When I was a kid there were people very keen to point out to me what was and what wasn’t a waste of time. Staring off into space, reading books with dragons in, doodling little pictures instead of doing homework… these were all activities typically quite frowned upon if you wanted to be a serious adult.
And rules are the kind of things that follow you around. Now that I’m a writer – and my job has become staring off into space, reading books with dragons in and doodling little pictures instead of doing real work – there are still people ready with rules, ready to tell you what you can and can’t do, constraining your choices like a too-tight coat.
Terry Pratchett breaks every writing rule in the book. He takes being ridiculous more seriously than every writer I’ve ever read. And most importantly, he doesn’t just tell stories, he tells stories about stories, and hands you the tools to break rules yourselves.
Here are five of my favourite Terry Pratchett novels, and why I think you should read them.
‘He'd realised there was something educated about the rats when he jumped on one and it'd said, "Can we talk about this?", and part of his amazing new brain had told him you couldn't eat someone who could talk. At least, not until you'd heard what they'd got to say.’
You have to start somewhere, and why not with a story with a familiar shape? We all know the story about the piper, and the town, and how one saved the other by luring the rats away. Not a bad trick, especially if you could re-use the rats afterwards, and especially if they’re in on the trick…
‘If you trust in yourself... and believe in your dreams... and follow your star... you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.’
Most books (including mine) are about a kid gaining great power, and how that power propels them into a new world with new challenges, throwing off their old lives like a cloak. Tiffany Aching, however, is a girl who learns that real power comes from knowing who you are, and where you are, and why. Having an army of immensely strong tiny blue men follow you around doesn’t hurt either.
‘“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”
“Uh,” said Mort. “Mortimer… sir. They call me Mort.”
“WHAT A COINCIDENCE,” said the skull.’
The only thing more stressful than your first job is not being able to get a first job, and Mort (like me) is the kind of kid who gets picked last for just about everything. All that changes, however, when a tall figure in a black robe and a voice like two coffins grinding together arrives on a white horse and offers him a permanent position… Everyone looks good in black after all. Sooner or later.
‘The beef stew tasted, indeed, just like beef stew and not, just to take an example completely and totally at random, stew made out of the last poor girl who'd worked here.’
Learning magic is serious business. And having power is better than not having power, but having power also gets you noticed. Noticed by Things. The kind of Things that have capital letters in the middle of sentences and a hunger for the minds of trainee witches. When I wrote the sequel to my novel Knights of the Borrowed Dark, I was very aware that to keep things interesting, my main character could never have too much of a handle on what was coming his way. I learned that from Pratchett – Tiffany Aching may have an army at her disposal, but the one thing she can’t be protected from is herself…
‘On Earth, No-one Can Hear You Say "Um".’
Being a hero is a tricky proposition, which is why they usually tend to be large, not overly-complicated and have muscles like mating footballs. I didn’t have any of these as a kid, and so decided I just wasn’t hero material. Reading Pratchett changed all that. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes because problems do too. Johnny Maxwell is the short, worried, video game player kind of hero, and has destroyed plenty of alien empires in his time, which is why he finds it very confusing when one of them surrenders and pleads for mercy. What would you do?