The Writer’s Process

raising-steam

I think Moist von Lipwig might be my favorite character in Discworld. At least for right now. He’s an entrepreneur, and that’s the world I’m in at this point of my life.

So I was thrilled to find Moist von Lipwig was a prominent character in Raising Steam. But reading this book makes me very sad because it’s not up to the standard of Pratchett’s usual writing style. It was published in 2013, so I’m assuming Pratchett wrote it while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and maybe he didn’t have the time to do one more editorial pass-through. It reads like a draft. The story structure is not as tight as his earlier books- especially Going Postal. In his earlier books, there’s foreshadowing and a fleshing out of the villains, and that’s lacking in this book.

On the other hand, I think this story reveals more about the relationship between Moist and Adora Belle because of the incomplete structure. I get the sense that we are able to peek into their private conversations and if Pratchett had done another editing round, he would have determined those moments too intimate for us voyeurs. The flirtation between Moist and Adora Belle is what made Going Postal seem like a very new story in a very established world. I can’t think of another moment where Pratchett actually allows the reader into the head of a character at that point in the relationship. The couplings of Magrat and Verence and Vimes and Sybil are presented from a distance, a mechanical series of events. Pratchett doesn’t give us a lot of their emotional progress.

In Raising Steam, we get a very intimate view of the dynamic between Adora Bell and Moist:

“Adora Belle still had her faint smile. “Well now, my dear, didn’t you once say that a life without danger is a life not worth living?”

Moist patted her hand and said, “Well, Spike, I married you, didn’t I?”

“You couldn’t resist it, could you? It’s like a drug. You’re not happy unless someone is trying to kill you, or you’re in the center of some other kind of drama, out of which, of course, the famous Moist von Lipwig will jump to safety at the very last moment. Is it a disease? Some kind of syndrome?”

Moist put on his meek face as only husbands and puppies can do and said, “Would you like me to stop? I will if you say so.”

There was silence until Adora Belle said, “You bastard, you know I can’t do that. If you stopped all of that you wouldn’t be Moist von Lipwig!”

The Moist that Adora Belle describes is the one that is hidden in this book. In Going Postal and Making Money, we were able to tag along with Moist’s adrenaline rushes, and we don’t get that experience here. Still, I am enjoying the peek into Pratchett’s writing process. I love observing a master at work.

Boffo

Just this morning I read another obituary for my favorite author, Terry Pratchett.  I have been reading Wintersmith, the third Tiffany Aching story.  Tiffany is a witch-in-training, living with 113-year-old Miss Treason.  In Discworld, magical people like witches and wizards always know when they’re going to die.  Miss Treason  has time to plan a “Going Away Party” where she can give away her things and the witches decide who will take over her cottage.  The witches act like unofficial magistrates and country doctors.  They get their authority by being clever, odd, and even scary.  Tiffany learns that Miss Treason has made up most of the rumors about herself, e.g. that she has a demon living in her basement, that her heart died years ago and she replaced it with a clock that she wears around her belt, that she eats spiders.

This is where Terry Pratchett brilliantly illustrates those illusive things called human relationships.  The villagers are afraid of Miss Treason, but they’re also proud of her.  She keeps skulls on her mantle, but Tiffany discovered that they’re fake, from “Boffo Novelty and Joke Shop.”

Miss Treason sighed.  ‘Oh, my silly people.  Anything they don’t understand is magic.  They think I can see into their hearts, but no witch can do that. Not without surgery, at least.  No magic is needed to read their little minds, though.  I’ve known them since they were babies.  I remember when their grandparents were babes!  They think they’re so grown up!  But they’re still no better than babies in the sandpit, squabbling over mud pies.  I see their lies and excuses and fears.  They never grow up, not really.  They never look up and open their eyes.   They stay children their whole lives.’

It’s a witch’s job to care for the silly people, and also be smarter than them.  Witches can only be honest with other witches.  But witches have to keep an eye on each other, to keep them from going batty:

You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap.  But you didn’t because, as Miss Tick had once explained: a) it would only make the world a better place for a very short time; b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and c) you’re not supposed to be as stupid as they are.

