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By Way of Introduction

In anticipation of the release of my new short story collection, No Turning Back, I would like to share the introduction to the book.

It all started with a thought.

Over the years, I have often found that in order to get an idea to come to fruition, all I needed to do was think about the idea—that’s it, just think. The more I would think about an idea, the more my conscious and subconscious brain would join in to help develop and flesh it out. Thoughts would turn into other ideas, which would make me think even more, and before I knew it, I had a plan in place to make the idea a reality. That is how it has been with my writing in general, and with my short stories in particular: I get an idea, store it in my head to let it simmer a while, and write the story when it is ready.

Twenty-five years ago, I first considered becoming a writer and have been thinking about that idea ever since. My favorite authors—Bradbury, Crichton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Harrison, and King—had made me do it. Think, that is. Over the years, they had grabbed me and engaged me with their words and especially their short stories. They opened my eyes to the limitless possibilities of words and books. Particularly through the influence of their short stories, they urged me to keep reading, and by all means, to start writing.

I have always enjoyed the short story form. Unlike reading a novel, reading a short story impacts me more immediately. I love getting through an entire story in one sitting and then moving on to the next one. When reading a short story collection, I can get a fuller picture of the thoughts and ideas that the author has in store for me.

One book in particular—and a subsequent meeting with the author—set me on my way to becoming a writer. The book was Dandelion Wine, written by one of the greatest American authors, Ray Bradbury. I had read other Bradbury books, like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but when I read Dandelion Wine, which is actually a series of loosely connected short stories, it was the first time I could truly visualize the overarching story as I read it. It was the first time I became part of the story. It was the first time I experienced words and sentences strung together in such a unique way: literature with doses of realism and lyrics and poetics. He hooked me. I thought to myself, I want to be able to write a book like that some day. I’m a big dreamer.

In 2003, while in San Diego on business, I had the opportunity to meet Ray Bradbury. I had heard about a seminar he was conducing at San Diego State University and on a whim, I changed my afternoon plans to attend. His two-hour talk about his “love of writing” was truly inspirational, and his words made me wonder even more about becoming a career writer. Afterward, I met Ray, and he signed a book for me. He asked me if I was a writer, and I told him that I wanted to be one someday. He said, “Just do it,” and I replied, “Okay, I will.” Four years later, I became a writer. Although I had been writing for years, I made it official, with a total commitment to writing and to publishing my writing.

My fiction writing took off at a feverish pace. I focused mostly on shorter pieces, which allowed me to flesh out many ideas with a minimal investment of time and get the writing practice I needed. I get many ideas for writing projects, and I usually try to see if the idea is worthwhile by attacking it through a short piece, such as a poem or a short story. After that, if I still like the idea and the premise, I will consider it for a longer form.

For example, I wrote Letting Go—a story in this collection—as a way to explore the character of Sebastian Drake, to better understand exactly who he was and what made him tick. After I wrote the short story, I was more interested in Drake—and perplexed by him—than ever, and I needed to find out where he was going next. That was not a problem. He would not leave me alone, so I put him in Chicago, right in the middle of a cold murder case, and a year later I completed the screenplay A Fine Line, with Drake in the lead role. I thought that might be the end of his story, but that was not the case. Drake persisted, even insisted, that the story was not over, and he was right. I completed the full story of A Fine Line, in novel form, a year after the screenplay. I wonder where he will take me next.

People often ask me how I came up with a certain idea or why I decided to write a particular story. Those are tough questions to answer. All I can say is that ideas come, at any time of the day or night, and it is usually something I saw or read or heard that inspired them. The ideas come, and when they do, it is prudent for me to jot them down so I do not forget them. I realize there is a reason the ideas come to me, and it is not up to me to judge the source. However, it is up to me to trust the source, because the ideas germinate from the combined experiences of my lifetime. The ideas are me. I think it is true that I do not have a say in which stories I write. I do not write a story because I think it will lead to fame or fortune. I write a story because I have to, because the idea nags at me and will not leave me alone until the words are down onto the page and the story is finished.

I took the title for this book from the final story in this collection. No Turning Back is actually the first story I wrote, and the story is about a man put in a predicament where the only option is to jump forward, into the unknown and on to whatever comes next. I had no prior intention, but as I was pulling together the stories for this book, it was clear to me that all of the stories were linked by a similar theme: that every day we come to a crossroads in life and going back the way we came is not an option. No Turning Back is not only a fitting title for the book, but it also provides a sound mantra for living our lives: don’t try to re-live the past, for the future has so much in store for us. Just keep moving forward.

