On Losing Iain Banks

(First published in Three Monkeys Online)

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.

That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through.”

This is the blurb on the back of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. They are the first words of his I ever read and, at the age of thirteen, I knew I had to continue reading. Nothing was going to stop me. To say it was an eye opener is a bit of an understatement, but I loved it. The plot and characters were sick, twisted, vivid and oh so human behind it all. I’ve read it several times since and have the audiobook on my ipod for nights when I can’t sleep.

Iain Banks is a Scottish author and The Wasp Factory is his first book, published in 1984. He publishes science fiction as Iain M. Banks and (for lack of a better word) mainstream fiction without the ‘M.’ To this day when people ask me what my favourite book is I barely hesitate before I reply “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.” While my love for the works of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and a meagre handful of others verges on the obsessive Use of Weapons sticks out. It is the only book, that when I finished reading it, I wrote a letter to the author. I never worked up the guts to send that letter but a few years later it was the first book I ever got signed by the author. I frequently go back and read the first few pages and they never lose their impact:

‘Tell me, what is happiness?’
‘Happiness? Happiness … is to wake up, on a bright spring morning, after an exhausting first night spent with a beautiful … passionate … multi-murderess.’
‘… Shit, is that all?’

This is followed by gorgeous descriptions of a wine glass with veins of light snaking through it and when I read it I’m breathless and excited and ready to write my own fiction just to attempt to reach that level of brilliance.

I’ve always preferred his science fiction to his mainstream fiction. His aliens are more original than any I’ve ever read about before, more than just a re-skinned human. His ‘Culture’ books were so detailed and unique that on more than one occasion in college I toyed with the idea of writing essays about them. Somehow I could never quite convince my lecturers that this was a good move.

The State of the Art is what first got me into short stories. I was quite snobby about them before, thinking they were truncated novels or mere ‘practice’ for aspiring novelists. But the stories Descendent and Road of Skulls were so powerful that I immediately changed my opinion and began my own stuttering attempts at the deceptively complex genre he had opened my eyes to. His mainstream works can never be considered mundane or normal either. They are laced with the surreal and the intensity that marks his fiction. The Bridge is another novel whose opening pages I frequently return to when I’m feeling fatigued by this writing lark. I can’t say anything more about it without spoiling it but if sci-fi isn’t your thing, or if your stomach is a bit too weak for The Wasp Factory, go read The Bridge.

Only a few days ago, on the third of April, Iain Banks announced that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the gallbladder and likely has less than a year to live. His novel Quarry will be his last. He has not ruled out chemotherapy to extend his life but it seems unlikely that he will. In his usual dark humour he has asked his partner to become his widow and the two are on their honeymoon now. Well wishers can leave messages for him on his website. I still can’t quite process this information. Even though I only met him for one brief, wonderfully surreal moment, I feel like I know him. I get this way about a lot of authors and I imagine it must be the same way other people feel about actors or pop singers they obsess over. But after reading so much of his work over the years, it’s had such a big influence on me that I can’t help but feel like someone close to me is slipping away.

No author has challenged my perceptions of writing as much as Iain Banks. From an early age he cemented my belief that the literary fiction VS genre fiction divide is superficial at best. He writes across genres and all his books carry the same intensity, the same oddness and the same detail that marks all his work.

I was already aware that certain books were not considered ‘proper’ to read or as worthwhile as others. Some friends in school laughed at me when I read Terry Pratchett, they said the covers were babyish. I was a swot so many eyebrows were raised when I sat down the back of the class with copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy instead of Penguin’s classics. My Granny was forever buying me Jane Austen novels. I admit that I sometimes felt ashamed and embarrassed about reading these kinds of books but try as I might I still find Jane Austen incredibly tedious. I sat an exam on her in college without ever finishing one of her books (and passed quite comfortably). Nothing ever stuck with me as much as speculative fiction. Iain Banks was the first author who proved to me unequivocally that there need be no gap between genre and literary. Each can be as fun and as deep as the other. Since then I’ve never been ashamed of liking something, even things traditionally perceived as low culture. At the same time I don’t disdain literary fiction as being pompous and plotless. I enjoy them both and I’m glad I encountered Banks’ fiction at such a young age.

