I was saddened to read of the passing of Terry Pratchett last week. While fantasy is not one of the genres I choose to read, I respected his writing – his craft, his ethos and his work ethic – greatly, as did so many others. After the publication of his first Discworld novel in the early 1980s, he wrote on average two books per year, and their popularity is clear in the sales figure: 85 million books worldwide in 37 languages.
The literary world is mourning the loss of such a talented and prolific writer. But as Terry himself wrote, ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.’ As well as his legion of fans, who will continue to buy, to read and to pass on his novels, Terry’s work can inspire many generations of writers to come. With that in mind, today I’m sharing with you three lessons to learn from Terry’s writing, which were common themes that cropped up in his responses to interviewers over the years.
Trust the muse
Infamously not one for planning, Terry was very open about sitting at his computer and letting the words form on the page without his interference. Now, I write very differently, planning my books in detail before commencing the writing, but at the beginning of my own process, I know to let the ideas come unhindered – the editing comes later. What really comes forth in Terry’s interviews is how much he loved the initial writing stage when he and the muse were at one. He said: ‘when I am editing, rewriting, refining and polishing my work, I say to myself: “If you’re a good boy and finish this before the deadline, you’re going to be allowed to write another book!”’
Do your homework
‘To writers I say, you’re going to have to read a lot… So many books that you’re going to overflow.’ There is no better advice for writers, to my mind. He told Writing Magazine, ‘To write good SF and to write good fantasy, like anything else, you have to have actually studied it. Not just thought, ooh this looks good, I know how it goes. You have to know what works. You have to know what’s gone before. You have to know how Poe wrote, how everybody wrote. You have to read Brian Aldiss. But you have to read everybody, not just the SF guys. It’s just following the masters. See how the best are doing it.’I think when you approach writing in this way, as a student of the craft, humble in your desire to learn, your ultimate writing is infinitely better.
Practise every day
He told young people seeking his advice on how to become a writer to write 500 words a day, every day: no excuses. That equates to 182,500 words per year – around two novels.
Put in the hard work
Writing is hard, he said. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of hard work. ‘[People] think it should be easier than that,’ he said in an interview.‘It’s not easier than that… But people don’t want to be told that they have to sit there for a long time and work hard at it.’ He talked about some people’s desire to ‘have written’ rather than to actually write. Thank goodness for his realism about what it is to be a writer, about how many arduous hours you spend writing. And thank goodness for us all that he consistently put in the hard work, because now we have so many wonderful, colourful, funny books he has left as his literary legacy.