The envious CLEAN sticker

The envious CLEAN sticker

For a couple of years, I’ve been getting phlebotomies, which is a procedure in which a giant (hey, to me it’s giant) needle is stuck in my arm and a big bag of blood is drained from me.

I’ve whined about it before, I’m sure, somewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. I know for sure I wrote a short story about it, which is called – creatively – PHLEBOTOMY. The fact it morphed into a vampire story should tell you all you need to know about how I usually feel leading up to and during this procedure.

My phlebotomies are done at a cancer facility. I don’t have cancer (thankfully), but that’s where they’re done. After I meet with the doctor, I’m led into a sunny area with walls of windows and recliners that might even look pleasant at first, but it’s not really because pretty much everyone else there is getting chemotherapy, which I’ve no doubt is a lot less fun than a phlebotomy.

I can pick any chair I want, and most of them are usually empty. The only rule is the chair I pick has to be “clean” – in other words, one someone wasn’t just in – and this is notated by a strip of white paper with a block of yellow in the middle that has the black letters “CLEAN” stamped on it.

Yesterday I had a phlebotomy. It doesn’t take that too long, but I do always, of course, bring something to read or work on (though I’m deathly afraid to move my arm while it’s going on – did I mention the needle is GIANT?)

On this particular day I brought with me a printout of a manuscript I recently completed. I’m letting it “sit” – mostly – but on occasion I take a tour through it and check it out, and that’s what I was up to on phlebotomy-day.

I picked out my “clean” recliner, set my manuscript on the side table, and moved the white strip of paper off the seat so I could sit down. It wasn’t until I was settled into the recliner that I noticed I had dropped the strip onto the top of my manuscript. It rested there aslant, as if someone had given it the once over and decided it was ready to go (note that it is FAR from ready to go), that it was “CLEAN.”

And it got me to thinking.

Whether or not the recliners are clean is a pretty objective thing – there’s some procedure that’s followed, a set of defined steps, a particular cleanser that’s used, whatever. The point is, at the end of these steps, the nurse can slap the “clean” tag down and, boom…clean. Nobody’s going to argue.

I recently submitted a new manuscript to lots of people (NOT the one I was reading during my phlebotomy, a different MS). When we writers send our work out this way, it’s a real act of faith. We cringe. We worry. We fret. And we hope, above all, that it comes back with that CLEAN tag aslant across the top, some rough form of it, anyway.

In my particular case, it did – from several folks. (Well, not “clean,” exactly. No piece of writing can ever quite get that particular stamp, but “good” as in “continue revising.”) But a person or two had the opposite reaction. The MS needed a lot of work, according to them, possibly enough to give serious consideration to moving on to a different project entirely.

Because reacting to a piece of writing, unlike cleaning a recliner, isn’t objective at all.

Nope. It’s sooooo subjective.

These reactions have been spinning around in my head for a couple of weeks, causing endless confusion as to What I Should Do Next. Should I move to the next project, leaving this book I cared about and loved so much behind? Should I stick to my guns? Something in between?

I think this is the normal, constant state of the writer – staring off into space contemplating What I Should Do Next. I hope that’s normal, anyway, because, man, seems like That’s All I Ever Do.

So it was that I stared down with some envy at the white strip of paper erroneously declaring my even newer MS to be “CLEAN.” Jealous of those objective, definable steps to that status for the recliner. Wishing writers, too, could rely on a single person to declare a book or a story is “CLEAN”…as in “DONE”, that this assessment was a Yes or No question at all.

Then my envy disappeared, because I realized something else – that subjectivity (or rather, lack of objectivity) is part of the magic of writing. After all, the beauty of how different we are, while still being the same underneath, is one of the very reasons I write.

And the thing is, no writing is ever clean, is it?

  • If your critique partners love it, your agent might not.
  • If your agent loves it, editors might not.
  • If an editor loves it, not all readers will.
  • If readers mostly love it, the critics might not.
  • If readers and critics both adore it, it might get made into a movie, and maybe movie-goers won’t like it
  • Even if you’re Shakespeare, some dude will log on to Amazon and give you one star centuries after your death. Jeez.

