Playwrite Tom Stoppard carries a half-dozen or dozen books with him when he travels, in a leather-clad, purpose-built red box.
A Little Suspense Travels a Long Way (NYTimes, 2008)
Playwrite Tom Stoppard carries a half-dozen or dozen books with him when he travels, in a leather-clad, purpose-built red box.
A Little Suspense Travels a Long Way (NYTimes, 2008)
Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History,” tells the story of the idea of time travel in science fiction, pop culture, and science. Based on this review by Michael Saler in The Wall Street Journal, it sounds terrific.
Time travel emerged as a big idea at the turn of the 20th Century, as the human race’s idea of the nature of time was fundamentally changing, Saler says. Though most of history (and presumably prehistory), people viewed time as static, and the world as unchanging, Saler says.
That’s not entirely true. People of the past were certainly aware that great empires rose and fell. People were aware that great civilizations had come before them, and fallen before they were born. Even the ancient world had its ancient world; Cleopatra lived closer in time to the invention of the iPhone than the construction of the pyramids.
But as a general rule, your life was the same as your parents, and your children’s lives would be the same as yours.
That changed with the industrial revolution, and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” captured the change in pop culture. Time travel stories continue to fascinate us, along with alternate histories — Saler cites Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which I’ve read, and Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration,” which I’d never heard of before.
In scientific circles, the nature of time underwent special scrutiny in the late 19th century. By then, findings in geology, evolutionary biology and archaeology had established that the Earth was far older than the long-accepted biblical time scale: Time was now deep. Also, idiosyncratic local time regimes were being replaced by standard time zones, necessitated by the new railways and made possible by telegraphic communications. Inspired by such temporal ferment, the young journalist H.G. Wells published his first novel, “The Time Machine,” in 1895. The book launched his career and made “time travel” a concept worth taking seriously….
Since this work, time travel has become a veritable theme park of playful attractions, which Mr. Gleick explores with infectious gusto. Time travel is a staple in multiple media, from the BBC series “Doctor Who” to the “Back to the Future” movies. Time capsules—an instance of “reverse archaeology”—became a growth industry after the 1939 World’s Fair, when this extreme form of hoarding was first given its name. Works of alternative history, including Kingsley Amis’s “The Alteration” (1976) and Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” (1964), re-imagine the world by changing a key event in the past, resulting in a startlingly different (yet often strangely familiar) milieu from our own. These two books even have nestled within them hints of alternative-alternative history, creating a recursive, funhouse-mirror effect, a ludic attitude to time also adopted by modernist authors.
Dick’s Man in the High Castle is an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese won World War II and conquered the United States, and much of the novel revolves around the search for the reclusive author of an alternate history where the Allies won — although that work does not describe our own world.
“The Alteration” is, according to Wikipedia, set in a dystopian alternate history where the Protestant Reformation and scientific and industrial revolutions never occurred and the Catholic Church dominates the West, which continues in a dark age. That novel features an alternate history novel called “The Man in the High Castle,” by one Philip K. Dick.
Not mentioned by Saler: “The Iron Dream,” by Norman Spinrad, set in an alternate history where Adolf Hitler briefly flirted with politics after World War I, but then emigrated to the United States, where he worked as an illustrator for science fiction and other pulp magazines, eventually publishing a novel that became a cult hit, called “The Lords of the Swastika,” about an empire of true humans that rise up after a nuclear holocaust to rid the Earth of filthy mutants. Most of “The Iron Dream” takes the form of “Hitler’s” novel, with an afterword by a literary professor explaining Hitler’s life story. The real-life book (I have it somewhere in the house) even has a page listing more books by the alternate Adolf Hitler, which include “The Master Race,” “The Thousand Year Rule,” and “Triumph of the Will,” as well as blurbs for “The Lords of the Swastika” contributed by real-life science fiction writers. Spinrad was making the point that much heroic science fiction and fantasy looks a lot like fascist propaganda.
I remember Hitler often featuring in alternate history stories that I read as a teen-ager. In Poul Anderson’s fantasy novel “Operation: Chaos,” where magic operates instead of science, Hitler is shown as the lord of Hell in the final, climactic battle, and in “Gloriana,” by Brian Aldiss, which takes place on an eldritch alternate British Empire, the Queen mentions the peculiar case of a madman named “Adolphus Hiddler” who claims to be the ruler of the world. In both the Anderson and Aldiss, the main characters have never heard of Hitler.
Similarly, Roger Zelazny’s “Roadmarks” is a fantastic short novel about characters traveling on a literal highway that connects the past, future, and alternate histories; Adolf Hitler is cruising the highway in a black Volkswagen, looking for the timeline where he won.
