Before getting into the meat of the actual book, I thought this might be a good spot to point out an observation I’ve discovered in the books on writing that I’ve read so far. It may not be a requirement to be egotistical to be a successful professional writer, but it certainly seems to help. Perhaps it is because they spend so much time pretending to be or writing about someone else, but it seems like any opportunity where it MIGHT be appropriate to talk about themselves, they do so, often in the most self-aggrandizing fashion they can. This isn’t just an observation from the books on writing I’ve read thus far, it’s also from meeting various authors at conventions. (I should, however, mention that there are definitely many exceptions to this notion… it just doesn’t feel like it, sometimes.) I’m not trying to single Terry out, either. He is no worse (and in many ways better) than a lot of others I’ve had the chance to read or talk to. Honestly, I think my frustration just stems from reading a chain of these books, and Mr. Brooks is really nothing more than the proverbial straw.
In the tradition of other books of its ilk (such as On Writing and Bird by Bird), Sometimes the Magic Works is more a memoir of a writer than it is a book on writing. There is a lot to be said for this style of book. The subject material is kept interesting and engaging through personal anecdotes, and their autobiographical story is inherently encouraging (no one lives a charmed life, after all). The drawback, of course, being that it is more up to the reader to glean the useful information out of the text than it would be with more cut and dry books on writing. By and large, I think that tradeoff is a worthwhile one.
Sometimes the Magic Works is broken into separate chapters that largely work as self-contained essays (there is the occasional reference to an earlier chapter’s comments, but otherwise are encapsulated nicely). The reading was informal and amusing, making for a quick read. Rather than break it down chronologically, Brooks breaks up the book according to the subject he’s talking about. For instance, one of the early chapters is called “Luck”, which discusses when his first novel was accepted, by none other than Lester Del Rey, who personally took him under his wing and made the book (The Sword of Shannara) the flagship fantasy novel under the fledgling Del Rey imprint. Had his submission been a few weeks earlier or later, that flagship role would have gone to a different author, and we may have never heard of Terry Brooks at all. That is a prime example of Luck, with a capital “L”. There is no amount of planning or skill that can account for fortuitous timing. (The encouraging flipside of this story: it points out that these sorts of lucky breaks DO happen, fate will help you, but you have to do a little legwork as well, like writing a good book and submitting it.)
Another chapter that was interesting to read was called “It’s Not About You”. This chapter talked about his very first book signing, sitting next to the esteemed A.J. Budrys, a well known and respected veteran author. He’d had these grand dreams of how book signings would be… which were promptly squashed thoroughly by the reality of the signing: he didn’t sell or sign a single book the entire day. This was a pretty humbling experience for him, and made Terry really reassess his idea of what book signings were about. What he decided ultimately was that book signings are about making a connection with your readers (or potential readers). It’s not about being adored, or having swarms of fans around, hanging on your every word. It’s about talking with another person and making a connection with them that they (and hopefully yourself as well) will remember later. I can really get behind this idea. It is a far more rewarding experience, in my opinion, than it would be to sit around acting like an ass because you think everyone there is a fanboy.
On the topic of actual writing, it was nice to get an alternative viewpoint to the other authors I’ve read: neither King and Goldberg don’t use outlines for their writing, but Brooks swears by them. His stance is this: because of outlining the story, plot, characters, and locations before writing the actual story, he is able to keep his first draft far more cohesive than other authors. Generally speaking, he is able to write one draft, do one rewrite, and be ready for publication. Other authors end up doing rewrite after rewrite trying to wrap up their story. He does mention, however, (and if he hadn’t, I would have) that it comes down to figuring out what style works best for you, as there are plenty of successful authors in both camps (and even some in between).
Overall, I found this an enjoyable book, and reasonably insightful and informative. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Terry Brooks or fiction writing in general. I would say it is a worthwhile addition to the “writer’s memoir” genre.
Brooks, Terry. Sometimes the Magic Works. New York: Del Rey, 2003.