A Blink of the Screen, short fiction by Terry Pratchett

I might not have read this collection if my dad hadn’t recommended it then lent me it, which just goes to show something or other. Years ago, near the height of my Pratchett-fandom, I read a couple of pre-Discworld novels (The Dark Side of the Sun, and Strata) and my boat, as it were, remained distinctly unafloat. I haven’t fancied reading his recent sci-fi collaboration with Stephen Baxter, though I did enjoy a radio adaptation of Nation, and I don’t recall reading any of Terry Pratchett’s short stories. So a whole book of them, well over half of which was non-Discworld output, didn’t sound like I needed to rush out and read it (as indeed I haven’t, it came out in 2012). Occasionally (whisper it) I can be wrong, a little hasty in my judgement, for not only did A Blink of the Screen turn out to be most entertaining, the Discworld offerings on the whole were the weakest of the lot.

The non-Discworld stories in the book cover the period 1963-2010 (Discworld 1992-2009), some serious but most with his trademark humour to the fore, and mostly within the broad spectrum of speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, science fiction or some blend thereof). Each one has a short (or not so short) introduction by Pratchett, setting it in context or adding a relevant anecdote. Twenty-four pages of colour illustrations are slotted in, mostly by Josh Kirby, quite a few you probably haven’t seen before. There is also a foreword by AS Byatt which gives an unexpected glimpse into her life – I love the thought of her curling up with a Discworld novel after a long day writing Literature.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a fan’s book or not. There are definitely some parts of the Discworld section that are strictly for the fans (football cards tied in to Unseen Academicals, for instance), and a deleted extract from a Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg story called The Sea and Little Fishes. However, even some of the Discworld parts should have wider appeal, like the story for The Times Higher Education Supplement in 2005 in which various senior members of the Unseen University discuss the ludicrous idea of inspecting and somehow measuring the productivity of a university, which any academic subject to the REF will surely raise a weary smile at. Among the non-Discworld gems are the character who turns up to meet his author, the time-traveller called Mervin who ends up somehow in Camelot mistaken for Merlin, and the computer who believes in Father Christmas. All in all, as long as you’re comfortable at the comic fantasy end of SF, I imagine there will be plenty in this collection to keep you entertained for a while.

I wrote this review a week or two before Terry Pratchett died, then put it aside for later as I often do. It meant that at the time of his death I’d recently been reminded just how good a writer he was, which I’m very glad about.

Casting the actors in your head

When I read fiction, it’s kind of like watching a film in my head through a murky window – the events play out in my mind’s eye, but not with absolute clarity, though the voices are usually distinct. Often I’ll end up with a real actor playing the character, either because the physical description put me in mind of them, or because they’ve played a similar character in something I’ve seen. Jack Shaftoe in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, for instance, is for whatever reason played by a young James Bolam.

Where I’ve seen a TV or film adaptation, the casting for the version in my head is more straightforward. Both Marlowe and Spade are forever Bogart thanks to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, I probably saw those films before I started reading either Chandler or Hammett. Hercule Poirot can’t be anyone other than David Suchet, again the TV adaptation might have just come to my notice before the books did. Maigret is a trickier one, however. I can no longer remember how I pictured Maigret, or how he spoke, when my dad first introduced me to a shelf of Simenon, but ever since we watched the TV adaptation in the early 90s, Maigret has been Michael Gambon whenever I’ve read the books. It’s with mixed feelings, therefore, that I read of Rowan Atkinson’s role as Inspector Maigret in two new TV films – I’m sure he’ll be good, I just don’t want to muddy the Gambonesque waters.

Interestingly (at least to me), OneMonkey doesn’t always read aloud/hear character voices in his head when he’s reading a book. Nor does he always picture the events being described. Naturally I assume I’m the normal one and he’s odd, but it would be fascinating to find out how other people read (as OneMonkey says, long descriptions of how a room looks are often wasted on him – as a writer am I generally wasting my time on that sort of thing or do most people get something from it?). Feel free to comment here and let me know.

Lines from a sniffling Discworld reader

This is the danger of being brisk and businesslike and getting straight down to the intended blog post instead of idly browsing the web for half an hour beforehand. Now that I’ve done the idle browsing for a few minutes and learnt the shocking news of Terry Pratchett’s death, I shall go reminisce with OneMonkey about how the Discworld brightened up our teenage years and introduced us to a series of wonders…

Assorted creativity

I have a (flimsy) excuse for my long absence, I’ve been working on some exciting projects. As well as the continuing redrafting of the sci-fi noir, which is lurching along in fits and starts, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on preparations for a storytelling evening which may or may not happen this summer in York (you’ll be the first to hear about it if it does). I still need to write a sci-fi story to complete the package, which is looking like it will also contain myths, fairytales and one of my Luddite stories.

The other exciting news is that I should be starting to review books (and graphic novels) for the Luna Station Quarterly blog pretty soon. The moment the first one is up there, I’ll stick a link to it on here.

Becoming a Geordie by long proximity

Cover of Larn Yersel' Geordie by Scott Dobson

An invaluable guide. Well, quite entertaining anyway.

A few years ago in a post about rendering accent in writing, I mentioned that after 10 years of living among Geordies I’d attempted to write a Geordie character, only for OneMonkey to recoil in horror at my ineptitude. Well, a couple of weeks ago I had another go (completely different story, and characters) and this one passed muster. I’m not saying it would fool a native, just that OneMonkey judged it bearable.

I had a feeling I might do better this time, I can now read and interpret the whole of the 1960s educational pamphlet Larn Yersel’ Geordie, even if I can’t say most of it out loud. I have understood each one of OneMonkey’s uncles in normal conversation, and barely notice that his dad speaks a completely different dialect from me. Despite living back in West Yorkshire (‘the South’ as OneMonkey calls it) for years, I appear to be morphing slowly into a North East native, scoring 100% on the Chronicle’s How Geordie Are You? quiz (though I’m not convinced of its scientific accuracy…) and recognising more than half of these You know you’re a Geordie when… signs in myself. Time to go recalibrate myself with some Yorkshire dialect poems.

The importance of being musical

I had such plans for this weekend – a bit of writing, a bit of editing, a couple of book reviews. What with Spotify and the BBC 6Music festival highlights online, however, all that got shelved and I’ve been indulging in music. I air-guitared to some instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, fired myself up with gritty early Kinks, bounced around to Maximo Park, and did a whole exercise session to Adam and the Ants. Marvellous, but not helpful on the writing front.

I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to write to music these days, and how I wish that wasn’t so. I’m often drawn to fiction that has a strong connection to music, like John Harvey’s detective Resnick and his jazz, or Kate Atkinson’s blunt Jackson Brodie with his surprising penchant for female singer-songwriters. It’s an added dimension and a way into a mood. Perhaps part of my problem is my eclectic taste, I skip around from Slayer to Joy Division to Half Man Half Biscuit, and if I was writing at the same time it would infect the words, resulting in a complete dog’s breakfast of a story. What I need is to plan a playlist to match what I’m working on at the moment. If anyone has suggestions for songs suitable for editing sci-fi noir, let me know…

Hope for us all?

I have – somewhat belatedly – been reading an entertaining blog post from last month by Christine Entwisle, winner of the Writer’s Prize for Radio Drama 2014. Not only did she write about how winning things is something that does not happen to her (which gave me some faint reassurance that it’s not all pre-ordained, for creative writing graduates with the right networking skills) but she also mentioned a play she’s been writing for 12 years that no-one wants, whereas her prize-winning script took her four days. This has spurred me on in my last-minute attempt at a story for the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook short story competition, which closes on February 15th. That’s in 4 days. Perfect.