Bring Some Magic to Your Writing

James Scott Bell

My uncle Bruce was a bartender for many years up in Santa Barbara. Like most of the Bells, who came from (or were chased out of) Ireland in the 1700s, he has the gift of gab. He started doing close-up magic right at the bar. This proved exceedingly popular and before long he started billing himself as “Bruce the Baffling, Magician and Social Chemist.”

When I was I high school Uncle Bruce gave me a bunch of his tricks and I started getting into magic myself. That continued on through college. I loved it. I loved producing oohs and ahhs in people doing close-up. There’s nothing quite like a great card or coin trick, or the cups and balls classic, performed right under the noses of people a few feet away.
I got good enough that I was able to perform at the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood. Not for the adults at night (you really have to be great for that gig) but for the kids on Sunday afternoon. I billed myself as “Jim Bell, Master of the Amazing.” (Please hold your applause).
The best part about this was that I got to hang out at the Castle and sit around with some of the most famous magicians of the day. It’s a crime their names are not as well known as performers in other wings of entertainment. But for people who know the magic world, names like Charlie Miller and Francis Carlisle are as familiar as John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald are to writers. 
And if the most famous writer of the mid-20th century was Ernest Hemingway, then magic’s analogue was a man named Dai Vernon (1894 – 1992).
Vernon was around 80 when I met him. He was friendly but also uncompromising in his dedication to the art of magic. He could not stand shoddy work. Once, he watched me perform some card tricks for some guests (informally, sitting around, as most of the magicians do there). When an astonished patron said to me, “How did you do that?” I said, “Very well.”
A good line most close-up magicians use at one time or another. Awhile later I did the same trick for some other people, and once again got the question, “How did you do that?” And once again I said, “Very well.”
Dai Vernon snapped at me, “Quit using the same material all the time!” He wanted the magicians to be constantly improving, never getting lazy, being fresh.
I owned all the Dai Vernon magic books and studied them like crazy. In one of the books he talks about a particular trick that never failed to amaze people, which he called “The Trick That Cannot Be Explained.”
That’s because the way he performed it would change, based upon the circumstances. It started with Dai writing down the name of a card on a piece of paper, folding it and placing down on the table. Then he’d give a pack of cards to a spectator to shuffle.
A few moments later, the spectator would select a card. How he would select it would vary, according to Dai’s directions. But always it would match the one Dai had written down.
How could that possibly be, time after time? And how was it that this trick would never be performed exactly the same way twice? Well, Dai did it by utilizing all the skills he had mastered over the years, using them to manipulate the cards and also adjust to some things the spectator did.
I cannot tell you what those skills are, for then I’d have to kill you. Magician’s code, you see.
But it got me thinking that this is also what a skilled writer does as well. Using all the techniques he’s mastered, he pulls off an effect based on the circumstances in his book, which will never be the same. Each novel presents its own challenges.
Now, there are some folks out there in writing land who purport to teach or inspire writers, who often treat technique as a dirty word. It’s limiting, don’t you see? It blocks your creativity, your inner genius, your wonderful little untamed self that wants to play and be brilliant! So bah on technique. Just write!
For some writers this might be fine advice. For most, I think, it’s toxic. 
The plain fact is that this thing we call writing is a craft as well as an art. Where the “just go play” people get it wrong is in misunderstanding the process.
Yes, there is time for play and not thinking about “rules” or “fundamentals.” It’s when you’re coming up with ideas, visualizing characters or cool scene ideas, even writing your day’s pages. This is where you let go and go wild. (I have found that it helps me to use a pen and paper for this part. I use a spiral notebook, the kind a college student would use, and let my pen play all over the page, making doodles and mind maps and plot ideas and connections between characters).
But then there comes a time when you have to look at your writing and put the screws to it. And to do that, you have to know how to identify weakness and know the way to fix them. Like a plumber, you have to know your tools and where to affix them (and believe me, the plumber metaphor is apt, because most first drafts are…well, what they are). You wouldn’t expect a high quality plumber to not know how and where to use their tools, so this applies to you as well.
This is where craft study and knowledge come in.
My most valuable writing possession is a big notebook full of my notes on writing that I put together over the first ten years of my career, and have added to periodically since. It’s a compendium of the things I learned, written down like an excited scientist discovering some new antibody or cure for baldness. Whenever I hit a little drought in the writing week I can always start flipping through my notes and am reenergized in about five minutes.
Do the same. Study the craft and make notes on what you learn. Create your own writer’s notebook. You’ll love it as the years roll on and your writing gets stronger and stronger.
And you’ll especially love performing the trick that cannot be explained on your own books, because you’ll be making magic for your readers.
Can you remember having an epiphany about something in your writing? A time when a light bulb went off in your brain and you thought, Ah! Now I get it! Tell us about it.

