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Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life

by Terry Brooks

(Del Rey, $22.95, 191 pages, hardcover; March 2003.)

Terry Brooks is one of the most cover scansuccessful fantasy authors writing in the genre today. Beginning with his ground-breaking debut work, The Sword of Shannara, in 1977, Brooks has written 21 books, the first 20 of which were novels. His 21st, Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life is a delightfully enlightening and at times challenging one-sided conversation on what it takes to live the writer's life, and, in the world according to Terry Brooks, the surest way to achieve success while living it.

This book succeeds because of Brooks's ease at negotiating the tricky waters of his own controversial opinions and the oft-explored subject matter on which he bases his text. With persuasive skills honed while living the attorney's life many years ago, Brooks attempts, for example, to convince us it is necessary for aspiring young writers to outline their novels in order to maintain vital cohesion and organization, while admitting that such wildly successful authors as Stephen King and Anne McCaffrey -- among many others -- have gone on record as saying they don't outline theirs, nor do they recommend it be done. By the time he has finished presenting his case, however, the reader will understand the wisdom behind Brooks' advice, even if (s)he chooses to ignore it.

When I first read the book's title and its chapter headings, I was afraid I was going to be in for a seventy thousand-word exercise in self-glorification. "Why I Write", "It's Not About You"; "The World According to Hunter [Brooks's grandson]", "On the Trail of Tolkien", and so on. Time and again, before each chapter, I braced myself for a self-congratulatory essay written by an insecure egotist attempting to justify his press releases (and throw in a bit of "that's my grandson" for good measure). Time and again, at each chapter's conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised at the needlessness of my apprehensions, and how satisfied Brooks had left me, with his warm reminiscences and his sage advice.

This is because Terry Brooks is a master of balance. His strong and mellow opinions hover parallel to the ground on one side of the teeter-totter, balanced on the other by the mellow and strong words he uses to express them.

In the second chapter, Brooks begins by relating the reaction of legendary editor Lester del Rey to the author's manuscript for The Sword of Shannara in del Rey's response letter to Brooks's submission:

Let me say at once that I consider your novel as potentially the best epic fantasy since Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

A sneaky way of slipping a brag into the text, right?

Not really. Brooks skilfully goes about balancing what appears, out of context, to be his mentor's high compliment. First, he titles the chapter "Luck". Then, he explains the manuscript was still in need of much work at the time, and that del Rey was actually attempting to discover whether Brooks was willing to put in the time and do the rewrites needed to transform the draft into the great novel it could be. (Of course, Brooks said yes.) The back portion of the chapter goes toward supporting its title, as Brooks relates several anecdotes illustrating the big part luck played in Sword's success. (As we find out, much of that "luck" came in the residue of the hard work and long hours Judy-Lynn del Rey put into selling the book to reps, booksellers and the media. The rest was near-miraculous timing.) When Brooks puffs up over Sword's climb to the top of The New York Times Trade Paperback Best-Seller List, he tempers it by mentioning that New York Times Book Review critic Frank Herbert was, "neither unfairly critical, nor overly enthusiastic" in his half-page evaluation of Sword.

His anecdotes balance out, also.

Brooks laments over his nightmarish experience writing the novelization ("adaptation") for the movie Hook. He balances this with a chapter on the wonderful experience he had working with George Lucas while novelizing Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace.

Budding writers who might groan at Brooks's formula for success ("Read, read, read. Outline, outline, outline. Write, write, write. Repeat.") will have fun with his instructional chapters, two of which he devotes to his imaginary novel Cat Chaser and its main characters, the heroine Maud Manx and her arch-enemy, Feral Finch. The pretend novel exists to illustrate Brooks's Ten Rules of Writing Fiction, and to soften the pedantic nature of the topic. There is nothing especially new or revealing about these rules -- most writers should be familiar with bromides like "Show, don't tell", "Write what you know" and "Don't bore the reader" -- but, by using them while creating the text of an illustrative fantasy-mystery, Brooks is able to effectively, if not subtly, remind the writer/reader of the rules' value.

The chapters in which he uses his grandson as an object lesson are overly extended. (Small children will remind us of the true nature of fantasy if we let them.) But the anecdotes are charming, nonetheless.

On the surface, one might get the impression that Sometimes the Magic Works is neither fish nor fowl; that Terry Brooks couldn't decide whether to write a memoir or a tutorial, so he did a little of each. Actually, every chapter uses one form to support the other. No lesson comes without a reminiscence, and vice versa. And, even if you come away from STMW uncertain whether the writer's life is for you, you will know for sure that Terry Brooks made the right choice for himself. Because, in the end, he will have enchanted and entertained you, and you might have learned something in the process about The Process. Here, the magic works on just about every page, thanks entirely to the magician who created it.

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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