On Terry Pratchett and What His Writing Meant to Me

Standard

It’s taken me a few days to organise my thoughts since the tragic news of his death broke on Thursday. My first reaction was very simple. I cried.

I didn’t know him personally, never met him, never emailed him a fan letter or anything like that. All I knew him through were the Discworld books.

I got into them when I was a teenager and I’ve worked my way through most of them since then. Think I need to do a re-read soon in the light of his passing. It’s hard for me to describe how much those books mean to me. I’m going to try, but by describing something I hate.

I hate – no LOATHE – that in obituaries and headlines he is so often described as a fantasy author. A weird complaint given the fact he did write fantasy. Discworld is fantasy. But describing him as a fantasy author does a disservice to his work, to the worlds he created.

He was a writer about people. About our lives and the world around us. About good and evil. Bad men and good men and the very thin line between them at time. About right and wrong. About discrimination and religion and DEATH. Oh how I love DEATH in Discworld. What a perfect character they are.

Sure all of the things he wrote about he did through highly satirical fantasy novels set in a made up world, but that setting that world let him shine a critical – and often highly philosophical – light on what it is to be human. What it is to live. He was a master of it.

The discworld books speak to me. They lift my mind and make me think. They use fun to poke at things wrong in the world and say ‘hey, isn’t this wrong and odd shouldn’t something be done about it?’.

I want those books to be held up like Shakespeare as greats of literature so generation after generation gets introduced to them and experience the joy they’ve already brought to so many. If it makes some of them think as well, that’s a double bonus as far as I’m concerned.

You might be able to categorise Pratchett’s work as comic/satirical fantasy, but that description sells them so short. He wrote about us and about life and did so in such an intelligent way.

His books have helped shape who I am as a person. It’s why I cried at the news of his death.

Thank you Sir Terry for so many wonderful books. You will be missed.

Annihilation and The Goblin Emperor quick reviews

Standard

Travelling to work on the train the past week has allowed me to catch up on reading and on two books I’ve seen recommended a lot. Namely Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer; and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I’ll review them in the order I read them.

Annihiliation by Jeff VanderMeer3/5

I’m afraid to say this book just wasn’t for me. It’s well written and I finished the whole thing but it was the story I didn’t enjoy. It’s not the kind I usually read – you could argue why did I read it in the first place but been trying to broaden my horizons and it’s been recommended a lot – and it didn’t grab me. Found it interesting enough, but not enough felt like it had been resolved by the end of the book.

The whole book had a very X-files vibe to it. Secret government agencies, Area-X, strange expeditions and goings-on. The secrets behind the plot were teased overtime, mixed with flashbacks to help flesh out and give depth to the central character. The flashbacks felt like an unnecessary addition at first, but the main character ends up spending a lot of time on their own and they helped illuminate the reasons behind their actions without the usual mirror provided by the reactions of and conversations with another human being.

The plot just didn’t grab me, a few too many odd things happening and conspiracies within conspiracies for me to enjoy. But the book was well enough written that I finished the whole thing over the course of a day.

For someone who enjoys these stories more I’m sure it would be a 4 or 5/5. Just wasn’t for me.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison4/5

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this book from the first few chapters. The story, of the unfavoured 4th son of the old Emperor of the Elf lands who now finds himself replacing his dead father, should be an easy introduction to the world of the book. The main character has to learn how things go on at the Imperial court as much as we do. However the book doesn’t shy away from throwing a bewildering amount of strange terms at you and it took me a good while to settle into enjoying the book.

The plot, centered around the challenges of the new Emperor as he adjusts to the complexities of court and running his empire, I think is well handled. Most of the conflict comes from other characters, and there are plenty of well fleshed out ones each with their own motivations and lots of depth to them. The underlying story threads kept me interested and I was curious to see how each one resolved and I ploughed through the book in a couple of days.

I do wish a bit more had happened in the book. From what I understand there is no sequel planned, which is frustrating as there are a lot of unanswered questions at the book. The ending is satisfying, but perhaps more of the plot threads could have been advanced or resolved. The plot moves along at a graceful pace, and over the course of the 500 pages of it there are two big moments that happen. If the pacing had moved along a bit quicker, and more aspects of the story had been drawn to a conclusion by the end, I think this would easily be a 5/5.

But I can’t overlook the tricky opening, the abundance of terminology for readers to get their heads around – though there is a handy glossary at the back of the book – and the slow pace of the plot and the unresolved aspects of it.

A thoroughly good book which I recommend, especially for the tone of hope and optimism that runs throughout it, that personally I feel falls just shy of true greatness.

Who Am I Writing For?

Standard

A silly question perhaps when the answer is myself, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about recently as I work on The Word.

When I first got on the path of seriously writing – that eventually led to Oranje and what I’m working on now – I spent a lot of time online researching serious sci-fi. I visited sites like Atomic Rockets, Rocketpunk Manifesto and read a lot of critiques of literary sci-fi that were going on at the time. Jonathan McCalmont’s Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future being by far the best example of that.

They’re all excellent website, but I think I approached them wrong, especially the first two. I went to them convinced I had to write serious and realistic sci-fi because…well, I’m not sure why. But I’d convinced myself I needed to and that shaped a lot of the world building I did for Oranje. I realise the end product wasn’t the most accurate, but those sites definitely influenced how I approached it a lot.

