Five Things I Learned from Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me

In my year-end newsletter, I talked about how much I loved Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me– his collection of essays on writing fiction. Percy is the author of Red Moon and the recent Dark Net as well as the writer behind Green Arrow and Teen Titans and a recent run on James Bond. I finally managed to gather my fifty-eight pages of notes and create a checklist to go off of when I’m writing fiction. In all there are 30 things I took away from Thrill Me. I’m not going to list all thirty things but here are the five major takeaways: 

  1. Go the Distance: Percy’s tier-based system for submitting short fiction. One of my writing goals this year is to submit more. I’m going to adopt his system which is you set up five tiers. On the first tier you put the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Atlantic, McSweeneys, Tin House, etc. Publications that there’s no way you’d get into without some form of reputation and you send a copy of one story to five publications in the first tier, and for every rejection you send five more copies of that one story to five publications on the second tier, and so on and so forth. 
  2. Percy has an old dark room in his office where he pins up loose ideas, articles, photos and paintings that could fuel a story. He talks about it in this video. For me, I setup up a “Story board” it’s a bulletin board with loose ideas, pitches, articles, and ripped out sheets of loose paper that might eventually form the genesis of a story. There are four sections: short stories, comics, novel and nonfiction.
  3. Never use back story except in the adverbial clause.
  4. Modulation is key to a good story: what Percy does is create a suspense-o-meter, where he creates—like a mountain valley—rising action and the valleys of that action over the top of his outline. “Action, reaction.” So to have a good story you not only need action but you must also have the emotions that come out of that action. He calls these moments of emotional reality “the Flaming Chainsaws,” these are things that fuel character growth: their financial, familial, ideological, professional, physical, and spiritual goals and how those things create a journey for the character to go on. 
  5. Finally, most importantly for me anyway is submitting. As Percy says: 

“After polishing a story until it shines, nobody is going to approach you on the street and seize your hand and say, ‘congratulations! You did it!’ There’s more work to be done. The same stubborn mind-set that informs your craft must inform the often frustrating, sometimes humiliating work of submission (such an apt word, no?). You need to know that breaking into magazines is about talent, yes, but also doggedness.”

I’m good at the practice of writing, of crafting a story and getting it done and constantly working on becoming a better writer, but I’m not good at going this “distance.” I don’t submit and that’s what I resolve to change this year in my writing life and get one story into a publication by the end of it.

That and get a full-time job. What’s in the distance for you? 

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