JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

Quotes from Discworld 38, Part 2

Feb
18

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I haven’t made a whole lot of progress on the book since the last post. Other things have been taking up all my time. There was the Lunar New Year, which is big here in the East, though not as much for my wife’s family. Still we had to go out to meet people and eat too much food. Not that I can complain about the latter part.

I also worked on the drafts for two new Storm Hamilton stories, which I plan to send out at the end of the month. The stories actually came to mind when I stumbled on a couple new publishers.

But I did make some progress on I Shall Wear Midnight. Pratchett’s skill at description,  both of characters and situations, stood out to me this time. Sir Terry always had the uncanny ability to write something completely ridiculous and yet perfectly clear and appropriate. At times his crazy way of approaching descriptions works even better that a straight-forward method would.

For example, there is this passage where he is describing Letitia, the mean duchess’s wishy-washy daughter (and Tiffany’s rival for the attention of the young baron Roland):

Her hobby, and quite possibly one activity in life, was painting in watercolours, and although Tiffany was trying, against the worst of her instincts, to be generous to the girl, there was no denying that she looked like a watercolour – and not just a watercolour, but a watercolour painted by someone who had not much colour but large supplies of water, giving her the impression of not only being colourless but also rather damp. You could add, too, that there was so little of her that in a storm it might be quite possible that she would snap. Unseen as she was, Tiffany felt just the tiniest pang of guilt and stopped inventing other nasty things to think. Besides, compassion was setting in, blast it!

This description is so dense; there is so much here. When we first meet Letitia, she is portrayed as bland and emotionless–in other words, colorless. She is also see as weak, being pushed around by her mother and others (“there was so little of her”). But this passage marks a turning point in how Tiffany, and the reader, views the girl. Letitia begins to deepen and even shine as a character. Over the stretch of the entire story, her development is masterfully done.

Another thing that Pratchett does well is dialogue and character interaction. He has great pacing and the humorous descriptive bits in between what is said serve to amplify the tone of the dialogue.

This is my favorite exchange (in part because the duchess had it coming for a while):

‘You there! Yes! You there in the shadows! Are you lollygagging?’ [the Duchess said].

This time she [Tiffany] paid attention. All that thinking had meant that she hadn’t paid enough attention to her little don’t-see-me trick. She stepped out of the shadows, which meant that the pointy black hat was not just a shadow. The Duchess glared at it.

It was time for Tiffany to break the ice, even though it was so thick as to require an axe. She said politely, ‘I don’t know how to lollygag, madam, but I will do my best.’

‘What? What! What did you call me?’

The people in the hall were learning fast and they were scuttling as quickly as they could to get out of the place, because the Duchess’s tone of voice was a storm warning, and nobody likes to be out in a storm.

The sudden rage overtook Tiffany. It wasn’t as if she had done anything to deserve being shouted at like that. She said, ‘I’m sorry, madam; I did not call you anything, to the best of my belief.’

This did not do anything to help; the Duchess’s eyes narrowed. ‘Oh, I know you. The witch – the witch girl who followed us to the city on who knows what dark errand? Oh, we know about witches where I’m from! Meddlers, sowers of doubt, breeders of discontent, lacking all morality, and charlatans into the bargain!’

The Duchess pulled herself right up and glowered at Tiffany as if she had just won a decisive victory. She tapped her cane on the ground.

Tiffany said nothing, but nothing was hard to say. She could sense the watching servants behind curtains and pillars, or peering around doors. The woman was smirking, and really needed that smirk removed, because Tiffany owed it to all witches to show the world that a witch could not be treated like this. On the other hand, if Tiffany spoke her mind it would certainly be taken out on the servants. This needed some delicate wording. It did not get it, because the old bat gave a nasty little snigger and said, ‘Well, child? Aren’t you going to try to turn me into some kind of unspeakable creature?’

Tiffany tried. She really tried. But there are times when things are just too much. She took a deep breath.

‘I don’t think I shall bother, madam, seeing as you are making such a good job of it yourself!’

I don’t know what else can be said about this passage. It’s like a perfect joke. There’s the setup, and then, with perfect timing, the punchline. I was enjoying the work in audiobook format.  Stephen Briggs has been the primary Discworld narrator for some time, and his delivery is just perfect. 