And I really don’t know how I got into the position of believing there was one correct way to write sci-fi, or at least the one right way for me to do. Perhaps it was a desire, a need maybe, to be taken seriously, and really that’s the wrong approach.

The only person I’m really writing my books for is myself, and I should write them in a way that makes me happy and that I enjoy.

Those websites I linked are all fantastic resources, Jonathan McCalmont’s essay in particular is incredibly thought provoking, and great tools to use in world buildings. But I should’ve used them to shape a setting that came from what I like in sci-fi.

What is that? What constantly draws me to this genre?

The simple answer I think is that the genre contains so many interesting stories about people which are set in universes and worlds that allow the story to tell us about what it means to be human. Whether that be what it is to love, to hope, or to suffer lose and grief.

Those are the kind of stories I want to write, in a setting that allows me to tell those stories as best as I can.

That is what the United novels are meant to be. Even if The Word is going to cover a lot of the same story I had planned for the September series, it will do it differently and in a way that better reflects who I am as a writer.

Who am I writing for? Myself, and that’s all that any writer can really do.

What Are Colours?

Standard

K Tempest Bradford on twitter linked to an post of hers from a few years ago, Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races, which got me thinking.

The fact the spectrum of colours we use to describe the world came about fairly recently (really recently when talking about the whole span of the human species) and before then people talked about colour in very different ways. The author Kameron Hurley linked to this page on Ancient Greek Color Vision that says how for the Greeks the words they used to describe colour were more than just about the tone as it were. It was about the qualities they associated with that colour, the texture of it, shadow and many other elements.

Obviously this isn’t something we think about much as we take it for granted that we have this vast vocabulary of words to paint the world around us in. But what if we didn’t? Or, perhaps more interestingly from the perspective of a budding sci-fi writer, what if that changed in the future?

It’s got me thinking about how I talk about the details of the settings in my books. Colours not only describe the world around us but also use them to define it. In stories set a thousand years in the future, where the galaxy as been colonised and interstellar travel is common, wouldn’t our concept of what colours mean have changed?

With space itself being so freaking big, and so black for the most part, I wonder if the old dichotomy of light = good and dark = bad would remain. I’d hope not given the current worrying implications it has towards skin colour but then our society as a whole still needs to deal with the racism that exists today which is something people far more qualified than me have talked about with far greater authority.

It strikes me as a possibility that with a greater part of the population being exposed to space, and with all the changes that spreading across the galaxy would bring, that a new language around colours and how the world is described might evolve, existing words used in new ways to define the world around us.

Definitely something I’m going to think about more and try and develop, but I thought it was interesting enough to share.

One Day…

Standard

You tell yourself you’ll get round to doing it one day. That book you’ve always wanted to write, or getting started practicing your painting. One day you’ll start. You’re too busy right now, not ready yet to jump into it. But don’t worry, one day you will.

One day is a filthy lie.

One day is a mantra that puts you off doing what you want.

It persuades you that there is always more you need to do before starting. That it doesn’t matter, you’ll get round to it.

One day is a comfort we tell ourselves so we don’t worry about not doing anything right now.

It soothes our worries, and tells us it’ll be okay one day.

One day is a temptress that seduces us with its promises. It lulls us into believing its mantra.

Well bollocks to one day.

Write. Create. Today. Not tomorrow, or the day after, or sometime next week.

Today.

Art is not created by putting it off, art is created with practice and work.

Do something today. Whether that be outline a chapter, write a sentence, do a five minute sketch. Just do something. And then do something tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that.

You might after a while you’ve created something. It might not be good, or up to the standards you’ve set yourselves.

But you will have made something. And you can be damn proud about that.

It’s a hell of a lot more than saying ‘one day’ will ever have you create.

Go out and art, let forth the ideas in your brain. Enjoy yourself.

Variety is King – Chapter and Sentence Length

Standard

I’ve almost finished up my refresh of the outline for The Word and the biggest thing I’ve noticed is the number of chapters in it.

Oranje had 45 chapters (including progress), each of pretty much 2,500 words. The first outline of the word had 57 and from first draft work the chapters were turning out around the same number of words.

This outline has 32.

There’s the same amount of stuff going on in the story, probably even a bit more than the previous outline. The biggest change is I’m trying to break away from such consistent chapter sizes. It’s often something I see talked about on writing forums, people often worried about how long a chapter should be and people saying the length they aim for.

I find that really dangerous advice.

Equally sized chapters are boring and can slow down stories. Well not just on their own but if each scene is playing out over the same number of words there is an inevitable amount of consistency to the pacing.

Letting chapters be as big or as small as they need to be will help let the individual scenes thrive. There can be fast paced action ones that aren’t too long, and slower more dialog based ones where the reader can take a break and absorb the characters and story.

Now this has to be done in conjunction with other tools. You can have long but fast paced scenes and short but calming ones. But when you combine the length of each scene with the amount of information/action that happens in it, alongside that other great pacing tool of sentence length, you have more levers to control your story.

I could write a bit about sentence structure myself, but I won’t as there is a fantastic example that already exists from Gary Provost:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.

And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbal-sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

Chapter and sentence length and tools and weapons in the writers armoury to add variety and better control the pace and flow of their work.

It’s something I am to make better use of myself with The Word. We’ll see – as always – how it turns out.