Dave Cullen's Blog: Conclusive Evidence of Dave Cullen's Existence--The GoodReads Edition

June 18, 2013

Famous people are often annoying. Then they die, which is sad, but I get REALLY annoyed, and feel guilty for it, reading all the half-truth obits painting them as saintly perfection.

Mike Hastings was highly unsaintly and imperfect. He could be harsh, volcanic and unforgiving, and he picked way more fights than he needed. And a few other things. I worried about him. So no bullshit that he was a sweetheart to everyone. But God he was nice to me. And funny and endearing and an inspiration. I miss him like crazy already. So this is not meant as the complete Mike Hastings bio, just what he meant to one guy in this world.

I knew Mike kind of a short time, four years, but what an impact. I met him over the phone, when he interviewed me about my book--the only close friend I think I ever made that way. We had a great conversation, for about an hour, during which I mentioned I was thinking about going to Afghanistan to research my next book. Then he spent another two hours helping me sort that out. Basic questions like how and where I get body armor, and embarrassing ones like, "What are the chances I'll die?" I skitted around that last one awhile, because I felt like such a weanie and feared the answer would be: If you have to ask, you're not cut out for it.

I did ask, though, because he put me so at ease. From the start. Right up to the last time I saw him, a week and a half ago. He was so damn sincere about everything. So candid. He was riddled with fears, too. But so bold about charging ahead anyway.

Then I moved to New York, we met for drinks when he came through town, and it was friendship at first sight--with both him and Elise, who quickly became two of my favorite people, who married each other.

I could go weeks or months without seeing him, and we'd pick up instantly, like we had been cracking jokes five minutes ago. I could tell Mike anything, so of course I did. Why? I was about to say, "no judgments," which will make a few heads explode, of his adversaries in the unlikely event they are still reading, because man, could Mike eviscerate people who upset him. Brilliantly. He was an artful writer, and you did not want to get on the wrong side of his pen. And yet, for me, I tell you candidly, I confessed to Mike a slew of shortcomings I would never divulge to my own mom. (Especially my mom--haha--but not to most of my other friends either.)

I think, because he knew I was trying. And trying to figure it out. No bullshit from me either. I never doubted a word that came out of his mouth. I had to tell him he was an idiot, sometimes, or a buffoon, but I always got the truth. His best attempt at figuring out what that was.

That's the main thing Mike was after in this world, I think: truth, sincerity, an honest attempt--at whatever it was you were trying to do.

He forgave some of my grave failings, too, never called me on an obvious one. I'm so Godddamned slow. I have a feeling it drove him nuts, how long I took, because he just cranked out the copy, gorgeous, vivid stuff that had me envious, while I plodded along for years at a time on one thing. He never made me feel shitty about that. He kept on encouraging me, and helping me with edits and guidance and introductions. We me, he was incredibly generous.

Everyone has been lauding his reporting, but man he could write, and that's where he really helped me. So many times, so many ways. The story I've been working on now, he's been encouraging me for three years. So many times, my confidence sagged. I believed in it because he did. (Elise, too. What a pair.)

Here's where I get to pick a little fight with him. Mike wrote this really vivid, amusing and totally spot-on list of ten bits of advice to young journalists on Reddit. You'll get a sense right away of his candor and intensity--everything that made him so special--so I have to laugh at his derisive stab in #2 at reporters focused on their writing, or God help them, "prose." That's what makes the list so God damn special, you idiot: your amazing facility to convey so much insight with so much personality, in so few words. That's called great writing, goofball. Vivid prose.

Two things I didn't tell Mike:

1. He was kind of a hero to me. He could tell, I think, though. God, I hope so. He was so bold, so fearless. I'm not, anymore, nothing like I used to be. That may be a good thing, but Mike was refreshing at shaking me up. Be bold. Be like Mike. Not all the time. I didn't want to be him. But he woke me up, at least once a month, to a bolder version of me I could be.

2. He reminded, me, scarily, of a younger version of me. He was nearly 20 years younger than me, and God, I was angry and reckless in my 20s. Much worse than him, and unchanelled. I took solace in Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and The Clash, but I lamented later that I'd never have my Elvis Costello period artistically, because I was too damn angry and unfocused to get anything meaningful down. Those guys all did. Mike, too. I admired that. I wondered, often, what Mike would look like when he was 50. Unlikely that he would grow older into a version anything like me. I was OK with that. I like what I've grown into, and so much happier that I've gotten here, but I have a feeling Mike's path would be very different. I was really excited to see what it would be.

