Editor: Terry Brooks


speakman-knot.jpgI promised myself when I began talking about my foray into writing a book and seeing it published that I would be forthright about the good things that happened in the process as well as the negative.
Here is a moment that is quite cool—and annoying to all ends.
When I finished writing and editing The Dark Thorn, I gave a copy to author Terry Brooks. Terry offered to read the book when it was completed, willing to go over it with his critical teaching and mentoring eye, wishing to help me on my journey. Since he teaches classes every so often at writing conferences and retreats, I willingly gave the book over to him in hopes of strengthening what I hoped was already a good book. Who better to critique my writing and set me upon a better path?
He was unbelievably kind to use his valuable time to read it.
thumb-memoir.jpgIn a way, I suppose, this is his way of giving back. Terry had a mentor as well when he entered the publishing field—Lester del Rey. Terry has ever been adamant he learned the majority of his writing craft from Lester, the latter molding the former into a professional writer. In his writing guide and memoir Sometimes the Magic Works, Terry speaks of that education and how it came about:
“I can’t being to imagine how much time and effort he must have put into going through all 375-plus pages of The Song of Lorelei, writing out his thoughts as he did so on those scraps of yellow tablet paper each step of the way. What he had given me was the kind of education young writers can only dream about—the kind you hope and pray you might find in college writing programs, writing conferences, or even from editors, but seldom do.” — Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works
After the great success of The Sword of Shannara, Terry immediately dove into writing The Song of Lorelei, the sequel to The Sword of Shannara, one centering on the son of Menion Leah. Terry did not show Lester what he was working on, hoping to surprise his editor with a great second book. But when Terry got more than halfway finished he could not continue. He did not know how to wrap up the tale, the various plot threads not weaving into the tapestry he had hoped. He reluctantly handed it over to Lester, hoping his editor had the magic to figure out the problem.
Lester returned the unfinished manuscript to Terry buried with notes—and said he wouldn’t publish the book.

As you can imagine Terry was shocked. Lester in no uncertain terms said the book was so flawed nothing could retrieve it from its problems. He assured Terry he could publish the book elsewhere and it would sell well based on the success of The Sword of Shannara, but Terry’s writing career thereafter would be in jeopardy if he published a terrible book. Terry was confronted with the reality he had wasted a great deal of time writing a book that had no future.
After a week and no correspondence, Terry received a phone call:
“Are you all right, Brooks?” Judy Lynn del Rey asked.
Terry was, of course. It just took him a few days to absorb what he was being told. Once he agreed with what Lester had to say and saw the futility of the manuscript he had been working on, Terry then went on to write The Elfstones of Shannara, the book many consider to be his masterpiece.
I knew all of this when I gave The Dark Thorn to Terry. He had a strong mentor in Lester del Rey.
I had no idea how pertinent it would become to my own writing hopes.
Terry finished reading The Dark Thorn a few days ago. He wrote me an email letting me know that he thought it was a good book and that we should get together to talk about it. I wrote him back instantly as I usually do, letting him know that sounded great. Two hours later I received another email from him with three points he wanted me to think on before we got together:

  • Remove more purple prose. Don’t use large words ala Stephen R. Donaldson when there is no need.
  • There are two characters you can get rid of that add nothing to the story. Figure it out.
  • The opening of the book needs to be sped up a bit and the book-long antagonism between two characters better established.