So we must learn to appreciate this part of the process, the wonder of trying to get a story right when no one can agree on what right even is.

To appreciate that all of us have our own version of “CLEAN” and it’s different. Awesomely, gorgeously Different.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I probably need to decide soon. But phlebotomies, though I kinda hate them, always make me feel a little better. This one especially so.


Take the stairs

Nice, France

Most people would just stay at this beach, I bet

Last fall I spent some time in Nice, France, a beautiful place. My wife’s a painter, so she desperately wanted to see the Musee Matisse while we were there. And I was certainly game – Henri Matisse was a brave and unique artist, a bold guy unafraid to try new things. My kind of dude.

We’re the type of people who walk in cities. I like the connection walking gives me to a place. So, sure, it would’ve been easier to grab a cab or figure out public transportation, but instead we decided the way to get to Matisse’s museum was to walk there.

The map told us our destination was northwest from our hotel in the Old Town. Basically up and to the left, in a big green area that signified a park. That’s really all we knew for sure, which was fine. I’m a discovery walker. Gets me in trouble sometimes.

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it's own blog post

NW from THIS hotel room, which probably deserves it’s own blog post

The river Paillon, which interestingly is underground for part of the journey, led us north. We knew eventually we’d have to turn west. Nice is extremely hilly, and I figured at some point we’d also have to go UP.

Really, though, I had no idea.

Following the map (and looking every bit the lost American tourist), I decided a road to our left would take us up and into the park. There was a blind curve and the road itself was really narrow. Worse, there was a suspicious guy that we THOUGHT might be following us.

We decided there must be another way.

Returning to follow the river, I noticed the map had a little squiggly line a little farther up that suggested some pedestrian stairs might take us in the direction of the park and the museum.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I suggested. Like I said, gets me in trouble.

Stairs in Nice

First look at the stairs

We were walking in a neighborhood that had gotten a little sketchy when the stairs suddenly appeared on our left. No sign naming them or indicating where they might lead. Nothing.

Just stairs.

I had utterly no idea how many stairs there might be before we reached the park. Or even if the stairs actually led to the park or museum AT ALL. (Well, sort of an idea. The map seemed to show the squiggly line stopped in the big green space. I think that’s something along the lines of what Columbus said to his crew, right?)

Even so, we went up, because sometimes you have to take a deep breath and march forward, even if you don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Sometimes you just have to take the stairs.

And we did. Up. And up and up and up.

I kid you not, a thousand stairs. More, even.

Little hidden views like this

Little hidden views like this

The stairs wound their way up the hill, bending to the left and back to the right. Amazingly, people lived along this strange, narrow staircase.

We passed homes – houses or condos or apartments, it was hard to tell. The inhabitants had chairs out on patios in front of little gardens. They didn’t look like expensive places – I mean, how could you even get furniture there – but we were high enough now the views were glorious.

We kept walking.

Eventually we came out onto a road. We were NOT in the park. This road, it went off and up to the right, down to the left.

We took a break. We were sweaty and hot and a little frustrated. We hadn’t seen a soul all that way up the stairs, which was starting to make me think the people of Nice weren’t dumb enough to actually use them. I took off my sweatshirt and packed it away in my backpack.

A woman came by, and we asked her about the museum. She didn’t speak English, but eventually understood what we wanted, and pointed across the street.

stairs more

That’s right, more stairs. I swear we were down where you see those little buildings when we started

To another set of stone stairs.

After the woman disappeared, there might’ve been some swearing on our part. I will neither confirm or deny.

How many more stairs could there be? We had no idea. The new stairs wound up the hill again, disappearing into its side.

We took a moment to get ready again before re-embarking. I noticed an old man leaning against his car a few meters away, staring at us with his arms folded across his chest and a bemused expression on his face.