That's what makes me so damn sad today, apart from all the obvious stuff, like all the laughs we'll miss out on and what's going to happen to Elise. All that stuff we're never going to read, or see. I have a lot of writer friends, and I lean on them all for different things, but nobody gave me that crazy bold path Mike was blazing, daring me to be just as bold.

I was crying about that this afternoon--that beacon that he was for me, of what I could and sometimes should be, that's gone now, and I feel unsteady already without my kindred spirit blazing that tougher path alongside me. The path is not gone though, is it? Mike left us, but all that fearless bushwhacking he did, that lives on. He will fade in my mind over the years, I'm afraid, and I'll never be able to call him up or email again for encouragement, but what he did for me, for all of us writers and journalists, that's never going away.

And the joy he brought me. That's living on, too. And the wonderful people he brought into my life. One in particular. Elise, wow. I never would have met her without you.

Thanks, Mike. I miss you already, buddy. I said that already. I'm going to say it over and over again.


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Published on June 18, 2013 21:15 • 258 views

April 1, 2013

Now I get why Roth was such a master.

My favorite bit: seeing his corrections. Looks just like mine! What a relief!!

The episode was engaging from the start, because he was so amazingly, refreshingly candid: the good, the bad, the whatever--no bullshit, and amazing self-awareness (and insight into others).

Of all the takeaways of that show, it's that he was a great writer, because he was totally liberated from fears, reticence, anything that comes between him and the page: what he felt, what his imagination was capable of, he spilled it out, let the page soak it up.

PLUS, he's really

Also, SO many little practical things I gleaned about his writing process that are so similar to mine. It was encouraging and instructive. (Including that markup. Just like mine! Nice to see we're on the same page.)

And that also came through: His diligence to make his stuff better, and a lot of awareness about what worked for him and what got in his way. (Like writing outside the city, writing standing up (wow! I might have to try that. Because I have found some of my best work while walking around.) I loved his realization that great writing doesn't JUST HAPPEN. He has to find all the ways to coax it out and stay out of the way. Like the way he develops his characters. He had to learn from himself what worked for him to create them and keep approaching it that way.

I think the show can be great for any kind of artist. I know I learn about my process from watching artists in other fields. It's what I love about Project Runway, for instance. You really get to see some of their process: in miniature--start to finish, you see a project, and where each of them sometimes gets on the right track and rides it to somewhere wonderful, and then a week later (a day later in their real life taping the show), they go right off the rails and the dress goes down the toilet with them.

(Ack! Horrible mixed metaphor. haha. It's OK. I allow them in first drafts. I successfully turned my internal editor off! Haha. Yea!!!)

BTW, great summary of the episode on PopMatters. Their post is called, "A Remarkable Portrait of a Reclusive American Treasure: 'American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked.' "

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Published on April 01, 2013 08:37 • 102 views

June 13, 2012

How cool is this?
Shortlist.com just picked the "50 Coolest Book Covers Ever," with titles like 1984, Catch-22 and Clockwork Orange. (And yes, In Cold Blood.) And . . . 
. . . my first book, Columbine
That is sweet company.
I am ever grateful to Henry Sene Yee for designing such a memorable cover, and Jon Karp for gathering an amazing team to work on my book.
When the book came out, before it won him a slew of design awards, Henry posted on his blog, explaining his whole artistic process of conceiving the ideas, trying out completely different versions (with pictures shown), and making it happen. It's a great read.
(And I'll use this opportunity, once again, to thank all the gracious readers who keep recommending the book, spreading the word, especially all the high school students and teachers who have embraced it. 
And thanks to Barnes & Noble and a lot of independents for putting it back out on display tables. That's really helping people discover it.)
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Published on June 13, 2012 10:12 • 499 views

January 4, 2012

Regardless of what you think of that particular old crank clinging desperately to his senate seat, I roll my eyes every time I see a "news story" about some politician endorsing.

Who the hell cares? Who is going to let someone tell them who to vote for in a presidential election?

It's refreshing to hear many pundits now scoffing at the idea that Michelle Bachmann can direct her supporters to Romney or Santorum, or that Perry or Gingrich can once they bow out.

