Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Story Notes

In the past couple weeks I've been kicking the whole idea of story notes in collections around with a few readers and writers, and nearly every one of them has mentioned that they read the notes in Lesser Demons before reading the stories themselves. No harm, no foul on that score. I plead guilty, too. If there was a twelve-step program for readers who skip directly to the notes, I'd be in it.

Of course, I love introductions, too. Thankfully those are placed right up front, so I don't have to feel guilty about reading them first. Story notes can be a different deal, though. Sometimes they show up as a preface to the tale itself, and sometimes as an afterward. And often they're placed together at the end of the book (as is the case with Lesser Demons). So jumping ahead and reading them first can be a little spoiler-ific, if you know what I mean.

Getting my start as a writer in pre-internet days, notes were a great source of information about the writing business, both creatively and commercially. That's what got me hooked on them. I was desperate for that kind of knowledge, and I couldn't Google a writer I admired and find a dozen interviews online. When I was looking to learn the ropes, Google didn't exist.

And it's funny -- the writers who spoke best to me back then were Stephen King and Joe Lansdale, and I'd still put them at the front of the pack today. Joe's a great storyteller both on and off the page, and his notes read like he's talking shop at a convention or a coffee shop. And though King is about as far from an "average bear" writer as you can get, it's always interesting to check his creative pulse. Get him going in the nonfiction department -- as in books like Danse Macabre and On Writing -- and you won't find sharper content anywhere. (Though even King can miss the mark occasionally; I remember one collection where he explained how writing short stories really can pay off financially, when most writers believe they don't. From where I was sitting, King's comments made sense for one guy -- Stephen King. For the rest of us, doing a short story means you can pick up a check that'll replace the water-heater or dishwasher, or get you through the checkout stand at Trader Joe's for a handful of weeks. And I'm talking about writers who've been at it awhile and have earned their chops.)

So King and Lansdale collections? Yep, I go for the story notes first almost every time (though I've got to say I was proud of myself with King's Just After Sunset -- I managed to hold off and read the stories first through great force of will). Fact is, the notes are one of my favorite things about picking up a new collection by either of those gentlemen.

As for my own work, I've had a lot of fun writing notes and intros. The introduction to The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists -- where I explained how my hometown drive-in theater helped shape me as a writer -- is one of my favorite pieces. I had a great time writing the story notes for Lesser Demons, too. In them you'll learn about my finishing routine when completing a new story, and how a black filing cabinet I bought in college transformed itself into a bit of creative portraiture (maybe not quite out of the Dorian Gray playbook... but somewhere in the ballpark if we're speaking imaginatively). I also discuss playing in the fictive sandboxes of writers as disparate as H. P. Lovecraft and Richard Laymon, and the inspiration I've drawn from The Twilight Zone and old-school pulp fiction.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the notes at the end of Demons... and don't worry if you can't help yourself and read them first. That's definitely an impulse I understand.