This week I’ve been listening to the unabridged audio book of Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. Terry is one of my favourite authors, perhaps the favourite, but I haven’t read this particular book in years. It’s one of his Discworld books and is the first of the Watch series. It was the book that really elevated the city of Ankh-Morpork to something above a bunch of jokes tied together with plot.
Perhaps some of my readers are wondering what all this means so hopefully the rest will wait patiently while I explain.
The Discworld books started out as a satire of fantasy writing tropes but over time morphed into a fully realised fantasy series with deep lore, compelling characters and rich stories that also somehow satirised both fantasy writing tropes and all kinds of real world bullshit.
The books are set on the Disc, a flat world that rests on the back of four huge elephants who, in their turn, stand on the shell of a vast space turtle. The Disc can only exist because of magic. That magic is woven into the very fabric of the world and while it doesn’t follow strict, clearly stated rules in the ways we find in some fantasy novels it acts more like a fundamental force of nature within the world than it usually does in Fantasy settings.
Ankh-Morpork is one of the principal cities on the Disc. To give you an idea of what it’s like I can’t help thinking of Terry’s famous piece of advice about fantasy city building. Start by wondering how the water gets in and the sewage gets out. In the case of Ankh-Morpork the answer to both questions is the river Ankh which enters the city as a brown slow-moving river, heavy with the silt of the plains where much of the city’s food is grown. It exits the city as something that only counts as a liquid in the same way that tar counts as a liquid. You’d have trouble drowning in the Ankh but people do occasionally suffocate.
The Watch books are the stories of the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. They mainly focus on Captain Sam Vimes, the commanding officer; a skinny collection of bad habits in a battered uniform, usually drunk, always cynical. Or at least that’s how he starts out. Pratchett characters have arcs. They either grow and change or reveal themselves to have always had hidden depths. Many characters do both. But they do it slowly. Vimes doesn’t straighten up and stop drinking in the first book. You need reasons to stop drinking and in Guards! Guards! Vimes begins to find those reasons.
In Guards! Guards! The night watch is low on manpower and consists of Vimes, his two NCOs Sergeant Frederick Colon and Corporal ‘Nobby’ Nobs, and new recruit Lance Constable Carrot. Colon and Nobby are as close as Pratchett gets to writing one-note comedy characters and Carrot is a 6’6” human raised by dwarves and sent away to the city because he keeps bumping his head in the mines.
For those keeping score that’s three comedy coppers led by a grizzled alcoholic and they should be completely unprepared for all the threats of the big, bad, fantasy city nevermind the sudden appearance of an honest to Gods dragon.
It all sounds very… obvious. It’s the perfect set up for very broad humour with a lot of slapstick but that’s not what Terry had in mind at all. He had a much lighter touch than that.
So what was it like to go back to one of my most beloved books after years away from it? It was educational. I was struck by how much of the novel would today, by some standards, be considered ‘bad writing’.
I want to be clear that I do not believe that it actually is bad writing. Some of it is writing that was once popular, but has now fallen out of favour. Omniscient third person narration that occasionally hops into a character’s head to show you their thoughts was once both common and widely accepted. Established writers can still get away with this kind of storytelling, particularly when they have a narrative ‘voice’ as strong as Terry’s. His writing is incredibly rich. His densely layered narratives are held in place by running jokes and sarcasm and told with a dry wit and an eye for human nature. However, I can’t help thinking it would now be a lot harder for a new writer to get out of the query trenches with writing like this than it was when Terry first got published.
I don’t know who decided that adverbs are bad but someone did and now we’re told they’re the hallmark of the amature. Terry uses a lot of adverbs. Particularly when he’s attributing speech, which is even worse because that’s telling, rather than showing. When Terry describes Carrot saying something gently he’s committing two sins at once. And yet it’s still good writing. It’s better than good – it’s beautiful and true and entertaining and I am a better person for having read it.
This is all very confusing for me. Terry is the writer I’ve been attempting to emulate the most. I don’t mean his prose so much as his work ethic and his commitment to world building. I wanted to create a persistent world and set stories there. I wanted to tell stories with that kind of strong, confident narrative voice. I wanted to be funny. I wanted to satirise the fiction tropes that I hate. I wanted to give my characters the chance to grow and change over time.
I thought if I could excise all the adverbs, and rewrite all the tell, and stick to close third person narration with only a couple of point-of-view characters then maybe I could sneak my epic secret world series onto some agent’s list.
I suppose the conclusion I’m coming to is that if I want to write, and specifically if I want to be a published writer, then I’m going to have to self publish. The kind of writing I want to do is no-longer what the industry is looking for. This is a painful conclusion for me to come to because I don’t have the skills necessary to do it properly. Self publishing without those skills means letting go of the idea that I’d be able to support myself through writing. But at least it means finishing things. Maybe finishing things is enough.