But back to time travel: Scientists are split on whether time travel would be feasible in real life. Stephen Hawking is one of the skeptics; he hosted a party for time travelers and advertised it widely. “I sat there a long time, but no one came,” Hawking said.
Caputo set out to profile Styron in 1985, when Styron, “one of the towering figures in American letters,” was working on the novel “The Way of the Warrior.” The two men shared an experience as Marines — Styron had praised Caputo’s 1977 Vietnam memoir, “A Rumor of War” — which proved stronger than their common bond as writers, according to the Esquire Classic Podcast.
Styron fell into a deep depression during the reporting of the story, which changed the nature of the profile radically. And Styron never finished his novel, instead writing a 1990 mediation on depression, “Darkness Visible,” that “remains one of the most lucid and illuminating accounts of the illness,” according to the notes for the podcast.
“Caputo joins host David Brancaccio to discuss Styron’s greatness as a writer and how [Styron’s] struggle against depression—and his ability to articulate it in print—stands, in some regards, as his ultimate literary achievement,” according to the notes.
Styron’s Choices, by Philip Caputo – Esquire Classic Podcast
Julius Streicher was one of Hitler’s favorite writers and editors. Streicher wrote a children’s book that indoctrinated German kinder to anti-Semitism. (Naomi LaChance, The Intercept)
Fleeting thoughts and observations that seem interesting, if not directly relevant to your article, could someday lead to another story, whether that’s a quick blog post or a book.
Capturing these random thoughts in an organized fashion is challenging. That could be why few writers do what is sometimes called collecting “string” — or, random threads of thought that could someday be spun into a larger story. (When reporting this article, I approached many writers who said they do not collect string. Some even asked me how to define the term.)…
Whether you decide to go with a detailed organization scheme or a looser method, the emphasis here is that you should collect random thoughts and observations that seem interesting, whether or not you end up using them later. And you should have a method for reviewing them to make sure that the ideas you’ve collected don’t gather dust.
I’m thinking about trying out DevonThink, which now has an iOS app. Among other things, it seems like a good way to organize a string collection.
And this blog is of course a big string collection. Which might be a good tagline for it.
The British mystery writer weighs in:
Like most series writers, you see, I never set out to go down this path. I wrote the first Costa book as a standalone and was then asked to turn it into a series by my publisher. After which I made it up as I went along, mistakenly sometimes though I’m pleased to report the errors I committed were by no means rare.
Here, when I set out to write the Amsterdam series, are some of the pitfalls I told myself to avoid.
One of the mistakes he cites: Failing to plan for how the series will deal with the passage of time, as the years go by between books in the real world.
Different series writers handle the passage of time in different ways. Spenser and the other characters in the Robert B. Parker series aged at a rate of 1:2 for the real world for a decade or so, then it appeared they just stopped aging. In the early books, written in the 70s, Spenser referenced being a Korean war vet and an ex-boxer who once fought Jersey Joe Walcott. In the last books by Parker, written in the 2000s, those references are left out.
In the Nero Wolfe books, the characters stay exactly the same age throughout 30 years, while the outside world progresses. In the first book, Nero is in his early 40s and Archie is about 30 and they’re toasting the end of Prohibition. As the series hit its prime, Archie is enlisted in the Army during World War II — fortunately assigned to stay home in Manhattan. In the last book, Nero is in his early 40s and obsessed with Watergate, and Archie is about 30.
By the way, both the Spenser and Nero Wolfe series were continued by other writers after the original author’s death. I read one of the Spenser novels by Ace Atkins; it was pretty good. Surprisingly, it was better and more true to the characters than the later Parker novels were.
I also read one of the Robert Goldsborough Nero Wolfe novels, and found it disappointing. He had the details right, but the voice was off. For example: The book was written and set in the 80s, and the mystery revolved around some detail of personal computing technology. Archie had become a PC expert by then, and provided a clue to solve the crime. Nero Wolfe was portrayed as an antiquarian who disdained PCs.
But I thought that was precisely the opposite of the spirit of the books. Archie, as a man of action, would have disdained PCs in the early years. He’d have learned to use one, because he did Wolfe’s office work, but he would have no particular affinity for them. However, the sedentary genius Wolfe might have taken to PCs, because they are logical like he is, and he can use one while moving nothing other than his fingers and eyes.
866 words total. I’m just getting started.
Rather, I’m just getting started for the third time. I made a couple of false starts.
Then I read this essay from Michael Moorcock on how to write an adventure novel in three days.
I do not plan to write this novel in three days. If I can finish it in a year, I’ll be satisfied. But the essay got me thinking about outlining.
