LEARNING TO SPELL
One time I brought a magic trick to elementary school. It was a coloring book, where the pages would show as blank, then illustrated, then full color, depending on how it was displayed. I performed a few times, astounding my friends.
But then at recess,a classmate snuck into my desk, stole the trick and showed everyone exactly how it worked. I was mortified.
“It’s a trick,” she showed everyone. “It’s not real magic.”
Some people say great writing can’t be taught, that there is no secret formula, that nobody really understands the creative process enough to teach it. That’s why most writing guides narrate the completely unreplicable creative process of a handful of famous authors, with zero guidelines to actually make the work easier, more enjoyable and objectively better. They opine about how real art is hard and there are no shortcuts; that you need to suffer painfully for years wrestling with each word, even as the whole world spurns you.
According to Anne Lamott, very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it. Booker Prize winner John Banville says writing a book is like “wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm, with no lantern to guide one’s steps and no lighthouse to warn of the submerged reefs and wrecks that lie ahead.”
All of this is inspiring, but none of it is helpful. Few writing guides share the secrets of the craft, the wordplay, the form and function, the plotting or organization. The emphasis is on the muse and mystery and magic, none of which can be codified or taught.
Since there are no rules, the only practical advice writers can give each other is persistence and passion. Because the only way to be a writer is to write. They say if you gave a million monkeys a typewriter, eventually they’d write Shakespeare – and that’s exactly what we have; a million monkeys banging out manuscripts and the one out of millions for whom that strategy produces a masterpiece. Maybe it’s the only way to produce masterpieces, but it’s brutal, difficult, and unnecessary. It breeds false ideologies, like the harder you work, the better it will be or the more readers will enjoy it.
The majority of books on writing are secretly selling authors the dream that anybody can do it, because nobody knows how it’s done: conveniently ignoring the hard truth that the vast majority of authors never sell more than a hundred copies.
When I started writing, I thought I was a genius. I thought my natural talent would be universally recognized. I shamelessly followed the whim of my intuition. And I realized that writing a book was hard.
Or at least, it can be. Sure, sometimes the words flow like magic, pouring out of your soul onto the page until you’ve suddenly got half a manuscript. But then during the revision, the editing, the rewrites, the insecurity and fear about whether it’s actually any good takes over and has you questioning everything. The creative process flickers between unbridled optimism and terrifying inferiority. One good day of writing might be followed by a week on the couch eating ice cream.
This struggle to capture or enhance raw talent into the reliable productivity necessary for sustained greatness isn’t new. In 1695, the poet John Dryden asked, what is genius, and notes the subtle tensions in the creative process:
“It depends on the influence of the stars say the astrologists; the organs of the body say the naturalists; a particular gift of heaven say the divines. How to improve it, many books can teach us; how to obtain it: none. That nothing can be done without it all agree.”
In other words, genius is a gift or a birthright. It can only be expressed, or accessed. It can’t be acquired through effort or will alone, even though it is vital.
The founding texts of the Western literary canon begin with an incantation, Sing, Muse. Egyptian scribes were said to have offered a single drop of their ink each day in Thoth’s name.
In the Middle Ages, when most people were illiterate, writing was the work of priests and magicians. The word spell was used to refer to deliberate and intentional speech; to call into being through an utterance. But it could also mean “work in the place of another,” as in a sign or symbol that replaced the tangible with something silent and mysterious.
To spell was to create invisible meaning through the learned rearrangement of inscrutable symbols; mystifying signs with hidden meaning that conjured and transferred wisdom and knowledge, without speaking them out loud.
A simple leather bag containing 26 magical runes could be arranged into infinite possibilities. Once learned, it gave a practitioner the power to create words, and to transcribe meaning across time. As Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri writes,
“Surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”
Creativity is already a kind of sorcery; bringing something into existence out of nothing. But magic implies the intervention or assistance of a supernatural force—an inexplicable raw power, not yet understood.
And there is something magical about writing. The unplanned, spontaneous flash of insight, the sudden discovery which feels to come from beyond, just outside of our limited capabilities.
The problem is, most authors think this is the onlyvaluable part, that everything else, not invested with the muse, isn’t real, is worthless, that touching this magic is the only point and the only way to write.
Attempts to explore or demystify the inner workings of this esoteric process are often resisted or denigrated, because if writing is a sacred process, contingent on the impetuous arrival of supernatural inspiration, it cannot be sought out, it can only be gifted. You cannot choose to write, you can only be chosen. If writing is the purview of the muse, handing out boons, then all attempts to understand this power, control it, and wield it must be sacrilegious or profane. It’s not real magic. It’s just a trick.
But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if inspiration is like lightning? An awesome, mysterious flash in the sky that scorches the earth; yet it can also be studied, harnessed and diverted into productive energy.