In preparing this collection, I thought quite a bit about the stories and the sequence in which I might like to present them. I wrote the stories in this collection over a period of six years, from August 2006 to September 2012. In the end, it made sense for me to present the stories chronologically. However, I knew I did not want to start with the first story. That story, No Turning Back, holds a special place in my heart and I felt it best to end with that story. Therefore, we begin with the most recent story and progress in reverse chronological order to the first story written. We’ll jump into our figurative time machine and as we progress through the stories, we’ll take a journey to see where I came from. We’ll make many stops along the way to discover what might have been going on in my mind and my life at the time. I hope you enjoy the ride.

With this book, I wanted to produce something different, more than just words on a page. Of course, the stories are important, but I wanted to provide a broader experience for the reader. I have always been particularly fond of books that combined words with art as many of the early Dickens novels in my book collection did, with exquisite woodcut illustrations that graced the pages preceding a chapter. Unfortunately, that type of illustration is a lost art and is no longer financially feasible. Recently, I had been particularly impressed with the work of Joseph Mugnaini, the artist who provided many illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s novels and story collections. I thought it would be great to include illustrations in my book.

I set out to find an illustrator, and I was fortunate to meet Chicago actor and artist Kelly Maryanski, who read the manuscript and provided custom ink illustrations for each of the stories. I had talked with a half dozen artists, and I think she was the only one who really understood what I was trying to accomplish. I sent her the manuscript and waited, wondering what was going to happen next. Her approach was simple and straightforward. She read a story and then sent over an illustration for me to review. I received each illustration with anticipation and excitement, and every time I saw the newest one, I smiled. Every reader interprets a story differently, but Kelly and I were always on the same page. I think each of the illustrations is perfect, and each story now includes an original and thought-provoking visual interpretation.

I also felt I needed a book cover that would help to capture the essence of the book and set it apart visually. From the day I came home from the record store with Rush’s 2112 album as a teenager, I was hooked on my favorite band’s album art and the graphic artistry of Hugh Syme. When I thought about the cover art for this book, I felt the artwork had to be something special, much like 2112 and all of the Rush albums since, and I thought about how great it would be to have Hugh Syme design my book cover. No chance in hell, I thought. It was a pipe dream, but I figured, what the hell. I contacted him. I told him I was a fan of his work, and it would be an honor if he would design my book cover. He asked me about the book, and I shared with him the title, the story names, and a brief description of each story. He said “okay” and that was that. A week later, he sent me three designs. The first one was great, the second one better, and when I got to the third image, I knew I had found my book cover. He insisted that he be part of the entire jacket design and the final production, and it was a privilege to work with such a consummate professional. What an experience and what a trip it was.

There was one final element that I wanted to include in the book. I don’t know about you, but after I’ve read a story, I’m often left with burning questions: what was the inspiration for the story, where did the original idea come from, and what was going on in the author’s head while writing the story? The only way I have been able to get answers to these questions is if I’ve had the opportunity to meet the author in person. Such a meeting almost never happens, and even if it does, it’s hard to ask the questions. More often than not, the answers remain elusive.

I decided I was not going to be so elusive. There is so much that goes into the writing of a story, and because every story in this collection is so different, I thought it might be nice to share with the reader whatever was going on inside my head at the time. From the day I first started writing short stories, I got into the practice of documenting my story ideas, along with other thoughts, conceptions, and notes that pertained to the story. I did it for myself, to help me remember. However, as I went through my old notes, I was surprised to learn about my younger self and the mania that was coursing through my veins. Where did those ideas and words come from? I often wondered. The process of reviewing my story notes was a great opportunity to re-introduce myself to the individual who wrote the stories, stories that were—quite simply—distant memories. The notes brought the stories back to me in all their glory, and I hope the story notes provide for the reader a small glimpse into the mind of a hopeful author.

No Turning Back is a book quite different from my first novel, Recalled to Life, and even more drastically different from my first non-fiction book, The First 60 Seconds. I like that. Diversity is good for me. In the future, I have every intention of following my brain and my gut as I select new writing projects. So, you may be wondering, what’s next? My first crime novel, A Fine Line, is set for publication next year. Am I writing poetry? Yes. Are there more screenplays to come (hopefully to the big screen)? Absolutely. Will there be more short stories and novels? Yes and yes. What I do know is that I have enough ideas to keep me writing for at least another ten years. I cannot say I am certain of the order and form in which I will produce my ideas, but I can say, with absolute certainty, that I will write. I cannot fight it, I have no other choice, and there is absolutely no turning back.

Dan Burns
January 2014

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