If like me you like to read and also do a bit of writing, then this is a book you should read. I like the measured approach of Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer. Benjamin Percy gets it from the word go. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life prioritises writing before life, but, hey, nobody is watching and nobody is perfect.
You can do both. Benjamin Percy bombed on creative writing courses, or workshops, as they call them in America. But he was younger and we all make all kind of mistakes. He liked to read and write genre fiction.
Vampires, dragons and robots with laser eyes. These were the literary stars of my childhood. These stories were unified by the same pattern: they began with a bang –high jinks ensured – then the hero overcame some villainous forces to win love and a heap of treasure. Books were portals meant for escapism.
That was pretty much me too. Or #Me Too. I was a page turner intent on finding out what happened next. Even now I’m not sure if I’ve read a particular book, but bits of what happened sticks to the back of my melting mind. Later in life I did an Open University course on Shakespeare. I always thought I was a bit thick and missing something big. When I sat the exam I answered a question on the role of the fool in Shakespearian drama. Then I stopped. I was bored with what I’d written about Lear’s fool. England’s greatest playwright. The man that had introduced more words to the English language could go and fuck himself. I was never going to be that kind of person. I’d rather read the ingredients on the brown sauce bottle than tackle again Cymbeline, King of Britain. I literally failed the literary test.
I could read a book very quickly but I couldn’t fully understand it. Here’s the bit where I say I knuckled down and…well, you’ll be waiting a long time. When reading becomes like work I’d much rather do something else. You can write about zombies or dragons or robot ghosts and the chances are I won’t read it. If I do it better be better than Shakespeare. Percy asked a workshop tutor he respected for that Rosetta stone of advice that would turn vague scribbling into a published book or story. His advice was simple: ‘Thrill me.’
Imagine there are 1000 books published in English every day. You want to be a writer and work your way to the top, you need to be like Rocky. Yeh, I know. It’s kind of cheesy. Percy likes Rocky. And I like him for liking Rocky. So you need to have that urgency on the page and in the longer term. You need to take the body blows. So here we have it. Your protagonist needs obstacles in his way to reach his goal. Rocky needs to catch a chicken before he can think of knocking out Apollo Creed. Protagonists need short-term, lower-order goals, before they get a shot at the big prize. In the background there’s always that ticking clock. No chicken is going to wait for you. The bell for the first round is going to ring. The reader needs to turn the page to find out what happens next. To be a writer you need to hook the reader and keep hooking, until you are in the top ten. Then No 1.
In Set Pieces – Staging the Icon Scene you need to cut away the dross and create something memorable. Rocky runs up those steps with thousands of school kids at his back shouting his name. His bloody face after the fight and he looks outside the ring, looking for his wife, and he bawls her name. ‘Adrian…Adrian…Adrian’.
There Will Be Blood, Percy argues violence needs to be earned. Characters do what they keep doing, if violence comes out of nowhere either you’re a genius, or you’ve not caught the chicken first. Violence like love has an emotional arc. Writers should choreograph the dance. Rocky doesn’t just go Pow! Pow! Pow! Only Rocky can get away with that.
Making the Extraordinary Ordinary is quite a simple idea.
Most beginning writers when they first get caught up in the thrilling idea…Let’s call this tendency giganticism.
He then quotes one of the Russian greats, I don’t really get, Chekov, but who offers good advice about anchoring the universal in specific detail, ‘ on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright star, and the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled past like a ball’.
In other words the writer is not generalising. Anyone that can write like that, even if it is Chekov or Shakespeare, gets my foolish attention.
He quotes Tim O’Brien in ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ and making the reader believe. ‘Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.’
Designing Suspense something has got to give. In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice. Phewwwwww – fuck off – twice. Percy argues as a writer that’s what we should be looking at. Our characters face their worst-case scenario. You’re characters must juggle and dance with flaming chain-saws, but the writer must know the ending. Truly incredible craziness doesn’t come easy.
Don’t Look Back, Percy tells us writer and readers he gets irritated by backstory. Novice writers love backstory. It explains away the incredibly exciting story of how Godot waited and waited or as Percy calls it the Scooby Doo trick. Time moves backwards and the theme tune of Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead comes on. Only, it would be a smart-phone now and not a telly. You see I’ve taken you backwards with my waffling on. I think it’s quite entertaining. I’m sad that way.
Sounds like Writing, you know it’s not. Percy gets that right? Writers like Shakespeare to me sound like writing. I want to read writers who don’t sound like writing. Who are human. Who are fools in the right/wrong way. Generally, any middle-class twaddle isn’t for me. Stick it. Sounds like Writing. I’ll scroll on past.
Activating Settings is the write what you know school of thought. I get that. I really do. Percy writes about Oregon. I write about Clydebank. When someone asks me what I write about I tell them, I write about us. That’s in theory, because nobody asks. But if they do, I’ll say, so there.
Percy advises writers to Get a Job. No, he’s not Norman Tebbit wittering on about how his dad didn’t go about rioting but got on his bike and got a job. What Percy is saying here is language is rooted in who we are. Our identity often comes from the job we do. Getting a job as roofer, nurse, labourer, dishwasher or working in a Job Creation scheme gives you a common lingo. A guy that tutored writers in Moniack Moor, which describes itself as Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, told me that typically the would-be writer would be a retired school teacher who decided to spend their remaining years tackling their great opus. Working class writers don’t go on retreats. They simply write. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s not my job. My job is to Thrill You when I do write. I think I can hear the Rocky them tune. Benjamin Percy is a knock-out.