Tag Archives: on writing

A third anniversary

Attribution below

Today, 12th March, is the third anniversary of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, a number of books not set in Discworld, and co-author of three books bringing serious science to the masses (The Science of Discworld). He was only 66. During his life he authored many books. There are 41 in the Discworld series alone. He received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, had a number of honorary doctorates from universities, and won a number of literary awards.




The librarian at Unseen University was turned into an orangutan and has avoided all attempts to turn him back into a human

I am a Terry Pratchett tragic. I have all his books in hardback in a glass-fronted book case to protect them from mould (which is a constant problem here in the sub-tropical north). An orangutan keeps watch over my office from his perch on one bookshelf, a job he shares with Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, and Princess Leia, who preside above the glass-fronted bookcase. (Which probably tells you a few Things About Me.) I’m sure he won’t mind me not using his title, though. I don’t think he was ever that kind of guy. Although apparently he was so disappointed that he didn’t get to keep the sword after he got his knighthood, he made one for himself – literally, right down to digging up the iron ore and making a kiln. You’ll find the details of that story here.

Terry was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and departed arm in arm with Death in 2015 – having written another seven books before he succumbed. Although he was a great advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he died naturally. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and I would not wish it on anyone but I find it particularly evil that this man of words had words stolen from him at such a young age (58). While Death is the great leveller, disease is a torturer.

A documentary about him, called Back in Black, was made after his death. Here’s the link to the version on Youtube. Actor Paul Kaye did an excellent job of portraying Terry, complete with his unusual accent. Sure, there were talking heads. His great friend, Neil Gaiman, his personal assistant, Rob Wilkins, Discworld’s illustrator, Paul Kidby, his daughter, Rhianna, and others all contribute information about the man they knew. But a lot of the facts were delivered by Pratchett himself (through Paul Kaye). The stand-outs for me were as follows:

  • Terry wasn’t a child prodigy. When he was six years old his headmaster told him he would never amount to anything. That put a fire in his belly that never left him.
  • He left school at age 17 and never attended higher education.
  • He had an accident as a small child which left him with a speech impediment. And he also had a stutter. As a result, he was bullied.
  • He got a voluntary job in the local library where he read everything he could get his hands on. Books were his friends.
  • Over time he collected all those books he would subsequently write into his head. At one stage he was publishing three books a year. And it seems he also worked on as many as three books consecutively. Wow. Just wow.

Terry Pratchett’s Death – a seven-foot skeleton wearing a black robe, carrying a scythe and riding a white horse called Binky – is among Terry’s most popular characters. He stars in several of the Discworld books – Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather, and Soul Music – and has a cameo appearance in most of the others. Death is fascinated by humans and their foibles. Terry can ask himself questions such as what would happen if Death took an apprentice? What if he decided to be a short-order cook instead of doing the Grim Reaper duty? What I particularly like about Death comes from the little cameos where he turns up to take a life. The recently-departed asks about where they’re going. “Will there be [insert folk belief of choice]” to which Death replies, “Do you want there to be?”

The results are funny, sure. But most of Terry’s books are character-driven. The Discworld is just a nightmare’s distance from our own, but the people are us. He shines a light on prejudice, where trolls and dwarfs substitute for Arabs and Jews or whoever we don’t like at the moment. He talks about women’s rights in Equal Rites, Men at Arms and in fact many other books. He pokes fun at Academia through the (male, celibate) wizards at Unseen University, and contrasts them with the worldly-wise witches, who perform the simple magic of midwifery, medicine and plain common sense.

All that reading Terry did in the little country library stood him in good stead. He often picked up a legend and shook it around to see what fell out. Hogfather, which was made into a terrific little mini-series, is about Christmas – what it used to be, as opposed to what it has become. The Hogfather (Father Christmas) has been kidnapped, so Death (seven-foot skeleton riding a white horse called Binky) assisted by his grand-daughter, Susan, takes on the job of doing the Christmas run, including the obligatory appearance in a department store. Elves are given their treatment in a few books, notably Lords and Ladies. For Terry, they weren’t the noble master race you’ll find in Tolkien. He goes back to earlier times, when they were nasty individuals, prone to playing tricks on people – and not in a nice way.

So today is a day of mourning for me. I’ve read and re-read Terry’s books since that day when I first read the prologue to The Colour of Magic in a newsagency at Perth airport back in the late 1980’s.

I’ve copied this list of his achievements from his Wikipedia page to save you the trouble of looking it up. Not bad for a kid who’d never amount to anything.

Photo by Luigi Novi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org w/index.php?curid=22449958

Why do I bother?

