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Writer Wisdom: Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

Writer Wisdom: Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

Over January I’ve been tidying my study and realised I have a LOT of books on writing. Some I’ve read (or skimmed), many I haven’t. I’ve done a Masters and PhD in creative writing as well as attending numerous classes and workshops over the years. But my preference outside of this training has been to find my writing style rather than reading what other writers say they do. Still, there’s always something to be learned when a writer talks about their process. So this year I’ve decided to work my way through these books and share the key nuggets of wisdom through reviews.

Sometimes the Magic Works

Terry Brooks is the author of the Shannara Chronicles, a popular book series (later TV series) featuring elves and humans. Compared to the Lord of the Rings, it was a bestseller from the beginning. Sometimes the Magic Works is part memoir and part writing guide. Although Brooks has been very successful, he speaks openly about book signings with few attendees. Not being a big fan, I skipped some of the anecdotes and sought out the nuggets of advice. There were some gems.

Advice on being a writer

Whilst Brooks trots out the old ‘write what you know’ adage, he also encourages you to ‘write what you observe’, advice I have also heard from John Marsden. Marsden pointed out that what you think you see and what’s actually there are two different things. For writers, paying attention is important for bringing your book to life in a way that feels real. But, as Brooks says, some of your ‘deep background’, the really detailed world building that makes it come to life, should never appear in the book.

Brooks explores ways writing allows you to think deeply. He talks about the puzzle-solving aspects of it, and how stepping from the real world into the world of imagination allows you to gain new perspective. By chronicling the human condition, he says, we can find answers to current problems in what might be. This is particularly relevant in the difficult times we face.


Some of the most useful advice about the mechanics of writing relate to characterisation. The key take out points are:

  • Characters are revealed through their words and actions, not what you as the writer say about them. They need to behave rationally and consistently – or, if they don’t, there needs to be a reason why.
  • Every character must have a reason for being in the story and their characteristics must be relevant to the story too.
  • A character needs to keep moving (physically, psychologically, or emotionally) in order to grow. Growth leads to change and transformation; they discover truths about themselves or others, or come to terms with some aspect of their lives. Without change nothing is happening.
  • The strength of your protagonist is measured by the threat of the antagonist (whether person, monster, weather, mountain, disease…). This threat might be immediate or there might be potential consequences. Facing these shows the courage, resolve and strength of your main character.

This quote from the book resonated so much. In writing the Tales of Tarya series I loved my characters and my world so much I wanted to stay with them. As I neared the end of the series I found myself writing more and more slowly.

Advice on being an author

As a recently published author I found the real gold was in the discussion of how to survive. Most books focus on ‘how to write a book’ or ‘how to get published’. But once you are published you begin a rollercoaster ride that requires real resilience. Brooks identifies important qualities that help: determination (be patient and committed), instinct (trust you know which way to go) and passion (be fearless). He encourages writers to be grateful for the chance to create magical worlds.

I loved Brooks’ idea that the point of book signings is to create a link between readers and books – and not necessarily YOUR books. He encourages authors to use these opportunities to make readers so enthusiastic about books they can’t wait to buy more. The key, he suggests, is to make a connection rather than a sale. Remain cheerful, so people remember a good experience, be thankful that organisers/publishers have taken a chance on you, and be anxious to chat, and ready to answer questions.

Inspiring last words…

Finally, I love the idea Brooks put forward that writing creates a writer’s identity. If, as he suggests, you come to be the sum of your words, then the more fantastical stories I create, the more I will evolve into a magical being!

Dystopian Words: An Interview with Clare Rhoden

Dystopian Words: An Interview with Clare Rhoden

Clare Rhoden is an academic and author with an abiding interest in how stories shape our world. Her animal-centred dystopian novels explore the future we might end up with if our fascination with technology continues. At the same time it delves into the question of outsiders and refugees. With fascinating world building and an array of unusual characters, the two books (so far) in the series offer “a thought-provoking read reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984… about what it truly means to be human” (~ Elizabeth Foster, author, Esme’s Wish, Goodreads). For more information on Clare click here to go to her website.

Which writer or writers opened your eyes to the magic of storytelling and why?