Something about him made me realize how ridiculous our predicament was. I smiled, shrugging my shoulders and extending my hands out. I don’t speak much French, so all week I’d been using gestures to convey my state of mind. This one said, “What can you do, you know?”

The old man unclamped his arms and raised one hand to give us a thumbs up gesture. What it meant exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe, “Good luck, you stupid Americans.” Maybe, “Keep going. It’s worth it.” Probably both.

Sometimes all you need to keep going is for someone to give a thumbs up at the right moment.

Eventually, we reached the top of that second set of stairs. There was a sign for a monastery on a door. A locked door. I started to imagine having to go all the way down again.

monastery garden

Jardin du Monastère de Cimiez

But then several more steps appeared to the right, around a corner. We took them, popped through an opening and stepped into an immaculate garden.

We were on the grounds of the monastery, which was in the park we were heading for. It was amazing. I have dozens of photos of this place. Of olive groves and orange trees and flowers and I wish I could share them all. There were even swarms of gnats.

In this place, you could even fall in love with a swarm of gnats.

Still, we weren’t at the Musee Matisse yet. We followed the path through the monastery’s grounds into the rest of the park. Signs directed us toward the museum.

Yep. More stairs.There were more stairs. Of course. But these were wide and inviting, like a reward for that narrow, sweaty journey we had made already.

We meandered through a park that was essentially a big olive grove.

I remember being fascinated by the birds.

I remember passing a park bench where two elderly women were deep in conversation, their dogs at their sides. I remember imagining them as very old friends, women who had known each other since childhood.

My mind was doing that thing it does when it gets just the right level of exhausted and exhilarated and fascinated. Making stories.

Musee Matisse

Musee Matisse

Eventually we found the museum. It could’ve been closed. It might’ve taken us too long to get there. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

But if the museum had been closed, it actually would’ve been fine. We had seen so much getting there, indelible images, from olive trees to dogs to old friends to breathtaking views to that smiling old man with his thumb in the air.

The museum was the destination, but it had become the icing on the cake to the journey.

Because we had taken the stairs.

I’m a sports fan AND an arts fan. (Crazy, I know). The NFL playoffs started last weekend and, in one of the games, the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked out the Cincinnati Bengals in a particularly hard fought game.

In the locker room afterwards, Bengals receiver A.J. Green was interviewed. I can’t find the clip now, but in addition to saying the loss hurt, he explained to the reporter it had taken him and the team six months to get to that point, and that now they were going to have to go through all that again, just to get to the same spot. He was willing to do it, because he loves football, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t going to be difficult.

I identified with this. When a book fails (and…writers, sorry but odds are your book WILL fail – whether you don’t connect with an agent or a publisher or whether no one buys it or reads it…I mean, for your sake, I hope not, but it’s REALLY hard what we’re doing here).

Anyway, when a book fails, some well-meaning person will always say, “That’s okay, just write another one.”

And, true enough, that’s the thing to do. Get back on the horse, as they say. But, man, it’s like an NFL season, right? It’s six months (a year? multiple years?) of hard work to get back to that point where you already were. Six months of trying to be perfect with your story and make it the best it can be and critique and work and more work and revision and…you get the idea.

It’s taking the damn stairs.

And after all that work and time and sweat, you might get to the park and find the museum closed. Again.

The thing is, you have no idea as you’re taking that first step of so many. You do it blindly.

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

Not yet ripe orange in the monastery garden

That’s why you have to pay attention on each step, because if you don’t focus on the hours at the museum, which are out of your control, and instead zero in on that not-quite-yet-ripe orange on that tree inches from you (that sentence you write at midnight one night that actually makes you tear up), on that smiling old man with his thumb up (your critique partner who tells you she loves your book), on those old friends and their dogs on the park bench (your characters – those fantastic people you created from nothing, IN YOUR HEAD), you’ll realize that you’ve already succeeded.

So when your hear those voices telling you you’re hot, you’re tired, you should turn around and go back down, because going down is easier, tell them to shut up.

Tell them you’re taking the stairs. And keep your eyes wide open the entire climb up.




