Benjamin Percy on Grit, Talent, and Telling a Story

Benjamin Percy Being Interviewed on Cleveland Public Library's Auditorium Stage

Percy (left) in conversation with Brad Ricca.

Benjamin Percy can find a lesson about storytelling just about anywhere. In a Batman comic? Of course. While watching Breaking Bad, Goldfinger, Die Hard, or Law & Order? Certainly. What about in the stories of Alice Munro or Flannery O’Connor, or in novels like Catcher in the Rye or Remains of the Day? You bet. While you’re at it, don’t forget Jaws, The Godfather, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Sleepless in Seattle, either. In addition to being a celebrated writer of novels, comics, stories, and essays, Percy is also an equal-opportunity student of story—and he recently shared his expertise during two appearances at Cleveland Public Library.

Percy kicked off the Library’s 2018 Writers & Reader series with an August 3 fiction craft talk followed by his keynote presentation the next day, where he appeared in conversation with Cleveland author Brad Ricca as part of the Inkubator writing conference. During both appearances, Percy guided attendees through lessons surrounding story structure, plot, suspense, and how to create a compelling narrative, all while referencing a wide range of books, stories, films, comics, and television shows that can act as teachers for aspiring writers.

Read on for some highlights from Percy’s craft talk and keynote, where he offered advice on everything from outlining, writer’s block, structuring chapters, developing a writing schedule, rejection, and more:

On first lines and grabbing the reader’s attention: “When I ask what makes a great first line, I really mean what makes a great story. You want this world to dissolve [for the reader]. To do that, you have to grab the reader by the throat. There should be a mystery, a question mark implied by end of first line. That’s so essential. Give them just enough so they want to keep going.”

On developing habits as a writer: “It’s important for writers to have habits. Maybe there’s a certain album or playlist you listen to, a Buddha you rub the belly of, whatever, to reach the ‘it’ place when three hours are gone and you don’t know it and you have 10 pages and you don’t know where they came from. That’s the good stuff.”

On the importance of having a schedule: “You have to write around your life. Maybe that’s Tuesday and Thursday morning for two hours. You have to have a schedule and communicate that schedule to the people in your life so they hold you accountable.”

On using outlines when writing fiction: “I always have an outline, even if I don’t follow it exactly. It’s like Dumbo’s magic feather—he doesn’t need it to fly, but it comforts him. Plenty of authors don’t outline and win Pulitzers. But for me, I need an outline. Know your ending before you begin. Know the formula. Stray from it, but know it. At least know the brightest stars in the constellation.”

On talent vs. grit: “I was never the most talented writer in workshop. Talent is one thing, grit is another. You have to have a combination of both.”

On writer’s block: “I never have writer’s block because I’m always working on so many different projects. If I get stuck, I go work on something else, and then I come back [to the first project] with renewed enthusiasm.”

On the literary fiction vs. genre fiction: “Literary [writers] can err on the side of emotional well and forget the story. Genre writers can err on the side of narrative propulsion and forget to give main character a core wound. I fell in love with literary fiction, but I never fell out of love with genre. I became a fan of stories that were neither fish nor fowl, of writers like Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Octavia Butler.”

On how to structure a novel chapter (or a scene in a short story): “Design your chapters around cliffhangers. Don’t introduce and then resolve trouble [all within the same chapter/scene].”

On studying the work of other writers: “There’s a value in rereading. I read one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories over and over and made a blueprint of it. Ask yourself, ‘What kind of novel am I trying to write?’ Then find it is canonical cousin and read it, reread it. Make a blueprint and study it.”

On the internet and social media: “The internet in theory is a great thing. It’s democratic and brings people together, allows voices to be heard that would otherwise be silent. But it also breeds pollution, divisiveness, anger. We’re addicted to it. Think about how often our faces are lit by screens. It disturbs me. What it’s doing to our attention and our ability to think deeply? You rely on your phone like a prosthetic cerebrum . . . When writers say they need time for work, well—get off your social media.”

On writing comics and efficiency: “Writing comics makes me a better novelist. A comic is twenty pages, and something about the restriction of comics makes me excel. As an exercise, try paneling your story—it can show you how little happens, how little forward movement there might be.”

On the key to suspense: “Withhold information. That’s the key to suspense. Create temporary blindness. Bring us to the moment of crisis and tear us away from it.”

On rejection: “Rejection never ends. Rejection is a common theme in all writers’ lives. You have to reject the rejection.”

On literary prizes: “I’m not going to win a Pulitzer. I made that decision when I wrote a werewolf novel.”

On writing fiction vs. nonfiction and emotional investment: “Writing nonfiction is what stabs my heart. When I write fiction, I look to stab the reader in the heart.”

On the importance of writing conferences: “The world doesn’t want you to write. Your neighbor, cousin, and colleagues don’t care if you write. Conferences let writers come together with [other] people who believe in stories and the way they can change the world . . . That’s why I’m glad conferences like [the Inkubator] exist.”

To learn more about Percy and to view Cleveland Public Library and Literary Cleveland’s Facebook Live discussion of his work, please read “Benjamin Percy Set to Thrill Clevelanders August 3-4.” For more information about the Inkubator writing conference, please read “Cleveland’s Literary Renaissance.”

Finally, to learn more about the authors still to come Cleveland Public Library’s 2018 Writers & Readers series, please visit the Writers & Readers page.