If you’ve never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett, nor read any of the forty-one books he published in the Discworld universe, I have to both pity you and envy you.
Pity, because so far, you’re missing out on what’s one of the greatest set of fantasy books that, in my opinion, has ever been written. Envy, because you have the chance to experience all the magic for the first time.
Over the course of thirty two years, Sir Terry Pratchett published forty-one novels set in his fantasy Discworld, primarily focusing on the city of Ankh-Morpork which most people take to be a cynical, loose take on London.
It took me about three months to get through all forty-one books, reading them in chronological publishing order. I laughed, I cried, I got goosebumps, and I was moved beyond expression. Here are the six lessons I learned on writing, taught by one of the greatest writers of all time.
1. You don’t have to start with perfection.
When people tell you to read Terry Pratchett’s books, they often tell you to skip the first two, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. I didn’t because I believed in order to fully experience the magic, I had to read all of the books. You know what I found out?
Those first two books weren’t actually that great.
The world-building was good, the characters were good, the story-telling was good, but compared to his later work, they paled in comparison. Terry Pratchett, back in 1983, was a good fantasy author. But nothing more.
Honestly, the first ten books, while better than average, aren’t as good as his later works. What that taught me was that Pratchett didn’t emerge from the womb, fully formed as exceptional humorous fantasy author. Like the rest of us, he worked at it, often publishing things that weren’t perfect. The key takeaway is that over forty-one novels, he improved immeasurably.
There are authors out there whose debut novel is breathtaking and magical and unbelievably well-crafted. But I think they’re they’re actually few and far between.
Luckily, Terry Pratchett wasn’t one of those, and as I read his books in order, becoming more and more deeply awed at his increasing skill in prose, I grew hopeful that just because I was only good now certainly did not mean I could not become great.
2. Even the greatest still make mistakes.
Even though Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors, he persisted in making one grievous error which never failed to annoy me: all his neutral characters were male.
“Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It’s the only way to make progress.” — Lord Havelock Vetinari (from Terry Pratchett’s book The Truth).
All his engineers when men, whenever he described “humans” or “people” as striving, they were invariably men. Only men sought power, only men searched for the truth. Men were almost never described firstly by their looks, women seldom weren’t. One one occasion that I remember, he said one particularly female character was especially attractive when she was angry, much as she tried to hide it.
He did have good female characters — the witches were some of my favorites, and they were just as well developed and realistic as his male characters.
He also dealt well with the issue of sexism, and funnily enough touched on the fact that in society’s with equal rights between men and women, successful women are simply those who manage to act the most as men.
But Terry Pratchett was not a perfect writer. Some people may say that I’m nitpicking here as a matter of linguistic preference, but the fact is that I can both enjoy his incredible writing and call out the mistakes in his writing that I don’t love.
3. Use your emotions to write.
Terry Pratchett’s books are funny. They’re also tragic, furious, desperate and deeply, deeply cutting. With Pratchett’s writing, you get the sense he’s seen the underside of humanity and is trying to put a funny front on it to make it more palatable to the rest of us blissful ignorants.
Many people thought Terry Pratchett was a jolly man — one had to look no further than his writing, his whimsical characters and world to prove it. After all, Ankh-Morpork was a city situated on a flat disc which balanced on the backs of four elephants, carefully standing on the back of the Great A’tuin, the space turtle.
But you look a little deeper and you see a love of fairness, and a sort of despair that the world is unjust and probably will always be like that, permeating every character, every story that he wrote.
Terry Pratchett saw the world in stark reality, and more than the great big sweeping tragedies, he had a nose for the small injustices, perpetrated by small-minded people against those who couldn’t hope for better. He used his anger to create a world that was purely fantasy, yes, but also a reflection of our own world, holding up a mirror that we might recognize injustice in its many forms.
What I learned from this is that the very best writing comes from an emotional place. Don’t write what you know: write what you feel.
4. Mark up what you like.
As I worked my way through his books, I was struck time and time again by a particular turn of phrase which was either exceptionally well-crafted, or added a new depth to a character, or left a mark on me in some other way.
As a frequent library-goer, I normally have a deep-seated reluctance to mark any book pages. Dog-earing was strictly prohibited, and actually using pencil or pen on a page was unimaginable.
But books are just things. The best ones will wear out eventually through re- and re-reading. So as I was laughing over a particularly apt description of one of his character’s writing style, I decided to bite the bullet and just put a little star next to the passage.
“The exercise was carried out with much frowning, sucking of the pencil and what Commander Vimes called a ballistic approach to spelling and punctuation.” — Terry Pratchett in Jingo, about Carrot’s letter-writing skills.
5. World-building is done on a microscopic level.
If you read Pratchett’s books, you will experience the gradual accumulation of finely-layered details, all culminating in a city and world and people that feel not as though Pratchett is making it up, but rather like he’s giving simply looking into a fully-formed alternate universe, and telling us what he finds.
Over the course of the 41 books, there’s never any one particular moment or book even that stands out as a scene setter. Even his first few books only vaguely sketch out the city, in broad strokes that let you fill in the rest with your imagination.
As he goes on, and the satellite cities and neighborhoods within Ankh-Morpork get more exposition, more characters, and they start to interact with one another, building up what they’re like not just from their own perspective, or ours as readers, but showing us what other characters make of them, too.
Not only that, but the city changes, and the way with which Pratchett deals with the characters and city alters perceptibly. In the earlier books, the city often sustains a good deal of damage at irregular but frequent intervals, mostly from fire. As the series continues, the damage happens in much smaller magnitudes. If Pratchett continued to set half the city ablaze, half the characters we’d all come to know and love would die — or at least, they’d have something to say, and we as readers would want to know what it was.
Of course, he had forty-one books to add more and more details, but the point still stands: don’t try to set it all out at once, don’t try to tell your readers what people are like, what places are like. Let them discover it, one tiny detail at a time.
6. Good stories are universal.
The miracle of Terry Pratchett’s writing is that he manages to combine utterly unique, riveting, breathing people, places and things, specific to the Discworld and nowhere else, with the certainty that you’ve meet this person/been to this place/seen that thing before.
What I love most about Pratchett’s work is that even though all the places, characters and storylines are rich and indescribably specific, there’s something relatable that everyone can find in them.
Take Ankh-Morpork for example. Most people assume it’s London, but if you look closely, you’ll see bits of any city you’ve lived in, carefully represented in some detail or other. People have claimed it’s actually based on Tel Aviv, Seattle, New York, Sheffield. The truth is that it’s obviously both all and none of them. It’s Ankh-Morpork.
His characters are so realistic they practically come to life, but most people will recognize someone from their own lives, if not themselves, in the people Pratchett describes. Even though each is their own fully-formed person, so realistic you can extrapolate what they’re likely to do based on what they’ve done, they’re simultaneously so true to life that you can’t help but pick out the people you know within them.
The last lesson (on this list, certainly not ever) that Terry Pratchett taught me is that if you want to write well, you’ll create deeply personal but universal stories that resonate deeply within many people because of how unique they are.
It’s a big ask. But the reward is a book, article, or just story that reaches across the page and into the reader’s heart.
Sir Terry Pratchett passed away in 2015. Although many more notable names than mine have paid their respects to one of the greatest authors of our time, I can think of no better way for me to do so than to carry on the traditions I learned from him: believe that I can improve, dare to publish what I know isn’t perfect, learn from my mistakes, write from the heart, build detail small and slow, and finally, to write human stories.
“No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away — until the clock he wound winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life…is only the core of their actual existence.” Reaper Man, written by Terry Pratchett.