Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life [NOOK Book]


In 1977, the New York Times Trade Paperback Bestseller list—back then the exclusive province of self-help guides, cartoon collections, and any number of cat books—played host to its very first work of fiction: The Sword of Shannara, an epic quest through a mythical land, by first-time author Terry Brooks. Nineteen New York Times bestselling novels later, it would be easy enough to just say: “. . . and the rest is history.” But when it comes to quests, everyone knows that getting there is half the fun. Now, Terry ...
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Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life

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In 1977, the New York Times Trade Paperback Bestseller list—back then the exclusive province of self-help guides, cartoon collections, and any number of cat books—played host to its very first work of fiction: The Sword of Shannara, an epic quest through a mythical land, by first-time author Terry Brooks. Nineteen New York Times bestselling novels later, it would be easy enough to just say: “. . . and the rest is history.” But when it comes to quests, everyone knows that getting there is half the fun. Now, Terry Brooks tells the story of how he got there—from beginner to bestselling author—and shares his secrets for creating unusual, memorable fiction.

Writing is writing, whether one’s setting is a magical universe or a suburban backyard. 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. Here are sketches of his midwestern boyhood, when comic books, radio serials, and a vivid imagination launched a life long passion for weaving tales of wonder; recollections of the fateful collaboration with legendary editor Lester del Rey that changed not only the author’s life but the course of publishing history; and an eye-opening look at the ups and downs of dealing with Hollywood, as a writer of official novels based on major movies by both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

“If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical,” says Terry Brooks. This book offers a rare and wonderful opportunity to peer into the mind of (and learn a trick or two from) one of fantasy fiction’s preeminent magicians.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Terry Brooks's "lessons from a writing life" combine the best features of literary memoir and creative writing guide. Both instructional and inspirational, Sometimes the Magic Works reflects Brooks's lifelong commitment to the power of the written word. "If you don't think there is magic in writing," he quips, "you probably won't write anything magical." But the man who created the classic Shannara fantasy series knows too that good writing requires research, planning, and discipline. This deeply personal book brims with detailed discussions of plotting, characterization, and setting. Even if you have never before read a word of this first-rate genre author, Brooks's book will keep you engrossed.
Publishers Weekly
"If you don't think there is magic in writing, you probably won't write anything magical," Brooks asserts in this succinct and warmhearted autobiographical meditation on the writing life. He views his success as a miracle and credits editor Lester del Rey ("What he had given me was the kind of education young writers can only dream about") for his discovery and Tolkien for the inspiration that drove him to choose fantasy adventure as his medium. Brooks, who practiced law before becoming a full-time author, stills finds himself amazed that his The Sword of Shannara "sold in record numbers and changed the face of publishing," becoming the first fiction title to land on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list. He still marvels that del Rey chose his first novel to prove that post-Tolkien epic fantasy could sell in vast numbers and that it launched a new generation of fantasy authors. Brooks often refers to his old mentor's sage advice ("Thinking about a book before you wrote it was as important as the writing itself") and promotes outlines ("You can either do the hard work up front or do it at the end"). He also discusses the disappointments encountered in a 30-plus-year career that has seen struggles with a novelization (Hook) and less than stellar sales for some works not connected to the Shannara empire; yet he keeps a positive attitude about the writer's never-ending quest, which requires "determination, instinct, and passion." (Mar.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
In a breezy, congenial tone, Brooks combines autobiography and advice. Childhood memories mingle with tales about the writer's life-stories he wrote as a child in which there were no elves; his first book signing, where nobody bought his book or asked for his signature; his parents' reading habits and the teachers who influenced his writing; and his second novel, which was so bad that he had to abandon it after 375 pages. Readers will learn how Brooks puts together his books (he swears by outlines), how much prewriting and planning goes into one of his novels, and how much rewriting he does. Short, how-to chapters for unpublished writers, full of standard advice (show, do not tell), are interspersed with chapters about Brooks's adventures in the publishing game, such as the disaster of writing a tie-in book for the movie Hook, or his exhilarating experience writing the book for Star Wars(tm): Episode 1, The Phantom Menace (Del Rey, 1999/VOYA October 1999). He takes readers through the invention of an imaginary novel to demonstrate his techniques, then returns to the theme of childhood with lessons his five-year-old grandson has taught him. The book will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. Brooks fans will appreciate the behind-the-scenes revelations about the Shannara and Magic Kingdom books, whereas Star Wars(tm) enthusiasts will enjoy the stories about Brooks's visits with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch. Meanwhile, aspiring writers will learn much from the author's generous advice about both writing and the difficult world of publishing. VOYA Codes: 4Q 2P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High,defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 2003, Del Rey, 191p,
— Rebecca Barnhouse
Library Journal
Fans of Brooks's fantasy titles (e.g., The Sword of Shannara) may be fascinated by this insider's account of how a book gets written, what thoughts and insecurities the author has, and the unique challenges faced by writers of fantasy fiction. Brooks indeed provides insights into how he names fantasy characters and creates realistic fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, those not familiar with his writings might find that he violates the best advice he gives in this short book: don't bore the reader. Only occasionally does Brooks linger long enough on a topic to provide valuable tips, and so much of this narrative is relevant to his experience alone that creative writing students might have difficulty applying his advice to their own struggles with craft, technique, and the creative writing process. Recommended for large fantasy collections only.-Herbert E. Shapiro, Empire State Coll., SUNY, Rochester Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
Author of Bastard Out of Carolina

