Vacation Home: Things I Learned Visiting Discworld

The Discworld, my brain's favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld, my brain’s favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

I spent half of Thursday crying and the other half reading. Both because Terry Pratchett had just died.

It’s hard to explain why I was so upset by the death of a man whom I had never met. And now, never will. Part of it was that, probably: I will never be able to tell him how much those books meant to me. Something I’m sure he heard a thousand thousand times, but I like to think that no one really gets tired of hearing how they touched someone else’s life.

It was the stories, of course. And the characters. And the turns of phrase that stuck with me, year after year. I have all the Discworld books, and some of them have been read so many times that they’re falling apart, and need to be replaced. One, in fact, finally split on Thursday afternoon, after sixteen years of me reading it over and over.

Reading those books was—and is— fun. And reading has got to be entertaining, or what’s the point? But it wasn’t just fun that made me stick with them, or them with me.

Those books were, to paraphrase Tolkien, a light in dark places for me. They told me that being weird wasn’t just okay—the world is full of places and people who will tell you that being your weird self is ‘okay’, like you need their permission, and besides, ‘okay’ is the very fucking definition of mediocrity—but that being weird was awesome. It was something to be celebrated. And the people who didn’t understand that were probably Auditors* in disguise or something, so fuck those people.

The books told me that even things that hurt you can be laughed at. And should be.

They also told me that I wasn’t alone. That no matter how isolated or lonely I was—and there were long periods when I was both—that there were, somewhere, people who understood. One of them was this odd British man who wrote characters that felt like me, like someone had ripped out a piece of me and stuck them to a page**, but there must be others. I wasn’t sure how I would find them, but just the knowledge that they must be out there was enough to get me through. It meant that I wouldn’t always be alone.

That sort of thing means a lot when you’re sixteen.

And now I’m thirty-two. It’s been a lot of years since I first picked up a Pratchett book in the library—Lords and Ladies, if anyone’s wondering. But I’m still reading them, and now I read as a writer. And you know what? They’re still just as good. In fact, as a writer, now I can appreciate the economy of description and sharpness of observation that were among Pratchett’s hallmarks. I can see the humour and the anger.

I’m going to spend some of the next few weeks re-reading all my favourites from the series. And when I read about Death and his garden and the black desert, I’ll be thinking of Sir Terry.

Goodbye. I hope I can someday write something that touches someone half as much as your work did.

*The Discworld incarnation of rules and conformity, and exactly as boring as that sounds.

**Vimes and Susan in particular.

Dissection and Digression: Reasons To Re-read

Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Minifig Transformation was an ill-advised sequel. (Photo credit: Profound Whatever)

I finished a book the other day. Actually, I finished it again. I’ve read this particular book—Duma Key by Stephen King, if anyone’s interested—about half a dozen times over the last couple of years.

And it’s not the only one. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, It, the Harry Potter series, every goddamned Terry Pratchett novel under the sun…there are some pieces that I keep returning to.

Now, I could tell you that I do it because those books are ones I like, and I’m trying to figure out why. That is a part of it. When something makes me sit up and take notice, especially on a first reading, I tend to re-read it, just to figure out why. Why does this one make me feel…well, anything? After all, it’s all make-believe. It’s words on a page. So why did it make me laugh? Cry? Why did it make me angry? I’m always looking for the wires behind the smoke and mirrors. Looking for the structure and effort beneath the seamless glide of the prose. Like one of those smug assholes that exposes magic tricks, except hopefully less people want me dead.

Another reason is that re-reading good books makes them new again. You pick up on nuances you might not have on that first read, when you were too busy trying to figure it all out. You notice things, characters, plot threads, all of it. Maybe not on the second reading, but on the third, the fourth, the fifth. Get to half a dozen and you might really have an idea what it’s all about.

Those are two good reasons. They’re reasons that I can write about on this blog, where I offer my dubious advice. But, if you’ve ever re-read a book, then you know they’re not the only reasons. Or even the biggest ones.

Re-reading a book you love is like having a conversation with an old friend: comfortable, relaxing, and full of meaning. And inside jokes. Those are fucking everywhere. You can lose yourself in it, wander along those familiar paths, and still find something new.