Colder. You’re getting colder. (Distance in fiction)

A lot of my photos feature distant subjects. Hmm.

Let’s talk about distance some. Sound good?

You remember that childhood game, right? You’re in a room searching for something hidden and another person knows where it is and as you get farther away, they say, “You’re getting colder.” And if you get closer, they say, “You’re getting warmer.”

(Apparently, there’s are a number of variations on this game with, like, nine thousand crazy names. Huckle buckle beanstalk? Hot Buttered Beans? Really?)

There’s so much “distance” in fiction. There’s narrative distance and emotional distance. There’s the distance you should have from your subject matter and the distance you should give yourself from a draft before entering into revision.

Distance, distance, distance. Why so much? You’d think we writers were avoiding some things.

*Nervous laugh.*

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Starting in the middle, changing lives

My latte

My latte this weekend

Over the weekend I had the following exchange at one of my favorite writing coffee shops:

Me: Small latte, please.

Cashier: For here?

Me: Yes.

Cashier: [Does a dance and cheers before announcing the order to the barista]

Me: That’s a lot of celebration for one drink.

Her: Aren’t you excited about your own order?!?

Me: I wasn’t before, but I am now.

Her: [Tone very serious, turning toward barista] See, what did I tell you? Changing. Lives.

I’m starting a new manuscript this week. It’s what we set out to do, in the beginning. Change lives. The ideas are great, the words flow, the themes gleam with brilliance. The book really says something. It’s going to be the best book ever.

Continue reading

Swamp Things

juliandarius3Another Halloween is in the books. It’s one of my favorite holidays, so I’m always sad to see it go.

One of the reasons I like Halloween so much is the compendium of really terrible movies that are aired on channels like AMC in the week leading up to the whole trick or treating thing. A lot of old B-movies from the ’50s, like the one I watched last week called War of the Colossal Beast.

Yes, this movie was Bad with a capital B. AMC only needed one hour to air it, WITH commercials. At one point a lot of screen time was spent arguing where to house the Colossal Beast (see, this was a sequel and he used to be just a Colossal Man, but now…never mind, not important), with one character finally ending the disagreement by saying something like (paraphrasing here): “We can’t leave him out in the rain, even if he IS a giant.”

Well, when you put it that way…yes, giants have rights, too. No one should be forced into dampness.

(They ended up tying the Colossal Beast down Gulliver-style inside an airport hangar, by the way. I know the suspense was killing you.)

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My Writing Process

Thanks to Emily Carpenter, my long-time writing and critique partner, for tagging me to take my turn on this writing process blog tour. Emily is a suspense writer represented by Amy Cloughley of Kimberley Cameron & Associates (we share the same agent). I’m continually impressed and amazed by her writing. She’s currently working on a psychological suspense about the nature of toxic love. Please keep up with her by following her blog or visiting her website. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.


This post is part of a blog tour series in which writers answer a fixed set of questions about their writing and writing process, then tag other writers to take their turn the following week. Enjoy!

What am I working on?

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on a short story set in the world of my on-submission novel, THE OCEAN BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND. Pieces of this particular story – the characters, the tone, the theme – had rolled around in my brain separately for almost a year before finally coalescing into a single entity. As soon as that happened, I knew it needed to move from thoughts in my head to words on the page. Like my book, it focuses on characters deeply affected by the personal treasures and family heirlooms lost in the tsunami after the tragic 2011 Japanese Tohoku earthquake. Returning to that world has been fun, inspiring and emotional.

I’m also midway through the first draft on another upmarket project related to the city-wide lockdown that followed the Boston Marathon bombings. After rushing to the aid of his binge-drinking sister, the lockdown traps a man in a building full of strangers for a full day, where he unwittingly plants the seeds that birth another bomber, one who strikes years later. It’s an exploration of the unexplainable: how does a person decide to become a terrorist? To bring a gun to school? Or a bomb to a major event like a marathon or the Olympics? This project has had a few false starts but I’m really passionate about telling what I feel is an important story in the right way.