Sometimes, on more cheerful days, it makes me smile, though. Because

Not long ago, when my parents were young, and perhaps even middle-aged, large chunks of the population used to do as they were told. It seems like a distant universe, or a different race of humans, but it was not long ago or far away.

We have come a long damn way.

Kinda nice.

But I'm curious how long this relic will hang around. A few more election cycles for sure. But twelve years from now, or twenty, will it be gone completely and kids will start to ask "Endorse her? What does that mean?"
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Published on January 04, 2012 14:54 • 140 views

December 17, 2011

Many of you have been asking about autographed copies of the book. I just signed a dozen copies of Columbine at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in NYC.

They will ship virtually anywhere domestic or international.

Call this number to purchase/ship, and let them know that I signed all their copies on hand Friday night:


The BN people assured me it would go smoothly, but if you should have any problem, shoot me an email and I'll straighten it out to make sure others are OK. Thanks. dave@davecullen.com

BTW, I was happy to discover that B&N's flagship store had a stack of Columbine on the "Non-Fiction Favorites" table at the front of the store. Here's how it looked (after she put the autographed stickers on):

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Published on December 17, 2011 10:29 • 93 views
I just signed a dozen copies of Columbine at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in NYC.

They will ship virtually anywhere domestic or international.

Call this number to purchase/ship, and let them know that I signed all their copies on hand Friday night:


I had a lot of readers give them as Christmas gifts last year, and heard good things back. It sounds dark for the season, but most people want to get a book they can really dig in to.
The BN people assured me it would go smoothly, but if you should have any problem, shoot me an email and I'll straighten it out to make sure others are OK. Thanks. dave@davecullen.com

BTW, I was happy to discover that B&N's flagship store had a stack of Columbine on the "Non-Fiction Favorites" table at the front of the store. Here's how it looked (after she put the autographed stickers on):

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Published on December 17, 2011 10:29 • 440 views

November 13, 2011

A talentened friend of mine is wrapping up his phd in religious history. His dissertation has promise as a mainstream book, but he knows nothing about the publishing industry. He emailed asking for advice on how to get started (eg, how to approach editors.)

I started by telling him you don't approach editors: you start with an agent. Pretty soon I'd filled a page or two laying out the basics of breaking into this biz, and figured it could help some of you. (I get asked this a lot.)

The email felt like a good draft of a post I've been meaning to put together for a couple years now. But as you might have noticed, I've tried to keep myself from the blog the past year to focus on my next project.

So rather than let this languish in draft form indefinitely, helping no one, I'm just going to post it here as sent, complete with uncaps, fragments and gramatical mistakes. (Minus a few personal details). I think you'll get the gist.

Fiction authors: your process is very similar, except you have to write the whole novel and have that ready to send instead of the book proposal.

I hope this helps some of you writers trying to break in. To find it later, I'll add it to my  Advice to Writers page .

The email:
the entry key to this business is a good agent. (not an editor, as most people think. they are the second rung in.) agents are the gate keepers. the big houses won't even consider "unagented" material anymore.

(if you want to go to a regional, academic or specialty press, ignore the preceding, though everything that follows will apply to landing them instead of an agent.)

once you land a good agent, you have passed the biggest hurdle, and your book has a very good shot at selling. 
finding an agent for nonfiction is pretty straightforward, though a lot of work:
1. write a kick-ass book proposal, and approx 3 sample chapters. (they don't want to read the actual book, they want to read a proposal.)
2. identify agents that are a good fit (a hard part).
3. Write a great one-page query letter. 
4. Keep sending #3 to agents until one agrees to see your book proposal. Send to about a dozen at a time, because it usually takes dozens. Once one says yes, you need to be able to mail/email the proposal that day, while their interest is up.
(Hence doing #1 before #3. Also, #3 is the hardest part for most people, and doing #1 distills their core ideas down for them and makes #3 infinitely easier.) You might want to start with a draft of #3 to get started with something small, kind of self-validate, and force you to distill your book into a few graphs. Then you widen back out to #1 and come back to #3 with new eyes and really make it rock. (It needs to.)
5. After they reject the proposal, return to #4 until one likes the proposal, and agrees to take you as a client. 
6. The agent will work with you on rewrites to make the proposal much better.
7. He/she takes it from there. but all the work you've put into finding an agent is recycled here, because a) she will start with an oral pitch to editors, where she will probably crib heavily from your query letter, as well as your proposal, b) once she gets them interested, she'll submit your book proposal to them. (and it will be photocopied 20 times in-house. they have a whole internal process where they have to get one other in-house editor to agree to support the book before it can go up to the editor in chief and then the publisher, and if they buy in, to a big committee with people from sales, marketing, publicity, finance, etc., who must agree to it.)