Thanks for having me, Rachel! I have to confess that I had a pretty traditional diet of books as a child, and that I’m forever grateful to my mother who was a bibliophile and started me reading at the age of three. The first book I stayed up all night to finish (with a torch under the blankets) was ‘Black Beauty’ by Anna Sewell. I think I was about eight years old. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I’ve rarely been able to put down any book since!

Why do you think people need stories in their lives?

Stories have been around as long as people have been able to speak. Stories are essential to our humanity. I think stories help us to make sense of our lives, especially stories which include characters or situations we can relate to. We can also admire the courage and persistence of the protagonist, and aim to employ some of those qualities in our own lives.

Stories with magic in them offer us the potential to break out of our usual thinking patterns and look at the world with fresh eyes. We can step out of the everyday and blink away our limitations. Even the most simple of stories will do this for us.

What is your greatest magical power as a writer?

I don’t usually think of myself as being very magical, and have spent far too long trying to prioritise my practical self. I would have to say that my imagination is my strongest magical ability, because it appears to be a power completely separate from my ordinary rational thinking. Therefore it must be magic! The incantation that brings this power into play starts like this: “Imagine what would happen if …”

Which mythic archetype or magical character most resonates with you and why?

I kind of like werewolf stories – now that’s something I don’t tell everyone! My favourite magical character is the shape-shifter, especially one who can fully enter the animal world (shape-shifters who can assume other human bodies are really scary). I think that shifting into another body is the epitome of seeing through another’s eyes, and that’s the key to empathy.

What themes or ideas do you find keep arising in your writing?

The interaction between humans and animals is a common theme in my writing, and most of my stories feature animals as characters or as important members of the community. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that doesn’t have at least one mention of a furry critter (who may just be a enchanted cat, or a lost unicorn, or an everyday wise old dog).

The whole notion of what love is, in its many guises, is also something I find myself exploring quite often. So another question I ask myself is, “what would love do?”. Then I let imagination get in there and play with the storyline. I find that my ‘difficult’ characters tend towards selfishness, while others show quite a lot of compassion. Mind you, it can be fun writing those self-absorbed folk. I have an idea for a story in which a wicked wizard is so absorbed in magically perfecting his face in the mirror that he forgets to breathe and falls down dead, much to the delight of his long-suffering cat. Maybe I’ll call it ‘Wizard-face Yoga Pose’…

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If you love dystopian fantasy, book one, The Pale, and book two, Broad Plain Darkening are available now from Odyssey Books and the usual online outlets. The Stars in the Night, Clare’s WWI family saga, is also available for pre-order now.

Why we need fantasy

Why we need fantasy

One of the uncomfortable aspects of being a published fantasy author has been learning that some people take great delight in saying with disdain ‘I don’t read fantasy’. I’ve been attacked in a public forum by someone who felt anyone over the age of 40 who reads anything other than feminist literary fiction has something wrong with them. Fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction are often dismissed as ‘childish’ or ‘only entertainment’ or worst of all, ‘escapism’ for those people who can’t face reality.

Clearly I don’t hold that opinion. From where I stand, fantasy actively requires readers to stretch their imagination muscles. From imagination comes the ability to put yourself in others shoes, and to see other ways the world could be. Both of these are sorely needed in the present climate.

Luck has a hand in life

When I was a social worker working at a cancer hospital, I had a client who was no longer able to work because of his cancer. On the surface he was wealthy, with multiple houses, cars and employees, but it was all dependent on him continuing to work. Now it was crumbling before him because of circumstances beyond his control. He couldn’t stop the cancer or will away the need to have treatment. Spending money wouldn’t get rid of the terrible side effects of medication. What shocked him the most, he said, was that he had judged others who were poor, thinking it was all their fault for not working hard. To discover that the course of his life was now out of his control was a terrible awakening. He was unlucky to get cancer, but there was nothing he could do about it.

This is the reality of life – the smallest twist of fate can change everything. If you have enough income to feed your family and pay your bills, you are lucky. If you have the money to travel and buy expensive things, you are very lucky. Others are not so lucky. But many can’t see this – they think others deserve the life they have. They’ve never experienced an abusive parent, or poverty, or any of the myriad other disadvantages that derail life. And they can’t put themselves into others’ shoes to understand how these things impact on opportunities.

