After last week’s post on John Gardner’s curmudgeonly classic The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, it seemed important to look at a writer’s handbook by an unrepentant writer of genre fiction — commercial fiction, even. I wanted a book that was humble where Gardner’s was imperious, practical about the business of publishing where Gardner’s was aloof from it.
Gardner suggests that the young writer read all of Faulkner, and then all of Hemingway to clear Faulkner’s excesses out of her mind. So I turned to Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life by Terry Brooks to recover from all that is magisterial in The Art of Fiction.
A confession: Terry Brooks’s novels are not my thing. That is not a judgment on him, just an observation that so far I haven’t really connected with his work. For the record, in the Grand Taxonomy and Hierarchy of Books That Aren’t My Thing, The Sword of Shannara gave me far more reading enjoyment than did James Joyce’s Ulysses.
A lot of people — critics, teachers, readers, other writers — have judged Brooks harshly for one reason and another. But I will go to school on anybody, absolutely anybody, who seems to know something I don’t. Am I on the bestseller lists yet? No? Then Brooks knows something I don’t. I’m hoping that readers who do connect with his books will stop by the comment thread and share their perspectives.
The Brooks manual has two main areas of insight to offer that balance what’s missing in Gardner, and those two areas couldn’t be more different.
In chapters like “I Am Not All Here” and, surprisingly, a chapter on the importance of outlining called “The Dreaded ‘O’ Word,” Brooks talks about the importance of daydreaming. Though Gardner speaks eloquently of fiction as a continuous waking dream for the reader, he stresses that this dreamlike experience is an illusion achieved by the writer by means of titanic conscious effort.
Often true, yes. But for many writers, myself included, all of that conscious effort must come after a prolonged process of half-conscious reverie. Never outside of Brooks’s outlining chapter have I seen such a cogent explanation of the relationship between reverie and organization.
On the business side, three chapters stand out. “It’s Not About You,” seems at first to be about the ego-bruising side of book signings — and it is about that, and how to cope usefully with it — but the chapter turns out to be a sort of manifesto in favor of authorial humility and personal connection with readers. Right-mindedness is inseparable from the brass tacks practicalities of handselling copies.
The other two stand-out chapters recount two very different experiences writing tie-in novels for movies. Hollywood temptation would be a great problem to have, and if I ever face it myself, I will measure my opportunity on the continuum between Brooks’s grueling, galling experience writing the tie-in for Spielberg’s Hook and his joyful experience writing the tie-in for Lucas’s The Phantom Menace.
If you are, yourself, a curmudgeonly reader, this book is probably not for you. The introduction by Elizabeth George is riddled with sentence-level grammatical errors and infelicities. In the middle of Brooks’s chapter on his ten rules of good storytelling, he interrupts the rather dreadful example story he’s using for an example to say: “I probably could do better if I wanted to spend more time on it, but you get the general idea.” Well, maybe. Sometimes the magic works, and then sometimes Brooks’s prose style runs flat and featureless for paragraphs at a stretch.
If you want the best fiction writing manual, you’ll still want Gardner. If you want practical advice on tie-ins, an attitude adjustment when you need to be reminded how lucky you are that you get to write fiction at all, or just a friendly authorial voice that doesn’t demand that you bow to its superiority, maybe you want this book.