Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 11 Sep 99 16:34
I apologize for not showing up earlier today - I had to take a jaunt across the bay to the safe deposit box and retrieved the Dick letters for the final course, (as alden has it) and have just returned. Thanks for the thought you've given Mike's question and for the interesting response! John D. McDonald, eh? Travis McGee, then? I've got tons of other questions for you, of course, but I want to give other folks a chance to ask some. And besides, it's time for my rollerblade lesson. I'll be back later...
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sat 11 Sep 99 17:03
Rollerblade lesson. Sure, McGee -- I love all those books (though I think _Dreadful Lemon Sky_ was the last great one), and I love the non-McGees too -- _The Beach Girls, Please Write For Details, Last One Left, The Girl the Gold Watch & Everything._ I wonder if there's a MacDonald topic on the Web? When I first began going out with Serena in '78 or 9, she and I were both working at the same shopping center in Orange -- she in a jewellery store, me in a smokeshop -- and she'd frequently find me on a bench with a beer and a MacDonald paperback; and she'd take the book from me and _read aloud_ the terrible cover copy. I remember what it said on _The Long Lavender Look_ -- "She was a lot of woman. Too much for most men. Almost too much for McGee." And I'd have to stammer and try to insist that the books were good in spite of the cover copy. I remember she always insisted that one of them included the phrase "wearing little more than a sheepish grin ..." But she's long since become a big MacDonald fan herself, now.
first be a good (satyr) Sat 11 Sep 99 18:36
(In another conference this would go in a "was that you?" topic.) Tim, did you spend some time in Fort Collins, Colorado in the mid-to-late 80s? If so, sorry it took me so long to put your name together with the memories (and WAY TO GO!!!). If not, well <shrug>, never mind I guess.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 11 Sep 99 18:40
I wondered how you met Serena! (And yes, rollerblade lesson. I have returned all in one piece, for which I am grateful. My guardian angel gets quite a workout chasing after me wobbling all over the middle of the street.) But now I'm back, so we can get back to talking about you! Your new book sounds wonderful. I love the way that you tell the parallel story behind the facts, how you find odd bits that nobody else would think to look at twice and string them all together. You are a sort of literary gumshoe! And, as we can see from your description of the newest book, you are a meticulous researcher. You often present details about subjects that I wouldn't expect to find in a science fiction book. For example, these items from the few books I have at hand: --There is an extremely detailed description of electroshock therapy from the description of the "bifurcated foam-rubber bite block" between the patient's teeth, to the drugs she is given and their effect on her body, down to the fact that the monitor is made of plastic! --When you talk about a bullet, it's not just any bullet, it's a "230-grain hollow point Eldorado Starfire round." --Thorough descriptions of ancient folk magic are plausibly peppered throughout. --One of the characters is a Bay Area vintner, who describes in scientific detail about phylloxera, including the sentence "...a new breed of phylloxera had been devastating the California vineyards, which were most grown on a modern hybrid rootstock known as AXR#1." What prompted you to explore these areas, and what kind of research did you do for them? It sounded like you actually witnessed someone undergoing electroshock therapy, it sounded like you spent some time toiling in the vineyards yourself. Was that so?
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 11 Sep 99 18:40
first be a good (satyr) Sat 11 Sep 99 19:15
...more ways than one, possibly...
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sat 11 Sep 99 19:27
I'm glad it seems like I participated in those things, Linda! But no, it was all just research. (And no, John, it wasn't me in Colorado! I spent the whole '80s in Santa Ana, California.) One thing I'm always defensively aware of is the fact that fantasy (as opposed to SF) is simply bogus at its core. The events in science fiction stories at least _might_ plausibly happen -- non-SF readers say, patronizingly, "Well, people used to laugh at that Buck Rogers stuff, but now with space shuttles and all ..." -- but nobody's ever gonna say to me, "Well, people used to laugh at that vampires and ghosts stuff ..." It's simply impossible. But I want the reader, at least for the duration of reading the book, to _forget_ that it's impossible! Therefore I want the surface details to be as authoritative as possible, aggressively real. I (ideally!) want the reader to _experience_ the events, not simply indulgently _note_ them. And so I want extra-real cars & guns & paramedics & grape-vines! Yeah, those grape-vines. Since I wanted the reader to buy the gigantic impossibility of Dionysus crashing around in Napa, I really needed to make those grape-vines (& vineyards & presses) be convincing! (It was all true, too, of course, about phylloxera ravaging the standard AXR#1 root-stocks in the early 90s! I learn about the damnedest things.) And all that outlandish stuff about Zinfandel ... I tell you, sometimes late at night I imagine that I'm not making this stuff up, but that instead I've stumbled onto the real secret history! For the research I mostly just go to a lot of used book stores. I must spend a fortune, altogether. Libraries aren't much good to me, since I need to keep a book for a year or two and I want to mark it up so bad that it's of no use to anyone else -- when a library has a book I need & can't get elsewhere, I just xerox the whole damn thing. And I buy movies that take place in areas I'm writing about; we watched _Lawrence of Arabia_ a lot, for _Declare!_ And I've got a huge research library (we had 10,000 books when we moved three years ago, and we've certainly got a lot more since), for sort of all-purpose narrowing-down, before very specialized books become necessary. (I'll buy any book called _Day to Day Life in ..._) One thing that was of huge use for the spy book was this new complete National Geographic on CD ROM! If I had a scene in Kuwait in 1960, I just told the machine, "Find me anything on Kuwait between 1946 and 1950," and bang, there'd be three articles full of photos and local customs and language and weather and plants. And -- blessedly -- I found a "Beirut Shopping and Trades Directory" for 1964 (so you know it was written in '63), full of maps & restaurants & TV show listings! Altogether, I want it to be very unclear where the genuinely-bizarre facts leave off and my own goofiness kicks in.
