Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

A Review by Peggy Kurilla
2003, Peggy Kurilla


ne complaint that is frequently voiced about how-to-write books is a dearth of material concerning specific genres.  In fantasy and science fiction, for instance, until recently Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy was one of the few available.  In the last two years, though, there have been offerings from David Gerrold (Worlds of Wonder) and Stephen King (On Writing), both of which have been reviewed in prior issues of Vision.  This year, Terry Brooks has added to the mix with Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life, published by Del Rey (ISBN 0-345-45828-1). 

What makes Brooks' book different from many of the other how-to-write books out there is that when he discusses his rules of writing, he does so within the context of an invented story that illustrates how he would apply each of his rules.  The rules themselves are nothing new (i.e., Show, don't tell), but Brooks makes them enjoyable to read and gives concrete examples at the same time.

Brooks gives a ten-word formula for success as a writer of long fiction:

Read, read, read.

Outline, outline, outline.

Write, write, write.


We all know it's never as easy as this, but he uses the formula as an introduction to his style of outlining and why he feels it is most useful.  He is never condescending to others who write differently, but he does have a point to make and makes it with eloquence.

Brooks also discusses the importance of what he calls "dream time."  Other writers might call it pre-planning, or thinking the story through.  Whatever name it goes by, it is the time during which the story develops and takes shape before a word is written.  Brooks says every author does it, even though some don't do this stage until revision.  He prefers doing it up front so that he can do one draft, one revision, and be done.

The two chapters that should be together, but are instead separated, are the chapters in which Brooks discusses the two screenplay adapations he has done: the horrible experience he had adapting Hook, and the wonderful experience he had adapting The Phantom Menace.  For writers who are contemplating doing novelizations, the chapters would be better presented together as reference material.  For the rest of us, the two stories would be more entertaining if presented back-to-back in more of a comparison/contrast format. Brooks appears to have separated the stories to give some indication of the amount of time that passed between the two events, which is not completely necessary, as he makes it clear at the end of the Hook chapter that he refused to do another adaptation for eight years.

One of the difficulties facing a modern fantasy writer is changing worlds and not losing readers.  Brooks has done this twice--once with the Magic Kingdom novels, and then with the Word and Void books--with differing results.  The Magic Kingdom books are now almost as popular as his Shannara books; the Word and Void books have yet to find their audience.  Brooks discusses his naive assumption that his readers would follow him into whatever territory he chose to explore and the fallout after each of his deviations.  For anyone planning a writing career, this section provides food for thought.

Although at US$22.95 for 197 pages (at this writing it is only available in hardback edition) Sometimes the Magic Works is moderately expensive, it is filled with information, advice, and anecdotes from one of today's best-selling fantasy authors, and is well worth a read.