Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ten things I learned from Terry Pratchett

I know this is a science fiction romance blog, but it's also a writers' blog and one of the greats has gone. Terry Pratchett will always be my favourite author. I've written quite a few blogs mentioning him, or reviewing his books and I won't do that here. Although you might be interested in this one, which explains why I like his writing so much. But here at Space Freighters, I'll talk about how he has influenced my writing, things I've learned from this master wordsmith.

  1. Nothing is sacred
TP would willingly tilt at windmills or cock a snoot at the most sacred of cows. I laughed out loud at Gollum's cameo appearance in Witches Abroad, and I still chuckle at the thought of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse being taught how to play bridge. And the send up of the dragon riders of Pern and the idea of Conan the Barbarian as an old man and so many other things. Wyrd Sisters is the Discworld equivalent of Macbeth. Maskerade borrows from the Phantom of the Opera – and sends up opera as a genre. Pyramids examines the beliefs of ancient Egypt with hilarious results.
Lesson: Look at the world from a different point of view. There's plenty of writing fodder out there.
  1. The Rules of Writing are rubbish.
Don't use 'there was'. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Don't use three words when one is enough. Terry ignored all these 'rules'. Move the story along, we're told. Do we really need to know how many pigs are consumed in Ankh-Morpork every year? Maybe not. But Terry told us anyway. And we read it, and stored that information into our brains and we knew a little more about a city that is a character in its own right.
Lesson: Know the 'rules' so you know when to break them.
  1. Embrace diversity
Terry included all sorts in his novels, and used them to hold up a warped mirror to our world. Trolls, dwarves, vampires, zombies, boogie-men, fairies, witches, wizards. Oh, and golems. And women. Let's not forget women. And werewolves (sorry, Angua). Possibly the best of the books poking fun at a monochrome (male, white) world is Men at Arms. Terry used diversity to great effect in all his books. The interplay between different species introduced complexity and conflict, where sworn enemies became friends in adversity when they discovered that everything they'd been told wasn't necessarily true. On that subject, one of my all time favourite TP books is Thud.
Lesson: Aliens have a part to play, so have genetically modified humans, cyborgs, IAs and anything else you want to throw into the mix. Just make sure it's convincing.
  1. Truth is a complicated concept
People have a habit of believing that 'now' is equivalent to 'true'. Terry had a habit of picking up a truism like “Christmas is a happy, family time” and turning it over to see what was underneath. The result in that instance was Hogfather, in which he revealed the real antecedents of the Yuletide celebrations and that red coat. Very often in his books he ventured into the dark. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents comes to mind, an award-winning YA story ostensibly something like the Pied Piper but with an even darker twist. Terry didn't like fairytales – or at least, not the modern, sugar-coated, frilly versions. For that reason he used them often to illustrate a point. See Witches Abroad. Terry's elves aren't the same as Tolkien's. Or Enid Blyton's. They're more like the dark Fae of the very old tales - not very nice at all. See Lords and Ladies.
Lesson: Pick up ideas (especially deep-rooted ones) and turn them over to look at the bottom.
  1. You don't need chapters
Terry often dispensed with chapters. I'm not suggesting he didn't have structure in his books. He did. He had cliffhangers just as we do. But instead of ending a chapter with the hero dangling over a cliff by one foot, he just moved on to action elsewhere, and returned to our suspended protagonist further in the narrative.
Lesson: Just because it's always been done doesn't mean it still has to be done.
  1. People love series
The Discworld books are a series, but there are series within the series. There's the Wizards series, the Witches series, the Death series, the Moist series, and the Watch series. Different readers have their preferences. Then there's a handful of books which are stand-alone, even if some of the characters from other books are used. I'd include Pyramids, Small Gods, Interesting Times, Moving Pictures and Monstrous Regiment. People identify with particular characters. Death (with his companion Death of Rats) is a wonderful character, even if he is an anthropomorphism. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Sam Vimes, Angua, Carrot, Rincewind, Lord Vetinari, Arch-chancellor Ridcully etc etc etc are all three-dimensional individuals and all have their dedicated camp followers. They all excite reader expectations – which is a challenge in its own right. Terry had to ensure all those characters remained true to the expectation.
Lesson: Once you've connected with a fan base, give them what they crave.
  1. Real characters are complicated
I'd be hard pressed to think of many two dimensional characters in Terry's books. Let's look at Sam Vimes, who became a main character after having been first introduced as a minor character in Guards, Guards. He was captain of the night watch, a sad group of men who avoided trouble whenever possible. He himself was a low born drunk, but as the book progressed he found himself having to do things he never would have thought he could do. It was endlessly entertaining, through a succession of books, to watch Sam being thrust reluctantly into the high office he despised. He became a reformed alcoholic, turning to cigars to stave off the craving (although that's never stated per se). He got married to an aristocrat and became a Duke. He reformed the Watch. And all the time he hated the pomp and circumstance, was never happier than sloping around the streets of his beloved city in thin-soled boots. I could write a similar description of every main character Terry wrote into a book.
Lesson: Real characters are complicated.
  1. 'What' is a great starter to a question
Terry must have used that question so many, many times. Such as:
“what happens to loin-clothed barbarian heroes when they get old?” Interesting Times.
“what would happen if Death went on vacation?” Reaper Man
“what if there was a Discworld equivalent of Shakespeare?” Wyrd Sisters
“what if the Egyptian Gods were real?” Pyramids
Lesson: Asks questions. Lots of question to which the answer is not yes or no.
  1. You can't please all of the people all of the time.
Terry's books are spectacularly successful. He's a household (almost) name around the world. But just as there are(were) some of us hanging out to read his next shopping list, I have friends that found him tiresome or even (heaven forbid) boring. I even have one distant acquaintance who loathed his writing style. (I think I unfriended this individual on Facebook.) But there it is. Horses for courses.
Lesson: Write for yourself and the people who like what you write. The rest can go... whatever it was that Thorin said to Thranduil in The Desolation of Smaug.

