Author Archive for Tim Pratt


New Forces for a Better Tomorrow

I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome a slew of new denizens to the Magic District. We the Founding Few have become increasingly busy, and most of us have, shall we say, slipped a bit on our original update schedule. We decided an infusion of new blood would be welcome — both by us, as we’re happy to expand our ranks and lighten the load, and by you readers, who’ll get to enjoy loads of new rants, meditations, observations, leaps of logic, leaps of illogic, and other such bloggy goodness by a whole new slew of up-and-coming fantasy writers. Now, play yourself a little mental fanfare, please, and I’ll introduce the new writers:

Kelly Gay

Jeannie Holmes

Michele Lang

Lisa Shearin

Kalayna Price

M.K. Hobson

Seanan McGuire

Paul Crilley

Some of those names may be familiar to you already, and some of them will be. We’ll begin a more robust update schedule soon (though I wouldn’t expect too much from us in this, that last dead week of the year as reckoned by the barbarous Western calendar… but 2010 will be a different story).

I, myself, have little of import to impart, but I thought I’d take a writerly look back over this long year.

Despite having my novel series dropped by my publisher, I continue to work a lot — I’m in the midst of a work-for-hire pseudonymous novel, which is due in a couple of months, and is about halfway done. It’s a great gig, since within the specific premise I’ve been tasked to write, I have near-total freedom to do whatever I want; the result is something that very much resembles a Tim Pratt novel, though my name won’t be on the tin. (I’ve auditioned for other work-for-hire jobs where I was literally given a scene-by-scene description of what to write, for the entire book, so this is a nice variant.)

My anthology Sympathy for the Devil is done and delivered (and has cover art). Editing an anthology was both a lot harder and a lot more fun than I expected. Putting it together and talking to authors was awesome, but some of the logistics of securing rights was difficult… I’ve never been on the editor side of that dynamic before. It was a useful and good experience, and I think the book is very cool.

Earlier in the year I published a bunch of short stories, had several reprints in various markets (podcasts, foreign magazines, etc.), got nominated for a Stoker Award, serialized a short novel for donations online (for pretty decent money, even), sold a couple of novels overseas, and had other nice things happen.

I revised a middle-grade novel, which my agent is now shopping around, and did a synopsis and sample chapters for a very cool project which she’s also shopping around, so I’ve got a lot of irons on a lot of fires. Let’s hope one of them heats up sufficiently sometime next year, shall we?

2009 was a hard year for me and a lot of people I know, a bad year in publishing and a bad year personally. And while the turnover to a new year is technically arbitrary and has no cosmic significance, I find that it does have psychological significance, and if enough people think 2010 will be a better year, then a sort of collective magic could indeed be worked in our personal lives, our industry, and our economy. Such is the might (and weakness) of consensus reality. So act as if we’re in the early moments of a better tomorrow, won’t you?

-Tim Pratt


Christmas Stories

There’s a new Christmas story by Charles Stross, set in his Laundry universe of secret-agents / institutional government bureaucracy / Lovecraftian indifferent cosmic monsters: “Overtime”. Reason for rejoicing!

Other Christmas/fantasy/science fiction stories I adore (and read yearly):

Greg van Eekhout’s “In the Late December”, also listenable at Escape Pod.

Elizabeth Hand’s wonderful novella “Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol,” from the late lamented Sci Fiction, but still available serialized on Hand’s journal: Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four, Part five, Part six, Part seven, Part eight, Part nine, Part ten, Part eleven.

I also re-read Connie Willis’s “Miracle”, my favorite of her many fine Christmas stories, which I don’t think is (legitimately) available online.

Got any favorites you’d like to share? (I’ll also accept Solstice stories, Mithras/Invictus birthday stories, Hanukkah stories, Kwanzaa stories, Winter Festival stories, etc. etc…)


The Horror, the Horror

The other night, while my baby was hollering at 4 a.m. (we think he had a nightmare, and we soothed him and changed him and so on, but after a while we just had to let him cry himself back to sleep), I was laying in a semi-awake state, thinking about the difference between horror stories and fantasy stories.