35 thoughts on “Bring Some Magic to Your Writing

    • Erm….this is uh….this is Boffin, one of Basil’s leprechaun assistants, and erm…. Mr. Bell … could look you in your book of magics and see if there is a spell for getting Basil out of a medium sized bluish colored narrow necked glass flower vase? And maybe a spell to stretch him back to normal size again too. Thanks.

  1. Jim, I think my “aha” moment came when I first tried my hand at writing fiction, at the suggestion of an author named Bell. My wife–who is both my biggest fan and my severest critic–read through what I’d written and said, in essence, “So what?” That’s when I knew I had to make the reader care what happens.
    In magic, the audience doesn’t so much care what happened as how it happened, but the analogy is valid.
    Your experience as a magician explains a lot. (Take that any way you wish).Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’d been trying to write like the popular blogs say to–show, not tell–which meant I cut all exposition, description and introspection. So my writing had become too fast, too bare-bones.

    Then I read a bunch of Jim Butcher’s books. Here was the genre I wanted to write, and his MC actually monologues sometimes, dropping huge swaths of description, exposition or introspection. The trick is, to end each of those passages on a tiny cliffhanger.

    So I revised a story and filled it with all the heavy, juicy bits, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve written to date. 🙂

    • Jim Butcher also has a live journal where he brokes down the scene/sequel technique that he learned while in collage studying writing (it’s Dwight Swain’s methods in a nutshell and worth it’s weight in gold). He also talks about a ton of other writing related stuff that was a big aha moment for me.

  3. Back in the real world, I was a marketing director for an international manufacturer. One of my main duties each year was to create the BOPS or Business Opportunity Plan, a rather lengthy and deeply researched document. One year I submitted the BOPS to the president of the corporation and his first comment was, “This is fiction.” From that moment I was off and running, writing my first novel..

  4. Tony Burton explained the three-act structure using the original Star Wars movie in a lecture at a writing conference. Finally I got it. A whole new world opened. Thank you for the post.

  5. My experience was somewhat like Richard’s. My wife is my best beta reader. And I quickly discovered that it wasn’t a clever plot that engaged her, but a protagonist that made her really care, emotion that grabbed her.

    Then, when I studied your mirror moment and the golden triangle, it all came together. The underlying objective was to put the protagonist through the wringer and make the reader care deeply. Now I had a structure to make sure the protagonist came out on the other side, not only grabbing the reader’s emotions, but also resonating with the type of change that made the reader feel the character had arrived, the story was complete.

  6. Kind of an, ‘aha’ moment. Dwight Swain wrote of the choice faced by the focal character at the climax of the story. A choice between self interest and principle.

    I applied that to some of the recent novels I’d read and it appears that to portray an anti-hero effectively, he must choose principle over self interest. Makes sense. Completes the character arc.

  7. I like the idea of “play” in writing. I hate the word “art” for a couple of reasons – no one can tell you exactly what they mean by “art,” it’s too vague to be useful, and it implies a gift that you’ve either been given or haven’t and if you haven’t, there’s no point in even trying. Like you, I’ve always preferred to think of writing as a craft, a set of skills one can learn, practice, improve and expand. Throwing in some play and a little magic? Well that’s what it’s all about , isn’t it?

    • You’ve given me a whole new image. A “just play go play” writer calls up and taunts a craftsman. The craftsman, in Liam Neeson’s voice, says, “I have a set of skills…”

  8. Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. My creative writing teachers in college came from the “just write and screw technique” school of thought. I was never taught craft and I was made to feel awful if my writing wasn’t “good enough” without instruction.

    Every skill takes practice and everyone who develops skills needs to learn. You’ll eventually hit a wall if all your writing is just “play” and no craft.

  9. Oh, many many ah-ha moments. One important one came from Les Standiford but I can’t talk about it cuz it’s a future blog. 🙂

    But what’s interesting is that I had an important epiphany just recently. (yes, old dogs…etc) I wasn’t quite getting into my characters consciousness in the narrative (where he is thinking about past, which is essentially backstory all mired up in strong emotion). I was struggling then I just started letting his thoughts flow without ME thinking about it. It was real stream of consciousness technique with run-on sentences, impressionist style and all. My intent was just to get it on the page and then go back the next morning and edit it. Sort of pull a David Sedaris, “me make him talk pretty someday.”

    Well, damn…it was good the way it was. I was so hung up on the “rules” (many of which I have preached in workshops) that I forgot that yes, you can break them. In fact, some times you need to.

    • I LOVE to “over write” big emotional moments and then pick out the gems later….I suspect the reason yours was good as it was is that you know what you’re doing and it’s part of your blood and bone now!