1270187That’s a very good question. I’m talking about writing books. Like many of my peers, I self-publish my stories. The main reason, I suppose, is control. Nobody is cracking a whip. I’m not trying to attract the interest of a publisher by going through the horrible submission process (I’m too old for that). I get final say on my covers. Oh, and I’ve had my fill of draconian contracts and publishers going bust. AND I’ll add that I’ve had my fill of the ‘rules of writing’ and all the things you ‘have to do’ to market your work. Bah and humbug to all that shit. I’ve reduced my social media commitments. I took myself off a number of websites I never visited. No more Bookbuzzr, Authordb, Triberr and LinkedIn. I’ve removed my Twitter account completely, due to lack of use.

Do I make any money from my nine novels and various shorts? The answer would have to be a resounding NO. Especially when you factor in the cost of paying for a professional cover, and professional editing. And, in the past, advertising. I believe in doing it properly, you see. I hate trying to read books riddled with typos and horrible mistakes like “he drug the body to the edge of the creek”. Or “lightening flashed across the sky”. Or “she parked her space ship in the hanger”. You get the picture.

I might make a thing about one-star reviews. But lots of people have done that. I find the easiest solution is to not read the reviews. It’s not my job to monitor what readers think. I know lots won’t like my work. That’s fine. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. There are plenty of books I did not finish (life’s too short to persevere with something that doesn’t resonate – I did enough of that in English Lit at high school). A few people do enjoy my scribblings, which fills me with pleasure.

So given all that, why DO I bother?

Because when I get into the rhythm I enjoy the process. It isn’t easy. It’s never easy. The words don’t fly out of my fingertips. I tend not to plot, just create my characters and a starting point, then ask them what happens next. The further the story goes, the easier it becomes. Stuck? Just have a one-on-one chat with the characters. Or the villain. Or get into the detail of the universe we’re in. And don’t bother with whining that the Muse is on holiday or you have writer’s block. I’ve had no urge to write for most of a year. I pushed myself to start a new book, but now it’s moving along, it’s challenging.

There’s something magical about creating a world that doesn’t exist anywhere but between my ears. It’s wonderful to imagine traveling between star systems, and the interactions between humans and aliens. Every time I read about another scientific breakthrough – another exoplanet, gravity waves, 3D printing miracles, new nano-tech capabilities, carbon fiber, self-driving cars etc etc I pause in wonder and absorb another detail for the creative process.

Mind you, the situations and the interactions between the inhabitants of my make-believe worlds are deeply influenced by the behaviour of that most murderous of species – us.

So I’ll keep doing it. Maybe I’ll be an Overnight Sensation some time. Or probably not. Writing keeps my mind active. If it’s a hobby, so be it.

If you’re interested in what the latest project is, I’ve put up a few snippets on the Space freighters’ Lounge.

On the art of writing what you know

Stars in Orion's beltI guess you guys all know I write mainly space opera. So you might be forgiven for raising an incredulous eyebrow (maybe even two) when I talk about writing what I know. And sure, I take out the space opera tool kit for the space bits. FTL travel, artificial gravity, shields to divert radiation (and attacks) etc etc. But not everything happens out there in the wide black. I usually have some goings-on planetside. And the WIP is no exception.

Senior Commander Thad Butcher was Grand Admiral Saahren’s adjutant in the Iron Admiral series, but this time, he’s getting his own story. Newly promoted to captain after the events chronicled in the Iron Admiral, he’s gone home to Validor for a brief holiday before he takes up his new command – a battle cruiser. It’s a boyhood dream come true. But he arrives on planet just in time to become embroiled in an attack on the Ruling family, where he’s reunited with Tarlyn, who had been the unattainable love of his life before he left Validor, aged seventeen, to attend the Fleet Academy.

I’ve had a vague plot floating in my head for several years now, but distilling that ephemeral essence into a working story takes time. Although we’ll get back up into space later down the track, at the moment Thad and Tarlyn are on a boat, heading for a meeting with the Ptorix.

And this gives the opportunity to write what I know.

Several months ago I was privileged to go on a three-day sail in the Whitsunday Islands off Queensland. It was a memorable experience, and one of those appears in the WIP. Thad and Tarlyn take a boat out of a bay between two headlands. That’s based on my experience when we sailed through the Solway Passage, with its churning waters and whirlpools, all overlooked by a stormy sky and the towering red cliffs of a distant island. My scene isn’t exactly the same, but I’ve drawn on that journey to lend some colour.IMG_8524_HDR

But that’s not the end of the sea adventure, and here I dragged out another recent experience, when I went to horizontal Falls two years ago (gosh, is that really so long ago)? I wrote about it here. I’ll be using that image, of a tide roaring through a narrow gap, in another exciting scene.

See? You can write what you know, using places not too many people on this planet have seen.

Falls approaching gap


Stay tuned, everybody. It should be a fun read, my usual combination of action, with a slurp of romance. No I haven’t thought of a name yet.

You can find out more about my Ptorix Empire books here.