What It’s All About
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is a craft book from novelist Benjamin Percy (The Dead Lands, Red Moon) that discusses various important elements in the writing of fiction. He infuses some of his chapters with a little memoir, of childhood memories, his time in graduate school, and in the successes and failures in his own writing.
But mostly the book is comprised of chapters that touch on essential fiction writing subjects like character motivations, setting description, the importance of revision, and, the central theme — mixing literary with genre. These chapters mix Percy’s own advice with examples from popular works of short fiction, novels, screenplays, and films.
He opens with the one chapter solely dedicated to memoir, in which Percy talks about his love of reading growing up and his pursuit of writing fiction from a young age. Next he talks about a mix of fascinating chapters on craft, some of which clearly relate to my own MFA thesis project, like Urgency (the need to keep readers flipping through the pages), There Will Be Blood (an entire chapter about violence in fiction and how writers need to be careful with how much is seen and how much explicit detail), and Designing Suspense (how three-dimensional character and clear motivations mixed with major conflicts and rising stakes can make for effective suspense).
He goes on to discuss such elements as Making the Extraordinary Ordinary, The Art of the Reversal, and Making the Stakes Clear. The book ends with a chapter on why revision will make a writer successful and that rejection will only make the most motivated writers even stronger in their craft.
The main theme of Percy’s craft book is to mix exciting genre work with effective literary qualities to make fantastic and memorable works of fiction. He writes,
Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into a bookstore, the stock is divided into ‘Stories that suck’ and ‘Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.’
Percy’s belief is that literary fiction is not inherently good and genre fiction is not inherently bad. He talks of his frustration, particularly in writing workshops, when his professors would immediately look down on anyone writing genre work and promoted the idea that everyone should focus on literary fiction. Percy writes,
Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Make certain your devotion to pretty sentences and flesh-and-blood characters and cityscapes and exquisitely crafted metaphors works in service of story, contributing to the momentum that will propel your readers forward.
He believes that both literary fiction and genre fiction have their strong qualities but that blending the two can bring out the absolute best kind of storytelling, particularly when the writer focuses on telling a compelling, propulsive story with focus still given to stylish prose, quality descriptions, and characters over plot.
Why You Need This Book on Your Shelf
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is a terrific craft book. I loved how Percy weaves memoir with writing advice, sometimes discussing various tools in his writing that have worked for him over the years and why, then immediately moving into advice for the reader with clear examples from outside texts. I particularly liked that Percy doesn’t overdo the memoir, or talking about his own works; his discussion about himself is in the book just the right amount to be effective, never too much to come across as egotistical.
I admired his use of examples from not just novels but also short fiction and even a few films. I learn a lot about writing fiction from the movies I watch, and so I found it appropriate for an author to include them in the conversation.
His chapters are varied and sometimes unexpected, like his devotion to an entire chapter about the use of violence in storytelling. Percy writes,
This is the world we live in. You don’t have to look that far to find horror. And your job as a writer, no matter how uncomfortable, is to occasionally but responsibly shine a lamp lit with blood into those dark corners of human existence.
The novels he has written obviously goes to some dark, horrific places, so I was thrilled to see a chapter from him on this subject. I also especially enjoyed his chapters on the dangers of backstory, where he says,
The impulse to explain [backstory] will insult the reader. […] Stories are about forward movement, and if you turn to backstory, you have effectively yanked the gearshift into reverse.
Lastly, he wraps up the craft book with a bit of inspiration that will keep me going for a long while:
Thirty-nine rejections. Remember that the next time you’re feeling low at the keyboard or thumbing open a letter addresses, ‘Dear Writer.’ Go the distance.
He talks often about the writers that go the distance are the ones who persevere, who shrug off the rejections and keep going, keep improving their craft. Percy had to write five novels before he got one published, and his various struggles he lays out in the book give me, and should give you, the ammunition to keep going. No matter how long it takes!