Congratulations to my friend Ben Percy and today’s release of THRILL ME!
I thought about my childhood reading often when reading Ben Percy’s first non-fiction book, THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION. Ben establishes the premise of the book early on: Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Just like kids, most adults don’t set out to read something for its excellent character development, nor for its lovely “rhyming action” (described originally by Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House and referenced by Percy in THRILL ME), and certainly not for the “feckless pondering” Percy (pretty comically, especially for those of us who have been known to indulge) eschews. What readers want–kids and adults–is a good story.
Clearly, what they’ll enjoy more is a story that is made better by the many topics Percy covers in this fast-paced book of fiction-writing craft, including how to create urgency and suspense, how to “make the ordinary extraordinary” and how to “activate setting.” You’ll read about his “suspense-o-meter,” his use of screenplay pacing, his general distaste for backstory. There are no writing exercises, but there are scores of references to good books, compelling stories, can’t-look-away movies. If all you did was collect Percy’s literary/film references and set out to read/view each, you’d be a better writer for having read Thrill Me.
As a fiction writer myself I also love and desperately want to use a suggestion he makes regarding “the balance between whimsy and logic.” “Try changing one thing,” he writes, if that’s where you want to go. “Just one. This is our world except for______.” How exciting is that? Just one thing–what will it be? A person with some kind of ESP? A ghost? A piece of music that bubbles up randomly–or not? And then there’s all the rest of my favorite Percy-isms: I’ve always loved (and since first hearing it, have consistently employed–so to speak) his advice in the “Get a Job” chapter, which is to have characters do meaningful work. I love to have characters make decisions after which there is truly no going back. I’m counting on my main character being able to say, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” And I’m serious about trying to “reverse engineer” the next story I write. Percy suggests a writer know the ending and work back from there–heady, useful stuff in these days of meandering plot lines.
Percy’s essay on “Revision as Renovation” makes the traditional advice about revision–“Kill your darlings”–seem like sweetness and light. Fiction writers note: Let Ben “tell you something: if you’ve got the angel in one ear, whispering kind things, and the devil in the other, hissing about how badly you stink, listen to the devil. The devil drives revision.”
Listen to the devil. Go buy your copy of Ben Percy’s Thrill Me today.