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.

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.


Whoops: A Cornell Woolrich Project

As many of you know, new speculative fiction has taken a backseat over the last year in favor of more writing training. I’ve been taking online classes through the University of California at Berkeley toward a certificate in writing.

As a few of you know, I just accidentally posted part of a project for my Mystery Fiction class to my old website. So, here is a quick explanation for those of you who were quick enough to click the link before I unpublished it. I will be using my old site as a backbone for my final project. I accidentally sent the first page out on all of my old promotional channels. The website is titled A Shadow in the Dark and explores the decade of work produced by hard-boiled pulp author Cornell Woolrich during the 1940’s. For those of you who are thinking “I should know that name…,” he is sort of the other guy when it comes to hard-boiled detective fiction.

Everyone knows Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but Cornell Woolrich gets forgotten. Should you know him? Absolutely, but probably from Hollywood since many of his books are out of print. Rear Window? That’s Woolrich. Original Sin? Woolrich. No Man of Her Own? Woolrich. His stories became inspiration for episodes of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Boris Karloff Mystery Playhouse, and many others.

My project will focus on Woolrich’s work during the 1940’s, which was his most prolific decade for crime writing. It will be finished by the end of the semester. At that point, I’ll be sure to drop the link on my site. Until then, I’m sorry about the early peek.

On another note, things are still happening. My story “A Dead Man’s Dirt” is slated for Volume 2 of Let Us In from Time Alone Press. It should be out in the next couple of months. I’ll keep you posted.

I start a class on developing the novel in a couple of days. I’m not sure what project I am going to work on during the class. I’ve bounced back and forth between a couple of ideas. Whatever I choose, I am sure it will be fun.

World Science Fiction Convention Schedule

HeaderImage_092015MidAmeriCon II is coming up sooner than you would think. The full programming schedule has been released on the MidAmeriCon website. You can find it HERE.

I’ll have a reading on Thursday morning at 10:30. My plan is to read “Bottoms Up” which recently appeared in 9 Tales at the World’s End and will be part of a longer novel titled The Rest of Us.

I’ll also be speaking on panels with a number of great writers. Here is my schedule:

Austen and Shelley

Sunday 13:00 – 14:00, 2504B (Kansas City Convention Center)
A look at the roots of so much science fiction and fantasy in the works of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. While Shelley’s Frankenstein is an obvious predecessor to science fiction and horror, Austen’s literature has also had a tremendous influence on modern authors.
Jack Campbell Jr., Heather Rose Jones, Mary Robinette Kowal (M), L. Rowyn, Evey Brett

The Future of Forensics

Thursday 12:00 – 13:00, 2209 (Kansas City Convention Center)
As part of “The Future of” series we look at Forensics.

Forensic scientists analyze scientific evidence in criminal investigations and as with all science the methods available grow and change and improve on a regular basis. This panel of experts discuss what is current and lead to where it might go next.
Jason Sanford, Gerard Ackerman (M), Jack Campbell Jr., Diana Rowland, Anna Yeatts

Utopia, Dystopia and the Default?

Thursday 14:00 – 15:00, 2502A (Kansas City Convention Center)
Certain kinds of imagined futures are currently dominating the SF field, to an impressive and interesting degree. For example, we usually find settings in either grand interstellar deep space futures or trapped-on-Earth dystopias with the rare exception. What about the futures that land somewhere in-between these who extremes? Is the “middle future” to reminiscent of the Golden Age of SF? Is it coming back? Is it too close to our current/probable future? Let’s discuss the “middle future” in SF, how it compares to earlier eras in SF, and where it falls on the Utopia/Dystopia spectrum.
Jack Campbell Jr. (M), Thomas K. Carpenter, Sarah Frost, Mr. Peadar O Guilin

Zen Scavenger Hunt

Sunday 11:00 – 12:00, 2503B (Kansas City Convention Center)
Panelists each bring seven items. Audience members ask for a type of item, a la a standard scavenger hunt. The panelists will then have to show one of the items they’ve brought and try to convince the audience that their item is the best match for what was requested.
Gail Carriger, Jack Campbell Jr. (M), Mark Oshiro, Howard Tayler

Social Media, or, Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel

Saturday 13:00 – 14:00, 2502B – A/V (Kansas City Convention Center)
Social media is addictive. So much so it can impact upon the work of authors. Our panelists discuss the importance of limiting themselves, differentiating between Social Media interactions for personal and professional reasons, and maybe even inspiration gleaned from Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat and the myriad sites available.
Melissa F. Olson (M), Jack Campbell Jr., J.R. Johansson, John Scalzi, Mur Lafferty

A Love Letter (sort of) to Hastings

I bought my first screenwriting books (written by the legendary Syd Field) at Hastings. This began my foray in to creative writing. Prior to that, I was a visual and performance artist. The drum set and guitar sit dusty in the basement, and I haven’t picked up a paintbrush in years. My keyboard, on the other hand, is missing letters because I’ve typed so much.

