THRILL ME: ESSAYS ON FICTION, By Benjamin Percy, Reviewed by Maya Wesman

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction

Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press

October 2016

ISBN 978-1-55597-759-7

184 pages

Reviewed by MAYA WESMAN 

Benjamin Percy’s book Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is a joy to read. As a writer, I am always looking for insight from other writers, especially those who are experienced, published, and seem to have a love of passing on the craft. Percy outlines this book in sections that focus on different aspects of writing fiction, making it easy to pick up and read just one chapter in a sitting. The chapters are short, contained essays that not only provide a witty explanation of how to execute certain things within your own writing, but are written in a style that I have yet to read in any other book about craft. This book really is something wonderful.

Right from the beginning Percy dives into the distinction between written works that are considered “literary”, and those that he says are interesting and attention grabbing. He outlines his love of reading as a young child, and how he was always drawn to the books about monsters, aliens, robots, dragons, and everything in between. He discusses the unfortunate disparity between what the literary community seems to see as worth reading (literature) due to its highly intelligent themes and deep messages, and what the community seems to view as rather pedestrian writings (genre), that serve only to entertain young children who have yet to reach the ability to grasp, and truly appreciate “great literature”.

In response, Percy says that while that “great literature” is in fact great, it often loses what he calls the ability to “thrill’. Being the basis for the title of this book, Percy’s support of thrilling content in literature is a welcome change to the conversation that, for years, has been dominated by voices in favor of “classic literature”. Now I’m not saying that you don’t have thrilling parts of classic works like Lord of the Flies, but that’s not quite what Percy is looking for. What Percy prescribes for this ‘thrill deficiency’ is more along the lines of epic, high fantasy, and hard sci-fi. He’s looking for things more like the Wheel of Time series than Of Mice and Men.

Percy’s Thrill Me, extends the conversation within the literary community to include those who simply love to read engaging, exciting books that serve to address people’s sense of wonder and imagination, allowing readers of all ages, interests, backgrounds, and experiences to engage with one another about a common love of excitement that seems to jump right out of the pages.

Meet the blogger:
MAYA WESMAN is a recent BFA graduate from Hamline University with a Creative Writing major. She loves writing fantasy and science fiction, and one day hopes to author children’s books. She believes that through stories we can explore what it really means to be humans in a complex world.

 

Writing is not the WORST: Advice from Parks and Recreation, By Rebecca Higgins

Writing is not the WORST: Advice from Parks and Recreation, By Rebecca Higgins

Let’s face it. Writing can definitely feel like the WORST (P.S. You get a million and five extra credit points if you read that in a Jean-Ralphio voice.). You are alone in your room or maybe you have a sleeping cat on your lap like me, and  you’re in the constantly cycle of writing, rewriting and editing. It becomes incredibly overwhelming. Parks and Recreation will calm some of those nerves!

  1. Setting

I know, I know, you’ve heard this rant before but we’re talking about Pawnee, Indiana! Since Parks and Rec centralizes around the government in a small town in Indiana, the setting plays a huge role as it decides what problems will arise. What would Pawnee be without Little Sebastian, being fourth in obesity or the Sweetums company? Pawnee would be an unoriginal town that didn’t create conflict. So what did the writers do? They started with the rubric of a standard town and put specific, concrete quirks on top of it to make it unique. You don’t have to start from scratch, you can use your hometown.

  1. Characters

The characters are so strong in Parks and Recreation it blows my mind. You can read the script and not know the names of the characters and still know exactly who said it. Each character has their own vulnerabilities. Even Ron Swanson, the definition of masculinity has his weaknesses. He loses control when around any of his ex-wives. Without this, he would just be strong all the time and be boring.

  1. Secondary Characters (supporting cast)

Okay, so this is kinda piggybacking off number two, but if your secondary characters aren’t engaging and unique then there’s nothing for your main characters to work with. Each secondary character poses an obstacle for the main characters. Councilman Jamm is constantly messing things up for Leslie and Jean-Ralphio annoys everyone. But these characters also need to be round. Everything secondary characters do needs to reflect who they are.

