t need any color on their walls.

Writing a musical is not like writing a play and, from what I can gather, it’s not like writing a novel. The closest corollary I can find is writing for a television show. In both cases, most of the writing process isn’t actually writing. It’s talking in a room until at least two people can find a shared vision.The major difference is that in writing a musical, no one else has your job. In narrative television, everyone’s coming from roughly the same vantage point: they eventually have to turn the idea into dialogue. With a musical, when you walk out of the room, you go back to your tiny desk and you are once again solely responsible for the music or the lyrics or the book. No one else will punch up your dialogue. 

Writing a musical is about collaboration, execution, and rewriting. I teach a libretto-writing class and I tell my students that one of the main differences between writing a musical and most other kinds of writing is that they’re expected to do their thinking outside their brains. If you write a play, you work through the idea from the beginning to the end of your idea alone. You overwrite, you meander, trying to find the story. Then when you have a draft, you bring in collaborators. They react to the draft. 

In a musical, you bring collaborators – composers, lyricists, directors, producers – into the process at the very start and you synthesize to accommodate a composite of ideas. 

In the best of worlds, it can create something much bigger and more ambitious than any one brain could have made. It can kick sand over the fact that it was made at all. When it’s finished, it can appear to have always existed – West Side Story, A Chorus Line – where does the written work end and the production begin? They’re inextricable. 

In the worst of worlds, it looks like a game of telephone where everyone enunciated very poorly and no one listened very well. 

One of my favorite moments that I have ever experienced in a theater happened during tech. I hate tech. I’m useless during tech. By now, the director and all the designers are  executing. If we all did our jobs well, this is when the magic happens, if we didn’t, this is when it all falls apart. But no matter what, they need time to execute but because of the nature of the beast, I’m allowed to sit in a dark room and watch them execute. Tech is like writing a writer write. It’s boring and it’s often ugly before it’s beautiful. 

But one day, I walked into tech and I saw two people I’d never met. One was the assistant to the costume designer and the other was part of the scenic team. As usual, I was feeling useless and bored and I listened in on their conversation. They were discussing a how a character’s outfit would interact with the set. The tenor of the conversation was getting heated. The costume designer’s assistant felt strongly that the costume needed to convey something specific to the audience and the set was getting in her way. The set designer had something he needed to accomplish in the exact same beat. It was a good argument. No one was right or wrong. The fight simply had to be negotiated out. 

Here’s the weird thing. I had made it up. The story? The character? The environment? None of it was real. But two grown adults were arguing their way towards collaboration on this entirely made up thing that had initially started in the brain of a composer, passed through me, and a director, and made its way into this argument during tech between two people I’d never spoken to. 
As I see it, there’s no world in which you can create anything without collaboration. People can’t do that. Whether it’s making a baby or a musical or even a novel, we almost never do anything completely alone. Recognizing that collaboration is the most likely road to creation makes it easier to collaboration. None of this means that you don’t fight. You do. You should. But you have to fight for the right reasons. 

Here are some things I think are true about making things through collaboration: 
1. If you feel strongly about something, you’re probably right. 
2. If someone else feels strongly about something, he or she is also right. 
3. This is true even when you adamantly disagree. 
4. It’s most important to understand why the other person is also right when you disagree because it allows you a path forward to making what matters to you work with what matters to them. 
5. If you don’t have a strong instinct, follow someone else’s instinct for a little while. 
6. Realize that the most likely possibility is that you misunderstood. 
7. When feeling stuck, change location. Seriously. Go outside. 
8. When feeling stuck, lower the stakes and try dumb.  
9. It’s easy to think that it’s the end of the world. It’s not. 
10. Do not use passive aggression. Ever. 

Thanks, Kate!
Speaking of this business we call show, I am going to be guest blogging at The National Alliance of Musical Theater on July 21, part of my ongoing blog tour  in support of World of Trouble


The Trouble Begins

I, for one, had a heck of a time at IndyReads Books today, where my World of Trouble book tour kicked off in grand style.



The best part was NOT the fact that the book officially went on sale (at IndyReads only: the rest of the universe must wait till the pub. date on Tuesday); the best part was NOT that I gave out fake mustaches and Hank Palace Blend Coffee Beans (from White Mountain Gourmet Coffee in Concord, NH) to audience members who correctly answered Last Policeman trivia; the best part was DEFINITELY not my stumbling through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” on my ukulele.

The best part was how many wonderful friends and fans came out, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, for a literary event, to celebrate books and bookstores and my book in particular. What a terrific way to start the tour. If you were with us today in Indianapolis, please send me your pictures so I can add them to these here (taken by my wife, Diana); if you know folks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Petoskey, Michigan; or any of the other places I’ll be in the next couple weeks, please spread the word. I have many more mustaches and bags of coffee to give away!