What if inspiration is like a rare bird that sometimes passes your window; that can be tamed with scattered seeds and a wooden house?
The truth is,there’s another path that doesn’t depend on supernatural intervention, or the raw talent apportioned at birth that sets limits on your creative abilities. And while it’s considered inferior by the literary purists, it also allows for unlimited potential to those who would command it.
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF MAGIC
The first is ritualistic, formulaic, dependable, safe. It takes years of training to learn the exact steps and procedures. Mostly it’s about transference of belief, repetition and letting go. Trust in the process. Expecting the results.
Then there’s the explosive magic. Unrestrained, wild and innate. It’s probably true that explosive magic is more powerful. The problem is, it’s unreliable and dangerous. Also, it’s probably not very useful. You may have energy and power – but without purpose, form and intention, it can give someone goosebumps or light a fire in their soul. It’s better suited for poetry, not the successful completion of a powerful book.
Which is why, even powerfully great magicians still need to learn ritual and structure; to properly channel the creative energy. Good writing usually does flow. The best writing. The art, the passion. But you need the skill, the craft, to contain it, from one awful long sentence of wordplay into an enjoyable novel.
“There are two men inside The Artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.” – Emile Zola, French novelist
Book writing, like magic, requires a deliberate practice. It’s not just an event, an overflow of unbridled emotion, a bombshell. It’s a controlled relief valve, a daily discipline that harnesses that creative energy into something useful.
Most writers accept that even if writing is an Art, certainly it’s also a Skill; and there’s probably no harm in getting better at the thing you hope people will pay you for (if even this innocuous statement causes you to balk, take a deep breath and a long look in the mirror and repeat to yourself, “Readers love to pay for good books.”)
Magic is the useful application of creative energies, not just the zealous expression of personal experience. And while these definitions have been fluid, current conversations often divorce the craft from the art.
Art is a messy affair, that can only be experienced naked, deep in the woods, when you throw yourself at the mercy of the writing gods, pleading for inspiration. Craft is the artisanal-impulse to create higher value.
One you can get better at with work, knowledge and practice. The other is a sensitive void of a thousand eyes that must not be probed because it eats hearts. One leads to consistent, measurable excellence; the other is a one-in-a-million crapshoot: a million monkeys and a lot of time.
Art is about self-expression.
Craft is about technical mastery.
Art controls you.
Craft is a tool you wield.
Art is a gift.
Craft is a power.
Art is the why.
Craft is the how.
Can you get better at both?
Shouldn’t you get better at the one you can?
I think the answer is yes.
This doesn’t mean you have to choose between them, or have the one without the other. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But, according to most other books on the subject – the skill is worthless even if it’s well paid; and the art is priceless even if nobody will pay for it.
Writing can be an art, if you define art as self-exploration, or a passion fueled torrent of words (Wordworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”) It can be that. That’s a choice most authors make, without recognizing that it’s a relatively recent ideology, that revolutionized thousands of years of standard creative process, and is not at all suited towards book writing.
It’s empowering, because it allows writers to do the work without worrying about the reception. But it’s impractical, because they assume passionate writing will automatically be of higher quality and higher value; that the path to great writing is by refusing to conform to any rules or expectations; that real creativity requires no skill or preparation, only insight and inspiration.
But writing can also be a practice: the calculated mastery of technique and ability. The intentional cultivation of sustainable, reliable bouts of creative genius, in order to get more of your best words on the page, with less of the fears, doubts or indecision most writers face. This book hopes to resurrect the ancient truth that the muse comes to those who are prepared and willing; that magic needs focus, ability and attention; and that all true magic requires work and sacrifice.
Book Craft is an invitation to become worthy of respecting the craft that is and always has been the ritualistic basis for literary excellence. But it is also a call to arms against those literary elitists that claim skill, education and execution, when offered in the service of quality and value, even or especially when the authors choose to use those hard-won abilities to create books readers love, are somehow diminishing the purity of their artistic vision.
Unlike most other writing guides, this book is not about finding courage or chasing fairy dust. It’s about building a reliable, craft-based writing practice, based on rules and shortcuts and templates and story outlines, so you can finish more of your best work faster and unlock masterful prose that will bring you enduring rewards.
The tips and writing advice in this book are not meant to replace or minimize the magic. But they will help coax the magic in, and teach you to unleash it effectively. I’ll give you the tools and strategies you need to cast powerful spells over your readers. In the end, I hope to show you that real magic and just a trick aren’t so different: but there’s no trick here. I want you to become a master conjurer. A sorcerer of words.
