Tim Powers Interview
Better Storytelling Secrets
Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors.
Today, I’m joined by, World Fantasy Award Winner Tim Powers, the author of Anubis Gates,” one of the core Steampunk novels and a dozen other novels.
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
Well I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I first read a book. And after discovering Heinlein and Lovecraft in grade school, I wanted specifically to be a science fiction/fantasy writer. And luckily The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ran an editorial in 1967 that explained how to submit stories, so I immediately began doing that, and just never stopped!
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
I guess it was when an editor bought my first book! Before that I was just hopeful.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Non-fiction reading, usually. I’ll be reading some biography or history book, and I’ll notice some oddity that seems susceptible to a supernatural explanation, and then I’ll read more on the subject, but on a “research” basis now, rather than a plain “entertainment” basis.
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
I talk to myself into the keyboard. I ask myself questions having to do with what sort of plot the research indicates, and what sort of hidden back-story might make all the enigmas and anomalies make sense. I make sometimes hundreds of pages of notes like this! And then I decide what bits of speculation look consistent & compatible & colorful, and I begin to put together a very detailed outline of all the events of the story.
What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?
From the time I was eleven until I was about twenty, all I read was science fiction and fantasy. I don’t really read a whole lot in that genre anymore, but that intense exposure imprinted my imagination so deeply that I have no interest in writing anything else.
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
Really I think I’ll probably just stick with science fiction and fantasy forever. It’s freer — you can write espionage, Westerns, humor, police procedurals or anything, withing the SF/fantasy genre.
Do you work from an outline?
Totally. I like to make an outline so detailed that it includes bits of description and dialogue. I generally make a giant calendar, and write in each day-square the events and conversations that are to occur on that day.
How do you build your story?
I find interesting events or places or characters in history, and then I invent a story to thread as many of them together as possible. I try to put the story together in Act I, Act II and Act III structure, though in the story I generally don’t indicate when we’ve moved from one act to the next.
For you, what makes a great hero?
I generally figure out the hero of a story after I’ve done all the research and know what the story’s situations are. I try to construct a protagonist who will arrive with certain useful qualifications or handicaps, and who knows things it’ll be useful for him to know, and doesn’t know things it would be useful to see him learn.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
I don’t know! They’d probably try to say something nice, just to keep me happy.
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
About a year, really! I read every book I can find on my subject, and when they indicate side-trails I follow the side-trails as far as they continue to be interesting. It’s a very broad net!
What settings would you like to explore in the future?
I don’t know — I’ve thought a ghost story in a mountain-climbing story might be fun. But really I don’t think past whatever the current project is!
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
No, my stories have no purpose besides entertainment. I never “have something to say” about current events or politics or social conditions. I suppose some of my personal opinions might filter into a story unnoticed, but if I notice any “statements” I’ll cut them out.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
None that immediately occur to me!
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
I generally write from 8 PM to midnight, at my desk in my office. I don’t listen to music as I write, because if it was good I would stop writing in order to pay attention to the music.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Writer’s block really just means, “Everything I try to write is stupid.” The answer is, “First draft is supposed to be stupid. Keep going and fix it up in revision.” It’s always seemed to me that claiming “Writer’s block!” is just a way to claim to be a writer without actually doing any writing.
How do you go about fixing a story?
I re-read it and note hints that didn’t get developed, and either ditch the hints or insert developments; and I often re-do dialogue to make it sound more spontaneous and less obviously helpful; and I fill in descriptions that were clear in my head but didn’t make it into the manuscript; and I cut bits that are repetitive or slow.
How do you know when to stop?
When I can re-read the manuscript and not snag on anything, I know it’s done.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
Don’t be ironic or tongue-in-cheek or satirical! Stories written in those ways are immune to being made fun of, but only because they’re already making fun of themselves. Take your characters and their problems seriously, and give them resolutions that strike you as valid, and let readers make fun of you if they want to.
So, what is YOUR plan for the zombie apocalypse?
Shotguns and a full tank of gas.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
Maybe my novel, Declare.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the research phase right now, so God knows. Apparently something set in the 20th or 21st century!
I’d like to thank today’s author, Tim Powers for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing! The next published book could be yours.
– Mark O’Bannon
About the Author
Tim Powers has written thirteen novels, including On Stranger Tides, which was the basis of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and The Anubis Gates, which is considered one of the core Steampunk novels. His books have twice won the World Fantasy Award, and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in San Bernardino.
Visit Tim Powers online: