Monthly Archives: October 2016

What I’m Reading!

I’m a story hummingbird. A gigantic, six-foot-five hummingbird, flitting around sipping from three or four different books at a time, listening to audiobooks and podcasts as I drive, getting all those words caught in my beard.

That’s why this isn’t ever ever EVER going to be one book on a list.

I’m reading: Black Light by Elizabeth Hand. Hand’s Cass Neary novels (Generation Loss, Available Dark, and Hard Light) are among the best books I’ve read this year so far, and so I absolutely had to take a chance on her older works. She’s absolutely one of the best writers I’ve encountered. (Thanks Paul Tremblay for steering me her way!)

The Passage by Justin Cronin. This book, man. I’ve got a confession to make: I’ve tried getting through it no less than half-a-dozen times, and I haven’t been able to … YET! I bought the book in hardcover when it first came out, then I bought it on Audible, but I kept tripping over it and getting hung up when it jumps in time. But, thanks to Michael David Wilson at THIS IS HORROR and his conversation with Stephen Graham Jones, I’ve learned of a little button on the Audible app that lets you speed up the narrative. Instead of slogging through slow narration, I’m now listening to things at 1.25x or 1.5x speed, which helps immensely. At first it sounds chipmunk-y, but you soon get used to it. I’m hoping to finally find out what happens when I get to the end (because, FULL CONFESSION TIME, I’ve already bought the 2nd in the series, I just haven’t read it yet)

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Woof. This is a sipper for me. Pollock’s the kind of writer who can kick your ass in a sentence and put you in traction by the end of the paragraph. I can’t live too long in the worlds he creates because they’re just too much for me, but I LOVE his writing.

Now, for my favorites: Short fiction!

The hummingbird analogy goes double for short stories. I’m reading online at Nightmare Magazine and Apex and Lightspeed, but I’ve also got a Kindle full of collections and anthologies waiting to leap into my brain. The ones I’m into right this moment are:

Sourdough and other stories by Angela Slatter. These are so fucking good it gives me shivers.

Children of Lovecraft, edited by (the amazing) Ellen Datlow. I’m half-done with this one, and it’s got a great number of my favorites working right now.

Eternal Frankenstein, edited by (the also amazing) Ross E. Lockhart. This one’s another great line-up of authors and I’m giddy about what’s to come.

Finally, non-fiction. I’m not really into non-fiction, but when I start one I generally slog away until I finish it. Sometimes I get on a tear (like last week’s reading of Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy) and sometimes I read a few pages and digest the work, trying to absorb it. That’s how I am this week with:

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer. This book kicks some serious ass. It’s like a college course with guest lecturers and bizarre slide-show presentations. I’m loving every page of it.

If I was a better blogger, I’d put links, but I don’t have time. Maybe, sometime in the future, I’ll be procrastinating on a project and I’ll come do it retroactively. Until now, I’m sure you can probably just open another tab in your browser and Google anything you’re interested in. I BELIEVE IN YOU!

JM

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The Wonderful World of Edits

For years (and years and years) I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my stories. I read over and over again how there is no such thing as a polished first draft, but when I’d finally tag THE END on a manuscript, I literally COULD NOT UNDERSTAND how to edit what I was left with. It seemed like every time I took something out, a plot hole opened up and swallowed the rest of the story. I was the exception to the rule, it turned out. My first drafts were complete, and I must be some sort of amazing outlier who just nails it right out the gate. Wasn’t I?

Of course not, or you’d have already read one of my hundred stories. Turns out I used to write two completely different brands of fiction: Thin and Sequential or Lush and Meandering. Neither, by the way, are strong enough to stand up against even the most gentle and loving of editors (my wife, for example.)

My wife, Jaime, is a writer herself. She has a grasp on story structure that I will continue to envy until my dying day. She just GETS IT. She has been my first reader and editor on everything I’ve ever written. She’s always been honest with me, even if it hurts to hear it. I’ll come to her, hat in hand, with 5000 words of magic and she’ll read it gladly, smiling sweetly. And I’ll watch her face, because I hate myself. I’ll see her sweet smile fade. I’ll see that little crease form between her brows. I’ll see her frown. She’s always quick to compliment what she likes, but that’s not what I prepare myself for. I hold out for the TRUTH.Jaime’s TRUTH has kept me from attempting to publish dozens and dozens of stories, because she’s ALWAYS RIGHT. She says things like, “It’s beautiful, but nothing happens.” Or, she’ll say, “I see where you’re going, but I don’t feel engaged.”