Moorcock doesn’t outline exactly. But he does have situations and locations worked out in advance, at the ready, like a metaphorical briefcase into which he can dip and pull out whatever he needs to keep the writing going.
I’ve never tried creative writing with an outline. I always thought outlining was the opposite of creative, and looked down on it. But after reading the Moorcock essay I realized that’s just a silly prejudice. Some excellent writers work from outlines. Others work freestyle. It’s just a matter of what works best; outliners are no better than non-outliners. Maybe outlining would work for me?
I did some research on outlines and came across the snowflake method. You’re outlining your novel by starting from the center and working outward. Like a snowflake — get it?
You start with a one-sentence summary, build that to a paragraph, expand further to studies of your secondary characters, and so on. I started with the snowflake method but abandoned it immediately after the one-sentence-summary stage, because it wasn’t working for me. But outlining was working for me.
I don’t mean a formal outline, with roman numerals and all that. I mean I just started writing down notes about the novel, in sequence. Who were my main characters, what was their problem, how were they going to solve it?
I also remembered a tip from Cory Doctorow on how to structure a novel: A character gets in trouble, does something intelligent to solve the problem but that only makes the problem worse. Repeat that several times until all is very nearly lost, and then the character does one more intelligent thing to solve the problem, and this time it works
Or something like that. I can’t find where Cory said that; the closest I can find is this article on InformationWeek that I wrote nine years ago but have no memory of writing. (That happens sometimes. I write a lot of articles.)
I worked on my outline for a couple of weeks and ended up writing 3,178 words, which I think covers the whole novel.
I think an outline is great for me for a couple of reasons: First, it allows me to forget about the big picture for a little while. I don’t have to hold the whole novel in my head every day, just whatever bit I’m working on at the moment.
The outline is also helpful because the novel I’m working on is a cross between a caper story and urban fantasy, in a fantasy city resembling 1970s-80s America in some ways, and drastically different in other ways, with a lot of background that needs to be explained in a lively fashion and moving parts to keep track of.
I’m not going to claim “aha! I’ve solved the problem of creative writing and will just keep plugging along and producing one novel after another!” I’ve thought that was the case many times before.
Word processing has transformed the way writers work, a transition from typewriters to electronic writing that happened in a few short years, starting in the mid-70s and ending by 1984 and 1985. The transition has been largely overlooked by literary historians, but now Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, has written a history, “Track Changes” (great title!). He talked with Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic: How to Write a History of Writing Software
Writers of genre fiction — particularly science fiction — adopted word processors long before literary writers. That’s not necessarily because science fiction writers are technology focused (I’ve been surprised myself by how Luddite science fiction fans can be in their real-life use of technology), but because genre writers need to work fast, and turn out a lot of work at high volume.
[Kirschenbaum’s] new history joins a much larger body of scholarship about other modern writing technologies—specifically, typewriters. For instance, scholars confidently believe that the first book ever written with a typewriter was Life on the Mississippi,by Mark Twain. They have conducted typographical forensics to identify precisely how T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was composed—which typewriters were used, and when. And they have collected certain important machines for their archives.
One day, a similarly expansive body of work may exist for writing software—and Kirschenbaum will be one of its first builders.
In the interview, Kirschenbaum addresses the question of which author was the first to write a novel with a word processor.
We can’t know with absolute certainty, I don’t think, but there are a couple of different answers.
If we think of a word processor or a computer as something close to what we understand today—essentially a typewriter connected to a TV set—there are a couple of contenders from the mid- to late-1970s. Notably Jerry Pournelle, who was a science fiction author. He is probably the first person to sit and compose at a “typewriter” connected to a “TV screen”—to compose there, to edit, and revise there, and then to send copy to his publisher. That was probably a novella called Spirals.
But there are earlier examples. Len Deighton, a highly successful author of British high-tech espionage thrillers, bought an early IBM word processor in the late 1960s. It wasn’t recognizably related to the word processors of today; the user typed on an IBM Selectric MS/ST typewriter that simultaneously recorded text on magnetic tape and conventional paper.
Kirschenbaum notes that secretaries, usually women, were the first to use word processors. Indeed, I remember that in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, successful men couldn’t type — typing was clerical, menial work, something that most men simply did not do. The transition to personal computers led to a brief bloom of typing classes — although the word “typing” had girl-cooties, so these classes were called “keyboarding,” or even “executive keyboarding.”
Me, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, and even in the late 70s it was obvious to many of us that personal computing was the future. I taught myself to touch-type when I was about 12 years old, and I took a typing class in high school to brush up on those skills, along with a few male friends who were also active in the computer club.
Back to Kirschenbaum: Even though the MS/ST lacked a screen, he calls it the first word processor because it stored the text electronically.
