By Katherine Wiles
I had won a round of Book Bingo at my local library and was wandering around the young adult table, looking for something interesting. There was a copy of Brisingr, but we already had that, and it was missing its dust jacket, anyway. I kept looking. There was a stack of books down by the end, and I peered at the spines to see if anything sounded interesting. I spotted a little paperback called Writing Magic. Curious, I picked it up. The cover was a picture of a hand holding a pen. Above that, it said “Gail Carson Levine.” I’d read Ella Enchanted and The Two Princesses of Bamarre the year before and liked them, so I added the book to my pile, not bothering to glance at the back cover. The author was good, after all. It was probably a neat little story about somebody writing a spell book or something of the like.
After a while, I took a break from playing bingo and flipped through my stack. I picked up Writing Magic and realized as I read the back cover that it was a writing book. I was curious, so I started reading and was hooked before I finished the first paragraph. I read on the way home, and after we put up our Christmas tree that afternoon, it was Writing Magic thatI picked up when I had free time.
Gail Carson Levine’s voice drew me in. Calm, down-to-earth, with a touch of humor. The kind of voice you always imagine your favorite teacher having. The kind of voice that makes you feel like you can do anything. Other writing books say, “I’m going to teach you how to write.” Writing Magic says, “Let me show you examples of how to write and point out a few suggestions.” It’s fun, like peeking through the door of a movie theater as you walk past. Some of the movies you’ve seen before, others you haven’t, and if you watch them again after reading Writing Magic, you’ll recognize the scene you spied on earlier. When I later read Gail Carson Levine’s The Wish, which was mentioned in Writing Magic, I was practically bouncing with excitement to get to the scenes she’d mentioned and see the context. Like seeing how the spoilers fit into the rest of the movie.
And it wasn’t just Levine’s voice or the spoilers. Writing Magic had prompts, and interesting ones. Like this first line idea, the first prompt in the book: “I have one green eye and one brown eye. The green eye sees truth, but the brown eye sees much, much more.” What could be much, much more than truth? I haven’t used it, but it’s fascinating. Or the prompt to make up a word for something that doesn’t have a word for it yet. The closest I’ve come is a fancy word for getting a song stuck in your head: cantocephalosis. And the fear of getting a song stuck in your head is cantocephalophobia. To use them in a sentence: I get cantocephalosis so frequently that I am in danger of developing cantocephalophobia.
For me, perhaps the most important section in Writing Magic is the one on beginnings. It opened my eyes to the importance of interesting beginnings and taught me to look for good and bad examples. As I read, I realized how little attention I actually paid to beginnings and decided to do better. Once I started actively studying beginning lines, and later ending lines, I never stopped, and it’s made my writing a lot better. As a matter of fact, my completely anti-fiction dad picked up a book once, read the first paragraph or so, and said “Hey, this sounds like something Katie would write.” That was how I knew I’d finally figured out what makes a beginning tick.
I still turn to Writing Magic when I have an idea and need to crystallize it, form it into an actual story instead of a “wouldn’t it be cool if . . .” The book is a checklist, transforming a premise into a story: Idea? Identified beginning? Characters fleshed out? Point of view chosen? Does everyone have the right name? Vague ending chosen? (My stories are way too unpredictable to flesh out the ending too much.) Remember to make the main character suffer. Remember to keep an eye on dialogue. Introduce setting early. The kinds of things any writing book would have but that Writing Magic makes special.
Writing Magic was the turning point for my writing. The story I wrote before I read it was utterly terrible. All the characters were either flat or thinly disguised versions of me. Illogical occurrences were more common than commas, there were detours galore, and barely any plot to speak of. I spent about two pages talking about how they did laundry on a spaceship. It was terrible. As I read Writing Magic, I realized that the main character did have to have bad things happen to her, that long, infodumping speeches were a bad idea, that you shouldn’t solve all your character’s problems before the end of the story, that you shouldn’t jump from scene to scene with no explanation. Basically, I realized the only good thing about the story was that it was a convenient benchmark for comparing my pre- and post-Writing Magic work.
I’d never really fleshed out characters before, just grabbed a convenient stereotype off the shelf, but Writing Magic taught me to do better. Not only did it give me the plot I was working with, a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, but it gave me a way to turn vague ideas about characters’ behaviors into actual traits. And with a structured plot in place, I could backtrack cause and effect to come up with characters’ motives and make a story where everyone behaves according to their own motivations, instead of just doing things because I, the author, needed them to. Writing Magic pushed me to write a story whose main character wasn’t just a version of me, a story where I could slip into the villain’s mind as well as the hero’s.
The story I wrote after reading Writing Magic was, dare I say, actually pretty good. I was working off a prompt to explain why Rumpelstiltskin wants the queen’s baby and why he let the queen guess his name to keep the baby. The story I came up with was full of political intrigue, time pressure, and a heroic gnome who’s trying to keep both the queen and the baby safe so that the dragon who’s threatening Rumpelstiltskin does not destroy everything and everyone he cares about. The kind of story that I can read three years later without wincing at how terrible it is.
Writing Magic opened my eyes to writing not just for an assignment, but because you want to. It taught me how to convert the pictures in my mind to words on the page, how to take the vague ideas wandering around the corners of my brain and turn them into one coherent narrative. It taught me how to edit and how to keep track of all the story elements. Upon reading and rereading Writing Magic, I learned to identify my writing voice, and having identified it, to change it when I want to. It sent me on a yearlong writing streak in which I created my favorite character and an idea for a novel. It taught me to have fun and save what I write. Reading Writing Magic in high school made me realize that I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t involve writing and, at the same time, how much more I still had to learn.
Katherine Wiles is a creative writing major at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. Since the time of the essay, she has continued to grow as a writer and has had two of her poems published, with three more upcoming.
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Great article! I love Writing Magic too. I think it was the first writing book I’d written, and it’s still one of my favorites. I recommend it to all of my younger friends who express interest in writing.
Katie, this essay made me want to buy the book for my daughter! She is an ELA teacher, a mom of two littles, and a writer who is temporarily too busy to write, but summer’s coming.