I bought Zen and the Art of Writing at Hastings. Ray Bradbury’s passion for writing rubbed off on me, and I went running to the word processor to write out my dreams and fears with reckless abandon. My process is still heavily-influenced by Bradbury, even if my style has changed over the years.

I worked at Hastings for two months in college, just before moving to Lawrence. I spent almost as much as I made, thanks to an amazing discount program, and the readership program gave me a good collection of classic books that provided the base of my extra-curricular literary education. I still have copies of Great Expectations and The Count of Monte Cristo that are missing covers, the price of their liberation from the store shelves.

I spent my lunch breaks walking through the stacks at Hastings, smelling the books and trying to soak in words, as if each aisle was a pool filled with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. When I got down on writing, or felt that things were hopeless, I saw all of these books by all of these writers who found the shelves, and it brought me back to work. You can’t place a value on that, but I bought it at the price of a mocha frappaccino and the occasional book.

I had my first book signing at Hastings. I sat in the front of the store, heard my name announced over the PA, and talked to every customer that came within earshot. I was nervous, but excited. I met other writers. I sold a couple of books. Mostly, I got used to selling myself as a writer to the public.

I sold more copies of All Manner of Dark Things at my local Hastings than anywhere else other than Amazon. For six months, I rode the end cap display, until I was displaced by a number of books by politicians in order to capitalize on the primary election season. I sold several copies, including one to a Hastings employee. She asked me to sign it when I came in for one of my lunchtime strolls. It gives me a thrill to know that complete strangers in my community have my book on their shelf.

Over the last few months, I’ve seen the signs. More used and clearance books than new. Large, empty shelf spaces. Fewer employees. Earlier this week, I saw the story that I feared would be coming. Hastings will have declare bankruptcy if they do not find a buyer. Another bookstore down.

As much as I would like for someone to buy and save my local Hastings, the truth is that the model is out-dated and the products are over-priced in comparison to their online counter-parts. They can’t compete. Few can. If this is the end of Hastings, as it was for Borders before it, as it probably will be for Barnes and Noble unless they do something drastic, then I have to say thank you to them for being there.

Hastings is a chain, but they always treated me like a local business would. They contained so many things that I loved, and as a result, I was able to pursue those loves. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in their stores, and even though that wasn’t enough, their closure will leave a vacancy beyond the strip mall storefront that they occupy.

No more random CD’s or DVD’s that I never knew I wanted. No more midnight releases. No more comics. No more lunchtime book section strolls among the works of my peers and idols. No more book signings. No more hope of seeing my name in the horror section next to Ramsey Campbell, rather than in the local author section. That’s a lot of no mores.

I hope they save it, but if they don’t, then I am thankful for the memories. Hear’s to you Hastings. We’ll always have Lawrence and Ames.

ConQuest Wrap-up and $0.99 Sale

My collection, All Manner of Dark Things is still on sale for 99 cents on Kindle through Monday. You can check it out here.

ConQuest is over. I’m tired, but I had a good time. There are a lot of people that I only see at ConQuest, although with WorldCon in Kansas City, 2016 might be an exception. The panels were a lot of fun. The crowd was smaller than last year, but was no less passionate about Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. I served on several panels and had a reading. While my body and wallet are feeling the sting of a long weekend, I can’t wait for next year.

I picked up some vintage copies of Weird Tales and The Magazine of Horror. I drank and ate and talked about everything from books to fandom. It was a productive weekend.

To everyone that made ConQuest memorable, I sincerely thank you. The creative batteries have been recharged, and now it is time to get back to work. I have critiques due for my Berkeley writing class and books that need to be written.

Let’s get to it.


“Patchwork” in Typhon: A Monster Anthology


A wtyphonhile back, I took part in a story contest at LitReactor, a literary website that I frequent. The contest required us to produce an original monster and use our hometown as a setting. While my hometown area has always been a source of inspiration for me, “Patchwork” is the first story that I wrote with the geography of Clearfield in my head. That changed a bit in the re-writes leading up to the story’s inclusion in All Manner of Dark Things and the setting changed to that magical Fairfax place that lives in my head. I’ve always been proud of my patchwork monster that steals its bodyparts from its victims. The story that I wrote one afternoon in the corner booth of a busy bar has continued to be one of my favorites.

Now, you can read “Patchwork” in an anthology full of great monsters, inspired by the father of all monsters Typhon, and brought to you by Pantheon Magazine. If you are unfamiliar with Pantheon, they put out a spectacular product, and Typhon is no exception. You can pick up a copy at Amazon or Createspace.

If you use Createspace, be sure to enter coupon code CFAK5JBZ for 15% off.