My father once took me to a show in Hollywood called IT’S MAGIC.
There were about twenty magicians on the bill, one after another showing us their biggest and best tricks, sawing women in half, floating balls in the air and, yes, pulling rabbits out of hats.
I loved the show, and after it was over, my father took me to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop, where I picked up a trick called multiplying billiard balls.
I practiced that trick for months. And, if I do say so myself, I got pretty good at it. I still have a picture of me—at twelve years old—decked out in the homemade tux my mother made, showing off my sleight of hand dexterity with those Bert Wheeler multiplying balls.
Thing is, the mechanics of the trick weren’t very tough. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you how it was done, but let’s say that just about anyone could do the trick with a few minutes practice.
But I have a feeling it wouldn’t look much like magic. It would probably look like some guy ham-handedly struggling to multiply those billiard balls, and the gimmick behind the trick would be obvious to all but the dimmest of spectators.
Real magicians, you see, practice day in and out to make their sleight of hand smooth and undetectable, so that it looks like real magic. So that people watch and say, “Wow! Do that again!”
And that’s what writers try to do as well. We work very hard behind the scenes, manipulating words and phrases and characters and plot lines—while trying our best to make it all look seamless—in hopes that our readers will say, “Wow! Do that again!”
A lot of people think that all they need to know is how the trick is done and they, too, can be a magician. They’re unwilling to put in the real practice necessary, and the moment they learn the move, they’re ready to perform.
Writing, like magic, takes years of practice, and a willingness to fail again and again until we get it right, until what we do seems not like simple trickery, but real magic to those who read our work. Until our words draw them in and transport them to another time and place, a time and place filled with characters who are alive and breathing and the suspension of disbelief is so deep that we, as writers, can get away with almost anything. Can make them believe that a woman can be cut in half, that rabbits can materialize from nowhere, that those billiard balls can multiply between our fingers…
The great writers, like the great magicians, elevate craft to an art. And as we read their work, we can’t help but think, “How did he do that?”
But knowing the “how” is only a small part of the trick. It’s knowing what to do with that “how” that really counts.
Making the readers believe that what we do is magic.