The Writer’s Process


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.

The right to be wrong

hogfather-3 So Austin has had some unseasonably gorgeous weather. It actually feels like autumn! So I’ve been adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to my coffee and reading Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

The book is about belief.

Terry Pratchett always talks about the common people and how they are an immovable sludge that keep doing what they do despite the best efforts of the educated and the heroic. He always does it with a sort of awe and love for those people, because even as he points out their intractableness, he criticizes the main characters for thinking they can make a difference.

Here’s a footnote on Ponder Stibbons, the character who represents comp-sci nerdom:

Credulous: having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.

Ponder Stibbons is smart enough to hold himself above the “credulous” masses, but not quite smart enough to recognize the mystery in the physics that he studies.

Here’s another statement reflecting the perspective of the credulous:

The universe clearly operates for the benefit of humanity. This can be readily seen from the convenient way the sun comes up in the morning, when people are ready to start the day.

This attitude has definitely shaped the way I approach my work as a political activist. I’ve been reading Discworld novels since middle school, so, of course, Pratchett has shaped my understanding of the world. So while there are amazing characters who cannot be constrained by mediocrity (like Granny Weatherwax and Susan Death) those characters must protect the people who reject them (and whom they reject). Because you have to allow people to be stubborn or wrong-headed or just plain stupid. Because if you don’t, you become the villain. You become the person who controls others to get what you want. And that’s evil.


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.


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

The Hobbit, Long Time Coming

After starting The Hobbit Party, I had to finally read The Hobbit.  Growing up, I read many terrible science fiction and fantasy novels.  In high school, I discovered Terry Pratchett and he has been one of my favorite authors throughout every stage of my life so far.

The Hobbit was this weird thing… I actively avoided reading it for many years.  My dad suggested I read it when I was little, and he must have caught me in a mood, because I refused.  It’s so strange because I inherited my taste in books, movies, TV shows, etc., from my Dad, so if he recommended something to me, I would probably like it.  He suggested I read I,Robot by Isaac Asimov and I loved it. (Will Smith ruined it!)

When Peter Jackson’s LotR movies came out, we went to see them together.  I wanted to see the movies before reading the books because I knew the books would be better.  I’ve made a habit of this.  If I read the book first, I end up sitting through the whole movie cataloging all the differences and it’s not fun.  After The Two Towers, I couldn’t wait anymore, so I had to read the whole series to find out what happened.  That was the first and only time I have read The Lord of the Rings series.  I also read most of The Silmarillion.  Still refused to read The Hobbit.

Then, Peter Jackson did a trilogy of The Hobbit.  Now that I’ve seen the movie–or, 2 out of 3 at least– I can read the book.  So I did.

I have definitely missed out on some kind of magic by waiting until adulthood to read The Hobbit.  Part of the problem is that Terry Pratchett has satirized so much of Tolkien’s work, in a loving and respectful way, that The Hobbit didn’t hold anything new for me.  That was compounded by my having already seen the movies and read some detailed literary criticism.  If I ever have kids, we are going to read all of Tolkien’s work while they’re young enough to feel the magic.