When Writing Is It

Some people ask, how do you know you’re a writer?

Answers vary: when I’ve finished the first draft of my first novel; when I’ve been accepted by an agent; when I’ve been published; when I’ve sold X amount of books; when I’m an answer on Jeopardy!

I think the answer is more simple and more complex than that.

As I’m sure a great many of you know, Terry Pratchett suffers from Alzheimer’s. He announced his condition in 2007 – notably responding: there’s time for at least a few more books yet.”

Pratchett also has recently become very vocal about assisted suicide and apparently has his own consent papers for Switzerland’s assisted suicide clinic Dignitas. But he hasn’t signed yet…”The only thing stopping me [signing them] is that I have made this film [Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, a BBC2 documentary] and I have a bloody book to finish.

Nowadays, Pratchett writes via voice recognition software because he can’t type anymore. But he’s still writing. Still telling stories. Still telling people where to go if they don’t like what he does.

And I think that’s what makes you a writer: when the world gives you a sh*t hand and you’re still at it. P.G. Wodehouse died with a pen in his hand. Mark Twain, suffering from horrid arthritis in his right hand, learned to write left-handed. Anne Rice’s daughter died and she created Interview with the Vampire – and a young, immortal character named Claudia. Let’s not forget Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who freakin’ blinked his booked The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

I think you know you’re a writer, a real writer, when you’re willing to write through anything: cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, losing your job, divorce, or whatever dark, horrible thing you can think of – and you know that writing will make you feel better. It has nothing to do with publishing or money or fame. Just telling stories lifts some of that burden up and off of you.

Sure. Eventually that other stuff might catch up with you…but in the meantime, there’s a bloody book to finish.

Quick Change Artist

Something you’ll notice very quickly when you read Pratchett is that, for a lot of his books, he doesn’t stay in one place long.  Pratchett likes to skip around POVs.  The question is, why?  (Jenny may chime in on this one, because this bouncing is one of her pet peeves with Pratchett.)

Sometimes, authors use roving POV to create a sense of scale.  When you have multiple character POVs, it helps to expand your world.  Lots of people in lots of places give the reader a sense of how all the gears fit together and affect each other.  Character A sets into motion a chain of events that will trickle through Characters B-D and eventually affect Character E.  This can also be a great way to build tension and foreshadow – something George R. R. Martin’s POV shifts do often.

Pratchett will use his POV shifts for this sometimes, but often, he’s doing it for comedy.  Some of his POV shifts are for the express purpose of creating/maintaining a running gag.  One character, Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler, pops up in a lot of Discworld books.  He’s never really a key character, but Pratchett cuts to him time and again.  He’s going for the chuckle.  CMOT Dibbler is a running gag and the POV shift is how he, well, runs the gag.

Also, sometimes the abrupt scene change is enough to keep the reader off balance enough that it increases the comedic impact of whatever follows.  If you’ve ever watched classic Monty Python, you know what I’m talking about.

And now, for something completely different

Terry Pratchett’s Volume: High

A couple weekends ago, I attended an event hosted by the Pikes Peak Library District called the Mountain of Authors. It is exactly that: a mountain of traditionally published authors and self published authors all crammed together to listen to panels, talk about writing and publishing trends, and sell books. There must’ve been about thirty authors plus attendees.

One of the panels covered the e-publishing revolution now dominating all discussions. It was interesting. Agent Sandra Bond, publisher Mike Daniels, and bestselling author Barbara O’Neal talked about what the publishing world looked like nowadays. But one of the most revealing things was something that O’Neal said was important for all writing: finish a lot of books.

In publishing there’s a term called ‘the long tail.’ Basically, it boils down to your backlist making the money for you as an author. Agent Rachelle Gardner has a fantastic post on volume and the long tail here. And she’s got another one talking about why writing a few books before looking for publication is a good idea here.

Now, I’ll be honest. I always expected to have to write a few books before anything would be published. I made the assumption that, like short stories and poems, the very first one generally doesn’t get picked up. Practice makes perfect and all that. However, I did not consider the idea of writing of multiple books to be a good thing publishing-wise. Just never occured to me to think about it. And after reading Gardner’s posts, listening to O’Neal talk about buying back her backlist (which is quite extensive), and seeing the piles of books at the Mountain of Authors…I’m convinced that writing a lot of books out of the gate is the way to go.

Terry Pratchett also helped convince me. (Which is useful, as he’s the mentor of the month.) Along with Stephen King, James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Laurel K Hamilton, and Nora Roberts, Pratchett has one of the longest tails in the industry. It’s pretty easy to visualize what the tail looks like too: dominate a few shelves of space at the library or book store. (What’s important to note about the domination of space is that there are multiple titles – not just large quantities of one title.)

And the majority of Pratchett’s books are about a world floating on the back of a turtle. Who’d’a thunk it?

But don’t go thinking that you have to write a series in order to write a lot of books. After visiting the Terry Pratchett website and counting up the titles…I count 71 books – Discworld isn’t everything. Sometimes as many as four books came out in a year. That’s a lot of books.

He’s still going too, in spite of Alzheimers. There’s a new collaboration with Stephen Baxter called The Long Earth which will be out soon.

Does the thought of writing a lot of books intimidate or inspire you? Can you think of any authors who got picked up after writing only one book? How many books do you have in mind for your career?