I already knew about the first and third points. I am very aware of my propensity for purple prose (see what I did there? purple prose propensity!), and the first chapter did little to move the story forward other than introduce characters. The second point surprised me a bit—I knew of one character but not the other.
He also told me had another five or six points he wanted to share with me but they would take longer to explain and would have to be done in person.
Cryptic. Not boding well.
I didn’t write him back right away as I normally would. I went for a walk around the lake I live on, thinking about what he had said, his last words unsettling me further. I visited my post office box. I went to the grocery store. I went to the bookstore. I spent about four hours away from my computer, thinking, thinking, thinking.
By the time I returned home, my cell phone was ringing in my pocket.
“Haven’t ended yourself, have you?” Terry said in an amused voice.
“No, not yet. Just went for a long walk around Greenlake.”
“Ahh, haven’t thrown yourself in then?”
I couldn’t help but smile. Terry is one of the wittiest and most aware people I know and he was keeping it light in hopes of bringing the hammer down without creating a suicidal hopeful writer.
He was adamant about a few things. He said my writing and style are very strong, and because of that he almost forgot the “problems” he found. He enjoyed my pacing and my scene setups. The story, back story and overall delivery are well done and he really liked that The Dark Thorn is bound by literary subtextual ideas about current world problems.
But there were things he did not like.
“I am going to do to you what Lester used to do to me,” Terry said, a bit more seriously than the levity he had expressed earlier. “I am going to ask you questions about the book and you have to respond as quickly as you can.”
“Oh God… make me squirm.”
“So, Shawn, who is the main character of the book?”
“Umm… Bran.”
“And who is the most interesting character in the book?”
Long pause. “Well, for me, it is Richard.”
“Exactly what?”
“Shawn, you have a great character in Richard. Cormac and Philip are fully realized and interesting too. How do you feel about Bran as a character?”
“Not too strongly, actually,” I said. “I haven’t almost from the beginning.”
“Ahh, your writing instincts are true then!” he said, triumphant. “Bran is BOOORING. Therefore, listen to what I have to say, incorporate it, think on it for a few days and when we get together next week we can talk more.”
Terry spent the next forty minutes quizzing me—all to make a point. He feels quite strongly that my main character Bran Ardall, who takes up the majority of point of view chapters, needs to be relegated to a side character. In his place I need to take a side character and make him the prominent point of view. If I do that, I can keep 15 of the chapters I have already written, I can eliminate two chapters from the book entirely, but I’ll have to rewrite the remaining 20 or 21 chapters in the voice of Richard, a Knight of the Seven who leads a conflicted existence.
So what does that means?
Major rewrites. Terry told me I have everything set up the right way but it is told through the wrong character. And he is right. I see it as clear as day. He told me the problems in the book remind him of the problems in his second effort, The Song of Lorelei. And as you guys know, Lester del Rey had Terry can that book and start over fresh.
Thankfully, Terry told me I didn’t need to do that. He said my effort was much better than his second effort since it was readable and makes sense. I never wrote myself into a corner like he did, although the main characters in both books have the same problem—boring!
So… I will go back to the drawing board for the next week or so. I will let his thoughts settle in, and then I will sit down and think about how I can rewrite the book to make it better. I’m already doing it, in my head, so by next week I’m sure I’ll have a brand new outline that incorporates some of the old but tells it from a different point of view. Then I’ll know how much rewriting I must do.
Gonna be a lot. I already know that.
It was a great thing having a long-standing New York Times bestselling writer look at my manuscript. I am quite lucky to have had that chance. And it has already taught me a lot. The sad reality is I have a great deal more work to do on The Dark Thorn to make it the book it should be—the book Terry can see.
Until then, back to work!
In a weird way, Terry channeled Lester for my writing future’s benefit.
I wonder if Lester would be proud of Terry right now?
I have no doubt he would.

  • Steven Till

    I’m curious as to your process of outlining. Are your outlines usually very detailed or are they broad in scope? Was it something you did before writing The Dark Thorn the first time, or did you just start writing and allow the story to unfold as you went?
    Also, how did you and Terry meet? It’s impressive to have someone of that caliber reading your work.

