Sometimes the Magic Works

Sometimes the Magic Works

As a career programmer, and on whimsical occasion an aspiring author, I’ve always thought that programming is more like writing. Aside from the obvious parallels in entering text and following syntax and grammar rules, good code is expressive, succinct and has style. And I have speculated that the organizational and structural challenges in developing large, complex programs are analogous to those posed by novel writing.

Now I feel validated after reading Terry Brook’s account of his creative process in Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life.

In spite of the reference to magic in the title, Brooks discourages the aspiring novelist from simply brainstorming some ideas and jumping into writing mode. Instead, he urges the writer to structure the work with an outline beforehand, paying particular attention to creating an incisive beginning and compelling end to the story.

As an exercise, he takes the reader through a sample story creation, explaining efficient and unobstrusive character development, noting subtleties such as the choice of character and place names. (The sample story features the protagonist Maud Manx and nemesis Feral Finch in a town called Octegenarian, Montana. OK, it’s not that subtle.)

In a novel-like fashion, Mr. Brooks frames this book with a relaxed yet compelling account of his writing life. His literary parents, childhood role-playing and early attempts at writing would seem to foretell of his eventual success, but he credits much of that to serendipity. Nearly thirty years ago, he happened to submit the right manuscript (The Sword of Shannara) to the right editor (Lester Del Rey) at the right time. (Del Rey wanted to prove that science fantasy was a viable genre)

Mr. Brook’s longstanding good relationships with his editors and publishers apparently limits the type of advice he can dispense — there are no examples of how to deal with difficult editors or even how to find a good agent. (He didn’t use an agent until negotiations on the novelization of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) But his honest retelling of difficult choices (abandoning his law career, starting over on a novel after writing 400 pages) reinforce his warnings and encouragement to those who feel they have the “magic”. And his experience with Hollywood (besides The Phantom Menace, he authored the book version of Hook) is downright hilarious.

I’m not a science fantasy reader and therefore I haven’t followed Mr. Brook’s bread-and-butter work. But his self-deprecating and easygoing style is delightful enough for me to consider reading his novels. (Even the Phantom Menace novelization. Maybe it’s better than the movie.)

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