—Publishers Weekly

“Terry Brooks is adamant about dedicating oneself to the craft, while showing awe and humility for the creative process. . . . Every serious writer should refer to this book regularly for inspiration as well as solid crafting advice.”
Director, Maui Writers Retreat

“A wise, warm-hearted book—part autobiography, part how-to-do-it manual, with some amazingly candid behind-the-scenes material . . . Fantasy fans, novice writers, and even veteran pros will learn plenty from it.”
Award-winning author of the Majipoor Chronicles

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345463586
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/4/2003
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 495,171
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Terry Brooks
Terry Brooks is the author, most recently, of Voyage of the Jerle Shannara: Morgawr, his twentieth New York Times bestseller. His novels Running with the Demon and A Knight of the Word were selected by the Rocky Mountain News as two of the best science fiction/fantasy novels of the twentieth century. He is a regular teacher at the prestigious Maui Writers Conference and lives in Seattle and Hawaii.

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"I found my way to fantasy/adventure. When I got there, I knew I'd found a home," said Terence Dean Brooks, creator of the blockbuster, New York Times bestselling Shannara, Landover, and Word & Void series. Not only is Brooks at home in the highly competitive realm of fantasy literature, many would call him the genre’s modern-day patriarch – Tolkien’s successor. While that title is debatable, Brooks is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most prolific and successful authors of otherworld (and our world) fantasy. Few writers in any genre can boast a more entertaining collection of work – and a more ravenous and loyal fan base -- than can Terry Brooks.

The most rewarding aspect to writing for Brooks is “when someone who never read a book reads [one of mine] and says that the experience changed everything and got them reading.” Because of his very engaging, quick-flowing writing style, countless numbers of young people have been introduced to the wonderful world of reading through Brooks’s adventures. The miraculous thing, however, is that these same fans – whether they’re now 20, 30, or 40 years old – still devour each new release like a starving man would a steak dinner. Credit Brooks’s boundless imagination, endearing characters, fresh storylines and underlying complexities for keeping his older, more discerning audience hooked.

Brooks began writing when he was just ten years old, but he did not discover fantasy until much later. As a high school student he jumped from writing science fiction to westerns to adventure to nonfiction, unable to settle on one form. That changed when, at the age of 21, Brooks was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien provided Brooks with a forum “that would allow him to release onto paper his own ideas about life, love, and the wonder that fills his world," according to his web site.

In 1977, after six trying years, Brooks published novel his first novel, The Sword of Shannara. And quickly it gave him – and his publisher (the newly created Ballantine imprint, Del Rey) – quite a thrill; the fantasy adventure featuring the young Halfling, Shea Ohmsford; the mysterious wizard Allanon; Flick, the trusty companion; and the demonic Warlock Lord, was not only well received -- it was a smash, spending over five months on The New York Times bestseller list. In 1982 Brooks released the follow-up, The Elfstones of Shannara (which Brooks says may be his favorite), to equal success. He closed out the initial trilogy in 1985 with The Wishsong of Shannara, and has since completed two more Shannara sets, The Heritage of Shannara books and the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara books.