Tiffany stays up with Miss Treason the night before she is supposed to die.  Miss Treason teaches her how to play cards.  Then they get up and discover the whole town is waiting out front to say good-bye to their witch.  Miss Treason has had a grave dug already, and Tiffany is horrified when she realizes that Miss Treason is going to march into her own grave.

Miss Treason had stopped to organize the crowd.  “The custom is to give that one to the owner of the dog.  You should have kept the bitch in, after all, and minded your fences.  And your question, Mister Blinkhorn?”

Tiffany stood up straight.  They were bothering her!  Even this morning!  But she … wanted to be bothered.  Being bothered was her life.

So despite all the pettiness and annoyance, a witch needs her people, like a shepherd needs his sheep.  Even in the last moments before death, you can imagine even a witch as old as Miss Treason is scared of what happens next, but she spends those minutes caring for her people, taking full advantage of their small-mindedness.

I thought writing this blog post would help me articulate what I find so fascinating about the Discworld witches.  I don’t know what it is, but I feel this moral is vitally important.  I certainly have my interactions foolish, lazy, and untruthful people– we all do.  So why is it vitally important that we don’t simply slap them?  It has something to do with love and need and community.

Pratchett touches on this concept again in my favorite Discworld novel: Night Watch:

People on the side of The People always ended up disapointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.

Perhaps it’s a simple as, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Laws and the lawless

Swing, though, started in the wrong place.  He didn’t look around, and watch, and learn, and then say, “This is how people are, how do we deal with it?”  No, he sat and thought: “This is how people ought to be, how do we change them?”  And that was a good enough thought for a priest but not for a copper, because Swing’s patient, pedantic way of operating had turned policing on its head.

There had been that Weapons Law, for a start.  Weapons were involved in so many crimes that, Swing reasoned, reducing the number of weapons had to reduce the crime rate.

Vimes wondered if he’d sat up in bed in the middle of the night and hugged himself when he’d dreamed that one up.  Confiscate all weapons, and crime would go down.  It made sense.  It would have worked, too, if only there had been enough coppers– say, three per citizen.

Amazingly, quite a few weapons were handed in.  The flaw, though, was one that somehow managed to escape Swing, and it was this: criminals don’t obey the law.  It’s more or less a requirement for the job…

Some citizens took the not-unreasonable view that something had gone a bit askew if only naughty people were carrying arms.  And they got arrested in large numbers…

It wasn’t that the city was lawless.  It had plenty of laws.  It just didn’t offer many opportunities not to break them.  Swing didn’t seem to have grasped the idea that they system was supposed to take criminals and, in some rough-and-ready fashion, force them into becoming honest men.  Instead, he’d taken honest men and turned them into criminals.  And the Watch, by and large, into just another gang.

–Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Eric Garner was harassed by the police for selling cigarettes, thus skirting tobacco taxes.  Walter Scott was pulled over for a traffic violation and owed child support.  Were they virtuous men?  Who can say?  Did they deserve to die?  Would they have been killed if we didn’t have so many victim-less “crimes”?  I hypothesize, not.  The police officers are culpable, to an extent.  The larger problem is that our laws have turned them, like the Watch, into just another gang.

Sometimes I wonder if Terry Pratchett is completely responsible for shaping my moral view of the world.

Men

Tiffany asked, “Is it… hard, being a goddess?”

‘It has its good days,’ said Anoia.  She stood with her cigarette cupped at the elbow by her other hand, holding the flaming, sparking thing close to her face.  Now she took a sharp pull, raised her head and blew a cloud of smoke out to join the smog on the ceiling.  Sparks fell out of it like rain.  ‘I haven’t been doing drawers long.  I used to be a volcano goddess.’

‘Really?’ said Tiffany.  ‘I’d never have guessed.’

‘Oh, yes.  It was good work, apart from the screaming,’ said Anoia, and then added, in a bitter tone of voice: ‘Ha! And the god of storms was always raining on my lava.  That’s men for you dear. They rain on your lava.’

