Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Tips from genre fiction add thrills to any writing

Review of: Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Grade: A
I’ve loved Benjamin Percy’s essays in Poets & Writers magazine, where he evoked the power of thrills and chills, horror and terror to inspire even the most literary of writers. He's a writer who can both contribute to Esquire and write comic book series. Now he’s gathered more than a dozen of his essays on writing into Thrill Me, a volume dedicated to putting the power of genre writing into literary fiction. Or, if you please, showing genre writers how to hone their most cherished tools without descending into clich├ęs.
“When people ask if I grew up a reader, I say yes, but not the type of reader they image: a small, scholarly child with glasses perched on the end of his nose. . . A book was never far from my hand – balanced on my nightstand, shoved into a back pocket, tucked into the glove compartment of the truck – but usually it was a broken-spined mass-market paperback with an embossed title.”
From a boyhood immersed in the words of Zane Grey, Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy; fighting alongside Conan the Cimmerian; zipping breathlessly through hundreds of thousands of pages by the likes of Anne Rice and Stephen King, Percy dropped with a shock into a creative writing class whose rule was: no genre submissions. 
Miraculously, he survived and indeed fell in love with the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and more, and realized that in spite of his omnivorous reading, he had failed to understand, “the careful carpentry of storytelling.” 
It was from those literary writers that he realized the basic rules of story had been in plain sight all along, even in the goriest and most shocking of genre tales. And in Thrill Me, he lays them out for his readers (and fellow writers). 
First things, though, Thrill Me isn’t a cook book. In fact, at one point Percy assures us that there are no rules. Except there are “rules” which writers are free to break – once they’ve mastered those rules and understand what they’re doing. And if they can make the breaking work.
However, for a refresher of “rules,” Percy starts with the first commandment of all storytelling: establish a clear narrative goal, and takes us through the steps needed to develop a sense of urgency in readers (“. . . the most basic reason we read (is) to discover what happens next”).
He follows this with discussions of how to stage the kind of “set pieces” – the pivotal scenes “that you cannot forget. . . that (readers) will take with them to their grave.” (Tip: be sure a short story has at least one such scene, a novel at least four.) And of the basic methods for designing suspense; how to deal with backstory (his preference is to eliminate backstory – except of course, when the backstory works); of the importance of setting; and the uses of interior monologue (“There is nothing wrong with characters thinking. . . so long as it is strategically employed”).
And yes, he tackles that bugaboo of genre writing: violence. “The concern here is not with what is moral, or right, or proper, but rather with what is effective, asking how depictions of violence best serve a story,” quoting that “dark-hearted godmother of literary fiction,” Flannery O’Connor: “the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.”
But lest we forget, Percy warns us that merely splashing buckets of gore across the pages can throw readers out of our stories, in the manner of excessive special effects in movies – “I’m not weeping or laughing or even gripping my armrests . . . I’m simply marveling at the way computers can create illusions.”
One of the “rules” of writing – if it feels like writing, cut it – applies as well to depictions of violence as to depictions of pretty scenery.
More even than the how-tos of dealing with violence, I give Percy an A for his attitude toward revision. After spending a year rewriting his third novel, his editor’s take was “Fantastic. Exactly what we wanted. Now would you mind cutting. . . and fixing. . . and while we’re at it, how about let’s rethink the ending?”
It’s enough to make a writer cry. Of laugh, reread the rules, pick up the tools, and try again.