With the right magic, and the right ritual, you can get a specific result: so instead of charming your car into a pumpkin or turning your family into a pack of exploding rats, you can create the effects you actually want: publishing success, professional fulfillment, and a small army of fans who are eager to support your writing career.
Steinbeck might be right; maybe there’s no way to teach the magic of story. Maybe I can’t teach you how to write great books. But you can teach the craft. And I can definitely help you improve your writing, by avoiding predictably common, amateur mistakes. That final bit of magic and moondust it takes to go from good to great, that’s up to you. But if you practice the craft, and strive to get better, the magic will show up. That’s just how it works.
THE STARS ALIGN
The first tattoos I gave myself, with a tattoo machine I bought off Ebay, were the planetary glyphs of Jupiter and Saturn, which represent the conflicting influences of my ruling zodiac signs. Sagittarius is eager and optimistic; happy-go-lucky with unearned confidence. The archer climbs every mountain, or at least intends to, but probably spends most of their time driving between them and getting distracted, never stocking up on the gear. Capricorn is diligent and studious: slow, careful and cautious. They may spend too much time climbing the wrong mountain, or get lost in mapping out the journey, without ever taking the first step.
This year, Winter solstice 2020, the day this book publishes (and my birthday) there’s a rare celestial convergence not seen since the Middle Ages, when Jupiter and Saturn will appear to overlap in the sky, forming a single, bright star. In 1614 the German philosopher Johannes Kepler suggested this was the “Christmas Star” that the three magi followed in the nativity story. Craft and magic, together, the powers of each opposite impulse bringing out the energy of the other. A symbiotic, expanding field of wonder and power. This book is an attempt to reconcile their differences, and balance their unique strengths, to unlock a more sustainable, more enchanting, writing methodology. It’s my gift to you, and to myself.
MAGIC STIRS WITHIN YOU
Most writers, when reading this book, will feel some resistance. They do want to become better, they do want to write better quality books, so they can sell more copies and make a living, but they may resist the idea that there is any kind of structured process for that to happen that doesn’t completely ruin the experience. They may say things like “well some authors can do that, but I never could. I write for the love of it, the passion. I’m creative. My mind just doesn’t work like that.” It’s not enough to promise them accolades, positive reviews, or sold out new releases, because for them it’s not about the money. They may be willing to pick up a few new tricks, but only if it doesn’t threaten their deep-seated belief that real art cannot be constrained, and good writing is nothing if not real art.
In this book, I will attempt to show that you can be even more creative and inspired when your writing is supported by a structured practice. In the process, I’ll be doing my best to cast a spell over you, while also showing you exactly how I’m doing it. The challenge is, revealing how the tricks works without spoiling the magic. Going from amateur (one who does for love) to expert (one who does from experience) without losing the joy of writing.
“There is nothing more disenchanting to man, than to be shown the springs and mechanism of an art.” – Robert Louis Tevenson
Magic is just something you don’t yet understand. The surprise and delight our ancestors felt when the accidental collision of stones caused sparks. A magic trick is just a whole bunch of mechanical steps, with a predictable result. For the magician, it can be performed without inspiration. For the viewer, it creates a powerful illusion, something impossible, something astounding.
In other words, magic is simply a wondrous state of unknowing. Don’t be disappointed or discouraged once you see how the tricks work. It won’t make them any less powerful, because the truth is, magic isn’t what’s performed or how. Magic is what happens when the viewer’s imagination engages with the material being presented. Seeing behind the curtain won’t negate the effects, though it may take away some of the charm.
Induction is the process for welcoming new recruits and supporting them as they adjust to their new roles and working environments. The process or action of bringing about or giving rise to something. An induction stove heats up food faster, while remaining cool to the touch – no fire, no heat, yet safe and effective. Do you know exactly the science behind how one functions? I don’t. But I don’t need to understand it, or believe in it, to use it to make my life easier.
By revealing secrets of the craft, and witnessing the hidden mechanisms, you may even feel threatened or incredulous, and that’s fine: sit with those feelings. In fact, I’m going to start with a three-part guide to creative confidence that I hope will help you process some of that discomfort, and widen your capacity for growth, before we begin.
I will assume you’re a frog in hot water and you’re nervous about learning something new, and not even sure you really want to be here. I’ll distract with interesting quotes and historical minutiae. I’ll introduce you to some previously unpublished works of 18th century literary canon. I have to be non-threatening enough to get you to keep reading, which means I need to coax and cajole. With any luck, I’ll be slowly chipping away at your defenses, so that you’ll be open enough to the idea of improving your writing to take action and try out something new.
