Craft Book Review: Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy

“Q: What’s the key to suspense? A: I’ll tell you later.”

Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy

My first exposure to Benjamin Percy came through Iowa State University. I wasn’t a student of his. I left Ames a few years prior to his arrival. I kept up with the English department news and saw an article about him. I remember reading about Percy and sensing a missed opportunity.

In him, I sensed a kindred spirit. Classically-trained, but genre-inclusive. Blue-collar sensibilities. A dark aesthetic. While I am extremely grateful for the things I learned as an undergraduate English major at Iowa State, Benjamin Percy seemed like the sort of writer I could relate to, as if I had narrowly missed a class co-taught by Raymond Carver and Stephen King.

I’ve had Thrill Me on my to-read list for a while. Unfortunately, it got lost for a couple of years in my massive Amazon wishlist. When it popped up again a week ago, I jumped at the chance.

Thrill Me is a somewhat niche craft book. You won’t find basic grammar and mechanics here. Want to read about assonance, consonance, and the musicality of the sentence. Go find John Gardner. Percy’s cover screams “Thrill Me,” and that is what this book is about. It gets down and dirty with plotting, tension, and tone. It’s lean and focused, part a personal history of Percy’s writing career, sure, but these moments are used to illustrate specific points about the craft of writing thrilling fiction.

Percy addresses voice and violence, tension and suspense, and how to earn every inch as a working writer. In many ways, it’s exactly the sort of craft book I expected from Benjamin Percy. He’s been a favorite of mine for quite some time, and while the book doesn’t exactly replace the experience I might have had with Percy as a young(ish) writer, it did give me a greater appreciation of Percy as a craftsman and made me eager to get back to my own work.

You can’t ask much more of a craft book than that.


“When you let the camera linger, when you crowd a scene with details, you are announcing that everything is important, and if you do this constantly, then you are also saying that everything is important, and when everything is important, nothing is important.”

Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy

Book Review: Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians

“When the whole world hurts, you bite it, don’t you?”

Stephen Graham Jones
Cover of The Only Good Indians

Stephen Graham Jones has been a favorite of mine for quite some time, and his latest novel, The Only Good Indians is no exception.

If you are familiar with Jones, you probably know his writing as alternating moments of beauty and brutality. This is the case in Jones’s latest novel, the story of a group of young Indians who hunt the wrong elk in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In its bones, this is a classical ghost story, and readers expecting immediate horrific gratification are going to be disappointed. The beginning of the novel is the sort of slow, tense burn that the genre had been built upon. The brutality comes later, as a climax to the is it/isn’t it build up of the early chapters.

The book has a lot to say about being a Native American in the modern world. The mythical/spiritual aspects here are fascinating, as they both weave themselves into the modern world and butt up against it. That conflict drives the book thematically. There is a tenuous sense of hope that things might get better, but a cynicism there that waits for everything to go wrong once again. Everything here has consequences, and they can follow characters like a shadow through the years. This goes beyond whatever it is that may stalk them to the little choices and curses that have haunted them.

We all pay for our transgressions in some way, and in The Only Good Indians, transgressions manifest themselves in brutal ways. Sometimes, it seems like there may be a way beyond them. Maybe all we have is the legacy we leave behind for others to remember in hopes that they will sit around a fire and tell our stories, and that they will tell just as many of the good ones as the bad.

“Some lights you never figure out, and shouldn’t even try to.”

Stephen Graham Jones

Rating 5/5

Confessions of a Hereditary Tinkerer

They say that my Grandpa Dale won’t be around much longer. Hospice has been called, and he’s ready to go home to my Grandma, who passed on 21 years ago. As I’ve worked to process that, I’ve been thinking about his influence upon my life, searching for the parts of me that may have come from him.

If I were to define Grandpa as anything, it would be a tinkerer. Most of my early memories of him involved the shop down the driveway from their trailer, where he would take things apart and put them back together, sometimes as Frankenstein monstrosities of industry. I remember a mechanical hacksaw that didn’t have any particular use. You really couldn’t cut anything with it that you couldn’t feed through by hand. Of course, for a tinkerer, the functionality of these inventions isn’t as important as the tinkering itself.