One of the things that first endeared him to me were the critics’ quotes he chose to include in the opening pages of The Wasp Factory:

‘Perhaps it’s all a joke, meant to fool literary London into respect for rubbish’ – The Times

‘A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn… bit better written than most horror hokum but really just the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty’ – Sunday Express

‘No masterpiece and one of the most disagreeable pieces of reading that has come my way in quite a while… Enjoy it I did not’ – Sunday Telegraph

‘A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles horror upon horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile’ – Evening Standard

‘Read if you dare’ – Daily Express

He had the sense of humour to know that his work would be different and he embraced these reactions and kept writing anyway. There are a lot of writers I enjoy but very few I look up to. Banks is one of them and his books have been on my shelf for as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer. I don’t claim to love everything he wrote. For example Dead Air wasn’t my kind of thing and Transition had some brilliant moments and characters but, what I feel was a flawed execution of the premise. That being said, ten years from now, when someone asks me what my favourite book is I bet good money that my reply will still be “Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks.”

Writing Related Procrastination

I admit that these activities are only very tangentially related to writing but they’re two rather simple websites I’ve found that will give you incredibly true vital statistics about your work in progress that could change the course of your writing career



Lulu Titlescorer

It tells you the statistical likelihood of your novel becoming a bestseller based on the title alone. It also kindly points out a lot of it’s failures (Twilight only scored 36%) just so you know it’s authentic, fake programmes would never admit failure, right?

Rapeseed scored 63.7% and The Waiting Place only scored 10.2%. I guess that means it will fail, oh noes!

Media Bistro has loads of other procrastination tools writing aids to check out


This creates word art with your MS based on the frequency each word is used. You can specify the colours, the font and other time wasting things like that. Here’s a randomised one I did for Rapeseed:

It’s also pretty handy for spotting any words you might be over using unconsciously, so it’s practically research! I could probably go back and cut out quite a lot of similes to downsize ‘like’ in this draft.

Go forth and procrastinate!

Preliminary illustration for ‘Rapeseed’

My little younger sister sketched this the other day. She hasn’t finished reading Rapeseed yet but in the space of five minutes (no exaggeration) she doodled this. I got really excited and took a picture with my phone to put up here so I apologise for the poor picture quality. In a few minutes she summed up something that took me a year to write. Fantastic, no?

I love the way there are so few details on Eithne, my main character. I love the way the number 5 is falling away and the whole clock face is crumbling beneath her even though it’s the only thing that’s supporting her. I love how simple and graphic it is.  I have begun the query process with Rapeseed and The Waiting Place is well underway so having solid details like this help to remind that Rapeseed is still fairly new and fresh and I get excited all over again.

I’ll post more when she finishes it. Meghan won’t let me link to her Deviant Art account because she claims the stuff she posts there isn’t good enough, but I’ll back her up in saying that this is just a fraction of what she can do. You should see her Johnny Depp portraits! (And she’s almost six years younger than me, sickening when the young ‘uns are this talented isn’t it?)

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.

Game of Thrones Fatigue

So Season 2 is drawing to a close. What have we learned? Peter Dinklage is awesome (not that we needed to be reminded), this season is much less anchored without Sean Bean, and boobies solve everything.

Sean Bean Death Statistics
When will the madness end?

Awhile ago I wrote a post about prostitution in the first few books basically trying to come up with a possible explanation for the sheer volume of violent sex scenes, however, try as I might, I couldn’t come up with an explanation for the addition of even more violent sex scenes (almost exclusively against women) in the TV show other than more boobs = higher ratings = more money to roll around in. Sex may sell but the lack of male nudity is particularly vexing, at least balance it out HBO!

At the time I was planning to write a post reviewing each episode of season 2, I even mentioned it in the comments, because I was still caught up in the excitement of the New Big Thing. Way back in the distant past of last summer I was all for Game of Thrones (or GoT as all the cool cats are calling it). It was exam season so in an attempt not to study I turned to TV for a distraction. Actual real life TV, not internet TV (desperate measures for desperate times).

I watched all of season 1 as it aired and immediately bought the first four books off amazon. I read them all over the summer, the per cent read on my kindle crept up ever so slowly. I took breaks to read other books. Had one tantrum after a certain event and stopped reading for a while, got bored on several occasions and took holidays from Westeros. Then my cousin kindly lent me Dance with Dragons. I couldn’t hack it though, reading it in bed was a dangerous past time, one slip and I could have broken my nose. So I got the kindle edition instead. Some day soon murders will be committed with the hardback edition and bloodied copies will be held up in plastic evidence bags in courtrooms (just how George would have wanted it).

Overall the whole process of discovering TV show, getting really excited, reading all the books and getting sick of the whole thing took about 5 months(ish).

