S. J. Kelley

Tag Archive: Craft

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.


I’ve been busy

I haven’t posted in some time, but I’ve learned so much. I feel like I can take this writing business by the horns now. I stopped tracking my time, because tracking my time was taking too much time (oh the irony). I have to get over the strange feeling of not having metrics to track, and just accept that it’s for the better good. Not quite there yet.

I start my morning by reading The Passive Voice and the latest posts on KBoards; I check back in on them at lunch. In the evenings, I read books on craft and marketing. I’ve recently devoured several books by James Scott Bell, and have decided that I should really look at the iconic texts of storytelling craft: Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering” and “Story Physics”; Robert McKee’s “Story”; and Christopher Vogel’s, “The Hero’s Journey.” I also tracked down a copy of Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.” In terms of marketing, I’ve been enjoying Ryan Levesque’s “Ask” and Jeff Walker’s “Launch.” I’ll be reviewing all of these resources in the coming weeks hopefully (but with my track record of keeping this blog updated, who knows? Business comes first 🙂 ).

I also broke down and bought an AlphaSmart Dana; an antiquated piece of retrotech that runs off three AA batteries and can’t read SD cards over 1 GB in size. It’s an electronic word processor running on PalmOS and it does one thing well: typing. The keyboard is fantastic, and it’s a great distraction-free writing tool. Bought a whole set of them because shipping to Canada was so expensive I figured, why not? At least if one breaks I have a backup, and I also now have a dedicated machine for working on this new writing empire I’m building, heh. I’ll probably talk about it more in future.

I can’t believe another year is almost over… I started this blog in 2014; a few posts back I thought I’d publish my first episode around this time of year. Now, I’m realizing I really should have the complete series plotted before I get any further into my manuscript, even if it takes longer before I make a sale.

I’ve just been through our first crazy crunch time at work, and some serious burn-out. Now I’m heading head-long into another that won’t let up until February. Somehow, this year, I have to keep my head above water and keep working toward my business goals. This is despite the fact that I have taken on a part-time teaching job (yet again), as well as additional part-time consulting work.

Wish me luck.

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 3)

I read quite a bit. As I start down the path of writing my first novel, I want to refer to a simple list of things I’ve learned while reading bestsellers. In part 1, I discussed series I consider to be “excellent” (Harry Potter; Hunger Games; Divergent); in part 2, I discussed series which were popular, but were lacking in some aspect or another (Twilight; Mortal Instruments; Percy Jackson; Maze Runner). So, without further ado, I bring you, “S.J. Kelley’s KISS-list to writing a YA bestseller” (in no particular order):

  • Build rich, descriptive, creative storyworlds you can lose yourself in
  • Have characters actively extract information from the storyworld (including politics, culture, etc), rather than passively receive explanations
  • Incorporate symbolism which links to the theme / story culture / goals
  • Divide main and supporting characters into groups which echo the larger storyworld society / culture / politics
  • Outline a strong plot:
    • Series-arcs as well as story-arcs
    • Momentum; urgency; chapters which leave you wondering what will happen next
    • A B-line which is realistic, believable, and substantial
  • Develop complex characters
    • Flaws
    • Minority groups
    • Growth and conflict between who they were and who they are becoming

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 2)

What can I learn from popular YA series? In the first installment, I discussed three series that were absolutely extraordinary, in my opinion. In this installment, I’ll talk about series that were extremely popular and offer some good pointers, but didn’t live up to the hype in some aspects.

When seventeen-year-old Bella leaves Phoenix to live with her father in Forks, Washington, she meets an exquisitely handsome boy at school for whom she feels an overwhelming attraction and who she comes to realize is not wholly human.

Ah, Twilight. I can never decide if I enjoyed this series or not, but it was clearly a great success, and I admit that it was hard to put the books down. After reading it, I want to keep in mind things to aim for and things to avoid.

  • Aim to:
    • Have constant suspense; keep the reader wondering; end chapters with hooks that make you want to keep reading
    • Fulfill fantasies (while Edward was a flat character to me, the ideal is quite attractive)
    • Have strong conflicts: “Us” vs. “Them” (but have them more nuanced and complicated)
  • Avoid:
    • InstaLove: being attracted to someone is not sufficient to develop a substantive relationship
    • Flat characters; everyone should have flaws
    • Long stretches of solely internal conflicts
    • Lulls in plot action

Sixteen year old Clary Fray discovers, after her mother’s kidnapping, that she belongs to a world of Shadow Hunters, a nephilum force protecting humans from downworlders (vampires, werewolves, and faeries). 

I liked the first book of Mortal Instruments. I enjoyed exploring the storyworld, but felt the cultural and political backdrop was too simplistic. While the series went on to discuss some interesting aspects of the magical system, I thought the relationship between Jace and Clary bordered on ridiculous… SPOILER ALERT: When Clary thought Jace was her brother I laughed out loud; it felt like a desperate plot move.

My favourite part of the series was Magnus Bane; I thought he was a fabulously interesting character, and found his bisexuality was portrayed quite well. If the books were about him they would have been better in my opinion!