It’s rather funny that this bit of conflict begins with a miscommunication and a differing understanding of the meaning of words. More humorous is the choice to use a word like “lollygagging” which is almost out of place in this setting. As a mid-19th century word, it is a bit recent, even for the industrialized Discworld. I don’t know if Pratchett is trying to suggest that the duchess is a person who tries to be on the top of fashion and culture trends. It does exemplify the cultural distance between her and Tiffany very well–not only in class and rank (at least in the duchess’s mind), but also in culture, urban versus rural.

But mostly, this is a great example of Pratchett giving us his usual morally-strong characters. Unlike the colorless Leticia, Tiffany is not willing to stand around and take the duchess’s abuse. For good or bad, Pratchett’s leads are typically morally straight and as this passage shows, morality is often an important aspect of the conflicts in his work.

I hope you enjoyed these two quotes. As I mentioned in the last post, if you haven’t read a Discworld novel before, I strongly urge you to give one a try. The best place to start, in my mind, would be with Small Gods or Monstrous Regiment, which are two of my favorites and are both stand-alone stories.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

When Your Description is Meaningless

Feb
10
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Describe me, I dare you.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King offers many tips on how to write good description. But in doing so, he reveals a fundamental problem with his style of writing–using words that have no inherent meaning.

King does this a lot in IT. He references pop culture without describing the referents. He’ll drop a song title without lyrics, or casually mention a film or an actor. To a reader who does not already have specific knowledge of these referents (which in the case of IT, means knowledge of the 1950s), it will simply be “that one song” or “that one guy who starred in that one movie one time”–meaningless.

This can also be seen in a oft-quoted passage from On Writing where King describes how to describe. He suggests avoiding long descriptions about physical characteristics or clothes and suggests instead:

“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us.”

If you think about his example description for a while, you realize it means very little on its own (besides the “bad complexion” part, but that is ambiguous without context–a bad complexion could be acne, it could be age, it could be sun damage, or countless other things). King’s description is all referential. It depends completely on the cultural knowledge and experience of the reader.

King expects his reader to have the very same life experience as he did. He says here “We all remember one or more high school losers, after all”. What if you didn’t go to high school? What if you were home-schooled? What if you aren’t even American?

The latter question is key for us as modern writers. King started writing when it was not expected to break out beyond your country, or even your local region. It was all print, and logistics were a pain. Now, thanks to Amazon and ebooks, every writer is a global writer. I have English readers from the UK, Australia, Singapore, South Africa. They are not going to get descriptions that rely solely on cultural knowledge.

We Americans think it is good description because we understand the reference, but I actually think this is very poor description in the long run.

What if someone picks the book up after 100 years, when there is no more high school because knowledge is digitally injected into our brains? Oh, and everyone wears the same Star Trek-style unitards, so fashion is no longer a thing. Then the description he offers says nothing to the reader. I think it is much better to actually describe the girl’s face and clothes, rather than rely on references that are not going to endure, or may not even be understood by some modern readers.

And yet he does it again when he moves on to location description. After providing a sample passage that relies on cultural references such as “maitre d” and “twenties speakeasy,” he asks how it could be improved by saying:

“There are plenty of details I could have added–the narrowness of the room, Tony Bennett on the sound system, the Yankees bumper-sticker on the cash register–but what would be the point?”

Only one of these three details has inherent meaning. I certainly couldn’t bring a Tonny Bennet song to mind when asked. The Yankees reference might have more global reach, but is still limited. Not everyone is going to get that this detail is placing the location in New York.

Regarding description, King states:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

This is, indeed, absolutely true. Writer’s have an idea in their head and good writing is that which coveys the idea to the reader. The trouble is that I have different tools in my head–a different culture, life experience, and lexicon–and I must be sure that the words I use to describe my scene are not dependent on those things that are exclusive to my own mind.

If you don’t pay attention to this, you are setting yourself up for failure somewhere down the line, even if it’s a century from now. I imagine that is one reason why the classics still endure. I don’t remember Dickens citing popular culture in his descriptions. And when things do come up that are expected to be strange for the reader–such as everything about whaling in Melville–they are explained in detail. King takes shortcuts, but sometimes shortcuts are a trap.

I’ll leave this post with a bit of a positive. I’m not suggesting that On Writing is a bad book. It’s actually a very good, if basic, writing guide–excepting the above issue, of course. Another passage from the pages surrounding he ones quoted above states:

“I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story
of mine looked like–I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well.”

I think this is the ultimate truth, at least in regards to character description. The reader is going to end up generating their own image of the character. So yes, keep the description short since there is only so much the reader will heed, but at the same time make sure your words are meaningful and not just empty references.

Thanks for reading.

~JM