And, because apparently two books and some short stories aren’t enough, I’ve also been working on a more light-hearted middle grade manuscript here and there. It’s been a lot of fun to write in the voice of an adventurous fourteen-year-old trying to figure out what his parents and the other adults around him are up to. Because, he’s quite sure it’s something sinister and he’s going to figure it out, even if it kills him. And it just might.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My work has most of the hallmarks of the contemporary upmarket genre – it’s written in accessible prose that seeks to surface more literary themes. You’ll usually learn something, too. In THE OCEAN BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND, it’s that there is over a one-and-a-half million tons of debris traveling across the Pacific from Japan, heading for the west coast of the United States and Canada. This debris may pose environmental risks and create significant cleanup costs. Most importantly, it might contain valuables that would mean a great deal if they were returned to the Japanese who lost so much in the tsunami. In my WIP, among other things, there’s an Olympic World War II-related tidbit that I don’t want to say too much about now. It’s something I’ve become really fascinated with and I hope readers will be too.

So that’s how my work is the same. I guess I would say what often sets it apart is the inventive structures I use for my stories. One uses multiple POVs and interludes to tie together events happening at different points in times in radically different locales. My WIP, on the other hand, divides the story into three parts that use the running of a marathon as a metaphor to tell a year-spanning epic.

Why do I write what I do?

As you might discern from the above descriptions of my various projects, I’m really interested in the ripple effects resulting from major tragedies. I certainly don’t enjoy tragic events and I wish they’d stop happening. But when they do, they receive major media attention for far too short a time, in my opinion.

As a result, it’s all too easy to forget the victims who might be continuing to suffer. It may escape our notice that, for them and the people surrounding them, the effects of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other major tragedies reverberate long after the actual event ends. As when children throw rocks into a pond, the violent splashes cause smaller, harder to notice ripples that travel along the surface of the water toward the shore.

Through my stories, I want to show that, while those ripples may slow and begin to fade, they nevertheless continue long after most of us lose interest and look away. I want to help shine a spotlight on the fact that they’re still there.

How does your writing process work?

Most of the time, my writing process looks something like this:

Writing Process

Yep, I’m an outliner. Big time. Mostly what I outline are the touchstone points of a novel. I use the color-coded index cards you see to indicate either differing points of view (when my story is told from multiple POVs, as in THE OCEAN BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND) or interactions of the main character with the cast of supporting characters (when my story is told from a single POV, as in my current work-in-progress, shown in the above image). This gives me a visual representation of the balance of the plot.

The cards also make it easier to adjust the flow of the story as I write and learn more about it. Chapters can be swapped or inserted by simply repositioning them. I find this helps me know where my story is heading but also enables me to make adjustments on the fly as the need arises.

One possibly unique thing I did while writing THE OCEAN BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND is that I wrote each point of view separately before assembling them into a cohesive whole. I felt this was important to maintaining the voice of each of the three characters, especially since they were so different (one Japanese woman, an American ex-con and his estranged daughter). When all the parts were complete, I used some connective tissue to join the POVs together. I couldn’t have done this without a thorough outline that I trusted.

At a more granular level, I try to write about 7,000 words each week. I’d like this to work out to 1,000 words a day and it sometimes does, but because I have a demanding day job it’s also often true that most of the writing is done on the weekend.

Whenever I write, I usually start by going back to the previous day’s writing and editing it, which helps me pick up the threads of the plot and typically results in a slightly more clean first draft than most.

During this drafting time I test-drive the concepts and writing of my WIP five pages at a time with a large critique group in Roswell, GA that’s an offshoot of the Atlanta Writers Club, a wonderful organization for writers here in Atlanta.

Once a draft is complete, I pop it in a drawer for as long as I can stand it before reading the entire thing aloud and catching all the mistakes that make me think a team of untrained monkeys snuck into the house and replaced my pristine work with their random typing before realizing that, no, it was all me.

