Tim Powers is a two-time winner of both the World Fantasy and the Philip K. Dick Memorial Awards and three-time Locus Award recipient. His books include The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, Declare, and Three Days to Never. His most recent novel, Hide Me Among the Graves, is now out in paperback from Corvus at £7.99.
by Tim Powers
I think I first decided to be a writer when, at about age six, I read a book called Timothy Turtle. In retrospect it probably wasn’t a very deep work – Timothy Turtle gets flipped over onto his back, and his woodland friends have to get him right-side-up again – but it convinced me that writing books was just about the finest thing a person could do. I soon moved on to books like Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad, A Dog, and S. J. Finn’s Percy Wynn – which I will insist are deep works! – and then, fatefully, when I was eleven, my mother got me a copy of Heinlein’s Red Planet.
I read it, and all the rest of Heinlein’s work, and then I moved right on into Sturgeon and Brackett and Leiber and Kuttner-&-Moore – and from then on, to this very day, I can’t imagine myself doing anything worthwhile besides writing science fiction and fantasy stories.
And, fortunately, when I was fifteen, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ran a column on how to submit stories. I immediately wrote a clumsy imitation of a story in that very issue, and sent it in; it got rejected of course, but that meant I had a real rejection slip! Even then, I knew that the number of rejection slips you’re going to get is finite, and every one you get reduces that number by one.
And I sent a lot more stories out, to F&SF and the other science fiction magazines, and they all got rejected; one manuscript even came back with a heavy footprint on it, which was inconvenient in those days when, before sending it out again, you had to retype a manuscript if it looked as if it had already been read – let alone already stepped on.
In college I met James Blaylock, who also aimed to write science fiction and fantasy. By then he and I both were writing long novels which, for all their clamoring dwarves and ghosts and unicycles, never manifested plots. Thousands and thousands of words, but not going anywhere in particular!
We thought that plots happened spontaneously – after all, in books we read, the plots seemed to arise out of the initial situations with no evident help from the writers.
Then we met K. W. Jeter. He had actually sold a novel, and then another, to a new Canadian paperback company that paid very little and had no backlist – and was therefore hungry. Furthermore, they would give a contract – and advance money! – on the basis of no more than a portion and outline – maybe fifty pages altogether.
So I wrote an outline, and for once I wrote it before I wrote the piece it was an outline of. (In school, of course, when the teacher said to write an outline and then write a paper from that outline, you wrote the paper first and the outline afterward. Everybody knows that.) And I discovered that the story was actually better if you planned it out in advance.
But I was still afraid of starting the plot – now that I had an actual plot! – too soon. Take it easy, I told myself, or you’ll use up all the events of your outline in twenty or thirty thousand words! So I started slowly, with nothing much going on; Introducing my characters! I would have said.
Luckily I showed the first 10,000 words of this to Jeter, who told me to throw it away. “Start when the action of the plot starts,” he said.
Well! That seemed awfully profligate, but I did what he said – and the publisher gave me a contract and an advance, and I wrote the book and didn’t run out of events before the end, and it was eventually published, and I’ve gone on to publish many more. But I’ll always be grateful to Jeter for telling me – “Start when the action of the plot starts.”