three secrets of writing

Sir Terry PratchettThe picture on the right is Sir Terry Pratchett twenty years ago when he attended the first Octocon convention in Ireland as Guest of Honour.

It was early in his career, and I remember him as affable, friendly and willing to socialise with the fans (not always the case with authors).

The convention introduced me to his work, and I’ve been an admirer of his Discworld novels ever since.

Today, Pratchett has sold over 70 million books worldwide and his hair is much whiter. He’s also coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s with rare honesty, as evidenced in last year’s two-part BBC documentary.

Pratchett is currently in Trinity College Dublin for a month as an adjunct professor of English. The Irish Times has a good write-up of his creative writing masterclass with the college’s M.Phil. students called ‘And the Magic Happens‘. It’s well worth reading.

In particular I liked his advice to fantasy writers: stick to real people and eschew the “wizards and witches and the other flora and fauna of fantasy”. By that I believe Pratchett is suggesting that the people within fantasy novels must have real lives that matter – which is the case in his own books.

He finishes the masterclass with the three secrets of writing:

First secret: everything is research. “When I was writing Good Omens I was typing away and the radio was on. It was a Shakespeare play – The Tempest, I think. And I found myself typing: ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here.’ Be open to the universe.”

Second secret. “Keep your vocabulary as wide as you can. I have some difficulty with the word ‘cool’, and I’m not too bothered about the word ‘awesome’. People like me are looking to people like you guys of the next generation to deal with this s**t. It’s like seeing a rock guitarist pick up a Fender Stratocaster and hold it the wrong way.”

The third secret has to do with sheer hard work. “First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft. I don’t know how. It has to do with my subconscious – the subconscious of someone who’s been doing it for a long time. Endless reading and endless thinking about what I’ve read.”