It’s like putting on your most comfortable sweater and sinking in for an afternoon of relaxation.

In the end…it just feels good.


Sidebar: starting Friday and continuing for two weeks, the posts here may go up later than usual as I’ll be on vacation. But I’ll still be posting, so drop on by. Brave NaNoWriMo test monkeys, I’ll have some special posts just for you. And for those of us who prefer to watch the madness of the word-herders from the sidelines this year, I’ll have some for you, too. Stay tuned! November’s going to be awesome.)

Monday Challenge: Watershed

Convetible Ventilated Trousers shown with one ...

Some Trousers of Time may be more tasteful than others. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is why I never trust book reviews.

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Though I’m mostly a King fan*, I put off reading this one for quite a while because I had heard, through various reviews, that it was about the Kennedy assassination. Interesting in a way, but the obsession with JFK and all his might-have-beens is one I’ve never really gotten.

But it’s not about Kennedy at all. Or, it is, but only as a historical example in a convenient period. It’s really a story about watershed moments: those tiny places in history, personal or global, that mark a turning point. The place where two paths diverge. Readers of Terry Pratchett will be more familiar with the idea as the Trousers of Time. A moment, and then two diverging histories. The narrator of the book, Jake Epping, is confronted with watershed moments over and over, most of them of the smaller, more personal variety. Which is far more interesting than the fate of the 35th President of our neighbour to the south.

Because changing the course of history is one thing, but what plagues us are the decisions we have made, and all our own might-have-beens.

Monday Challenge time, children: write me a might-have-been. What watershed moment could have gone differently for you or your characters? What leg of the Trousers of Time might you or they have hurtled down, if things had changed only a little?

Now, I haven’t finished the book yet**, so I don’t know if the ending will be good. But I got through 400 pages yesterday, so it’s fair to say it’s made an impression. And isn’t that what counts?

*With a couple of exceptions. Seriously, what the hell is up with Wizard and Glass?
**And anyone who offers spoilers will be eaten by carnivorous iguanas by night and by day.

Monday Challenge: Thumbnails

Watercolour sketches

Just the important bits. (Photo credit: DailyPic)

Describing people is hard. Any fool with eyes and a thesaurus can find some way to describe the basic physical characteristics, but that’s only useful if it provides us with necessary information. Got a character whose bright blonde hair catches the eye of the bad guy? Useful to know. But do we have know that he’s also about five-six, slim build, with a scattering of freckles between his deep blue eyes and thin lips? And does that information have to be dropped in the very second that character appears?  What use is that?*

I know, I know, you can make the argument that you’re painting a word picture and allowing the reader to imagine the scene in full high-def colour. There’s some merit in that. But I prefer thumbnail sketches of characters with whatever information is necessary at that time. Anything else can be added later, as it is required. Put another way: we don’t need to know the colour of every character’s eyes. We really don’t.

Not when we can do something much better with much less. One of the best character descriptions I ever read came in a single sentence:

“There are flowers in her hair, but they’ve faded slightly, just like her.”**

Tells you everything you need to know about that woman, and not just how she looks. It speaks to her character, not just the arrangement of her molecules in physical space. And it does it in less words and less space and with a twist that makes you feel sorry for her. Much fucking better than any exact measurements and shade of hair could do.

Today’s Monday Challenge: write a character description in one sentence. Just one. Try to capture the soul, not just the image. Make us feel something for them instead of creating a static picture. Ask yourself: what makes this character interesting right now?

Here’s some examples I’ve created for your amusement:

He might have been pretty if not for his eyes, which had the bright mindless glint of a predatory bird.

Young as she was, she moved with a gingerness that suggested old wounds buried somewhere under her armour, pain flickering every now and then across her usually cool expression.

His greying hair was clipped short over a face that had been remade one punch at a time until no trace of who he had been remained.

Your turn. Go.

*I only ever read one book where it was acceptable to me when the narrator described everyone she met, and that was because she was a trainee law officer whose job depended on being able to accurately describe people and memorize their features. This was a skill she was actively trying to develop, so it made sense for her to dwell on thin lips or high foreheads or accurate measurements of height. Still, after a while it became irritating.

**From Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett.