As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with fantasy legend Terry Brooks.
Terry Brooks and I share one thing in common at least, we both spent some of our lives in Illinois—he was born there—and ended up in the Seattle area. He’s one of those rare authors who “hit it out of the park” with his very first book. Inspired, like so many other fantasy authors, by Tolkien, he spent seven years writing The Sword of Shannara, which was released to instant success. His name has been synonymous with modern fantasy literature ever since.
Terry is a generous supporter of fandom, and his fellow fantasy authors, providing exemplary advice for authors on his website. I can’t recommend that page strongly enough, and his robust and user-friendly web site is a model for every author.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Terry Brooks: For me, epic fantasy is the most important form of the genre, and I think of it as adventure storytelling involving a small band of friends or comrades on a quest, an archetypal confrontation between Good and Evil, and an element of magic that is crucial to the resolution of the story.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Brooks: Science fiction is any story in which events are centered on an extrapolation or projected alternative possibility of a proven fact of science.
Athans: Is there a particular source for ideas you find yourself going back to? Mythology, current events, history, your own life, etc.?
Brooks: Current events. Almost everything I write starts and ends with world and personal issues that countries and individuals struggle to resolve in the present. Much of what I write thematically can be traced back to an early and enduring fascination with William Faulkner.
Athans: That being the case, how careful are you that your fantasy take on real world issues have a particular political point of view, either liberal or conservative—or are you careful not to take sides?
Brooks: I like to create situations that require the readers to think about their own feelings on issues. It isn’t my job to instruct anyone on how to think, but it is my job to make them examine and question their views of the larger world. All good writing operates on two levels—the level on which the story is told and the level on which it is applicable to the known world.
Athans: What advice can you give an aspiring fantasy author on how to convey a sense of place?
Brooks: A sense of place is much harder to convey if there is no touchstone from our own world. If the place is imaginary, the writer has to work much harder to permit the reader to connect. Use all five senses to draw the reader in. Find something unusual for the important places, something the reader will easily remember. Use place to set mood. Remember that place in a fantasy story is always a character.
Athans: What advice can you give an aspiring fantasy author on how to give characters their own unique voice?
Brooks: Don’t work too hard at trying to be different. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Make the characters speak in voices that seem natural to you. Remember that much of what connects a reader to a character has nothing to do with voice. Much of it has to do with things like facial expressions and movement and character traits. Work at hearing your characters clearly in your head before you try to write down their words.
Athans: What advice can you give an aspiring fantasy author on how to manage point-of-view? Do you hold to the one scene, one point of view rule?
Brooks: I don’t like shifting POV unless there is a clear break in scene and setting and even in time. I like chapters to mostly stick with one character and one POV. It isn’t that you can’t manage to juggle multiple POVs. It’s more that sticking with one lends the chapter consistency and cohesion. Too much jumping around tends to break down the reader’s connection with the characters. Thriller writers use the multiple POV technique to generate excitement and to increase tension, but I’ve always found it sort of artificial.
Athans: If you could give an aspiring fantasy author one piece of advice on the subject of world-building, what would that be?
Brooks: Know your world before you write. Have it clear in your mind. Three quarters of what you know about that world should never appear in your book, but you should be able to speak to it, anyway. Your writing should suggest to the reader that if he thought to ask you, he would discover that you know a lot more than you’re telling him.
Athans: How important is it for an author to form a close relationship with a particular editor? How many editors have you worked with in your career, and what has the best of those editors brought to your development as an author?
Brooks: I think a writer’s relationship with an editor is crucial. I’ve had three: Lester del Rey, Owen Lock, and Betsy Mitchell. All have taught me something, all have been committed to making my work better, all have been friends. I don’t think I could function if that wasn’t so. The writer/editor relationship is not all that different from a marriage. There needs to be understanding, give and take, and deep respect.
Athans: What is the one novel every aspiring fantasy author has to read?
Brooks: There are two. The Mists of Avalonby Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. The first is a dramatic, thought-provoking examination of the Arthur legend that offers a fresh and exciting imagining of a familiar story, and the second is a wonderfully original retelling of Paradise Lost.
Athans: What is the one book on the art and craft of writing that you would most recommend?
Brooks: My own, of course. Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life. If that’s too self-serving, then I’d suggest reading Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell. I suppose I like Morrell because he and I tend to have the same view about the writing process. I like Stephen King’s book On Writing, too, although he and I don’t agree on a whole lot. But for a reader looking to contrast and compare different approaches, I would recommend reading all three.
Athans: Do you have any words of warning for the aspiring fantasy author.
Brooks: If the process isn’t more important than the end product, you’re in trouble.
Athans: Now please give me some general words of encouragement for the aspiring fantasy author.
Brooks: I think there are all sorts of ways to break into the business and be successful at it. If you listen to the stories of authors who have found a publisher, you will understand this. If you are willing to put in the time and effort, study on the craft, read everything you can get your hands on, and be patient, you will find a way. Luck is a big part of this business, but as Kevin Anderson is fond of saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Thank you, Terry!