At some point in the Mortal Instruments series I gave up reading the books. This is unusual for me, but I just lost all motivation to continue. I’m not sure what it was exactly about the series that led to this; it was supposed to be a trilogy, but was expanded to include 6 books, but the story felt done at the end of book 3.

  • Aim to:
    • Include a few interesting, quirky, eccentric characters, but have them closely involved in the main plot
    • Show an openness and acceptance for minority groups
    • Plan the series-arc ahead of time
      • While I want to outline the first novel and start writing immediately, if I outline all books in the series I can drop hints in books 1 and 2 that will make the series as a whole stronger.
  • Avoid:
    • Plot twists that feel forced; hints should be placed throughout to avoid reader recoil
    • Historical information which feels too far-fetched
    • Information dumps from “mentors”

3) Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan (rickriordan.com)
The Lightening Thief follows the Greek god Poseidon’s 12-year-old half-human son as he embarks on a fantastical quest across modern-day America to save his mother, return Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt and prevent a deadly war between the gods.

Percy Jackson is meant for a younger crowd, and unlike the first two books doesn’t really have a romantic element. I enjoyed reading them, but wouldn’t recommend them to other adult readers. Similar to Harry Potter, Percy Jackson takes place in a rich storyworld. While J.K. Rowling based many of her creatures on mythology, the mythology of Percy Jackson is much more true to the originals. I think some research into folklore and mythology would add complexity to my novels.

4) Maze Runner by James Dashner (jamesdashner.com)
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade…

Maze Runner was a simple read, but it did an extremely good job of slowly peeling back the layers of the storyworld. In my books, I want my characters to seek out much of their information, and to have as few “information dumps” as possible. Until the very end of the book, I can’t recall a significant information dump in this series!

After discussing points from excellent novels in part 1, and popular but somewhat lacking novels in part 2, I’ve made up a short, simple, and generic list of things to keep in mind when I write my books (see part 3).

Characteristics of a Best Selling Novel (Part 1)

In starting this journey to Indie Authordom, my first step was “market research” — did the most popular YA novels share any common characteristics? My favourite pastime is reading, so it was a pleasure to go through these books to learn how to plot a compelling story. If you are into the YA genre you’ve probably already read these books, but I’ve included the one-sentence log-line for each for context (obtained through random googling). In this first installment, I will discuss three series that were absolutely extraordinary, in my opinion.

1) Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling (jkrowling.com)
Eleven year old famous wizard, Harry Potter, is sent to wizarding school to learn magic, but ends up solving a mystery over life and death all with the most evil of wizards, Lord Voldemort, trying to kill him.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Harry Potter ranks among my top favourite books of all time (followed by anything written by Brandon Sanderson). I predict that it will be a long time before any other book has the same rich quality of Harry Potter, but if I were to chose a few simple characteristics, these would be it:

  • Rich, descriptive, creative storyworlds you can get lost in
  • Groups within the storyworld that the reader can form strong positive or negative connections with (Houses)
  • Strong supporting characters
  • A strong series-arc as well as a book-arc.
    • An overarching enemy in the series, with individual lesser enemies driving the plots in individual books.
  • While romantic elements were present in the later books, they were tastefully set as a backstage to the main story line

2) Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (suzannecollinsbooks.com)
In a future North America, where the rulers of Panem maintain control through an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss’s skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.


While not as fantastical as Harry Potter, Hunger Games had a gritty, immersive, action-packed style that was helped along by Collins’ unusual choice of first-person present tense. The symbolism in this book was the best I’ve encountered in the genre. I also enjoyed how romance was integrated into the books: Katniss was very practical in her relationship with Peeta, and her goals were central. I felt the movie did the book injustice in this regard, because it looked like just another love story without the calculated maneuvering of the intelligent Katniss.
  • Rich culture and politics linked to and regularly influencing the main plot (in this case, oppression by the government)
  • Symbolism which drastically increased the quality of the book
    • Coal district is lowly, treated like dirt, but coal is also combustible and their district is where the revolution catches fire
    • The mockingjay
  • Realistic romantic elements which take a back stage to the main plot
  • Excellent character development: Responsibility, commitment, sacrifice
  • Gritty, realistic
  • Distinct groups of people (districts)
3) Divergent by Veronica Roth (veronicarothbooks.blogspot.ca)
Beatrice Prior, a teenager with a special mind, finds her life threatened when an authoritarian leader seeks to exterminate her kind in her effort to seize control of their divided society.

I felt Hunger Games was a more carefully crafted and nuanced read than Divergent, but Divergent had superb pacing. While the political setup didn’t feel as rich as in Hunger Games, I felt Tris’s internal conflict was more realistic, and I enjoyed the believable love story element, which was central to the plot.

  • The most believable relationship I’ve encountered in the YA genre
    • Show a connection between the romantic pair; don’t force by telling. It must have substance.
    • See Roth’s description of InstaLove! for her thoughts.
  • Internal conflict can drive many scenes
    • Tris debates what to choose for most of Act I
  • Again, the concept of distinct groups within the storyworld that different readers could relate to (factions)
  • Lean writing; a sense of urgency
  • Strong focus on character development, grounded in the characters upbringing and their new experiences.
Next week, in part 2, I’ll talk about series that were extremely popular and offer some good pointers, but were lacking in some aspects.