Lush and Meandering, or Thin and Sequential.

Lush and Meandering means that I’ve strung together pretty words and phrases, glorious metaphors and navel-gazing protagonists wandering, searching, hoping. Something might happen, but it’s easily solved, first try, and besides, that’s just getting in the way of the WORDS. When I read stories like this, I throw them across the room. When I WRITE THEM, though, I parade them around like trophies. I cradle them like babies. I rave and show them off and point to certain paragraphs and scream, “THIS! I MADE THIS WITH MY OWN BRAIN!”

My sweet wife reads through it, holds me, kisses my cheek and says, “But nothing happens.”

You know those little black scribble clouds over anger Peanuts characters? Yeah, me too.

More recently, I’ve written different stories altogether. After studying books on structure and plot and all those happy-crappy plug-and-play paint-by-numbers writing texts online, I’ve written stories where a CHARACTER, in a PLACE, has a PROBLEM. He tries to solve it, fucks it up a time or two, and then the story hits a CLIMAX and RESOLUTION. A to B to C. There ya go. I don’t parade these guys around, but I print them and stride over to my wife and drop them in her lap as if it’s a challenge. Go on, woman. Find the flaw! I dare you!

“It’s good, but …”

Peanuts stink cloud.

But … “… your characters don’t have personalities.” “… I can’t see the setting.” “… I don’t even know what’s at stake.” “… everyone feels hollow.” “… is this a period piece or something?” “… they’re all just arguing in an empty room?”

Thin and Sequential. A to B to C, sure, but without ever taking time to ground the story or the characters.

Texture. Concrete prose. Evocative settings and scenarios. All of those beautiful words and that crisp dialogue I’d worked on for YEARS was just thrown out the window and left to rot.

So, I had to learn again. To evolve. I reread a TON of short stories and was SHOCKED to see how my favorite writers managed to WRITE BEAUTIFULLY AND TELL A GOOD STORY at the SAME TIME!

But HOW? Jake 3.0., that’s how. A monster-mash of technique. I started seeing stories as engines, as a sum of their parts. Furthermore, I’ve started acknowledging that there are flaws and plot holes and extraneous bullshittery in all of my stories, and that’s okay.

See, that’s what second drafts are for. SECOND DRAFTS! WHERE YOU TAKE THAT STORY YOU’VE WORKED SO HARD ON AND FIND WHAT IT’S REALLY TRYING TO SAY AND THEN WRITE THAT STORY! You’ll probably need a third or fourth (or fifth or sixth) draft, too! And that’s okay! That’s how it SHOULD BE.

That’s how good stories get written.

I did nine drafts on a short story that has recently won a contest that I’m not sure I’m technically allowed to talk about right now, but whatevs. The editor of the anthology recently sent me edits on my story, and even though I’d been over that bastard tale nine times, I was delighted, because a NEW EDITOR means a NEW SET OF EYES.

There were a couple of things I could address with a line or two, or with a quick cut of a dozen words. There was a suggestion that I didn’t take, not because I was being a dick, but because I genuinely liked it in the story. He made it clear this was mine to do with what I wished, and I threw my ego out the window and took the advice I was given, for the most part.

Editing is much more than Stephen King’s formula of 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. It’s peeling the orange rind off of a story to get to the fruit. It’s poking the seeds out so you don’t have to futz with them when you’re chewing. It’s sectioning off the fruit so that all you’re left with is a perfect, marvelous bite. It’s not enough to just cut out a few lines and call it good. Sometimes you need to start on page one, find a new hook, or a new angle into the world of a story. And for god’s sake, put some EFFORT into it! If you can write beautifully, you’d fuckin’ better. But you also have to write CLEAN. (That’s one I learned from T.E. Grau).