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sat 11 Sep 99 19:30
I meant, "if I had a scene in Kuwait in _1950,_" actually.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 11 Sep 99 21:36
I would say that you have been hugely successfully in masking that line between the facts and your own "goofiness" - although I'd argue about the goofy part. It sounds too much like genius to me. Although, admittedly, I'm biased. So you classify yourself as fantasy, then, not science fiction? I had always thought of fantasy as Ann McCaffrey type stuff. In fact, I thought fantasy was required to have dragons in it to qualify.
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sat 11 Sep 99 22:39
(Jeez, look at me bragging about my "huge research library"! Probably half of that ten thousand is old SF paperbacks.) (But I hope you were impressed there for a while.) Yes, it's definitely fantasy that I write (I figure I gotta _work up_ to dragons). I do try to be aware of science, though, hopefully enough to keep myself from positing impossibilities I haven't allowed for. For instance, I'd never write about an invisible man who could see by visible light -- unless he was invisible except for his eyeballs (I think Fritz Leiber first noted this); and a two-inch tall man would be very difficult -- I think his tiny eyes would mainly see in ultraviolet, the very short wave-lengths, and I'd worry about how much brain he could contain, and how much he'd weigh, and how his bones & muscles would work, being at the wrong scale and all. And if I had somebody levitate, I'd worry about Newton and General Relativity. I'm afraid most readers are aware of these things, and if I make too many mistakes in these areas they would, at best, shift to the "indulgently noting" mode I mentioned above ("Oh, I see! -- it's a _make-believe_ story!"). Greg Benford was a big help when I was writing _Stress of Her Regard._ I told him that I wanted a silicon-based life-form that would behave in a bunch of ways dictated by the Old Testament and fairy tales and vampire stories -- and after he listened to me, he said, "Well, it's totally impossible; but if you emphasize these things, and refer to this here a few times, and don't go near this other topic, I think you could get by." That was very helpful, to find a person who was both (A.) a scientist who knew what was impossible, and (B.) a writer who knew how to kite checks on the possibility account. And my main, indispensable resource is the science columns Asimov wrote for about thirty years in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. These have all been collected in Avon paperbacks, and I always keep a couple in the truck. In ten pages Asimov can have you understanding photosynthesis, or how come there are two high-tides a day even though the moon is only overhead once, or what is it that vacuum tubes used to do & how silicon chips do it now.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sat 11 Sep 99 23:59
The funny thing about McCaffery's dragon stuff is that she first published the stuff in Analog (still Astounding back then, maybe?). That's why it's on another planet, and there are vague passes at scientific justifications for everything.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 12 Sep 99 13:20
Date: Sun, 12 Sep 1999 00:15:25 -0700 From: Jack Skillingstead <email@example.com> I'm fascinated by the interior visualizations of writers. Can you tell us how much you "see" with your inner eye when you write?
