S. J. Kelley

Book review: Sometimes the Magic Works, by Terry Brooks

brooks_magic4/5 stars

“In Sometimes the Magic Works, New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks shares his secrets for creating unusual, memorable fiction. Spanning topics from the importance of daydreaming to the necessity of writing an outline, from the fine art of showing instead of merely telling to creating believable characters who make readers care what happens to them, Brooks draws upon his own experiences, hard lessons learned, and delightful discoveries made in creating the beloved Shannara and Magic Kingdom of Landover series, The Word and The Void trilogy, and the bestselling Star Wars novel The Phantom Menace.

In addition to being a writing guide, Sometimes the Magic Works is Terry Brooks’s self-portrait of the artist. “If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical,” says Brooks. This book offers a rare opportunity to peer into the mind of (and learn a trick or two from) one of fantasy fiction’s preeminent magicians.” — Amazon blurb.

I really enjoyed this book; I love reading about how successful authors started their career. The majority of this book focuses on Brooks’ journey: how his success was launched by a perfect storm at the start of Del Rey books, how he stumbled along the way, and how the mind of a continual, lifetime storyteller works. I found his discussion of how his imagination has interfered with his everyday life illuminating, and especially enjoyed his two chapters about playing and exploring with his grandson Hunter. His style made me feel like I was sitting down and hearing him reminisce with a good friend.

His comments on craft are interspersed throughout the book. There is a section on outlining, the importance of letting your mind wander, and some traditional advice on writing engaging fiction (show don’t tell, start and end strong, etc.) If you’re a fan of Brooks’ style of fiction and were hoping for an in-depth look at his craft, this book isn’t it. It is more of a endearing and meandering conversation, where old nuggets of wisdom are professionally spit-shined so that even the most well-read could appreciate a thing or two.

I loved the “show don’t tell” example on pages 125-126:

Telling: “Maud was eighty-one years of age with piercing dark eyes and s tiff, squared-away stance that suggested aching joints. Gray hair hung in a single braid down her back, tied at the end with a ribbon. Deep age lines marked her strong, plain face. She was missing her right arm, the sleeve of her cotton dress pinned against the breast and neatly folded at the elbow. For any years, she had worked in a bookstore, and before that, as a CIA operative. She loved cats and had two old toms at present named Kibbles and Bits. But while cats were welcome in her home, birds were not. She hated birds because as a child she had always been afraid of their beady, quick eyes and sharp little beaks.”

Showing (I particular liked the underlined sentences): “Maud moved gingerly today, the result of another twenty-four hours added to her eighty-one years. Oddly enough, she felt the same as always, although her dark eyes might give her away to someone looking closely enough. Ignoring her stiffness and the ache in her joints, she brushed lightly at her braided gray hair and smiled at the sunlight streaming through her cabin window. The smile gave her lined face a warm and reassuring cast, the sort that always suggested to those she encountered that she had a good heart. Kibbles, the better half of Bits, trotted up to her, and she picked up the old tom and held him in the cradle of her good left arm. She glanced down at the empty right sleeve of her dress, checking her appearance the way she had been taught to do during her years with the CIA. Government agent never forgot their training. Or maybe it was booksellers who never forgot, she couldn’t remember. She laughed silently at herself, able to push back the years and the past. On a day like this, she could even feel kindly toward birds, and that was rare indeed.

I also enjoyed reading the chapter “On the Trail of Tolkien” where Brooks talks about what he feels the greatest similarity is between them. In my own writing, I want to keep this chapter firmly in mind. Here’s my favourite part, from page 190: “It was Tolkien’s genius to reinvent the traditional epic fantasy by making the central character neither God nor hero, but a simple man in search of a way to do the right thing… Ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances are far more interesting.”

I would strongly recommend this book to someone who enjoys author biographies, but in terms of a craft book I think there are better ones out there. Regardless, if you are considering writing Fantasy, this is a great book to pick up.


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