Clean prose, as beautifully written as I can. I’m going for Readability, man, because I’m not Cormac McCarthy and I sure as hell don’t want to be. His stories are glorious, but they’re also intimidating. I don’t read his books for fun, I read them because they are HOMEWORK. Knowledge is power, but if I tried writing like that the best I could hope for would be pastiche. More likely, though, it would seem like a joke. “And, I like to use quotation marks!”

Having a new set of eyes on my story has enlightened me, because it wasn’t just a series of criticisms and pointed flaws. Quite a few of the comments just said, “Good!” When Jaime read the 9th draft of the story and said that I had nailed it, I really HAD. It won the contest! These new edits, though, just cleaned it up. A little polish on an already rad little story.

The new eyes gave Jaime a whole new set of things to look for, too, and it’s going to make her an even stronger editor. We’re polishing up a new one right now, and we’re both using all the lessons we’ve learned. Jaime finishes each new draft of this one (the latest version, by the way, is number 6) and she says it’s better than the last. Closer and closer, prettier, more evocative, more interesting, more CLEAN and readable. I want stories that can be devoured in one sitting, but they’re barbed and you can’t stop thinking about them later. Stories you’ll come back to, read again, get something more out of it. Because I’ve been writing for nearly 20 years, man, and if I’m FINALLY going to get published, I’d sure as shit better be writing something WORTH THE TIME OF THE READER.

Otherwise, what’s the point? I don’t do this as a hobby. I write because I NEED TO. It’s my therapy. It’s my happiness. It’s my OTHER true love. Stories and words have helped me through the blackest of depressions and pulled me through to the other side. They’re part of me.

And even though I KNOW that these blog posts — all of them! — can use another draft, I don’t ever want to start going down that road. Sure, I’m all over the place and shit gets lost in my stream of consciousness or whatever, but I kind of like it.

Blog. Raw and Uncut, man.

(Full disclosure, I did edit it, but ONLY just a little. It’s still all over the place and can really use another draft. Oh, well. I’ve got to get to my REAL writing.)

Later!

JM

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What I’m Reading — 10/21/16

I’ve just finished Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl on Audible. A tremendous recording of a beautiful, upsettling novel that spirals in and out of madness. Sirens and werewolves and art and wonder. My mind is still boggled.

Started Peter Straub’s Ghost Story for the umpteenth time today. It’s my Everest, man. I can’t seem to get through it. I’ve tackled this novel at least four other times in my life, getting to various stages before finally surrendering to Straub’s impressive but tangled imagination and taking a mulligan. But here I am, ready this time. I shall reach the summit!

Also, I’m reading Thrill Me!: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. This is fast becoming my favorite book on writing. Percy’s a good teacher, and he doesn’t really truck with bullshit. He knows what he likes, and he isn’t at all afraid to share. I might read and reread this book, like I had with King’s On Writing, until I’ve absorbed all the goodies found between the covers. You can always get better at something, right? (Write?

On the writing front, I’m happy to say I’ll be tackling draft 3 (or 4?) of my WIP. A nasty bit of short fic I’m hoping to start shopping around by the first of November. My lovely wife is providing the next stage of edits, which I will take and lament over, wishing I was brilliant out the gate, and then I’ll put on my editor cap and get out my scalpel. The words must serve the story, not my ego. Cut, cut, cut, and then a polish before the end of next week.

I’m thinking I’ll do a bunch of these progress reports from time to time. I like the idea of looking back on this, sometime in the future, and seeing NOW. This is usually cringe-worthy (how many blogs have I started, forgotten about, and then eradicated because of shame? Too many), but I’m feeling optimistic. Change is in the air, and I embrace it.

Worst case scenario, I can take another mulligan.

JM

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My First Contract

So, it’s weird AF to have a story sale that I can’t really talk about. See, I won a writing contest, and if I blabber too much about it, I might accidentally let something slip and disqualify myself for a rather large “Grand Prize.” So I’ve got to lock myself down and keep quiet and trust that in time I’ll be able to spill ALL OF THE BEANS.

I did get my first ever contract to sign. This is another step, another validation, and it means that after years (and years and years) of hard work I’m starting to produce stories that are worth a damn.