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sun 12 Sep 99 14:37
I certainly try to see the fictional scene as clearly as possible, and to include temperature and sounds and wind-direction and all that, and to be aware of "what's going on in the next street" or at the next table, or in the next lane. I'm always telling students at the Clarion workshop to "Picture it!" It's necessarily very deliberate -- my default mode, like most people's, is just talking-heads-in-a-white-room. I have to ask myself, Wait a minute, is there a carpet? Where are these people standing, and how are they dressed? How low is the couch? If the phone rings, which way will they be looking? Karen Joy Fowler points out that it's very helpful to know where the light source is. Poul Anderson has pointed out that in the course of any scene you should call on at least three of the five senses. I very often draw floor plans, so as not to have the refrigerator apparently changing its position as different characters move around; and I like to draw a horizontal view, so that I'll know whether or not you can see the freeway from here, and if the wing of the house blocks the view of the sunset. These drawings are nothing artistic, just blobs on the back of an envelope to keep me straight. And then, having figured out the dimensions of everything, it's important to convey them! I strongly disagree with the idea you sometimes hear in SF circles (always seeming to be delivered with a wise, humorous wink) that it's best to "leave the details up to the _reader's imagination,_ which will come up with more effective stuff than anything you could describe." As a reader myself, I hate it when any writer has left something up to me to picture (such as whether you turn left out of the driveway to get to town) and I picture it differently than the writer did, and then late in the story the characters turn _right_ to get to town! Suddenly I feel like I've been watching all this in a mirror. And in SF this can be catastrophic -- I've been reading along, absorbed in watching characters climb around on a spaceship I thought was spherical and about the size of a big-rig truck, and I'm abruptly told that it's cylindrical and as big as the Empire State Building. My whole inner movie is wrecked. C. S. Lewis said somewhere that describing a scene for readers is like driving sheep down a lane -- if there's one side-gate left open, they'll all go through it. And in spite of my best resolves, my first-drafts always turn out to be very bare. It's all actors in street clothes, as it were, holding scripts and peering at tape marks on the bare stage. It's generally only in subsequent drafts that I finally bestir myself to give them correct costumes, and settings, and put a real fire in the fireplace and real drinks in the glasses.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 12 Sep 99 17:04
So, Powers, about these Clarion workshops? What exactly happens there? I know that there are stringent entry requirements, but how do the workshops work, exactly? How many instructors are there over what period of time and what do the students produce? Is it worth it - for the students, that is? (And, for the instructor, for that matter!)
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sun 12 Sep 99 18:43
Six instructors, six weeks-- And an instructor probably has different notions of what the students get out of it than an ex-student does.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 12 Sep 99 19:09
Are you an ex-Clarion student, Martha? Who were your instructors?
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sun 12 Sep 99 19:11
Pretty well ex by now. Algis Budrys, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Lynn, Michael Bishop, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight.
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Sun 12 Sep 99 22:16
Tim, when you researched Las Vegas for LAST CALL, which books did you rely upon most to give you a sense of the time and the place?
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sun 12 Sep 99 22:21
Martha has a point. She -- and any other Clarion people out there -- can supplement my perspectives. Yes, it's six weeks, with six instructors; and the last two instructors co-teach the last two weeks. For about thirty years that last pair was Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm -- lately it's been a number of people, with me & Karen Joy Fowler taking it every other year. I've taught Clarion six times now, I believe -- three times as first-week instructor, and three as part of the end-game pair. But! -- I never was a student at Clarion, or at any workshop, so I can only guess about what it's like to be one of the students, who are there for the whole session! It must be exhausting -- I know I'm totally worn out just being there for _two_ weeks, and of course I don't have to _write_ anything while I'm there. There are about eighteen students, chosen from roughly a hundred applicants -- in my experience their ages have ranged from about 18 to about 55 -- and they abandon their real-world lives for six weeks and just read & write manuscripts. The don't eat or sleep to speak of. The main activity is "workshopping," in which, from 9AM until noon, they criticize each other's stories; and the rest of the day and night is occupied with writing & arguing and talking to the instructors, each of whom contradicts all the others. I suppose on average each student produces one story per week; though this varies widely. And it's often just eerie to see how quickly their writing improves! What with the valid but conflicting advice from the instructors, and their own cross-pollination, and the razory critical faculties they develop in the workshop, they compress years' worth of progress into that six weeks. And the instructors really do try to convey everthing they know about fiction-writing, any and every trick or trade-secret they ever figured out. (A novel of mine was recently nominated for a Nebula award, and lost -- and the winner was Nicola Griffith, one of the Clarion people from the first class I taught, in '88! Believe it or not, that was very gratifying. I told her to say, in her acceptance speech, that she had learned everything from Powers, but I gather she forgot.) The students do learn a lot from the workshopping sessions -- but, oddly, not so much from having their own stories critiqued. It's when they're applying their critical faculties to the other people's manuscripts that they really learn how to see flaws and strengths in a story. Karen Fowler and I have said that it would be good to have the author _stay away_ while his or her story is being dealt with -- but of course they'd be right outside, with their little noses pressed to the window glass. The thing is, if you hear criticisms of a story you wrote, you might at best get some hints on how to fix _it;_ but when you're dissecting other people's stories you learn general principles that you can then use on every story you ever write. (I'm just _asking_ for contradiction here from Martha, I know.) As for what the instructors get out of it, besides worn out -- well, we meet a lot of interesting people, many of whom become long-time friends; and we get to see the early work of writers who will soon dazzle the whole field. Kelly Link was in one of the classes Karen and I taught not very long ago, and she has already won the Tiptree Award and at the moment has _two_ stories up for the World Fantasy Award. And I do think we instructors go home energized -- after spending two weeks with people who are just writing like amphetamine monkeys, while I'm not writing a word, I go home just consumed with guilt -- and guilt is the good old engine that makes me write.
