Monthly Archives: April 2011

Story-teller vs Writer

Do you call yourself a story-teller or a writer? How do you tell? And what would be the difference?

It’s at once a subtle and an important difference. The art of telling stories predates civilisation. Stories have been told as part of religious and social instruction since the dawn of man. From such work we have myth and legends, rituals and memories. Story telling is a uniquely human activity and narrative structure is something we instinctly crave.

Writing, though, is much newer. Mankind has only been putting symbols into words for reading for a few thousand years. And for much of that time, most of the populace could not, in fact read. And it has only been the last few hundred years that writing has truly taken off as a wide-spread past-time. But writing doesn’t always tell a story. And story-telling doesn’t always need writing. Writing can and is used to describe how to use a television, but there’s no story there. And story-telling with little or no writing has also been done for years: that’s what happens in a theatre or cinema.

But say you’re a “writer” and most people assume you’re telling stories in writing.

I put this question to my Twitter feed. It was pointed out that C. S. Lews was a story-teller. His Narnia books are unashamedly stories. The world-building is a bit of an after-thought. He is known to have said on several occasions that he began The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe with a simple image: it was the image that turned into Lucy meeting the faun, Mr Tumnus in the show-covered forest under the lamppost. My stories start with an image and things develop from there. This is story-telling.

By contrast, J. R. R. Tolkien was pointed out as a writer. He was a professor of language and literature, after all, and spent many many years building the immense world of Middle-Earth. But I’m not entirely sure. He wrote so much more than the familiar work we know him for, and he built a vast history for Middle Earth out of what he read and learnt from Old English and Scandinavian mythology. And he made his histroy full of stories. Many people read The Lord Of The Rings and see a story struggling to stay afloat in an old world, richly described. But it’s only like that because Tolkien filled it with stories. The popular work is, in fact, the final scene in the final act in a very long story. I think Tolkien was a story-teller, but a quite different one to Lewis.

It is not easy to pigeonhole an author and I wouldn’t really want to. I have declared elsewhere that I am a story-teller and in that context, the writing is a means to an end. So, do you tell stories, or just write words?

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There is always a journey

I know it’s been a while, but I got interrupted with a journey, of a sorts.

Most good stories have a journey. Most? I would say all. It can be as simple as going from one place to another, like in a road-trip movie. Or it can be a quest, like in many fantasy novels. Some go round and round, some go there and back again. Some never go home.

But just describing a physical journey is not much more than a travelogue. The real journey is how the characters discover and develop. They will learn things about those around them, and sometimes about themselves. They will achieve great things, as well as complete trivial tasks. They will try and fail and try again. Sometimes they never suceed. Sometimes they can only succeed further along their journey. Sometimes, especially in short stories, the journey is just a reframing of a scene. Sometimes such a journey is simply one of discovery for the reader.

Every story has a journey. Remember to watch out for it when writing.

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Sir Terry Pratchett. Live.

Sir Terry Pratchett took part in an interview on stage recently. It was at the Sydney Opera House and just about filled their largest venue, the Concert Hall. Obviously not a public speaker, as such, he was “interviewed” by Australian author Garth Nix for a little over an hour. I paid to be in the audience.

I would have been surprised if Terry was nervous. He didn’t sound nervous; he sounded like someone getting on in years who had a lot of stories he could tell. Terry is on record as saying that he doesn’t think anyone would be much interested in what he experienced as a journalist. However, I suspect he might have backed away from that stance. When he did venture into that history (with encouragement from Garth), it was clear the audience wanted to hear it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After introductions, and to rapturous applause, Terry and Garth took their comfortable chairs on the stage. Garth then introduced Rob Wilkins who read a short excerpt from the upcoming Discworld novel Snuff. Terry himself introduced the section, describing Sir Samuel Vimes as basically on holiday from Ankh-Morpork. But he pointed out that once a policemen, always a policeman (a reference was made to Hercule Poirot’s constant adventures), as they say, and left it at that. Rob then read the excerpt, which described Vimes encountering a now wheelchair bound Lord Rust. Terry is certainly a master at saying just as much as he needs to and no more.