I shall miss TP more than I can ever say. Yes, he was “just another author” but it's sad to think there'll never be another piece of brilliance by his hand. True, I have my collection of hardbacks (pictured above, guarded by the Librarian) to re-read and that I will do.

Which leads me to TEN, which has nothing to do with writing.
  1. When my time comes, I hope I'll be able to welcome Death as an old friend, as Terry Pratchett undoubtedly did.
PS. I don't think he wrote those final tweets. I cannot imagine Terry referring to himself as “Sir Terry”. But even so, I suspect he discussed those final words with his daughter, who certainly posted them.

Let's treat this as a wake, shall we? A celebration of a life well lived. Please share your favourite TP quote, tell us which was your favourite book, and why. If you need inspiration, this post is a collection of memes showing his wisdom and humanity, words that will live on. But there are plenty of others, such as the opening to Wyrd Sisters...

Over to you.


  1. I ached when he went, even though it was the way he wanted to go.

    He said nice things to me at a convention years ago, about rum punch and my first book and how to tell a successful convention party.

    1. At least you have that memory. I never got a chance to meet him in person.

  2. What great memories, Angelia.

    And Greta, those were some amazing lessons to learn. I honestly have never read Terry Pratchett, but I've heard so many authors talk about how he influenced them that I'll definitely read some of his work soon. You've given me some great ideas where to start.

    "Lesson: Know the 'rules' so you know when to break them." Amen to that!

    1. He's not for everyone - but he's worth at least one try. I suggest "Wyrd Sisters".

  3. We truly connect with a writer through his or her words, and it's clear you made that connection with Terry Prachett, Greta. And those are all great rules to write by!

  4. I adored TP for all of those reasons. Number four is why I ended up writing a zombie story that went back to the original legends more than the modern Hollywood version (which he reconfigured and Mocked in Moving Pictures), and why his name is in the dedication of my zombie book. I dearly wish I'd tweeted that to him.


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