The first Terry Pratchett book I read was Mort. I accidentally kept reading it for far longer into the night than I should have, but sleep didn’t really seem to be an option when I was caught up in the magic of Discworld. Well, that and the fact that I told myself I’d just keep going until I reached the end of the chapter and then I’d get some sleep.
There were no chapters.
The whole book was a chapter.
When I reached the end of the book-long chapter (a day or so later – sleep is a necessary evil, even when you’re stuck in an amazing book), I did something I’d never done before: I went right back to the start and read it again. It was a library book and had, in fact, been the only Discworld book on the shelves, so I knew it would be a while before I’d be able to borrow it again. For the next few days, I’d flip to favourite scenes or passages, hoping to absorb them into my brain so they’d stay with me long after the book had gone on to someone else.
I didn’t know you were allowed to write like that. If you didn’t believe in chapters, you could ignore them entirely. You could hang entire scenes on little but perfectly-crafted dialogue. You could make a character talk ALL IN CAPITALS and it made perfect sense. And how did you even start with a book like that? As a writer with a complete inability to plan ahead, I was sure Mr Pratchett must have laid out a scene outline and stuck to it with ruthless dedication because it was so perfectly crafted. I later learned he did no such thing and, in fact, experienced the angst and self-induced misery that writers the world over deal with on a regular basis. He was one of us, but he also showed us that his own brilliant stories were formed exactly the same way ours were.
In short, I had been blown away both as a reader and a writer and I know my writing was never the same after reading that first Discworld book. And the second one. And all of the others.
I was a penniless student when I started reading Pratchett, so I relied heavily on libraries for my fix. I listened to audiobooks when the physical ones weren’t available. I watched the cartoons of Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music when they were broadcast on ABC. And whenever I borrowed a new book from the library, I read it at least twice and kept returning to my favourite scenes before I had to hand it back.
Now that I’m no longer a penniless student, I have dedicated significant bookshelf space to acquiring a complete collection of Discworld novels. I have a special fondness for the hardbacks, because the first books I read were hardbacks from the library, so everything from Carpe Jugulum onwards is in that form. It’s next to impossible to choose a favourite, but if you really pressed me, I’d probably tell you it was Jingo because it’s the only book I’ve ever read that gave me the actual shivers and kept haunting me long after I’d finished it. (It’s also the only Discworld book of which I have two copies, having found a hardback version while on holiday with the Failboats in Merimbula last year).
The Discworld books may be just words strung together into delightful concoctions of fiction, but they’ve taught me so much since I first dropped into Mort and fought a valiant (but inevitably futile) battle with sleep.
Terry Pratchett taught me that a little reality in your fantasy is a fine thing indeed. And that’s an odd thing to say of someone who wrote about a magical world that was carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. The fact is, most of my favourite fictional characters come from Discworld: Esme Weatherwax, Commander Vimes, Mustrum Ridcully, Binky… You have to love someone who can feature a cranky octogenarian* witch as the hero of the story. Stereotypes may be negative things, but you can certainly go to town when it comes to subverting them.
Terry Pratchett taught me that a good policeman abhors a hat with a feather in it.
Terry Pratchett taught me that I wasn’t actually bad at writing dialogue – I was just over-thinking it. There’s no point to polishing your dialogue and making every utterance into a sentence of perfection; let people say things with mistakes in them; let them develop their own mannerisms.
Terry Pratchett taught me that the most powerful magic is the magic you don’t use.
Terry Pratchett taught me that when my cats suddenly look up and stare at nothing, it’s probably just Death dropping by to say HI and giving them a quick pat or two.
The title of this post comes from a quote in Small Gods, which goes a little like this. Actually, it goes exactly like this, otherwise there’d be no point:
“What can I tell you? What do you want to hear? I just wrote down what people know. Mountains rise and fall, and under them the Turtle swims onward. Men live and die, and the Turtle Moves. Empires grow and crumble, and the Turtle Moves. Gods come and go, and still the Turtle Moves. The Turtle Moves.”
From the darkness came a voice, “And that is really true?”
Didactylos shrugged. “The turtle exists. The world is a flat disc. The sun turns around it once every day, dragging its light behind it. And this will go on happening, whether you believe it is true or not. It is real. I don’t know about truth. Truth is a lot more complicated than that. I don’t think the Turtle gives a bugger whether it’s true or not, to tell you the truth.”
Somehow, I think the Turtle might give a bugger or two about the loss of such an incredible human being.
Vale, Terry Pratchett. Maybe I’ll see you in L-Space one day.
* I’m guessing here. She may be much older. Or younger. Either way, I’m feeling some trepidation that an almost inevitably non-existent character might be offended by this categorisation. This is the power of Granny Weatherwax.