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sun 12 Sep 99 22:43
Hi, Mike, didn't mean to ignore you there. The best book was certainly _The Green Felt Jungle,_ by Demaris & Reid. It's one of those research books that would be fun to read just for wild entertainment, and it exposes such heavy and grotesque secrets that you wonder how the authors managed not to be killed (get the paperback, not the first edition -- the paperback has photos, and a killer afterword about the book's scandalous reception). And A. Alvarez' _The Biggest Game in Town_ is wonderful, focussing mainly on the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe. And a little booklet called _The Graveyard Shift,_ by Elliot S. Crane, was very helpful -- "a night" each with a casino shift manager, a taxi-driver, and so forth. _Las Vegas, Playtime USA,_ by Best & Hillyer, was very good for the 1955 perspective, and Vogliotti's _The Girls of Nevada_ had some good stuff on prostitution & brothels past & present; and there were many others, but these are the ones I still have on my Las Vegas shelf. (You didn't ask, but the two best books on Poker are Doyle Brunson's _Super System_ (post-1950-style Poker), and Hebert O. Yardley's _Education of a Poker Player_ (pre-1950-style Poker). Oh, and Frank Wallace's _Advanced Concepts of Poker_ is hair-raisingly pragmatic. And the best book on tournament Poker is Tom McEvoy's aptly-titled _Tournament Poker._)
Martha Soukup (soukup) Sun 12 Sep 99 22:46
Not to much to argue with in Tim's description. Except it's not useless to hear your story critiqued, even if it's not as helpful as learning to critique other stories: you get a crash course in learning to distinguish between the criticisms that apply to what you're trying to do and help, and the ones that are just besides the point ("This story doesn't have horses. I'd like it better if it had horses.").
Tim Powers (timpowers) Sun 12 Sep 99 23:45
Good point, Martha -- it's crucial to learn what criticisms -- even plausible, convincing, brilliant criticisms! -- simply don't apply to what you're doing. "When an angel out of Heaven brings you something else to drink/ Thank him for his kind intentions -- go and pour it down the sink," as Chesterton said.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Mon 13 Sep 99 08:53
In my experience, in a good, useful, intelligent critique session, perhaps about a quarter, maybe as much as a third of what you hear will apply to what you want to do. If it makes your little brain go ding, you grab it, and otherwise you don't. Probably my best story was critiqued by a group of 14 or so professional, excellent writers, and only one of them read the story I was trying to write and helped me know I was on the right track (the other baker's dozen helped me know, at least, that I'd slipped from it and needed to be more careful in the redraft).
Tim Powers (timpowers) Mon 13 Sep 99 10:00
That would have been the Sycamore Hill workshop, I bet. I know Karen Fowler always has a great and valuable time there, and she says Bruce Sterling is brilliant. (Incidentally, relevant to what follows, I've established to my complete satisfaction that both of them are smarter than I am.) But -- here's a prejudice of mine, one I don't know any writers who share (and I know many very good writers!) (such as yourself, Martha!); it was more-or-less concretized by an experience at Clarion. Nalo Hopkinson (whose recent first novel was _Brown Girl in the Ring_) had written a story to be workshopped, and when I read it I simply intuited the obvious, perfect ending. It wasn't the ending she had written, but I was certain it was the ending the story _needed,_ obvious as math. In the workshop session I described my proposed ending and explained why it was what the story called for, and Nalo listened politely, and then she ignored my advice and later sold the story. Only later did I realize that my advice had been just the very best way to make her story into a Powers story -- and of course she wasn't at Clarion to learn how to write Powers stories, but _Hopkinson_ stories! I don't really want to know what a writer or group of writers think something I've written needs -- I want to know what some representative _readers_ think it needs. My two ideal readers are my wife and a friend who's an ex-cop -- they're both very well-read and intelligent, but neither of them has any writing ambitions, and so when they criticize there's no flavor of "I'd have done it this way." Their criticisms are more like, "You led up to this scene as if it were going to be very dramatic and affecting, Powers, and then the characters just walked throught it -- either ditch all the promises or deliver on 'em." As I say, none of the writers I know share this prejudice -- and look at what a mess _The Sun Also Rises_ would have been without Fitzgerald's crucial advice! -- but I don't belong to any writers' group, and I tend to squint suspiciously at them.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Mon 13 Sep 99 11:43
It was a quasi-Sycamore Hill. My experience at the Syc Hill I went to was-- colorful! Good readers don't have to be other writers. But other writers can be good readers. I think I'm using a different part of my brain when I critique. In fact, I'm sure I am.
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