My wife sews, and when her machine runs out of thread without her noticing, she calls it practice sewing. My stories have been like that, in a way. Either I’m so gung-ho about the story that I forget all of the language and nuance and character development and setting (etc, etc) that make for a GOOD story. If I concentrate on that stuff, though, I run the risk of writing thousands and thousands of words where nothing at all happens, but at least the reader can SEE nothing happening.

Practice writing.

Earlier this year, I took the amazing Short Story Mechanics class from Richard Thomas at LitReactor.com. (I’m not sure when he’ll offer it again, but Here’s a link! ) From the very first assignment, I learned something about myself and, more importantly, about my writing. I’ve got gaps in my fiction. Not just plot holes, but logic gaps that might be the foundation for every issue I’ve had in writing for the last fifteen years. (And yes, before you ask, I’ve been ACTIVELY WRITING FOR FIFTEEN YEARS WITHOUT CEASE OR PUBLICATION, EVERY DAY, BUTT IN CHAIR, WORDS ON THE PAGE.) But one class that I wasn’t sure we could afford, but my brilliant and lovely wife INSISTED on getting me for a gift, and I suddenly GOT IT.

Gaps.

The story I wrote for that class got shopped around, rejected by my A-list, but I still believed in it. I sent it, on a whim, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction after John Langan put up a brief video about having a little faith in yourself and shooting for the moon.

I was rejected.  But! C.C. Finlay, editor of TMoF&SF sent me a lovely personal response. He mentioned one small flaw, but enough to reject the story. He encouraged me to send more stories in the future. (HOW FUCKIN’ COOL IS THAT?!?)

I reread my story, and understood EXACTLY what he was talking about. It was another bastard GAP.

But this one could be fixed with ONE SENTENCE.

I wrote that sentence, grinned at my little story, and sent it off to the contest so I didn’t have to think about it for the rest of the summer. I’d find new markets in the fall. I’d try again. I’d write new stories … maybe even another one I felt was worth sending off to Mr. Finlay.

I forgot about it.

And then I won!

So, I’m staring at my first contract ever, seeing my name, seeing my story, and I’m in tears, man. I can be honest. This is a validation for thousands and thousands of hours and literally millions of words of hard work. On a whim, I reread my story last night, the first time since May 9th when I sent it to the contest, and man, I’m PROUD of it. I think I nailed it. And what’s more, I think I can do it again.

I think that there are plenty more stories locked up in my head, waiting to get out.

So, excuse me while I preen a bit. I’m going to send off my first contract tonight. Sure, it’ll be sent from my work fax, because there ain’t no such thing as quitting a day job because of one sale when you’re looking down the barrel at 40 and you’ve got a family that needs medical insurance and stability, but it will be gone, man. It’s more and more real every day, and next year I’ll have one of my stories in print.

You can bet your ass that next year I’m sending a copy of the published book to Richard Thomas and C.C. Finlay with big fat THANK YOU notes. I’ll probably end up sending copies to a few of the other kind writers who’ve allowed me to befriend them on The Facebook, because I want to share. I don’t know if that’s okay, etiquette-wise, but I don’t give a flyin’ fuck, either. Even if they only use it as a door-stop, I feel like I NEED to thank them for the stories they’ve given me.

But that’s all next year. Now I’ve got to stop talking about this. Like right now. I don’t want to get disqualified.

Plus, if you’re reading this, you’ll hear me the MOMENT I’m allowed to say anything.

Man, I might not shut up about it.

JM

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Dr. Strange, or How I Sold My Soul to Disney and Got to See a Seven-Minute Preview of a Movie

This time in my life may be the most positive and exciting that I’ve ever experienced. My wife and I are old hats at the downward spiral of luck and depression. We’ve had quite a few rough years. But in the past month that spiral has turned, and our world is brightening up. Happiness and good fortune abounds! That means MOTIVATION, one of the rarest of qualities, is suddenly in abundance at the Marley household, so the wife and I are changing to reflect it.

I’m writing way more, and it’s coming along great. I got a spark of validation, a sale, and I am looking forward to producing more and more fiction that’s worth a damn in the coming weeks/months/years. Also, we’re eating better and working out and all that good stuff that, frankly, you can’t ever do for extended periods of time when you’re wallowing in depression and self-loathing. It just ain’t possible, folks. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Part of our regime is that we go for walks. For our anniversary this year, our family sold a chunk of our souls to Disney and we got annual passes to the Disneyland Resort. It’s only three miles from our house, so technically Disneyland is the closest park to us. We’re lucky like that. We pay for it with traffic and over-crowding at local businesses and tourists wandering through our Target, stealing the last box of toothpaste so we have to switch brands on the fly. It’s a hardship, let me tell ya.

So the wife and I walk at Disneyland and the other one. California Adventure park. We put in a couple of miles, people watch, have fun while the kid’s at school. (Hello, daughter of the future! You’ve found Daddy’s blog?!? Yeah, Mom and I went to Disneyland all the time without you. Sorry about that. Well, I hope I’m still alive and you’re very successful doing whatever you’ve set your mind to! Call your mother!)

Today’s walk resulted in the unexpected. There’s a little theater off in one corner of the California Adventure park, and today they were showing an eight minute preview of the new Dr. Strange movie, due out in November.

The wife was kind enough to derail our walk so I could geek out. The Cumberbatch costume was there, looking amazingly detailed. They gave us 3D glasses, and we saw a whole new world unfold in a giant theater with only seven other people.

I cheered. Seriously. All the confusing shit from the trailers suddenly made sense in 3D. Not only made sense, but BLEW MY FRIGGIN MIND!

I don’t 3D movies when I have the option, but I’m gonna 3D this one. That’s right, I’ve used 3D as a verb. Just for this. Just for Dr. Strange!

So, if you’re in the area of an extraordinarily expensive theme park and you think it’s worth eight minutes of fun, take yourself over to see the Dr. Strange preview. It was spectacular.

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The Lost Posts

Earlier this year I was keeping track of all the stories I had read. I’ve got a post of March up, but something happened to February and April. I’m posting the lists here because I’m fascinated by that kind of report, even if I can’t always keep up with it. I like looking back and seeing what influenced my writing for any particular time. (Especially THAT particular time, given the consequences!)

FEB 10
“The End of the End of Everything” Dale Bailey
“26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” Kij Johnson
“Wolf Island” Stephen Graham Jones
“The Dowager of Bees” China Miéville

FEB 11
“The Atlas of Hell” Nathan Ballingrud
“Bridge of Sighs” Kaaron Warren
“Tubby’s Big Swim” T.E. Grau
“Split Tongues” Kristi DeMeester

FEB 14
“The Screamer” T.E. Grau
“Clean” T.E. Grau

FEB 15
“Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: The Elephant’s Tale” Damien Angelica Walters
“Grey in the Gauge of His Storm” Damien Angelica Walters
“Requiem for Solo Cello” Damien Angelica Walters
“Sing Me Your Scars” Damien Angelica Walters”
“Heroes and Villains” Stephen Gallager
“Doll-master” Joyce Carol Oates

FEB 16
“Gaze” Gemma Files
“The Window” Brian Evenson
“In Case of Zebras” Pat Cadigan
“Return of the Prodigy” T.E. Grau

FEB 17
“Will the Real Psycho in this Story Please Stand Up?” Pat Cadigan
“The Blood Drip” Brian Evenson
“Expat” T.E. Grau

FEB 18
“My Father’s Mask” Joe Hill
“Hand of Glory” Laird Barron
“The Truffle Pig” T.E. Grau
“The God of Dark Laughter” Michael Chabon
“Black Hill” Orrin Grey

FEB 19
“Sticks” Karl Edward Wagner
“Beer & Worms” T.E. Grau
“Cult” Brian Evenson
“Rapture of the Deep” Cody Goodfellow
“Little Lambs” Stephen Graham Jones
“Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” Neil Gaiman
“This Is How the World Ends” John R. Fultz
“The Faery Handbag” Kelly Link