With Pictures!

We all know how fantastic Terry Pratchett is, but today I’m going to give some kudos to his illustrators. Over the years, Mr. Pratchett has had a number of different artists do Discworld pieces, and then, he started working with Paul Kidby.

Paul Kidby’s style is a superb fit for Pratchett’s tone. Look at these covers:

How awesome are they? Then, it gets better. You open up the books and inside is fabulous picture after fabulous picture. And, if you weren’t going to any way, you should totally click over to Paul Kidby’s Discworld website. See those posters? I want them. Send me those posters for Christmas. Extra brownie points for anyone who sends me a poster w/Death of Rats.

Also, I do have to draw your attention to Where’s My Cow? It’s not a Paul Kidby collaboration, but Grant does a pretty groovy job, too. Now, it’s technically a children’s book, but like many of the fun Pixar flicks, there are a couple of nods to the adults in this one. Any Discworld fan will enjoy the inside jokes, and even if you miss the inside jokes, it’s still entertaining.

The Rule of Three in Discworld

Perhaps you have heard of the ‘Rule of Three’ in comedy writing. For those that haven’t, I point you to a really down-and-dirty quick definition/explantion by John Kinde:

“The first two items in the triplet set the pattern (the “straight” line) and the third item breaks the pattern (the curve/the twist/the derailment). Breaking the pattern heightens the tension and creates the surprise, usually resulting in laughter.”

He’s got a more detailed explanation here.

But I’ve found that it’s always good to have masterful examples – all the better to illustrate. And who could be better or teach more about the rule of three than Terry Pratchett? His books are riddled with countless examples.

Example 1:
In Going Postal, Pratchett opens with a “The Nine-Thousand-Year Prologue.” He describes ships and wreckage floating on rivers beneath the ocean’s surface – which is quite whimsical to begin with.

Then you come across this line: “Some stricken ships have rigging; some even have sails. Many still have crew, tangled in the rigging or lashed to the wheel.”

(Yes, the ‘ew’ factor makes it funny too.)

But you have set-up: “Some stricken ships have rigging;”
You have the continuing line : “some even have sails
You have the derailment: “Many still have crew, tangled in the rigging or lashed to the wheel.”

That’s on the second page.

Example 2:
Also in Going Postal:
The scene – Moist is about to be hanged in front of a large crowd. Pratchett tells us: “There was a stir when they climbed up into the chilly morning air, followed by a few boos and even some applause.”

Set-up: “People were strange like that.”
The continuing line: “Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief.”
The derailment: “Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero.”

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to write your own funny ‘triplet.’ You can have a second or two to set your stage, but after that we’ve gotta be able to see the set up, the continuing line, and then surprise us with your derailment.

Illustrations and Story: The Last Hero

Novels and short stories, by their nature, are word-based. According to this article from the New York Times, “Your Brain on Fiction,”: Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”

I’d like to direct your attention to “detailed description.” Detailed description and metaphor excite our senses and via reading we have an experience.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, he opened his very first novel The Color of Magic with this description of Discworld: “Great A’tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination….Most of the weight [of the world] is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the disc of the world rests….”

I think by all definitions of the word ‘interesting’ that this description is interesting. It is detailed. But, for me, it was hard to picture. In my head I stacked the turtle, then elephant, then elephant, then elephant, then elephant, and then the disc of the world teetering precariously on top. Kinda like a circus trick.

Then I got ahold of The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable, written by Terry Pratchett and illustrated by Paul Kidby. One of the opening illustrations is Great A’Tuin and his giant shell. Then the elephants are on his back, but not stacked. The elephants basically take up the ‘four corners’ of the shell and the Discworld is balanced – and seems much more stable – on their four backs.

While reading may stimulate us…I think that Pratchett’s narrative is aided by illustration. To ask a reader to picture elephants on a turtle’s back, and then in turn carry the world is not a huge problem. I’ve read Native American creation stories and Greek myths that demand the same kind of imaginative leap. But I like Pratchett’s story better now that I have seen the world. Prior to checking out The Last Hero the only thing I really knew about Discworld was that it was supposed to be funny…and therefore I made elephant circus stacks, instead of the more physically reasonable weight distribution illustrated by Kidby.

I think the best illustrations – for stories and novels, not books that are centered on the visual like graphic novels – are those that illuminate and clarify something that is difficult to picture. The original Alice in Wonderland has great illustrations, helping the reader picture what it’s like to play croquet with bird and hedgehogs. Places like Discworld and Wonderland – places where the normal is not easy to picture – are helped greatly by some kind of illustration, in my opinion. As clear as a writer is…sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

How about you guys? Do you find illustrations helpful or bothersome? Do you prefer stories ‘without pictures’ as Alice would say? Or are pictures a bonus?

Short and Sweet

“Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” – Blaise Pascal

Or, translated, it means, “I made this letter long, because I did not have time to make it short.”

A perfect introduction to this week’s prompt. I recently found The Postcard Press, which is a fun flash fiction (or short poetry) concept. The press publishes in postcard format and you’re strictly limited on how long your piece can be, because, well, it has to fit on a postcard. We’re talking about Terry Pratchett’s marvelous, wacky fantasy, and The Postcard Press has a call for submissions about magic. Submissions are due by the end of May.

Check out submission details at their website and get cranking on your magic.

Happy Writing!