  1. Plot/motivation

Everything is intentional and purposeful. Everything needs to be there for a reason. There’s nothing in Parks and Rec that happens just to happen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen submissions get denied because something about it was not purposeful or intentional. I used to be the writer that would put in fluff things that I thought were cool and the reader could just figure out whatever it meant, even though I didn’t. Don’t make this same mistake! I did not know what I was doing! I’ve learned: be intentional and embrace your work and what you want it to do.

 

Parks and Rec is the best. Just make sure everything in your work is uniquely yours and you will do amazing things. If you get stuck, just watch this stellar example of setting, character, and plot development. I mean, it is basically research. That’s what I will be doing!

Meet the blogger:

REBECCA HIGGINS is a recent graduate of Hamline University with her B.F.A. in Creative Writing program. Her work can be found in Canvas, The Fulcrum, The Oracle and American High School Poets. Rebecca has worked with Red Bird Chapbooks, Redleaf Press, Sparkhouse Family, and now, Runestone. She can often be found cuddling with her cat, Remmy, while of course watching Parks and Recreation.

 

Queer Eye for the Straight Writer: How to Better Write LGBT+ Characters, By Connor Byrne

Queer Eye for the Straight Writer: How to Better Write LGBT+ Characters, By Connor Byrne

“Write what you know.”

An old adage for writers going back to who knows when that basically means writing stuff you’re familiar with is easier. Which is bullshit.

If that’s the case, nobody should ever write a character different from them.

In pursuit of writing diverse characters, I’ve noticed that I’ve been less than impressed with a number of portrayals of queer people, people in the LGBTQIA+ community.

I’m here, I’m queer, and I want to talk about how straight cisgender writers can better write queer characters.

  1. Being queer shouldn’t be the only aspect of the character’s identity. (I emphasize this because it’s possibly the single most important – and off-putting – mistake I’ve seen people make).

Don’t treat being queer as a fashion statement or something “exotic”. If there is nothing else you take from what I’ve written, it’s that queer people have personalities outside being queer. If you’re listing off a character’s personality and attributes and the first thing that comes to mind is “queer” you should take a look at their characterization and work on it more. Queer people have all kinds of personalities – just like straight and cisgender people. Just as  different subcultures exist in cisgender and heterosexual communities, and equal number exist in the queer community as well.

  1. Presenting queerness as something “other”.

Queer characters are sometimes included in a piece as some kind of statement or a driving force of characterization or narrative – making the focus on the queerness itself – as opposed to it being integrated organically as one aspect of a multifaceted character. When straight people are in a piece it’s not about them being straight, when queer people are in a piece, this tends to be used as a kind of “selling point” as to why it’s worth reading, a main focus of the plot.

Thanks for trying to compress my identity into a blurb on the back of a movie box.

Sarcasm aside, a similar question to the one I mentioned above should be asked: Is this character queer as a natural part of their identity or is it being inserted artificially for some other reason?

  1. Forcing gay relationships on otherwise straight characters.

This happens a lot in fanfiction – characters who are established by the actual work as being straight suddenly having a revelation and realizing how horrible the opposite sex is and becoming gay – or even taking a character’s gender expression and running amok with it, deciding that they’re “really” trans.

It’s demeaning, it’s infantilizing, it’s (again!) making it all about them being queer. I don’t mind it if it’s a natural progression of a close relationship, but having two characters suddenly become “gay for each” other without a reason beyond shipping brings about a mental groan whenever I see it.

  1. Oversexualizing the situation.

This is a trend I’ve noticed when reading when it comes to straight people writing queer characters: Men writing lesbians, and women writing gay men, tend to oversexualize the relationships for the straight audience. Both straight men and straight women tend to focus on the sexual act aspect of same-sex relationships and unwittingly turn it into a fetish show for fellow straight people.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is yaoi. While I do appreciate representation, it’s painfully obvious that it’s written by straight women for straight women and that gay relationships are being turned into fetish fuel without any regard to the individual characters themselves. Yuri is also an offender – the women aren’t gay because of any organic aspect of their sexuality, it’s all about the male gaze and sexualizing them for straight men.

I realize that all this might be begging the question “So if there’s all this stuff that I could do wrong, should I just avoid writing queer characters altogether?”

I don’t think so. I think, if you look back over what I’ve spoken of, lots of it focuses on queer characters being treated as tools or commodities rather than actual characters or people with their own stuff going on, unique personalities and life goals, talents and ambitions. My best advice? Write queer people as, well, people, and you’ll be fine.

