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Accountant to author: James Dashner trumps the odds

Since leaving his accounting job last year, James Dashner has been spending his days in libraries, bookstores and movie theaters.But he can hardly be accused of idleness.After all, Dashner is producing books that have him poised for arrival on the national youth fiction landscape. With a little risk, a lot of hard work and a vast imagination, he has transitioned from wishful college student to restless professional to full-time author.Accounting wasn't his forte, but it appears story-telling is."I'm a creative person trapped in an accountant's body, not the other way around," said Dashner, whose third fantasy series will kick off this fall with the nationwide release of "The Maze Runner."Dashner's unlikely career as an author began as a student at BYU, when he felt "a sudden and overwhelming urge to write stories." He began writing but remained practical, earning his degree and finding a stable job in materials management for the LDS Church.__IMAGE1__One decade later, Dashner has a three-book deal in place with Random House. "The Maze Runner" is one of the lead titles this fall for the publishing company, which took the 36-year-old Dashner around the country on a recent "pre-publicity buzz tour.""Every day, it seems too good to be true," Dashner said.A husband and father of four, Dashner left his job last summer to write full-time. These days, when he's not at publicity appearances or conferences, he is usually writing at a local bookstore or library, where he can take breaks and browse through books and periodicals. It's an ideal environment for cultivating his imagination.On occasion, he'll even catch a matinee, which he says helps him with plot, pacing and revealing mysteries."Some of my best writing has been after seeing a movie," he said. " ... At least that's what I tell my wife."Dashner, who grew up in Georgia, fell in love with reading as a child and was especially influenced by Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" and Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game."His big break as an author came when Shadow Mountain, a publishing arm of Deseret Book, signed him to a deal that gave him a larger audience in the LDS market. The result was "The 13th Reality," a series that follows a teenage boy who is pulled into a world of peril and alternate realities when "curious" letters start showing up in his mailbox.Brandon Mull, author of the best-selling fantasy series "Fablehaven," says he and Dashner share a similar philosophy — just make the story fun."He's a big kid in a lot of ways, just trying to write good books," Mull said.Sara Zarr, a friend and fellow young adult writer, says Dashner will speak at events and have rows of 10-year-old boys "just totally in awe of him.""He's definitely got the magic that it takes to keep young readers reading," Zarr said.Reaching those readers, however, has required work.After his first series, "The Jimmy Fincher Saga," sold sluggishly, Dashner realized he had to take some initiative. He sat for book signings, made school appearances and "charmed" bookstore employees in hopes that they would recommend his work — a process he calls "pounding the pavement."He also took a significant risk when he agreed to shoulder some of the costs — and subsequent risk — to publish "Jimmy Fincher."Dashner says the proverbial "writer's struggle" is now part of his persona — "I feel it, I've been through it," he said — and he's become a cheerleader of sorts for writing hopefuls.He spoke recently at the LDStorymakers conference, where he won the 2009 Whitney Award for "Best Youth Fiction," and kept the audience laughing with his dry sense of humor and jokes about how he hated accounting. He's also participated in the Teen Writer's Conference in Ogden and the BYU Writers and Illustrators for Young Readers conference.Mull said Dashner is engaged with other Utah authors, often organizing social activities where they can talk about writing. Zarr, who participates in a writing group with Dashner, says he's good to respond to e-mails and blog posts — "all that stuff you hope anyone would do, but it's not that common" in the publishing world as a whole, she said."He's the kind of person that people like to work with because he's kind and funny and just a likable person," Zarr said.Dashner wants others to know that rejection is part of the game and "does not mean that you're a bad writer." Sometimes, it's just a case of bad timing or being in the wrong genre at the wrong time."There's a million reasons to get rejected," he said.He's just glad he didn't concede his career. Now, encouraging others is "a big part of what I want to accomplish," he said."It's just had so many ups and downs," Dashner said. "I feel like I just really appreciate what I'm finally starting to see and I really, really feel an obligation to help other writers, because so many people have helped me and I know what they're going through."