Lack of imagination and empathy

Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes is crucial to developing empathy. When we can imagine what another person is experiencing, we feel compassion for them. In Buddhist terms, compassion is the wish to free others from suffering. We live in a world with increasing levels of narcissism. Everyone wants to be heard, but few seem to want to listen. People can’t imagine what others are going through. This lack of imagination results in lack of empathy. Many only come to understand others if they suffer some setback themselves. But there is a less painful way.

Books let us immerse ourselves in someone else’s life for a while. They take us deep inside another person’s experiences and possibly even into their mind and emotions. For the duration of the book you can become a homeless young person, and understand that they were forced to leave home to flee abuse. You can become a refugee and realise why making a dangerous journey is better than living under occupation. This sort of immersion can show us that sometimes there is no choice.

Why fantasy?

Fantasy requires the imagination muscles to work harder. If you are reading about someone who lives a life very similar to your own, in a place similar to where you live, connecting with them is easy. Empathy comes more readily. If they live in a very different time or world, or if they are very different to you, what you are connecting to is not surface similarity. It is the spark of humanity that lies deeper within. It helps you see the underlying similarities that are there even when what is difference seems enormous.

Fantasy is also good at asking ‘what if’? The rule of fantasy is that its world needs to be consistent with itself. But it doesn’t need to follow the rules of our world. As long as readers find some things they connect with, fantasy can show readers other ways of living. Social conventions can be challenged. Alternative ways of being in the world can be brought to life.

We need to imagine a better future. To do so, we need to stretch our imagination muscles. Go read a fantasy book!

** If you want something a bit more in-depth about this topic, you can read my thesis, Re-Storying the Earth: Writing a New Meta-Narrative Through Eco-Fiction.

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

I’ve been reflecting recently on a book review that was critical. The reviewer argued that I was irresponsible for the way I’d handled a particular scene. This made me think about the role of the author in writing difficult things. Should they reflect the world as it is, with its ugliness and chaos and lack of resolution? Or should they correct the problems of the world, perfecting them? The answer, of course, is complex, and depends very much on all sorts of factors, including genre. I could write a whole paper on this, but in the interests of keeping things short, I’ll address a few key points.

The power to change the world

I think the reason a lot of writers write is so they can change the world. They want to correct the problems they see around them. These might be personal experiences that they wish had happened differently, or broad social issues they want to address. A good area for authors to ‘correct’ is in diversity. For too long books have not reflected the real world, in terms of race, disability, gender and other differences. Authors can use their power to ensure it is not only middle class white people (generally men) in stories who have autonomy. They can create characters of all kinds, without stereotypes. Even in a genre like fantasy, places and people can be written as complex and nuanced, like the real world. To correct in this way is definitely worthwhile and important.

When it comes to events within a story though, there are some risks in over-correcting. Stories aren’t true. But they need to seem true. So the world in your book needs to seem convincing. It needs to reflect the real world to some extent. Even if it’s fantasy. Bad things do happen to good people and sometimes those people, or the people around them, don’t respond in the best ways. Writing a good character means giving them complexity. Writing a good plot means you don’t solve a problem straight away. If your villain immediately faces consequences for his actions, he’s not a very good villain. If you pose a problem, and immediately resolve it, there’s no tension in your story. If your character is always strong and demands justice, they’re not a real person, they’re a superhero.

Politics or story telling?

Why do people pick up a novel? Kafka says “a book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us”. He was talking about writing books to awaken emotional responses, not to enlighten us politically. In novels, readers connect with characters, not political ideas. As a writer my aim is to write scenes that will make readers feel something, not scenes that will politicise them. Books are great for creating empathy. But to create an emotional response you need to connect with the reader. This won’t happen if your scenes aren’t realistic. The scene in my book is true to life, and true to the characters involved. If I were to write it differently in order to responsibly reflect how this sort of thing should play out, I wouldn’t be writing a novel, I’d be writing a training manual. 

Trust the author

My final point is that it is important to trust the author. Writing a novel is about selection. As a writer you decide what to include and what to leave out. And what is included is there for a reason, if you know what you are doing. The reader doesn’t always have the full picture until the end. This is particularly true of a trilogy. Not everything will be resolved, or even revealed, in the first book. And even more true of a mystery.  A mystery has hints and clues that may look irrelevant, but may be very important later on. Look at the way JK Rowling revealed Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem in one of the early Harry Potter books. It seemed like an aside, a meaningless incident, but it wasn’t. Sometimes if you wait, you learn not everything is as it seems…