The first Christmas present I ever received from Grandpa was a set of pliers. I still have them, and they are sitting next to me as I write this. Most of you won’t be surprised to hear that I did not appreciate this “gift.” Whatever mechanical gene has been passed down through my family, it skipped me. I own just enough tools to get by, and none are power tools. I’m not handy, at all.  I can’t weld or farm or hunt or build any structure that would withstand so much as a light breeze. I don’t fix cars or drive tractors. I can’t even drive a stick, much less a semi truck. Yet, these are the things that I think of as being a part of Grandpa Dale.

This Father’s Day, I went with my family to see Grandpa at the nursing home. He complained that they wouldn’t let him have his pliers or pocketknife. I shudder to think of what he might have done to his television, bed, or radio if he had them. He defines living by his projects, by constantly taking things apart and putting them back together again. In my memory, that was his life, whether he was at work or at home, hiding out in the shop.

That tendency to tinker is my inheritance, but I don’t take apart consumer appliances. I take apart ideas. I withdraw in to my workshop, just as I have done today, and I tear them to pieces. I examine how they work and put them back together. It’s probably the reason I keep taking college classes. It’s certainly the reason that I become obsessed with one subject or another, learning everything I can, before moving on to the next thing. See, a tinkerer doesn’t finish projects so much as he abandons them for new ones.

I often feel that way about writing. Dorothy Parker once wrote, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I can’t relate to that. I love re-writes, picking apart sentences, seeing which words work and which ones could be replaced with something better. I love thinking about story structure and how I can work callbacks in to earlier parts of the story. I love thinking about themes and how they work symbolically. I love the flow of the first draft, that feeling of meditation as you lay everything out the first time, just to see what you have. Actually finishing a story might be my least favorite part of writing.

I realize, now, that I am a literary tinkerer. If some nursing home took away my books and laptop, I would be smuggling in pencils and note cards. I would be diagramming sentences on the back of napkins and writing short stories on hidden rolls of toilet paper.

When Grandpa Dale complained that he couldn’t have a pair of pliers, what he meant was that he had lost a part of himself. When he gave me my first set of pliers that Christmas, he wasn’t offering me a tool, but a part of who he was. It has taken me a long time to realize that. As I step away from this essay, I am going to leave those pliers on my desk for those tough re-writes, so I can remember what part of me came from him.

I remember being at the trailer where Grandma seemed to always be working in the kitchen. When supper was ready, Grandpa Dale would come in the front door and go wash up. I like to imagine that is what Heaven will be like for him.

All the projects are finished, Grandpa. Go wash up.

Supper’s ready.


On Memorial Day…

I once wrote a poem titled “Crow, Why Do You Cry.” It appeared in Illumen magazine a few years ago. The original title had been “Memorial Day,” and the crow kawed to bring attention to the graveyard, to ancestors and loved ones who are forgotten on all but a single day in the year. The poem was about me.

I am not a nostalgic person. I’m not very good at staying in touch with the living, much less at remembering the dead. I’ve live a largely internalized life, for better or worse, and much of my time is spent in my own brain. Lately, I’ve been making more of a point to remember my ancestors, both those whom I remember and those whom I don’t.

I’m not one to think about the “good old days,” but it seems that I lose more and more people as years go by. I’ve lost relatives and friends. Mentors and role models. Guiltily, I live most of my life with little thought towards those who influenced it. Today is different.

Memorial Day was a pretty big deal in my family. My dad used to drag me and my sister across Southwest Iowa. I didn’t appreciate it, to be honest. My birthday always falls on Memorial Day weekend, and the idea of spending hours chasing down the worn-out grave-sites of relatives I’d never met didn’t exactly strike me as a good time. It became almost a running joke, going to visit an Uncle Cornelius that had never been anything to me other than a headstone to place flowers upon.