As fans of Brooks know, the man doesn’t like to stay put. “I lived in Illinois for the first 42 years of my life, and I told myself when I left in 1986 that I would never live any one place again,” Brooks said. He now spends his time between his homes in Seattle and Hawaii; he and his wife also spend a great deal of time on the road each year connecting with the fans. These same nomadic tendencies are also apparent in his writing. Instead of staying comfortably within his proven, bestselling Shannara series, Terry frequently takes chances, steps outside, and tries something new. His marvelous Landover and Word & Void series are the results. While both are vastly different from Shannara, they are equally compelling. Word & Void – a contemporary, dark urban fantasy series set in a fantasy-touched Illinois – is quite possibly Brooks’s most acclaimed series. The Rocky Mountain News called the series’ first two books (Running with the Demon and The Knight of the Word “two of the finest science fiction/fantasy novels of the 20th century.”

Good To Know

When The Sword of Shannara hit The New York Times bestseller list, Brooks became the first modern fantasy author to achieve that pinnacle.

The Sword of Shannara was also the first work of fiction to ever hit The New York Times trade paperback bestseller list. Thanks to a faithful and growing fan base, the books continue to reach the list.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was not Terry's first novelization. He also novelized Steven Spielberg's 1991 movie, Hook.

Brooks’s The Phantom Menace novelization is also not his only connection to George Lucas. Both The Sword of Shannara and the original Star Wars novel, A New Hope, were edited by Judy Lynn del Rey and published in the same year (1977) to blockbuster success.

The Sword of Shannara was initially turned down by DAW Books. Instead, DAW sent Terry to Lester del Rey, who recognized Terry’s blockbuster potential and bought it. And the rest, they say, is history.

Brooks’s influences include: J.R.R. Tolkien, Alexander Dumas, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Terence Dean Brooks (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      Pacific Northwest and Hawaii
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 8, 1944
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sterling, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Hamilton College, 1966; J.D., Washington and Lee University
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

I Am Not All Here


I’m not all here.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in church with Grandmother Gleason, my mother’s mother, and her sister, my aunt Blanche, and listening to them discuss a woman several pews ahead of us. They did this frequently when I was with them, and they always did so in a stage whisper that could be heard by anyone within a dozen feet. The conversation went something like this:

“Blanche, isn’t that Mildred Evans?”

“No! Where?”

“Sitting just ahead of us by Harold Peterson. Look at that hat she’s wearing. Have you ever seen such a hat?”

“Are those birds pinned to it? They look like birds.”

“I think they’re finches.”

“I don’t think that’s Mildred Walker. I think she’s dead.”

“Mildred Evans!”

“No, you’re thinking of Myrtle Evans. Besides, I think she’s dead, too. She wasn’t all here, you know. Everybody said so.”

By then I had sunk as far as I could into the pew, staring down at my bible and wishing I wasn’t all there, either. Perhaps somewhere along the way, my wish was granted.

I don’t like to examine this condition too closely, but I know that it is likely that right at this very moment one of my relatives or friends is remarking on it. When I was married, they warned my wife about it. He’s not all here, they would say, leaning close, imparting this information with sad, knowing smiles. Judine thought they were kidding, but that was before she discovered that I only hear maybe half of what she says to me. Her favorite example of my inattention—and there are many—involves reading something to me from the newspaper about which she thinks I ought to know. I listen and nod. I might even respond. Then five minutes later, when the paper is in my hands, I will read the same item back to her as if I was just discovering it. Which I am. This happens all the time. These days, she just shakes her head helplessly.

My children think it is a big joke. They know me well enough by now not to be surprised when it happens. Dad’s gone away again, they say to each other with a snicker. Joe Space Cadet. Sometimes they suggest I should get my hearing checked, that maybe the problem is I just don’t hear what they have to say. I tell them I don’t want to hear what they have to say because it usually involves giving them money. But these days, as the big six-oh approaches, I suppose I ought to give the poor-hearing argument a little more consideration.

