Writers are asked questions all the time about what they do and how they do it. Mostly, we have some standard answers that skip about the surface of things like dried-out leaves in a wind. Because otherwise – even if we don’t admit it – the answer is too complicated. The process of writing an entire book is demanding and relies as much as anything on how we go about trying make it happen. Obviously, there is a great deal more to constructing a book from scratch than simply sitting down and putting words together. We can talk about the process we use until the cows come home but doing that only scratches the surface of what is required. I like to tell questioners that being successful as a writer requires that you love what you do more than anything and that the compulsion to form those sentences and create those verbal images and make those stories feel as if they express just what you intended requires a uniquely complex devotion to the process that borders on obsession.
Whatever the case, it doesn’t always achieve what you want, and I feel the need to talk about this now. I usually don’t write long dissertations on my work, but I am irritated and disappointed enough just now that I feel the need to unburden. I’ll get over it soon enough – but writing this piece will help.
Three years ago, about a year before the start of our COVID infused existence, I finished the last of my Shannara books (the very last) and started work on something entirely new. I was not foolish enough to believe that this would not be difficult. Sure, I had done it with Magic Kingdom, Word & Void, and a few other pieces of this and that over almost 40 years, but always with an understanding that at some point I would be going back to my roots and doing another Shannara book. I never felt threatened by this commitment; I just accepted that no matter what you write, you have to experiment now and then and challenge yourself. I also fully understood how badly you can mess up if you are not careful. Back in the late seventies, I wrote a sequel to The Sword of Shannara that my editor, Lester del Rey, declared a disaster and told me to read his notes and then toss the book and move on. What I had written in this instance just wasn’t very good, and I should start over and do something better. I had just published Sword, my first book, and I knew instinctively that he was wrong. But time and careful examination convinced me he was right. Out the door and into the ashcan my failed book went (after a bit of cannibalization that salvaged the few things about it that were good enough to use elsewhere).
So several years ago, this new book – this follow-up to forty years of Shannara success – wasn’t written casually or blindly or in blind expectation it was bound to be good. I knew better. Nor do I think I ignored the possibility that it would fail to live up to my expectations. But for one reason or another, it just never got itself together in the way I needed it to. Or that I intended it to, anyway. Or, more correctly, I personally never got it together in the way I should have. It was the first of a proposed trilogy. I had set myself a sizable task. Working on doing one book a year, which is how I normally write, required that I give three years over to completing this task. I liked the idea for the book; I liked the story and the characters. Everything in the initial mental construction of the book was what I wanted it to be.
But somewhere along the way, I wandered off the path and into the woods. I could feel it happening, even as I pushed on, convinced it would sort itself out. But I lost all the necessary commitment and excitement that writing a book requires, and it just sort of meandered away. Finally, thinking I had done the best I could with it, I sent it off to Anne Groell, my current editor. I expected to make revisions and improvements; I was ready for rewrites. But Anne – in her kind and gentle way – just sort of indicated in her extensive letter that I needed to get it together much better than I had. Oddly, I wasn’t as upset as it now seems I should have been. I was disappointed, but not flattened. I studied on the suggested revisions, but when it came to implementing them, I could not get my head in the right place to actually follow through. Instead, I put the book aside and in early 2020 I started work on Child of Light, which I knew from the first sentence was going to be a more successful effort.
Over that year and a part of the next, I wrote two books in that series, one right after the other, each with enthusiasm and energy that pretty much got me back on track. There were occasional thoughts of that first book, but commitment to the new set softened the regrets of giving up on the earlier effort. The conclusion of Shannara came and went, and life took on a decided shift that did not involve book tours, conventions and other engagements centered around new books. For months, Judine and I lived mostly in an isolation that required we find things to do without direct exposure to other people and strict adherence to a life that allowed us to avoid any exposure to the seemingly endless presence of COVID-related threats.
But in the fall of 2021, two books later, I went back to that earlier book and started work on it once more. I didn’t press myself – that isn’t a good way to approach a rewrite. I just went back to the beginning for a complete re-imagining and rewriting of a piece of work I had already decided needed a fix. Using Anne’s personal notes, I went through everything I had done until I had excised and reconstructed almost everything back to where I had stopped before. Then I spent an entire month working on writing new material and exploring new approaches that would allow for this book to be what was certain it was meant to be . . .
. . . and I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t make it happen. Couldn’t find the energy or the fire or the excitement I desperately needed to feel as if the story was coming alive in the way it was meant to. The writing was serviceable, but it wasn’t good enough. The entire book was a stalled effort, and I just wanted to set it aside all over again and move on. My writer’s sense of what works and what doesn’t – which has seldom failed me – was whispering that this book was a loser. I spoke with Judine and Anne and a few writer friends, all of whom urged me to continue. Could do it, I thought. I went back to work. I rewrote it over and over. Couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t.
So now what? What am I seeking here with all this ramble? I certainly do not wish sympathy or pats on the back. I know how this works and how things that once seemed good can blow up in your face. I’ve been a writer nearly all my life, and mostly I’ve been incredibly lucky. But something is needed beyond the obvious (writer, stand fast!). When you fall flat, you pick yourself up and go on. And, really, I have. Two books later, I’ve moved on. It’s not as if I’ve never tossed something aside and gone on before. So why does it trouble me so now? What else exactly am I supposed to so to get clear of this thing?
I think what I need to do is admit that 40 books and many, many bestsellers later, I have to admit that things in a writer’s world are never entirely certain. Nothing is ever so settled that we can depend on past successes to carry us through. There are too many possibilities lurking in the future ever to rely on what’s come and gone. We have to do our best, and then we have to do it again, and we cannot ever cut corners on the demands of our craft. Which is my best book? Every single one. Which is my favorite. Every single one. Which have I struggled with when writing? (Fill in the blank).
Most of us who write do so because we have to. At the end of the day, we are writing for a living but mostly we are feeling complete. I am not a good person to be around when I have not been writing. I don’t feel right about myself or my life. I don’t like the idea that I am somehow ignoring something I should be doing. If we are lucky enough to have been given the gift of a writer’s life, then we have an obligation to both enjoy it and utilize it. We have to embrace the life in whole, not selectively. I wish I had never written anything that wasn’t wonderful. I wish everything I wrote was universally celebrated. But that’s not how writing works. We have to accept the bad with the good and know enough to keep the latter and let go of the former. If we want to be complete as individuals, we have to engage in our craft. If we want to be complete and kept whole, we have to embrace the nature of who and what we are and make something of it.
I don’t know what is going to happen to this poor, failed book. I don’t know if there is a way to resurrect it or to pump life back into it or be give it a path that will justify any further existence for it. I can’t tell yet if there is a way to make it worthy. Maybe Anne or someone I rely on will find a clue to how to make that happen. But I don’t think I can wait around for that to happen. I don’t have that right. I have to do what I did in the Spring of 2020. I have to go back to work. I have to write something else. I need to feel the sense of accomplishment that will give me.
I need to be made whole again.
And I will.
Terry Brooks, 01/24/22
One response to “BrooksBlog: When It Doesn’t Work”
[…] reason for this is that recently there was a post by famous author Terry Brooks that circulated around my various writing groups where he talked about how sometimes books just […]