Now that push has come to shove as it were, I can’t bring myself to review each season 2 episode individually. I’ve tried watching and can’t. A few minutes into the second episode I found myself looking wistfully at the ironing and started tackling that instead. This is the only way they can keep me interested, if I watch them while doing something marginally less interesting; the flat has never been cleaner! I think I’m suffering from overexposure. After a summer long binge on slowly declining prose I’m sick of it (quite literally, in bed with a throat infection today, maybe I’m allergic).

The problems I have with GoT are x-fold (x because I can’t be bothered to count and I reserve the right to add more reasons as more books and episodes are released).

  1. It should have been a trilogy The first two books (in my opinion) are the strongest and the most action packed. Then they get gradually more dragged out as they fall into a wormhole and time is warped so that nothing happens for hundreds of pages. In Dance with Dragons sweet FA happens until the end, and even then, shocking deaths and gritty plot twists are no longer that shocking or gritty the 20th time they happen.
  2. Too much repetition this is really a sub-complaint from number 1 as I believe this is a consequence of the series being stretched over 7 books rather than a nice neat trilogy.  In every book one character is travelling across a continent. Seen one seen ’em all. I don’t mind reading about the few interesting things that happen on these journeys but there’s only so many campfires and tired voyagers I can take before it all gets a bit samey. A lot of stuff repeats itself in the series but I’ll stick with this example because (MINOR SPOILER INCOMING) by the time Brienne sets out on her journey to find Sansa (one of her many treks across the continent) the trope gets completely absurd. We know even before she begins that the whole thing is futile because, by virtue of Sansa’s POV we know Brienne is heading in the complete wrong direction! The whole way along we know that these chapters are pretty much pointless. Now semi-interesting stuff happens at the end of Brienne’s plotline but the entire thing drags out for ages beforehand telling us virtually nothing. Her whole plotline could have been compressed without loosing anything (/SPOILER)
  3. Gritty gets dull without substance The many deaths are no longer shocking. They get fairly predictable and they don’t stick. We know it’s coming so we’ve gotten over it before it happens and quite often once a character is killed they’ll be back later. A quick guide to GoT deaths: if you don’t actually see a character die – as in there is no way they can physically recover and the viewpoint character sees them actually take their last breath – then they’re probably not dead. And if they definitely are dead I’m going to bet by book 7 there’ll be a 50% chance they all come back as white walkers. It’s hard to mourn characters once you recognise this pattern. The last time a death surprised me was (one of the many) at the red wedding. Gritty ‘realism’ can only take you far. If your prose and characters can’t carry it then it becomes a gimmick like everything else and I believe Martin’s characters are less and less capable of picking up the slack. Also, having read a lot more of the books than I had when I wrote that last post, I no longer stand by my vehement defense of Martin’s use of sex as realistic, plot relevant and useful to explore characters. 

    A concise summary of books 1-5
  4. Too much is kept behind the scenes In a series where incresingly little happens – or as a former GM of mine said ‘events happen, but the general plot just trundles along at a snails pace‘ – Martin can’t afford to be coy and maddeningly obscure about absolutely everything. I’ll never complain that nothing happens in Westeros, I just get angry at reading more and more details of feast preparations, when these feasts largely serve as exposition to try and get me to memorise thousands and thousands of minor characters, while at the same time so much is actually happening just never described. Events at the tower of joy are only ever hinted at but in away that make them seem pivotal. Too much exposition (and sexposition) spaces out the interesting stuff until he finally adds insult to injury in Dance with Dragons when fascinating, exciting and plot essential events finally happen during a feast in Winterfell (when *spoiler* eats *spoiler*) and it’s barely referred to! The meal is described in the usual boring detail and it was only afterwards on the Westeros forums I learned all the details. Now one or two events like this are fine. This subtlety encourages speculation and keeps his fan base loyal and adds some much-needed depth. I don’t give a fiddler’s what they eat or wear but I want more than occassional hints at the bigger picture.
  5. We’ve Stagnated I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended but by the end of book 5 most characters haven’t moved very far and don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon. The next few books will either be incredibly exciting as he plays catch up to get all the characters in roughly the same place and to fullfill all the many themes he’s been setting up and plot events he foreshadowed then ignored. Or else they will continue in the way they have been going: with very little happening on-screen/page and a hasty wrap-up crammed into the last hundred pages.

Christmas Existential Angst (AKA the nativity reborn)

So I’m in the throes of my final edit (scary days ahead), I just thought I’d drop in and share two of my favourite stories that explore what the holiday season is all about: The birth of Santa!

