Over at the Ploughshares blog, Seattle writer Ian Denning wrote an excellent piece about Benjamin Percy's how-to-write guide, Thrill Me. Denning recalled my review of Percy's craft talk at the Hugo House from last year, in which I was thoroughly unimpressed by the unoriginality of Percy's advice. Denning makes the argument that while Percy's advice may lean toward the oft-repeated, his "good-but-not-groundbreaking craft book" could serve as "a cheerleader" to comfort an aspiring writer.
Coincidentally, I also read Thrill Me a couple weekends ago. Though I'm not one of those book critics with a drawer full of rejected novels, I've always found how-to-write books to be mesmerizing. I've read dozens of them. I enjoy their aspirational tone. I like the way they promote the idea of writing as a craft, as something that requires consideration and work and practice. They help me think about the way authors approach books, which helps me consider the way I approach books as a reviewer.
Thrill Me, as Denning notes, is very similar in tone to the craft lecture that Percy delivered at Hugo House last year. (In fact, the talk Percy gave appears in the book.) That means you shouldn't expect too much originality here. If you've read other how-to-write books, you won't find anything too thrilling in Thrill Me. Instead, you'll be told to read deeply and carefully, to show and not to tell, to "Mine your past" and "Never give a generic desciption." We're advised to not get too gory in the writing of horror scenes because the action in a reader's imagination is usually ghastlier than anything any writer could ever portray. Percy says that the stakes must be high and that conflict is the heart of story. It's all been said before, and better.
That said, as Denning points out, there's a place for this kind of generic advice. If, like me, you find comfort in reading about writing, Percy's boundless energy for generic writing advice would likely serve as an inspiration to you. And if you've never read a writing advice book, Thrill Me does cover all the basics; this is a book that could change a sheltered young writer's life, assuming that writer then goes out and finds texts by more imaginative and stylistically gifted writers to guide their way.
Look: everybody needs the basics explained to them every now and again. It helps to break a craft down to its simplest components and see how everything works. In that respect, Thrill Me is a terrific guide — a remedial class led by a patient and enthusiastic teacher. If you're looking for nuance or originality or artfulness, you'll want to dig a little further into the how-to-write section of the bookstore, but if you're looking for someone to tell you what you already know in a gentle and affirmative voice, Thrill Me is the book for you.