Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors.
Today, I’m joined by, Terry Brooks, the author of the Sword of Shannara and twenty six best-selling novels.
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
Who can remember? I always loved storytelling and role-playing back before anyone had a name for it, and I was maybe 5 or 6 and organizing the neighborhood kids. I wrote my first important short story when I was 10. It was about some kids staying overnight in a haunted house. My 4th grade teacher gave me an A+. I kept at it. When I was 13, I published a short piece in one of the Illinois historical journals. Another 20 years and Sword of Shannara was published.
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
Oh, I think just about the time I was deep into my second Shannara book and my editor told me it wasn’t any good and I had to start over. That was a wake-up call. The first book seemed so easy, but I had to rewrite the second from scratch. So I learned that what you need is perseverance and a good work ethic and a strong stomach.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Ideas are easy. Developing them into a full-blown book is what’s hard. I get most of my ideas from reading the newspaper. One thing suggests another, and when I reach a point where I am deeply troubled or irritated or not sure what I believe about something, I am ready to sit down and write about it. Not everything I start out with leads to a book, but sooner or later something or other does.
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
I think about it first. For a long time, if I have a chance. Sometimes for years. You can think about one thing and write about another. Eventually, I start making notes. That usually leads to an outline, character sketches, a working up of a thematic structure and various other considerations. When I can’t stand it anymore, I start writing. But, really, ideas are the easiest part of the process.
What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?
Big, long, sweeping sagas. I don’t like writing short fiction. It is a discipline with which I do not have a comfortable fit. Give me a story I can carry over into 2, 3 or 4 books. Much better.
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
Fantasy. Still. Always. Maybe.
Do you work from an outline?
See above. I used to spend more time on outlines than I do now. Some of that comes from experience. I don’t need the structure like I used to. Some of it comes from wanting to experiment a bit with plot construction. The longer you are in this business – 35 years for me – the more you need to work to find ways to challenge yourself.
How do you build your story?
Wow. Got 25 pages of space for me? Doesn’t matter. I don’t have that kind of energy. So how about 25 words or less? First, find a hook. Something that intrigues you enough that you can’t let go of it. Remember you have to dedicate a year to a book, roughly, and if it doesn’t remain as interesting at the end as it started out, you won’t write a good book. So you need to build your story around a premise or issue or complex question about which you want your readers to give their full and undivided attention. My first editor, Lester del Rey, always told me that a fiction writer’s first and primary obligation to a reader is to tell a good story. Nothing matters so much as that. But a hook is important, too.
For you, what makes a great hero?
Coming out of the Tolkien tradition, I like my protagonists to be flawed. I like them to be everyman, just people like you and me, trying to do the right thing, beset by something not of their making which is large and threatening and which they must find a way to banish. They do not give up, although they could. They accept a moral responsibility for themselves and others. They push on through everything.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
What a terrific writer! Look how real he made me! Or, why do I have to suffer so much in order to be in this story? Can’t I just have a little easier time of it?
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
Well, I don’t research setting as such. I travel a lot, and while traveling my wife and I take pictures and make notes of interesting, different places. Sometimes the setting will be powerful enough that it will suggest the story. For me, setting is a character in the book. This is true of much of fantasy fiction. A foreign world or imaginary place has to be experienced by the reader in the telling of the story. I work hard to make that happen.
What settings would you like to explore in the future?
Still working on that one. I will finish the Shannara cycle, both past and present, so those settings will be fully developed.
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
Anyone who doesn’t know the purpose of a story before writing it is playing with fire. I am always appalled by stories where the ending seems to come out of left field. I think a writer should have a firm grip on beginnings and endings and on what it is that he or she is writing about. I know this doesn’t always happen, but it gives me chills just thinking about it.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
All my words are golden. Except for the ones cut out by my wife, my editor, my proofreaders and many others. I would have a favorite line if I could remember it. Then, again, once a book is written, I don’t think about it much afterwards. My satisfaction comes from the next book, and then the next and the next . . .
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
I do have a routine and I do have a writing space, and I only work there. I have two venues, in fact, in two different states. Anyway, I am like Monk. Everything has to be just so. No changes are allowed. I don’t listen to music when I work. I don’t like sounds of any sort. Except the sound of the ocean. Concentration is important. Especially as you get older and your mental capabilities deteriorate. So I hear.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
It doesn’t exist. If you are suddenly stymied, it means one of two things – either you need a break and should go down out of the attic and reintroduce yourself to your wife and children or you made a wrong turn somewhere in your writing and need to back up and change things around so you are on the right road again.
How do you go about fixing a story?
Depends on how much fixing it needs. If it needs a whole lot, I start over. It’s like remodeling a house. It is more expensive and time-consuming to remodel than to build from scratch. Mostly, I try to avoid difficult, extensive fixes by getting it right the first time. Experience helps.
How do you know when to stop?
If you know your ending in advance – which I always do – you write until you reach it and then you stop.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
If writing isn’t the most important thing in your life, quit now. If the writing process isn’t more important than being published, quit now. If money matters to you, quit now. If you feel incomplete and dissatisfied when you are not writing, you should stick with it. For theraputic reasons if for nothing else.
So, what is YOUR plan for the zombie apocalypse?
I have moved beyond zombies. I am worried about werewolves this week. I think zombies are over. I think vampires are really over. Virals, maybe not. That’s next week’s concern. Mostly, I am worried about other people. All the time. Still working on a plan for that.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
That’s like asking me to choose among my children. I love them all for different reasons and in different ways. My books, that is. So I can’t pick one. I just can’t! Okay, I can. Running With The Demon.
What are you working on now?
A trilogy (what else) called Shannara’s Dark Legacy. The first book, The Wards of Faerie, will publish in late August 2012. The second book will publish in late March 2013, the third in late August 2013. All three are written. Mostly.
About the Author
|A writer since the age of ten, Terry Brooks published his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, in 1977. It became the first work of fiction ever to appear on the New York Times Trade Paperback Bestseller List, where it remained for over five months. He has written twenty-six bestselling novels, movie adaptations of Hook and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and a memoir on his writing life titled Sometimes the Magic Works. He has sold over thirty million copies of his books domestically and is published worldwide. His Shannara series is currently under option at Warner Brothers. His next book, The Wards of Faerie, will be published in late August 2012. The author lives with his wife Judine in the Pacific Northwest.