Because, here’s the important thing: real magic can only happen within ourselves; it’s the friction that causes growth, awareness and personal transformation. Magic is the process of using reliable mechanisms that can generate enough confidence and courage to take action, to go beyond current limitations and believe that anything is possible. As Lisa Marie Basile writes in The Magical Writing Grimoire,
“The magic is actually the change that happens within you when you direct your energy, when you show up for yourself and put in the work (even without immediate result), and when you decide to write and feel and encounter all the layers of self.”
I hope this book makes you uncomfortable. It should feel a bit like Inception: just when you think we can’t go any deeper, that there isn’t another fresh writing insight or insane historical piece of trivia, whenever things are getting stale or boring, I’ll surprise you. You may feel unmoored. If you feel at all I’ll consider this project a success, as I can’t hope to mentor you unless I reach your hearts.
The real magic of a book, is its ability to change yourself. But that is out of my control, because it can’t be forced, it must be willing. The best I can do is encourage you forward slowly, without overwhelming you. And remember, I’m not asking you to choose. A teaspoon of sugar makes the medicine go down. We do need the magic. I don’t want you to get rid of it. I just want you to harness it, by supporting your muse, with practice, systems, rituals and a reliable process. While no two writers will use the same words, good writing shares identifiable patterns that you can learn to implement, without stumbling through the dark by yourself.
We get better at what we practice. We attract what we focus on. If you want to be a writer, you need to write. But this isn’t a magical, instant transformation, and we aren’t just writing an inspired poem in a ten-minute frenzied burst. We’re going to need more than inspiration. More than an inkling of desire or a passing whim. We’re going to need an all-encompassing purpose, burning through obstacles like a meteor, an impenetrable shield of courage, and an armory of resistance destroying weapons. That’s why this book cannot simply be a basic how-to guide, because writing is not simple, and your biggest obstacles are already inside you, bristling uncomfortably in the darkness.
METHODS OF MADNESS
I’ve decided not to give you a map, or explain how this book is organized. There’s a purpose for it, it’s been done with deliberation. For best results, you’ll be led through it slowly (induction). Some sections may seem easy, some won’t.
I’ll be pulling back the veils, one by one. Each time, building towards a new surprise or deeper insight. A balance of ritual process and spontaneous realizations. Careful preparation, followed by dazzling revealment. Trust in the process. You don’t need to know where we’re going, in order to discover value. You just have to pay attention.
This book, like all books, is equal parts skill and magic, art and craft. The best writing probably came in a euphoric flood and flash of brilliance. The less inspired passages were probably sweat into being as I wrestled my muse into submission; dragged out of my psyche with a pickax. During edits, it’s easy to say, take out everything that isn’t great. But in truth, a book is rarely all great. It’s greatness supported by a good deal of good enough. And that’s okay, because the only thing that really matters is the one thing I can’t control: the magic is the insights, epiphanies, and realizations that this book sparks out of you, which help you move forward with more confidence and ability.
If you’re a long-term, career writer who has already published a lot of successful books, first of all congrats! You probably already have a lot of magic inside you. I give you a nod of writerly respect and gratitude. You probably also have a great deal of experience writing good books intuitively. But I’ll bet there are a few places where you struggle with the process, or spend days on a stubborn plot hole.
If you’re reading this right now, it’s because you’ve encountered limits, and are frustrated by the unique challenges that writing a book can pose. You’d like to get better, and are ready to find some new tactics and strategies that make your writing practice easier, more enjoyable, and your stories more captivating.
Many of the tactics in this book were hard-learned, when things didn’t go easily, when the writing wasn’t effortless. While they may feel vaguely familiar, and perhaps you’ve already experienced them on your own, you’ve probably never encountered them boiled down to simple formulas you can understand easily.
No matter where you are in your writing journey, whether you’re writing for fun, pleasure or profit, fiction or nonfiction, creative or commercial, whether you’re writing your first book or twentieth, you will find effective strategies you can implement immediately that will drastically improve your writing.
Even so, some of you will resist. Some of you may quit halfway through. You’ll go back to doing it your way, the way that’s comfortable and unscripted; that makes you feel good. I don’t blame you. This a big book. Mastery isn’t easy. It requires diligence, and change can be scary. The real magic, the deep magic of writing is how it changes you. But only you get to decide who you want to become.
“The degree to which a person can grow is directly proportional to the amount of truth he can accept about himself without running away.” – Leland Val Vandewall
PS. If you’re sick of all the theatrics and magic talk, I get it. I think if you finish reading this book, you’ll understand why it was important. But we’re only at about 5%. The vast majority of this book is tactical, with specific guidelines that are mostly unique to this book, because I invented and pioneered them. Even if you are an experienced writer who has studied craft for years, there will be a secret somewhere in this book, just for you, which is the key to unlock the next level of your spellcraft. So if you’re ready…
Take my hand.
Take a deep breath in.
Turn the page.
Get the book on Amazon!