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

Satire, escapism but not really

Source: http://meetville.com/quotes/author/terry-pratchett/page23
Source: http://meetville.com/quotes/author/terry-pratchett/page23

Whenever I don’t feel well, I read Terry Pratchett.  The other day I felt kind of icky, so I dug through a few of the boxes of books piled around my tiny efficiency apartment until I dislodged The Truth. It’s about a young man, William de Worde, who happens to invent the newspaper.  He doesn’t set out to shake up the political framework of his city, but he does so anyway.

If you’ve never read a Discworld novel, it’s satire.  Pratchett holds a mirror to our existing society.  He provides a lot of commentary on the motivations of ordinary people.  His leading characters often have some grand goal or scheme, although not always on purpose.  They always have to push through the miasma of the entropy that governs the common men and women that surround them.  They usually don’t succeed in changing “the people” but do somehow become an accepted part of the everyday background noise.

Here is William’s first conversation with the head of the Watch, Commander Vimes. He’s the top police officer in the city:

At last, like some oracle that speaks once a year, Vimes said, “I don’t trust you, Mr. de Worde.  And I’ve just realized why.  It’s not just that you’re going to cause trouble.  Dealing with trouble is my job, it’s what I’m paid for, that’s why they give me an armor allowance.  But who are you responsible to?  I have to answer for what I do, although right now I’m damned if I know who to.  But you?  It seems to me you can do what the hell you like.”

“I suppose I’m answerable to the truth, sir.”
“Oh, really? How, exactly?”

“Sorry?”

“If you tell lies, does the Truth come and smack you in the face?”

This passage makes me think about the responsibility of journalists, a conversation I’m sure we’re all sick of.  There’s a lot of public hand-wringing about the 24-hour news cycle and over-coverage of tragedy.  Just yesterday I was listening to a podcast about letting cameras in the Supreme Court, and one of the arguments against allowing cameras is that TV journalists will take soundbites to use in the evening news and the public won’t understand the context of those soundbites.  It’s the same concern that Vimes has when de Worde writes about his investigation.  He makes a good point: who holds the press accountable when they mislead the public?  Just this week NBC news anchor Brian Williams confessed to gross exaggeration about a war story he has been telling for twelve years!

I think the correct answer to Vimes’s question is that each of us holds each other accountable.  The problem is that most people don’t consider it their responsibility to question every authority.

After the first publication of the newspaper, William de Worde listens to a conversation of folks who don’t know he was the publisher.

“It says here fifty-six people were hurt in a brawl,” said Mr. Mackleduff… He had bought a copy of the Times on his way home from the bakery, where he was a night-shift foreman.

“Fancy,” said Mrs. Arcanum.

“I think it must have been five or six,” said William.

“Says fifty-six here,” said Mr. Mackleduff sternly.  “In black and white.”

“It must be right,” said Mrs. Arcanum, to general agreement, “otherwise they wouldn’t let them put it in.”

“I wonder who’s doing it?” said Mr. Prone, who traveled in wholesale boots and shoes.

“Oh, they’d be special people for doing this,” said Mr. Mackleduff.

“Really?” said William.

“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Mackleduff, who was one of those large men who were instantly expert on anything.  “They wouldn’t allow just anyone to write what they like.  That stands to reason.”

So a typo leads to widespread belief that 56 people were injured in a brawl, when logically, that number should be 5 or 6.  Mackleduff assumes that because it was printed in “black and white” it must be true.  Because the common men and women don’t take a moment to question the integrity of the paper– instead they have faith that some authority is verifying everything– the perception that a huge brawl took place becomes Truth.  We know that because rare stories about violence get the most press, people perceive their hometowns as a more dangerous place.  This leads to real harm.  The mother of a 6-year-old in Missouri staged a kidnapping of him to teach him to stop talking to strangers.  Nevermind that the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that stranger-danger is a myth.

Well, now I’m frustrated with the world again, which makes me feel icky.  I think I’ll go read some more Terry Pratchett.