  10. JSB author/instructor/craftsman/magician/comic –
    this is a brilliant post. Thank you.

    An aha! moment – my first fiction writing class seven years ago. Assignment – write a scene to be workshopped with classmates

    I wrote a scene that was essentially autobiographical. A ER doc/ helicopter flight physician flew to an attempted resuscitation scene where a young woman (daughter/mother) had been found on bottom of pool. She could not be saved.

    The patient’s body was flown back to the hospital and the family contacted and told only to “go to the ER”.The scene I wrote described the ER doctor going to the family room to notify loved ones of the death

    The “scene” I wrote involved the dead woman’s mother . her10 year old son and their displays of incredible grief and courage (esp the 10 y.o).
    I could not have read the scene I wrote aloud without breaking down.

    The feedback from one of the 3 students who provided feedback was “I didn’t like that the ER doctor was so cold.”
    I was speechless.

    That lesson has stayed with me…what is in the author’s heart/mind is meaningless if it is not communicated by the words on the page. The challenge is to make/allow the reader to experience the meaning and emotion by reading printed words. That is the magic trick.
    I’ve been working hard at that ever since. I much appreciate your instruction in use of the tools that help create the magic.

    • what is in the author’s heart/mind is meaningless if it is not communicated by the words on the page.

      Bingo! Yahtzee! Ding ding ding!

      You have given in one telegram message virtually the whole of what justifies the teaching of the writing craft.

    • That’s one valuable lesson, Tom. We hear and see our stories so clearly in our heads but creating that magic that allows readers to feel the same is…well, not easy to learn.

  11. My aha moment about craft came when I finally understood the 3-act arc. I mean really got it. It was a combo of this blog and a series of essays written by Stephen J. Cannell about screenwriting.

    He took a Rockford Files episode and broke it down into the act structure and it all crystallized for me. Yes, there are other structures, but they all grow from the 3-act arc and you ignore it at your own risk.

    My own novel didn’t fall into place until I said, “okay, we are aiming at 80K words. That means at the end of Act I you need to have all the players on the stage and something needs to happen that changes everything. Goal = 20K”

    After that, I thought about the entire story, but concentrated on getting to that point. First try it went too fast, so I stepped back and added a small subplot that also answered a question in the main plot. The result was that at 19.5K, my MC opens a door to find a cop standing there. End Act I.

    I did the same for Act II. It had to end on a horrifying note, all the cards on the table, we are done for. Goal = 60K. It turned out to be 64K, but the bad guy was revealed and it looked like our heroes were done for – destined for shallow graves. End Act II.

    And so on . . .

    After the “moment in the middle” post, I went back to the book and, lo and behold, at the 53% point, my heroine has to confront her feelings about the hero.

    At the end, it was like I followed a set of blueprints (you can take the girl out of engineering school . . . but . . .) Whether I did a good job decorating is up to the readers and critics, but the framing and plumbing is solid.

    And for that I thank TKZ and Mr. Cannell. When anyone asks me for any advice (scary thought) I send them here and to that essay series.

    The other one was the old saw, “Always play tennis with people that can beat you.” I seek out writers who are further along the continuum than me and learn from them. By doing that, I move myself along as well.


  12. Funny you should call it an ‘epiphany,’ because I’m almost finished a book on the craft of writing called–you guessed it!–EPIPHANIES.

    Won’t be publishing it, however, until I make a name for myself, if that day ever comes!

    • Hey, it’s good to record your thoughts on writing as you move toward making that name. That’s what I did with my writer’s notebook. The material was there when I got invited to teach.

  13. One of my biggest Aha! moment was about POV.

    I was writing first person and no matter what I did, it sounded off. It wasn’t as close as I wanted it to be and it didn’t sound as smooth as when I read books in first person.

    It wasn’t the voice, because I knew I had that in spades. It was something murky, nebulous, and drove me nuts. I took a POV workshop with Janice Hardy and she pointed it out immediately. I was using too much distancing language “I heard, I saw” as well as more pernicious things.

    It was amazing.

    • My first editor beat me half to death on that issue. I thought I was over it. And then the new manuscript and BAM! There it was again. I now do word searches on heard/felt/saw/started etc. In order to live, they must have a real reason not to be shoveled into the “dead darling” bucket.

  14. I’ve been to The Magic Castle twice, and you’re right about the magicians. They’re brilliant.

    I love the idea that writers are always evolving. The skills I have now shouldn’t be stagnant. They should improve with practice.

    I’ve learned to let problems with my manuscript marinate in my brain for a while before making significant changes. If I were to sit at the laptop and force solutions, they won’t come.

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