Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Thrill Me

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy.

So I may have gone on a bit of a rant a few weeks ago after reading The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson. In it, I complained about Johnson’s insistence that only literary fiction can be considered a valid form of creative expression and his general disdain and dismissive tone whenever discussing non-literary fiction. This really raised my hackles because of my own experience as a creative writing student, where the privileging of literary fiction in the classroom led me to produce work that got me a good grade but didn’t really reflect who I was as a writer. Then I got mad all over again when I read (Woman) Writer by Joyce Carol Oates, whose feminist perspective got me thinking about all the ways that the privileging of literary fiction disadvantages and excludes the work of women and people of color. Grr.

It was a pleasant surprise then to pick up Thrill Me, one of the newest books on my list of “academic” writing books, and discover that it begins with an essay about the author, Benjamin Percy, being discouraged from writing genre fiction as a creative writing student and the effect that this had on him. His story is a bit like my own in that he learned to produce the type of writing the teachers were looking for (to greater success than I did, it sounds like) but ultimately he’s made his career as a genre writer. So ostensibly this is a book that considers genre fiction on equal footing with literary fiction.

And yet.

Before I get to that, let me first say that as an object of study for a project on the role of research in fiction writing, Percy offers something of unique value. In an essay called “Get a Job,” he says this about writing what you know: “So you could write what you know. The problem, of course, is that some people don’t know shit. In which case, flip the rule on its head and know what you write.” Now, having read 20+ books and many, many author interviews and essays on creative writing at this point, I can’t tell you how tired I am of authors offering their own spin on the “write what you know” adage. Everyone has one. Everyone. I’m pretty sure most writers only bring up “write what you know” so they can give you their own take on what the adage should be. FML. But Percy’s inversion is actually one of the more useful and memorable ones I’ve seen. It also gets the heart of why research is a necessary part of the creative writing process.

This is where Percy’s unique contribution comes in because, in talking about the research he himself engages in, he distinguishes between the library-based research he does and the non-library research. For me, this distinction is incredibly important because so much of the research on creative information-seeking up to this point has been framed in ways that treat artists and other creative practitioners as “problem patrons” who are either not using the library at all or are using it wrong. In distinguishing between library and non-library research, Percy shows that the library very much can play a role in the creative process for fiction writers…but that it doesn’t have to. I was actually surprised that he brought up the library at all since so much of what I’ve read about fiction writers’ research points to hands-on and expert research as the favored methods but I’m glad to know more about the role that library resources (or at least resources that a library can provide, even if they are obtained elsewhere) can play in the process.

I do wish Percy said more about how he developed his research process over time. How did he learn to approach experts for knowledge to help create his story? Was there a time when he couldn’t afford hands-on research? If so, what did he do instead? I would have liked to know. Instead, Percy talks about his research process as if it was something that sprung from his creative mind, fully formed. But there must have been a learning process involved.

The information about research isn’t hugely substantial, but like I said, it does add something unique and valuable to what I’ve already found. It also comes toward the end of the book which is a good thing because it helped redeem Percy in my eyes. Up until that point, I was really not with him on a lot of stuff.

I mentioned before that it was a relief to be reading a book which places genre fiction and literary fiction on basically equal footing in terms of value. That relief didn’t last long. Percy’s views on what makes a good story are hella specific and hella rigid. At least as rigid as the views of the literary writers I’ve read up to this point. Annoyingly, he’s also among the many writers (most notably the authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) who will tell you the rules and then acknowledge that Great Writers often break these rules. But that’s okay because they’re Great Writers. You shouldn’t do it because you are not a Great Writer (and, it’s implied, probably never will be).

It could be that I just have a bad attitude at this point because reading so many writing books by so many authors who want to convince you that their advice and their formula is the right one and there can be no other gets…tiring. If nothing else, Percy’s ideas about how to incorporate violence into your story was something I hadn’t read before. But by then he’d already kind of lost me after he held up the sexposition in Game of Thrones as a good example of sharing information with your audience while also giving the characters something to do so that a scene has motion. No. Just no. I have no problem with the premise of the advice, but using this  as an example of a good use of this advice? Frankly, only a straight dude would think so. (Though there are probably plenty of straight dudes who don’t.)

When I started reading Thrill Me, it surprised me that a book like this would find its way on a list of “academic” writing books. Having read it, I’m less surprised. For all that Percy clearly values genre fiction, which is a good thing, the officious tone of the book makes it feel a lot less different from the more literary-focused ones than it should. That said, it has value to my research so I’m glad that I had a chance to read it.

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