  • Shawn Speakman

    My outline process is fairly extensive… well… more extensive than some but probably not as extensive as others. Since The Dark Thorn is set within our world and within our history, I had to do a lot of research.
    While I was doing that research, which took me about two months, the story itself was growing from a seed into a nebulous entity on its own. I knew the beginning and the end. I knew six or seven of the key plots points between. I knew the characters and how they were to develop. So when I sat down to outline it I already had a good idea of what the story was to be.
    My outlines are fairly detailed. I label the chapter number. I put down the POV the chapter is told in. I put down the setting. I put down the key events that are to happen in the chapter. I even put down dialog that comes to me that is necessary to move the story forward. All in all, each chapter receives probably two large paragraphs, some shorter, some longer.
    This is pretty much how Terry does it too. I used to be a “free writer,” shirking all outlines, but then I read Sometimes the Magic Works late in college, tried outlining a 20 page paper, and discovered it was so much easier for me to write in a logical way. So I blame Terry. 🙂 I took that experience into The Dark Thorn right from the beginning, so I didn’t “just start writing.” I actually had a purpose to what I was doing and knew the foreshadowing that was needed early on for later in the book.
    Most writers, I think, have a firm grasp of their book’s beginnings, by the way. That’s not usually the hard part because that beginning is usually well thought out. It’s when a writer gets into later chapters that they either write themselves into a box or need a deux ex machina to get out. This is why I outline — so that doesn’t happen.
    As for meeting Terry, that is a fairly long story. 🙂
    The short of it: I offered my services as a web developer for his official website and he agreed.
    The long of it: You can read it HERE.
    All of this, of course, is great fun. I have a great deal more work to accomplish, but at least I have been given some great direction from a great teacher. It’s what I’ve craved from the beginning of this and I’m happy Terry was the one to initially deliver it.

  • Kyle M.

    Wow – what a fantastic article, Shawn! Thanks for sharing. I have to say, as I was reading it, I thought about what it must have been like to receive that email. Just the first ten seconds or so must have been tough, but after thinking it over and especially with Terry calling to follow up, I have to admit that his way of telling you was incredibly encouraging. I’m glad to read in your comment above that you’re still jazzed and ready to rock ‘n’ roll. And it’s awesome that Terry offered you such honest advice. This has all the makings of a really cool story that you’re going to be able to tell for a long time to come.

  • Pete

    Sounds like great progress, Shawn. A second set of eyes is always great. If they happen to be Mr. Brooks’s eyes, well, that must be very, very helpful. And encouraging. Keep it up!

  • Shawn Speakman

    Kyle: Thanks, man. I actually handled it semi-okay. Terry did exactly what I was hoping he would. Ralph told me Friday he doesn’t have time to take a book through several drafts, so for Terry to aid me in this way makes my year, pretty much. The good thing: Terry would have told me to just start over if he thought there was nothing there. Or he would have told me to get another job because, “Shawn, man, you just suck at writing.” He’s forthright like that, thankfully. So I think I have something but it’s just going to take a bit more work to bring it to the point a publisher can’t say NO to it.
    Pete: Thanks! Gonna keep it up! *grins*

  • Iron Elf

    Hi, Shawn:
    It’s rare and welcome to see an author treat the writing process with as much candor as you have here. There’s a tendency for ego to get in the way, but you’ve vaulted that hurdle and instead given readers an insight into the highs and lows of turning a dream into a reality. The fact that you can do that (and it’s no easy feat to reveal your aspirations in public) suggests you’ll be equally adept at taking Terry’s suggestions and revising The Dark Thorn into a much improved book, and that’s the whole point.
    Chris Evans

  • Steven Till

    I agree with you on outlining. I had no written plan to the first draft of my first novel, and I ended up trashing the entire thing after I finished and starting from scratch.
    The second time around, I had a written plan to direct me throughout the writing process. I still trashed a lot of that draft too, but at least I was able to keep more of the core concepts and plot lines for my third re-write.
    That’s cool that you’re in web development. Do you still do that? Basically I’m a light weight developer with more of a focus on internet marketing. I know HTML and CSS well, can edit javascript and other languages like PHP but not write the code from scratch. Currently, my day job has me developing SharePoint portals for internal use.

  • Shawn Speakman

    Chris: Thanks for the encouragement! Like I said, I told myself I would be perfectly candid about my trials in following this dream. I want to catalog my endeavors for my own diary-like viewing, but I also want to try to lift the veil of mystery that surrounds writers trying to break into the publishing business. There is a lot of mis-information out there and I am hoping I can dispel some of it.
    If people are even reading this, that is! haha
    Steven: Nice to know I’m not the only outliner out there! And yes, I still do web development. It’s still a hobby and I don’t do it to make money really but it appeals to a side of my creative nature I can’t scratch in any other way — even with writing. I do everything by hand and I should take some real classes in it!

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