Your “screen” was the sheet of paper you had in your Selectric typewriter. You did your typing on the Selectric—which is the same typewriter, for example, we see in Mad Men; it’s a famous ’60s-era electric typewriter—and if you made mistakes, you would backspace. You would get a mess on the sheet of paper that was currently on the Selectric, but the correct sequence of character strokes was being stored on the tape. Then you would put a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and it would automatically print out, sort of player-piano fashion, the text stored on the tape’s storage.
This unit sold in the 1960s for $10,000. That’s obviously quite a lot of money, and IBM used the term word processing as a marketing device.
Deighton wrote on a conventional Selectric, then handed the typescript to his secretary, Ellenor Handey, to retype it using the MS/ST. Therefore, I call shenanigans on Kirschenbaum’s classifying Deighton as the first author to use a word processor, simply because he wasn’t the one using the MS/ST. Still, it’s an interesting anecdote — Deighton was on the edge between non-word-processor users and word-processor users.
And importantly, Kirschenbaum says the essential thing about the word processor isn’t the screen, it’s the fluid, electronic nature of the text.
Microsoft Word is still the gold standard for writing software; even people who write primarily for the Internet — including most of the technology journalists I know — use Word. That absolutely flummoxes me. Even today, Word seems to me to be software designed primarily to produce printed hardcopy, often ornately formatted in ways that writers don’t care about. It’s not designed for articles, blog posts, or books; it’s designed for corporate annual reports.
Until recently, I preferred to write in text editors designed by and for software developers. Now, there’s a new generation of word processing software developed primarily for people who write electronically; Ulysses for Mac is one of those apps, which is the one I use. Scrivener is a more well-known example.
A lot of writing today gets done in email applications and web browsers — specifically the text entry box of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m writing this post in the composition window of WordPress. I’m writing on a plane (Kirschenbaum discusses how word processors have changed WHERE we write, as well as how), and I don’t currently have an Internet connection. I really, really hope I don’t lose my work, but WordPress is pretty good about that.
And of course, writing on mobile phones is hugely popular. Maybe the people who are toddlers today will never learn to keyboard; they’ll just thumb-type.
Kirschenbaum also talks about writers he calls “refuseniks,” who were adults in the 70s and 80s and who refused to use word processors. Harlan Ellison is possibly the most outspoken example, still pounding away at a typewriter. Cormac McCarthy is another example.
Another example, not mentioned by Kirschenbaum in this interview: Our friend the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, author of “The Forever War” and a couple of dozen other, excellent novels. Joe is no refusenik; last time I talked tech with him he was a user of a Mac, iPad, and iPhone. But he likes writing his first drafts in fountain pen on bound, blank books. He says he just writes better that way.
I’ve added Kirschenbaum’s book to my Amazon Wishlist. And, hey, there’s another idea for a book: How digital technology changes the way we read. When I was a teen-ager back in the 70s, I could easily read two or three books every week. Now, I read a half-dozen books a year, if that. I have to make a conscious effort to set aside some time every day to read books. Most of my reading time is taken up reading articles.
From the book “These are the Voyages, TOS, Season One” by Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn.
10,000 writers aged 18-28 each write one article a week and aren’t paid for it. They’re edited by professional copy editors, each of whom is editing an average 140 articles per week so they can’t be doing a thorough job.
Writers have to apply to write. For free. The benefit? They “swap their work for being edited and professionally branded.”
Odyssey raises $25 million and hits 30 million uniques [Nathan McAlone – Business Insider]
Hitler backed the Fascist Nationalists, and used the war to try out weapons and strategies he’d later use in World War II. The Soviet Union backed the Communist Republicans, along with a cadre of American volunteers – the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Also backing the Spanish Fascists: Texaco, led by CEO Torkild Rieber, who later hired German Nazis, was fired by Texaco when the US turned resolutely anti-Nazi on the verge of our entry into World War II, and went to work for the Nazis directly.
On Fresh Air:
Nearly 80 years ago, about 2,800 Americans volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The war began in July 1936, when Gen. Francisco Franco led a fascist military coup against the the country’s newly elected democratic government. It lasted until Franco’s victory in 1939.
Journalist Adam Hochschild tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “it was by far the largest number of Americans before or since who’ve ever joined somebody else’s civil war.”
Hochschild chronicles Americans’ involvement in the war in his new book, Spain in Our Hearts. He says that the majority of Americans in Spain (including writer Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the conflict) were sympathetic to the Republican forces who fought against Franco’s Nationalists.
Scalzi says no. Many successful writers are extremely insecure, others write for themselves and feel fortunate that readers enjoy their work enough for them to make a living out of it.
Part of that is that it depends what you mean when you say “successful writer.” What is the definition of success? Material wealth? Excellent writing? Reputation that exceeds one’s own mortality? The thing is, none of these in itself requires a large ego, or outsized egotism. Particularly in regard to the latter two, I have in mind Emily Dickinson, who was certainly an excellent writer and whose reputation in death is far greater than it was in her life, in no small part because her first published collection was in 1890, four years after her death. During life, she lived an eccentric and secluded life — not generally the hallmarks of someone with what’s generally understood to have a pretty big ego.
Is Dickinson a successful writer? I think absolutely: I strongly suspect her work will be remembered long after mine is forgotten. Did she have a big ego? If I had to guess, I would say no, at least in terms of how I think “big ego” is being referred to here.
Ego can be part of the reason people write. It is for me: I rarely write just for myself, since I already know what I’m thinking and I’m too lazy to write down my own thoughts just for me. I write so I can be read by other people; I like that other people like what I write. But there are also people who only write for themselves, who never have the desire to show others their work — at least, not until well after they are dead. Another historical example: Samuel Pepys, widely considered the English language’s greatest diarist, whose diaries, while bound by the author for preservation, were not published until 150 years after his death. Pepys is another successful writer by any account, but save for binding the loose pages of his diary into volumes, where is the evidence of a big ego? I don’t know that Pepys ever dreamed his diary (which among other more significant things includes ample evidence of his various adulteries) would ever see wide circulation.
Tim Powers’ novels start with real historical events and imagine occult forces behind the scenes. On Stranger Tides is an adventure story about magic among 18th Century pirates (and was the basis for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name). Last Call casts gangster Bugsy Siegel as the mythic Fisher King in 20th Century Las Vegas. And Declare connects British Cold War traitor Kim Philby with Noah’s Ark.
Powers writes a rare combination: Densely researched and rich novels that are also fast, exciting reads.
I interviewed Powers in February. Our conversation, like his books, was rich, entertaining, and fast, and it’s taken me this long to beat the transcript into an article
I kicked off the discussion by describing Powers’ novels as “secret histories.” But Powers said he doesn’t think of his work that way. He just thinks of his work as science fiction, fantasy and horror.
“What makes it secret history is an inevitable consequence of setting fantasy stories in the real world,” Powers said.
“When you read the LA Times there’s no mention of dead people coming back to life or anything like that. And so if you’re going to say magical stuff is going on, but there is no mention of it and most people aren’t aware of it, you pretty much have to say it’s secret history. That’s unavoidable,” he said.
Where he gets his ideas
Powers’ books start with his recreational nonfiction reading. “I’ll be reading some nonfiction just for fun, a biography or history or a book on sailing or something. And some detail will snag me and I’ll say, well, that’s enigmatic. And then if I come upon one or two more snags, I think there are enough oddities here that there is probably room to hang a book on it.
“And then I’ll start reading obsessively on whatever it is, as opposed to just recreationally. While I’m reading, I’m looking at it as if I’m a cold case detective. Except, while a normal researcher would be trying to figure out what really did happen, I’m looking for an imaginary supernatural story.
“Aside from the supernatural requirement, I’ll let the clues dictate what the secret backstory is. It may turn out to be ghosts or genies or vampires or some less refined thing, but I really do — maybe out of laziness and lack of imagination — let the research dictate the elements of the story.
“For example, in the book Declare, I was reading about Kim Philby, just because I find those guys fascinating.”
Philby was a high-ranking member of British intelligence who worked as a double agent before defecting to the Soviet Unionin 1963.
Philby “had been seen on the Turkish-Soviet border under really unexplainable circumstances,” Powers said. Philby had been very close to his father, who had been an early explorer of the Arabian desert and possibly discovered the lost city of Wabar (also known as the “Atlantis of the Sands“). Both Philby and his father “had a real weird attitude toward Catholicism and baptism.” Philby’s father converted to Islam.
Despite their close relationship, Philby “wasn’t terribly upset” when his father died. But Philby was “devastated” when his pet fox died.
“And the fox used to drink whiskey and smoke a pipe,” Powers said.
“And so I figure, you’ve got a lot of stuff in the Arabian desert, you’ve got the facts of Philby and his father both being very averse to baptism, you’ve got the lost city of Wabar, you’ve got possible reincarnation of the father into a fox. Then I checked out the Arabian Nights in the [Richard Francis] Burton translation.
“And there’s a lot of fox mythology in Arabian folklore. And so the research indicated genies, and it also indicated the details of espionage, Philby being a secret Communist agent during World War II and thereafter. And so really the whole course of the story was dictated predicated on what the research gave me.