now on the agent front, cold-querying is a real bitch, and it helps greatly to know someone who will vouch for you. your work still has to stand up by itself, but they will give a lot more consideration to someone who a trusted person says is bright, capable, not a nutcase.

as for the book proposal and query, there are entire books on each, because they are that important--and i bought, used three of the books to do mine. but lots of good agents have the basics on their websites. Rachelle Gardner has a good starter .

It links to her two posts on how to write a book proposal and a query letter. I think Nathan Bransford has the very best advice on query letters, with critiques of examples. Links to his stuff is on my Advice to Writers page .

(I think Rachelle lays out the basics best, whereas Nathan jumps right in halfway through, expecting you to already know the basic elements of a query letter, and how it fits in to the entire process. So I'd start with Rachelle, then move on to Nathan.)

if you're looking for a sense of size/time, my proposal was nearly 100 pages (which was too long) and took about 4 months. queries MUST be one page, and when i do them for magazine pieces, i usually spend at least a week on them, usually much more. (not full time, but they suck up most of my creative juice for the week). but i'm slow. really slow.

is that overwhelming? it gets much easier as you get familiar.

doing a great query and proposal are are each tricky in their own way, but the format is very well established, so get familiar with that. then it's all about execution. and the key to execution is to make it INTERESTING. get the flavor of your voice/personality in there.

i think a lot of writers get lost in the format of the proposal, thinking that if they just flesh out all the elements in the outline they are done. the key is hitting all the elements, but doing so in a way that someone would actually want to read. i can help you with that.

if you can tell a great story at a party, you can write a good book. you just have to believe in that same voice--your real voice, and get it onto the page.

much harder than it sounds, as you know, but 99% of the problem is your own lack of faith that it will work there. instead, people try to Write--or worse, Write Importantly--in some other ridiculous voice that belongs to know one and sounds like it.

i tell students that if you've got a great anecdote that you're telling a group of friends, and somebody walks in and interrupts, that once the interruption settles down, try NOT picking the story back up. somebody better ask you, "So what happened with xxx?" or whatever. if they don't, it wasn't that great a story, or you didn't figure out how to tell it.

if people do want to hear more of your stories, then you've got the gift. (and lots of writers lack the confidence to pull it off orally, but can nail it on the page. confidence is not the only thing, but it's an essential thing.)

that's the MAIN thing you should keep in the foreground of your mind as you go: that storytelling approach you already have when you're telling stories to your friends.

i hope i didn't make it sound crushing. one bite at a time, it gets done. good luck with it. it will be great.

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Published on November 13, 2011 14:18 • 143 views

November 8, 2011

Finally, a study about libraries illustrating what most of us authors have learned from our readers. The PublishersWeekly piece:

Survey Says Library Users Are Your Best Customers             
Groundbreaking new study shows value of libraries to the book—and the e-book—business

This is wonderful to see documented--though I'm curious to read the full study, because frankly, this piece presented a lot of wonderful conclusions with almost no data to back it up. Hopefully the data is there in the full piece.

I have seen incredible evidence of the power of libraries since Columbine came out in 2009. I hear from

The "Power Patrons" described in the piece also makes sense. My final girlfriend Bethany reads more than a book a week--I meet quite a few like her on my tours, and many on Goodreads who do more than 100 books a year).

Few of them could afford to buy that many new books, especially in hardcover, so these are not lost sales. (Without the library they would just be reading a lot less, not buying more.) Most of them tell me they then purchase a few of the ones they really prize each year to keep on their bookshelf, and they also buy more of their favorites as gifts, and spread the word about many more.

All of those are very positive forces for book sales. It's also nice that it works in favor of books that are really good. Instead of sales based on media hype or any sort of pre-read factors, these are all sales generated by someone who has actually read the book and admired it. All good.

