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The Man With The Black Hat

Yesterday, I made my first return to the Winchester Writers Conference since winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award. The conference provides a fantastic opportunity for networking with fellow authors, and those in search of agents, editors and publishers have the opportunity to make their pitches. A full day of lectures had been carefully prepared and rehearsed. And then Sir Terry Pratchett threw the rulebook out of the window with the opening speech. “Writing is easy!” he said. “I believe in serendipity.” You could hear the polite laughter mixed with gasps of horror from those who had planned to tell us that pen should not be put to paper until ever last turn of the plot had been carefully calculated.

Sir Terry’s love of story-telling came form his mother who told him fantastic tales about Greek gods and Where Rain Comes From on his walk to school. School itself, as many of have suspected, was a complete waste of time. Somewhere he was stifled rather than nurtured. Somewhere he was laughed by his teacher when he tried to her that rain comes from the sea (he says that there is a particular corner of hell reserved for that teacher). He left at the earliest opportunity.

In between his mother’s stories and his first job writing for a local newspaper, Sir Terry discovered a love of Science Fiction. His search for new comics brought him to a place called the Little Library. It wasn’t a library in the conventional sense (convention didn’t really come into the picture). There, a lovely little old lady served tea in china cups and sold eye-watering pornography (his words, not mine, I should point out). Her only other offering was the sci-fi comics that he loved, and which she obtained from the army base.

It was Sir Terry’s love of sattire that led him to develop his particular brand of fantasy, fusing sci fi with sattire. He had found time to read every copy of Punch published between 1860 and 1960, the work of the best sattirists in the business during the century. For the past 30 years, he has barely read a word of fiction. (He describes himself as a thief, borrowing material from the most unlikely sources.) Family and friends who understand his thirst for unlikely pieces of knowledge, provide him with a  ready supply of obscure little volumes found in second hand book shops. One of his favourite discoveries was an author who documented his ups and downs in the business world, going by the name of  Preserved Fish. It turned out that Mr Fish’s pious adopted parents had given him the name, Preserved By The Hand of God, but it had proved to be a bit of a mouthful.

And there was no shortage of writing tips.

Advice on becoming a writer: “Read until you overflow, and then become a writer.” So the good news for us is that it appears to be a process of osmosis.

Advice on how to write a novel: “I use the valley of clouds approach. I can only see the peak of a mountain peeping out the top of the clouds, and I have to take myself on a journey to find the mountain.”

Advice on how to know when you have finished: Get to 110,000 words and then stop.

Advice on how to get published: Finish your first manuscript. Send it off to an agent. The agent sends you a cheque. You buy a greenhouse.

When pressed, more advice on how to get published: Find an agent. Nail his feet to the floor.

You see, it really is very easy.