As I have gotten older, and I have lost more and more of the people who made up the threaded tapestry of me, I’ve come to see Uncle Cornelius and his ilk in a different way. They are the threads of my threads, and to pull one out is to unravel a part of me that I never even knew that I needed.

Memorial Day was created as a time to remember those who died serving our country. They gave the ultimate sacrifice and that should never be forgotten. Like your ancestors, they are a part of you, even if you aren’t aware of them. Yet, the day has become something much more–a time to remember those people who constructed our lives as well as those who protected them.

In “Crow, Why Do You Cry,” the crow leaves his perch when the deads’ loved ones showed up. Today, and over the next 364 days, I urge everyone to listen to the crows call a little more often. I plan on making that commitment myself. May we all make a point to remember those we lost, even when there is no special reason to do so.

ConQuest Kansas City is Next Weekend!

As usual, I will be at ConQuest Kansas City on Memorial Weekend for the local science fiction and fantasy convention. I will be on a number of panels with other fantastic authors.

Here is my schedule:

5:00 Jurassic Park and Dinosaurs 5.0
Description: “Twenty-five years ago, an island full of dinosaurs tore up the Hollywood box office. Four flicks later (in June, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will make five), these reptile relics continue to slay us. Why is the thought of a dinosaur theme park still so cool? (And by the way, what’s funny about the concept of dinos in space?) More broadly, why would the idea of the prehistoric past colliding with our present/future hold such fascination? And would we be better off letting sleeping saurians lie?”
12:00 Frankenstein 200 Years Later
Description: “It’s still alive! In 1818, Mary Shelley stitched together a bone-chilling tale of dread and science, and created a monster — whose humanity cut as deeply as Dr. Frankenstein’s knife. This Promethean fiction has inspired authors, fans, and scientists ever since. (Though is it better remembered than read?) What challenges did Shelley face in bringing her story to print? What would she think of her effect on literature over the last two centuries? After all these years, let’s find out what makes this tale tick.”
2:00 Edgar Allan Poe
Description: “He was one of the first writers to develop the genre of both detective fiction and horror. Some have credited him as the “architect” of the modern short story. The genre of horror is bigger today than ever and Poe was at the forefront of this writing style. Our panel will discuss Poe and his influences on literature.”
3:00 Where You Least Expect It
Description: “SciFi and Fantasy can be found in the strangest places, even classic literature – Shakespeare, Milton, etc.”
11:00 Philosophy Fun
Description: “Must one be virtuous in order to be courageous? What’s more important: knowledge or imagination? Let’s discuss these and other philosophy questions, applying them to literature, gaming, and our own lives.”
1:00 Reading
I am not sure what all I will be reading. I am planning on a fantasy story titled “Arbor Day.”
You an find the rest of the schedule, including all of the artists appearing, at the official Conquest Kansas City website.
Saturday will also be my birthday, so be sure to stop by and chat. When I’m not in panels, I can generally be found in the bar or the lobby. I will have a few copies of All Manner of Dark Things available for purchase, and I am always happy to chat about books and writing.
See you there!

On Stephen Hawking and the Rise of the Geek

This morning, I woke to the news that Stephen Hawking had died. These days, celebrity deaths are nothing new. We are in a post-cult of personality age, when a surge of media options and advanced marketing abilities created a mass of celebrity. As time has gone by, those people have aged, and it is only natural that they have begun to pass. I note the ones that mattered to me, though over time, those tributes have been reduced to social media one-liners. Maybe I have become desensitized to the death of my influences in the face of their sheer quantity. Today, Hawking felt a bit different.

I’m not a man of science or numbers. The last physics class I took was Physics for the Non-Scientist.  In enrolled in Math for Decision-Makers just to get that pesky college math course out of the way. I work with words, sentence structures, aesthetics, and rhetoric. I like science for the stories it tells. I like math once a year to do my taxes. I’ve never even read A Brief History of Time. Yet, I know Stephen Hawking, and as a father, I am thankful for scientists life him.

