The Craft of the Uncanny: Lessons in Storytelling from Percy, Gaiman, and Delany

Every writer creates stories differently, and finding a method that works best for you is an essential part of being a writer. There are plenty of ways to learn about the craft, from workshops to creative writing programs to online courses. Any and all of these can impart a sense of form, offer examples of stories or novels that illustrate particular narrative strengths, and help a writer fortify their own abilities and aesthetics. Another way to explore the craft of storytelling is, of course, to read about it. Over the years and decades, numerous writers have offered their thoughts and advice based on what they’ve learned–and, in some cases, taught.

When factoring in advice that focuses primarily on writing about the speculative, the fantastic, or the uncanny, even more wrinkles develop. But there are a small group of writers who’ve tackled the subject–most recently, Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. Percy’s novels have encompassed the realistic and the speculative: his The Wilding explored the legacies of trauma and the nature of violence in realistic terms, while his Red Moon took on similar issues in a world similar to our own where a condition like lycanthropy is widespread across the human population. He’s also in the midst of a run as the writer of DC Comics’ Green Arrow. In other words, Percy’s storytelling chops extend across various media and genres.

In an afterword, Percy mentions that many of the essays in this book were first written as lectures for the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop and Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. Some of the essays focus on specific aspects of writing: how best to handle violence, for instance, or what repetition can bring to your novel or story. He writes about how the daily routine in jobs can lend credence to fiction, and explores the different ways that a writer can reveal backstory and details of a plot. (This includes one of the only arguments I’ve come across in defense of Game of Thrones’s “sexposition.”) Throughout, Percy cites examples from his life, showing the ways in which storytelling dovetails with lived experience.

Early on, Percy talks about the appeal of the gripping in fiction, of seeking out books that lead him “to escape, to supplement the boredom of one life with the excitement and dagger-sharp danger of another.” He writes about how his own reading habits have evolved, and the reason he situates a central question at the heart of whatever story he’s drawn to, whether realistic or fantastic: “What happens next? is why most people read,” he writes. And some of his most useful advice comes when he mines the territory between the uncanny and the quotidian. His essay “Making the Extraordinary Ordinary” cites stories by the likes of Kelly Link and Karen Russell to demonstrate the ways in which character can be revealed even in the most surreal of settings. It’s a smart and necessary argument, and it’s one that Percy is highly qualified to make.

Percy’s book is a fine choice for readers and writers looking for a holistic take on writing that spans genres and styles. There are several others that fall into a similar vein, including Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing: 7 Essays, 4 Letters, & 5 Interviews and Neil Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. Like Percy, Gaiman and Delany have also worked across genres, different forms of media, and in distinct literary communities. And each one offers a massive array of recommended reading to take with you once you’ve finished their particular volume.

The necessity of reading is at the heart of Delany’s approach. While he writes about the importance of reading certain storied literary figures–Balzac, Dickens, and Melville among them–he places equal importance on contemporary writers as well, citing the likes of Darryl Pinckney, Michael Cunningham, and Michael Moorcock. Given that Delany’s work encompasses everything from stark realism to deeply constructed far-future civilizations, these thoughts on craft are both generous and as expansive as one might expect from him–in other words, they’re as relevant to a writer inspired by The Einstein Intersection as they might be to someone who’s chosen his Dark Reflections as an aesthetic touchstone.

As the subtitle of his book suggests, Delany’s approach here is comprehensive—the essays include everything from recommended reading lists to examples of the different ways a scene can be written to emphasize certain aspects of the story. The letters allow Delany to expound on some of the same themes in a more specific context, as well as delving into questions of literary community. And the interviews themselves are also revealing, sometimes exploring the minutiae of literary movements, styles, or theories. Given Delany’s long history of teaching creative writing, this book at times feels like a distillation of his accumulated knowledge; it’s a dense and rewarding work with plenty to offer.

The work collected in Gaiman’s book originates from a host of spaces: everything from reportage to speeches to introductions to the works of others. But here, too, there’s plenty of insights to be gleaned about the craft of writing. His exploration of what makes John James’s Votan and Other Novels tick, and how James incorporates aspects of mythology and history into it, is incredibly instructive, as is Gaiman’s take on what one can get (for good and for ill) from Rudyard Kipling’s short fiction in the present day. One of A View From the Cheap Seats’ sections is dedicated to several essays on fairy tales, many of which connect back to Gaiman’s novel Stardust; here, too, one can see the ways in which theory becomes practice.

For all that the title of this volume might seem self-effacing, it’s also accurate: views from the cheap seats generally let you see an event in full: the entirety of the action along with the crowd’s reaction. Some of the most moving pieces in the collection take on the entirety of a life–Gaiman’s essays on C. Anthony Martignetti and Terry Pratchett left me deeply mindful of their impact on him and of the qualities of their work.

There is no one perfect route for instruction as a writer, but reading broadly and studying the craft can go a long way. Percy, Delany, and Gaiman each take decidedly different approaches to writing; a work by one of them might well take the form of a meticulously constructed short story, a sprawling and philosophical novel, or the latest installment in a serialized adventure. There’s plenty that one can learn from each author; each of their volumes is a worthwhile addition to one’s library on craft, and each stands as a gripping read in and of themselves.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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