inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #51 of 250: 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...
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #52 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #53 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #54 of 250: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #55 of 250: Linda Castellani (castle) Sat 11 Sep 99 18:40
    
satyr slipped...
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #56 of 250: first be a good (satyr) Sat 11 Sep 99 19:15
    
...more ways than one, possibly...
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #57 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #58 of 250: Tim Powers (timpowers) Sat 11 Sep 99 19:30
    
I meant, "if I had a scene in Kuwait in _1950,_" actually.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #59 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #60 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #61 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #62 of 250: David Gans (tnf) Sun 12 Sep 99 13:20
    

Date: Sun, 12 Sep 1999 00:15:25 -0700
From: Jack Skillingstead <jackskil@aa.net>

I'm fascinated by the interior visualizations of writers. Can you tell
us how much you "see" with your inner eye when you write?
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #63 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #64 of 250: 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!)
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #65 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #66 of 250: Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 12 Sep 99 19:09
    
Are you an ex-Clarion student, Martha?  Who were your instructors?
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #67 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #68 of 250: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #69 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #70 of 250: 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._)
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #71 of 250: 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.").
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #72 of 250: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #73 of 250: 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).
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #74 of 250: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.48 : Tim Powers
permalink #75 of 250: 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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