Growing up, I didn’t want to be a smart kid. It felt un-cool to me in some ways, and I have to admit sandbagging my way through school. I under-achieved my way though high school and most of college. Only when I made a switch to English did I actually start applying myself to the work. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t regret all of those years I lost, because I was afraid to be seen as a geek. Not that it mattered. I’m pretty sure everyone saw through it.

Since then, fueled by the prevalence of intellectual men like Stephen Hawking (and probably the internet), geek culture has flourished. I don’t know if we will ever be “cool,” but we are legion. We have conventions and game nights and have invaded modern pop culture. We’ve discovered the throwaway ending moral lesson of Revenge of the Nerds is true. We all have a bit of geek in us, if we are truly honest about it.

So why is this important to me. Why did I feel the need to write a blog post about a man whose books I have never read, whose theories I only know through second-hand sources, who I know almost solely from television, when some of my personal artistic heroes got only a tweet?

It’s because I am a father. At ten years-old, my son intuitively understands things about math that I will probably never know. It makes sense to him. His brain works on some different wavelength, and quite frankly, his IQ tests intimidated me a bit. I never want him to feel that he has to hide that part of him out of the fear of being seen as uncool.

Don’t get me wrong. Elementary school is still a jungle, and I know it. My son gets picked on, sometimes. Some of classmates don’t understand him, and I don’t think he understands them. But he has found friends like him. They have “Nerd Night,” chess club, gifted projects, and academic competitions. They get to go to a plethora of conventions, comic book stores, and game nights. They have each other, and they get to see others like them in popular culture. That’s a pretty big deal.

I think Stephen Hawking was a big part of that. Academia has a tendency to alienate itself. Literary criticism is as guilty as anyone. We create terminology and use it in a way that makes our research pretty much inaccessible to those who don’t have the codex of passphrases needed to decipher it. Want proof? Pass your buddy some Jacques Derrida and see what he can make of it. Hawking took astro-physics, of all things, and made it accessible. He made it cool, and he has been followed by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who have made the information age a bit more informational. They have had a profound influence upon the rise of geek culture, so to speak.

I hope my son will always feel free to be proud of his intellect. If he does, I hope he some day understand that Stephen Hawking was a part of that.

RIP Dr. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)


Oh, it has been a minute, hasn’t it? Stephen King talks about “Constant Readers.” I have to admit that I have been a “Sporadic Blogger.” Many things have happened. I completed a post-baccalaureate program in writing at the University of California at Berkeley. I had a lot of fun, but I still wanted more. I decided to look at MFA programs, with the additional idea that I might be able to teach in the future.

My day job doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility. My life allows for even less. I sought out low-residency and online MFA programs that would be friendly to genre writers, and that did not have winter residencies. Winters are my busiest time at work. I found three: Emerson College, Western State Colorado University, and Lindenwood University.

The application process has been somewhat time-consuming, since each one wants different sorts of samples and references. So far, I have been accepted to Lindenwood and Emerson. I haven’t heard from Western, as of yet.

Graduate school is a costly thing, and low-residency programs don’t normally have many funding opportunities. Emerson has offered me a small scholarship, but it doesn’t make much of a dent in the financial responsibility. Lindenwood costs less, but doesn’t have quite the same reputation as Emerson or quite the same foothold in the publishing industry. Lindenwood is a general writing program, but can be customized pretty heavily to include genre fiction. Emerson’s MFA in Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing is pretty specific, as evident by the name.

I will spend the next few days pouring over websites, Googling instructors and alumni, reading samples from their books, and trying to make the best decision for me, my family, and my career.

Speaking of my career, I am back to working on the second draft of my novella, Mama’s Little Boy. I wrote many things in Berkeley’s program, including non-fiction and book reviews. I’m going through the submission process for some of that, as well.

ConQuest, Kansas City’s annual science fiction and fantasy convention, is coming up in May. I’ll be there, probably on some panels. Nothing gets you excited to write like spending a few days talking about writing. In addition, Neil Gaiman is coming to Lawrence in November for a lecture. I’ve often said that Gaiman is this generation’s Bradbury, a sort of inspirational writing figure who is both artistic and popular. He loves writing, and that love shines forth from him.

It should be a big year for my development as a genre writer, one way or another.

I can’t wait to see what happens.

The Next Step at The Confabulator Cafe

Some of you may know that I have spent the last year and a half taking writing classes through the University of California at Berkeley. I didn’t write horror in those classes, at least for the most part. The final story that I wrote during the program was titled “The Next Step.” You can read it for free courtesy of The Confabulator Cafe. Given that the program is over, and I am now facing next steps of my own, the title is fitting.

It’s a literary fiction story. You won’t find any of my usual horror elements. It has a different sort of darkness, but it is very me, and I am very proud of it. You can read it here.


A Shadow in the Dark: Cornell Woolrich in the 40’s

Some people know that I have spent the last year or so taking online writing classes through the University of California at Berkeley. This semester, I took a Mystery Fiction class. As part of that class, we were required to work on a larger project. I decided to develop a website dedicated to Cornell Woolrich, a fairly unknown hardboiled writer. Woolrich’s stories were adapted in to a ton of television shows and films. This includes Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window. Woolrich was a contemporary to guys like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. Unfortunately, estate issues let to many of his books going out of print. That is slowly changing.

Woolrich was an interesting guy and an incredible talent when it comes to scenario construction and plotting. I plan on continuing work on the website, even now that the class has finished. Hopefully, it will help Woolrich get a few more readers, and as such, keep his work in print for a long time to come.

You can check out the website here:

As always, thanks for reading.

My Schedule for ConQuest Kansas City 2017

Have I been horrible about posting lately or what? For that I apologize, but we are coming up on one of my favorite times of the year, ConQuest in Kansas City (and my birthday). ConQuest is a long-running science fiction and fantasy convention. As usual, I will be taking part in several panels, which I will list here. You can find the full schedule here.

This is my panel schedule:

Friday (May 26th, otherwise known as my birthday)

3:00 PM – So, You Want to Be in Pictures – Jim Yelton, Leanna Brunner, Bryn Donovan, and I will discuss screenwriting and the applicability of its skill set to writing prose.

5:00 PM – Horror Novels/Short Stories Everyone Should Read – Earline Beebe, Sherri Dean, Jonathan Mayberry, and I recommend the best in horror fiction.

Saturday (May 27th)

11:00 AM – I will be reading, along Donna Wagenblast Munro.

1:00 PM – Comic Book Television and Film: Boom or Bust – Marshall Edwards, Brendan Beebe, Matthew Munro, and I will be talking about comic adaptations. Which are good, which are bad, and when the bubble is going to burst.

3:00 PM – Why Write Short Stories? – Karen Bovenmyer, Sean Demory, Dora Furlong, and I will be talking about the short story genre and why it is still important, despite diminishing markets and diminishing pay.

5:00 PM – The Running Man: The First Hunger Games – Craig Smith, Brian Pigg, Michelle Stutzman, and I will be talking about Stephen King’s The Running Man  and its influence.

Sunday (May 28th)

10:00 AM – Can Writing Be Taught? – Lynette Burrows, Jesse Pringle, Rachael Mayo, Paula Helm Murray, and I will be discussing a writer’s education and debating whether or not writing can truly be taught.

12:00 PM – A Writer’s Library: Books Every Writer Should Read – Lynette Burrows, Brooke Johnson, Rachael Mayo, Paula Helm Murray, and I will be discussing a writer’s library and what books belong in every writer’s toolbox.

It is going to be a busy weekend, but it should be a lot of fun. Hopefully, I will also get some homework done between the paneling and socializing.

If you haven’t made plans to join us yet, check out the website: There will be cosplay, gaming, a dealer room, and an art show in addition to the panels.

I look forward to seeing everyone there.