Meet the blogger:
CONNOR BYRNE is constantly lost in the world of words, words, words and not enough in the physical, but in this field that’s probably a good thing. He wants to be a fiction writer but generally gravitates towards poetry. Weird how that works.

Tips for Succeeding As a Writer After College, By Courtney Yokes

Tips for Succeeding As a Writer After College, By Courtney Yokes

Life after college is daunting, especially for those of us who are graduating soon. Currently I’m a senior and will be graduating with a BFA in creative writing. I’m nervous about life after college, and I know I’m not the only student who worries about becoming successful. So I spent a fair amount of time researching tips, suggestions, even guidelines for life after college and created a list of my own. Here it goes:

  1. Create your own writers’ group.

After college you won’t have assignments or the classroom environment as a way to get others to read your work and provide feedback. Having a writer’s group is a great way to maintain friendships, provide networking opportunities, and support each other as well as other local writers.

But who do you ask? Well, I’ve asked several of my classmates to create a writers’ group with me. Some of them are good friends of mine, others I want to become better friends with. I’ve gotten to know these people throughout most of my classes and I know we all have different writing styles, tastes, voices etc. which is great because having diversity will best serve everyone. I don’t want a writer’s group where everyone is the same.

I want people I can trust to give me feedback about my work in a professional manner. And I know my classmates can do that, because they have all year. So my suggestion is ask your classmates. You know how they work and how they handle critiquing. Plus, they probably just want someone that can rely on too.

  1. Further your skills.

We’ve all experienced analyzing manuscripts and assigned readings, commutating both written and verbal, and having to be detail oriented. The list goes on. We’ve got great skills to highlight in our resumes from having attended a liberal arts college. However, just because we earned that fancy degree doesn’t mean learning has to stop. If you want to further your education then go ahead, there are some great graduate programs offered in the twin cities. But grad school isn’t the only option.

After graduation I plan to further my writing skills, however I thought the only option was grad school. Though, I don’t want to be in school again full time. I needed something I could do while working towards that dream career of mine. So, I found out there are classes offered at the Loft Literary Center, which were really helpful and beneficial. It’s also a great way to network and become part of the local writing community. My point is, the possibilities are endless, and they don’t stop after graduation.

  1. Take time for things beyond work.

Yes, getting a job after college is the main goal, but not the only one. I think all of us graduates are horrified at the thought of working at McDonalds or Target with a four year degree, I know I am. But having a successful job isn’t my only goal in life.

I want to actually have time to read again, for fun. No more assigned readings. I also want to write for fun, let my creative juices flow. Not because I have some huge project due soon. I want to travel somewhere outside of my college campus, even if on a budget. Plus, traveling is great inspiration and research for writing.

However, I think many of us are preoccupied with getting that dream job to even consider these things. Yet, they’re just as important. You don’t want to get burnt out on work. You should also remember to dedicate time to events, places, hobbies, or even people that make you happy.

During this time in our college careers it’s easy to compare, especially when your classmates already have a job lined up, or some great internship, or a publishing contract. Though, don’t compare yourself to other graduates and writers. Everyone needs to find their own path at their own time. It’s important not to get caught up in comparison. I try to remind myself that it’s about when the timing is best for me and not others. Remember, you can always work towards improving your situation.

 

Graduation is scary, nerve-racking, but it’s an important stepping stone in life and there are many more to come. But be proud of your degree and the dedication it represents. Good luck all future graduates!

Meet the blogger:
COURTNEY YOKES is a recent Hamline University graduate who primarily writes fiction and poetry. Her work as been seen in The Fulcrum and The Rapids Review. Like any writer she works hard to build her publishing credentials, connections, and most importantly her skills as a writer. The world is overwhelming and she’s just looking to make her mark on it.

RABBIT CAKE, By Annie Hartnett, Reviewed by Alex Werner

Rabbit Cake

Annie Hartnett

Tin House 

March 2017

ISBN 9781941040560

377 pages

Reviewed by ALEX WERNER

Rabbit Cake is Annie Hartnett’s debut novel about a young girl named Elvis and the details of her life following her mother’s death. The novel has received praise from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus, and has even been People magazine’s Book of the Week. No doubt Rabbit Cake is a captivating read that focuses on themes of youth, grief, and family that deserves the attention it is receiving.