This draft, which I think is now polished but probably still isn’t, heads off next to my critique partner(s) for a complete review. Then I revise again. And, probably, again. Finally I’ll send it to my fabulous agent, Amy Cloughley of Kimberley Cameron & Associates, a great editing talent. I’m a big believer that all this feedback can lead to a great result and that writing really is a team sport.

Thanks for reading! To keep up, please follow this blog or connect with me on Twitter at @CNegronWrite.

NEXT ON THE TOUR are some really great writers ranging from Atlanta all the way to Hollywood. Mark your calendars to check out their posts next week!

Rona SimmonsRona Simmons was born on the other side of the country in Santa Monica, California.  She’s the daughter of a WWII fighter pilot and later career military officer and moved with her family from state to state and country to country, living in 25 different places by the time she graduated from high school. So she’s still astonished that she’s spent the last twenty years as a resident of Forsyth County.

Three years ago, she launched her second career using the writing, analysis, and research skills she’d acquired during her thirty-year career in corporate America.  Since then she has written several articles for magazines, a novel, and a collection of short stories and was the ghostwriter for the biography of a prominent Atlanta businessman.

Rona’s latest novel, The Quiet Room, was published by Deeds Publishing, an Atlanta-based publishing company.

Though this novel is set in the Midwest, and the one she’s working on now in New England, she considers herself a southern writer, drawing inspiration from the wooded acres where she lives with her husband and (she swears) the last member of a passel of cats.

M.J. PullenM.J. Pullen is a writer, mom, and former professional counselor in Atlanta, Georgia. A serial plant killer and hard-core housework neglecter, Manda loves baseball, wine and her strangely conventional minivan life. She is the author of a trilogy of contemporary romances set among a group of longtime friends in Atlanta: THE MARRIAGE PACT, REGRETS ONLY, and BAGGAGE CHECK. You can find her books, blog and more at; or connect with her via Twitter (@MJPullen), Facebook (, or Pinterest (

Jose MolinaJose Molina is a screenwriter from San Juan, Puerto Rico. He began his Hollywood career thanks to the Television Academy’s Summer Internship program (, and has been a working television writer since the year 2000, when he made his debut on James Cameron’s science fiction drama Dark Angel. Although born and raised a natural Spanish speaker, Jose writes almost exclusively in English. A long time fan of “the genre” — horror, fantasy and sci-fi — Jose specializes in fantastical TV, most notably penning scripts for shows such as Joss Whedon’s FireflyThe Vampire Diaries, Terra Nova and Sleepy Hollow. His work can next be seen on the upcoming ABC series Marvel’s Agent Carter. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and dogs.

Jose’s post will appear in this space as a guest blog, so please come back next week. In the meantime, you can also find him on Twitter at @JoseMolinaTV.


The Seven Books That Made Me

The first problem with a post like this is that the original title was “The Five Books That Made Me” inspired by Scott D. Southard’s recent blog entry of the same name. But I quickly realized I couldn’t limit my own list to five books. Even keeping it to seven has been a struggle.

After reading Scott’s post, I decided every writer should make such a list. So here’s mine. What’s yours?

The Hobbit1. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

One day my father knocked on my ever-closed bedroom door and gave me two books, The Hobbit and The Catcher in the Rye. We’ll get to J.D. Salinger in a moment, but being a young Dungeons and Dragons nut at the time, The Hobbit clearly held the most immediate appeal for me. I read it first.

And it was awesome.

Despite pages upon pages of dwarves singing incomprehensible songs and confusing, unnecessarily long lists of similar-sounding names – Bifur and Bombur and Oin and Gloin and Fili and Kili – the fact is I’d never before found myself so deeply immersed in a book. I’d read many things before that, of course, but The Hobbit opened a whole new level of literature to me. I could read and enjoy it as a kid, er, young adult in today’s terms, I guess, yet it was somehow…adult. Perhaps the first “adult” book, if it can be called that, I’d ever read to that point.