“It’s not as if I arrived with the story I want to write. I combed the research looking for pieces of the story I’d eventually write.
“Often I’ve thought if you could get a really thorough big detailed biography of anybody, you can approach it with the kind of paranoid squint I use for research, and almost certainly find enough clues to hang a book on it.
How he started writing secret histories
It started with Laser Books, Harlequin Romance’s attempt to start a science fiction line in the 1970s. “They went 30 or 40 volumes and then decided science fiction didn’t sell nearly as well as romance did and canceled it. But then, the editor, Roger Elwood, said to me and KW Jeter and Ray Nelson, there is a British publisher who would be interested in a series of books about King Arthur reincarnated throughout history, would you guys like to write books in that series?”
The three authors divided history among themselves. Jeter wrote about Arthur in Victorian times and Powers wrote a story about Arthur returning in the Siege of Vienna in 1529.
“I discovered that setting up a book in actual history gives you a whole bunch of cool stuff for free,” Powers said. “If you want a map of the area your story takes place in, you don’t have to draw it, there is a map of Vienna. And if you want to know about the religious beliefs, or what the economic situation was, you don’t have to make anything up. You can find out what those things actually were. They’re all real colorful and dramatic and you get it all for free.
“That project collapsed. The British publisher decided they didn’t want those books after all. And we were all three of us left with books about King Arthur at various points in history. Jeter sold his to DAW Books, which was Morlock Night, and that was kind of the beginning of what was called steampunk. There were other things previously but those weren’t called steampunk.
I mentioned an essay by blogger and fantasy author Jo Walton, where she discusses how science fiction and fantasy readers approach fiction differently than other readers, picking up clues to what’s important about a story that other readers, unaccustomed to science fiction and fantasy, will miss. Powers said it was a good point.
“For example, my father was a big reader — fiction, nonfiction anything — but he could never get more than a chapter into any book of mine. It was the same with any science fiction or fantasy. He never learned the clue-discerning trick that science fiction and fantasy fans do.
“I think I would like to minimize that because, ideally, you don’t want your readership to be the people who are primed for that kind of thing. You look at Michael Crichton, say, and he manages to write a lot of what you’d have to call science fiction, but got everybody reading them. You ideally want make clue-discerning more evident, more reliably findable.
On the other hand: “I’m always very glad to have my books labeled and shelved as science fiction fantasy,” he says. Some editors and writer believe there’s an advantage to being published as mainstream, but Powers disagrees.
“The stuff I write is that weird goofy stuff, and I want it to be shelved where people who go looking for weird goofy stuff go looking. If a straight John le Carre reader were to pick up my book Declare, he might be comfortable enough in the first chapter or two, but by the time genies start popping up he’d have the same reaction my father had, which is, ‘Wait a second, hold it, when did this turn stupid?”
Powers says he wrote many first chapters of uncompleted books when he was in college.
“You come home at night. You don’t want to go to bed. You take out a piece of paper and you write CHAPTER ONE. And you write two pages, and you figure that’s pretty good. So you go to bed.
“And then the next night you’re in the mood again, so you pull out a fresh piece of paper and you write CHAPTER ONE. And you write a whole different thing.
“And eventually you realize, I’ve written a whole lot of page-and-a-halfs of various CHAPTER ONES. Add it all together, it’s a lot of words. But it’s not anything. What you’ve got to learn is: Every night when you’re in the mood, instead of starting something fresh, continue that previous thing until it’s done. Which was a tricky thing to learn, actually.
“And you need to remember that first draft work is supposed to be pedestrian and lifeless and stupid, and so if you write thirty or forty pages of first draft and you read it and find that it is in fact pedestrian and lifeless and stupid, you’ve got to tell yourself, good, we’re right on track, this is how it’s supposed to be. This leads to a finished book, which will ideally be good. This is one of the necessary steps. Rewriting and revision will make it, we hope, lively and interesting and suspenseful.
“I’ve always thought people who claim to have writers’ block are snagged at that point when they see that it’s stupid and tepid and lifeless. And obviously a person who has writer’s block isn’t claiming that they’re incapable of writing a sentence or a paragraph. They’re lamenting that when they do write a paragraph it’s dumb. And I would want to tell them, keep going, good, it’s supposed to be dumb. You’ll touch it up, you’ll fix it, you’ll polish it.
“In my own first drafts, when I re-read them, it always seems like a bunch of people in street clothes holding scripts, standing on a bare stage, looking at tape marks on the floor and reading from the script very haltingly. And you think ok, well, that’s the first rehearsal. We’re going to get sets, we’re going to get costumes, there will be real drinks in the glasses, this isn’t the finished production.
Powers writes 9 pm to 1 am.
