REVIEW: ‘Once More With Footnotes’ by Terry Pratchett

I don’t normally read short story collections. I read plenty of short stories but it’s only recently, since foraying into short story writing territory myself, that I find myself reading collections from cover to cover. I used to discriminate, read the shorter ones if I was pressed for time, or the title story, or the one that was recommended to me, or even just read the opening paragraphs of each until I found one I liked and stuck it out until the end. Now I seem to read them from cover to cover, as if they were a novel.

Once More with Footnotes is an odd book. It was published by the NESFA press in honour of Pratchett’s attendance as guest of honour at the 62nd discworld convention. It gathers together his short stories (including his first published story), speeches, introductions to other books and articles and journalism. I had actually read several of the short stories online before I became aware of the collection. As soon as I discovered it I immediately wanted to buy it, then discovered that there had only been three limited print runs back in 2004. Only a few thousand copies were printed (and when you sell books by the skip full like Pratchett that’s a meagre number). So then I got sad. After awhile though I rediscovered my ebay account and started bidding furiously on the few copies still in circulation. After spending a diriculous amount of money on one book (and I won’t say how diriculous) it was just a matter of waiting for weeks while ebay sorted itself out and delivered it. Having read only his novels for years it’s amazing to see what he can do with a much more contrained word count.

However the book has some flaws, which I’ll briefly discuss first:

  • His journalism becomes a case of ‘Read one, read them all’ after awhile. Being the prolific force of fantasy that he is he was frequently asked to write articles defining fantasy, explaining, fantasy, telling how he got interested in fantasy, advice to people writing fantasy, theories on fantasy… While the non-fiction end of the spectrum is well written it all gets a bit samey after awhile.
  • Some stories are longer than they needed to be. They weren’t really edited between their initial publication and being added into this collection so it’s fair enough that he was younger, less experienced etc. and overall it was a pretty brave move to leave them as tehy were.
  • His juvenalia really stands out as being stylistically different to the rest of the book, there’s a real sense of him struggling to figure out his voice and style. These early pieces are much more formal and don’t flow as well. (that being said they’re far better than anything I wrote when I was starting out, and better than most of what I write now. He had an insanely large vocabulary as a kid)
  • It’s hard to figure out what logic there is behind the order of pieces but there’s no real continuity or flow. It leads to a very disjointed reading experience. The little introductory notes he writes at the start of each piece, while often unnessecary, help maintain some kind of flow.

But the stories are awesome! Wow, I can barely keep myself from gushing about the first story ‘Hollywood Chickens,’ which was written as an ecological study of chickens and how they attempt to cross the road (but no-one can answer the all-important why)

There’s a brilliant Discworld story where an philosopher tries to outsmart Death (that’s the anthropomorphic personality that TALKS LIKE THIS), and a monologue featuring Death written as a transcript of a police interview.

There are some great Discworld moments such as Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax competing at the witching trials or when the Watch investigates the murder of a Punch and Judy stall owner.

There are also brilliant moments where we get to see what fantasy staples Pratchett might have turned to if The Colour of Magic had flopped. One example is the time travelling physicist named Mervin who gets stuck in Arthurian times and rigs up remotely controlled electromagnets to ensure only the person he deems appropriate will be able to pull the sword from the stone. Another is told from the point of view of a labourer on a monolith thousands of years ago trying to deal with a documentary film crew.

Overall Once More With Footnotes was worth the price for the fiction alone. It’s not a great place to start if you haven’t read Terry Pratchett though, I’d recommend picking a thread on this chart instead and just keep ploughing through those for awhile, but if you’ve read and loved everything he has to offer and are willing to spend a some moolah then this is a must have.

My Writing Playlist

I find it difficult to write without music. This could be because my first successful serious attempt at writing took place last summer while I was still living at home.

I’d always dabbled in writing but I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing and decided to take his work ethic literally and write 2,000 words a day. Whatever anyone’s opinion on Stephen King you can’t say he didn’t work hard, especially when he was starting out. I was this ambitious because I was unemployed and had no financial commitments. I also took weekends off because I was an arts graduate dammit. That’s how we roll. So I had a goal of 10,000 words per week. At the same time I was reading Randy Ingermanson’s Fiction Writing for Dummies in which he recommends penalties for not reaching weekly writing goals. So I decided to forfeit €50 (of the money that I wasn’t earning) for every week I didn’t reach my goal. You’d be amazed at how well this motivates you.

But the fact remains that I was working at home which is less than ideal. My sister was sitting exams so I’d often hear her pop music (ew) from across the hall. During her breaks I’d hear her playing basketball incredibly loudly right underneath my window. There’d be interruptions from parents, the sound of lawnmowers, the dog barking, visitors talking downstairs or the train going by my house.

So rather than be distracted by random noises I couldn’t control I decided to have constant noise that I was in control of.

I can’t listen to every type of music at each stage of writing, I find different bands work better at different stages.

  • For Brainstorming and Research: Glam Rock. You can’t beat it. That and Hair Metal. Anything cheesy and upbeat really, 80s stuff, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Bowie, Motley Crue, KISS etc. etc. It really fosters creativity for some inexplicable reason.

Who wouldn’t be inspired by this?

  • Writing; 1st 2nd and 3rd drafts: Any Heavy metal really. I love Slipknot, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson, Avenged Sevenfold. Anything heavy and loud enough (oh, and Pantera) to distract my inner censor or critic (and AC/DC, though they’re good for brainstorming too) from getting involved. When I write without music I keep going back, editing, second guessing everything (and Alice in Chains are awesome too) and never actually moving on. With music like this that critic’s voice is eliminated without, hopefully, deteriorating the actual quality of my writing. (And Tool) It’s fast enough to get a rhythm going too, When I listen to Metallica’s Master of Puppets album or Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind I can knock out 1,000 words an hour on good days. It has to be music I’m familiar with though. I’ve started listening to more Ozzy Osbourne recently and because I’m not as familiar with him (Korn have clawed their way back into my playlist too) I find myself stopping and listening to it, trying to hear the lyrics and just getting distracted. The same happened with Mastodon. (I can’t believe I almost forgot Stone Sour)

I’ve written some of my favourite scenes while listening to Bat Country on repeat

  • Revision, Editing and Polishing: while I occassionally like listening to Duke Special, Wallis Byrd and other folksyish acousticy stuff at this point I prefer instrumental things like Bach, the Montovani Orchestra, Yanni (don’t judge me!!), Apocalyptica, some heavy metal instrumentals like Metallica’s Orion and Cacophony’s Speed Metal Symphony. Film scores like Lord of the Rings are good and Led Zeppelin also work here for me, at any other stage they’re just distracting. These types of music allow me to concentrate without distracting from the agonisingly monolithic task of editing a novel.

I often want to scream like this when I’m editing a scene for the 17th time and it’s still not right.

So what about you guys. Do you listen to music when you write or work? If so share your playlists in the comments.