Garth is an inexperienced interviewer, unfortunately, and his credentials as a fellow published author were not required. It took Terry at least twenty minutes to visibly relax, although he sounded congenial from the get-go. Garth had a few questions the audience had submitted, but only got to two of them. A more experienced interviewer, say Andrew Denton, may have gotten Terry relaxed faster and woven more audience questions into the dialogue.

The topics were rich, and segued fairly well, as you would expect from two accomplished authors. Not necessarily being a comedian, Terry nevertheless had the audience laughing several times. Perhaps one of the most profound was when he opined that “awesome” was for the presence of Jesus, “everything else is just cool”. As most would be aware, Sir Terry is not thiestic. He describes himself as a humanist, rather than an atheist, and did so in this interview, pointing out that this was hedging bets. He also pointed out that Brutha in Small Gods basically behaved in a very Christian way in his treatment of his enemies. This was met with an interestingly muted reaction from the audience. He also revealed that he treasures a small wooden crucifix solely because his mother treasured it.

As alluded to above, Garth got Terry to talk about his early life (“raised on the chalk”, i.e. Wiltshire) and his time as a journalist. What had not been apparant to me was that Terry’s oft-quoted line about seeing a dead body with hours of his first real job as a journalist was because said body was, in fact, a suicide. And it was far from the last. Terry had some remarkable anecdotes about the suicides he’d witnessed the aftermath of. There was one where a woman had stepped in front of a train: and how he’d found the six cigarette butts behind the signalman’s hut where she had gathered the courage to do so. Another story was told that he had heard from a lady who had been a nurse in the 1920s. This was before antiobiotics were discovered, remember (a point Terry curiously left implied), and there was very little that could be done for, say, sufferers of advanced cancer. It was not unknown to euthanase such patients and Terry made a special point of saying the chaplains and priests knew it happened. And why. Nowadays, of course, medical professionals avoid this type of action, due to legal ramifactions. But Terry is clearly on the side of medically assisted suicide.

Mention was made of when Sir Terry was knighted and there was a few minutes levity about the ancient ritual. That led to an audience question about the sword that Terry had made. The actual question was whether he was going to make armour. It took a while, but Terry’s answer was no and he showed why the question quite missed the point. Terry has two neighbours who show up on Time Team as experts in iron-age technology. It was one of those neighbours who helped and showed him how to forge a sword, starting with “walking the fields”, looking for suitable iron ore. The process itself is quite complex, and Terry cheerfully admitted he could not have made the pommel, but then, when ever someone says “sword”, they almost always mean the actual blade, which Terry did make. He brought up the concept of “mana” at that point, which you would expect this audience to get (they did). His sword is imbued with his mana, including some genuine iron-age steel. And that’s really why he doesn’t need make armour. Apart from his daughter, which he amusingly said he could only claim half the work, his sword is his single best creation.

The evening could have gone on far longer as Terry got more voluble. But the venue would not have approved. Besides, it was a Sunday night. Terry had brought in a stock of plastic teeth as used in the live-action production of Hogfather and at this point, he and Garth scattered them throughout what audience they could reach. This was, of course, received well. Then Garth revealed that Terry’s birthday was not far away and so he was treated to the Concert Hall full of people singing him “Happy Birthday”.

As we filed out, I diverted to the North Lobby, being one of the lucky hundred selected to have a book signed by Sir Terry himself. Terry was clearly enjoying himself here, but it was not a venue for long conversation, or even any conversation, with a hundred books to sign. Here, too, was Sir Terry comfortable being the most important cog in a well-oiled machine, but sadly, here, too, there were one or two signs of his condition. Still, it was very good of him to come all this way to his fans “Down Under”.

It was a good night, overall, and I know I’ve forgotten details and perhaps whole topics. The fact that fantasy fiction is essentially mainstream, now, got aired briefly, for instance, but I would consider the most interesting points of that topic were not even discussed by Terry or Garth. But I’m glad I went. My only regret was that I didn’t organise to meet with some friends who also went.

Picture of Sir Terry Pratchett and Garth Nix taken by Jacq aka Zja Zja obsidiantears83

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