Saturday, August 13, 2005

Book Review: Sometimes The Magic Works: Lessons From A Writer's Life by Terry Brooks

I had exactly two bits of exposure to Terry Brooks prior to picking up this book. Well, maybe more than that. I had a friend who loved the Shanara books, and I own a copy of Running With The Demon I picked up at a used bookstore but have never read.

I guess it's more accurate to say, I'd read two of his books.

The first was the book that turned me off to him, and that was his adaptation of the movie Hook. I really enjoyed Hook. I'm a fan of the Peter Pan books and movies in most of their incarnations, but most of all in the original book. The movie was true enough to that to win me over, and so I rushed out to buy the novelization.

See, most of you are already giggling behind your hands, because novelizations are bad. We all know that, right? Well, I didn't. I had only read a couple of novelizations. The first were the Craig Shaw Gardner ones he did for Back To The Future II & III and Batman, and the other was Orson Scott Card's novelization of The Abyss. The Gardner books were interesting, including deleted scenes that weren't in the movies (Including my favorite line that didn't make Batman) and the Card book would have likely was award-worthy but largely ignored solely because it was a novelization.

That's all a long way of saying I hadn't yet met a bad novelization. So then I came across Hook, and I swore off Terry Brooks forever.

Well, not quite forever.

Because then he did the novelization for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Like everybody else that year, I was caught up in the Star Wars hype, and since one of my soon-to-be brothers in law had bought it, I gave it a read, despite my fears about Brooks.

And you know what? It was a terrific book. And it fixed the biggest flaw in the film.

People blame their feelings about little Annakin on Jake Lloyd's acting--the real culprit was George Lucas's script. Here's a little boy we're supposed to feel bad for, but in Lucas's script, it looks like he's got everything going for him. He gets to build robots and race pods, he has lots of friends and a mother who loves him. We're never given any real reason to root for him, because it doesn't look like he's got much to worry about.

Brook's book fixes this flaw. We get one extra chapter at the start of the book about Annikan. We see him lose a pod race he's forced to run and almost die doing it. We see his owner knock him around a little for his incompetence. In other words, we get some conflict around this character. We're given reasons to care.

So now I had two conflicting views of Brooks--one good, one bad.

Then along comes this book, Sometimes the Magic Works. It came out about the same time as Stephen King's On Writing, and is similar in a lot of ways. They're both part writing guide and part autobiographical. They're both a little whimsical and chatty. And they're both worth your time if you're interested in writing.

The most reassuring thing, for me, was that Brooks seems to share my disdain for the Hook book. The folks at Amblin apparently didn't realize they were going to be getting a New York Times Bestselling author to do the adaptation for them, and had been extremely limiting in what they would and wouldn't allow him access to and information about. The whole experience had been as dismal for him to write as it had been for me to read.

As for his advice--well, it's an interesting mix of practicality and whimsy. As you can see by the title, he acknowledges that a certain amount of the process is just magic. You can't really account for it or explain it.

But yet he strongly encourages outlining and pooh-poohs the notion of freewriting off the top of your head without one. (Why waste your time writing pages and pages of prose you'd have known you were going to throw out if you'd have done an outline?)

He's flexible with it, of course--if a wonderful idea occurs to you on page 100, you don't chuck it out just because it isn't in the outline. The outline is a tool, not the rule, and is as fluid and changeable as you need it to be. It's just a lot easier and less time consuming to change than pages and pages of nearly finished text.

My favorite bit of advice, though, comes late in the book. If you read the Amazon reviews, you'll see a couple are down on some bits where Brooks talks about his Grandson. I'd argue that the bits where he talks about his Grandson are two of the most important parts of the book.

I won't tell the anecdote, but I will tell you the moral of at least one of the stories:

There's a reason why fiction, be it a book, or TV, or film, is more noble than "reality" books or "reality" shows. Reality shows only show us as we are. It's only when we journey into fiction that we discover what we ultimately could be.

So I recommend it. It's a thin book, and it won't turn your world upside down. But it will reinstill some of that sense of what you're doing and why.

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