Impractical Magic

There is no magic formula, no conjuring spell. No eye of newt, and toe of frog. No wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

Oh, you’ll find a few who would claim otherwise – people quick to sell you the secrets to a guaranteed bestseller. But they are charlatans. Or fools.

There is no such thing as a magic formula for a guaranteed bestseller.

You can’t reverse-engineer J. K. Rowling’s books, find out what makes them tick, then build a better Hagrid. You can’t boil Hunger Games down to the bones then wrap new, equally tempting skin on it.

The secret of a bestselling book is mostly invisible, organic, unpredictable; a creeping vine that winds through the words then burrows under a reader’s skin and wraps around the heart. It’s a thing that never quite reveals itself, proving its existence only by the trail of impossibly enthralled evangelists left in its wake.

Of course, this doesn’t stop writers and editors and publishers and pundits from trying to define its shape. And why not? We all want it – even those of us who wear the gray hoodie of humility emblazoned with that well-meaning but tired mantra, “I write because I can’t not write.”

We want people to love our words. We want people to buy our books. Not because we’re particularly greedy. (We’ll only buy one Tuscan villa.) But because we want our stories to matter. To resonate. To change people. To inspire people.

And, yeah, to pay the bills so we have time and inclination to write more books.

There is no magic forumla for success.

There is, however, magic.

It appears unexpected. In a sentence that brings a gasp. In a twist that spins you dizzy. In the spark and crackle between words, the infinite ache below them, the impossible buzz above.

It’s what happens when the characters suddenly become real, when the plot takes on a life of its own. It’s the surprise that draws us closer to the monitor, unsure what just happened but longing for more.

It’s the root of that creeping invisible vine and we wants it, my precious.

So we chase it. We try to understand it. Corral it. Analyze it. Engineer it.

Sigh. Will we ever learn?

A writer can’t invoke magic. Story is its only enchanter.

And that, my friends, is the end of the post.

Yes, really.

What were you expecting? A formula? Sigh. Okay, try this: the better the storyteller, the more the magic; the more the magic, the happier the readers; the happier the readers, the more likely they’ll become impossibly enthralled evangelists. You can do the rest of the math yourself.

Now go out there and become a better storyteller. In case you’re wondering it’s a simple three-step process:

Read. Write. Repeat.

Have a nice day.

17 thoughts on “Impractical Magic

  1. Ha, you just described me – “those of us who wear the gray hoodie of humility emblazoned with that well-meaning but tired mantra, “I write because I can’t not write.” Yeah, I wish I’d written The Hunger Games! I’d rewrite it with different words if I thought I could do that well and snag myself a bestseller.

    I don’t know that a bestseller is always about magic, though – or even good writing. I’ve read a lot of Young Adult bestsellers lately and not all of them seem particularly magical to me. (Well, apart from the actual magic, but that’s not what you meant.) Some are merely drivel with a black and red cover and a love triangle thrown in and, hey presto, they gain thousands of readers and sell the movie rights within a year. Those books seem formulaic to me. “A plucky, fiesty heroine living in a dystopia faces a supernatural threat with the help of a red-hot vampire/vampire-hunter/ghost/werewolf/bad angel/tormented guy and the true friendship of a steady/quirky/good angel/ghostbusting guy.”

    But hey, I’m not bitter. And I’m patient. Any day now little books of poetry are going to become all the rage.

    1. I agree with your assessment of bestsellers. And yet there’s something that draws a reader to the less-than-lovely stuff. Maybe there are different kinds of magic. I prefer the lyrical, wistful magic that lives mostly at the edges and in-betweens.

      But…something in the drivel is driving droves to dive in. Perhaps it’s a magic that’s more about simple hopes or dreams or even just vicarious living. Whatever name you give it, drivel magic does indeed turn readers into impossibly enthralled evangelists. Just try saying something negative about [fill in name of drivel book here] to one of the faithful.

      I will always be a champion of the complex, paradoxical, beautiful magic. But I’m learning to respect other kinds.

      1. It takes a village to raise the drovers of drivel. Until (fill in name of pioneering drivel author here) entered stage right, there was an entire X,Y,Z generational group stuck between Judy Blume and Marianne Robinson wasting away on reality TV and random acts of planking.

        The evangelists have seen the light, raised the pulpit, and vowed servitude to a genre that speaks their language of Babel.

        I say let them eat cake and damn the cholesterol! We are the YA village writers holding the power to raise our drovers into champions of the complex and paradoxical. We can give them what they crave and still hide what’s good for them underneath encouragement and respect.

        It is the root of the creeping invisible vine, only that vine is called literacy and no matter what the cover art or name of the vampire, it placed millions of books in millions of empty hands. That is the beautiful magic.

    2. YA literature is a fluke. It’s going to start making sense any day now. I believe this.

      (Because I like YA literature I do, but only the good stuff you have to push past the headliners for.)

  2. Great to read your post. As I begin the third draft of the first half of my novel (do the math – I have a long way to go!) I needed to hear that again… the story most matters to readers. After 5 years of facilitating a book club in the wild west of Ireland, reading writers as diverse as John Banville, Cormac McCarthy, Nicole Krauss, and Abraham Verghese and David Nicholls, it’s about time I understood that. It’s the story, stupid! Hoping for a little magic this morning…

  3. Best selling fiction–even if the story is mostly crappy–almost always has at least one element of some indefinable hook which captures a reader and keeps them reading. People don’t finish books if there’s no magic there. It’s the magic that makes them deeply memorable at best or tolerable at worst.

    1. This.

      (I just wanted to write a one-word response because it looks cool. Also because I mean it. But mostly because it looks cool. And now it’s not a one-word response anymore. There goes the magic.)

  4. I respectfully disagree: The magic is in the words, not the story. Case in point, “Seabiscuit.”

    Anybody could have written that story – after all, it’s a biography – of sorts. What made it a fabulous read was the writer. Who expected on page 13 a put-down-the-book-and-LOL moment when Hillenbrand observes, “You can’t buy that kind of publicity”? Or her description of the horse manure pile as a “giant shit Godzilla entering the sea” ?

    I got a great read about a great horse, but I came away with a greater respect for the writer.

    There’re tons of poorly written great stories out there. The magic is in the story-teller.

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