I have been a writer most of my life. At some points I’ve convinced myself that I could be a comic artist or cartoon creator, though my talent in drawing compares only slightly favourably against the work of a talented 6-year-old and my observations on life are only funny you are one of those same 6-year-olds.
What can I say, despite everything, I’m still a master of Dad Jokes.
But apparently I do have some amount of talent for writing a story which is how I managed to earn a private writerly-advice session with (now Sir) Terry Pratchett. Sparked by the terrible sadness I feel about his death this week, I felt I needed to document the one and only meeting I had with him back when I was a teenager and had everything to learn. I have no notes from this time because I was not interviewing him, I was a late-teenage writer speaking to an idol about my own writing and all I have is a very fond, vivid recollection.
It was during a particularly prolific time in my writing life, when I was supposed to be studying for a certificate in IT and ended up procrastinating by writing an unsolicited, 120-page fan-rulebook for my (then) favourite roleplaying game. As part of an upcoming gaming convention (no, not gambling – roleplaying & wargaming), an opportunity arose for me to have a piece of my writing critiqued by Terry Pratchett and meet him for a “Literary Surgery” session (as only he could call it).
I chose to write a story specifically for the purpose because the event was being run by the local gaming community and I had no idea who would be reading the story aside from Terry himself. I already had a number of stories written and polished which contained my own characters and ideas, but in my young, self-important mind I felt that I didn’t want anyone “stealing my ideas”, so I wrote some fan fiction based on the same roleplaying universe in which my fan-book was based.
Terry had the final say as to the pieces he would critique and thankfully mine was one of the pieces chosen. As an hugely famous author, Terry was booked to speak at the end of the day, but much of his day, he dedicated to helping young writers hone their craft which is something to this day amazes me and for which I am forever thankful. Though I never knew him personally, from what I have read about him in his public life, he gave a great deal of himself to others.
I waited outside the room in which I would receive my Literary Surgery for some time, ensuring that I was not late and was eventually called in. I found Terry Pratchett sitting behind a desk, rather angry. Apparently many of the people who had been chosen to meet with Terry and have their work critiqued had chosen not to show up!! What. The. Fuck. Not only this, but the organisers had chosen not to bring me in early even though I’d been waiting around for 20 minutes. Terry Pratchett was still there. He had not stormed off in a huff – he was still sitting, waiting, ready to give a young writer some advice on how to be a better one. Neil Gaiman has written that Terry was an angry man, but that his love for humanity and its failings allowed him to rise above the rage and I witnessed exactly that.
After a only moment of venting his displeasure at having his valuable time wasted by people I can only refer to as idiots, Terry began to ask about my story. Immediately he asked me why I had chosen to write fan fiction. I explained that it was due to concern over my own ideas and who among the gaming folk would be reading my story. He seemed to empathise with this, though I imagine internally thought I was a bit full of myself given how young I was & how unpublished I was. But then he told me this:
Never write fan fiction
He explained that though there are a few fan fiction authors who make decent money from writing for franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek, the lion’s share of the proceeds go to the owners of the intellectual property rights. Many years *ahem*decades*ahem* later, this is exactly the reason the book was about fifty shades of demented, rich control-freak and not about fifty shades of demented, sparkly vampire.
Terry commented on my dialogue and that though it was good and realistic he told me that my dialogue was in what he called the second stage of dialogue writing. Each one of my passages of dialogue was wrapped in descriptive words and the name of who was speaking.
He told me that in the beginning, writers use simply “she said”, “he said” and “they said” over and over and over. When writers realise that their dialogue requires emotive, descriptive and audio cues, they start using them EVERYWHERE after everything every character says. This was where my writing was. He said that once a writer matures, they begin to use the words around the dialogue to affect the way the dialogue is read and, while still using “said” and the descriptive terms to enhance the writing, a good writer will also leave them out (or indeed remove them during revisions) to make the writing flow.
The last piece of advice he gave me was something just about every writing teacher and author says to budding writers and it boils down to: “show, don’t tell”. Terry Pratchett did not use these words, of course, because he probably knew that any person who has sat in a writing course or read a book on how to write will have read these exact words (along with “write what you know”). Instead, he read me a passage of description I had written – one in which I go into explicit detail about the particular militaristic culture in which the story was set, my passage even went into a 20th-century analogy to try and provide almost essay-like understanding to the reader. The passage was terribly, obviously.
Terry explained that a story’s dialogue, physical surroundings and the personal interactions of the characters will inform the reader of the type of culture in which the story is set – explicit, descriptive passages telling the reader all about this culture were not only clunky, but boring. He recommended that if I wanted to learn how to write a militaristic culture, I should readh Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (though Terry called it “Starship Poopers” which at the time I didn’t get and, oblivious, I even wrote down “Starship Poopers”…he must have my utter ignorance quite hilarious).
My literary surgery ended too quickly and I thanked Terry nowhere near enough and I was on my way. I re-read my fan fiction story and saw exactly the parts Terry had flagged, but I never actually revised it. In fact I’ve not written a single piece of fan fiction since.
As I sit here now, it strikes me how much of the meeting I remember a if it were yesterday and it saddens me so terribly that this simple act of recollection was taken away from such a wonderful, intelligent, curious, generous person.
It is a gift to the world that we can still pick up a copy of any of Terry Pratchett’s books and enjoy the hell out of them (again). I’m about to do just that now.