I'm really grateful libraries and librarians are still so vital. I had no idea until my book came out.
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Published on November 08, 2011 09:43 • 93 views

October 30, 2011

Illinois high school students, teachers, parents, librarians and friends, you can help Columbine reach a wider audience in schools.

Columbine is a finalist for "The 2012 Abraham Lincoln Award: Illinois' High School Readers' Choice Award." Winners are chosen by students, and any Illinois high school student can vote.

Please consider voting and asking a student you know to vote. (Summary of how below.)

I have never lobbied for an award before, but here's why this one matters so much to me:

When the book launched, I was flooded with emails, but then soon after, Facebook started humming. It was students. Thousands of them were reading the book and sharing it. They said it felt real to them, like their life. It made them want to read.

That was the nicest thing I could have hoped to hear.

Teachers and librarians also became big supporters, because of the kids' response. They were reading by choice! And asking questions, wanting to learn more—wanting to learn. Music to a teacher's ears. And mine.
 they are thrilled at the way the kids are responding.

I had to give up touring to concentrate on my next book, but I've made exceptions for schools, because the impact is so powerful. (I know the kids electrify me.)

In the last two years, I have traveled to schools around the country and met with thousands of students, and skyped with hundreds more. In one week last month, I spoke to about 3,000 kids in four schools around Chicago. The enthusiasm has been overwhelming.

[image error]Hinsdale Central last month. More pix here and on facebook.)
What's so invigorating is the way students are responding. They are excited about reading, asking, learning.

Students and teachers have become my prime focus. I created the Columbine Teacher's Guide and Student Guide—both free. I also created videos for students and class discussions, and do two free skype sessions per month with classes.

The Abe Lincoln Award will open the door

So if you're an Illinois student and you liked Columbine, please vote, and encourage your friends. If you work with kids or parent them, encourage them to vote. (Or to vote for any book on the list they did like. And to read!)

How to Vote

One librarian or teacher at each school (usually the library media specialist) is designated to count all votes for the school and send them in. So just ask your librarian to record your vote.

If she/he is not familiar with the award, just give them this link, with all the info. (If your school is not registered to participate it has to do so by November 15.) And if your school library does not want to participate, you can vote through your public library.

Here's the catch: To be eligible to vote, you have to read four of the books on the list of finalists. There are 22 to choose from, so hopefully you can find three other books that interest you. And all books have been favorites of kids, so you are likely to find good reading material there. You might also be able to do a class project on the four books you choose.

You have through February of 2012 to read four books and get your vote in. Thanks. And spread the word.

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Published on October 30, 2011 09:51 • 293 views

August 1, 2011

We'll see. I tacked on that 'supposedly,' because I imagine I'll change it eight or nine hundred more times. But it's finally feeling complete.

This my first NYC apartment space that I actually created. (The sublet was furnished, and I just moved in there with a couple suitcases.) This place I picked out myself in Hell's Kitchen, and started with almost nothing, except the Moroccan rugs and albums I kept stored in Denver.

It could use a painting or two or even a print, but close. I added a few of the plants and the album covers this weekend:

The bottom left looks really busy, but that's because of the weird angle and the plants too dark to show up well, because of all the window pouring in the opposite window.

Here's the same room, from the right side, instead of the left:

And here from the reverse angle, from the kitchen:

The office is coming around, too, but it's not quite ready for showing yet.

And the bedroom is pulling up the rear, with almost up. That "almost" is only as of noon. I pounded in some nails to hang a column of ballcaps, taped up a favorite Calvin & Hobbes clipping that used to be on my fridge, and got a picture of all my nieces and nephews into a frame. But it needs work. Soon.

Meanwhile, I asked friends on my facebook page if anyone could ID all six albums. That would be hard enough without the dark, fuzzy photo, so here they are closer up:

Anyone? We want name of the artist, and the album. Six of my favorites--though I picked them out of a mix of love for the artist/album and the visual sense. (Eg, that was my third favorite WZ album, but the most visually striking, by far. So it's standing in for all his work in my heart.)
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Published on August 01, 2011 12:32 • 135 views

Conclusive Evidence of Dave Cullen's Existence--The GoodReads Edition

Dave Cullen
Thoughts on books, writing and hopefully a few other passions from Dave Cullen, author of "Columbine."
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