I so completely visualized the scene in the Misty Mountains where Bilbo and Gollum had their riddle game for the one ring, that I was prepared to be disappointed it wouldn’t match my internal image when the movie came out last year. Maybe my memory is fading, but to my utter joy that one scene at least appeared in the film exactly as I remembered it. It gave me chills to be able to see it “live” like that.

I suspect The Hobbit would find its way onto a great many people’s lists.

Pawn of Prophecy2. The Belgariad by David Eddings

On the other hand, my second entry is probably on precious few lists but my own. In fact, it’s not even a single book, but a series. I couldn’t pick one of the five books to list because it was really the experience of reading the entire series that was so significant for me.

After The Hobbit, I was thirsty, as most boys my age in the mid-’80s were, for fantasy books. Swords. Sorcery. Dragons. Warriors. Magicians. Yes, even scantily-clad women being rescued by said Warriors and Magicians. There were lots of such books to read. Lots of bad ones, if I’m honest, but several really amazing series, too. The Shannara books by Terry Brooks. The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist. The Dragonlance books by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. And of course, The Lord of the Rings, again by Tolkien, which I read shortly after The Hobbit.

But it was The Belgariad by David Eddings that I made my own. When my friends were talking about the others, I’d bring up Garion and Polgara and Belgarath from Eddings’ work and hold them up as the very best of the bunch. I’m not sure that’s really true, now, looking back, but back then, those books were mine.

The Belgariad showed me that it was okay to sit in a quiet room and just read hundreds of pages for hours on end, to become completely lost in a series and characters and action on the page.

In researching the series for this post to remind myself of it, since it’s been a very long time, I ran across a fan trailer on YouTube where a fellow fan of the series, lamenting a movie was never made, created a fake trailer. I’m not going to link it here because, honestly, it was a little bit awful, but what amused me most was that he set the background music as an old song from the rock group Yes. It made me smile to think there was some other geek in his bedroom reading fantasy books while listening to the high voice of the Yes lead singer in the background. Exactly!

3. The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and The FuryJump forward to tenth grade English class. My teacher did something I’d never heard before and haven’t heard of a lot of people since having the same experience. Until then, all the students in English class read classics at the same time. Hemingway, Twain and Thomas Hardy. Hawthorne, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.

But at some point in the tenth grade, my English teacher decided to assign each student a different book to read and report on. And I got….The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner.

My memory is the books were assigned by “level.” In other words, she gave the more difficult works to the students with the better grades. Earlier in the year, when we were studying poetry, I had written a depressing one and turned it in. Okay, extremely depressing. I thought that was what poems were supposed to be – since all the writers we were studying had written depressing poems, I wrote one too.

After reading it, this same teacher kept me after class and asked me if everything was all right. I think she thought maybe I was suicidal. Which was a joyful moment for me, as it was the first time I realized I could write convincingly.

Maybe she thought the same thing, I don’t know. I only know that, later in the year, when she assigned these classics according to each of our levels, I somehow got The Sound And The Fury. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.

If you’re not familiar, Faulkner’s book is separated into four sections, each told from a different point of view. Often the same events are described, but from different perspectives. And the first point of view is a mentally deficient character. Some of the POVs are first person, but the last one is third person omniscient.

In tenth grade, I could not understand this book. I wondered…who was this William Faulkner and what drugs was he on when he wrote this? And was everyone in the South deranged?

(Hushed voice for Northerners: I live here now. They are.) Haha. No, Southerners, I’m just kidding. (Hushed voice for Northerners again: Actually, no. Not kidding.)

I don’t think I ever did understand the book then. But I was determined to try. And I refused to fall back on the Cliff’s notes. I read it and re-read it. Struggled through the passages until my vision was blurry.

So it was that English teacher and The Sound And The Fury that taught me reading was more than mere enjoyment. It was sometimes work. But a sort of glorious, spectacular work that widened the mind. Which brings me to…

The Catcher in the Rye4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

It had stared at me for years. A sullen, plain maroon cover sitting on my shelf next to my adored copy of The Hobbit. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled it down, gazed at the nondescript cover a while, then opened it and read the famous first line:

‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Then I’d read a bit more, get a little lost, and put it back on the shelf.