FEB 20
“White Feather” T.E. Grau
“The Drowning at Lake Henpin” Paul Tobin
“The Teacher” Paul Tremblay
“The Two-Headed Girl” Paul Tremblay
“The Dream Eater” Kristi DeMeester

FEB 21
“The Hortlak” Kelly Link
“The Cannon” Kelly Link

FEB 22
“Knickerbocker Holiday” Richard Bowes
“That Girl” Kaaron Warren
“The White Prince” Orrin Grey

FEB 23
“Akbar” Kit Reed
“The Spring Heel” Steven Pirie
“Transmission” T.E. Grau
“As Red as Red” Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Tin Cans” Ekaterina Sedia

FEB 24
“Shoebox Train Wreck” John Mantooth
“15 Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku & the Jotai” Catherynne M. Valente
“La Llorona” Carolyn Turgeon
“Down Atsion Road” Jeffrey Ford
“Return to Mariabronn” Gary A. Braunbeck

FEB 25
“The Cutter” Edward Bryant
“The Hanged Man of Oz” Steve Nagy
“Mr. Lupus” T.E. Grau
“Following Double-Face Woman” Erzebet YellowBoy
“Oaks Park” M.K. Hobson
“For Those in Peril on the Sea” Stephen Dedman

FEB 26
“The Foxes” Lily Hoang
“Free Fireworks” T.E. Grau

FEB 29
“The Redfield Girls” Laird Barron
“Between Heaven and Hull” Pat Cadigan

That was my reading last AFTER the amazing LitReactor class I had with Richard Thomas in January. It also includes my second (or third?) read-through of T.E. Grau’s amazing collection, THE NAMELESS DARK. I was on fire!

Now April, the cruelest of months, but filled with some damned good stories:

APR 01
“The House on Cobb Street” Lynda E. Rucker
“Call Out” Stephen Toase
“The Fox” Conrad Williams

APR 02
“Chasing Sunset” A.C. Wise

APR 03
“Beside Me Singing In the Wilderness” Michael Wehunt

APR 04
“Doll Hands” Adam L. G. Nevill
“Stemming the Tide” Simon Stranzas
“The Anatomist’s Mnemonic” Priya Sharma
“The Monster Makers” Steve Rasnic Tem

APR 05
“The Only Ending We Have” Kim Newman
“The Dog’s Paw” Derek Künsken
“Onanon” Michael Wehunt
“Fine in the Fire” Lee Thomas
“Majorlena” Jane Jakeman
“The Withering” Tim Casson
“Down to a Sunless Sea” Neil Gaiman

APR 06
“That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” Robert Shearman
“Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales” Jeannine Hall Gailey
“The Tin House” Simon Clark
“The Soul in the Bell Jar” K.J. Kabza

APR 07
“By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain” Joe Hill
“Only the End of the World Again” Neil Gaiman

APR 08
“A Discreet Music” Michael Wehunt
“Little America” Dan Chaon

APR 11
“How I Met the Ghoul” Sofia Samatar

APR 14
“The Swords” Robert Aickman

APR 20
GENERATION LOSS Elizabeth Hand

APR 26
THE GLITTERING WORLD Robert Levy

I aim to start this back up. I think it’s one of the most interesting records I could keep for my web-log blog thingy.

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Pivot Points

Today I read a mini-article by Paul Tremblay about how a Joyce Carol Oates story literally inspired him to become more of a reader, and then a writer. His novels, especially the latest two, are pretty damned good. (Nothing at all wrong with the others, but there’s something special about the books he’s putting out now). I got to thinking about how we’ve always got pivot points in our lives. Moments that define who we were BEFORE the event, and who we become AFTER.

A lot of my pivot stories are by Stephen King. This post is about the first one, mostly.

I used to go to the Buena Park Library with my grandma when I was a kid. I checked out everything by Robert Louis Stephenson and Edgar Allan Poe. I think I read Treasure Island four times, and I know that I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at least twice that. I kept returning to them, decoding their language with more and more accuracy after every pass. Their stories were puzzles, and I cut my reading teeth on their tales.