Actually, my family and friends like me well enough, but they think I am weird. Or at least peculiar. I can’t blame them. I should have grown up a long time ago, and yet here I am, writing about elves and magic. I should have a real job by now. I did have a real job, once upon a time. I was a lawyer for seventeen years, but I quit when I felt comfortable enough with my writing career to think I could make a living at it. Readers used to ask me at autographing events if it wasn’t hard making the transition from practicing law to writing fantasy. I told them there was hardly any difference at all. That always got a laugh. They knew what I meant.

So what am I talking about when I say I am not all here? I mean that if you are a writer, you really can’t be. Writers are not all here, because a part of them is always “over there”—“over there” being whatever world they are writing about at present. Writers live in two worlds—the real world of friends and family and the imaginary world of their writing. If you were to measure the difference in time spent between the two, I suspect you would find it quite small. Nor is this distinction of real and imaginary meant to suggest that for a writer one is more compelling than the other. It isn’t. Each is compelling in its own way and each makes its demands on a writer’s time. But a writer can’t ever leave either for very long—in the case of the real world, for obvious reasons, and in the case of the imaginary world, for reasons that require a brief digression in order to make sense of them.

Let’s take a momentary look at writers and their books. That writers live in their writing probably isn’t news to you, but that they do so as much out of necessity as desire might be. I might argue that they do so because that is how writers are built: the writing compels and commands them as if they were little robots. They are not complete without it or happy when they aren’t doing it. Writing is life; you’ve heard that one, haven’t you? Writers need their writing; they need their imaginary worlds in order to find peace in, or make sense of, the real world.

I am always dabbling in my current book, no matter the time or place, thinking about some aspect of the writing that I haven’t quite gotten right or executed well enough. It doesn’t command my entire attention, just enough of it that I seem constantly distracted. Various dilemmas and concerns steal me away. Sometimes it is a character that hasn’t been fully developed. Sometimes it is a plot element that just doesn’t fit quite the way it should. Sometimes it is something as mundane as a name that needs rethinking. Sometimes it is your basic insecurity attack; I just know that what I have written the day before is dreck and will have to be thrown out. Sometimes I am just thinking ahead to the next day’s writing and beginning to put the images together in my mind.

But it is always something, as the saying goes. There is never a moment when I am not involved in thinking about writing. I can’t put it out of my mind entirely, even in the most trying of circumstances. You might as well ask me to stop breathing; thinking about my writing is as much a function of my life.

So when my family and friends discover I am not listening to them or they catch me staring off into space, I can’t do a thing about it, because that’s just the way I am. It is the way all writers are, I suspect. The muse whispers to you when she chooses, and you can’t tell her to come back later, because you quickly learn in this business that she might not come back at all.

Some of this has to do with writers being observers. We don’t become involved so much as we watch and take notes. Much of what happens around us goes into a storage bin in our minds for future consideration and possible use in a book down the line. What we observe is as important to us in determining what we write as what we know. Frequently those annoying distractions we experience are just instances of recording our observations because we think they might suggest, on reflection, further writing possibilities.

The writer Walter Mosley wrote a few years ago in an article that appeared in the New York Times that writing is gathering smoke—the smoke of dreams, of ideas, of the imagination. We collect that smoke and try to make something out of it. It doesn’t happen all at once, but only over time and never on a determinable schedule. We visit our hazy treasure every day in order not to lose sight of it, not to let it evaporate from neglect. At some point in our tending and examination, something substantial will come alive.

I think this is what writers are doing when that part of them that isn’t here is over there. They are gathering smoke. They are thinking about their writing, trying to make something solid and recognizable out of the ether of their musings.

Some would say that a writer’s most important work is to chronicle the human condition. I think that it is more important that they explore its possibilities. We don’t find answers so much in what we already know as in what we think might be.

To do that, a writer has to be able to step outside the real world to the world of the imagination. By doing so, perspective is gained.

Not being all here, when viewed in that light, finally begins to make sense.

From the Hardcover edition.

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