But after the challenge of trying to understand The Sound And The Fury, I decided I was ready to finally tackle The Catcher in the Rye. So I took it down and read it.

The Catcher in the Rye was definitely one of the books that made me. Apart from that, I can’t discuss it much. Honestly, it’s too personal, even for a very personal blog post like this one.

What I can say is, sometimes, when I think about it and remember the little signature my Dad left in the opening pages, I think I understand my father, long gone now, just a little bit better. Sometimes.

Watchmen5. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a comic book in this post. I’ve read so very many. And as much as I admired Neil Gaiman’s work on Sandman, I narrowed this choice down to two Alan Moore works from the late ’80’s: Swamp Thing and Watchmen. As Watchmen is more universally appreciated and understood, it gets the nod here.

As most already know, Watchmen, despite being a graphic novel (a “comic book”) made Time Magazine’s list of All-Time, Top 100 novels. There’s something to be said for that.

It’s a brilliant story. In twelve short issues, Alan Moore created a set of characters with histories stretching backward in time similar to what it took the rest of the comics world decades to impose upon its readers. He told a main story in the pages illustrated by Dave Gibbons, but also another, completely separate, but linked tale at the back of each issue: “The Tales of the Black Freighter.”

This work, along with the aforementioned Swamp Thing and Sandman, brought me to the world of “adult” comics and graphic novels, and taught me how that medium could deliver stories just as complex as novels like The Sound And the Fury. This opened my eyes to the fact that all genres of writing and publishing could deliver amazing work.

The Fountainhead6. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Please, forget about politics. I don’t want to know yours, and I’m betting you could care less about mine. Believe me, though she’s become known for it, I don’t list an Ayn Rand book here because of conservatism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

No, this book is on this list for one reason: the protagonist, Howard Roark.

I came to The Fountainhead late. I read it shortly after I opened my own business as a consultant. It was a stressful time. I had a vision and standards for the type of work I’d take and do. I wasn’t sure if it would work. In those first few, somewhat lean months, I listened to The Fountainhead on audio, sitting in my home office working on the only project I had at the time.

And in Roark, here was perhaps the most extraordinary single character I’d ever experienced in a novel. An individualistic, uncompromising, stubborn idealist who would sacrifice his vision or standards for nothing. And I mean nothing. You could offer him all the money in the world, but if the project didn’t fit with his world view, he wouldn’t take it. It was impressive, to see such strength of character. To imagine there were really people in the world like him. To hope I might be one of them.

I loved it, and think it served me well in those early days of owning my own business. Whenever a difficult choice lay before me, I thought “What would Howard Roark do right now?”

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter? In this list? Really?

The reason this particular book is in the list is it was the first Harry Potter book I read. Many believe it was the best written of the bunch. It was the last of the relatively short Potter books, before Rowling had license to write really huge books that sometimes meandered.

And it’s on my list for one simple reason: my niece.

She used to visit in the summer, during the time when the Harry Potter books were at the height of their popularity. Then she got her driver’s license and never came back. Ah, youth. At least we still Skype.

It seems in my memory that at least twice she was here when Harry Potter books were released, and we’d always go to the midnight release party at Borders (when it existed…sigh) to wait along with hundreds of other parents and kids for midnight to come and the book to be released.

Waiting at midnight. For a book. With hundreds of people, many of them kids. There was a camaraderie in it.

It may have been Harry Potter that finally brought me back to my lifetime dream to write, the dream I had pretty much since I read those first few pages of The Hobbit, one I’d dropped from my bucket list as something that would never happen, something I’d never have the time for. It’s hard to say for sure with such things.

I do know that seeing the excitement in those eyes, watching my then teenaged niece bond with other kids her age she’d never met over a shared love of invented characters and brilliant stories, brought my always present love of writing crashing back to me.

Not long after, I started to write again myself.

And I’ve been doing it ever since.