I graduated to the Adult Section of the library when I realized that the alphabetically-organized rows contained fiction. I didn’t want to read about gardening or engineering or how to take care of babies. I wanted murder and betrayal and starships. (I had also, at this point, been indoctrinated into genre by Tolkien and Asimov, but those guys were both a little stuffy for me. I read them, sure, but was never what you could call a fan.)

I started judging books by their covers. I’d walk up and down the stacks while my grandma sat in a reading nook. I’d run my fingertips along the spines, A – Z, pulling out anything that caught my attention. A title, a color, a semi-familiar last name … whatever. Then I’d crack open the hardcovers and read the blurb copy. If it sounded good, I’d flip to the first few pages and give it a read. If a stool was around, I’d sit on it. If not, I’d just plop myself down right there in the stacks and start reading.

It was a pretty great summer. I’ve always thought I was 12, but doing the math I’m pretty sure I was 11. I would turn 12 that September, after I’d already found myself a copy of a book called Skeleton Crew.

I hadn’t seen a book of short stories since Poe, and this Stephen King guy sounded scary. I don’t know if the jacket copy called him the Master of Horror on that book, or on one of the other ones on the shelves (King immediately met my prerequisite for trying a new author — he had lots of books I could read for free), but his publisher got their point across. I like chills and thrills. I stayed up late on weekends so I could watch Tales from the Crypt on HBO. I lamented the passing of Eerie, Indiana. I was a horror kid before I knew that horror was even a genre.

The first page without a title had three words, and I’ll admit they made me frown.

Do you love?

If Peter Falk hadn’t taught me the merits of a kissing book in The Princess Bride, then my life might’ve been vastly different. Instead, I flipped past it, and past the Introduction (almost another deal-breaker — only school books had intros) and I jumped right into the first story. “The Mist”. Part I was called “The Coming of the Storm”, and then … oh, and THEN. That first line. King says he cribbed it from another author, but those four simple words were enough to hook me.

This is what happened.

I sat there for a long time. By the time I got to Part II, I got up with the book and ran to my grandma and freaked out. I BEGGED her to check it out for me. I needed it.

“Sure,” she said.

The librarian at the check-out counter was like a character out of one of King’s stories. She actually sniffed at it, proclaiming it to be junk. “He just writes bad words and murders.”

I panicked. I remember panicking. I looked to my grandma, who didn’t really take that kind of shit from anyone. In her Rhode Island accent she said, “Mind your business.” She put the book in my hands, just so the librarian knew who was going to be reading that monster book of bad words and murder.

To date, I’ve read almost every published thing by King I could get my hands on. I don’t love it all, and some I downright hate, but he unlocked a modern world that had been built upon the backs of Stephenson and Poe. He wasn’t shy about sharing his influences, either (those Introductions and Afterwords became Must-Read lists to me, leading me to Bradbury, to James M. Cain, to Lovecraft and John D. MacDonald and Shirley Jackson.) I read Straub and Koontz and Anne Rice, too — they were always put on the same displays at Waldenbooks with Uncle Stevie — but none of them caught hold of me the same way.

“The Mist” was my first, but not my last. The Gunslinger came later that year — a secret Santa Christmas present from a girl named Natalie at St. Polycarp, the Catholic school my grandma put me in for 7th grade. I read that book four times over the Christmas break, but I was a shy and terrible little boy and I don’t even know if I thanked her beyond that first time. Natalie, wherever you are, you gave one of the best goddamned gifts I’ve ever been given. I never talked to anyone at that school about anything real, but you must’ve seen me reading Night Shift under the tree during recess. Let it be known that King can “Revise” and update all he wants, the first edition’s the one for me. I love the Dark Tower, but I can do without the dialect gibberish. And then I was sick the entirety of the following Spring Break and my Uncle Larry gave me The Stand.

There are literally dozens of other stories in other moments, but this blog post has gone on too long. Guys, I’ve got some REAL writing to do.

This is abrupt, but that’s what happens when you realize your procrastinating. Ask me about a King story any time, and I’ll talk your ear off. I didn’t even get to discuss Larry Underwood yet.

Another topic for another time.

Just know that at any time you might open a book and read a pivot story and not even know it.

Here’s hoping that fate sends you spinning in fortunate directions.

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