“Greg Benford said you should write in the mornings because you’re smarter in the mornings. And I paid attention to that for a couple of days until I realized, no, I’m stupid in the morning. I don’t get my full IQ working until around noon. And from 9-1 at night there’s really not a lot of interruptions. It’s not like you’re going to go running off to do errands. The phone is unlikely to ring. There’s really no distractions from writing. From the outside at least.
I said the Internet is a mixed blessing for avoiding interruptions. You can do errands on the Internet to avoid interruptions, and email replaces phone calls. On the other hand, I said, Wikipedia is always a temptation.
Powers agreed. “And you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.
“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.
“Though YouTube is very useful for research. For example, in my last pubished book I had a character at the top of the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And I thought, well, is there a railing? How wide is the walkway? What do you see from there? Is it really noisy with wind? I’ve never been up there.
“Well you go to YouTube a hundred people have been up there and videoed it. And that’s true for any situation you can imagine. I wonder what it’s like to be on a sailing ship, squarerigger, standing at the bow in he middle of a storm. It would be useful to get some sensory impressions of that. I’ve never tried it but I’m sure a hundred people on YouTube have done it.
“What would it be like to be on skis going over a cliff in the Alps? Some poor devil has videoed it. You get to experience it to the extent of those two senses, sight and hearing.
I recalled a conversation where he said he finds it easier to write about places he’s never been.
Powers replied, “Yeah, that’s probably right. It’ll all be new and exotic. You get picture books, or YouTube, or with Google Earth you can drop the little orange man down into the street and look around. It will all strike you as new and intriguing and you’ll notice details that characterize it for you. If you’re looking at someplace you’re real familiar with, a lot of those evocative details that would strike a stranger and a reader as remarkable are going to kind of fall out of your radar. You’re too familiar with it.
“I remember the first time we went to Las Vegas for research for a book. All kinds of things struck me as striking and odd and peculiar and questionable. I noted them all and put them in a book. If I lived in Las Vegas, I don’t think those would even have caught my attention.
“I had a book set in Venice. Hemingway wrote a book set in Venice, Across the River and Into the Trees. Hemingway was great guy for details. I said, ‘Why don’t you read Across the River an Into the Trees, and see if you can pick up some striking little elements you can use?’ Except Hemingway was so familiar with Venice he didn’t even describe the damn place.
“I have lived within an hour of LA since 1959 and am fairly familiar with it. When we’re driving around for research, I try to think, ‘Be a tourist. Pretend this is your first time. What the hell is that? When did they do the pavement this way? Who would have thought you needed parking meters on this street?’ I try to look at it fresh.
A thousand words.
Powers puts in a quota of a thousand words a day.
“That gets interrupted sometimes because you stop and think, ‘Hold it, we need to know a whole lot more of what this guy is up to than what we are aware of so far.’ And I’ll go to a scratch file and talk to myself for several pages until I can figure out what he is up to. But then I will resume the thousand words a day.
The scratch file is a stream-of-consciousness document.
When planning out stories in your head, “you come to a conclusion which is likely to be dumb and you don’t remember all the steps of logic that led you to it,” Powers said. When “thinking into the keyboard” you’ll also come to a dumb conclusion — but you can backtrack through your thought process, find the fork where things went wrong, and take a different path. When planning a story that way, Powers even types “um um um” as if he were thinking out loud.
Powers also uses scratch files to sketch out scenarios of different ways the story might play out.
“I’ll say, ‘Did he know his friend had been killed when he spoke to this person in the diner?'” Powers writes out the consequence of what would happen if the character knew, and also what would happen if he didn’t know, and works on the one that looks best.
Powers keeps a long, “obsessively detailed” outline of his novel in progress. The outline is thorough and searchable, and Powers tries to include searchable key phrases and mark passages in bold and red to find details that need to be referred to later in the story, such as when a character last appeared in a story and what he was wearing at the time.
Powers outlines in advance. “I try to outline so absolutely that I’ll never be stuck with a question as I’m writing. My outline, before I ever start, includes bits of dialogue, even some descriptions. Of course when you’re actually writing the book, it turns out there’s things you didn’t think to outline. But I try to minimize those snags by outlining in advance to a obsessive or insane degree.”
A Powers outline might be a hundred pages single spaced, with auxiliary files on specific topics like Kim Philby or the British Secret Service — about half of the length of the finished book.
“In order to build a building, you put up so much scaffolding that the scaffolding outweighs the building,” Powers says.
Powers writes sequentially, unlike many writers who write scenes out of order and then stitch them together.