I kid, I kid, but these are somewhat non-traditional stories about old St. nick, enjoy

Nicholas Was… by Neil Gaiman.

I’m very tempted to side step the whole ‘telling your kids the truth about Santa thing’ by just reading them this as a bedtime story one christmas eve. It’s a really short story/poem but for those of you who don’t like following links here is a reading of it:

And here Gift of Ages by JohnSu

feel free to link to your own favourite Christmas Stories in the comments, even ones you’ve written yourself, I need to get rid of my Curmudgeonly Scrooge-like sensibilities before Sunday

NaNo Reflections

So that was… Interesting, to say the least.

Turns out November is a pretty crap month for getting things done in; there’s fighting the obligatory winter cold, End of term meet ups/parties/shindigs, so much college work, the fact that my class has only just decided we want to publish an anthology of which I masochistically chose the role of associate editor, Christmas money woes and anything else that happens to crop up (such as Terry Pratchett visits, parent wedding anniversaries and the like) so I didn’t reach my goal.

Because about 70% what I was doing was editing, not writing from scratch, I had intended to get the whole thing edited and ready for one final draft, or realistically speaking 60,000 words. I got about 52,000, fraud though I am I’m still sticking the badge up on my profile.

On the plus side I think I’ve got a pretty good system for editing sorted out now and I should have Rapeseed polished to the best of my ability by mid-January, then it’s in the hands of my beta readers.

You may have noticed my new Wordcount-o-meter in the side bar? It shows my various projects that my short attention span has birthed. I have some poetry and short stories in the works, maybe working towards a collection, joint or separate I’m not sure yet. I kind of like the idea of a joint poetry and prose collection a la Neil Gaiman. I also have begun my Creative Writing portfolio for college which will count for 70% of my mark (I think), so far it’s untitled. I’ll blog about that some time in the future. I also suffered a fit of frustration in the face of editing the sprawling mass that is the second half of Rapeseed and started a new novel called The Waiting Place, I intend to continue that sometime after the holidays.

That’s about it for now, as fun as NaNo was I wouldn’t recommend it for those who are editing, NaNo is about quantity not quality whereas editing is the exact opposite. Also for those of you who agree that November sucks I’d recommend A Round of Words in 80 Days instead.

24 hours stalking Terry Pratchett

I should probably give some background before I’m arrested.

I love Terry Pratchett, absolutely adore everything he’s ever written. When I was about 10 my uncle from Delaware recommended the dragon lance books to me. You couldn’t get them very easily here so they used to send them over to me. Then Mom got me to read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I began to work my way through my local bookshop’s tiny fantasy and sci-fi section. I read Terry Brooks, Douglas Adams, quite a few of the star wars books but I always shied away from Pratchett because his book covers looked so lurid and out there, I was only beginning to get into fantasy and trying to avoid children’s books because I was ‘all growed up,’ and lets face it, his covers did lead me to believe that they were for children. But the books were always intriguing. In my bid to be a ‘growed up’ I even read the Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, marginally more disturbing than anything I’ve ever read before or since. Eventually I ran out of other books to read (like I said, they didn’t have much) so I picked up the Colour of Magic and I was hooked.

Professor Sir Terry Pratchett OBE and Blackboard Monitor

A typical Sunday or Saturday back then: Myself, Mom, Dad and my sister walked into town. We’d leave Dad at the square so he could go to the pub and the rest of us would go do the shopping, groceries, clothes, school stuff, whatever we needed. We’d always end with a trip to the book shop. Then we’d join Dad in the pub and me and my sister would sit in the corner reading while the barman gave us free crisps and dairy milks.

It was a small pub, often packed to capacity. I read through all-Ireland finals like that. I read through the hitchhikers guide trilogy of five and a good portion of the discworld. That’s when I stopped trying to be grown up because it didn’t matter at all. Occasionally when I discovered a quote I would run over and recite it to my parents and the barflys that still recognise me to this day but I have trouble telling apart. I’d declare something like ‘Give a man a fire and he’ll be warm for an hour, but set him on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.’ then I’d run back to my corner and keep reading in search of more gems. Terry Pratchett is the reason I write because he taught me the fun you can have with language. He taught me how important it is to imagine how things should be and work towards them.He taught me a lot about people.

