Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing
(Del Rey, $22.95, 191 pages, hardcover; March 2003.)
Terry Brooks is one of the most 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.
fantasy authors writing in the genre today. Beginning with his ground-breaking
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
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
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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