Rabbit Cake is narrated by a young girl named Elvis Babbitt, who is ten at the story’s beginning but is twelve as she narrates. Right away she tells us that her mother drowned while sleepwalking and that she liked to bake rabbit-shaped cakes for many occasions. Elvis has a sister, Lizzie, who is also a sleep-walker and whose episodes can become almost violent in nature. Elvis fears that her sister may be sent away to St. Cloud’s mental institution and takes it upon herself to ensure that her sister remains safe. However, things look grim for Lizzie after she breaks into a chicken coop one night and almost crawls into an oven on another. As for their father Frank, he has his own ways of displaying his grief, including wearing his wife’s bathrobe around the house and adopting a parrot who can impersonate his dead spouse perfectly. With this somewhat strange cast of characters, the plot is easily able to incorporate many twists and turns as the Babbitt family navigates life with one less member.

Undoubtedly, the strongest theme at the center of Rabbit Cake is the concept of family. The Babbitts have moments where they can be empathetic or bizarre, and either way their story remains captivating. There is often tension between the three Babbitts, with Lizzie’s aggression, Elvis’ loyalty to her, and Frank’s unsuccessful attempts to keep everything under control. Other characters complicate the relationships between the three, including a prospective sister figure, a fleeting crush, and a new girlfriend; yet there is always hope that the Babbitts will come together in the end. Even if each of them may sometimes look outside of their home for comfort, they maintain a special connection with each other inside of it too.  

One of the novel’s strongest assets is its narrator. Choosing to write a story from the perspective of someone so young in order to tackle such a complicated topic definitely lends itself to making the novel seem fresh and innovative. From the very first sentence on the very first page, we can start to get a sense of the type of story we are about to read: “On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake. ‘Ten might not be a great year for you,’ she said, squeezing my shoulder. I couldn’t tell if she was kidding.” We are tuned in to the event that sets everything in motion, the mother’s death, as well as a mention of the novel’s title and an example of how Elvis chooses to narrate. She remembers events in short episodes, and will weave memories of her mother into just about any scenario. It takes a considerable amount of time for Elvis’ grief to become tangible, that is, shedding tears and displaying frustration, but the novel does an excellent job with subtlety to prove that she has been processing her feelings since the start. Even if she chooses to sound factual, she is not without sentiment: from how often she recalls memories of her mother, to how devoted she is to finishing her mother’s book, to how much time she spends piecing together the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death, Elvis has been coping without realizing it.

It is also noteworthy how the novel is divided: each chapter is numbered, with every few marked by a crossed off month and the following month written out next to it. The sense of time progressing is never lost thanks to this device, and it perfectly parallels Elvis’ “grieving chart” prescribed by her guidance counselor. Elvis’ chart had 20 months on it and she chooses to tell her story across them all. This style of organization lends itself well to further developing Elvis’ factual and grounded character. In addition, every few months/every handful of chapters will be grouped into parts, four in total, and each part seems to come along once Elvis’ sister has made a significant change to the plot. While it remains evident throughout the novel that Lizzie has a very influential role in Elvis’ life, noting this way that time is divided adds even more significance to the story’s climax and reminds readers that this story does not only belong to Elvis. It is the story of all of the Babbitts, while just being told through one of them.

Annie Hartnett has written a novel that is clever and memorable. Rabbit Cake carries the voice of an experienced writer, despite only being Hartnett’s debut. She plays around with subtlety that will keep readers looking between the lines for deeper meaning, yet on the surface she invites empathy through every endeavor the Babbitts face. Elvis remains an interesting choice for a narrator, given her youth, tone, and the way that she is able to connect everything in her life together. Although the novel focuses heavily on grief, the importance of family shines through, and as we leave the Babbitts behind we gain a sense of hope that even the toughest of times can pass. 

Meet the blogger:
ALEX WERNER just completed her junior studying Creative Writing at Hamline University. Her focus is fiction and she enjoys the fantasy sub-genre the best. She likes to draw in what free time she has and hopes to be able to provide illustrations for her writing in the future. Her dream is to eventually publish her own novel.

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