His presence as a member of staff in Trinity College was the icing on the cake when choosing Trinity over Belfast or UCD. His inaugural lecture last year was brilliant and last Wednesday night there was a questions and answers session with him and the head of the English Department, the ever-quirky Daryl Jones (I think all English professors are contractually obliged to be eccentric)

It was technically only for alumni and I had an essay and a story to submit that week as well as NaNo, but I volunteered to help out anyway. Myself and my friends were sitting in the front row, a meter, maybe a meter and a half from the genius himself. Afterwards there was a wine reception and while a few people monopolised his time, asking questions and that, we still got a picture with him and got to hob-nob over glasses of wine in the same room.

Then on Thursday we had a class with him. This was definitely the highlight for me. There was only fifteen of us in a room sitting around a table with him and we got to ask him any questions we like about writing. We got world building advice, a debate on genre fiction vs. literary, ideas for novels, the writing process and a truly epic tangent when one guy asked where he bought his hat. He talked about his new novel Snuff, no one else had read it so he turned to me and said “I’m just going to address this to my reader and the rest of you can all piss off.” For the rest of the afternoon he called me “my reader.” Best. Moment. ever. We talked about so much but here are the best bits.

Gems of Terry Pratchett:

  • The hat tangent: When Zach asked him where he got his hat he got incredibly specific details, then a commentary on fashion, praise of Victorian fashion, telling us how Queen Victoria really did like sex after all, then he talked about Victorian birth control.
  • He calls Cúchulainn Cuhooligan
  • he recommended we get jobs in local news papers, it will help writing
  • We need an eye for the serendipitous – if you’re open to ideas and information it will come to you, if you’re receptive towards inspiration it will swarm towards you.
  • he told us stories from his life that stuck with him which he later inserted into his books. He also told us quite a few stories that he hasn’t written yet and gave us full permission to write them first. He took us through one specific incident that fascinates him – the frozen ice trade in America in the 18th century – that stuck with him and explained how one thing can become so many different plots.
  • He doesn’t outline – the first draft tells him what the second draft will be
  • G. K. Chesterton’s work taught him about humour and paradox. The Punch comics taught him about literature and the world
  • “Walking through London is like walking through a kaleidoscope of colours, all golden people and they’re all English.” If you speak English you’ll become English. He reckons Hiberno-English is a particularly rich dialect.
  • I asked him why fantasy has had such enduring appeal for him considering he started off his career with YA and sci-fi. He said fantasy has all the tools, all the colours. You don’t have to mess about with with other colours to get the same effect. Approaching reality with fantasy reveals something new, with it he can turn his hand to anything.
  • He defined magic realism as “a bastard that says’ I’m a proper writer, but I’m going to write some fantasy.'”
  • he didn’t expect The Colour of Magic to be as successful as it was, he was halfway through writing another book called The Long Earth, which dealt with parallel universes.
  • To write you need to have  a love of language, word games and puns. Dramatising the truth for the purposes of instruction is soulless, you need to be able to spin words on the tip of your fingers. Facility with language is half the battle.
  • You need to research both your genre and outside your genre, bring new things to it.
  • Ideas are 10 a penny, what’s difficult is finishing.
  • When world-building don’t give a travelogue. The reader already knows what high mountains look like. Instead use a piece of dialogue or something. Show what’s different about these specific mountains. You can go over the top in descriptions when you describe through perceptions. Use things to describe a storm that you wouldn’t be able to attribute to ordinary weather.
  • He was successful because he made fun of the fantasy that doesn’t understand human beings or doesn’t know enough about reality. In fantasy you have to be real about the things that are real e.g. how long a horse can gallop for. If you make it real, say with a barbarian warrior whose feet still hurt, it’s relatable.

Afterwards he even signed books, I thought he wouldn’t but he signed The Colour of Magic for me.

Occasionally he was grasping for words and there were quite a lot of tangents but the signing was the only time when his alzheimers became apparent, his hands shook and it’s fairly illegible but it’s still one of my most treasured possessions.

There was a debate in the Phil society that evening ‘that the house would legislate in favour of assisted suicide for all adults.’ It was the single most absurdly formal thing I’ve ever seen. They were all in suits an dicky bows, lots of formulaic talking and reading of the minutes, standing up and sitting down at alarming rates. Then the debate began in earnest. All the speakers were very good and engaging and responded to audience interjections and POI’s well (except for the last guy, what the hell was that about?). It was really interesting and the pro-euthnasia side won, because frankly I don’t think anyone there was going to vote against Pratchett. No-one interrupted his talk, he spoke very softly but you could hear everything he said. He said he’s signed the letter to Dignitas but hopes he’ll never have to use it, he’d prefer a more English death. He spoke about his illness and why he signed the letter and that he’s glad he has it in his top drawer for when he needs it.