“I could never write Chapter 13 before Chapters 1-12. For one thing, there would be an infinity of tiny details that carry through, and if I wrote chapter 13 in isolation I wouldn’t know what those are. It’s like if you took one segment of a building out, and tried to design the 13th floor before you design the rest of the building, you wouldn’t know where to put the plumbing and wiring,” Powers says.
Powers doesn’t blog or use social media. “My publisher set up a Facebook page for me, but there is very little activity on it, and I don’t get on as often as I should, I’m sure. A lot of times people say, ‘You have to do that, you have to tweet, blog, Facebook.’ I always think, well, why? And they say, well, to promote your work. And I say, well, that seems vulgar. I’m supposed to talk about my books? What am I supposed to say about my books? I know the opinion I’d have of somebody who wouldn’t shut up about his damn books. I don’t want to be that guy.
“And Twitter. What are you supposed to talk about? What you had for breakfast? ‘Oh, my cat vomited on the keyboard again.’ I’ve never seen a purpose for it that I thought it would be worth me participating in.
“To an extent, I think I have an advantage in that I have been [writing professionally] forever. I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve been published since the 70s. I think if I was starting out right now, the online presence would be much more urgent. It does seem like there’s this vast churning crowd and you’ve got to do something to draw people’s eye to you.
“I’m always afraid that the things that intererest me would be of only mild interest to other people most of the time. And I have a kind of reflexive reluctance to talk about my own work, unless somebody asks. Like on panels, I don’t think I ever mention the titles of my books.
“I’d have a horror of seeming to say I think you should try out one of my books. You may as well get ‘obnoxious pig’ tattooed on your forehead.
“I always think of something Eric Flint said, he said the best way to promote your book is to write another book. Which I find comfortable because that’s what I want to do. I always think advice must be correct if it confirms me in what I’m already doing.
“Some people do it really well. I always read John Scalzi‘s blog. There’s a lot of blogs I keep up with and I find them entertaining. I’m glad Scalzi publishes books every now and then of his collected blogs. But if I did it, I don’t think anybody would be interested in a book of The Collected Blogs of Tim Powers.”
Powers most recent novel is Hide Me Among the Graves.
He’s revising his next novel, which he expects to finish by the end of the year. He describes it as “The House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills. When a brother & sister return to the big old house they grew up in, horrible consequences from the 1920s pop up to give them a bad time.”
Despite an already long and cumbersome title, William H. Patterson, Jr., could have included still an additonal subtitle to the second volume of his mammoth, authorized biography of Robert A. Heinlein, something along the lines of “The Most Influential American Science Fiction Writer of the 20th Century.” Even Philip K. Dick — the current darling of hipsters and academics — regarded Heinlein as the master.
Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) possessed an astonishing gift for fast-paced narrative, an exceptionally engaging voice and a willingness to boldly go where no writer had gone before. In “— All You Zombies—” a transgendered time traveler impregnates his younger self and thus becomes his own father and mother. The protagonist of “Tunnel in the Sky” is black, and the action contains hints of interracial sex, not the usual thing in a 1955 young adult book. While “Starship Troopers” (1959) championed the military virtues of service and sacrifice, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961) became a bible for the flower generation, blurring sex and religion and launching the vogue word “grok.”
Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.
Though Heinlein can do no wrong in his biographer’s eyes, if you use yours to look in Patterson’s voluminous endnotes, you will occasionally find confirmation that the writer could be casually cruel as well as admirably generous, at once true to his beliefs and unpleasantly narrow-minded and inflexible about them. Today we would call Heinlein’s convictions libertarian, his personal philosophy grounded in absolute freedom, individual responsibility and an almost religiously inflected patriotism. Heinlein could thus be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.
Throughout his life he regularly exhibited an almost feudal sense of gratitude and loyalty: Because transfusions saved his life during a difficult surgery, he actively lent his name and time to local and national blood banks. The day that Americans landed on the moon, he declared proudly, should be the first day of a new calendar; it was to him the greatest achievement in the history of humankind. When biographer Thomas Buell wrote for information about Adm. Ernest J. King, under whom Heinlein had once served, the novelist replied that he considered King a nearly perfect military officer and then produced 59 typed pages of anecdote and reminiscence.
Reviewer Michael Dirda says Heinlein’s last novels, from I Will Fear No Evil on, are “generally regarded as bloated, preachy, cutesy and dull.” I find them that way, and so do many fans, but I’ve read that they were Heinlein’s most popular books. I suspect Dirda, like me and many Heinlein fans, regard Heinlein’s so-called “boy’s books” of the 1950s as his best work.
Dirda also notes that the blurbs on the back of the Patterson biography include both uber-macho spy novelist Tom Clancy and gay African-American writer Samuel Delany, which sums up the scope of Heinlein’s work.