But fear not, he  said he has a few more books in him and that he’s in the middle of his autobiography.

He is a great man, a genius I’d say, and it will be a sad day when he does make the trip to Switzerland. No matter what I will continue reading and re-reading the Discworld for as long as I am able to read and write.

10,000 words: take 2

So you may remember the insanity that was last Saturday night. I am doing something similar this weekend, perhaps more relaxed times, a different word count. I haven’t decided the rules yet but it definitely won’t be as late as last week, it’s my parents wedding anniversary tomorrow and myself and my sister are cooking, this could go horribly wrong even without being sleep deprived.

My current NaNo progrees bar says I have 18530 words out of 50,000. If I can get to 30,000, or even 26,000 by tomorrow night I’ll be happy. I’m not sure if Sean’s interested, hang on a minute while I text him…


/ 15000 words. 0% done!

So I’ve decided my playlist for tonight’s event, it consists entirely of Tim Minchin videos, here are a few of the best but the easily offended should not follow these links:

1. Prejudice
2. Peace Anthem for Palestine
3. Drowned
4. F*ck the Poor
5. Canvas Bags
6. Not Perfect
7. Storm
8. The Pope Song
9. If I didn’t have you
10. Darkside

18:47 So after sitting down to write I was almost immediately called and told to pick up Mom from work and take her to Tesco so the wordcount still stands at “0” but I’m cautiously optimistic about the next hour


560 / 15000 words. 4% done!

So I’m actually writing a scene that’s making the obnoxious literary side of me come through, it’s kind of difficult because I want to make it accessible and compelling to read but there’s also lots of pretentious crap I want to fit in too.

Basically the scene is in the 50s in Ireland, Sunday mass, and my main character (a twelve year old girl) is going up for communion. You with me so far?

She has reasons not to like this priest, nothing to do with abuse or that he’s just not a very nice person, arrogant, dismissive etc. and the night before he got really angry at her in confession.
This is where stuff gets literary.

As she’s walking up the aisle I want to compare the red carpet in the church to the purples in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. In the Agamemnon he comes home from the Trojan war and his wife lays out their red silks, representing their wealth. He walks up to his house along this red strip and as soon as he goes in his wife murders him in the bath (as you do). With the red he’s walking on a river of his own blood to his death, showing all the death he caused too… Awesome right? It’s one of those scenes that I get really excited about, it’s an amazing play and I intend to write a blog post about it later on.

So I’m struggling to make it fit and for it to be fun to read but I’m damned if I’m going to leave it out!


1192 / 15000 words. 8% done!

So it turns out this metaphor lark is better than I thought, my MC is burned in chapter one (which could symbolise the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis), the fairies can be the Furies from Eumenides and my wise grandfather character who knows all about the fairies but no-one believes is like Cassandra! Isn’t the subconscious amazing?

But I am working very slowly tonight. I need to hire this guy to stand behind my chair and make me work

22:00 It was pointed out to me that food is a good idea so I was coaxed out of my room with a Chinese take-away (even though I was promised Indian, grr) a lit fire and a glass of wine. I love fires. I’m working on the couch next to the fire and it’s currently so hot in here that I’m in a vest and shorts and I don’t care. If When I become rich and famous I’m going to have a fireplace in my office, a big massive one, like this,

Only bigger!

23:00 Move over coffe, writing has a new best friend and it’s name is white wine! which also gives me an excuse to link one of Tim Minchin’s only non-comedy videos that I like:

Isn’t he brilliant?
(the answer is yes, yes he is)

Also I’d like to point out that since starting NaNo I’ve written:
5,500 words of notes on my novel (stuff to put in later chapters, that kind of thing)
2,500 words of a short story
200 words of poetry
1500 words of an essay
4 blog posts
30 pages of handwritten notes for class

That’s at least 10,000 extra words right there, I’m very tempted to count them. But if we’re going strictly by the rules my wordcount stands at

2066 / 15000 words. 14% done!

So I’ve reached the beginnings of a subplot, I’m pretty certain the entire thing isn’t working though. I need to stop and think for awhile about where to go with this or if I should just cut it out altogether. What better way to ponder it than to go to bed and read A Dance with Dragons? So I will finish the marathon tomorrow(ish)

3000 / 15000 words. 20% done!

Night Night!