Specifically I was thinking about a story involving a magical door, a scary door through which potentially scary things might emerge into our ordinary world, and trying to think of a good way to end such a story. It seemed to me, in my trancelike state, that the moment in which the doorknob on the scary door began to rattle — the moment when something on the other side was on the cusp of emerging, with the mortals on this side watching in wide-eyed dread — would be a good place to end.

And, for a horror story, it wouldn’t be a bad ending. Much horror is rooted in the unknown. When you can see the monster, it’s almost always a let-down; the unseen monster, the monster implied, is far more frightening than the monster revealed.

But the next morning I found the notion of ending the story there a bit disappointing, perhaps even a bit craven. After all, the real leap of imagination would necessarily come when the door did open, and I had to create something on the other side worthy of the build-up, worthy of that sense of dread.

It seemed to me that, at that point, it would almost have to cease being a horror story, because I would need to explicate, explore, reveal — and have my characters somehow process and engage with whatever they saw. At that point, the central evocation of fear would be pushed aside in favor of other effects, and it would cease to be a horror story (in the sense of a story designed to invoke horror in the reader). Both horror and fantasy are rooted in the consideration of Mystery, but they approach that Mystery in different ways.

I was reminded of one of the widely-agreed-upon differences between a technothriller and a science fiction novel: in a technothriller, the status quo is restored at the end, while at the end of a SF novel, the world is changed.

And so my idea for a very short horror story turned into an idea for a rather longer fantasy story — albeit one retaining elements of horror, and several horrific moments; but not engineered for a horrific end.



I’m solo parenting this week while my wife Heather Shaw is off at the beautiful Blue Heaven writers’ workshop in Kelleys Island, Ohio, getting her fill of both critiques and beer (she’s there along with Magic District contributor Greg “The Keg” van Eeekhout, among others). My wife and I usually take turns getting up when the baby wakes, so we only have to risk a pre-dawn waking every other day. But with her out of town, I’ve been on my own, and the baby’s been getting up on the early side of his range, so after three days of rising before the sun I’m feeling pretty sleep-deprived. (Perhaps if I went to bed earlier… nah, it’d never work.) So I’m just going to drop in a couple of links here, in lieu of any original content:

Jon Armstrong (author of the weird and wonderful fashionpunk novel Grey) has a podcast called “If You’re Just Joining Us” (he interviewed me there once), and the latest installment features the wit and wisdom of literary agent Ginger Clark, who represents me (and Jon, for that matter). Much of the interview is given over to confirming or denying various myths about agents, and it’s a funny, fun interview.

I have a new story online today, written when I was less sleep-deprived and overall more lucid, so maybe go read that, it’s pretty short: “Silver Linings”, which is my first (but I hope not my last) publication at Great illustration by Thom Tenery, too; I can see why SF authors like writing about airships so much, when you get pictures like that! There’s also audio of me reading the story, which (let’s put this politely) privileges authenticity over polish.

Also, my online serial novella Bone Shop, um, accidentally became a novel this week, crossing the magical threshold of 40,000 words that (according to SFWA) separates very long stories from very short books. It’ll be another 15 or 20 thousand words before I’m finished, too, firmly in novel territory, which means I’ve still never written a novella, damn it. I thought I’d finally accomplish that. Sigh. Apparently if you let me get longer than a novelette I just can’t rein myself in, though in my defense the story turned out to be bigger than I originally expected.

Well, get going. Nothing more for you here, unless you like seeing a grown man fall asleep in his chair while a baby throws chunks of watermelon at him.


Outer Alliance Pride Day

And on an unrelated note: it’s Outer Alliance Pride Day! I am a proud member of the Outer Alliance. Anybody who’s read my fiction knows I often include characters who are queer in various ways. Why? Because it reflects the world I live in, and because I’m tired of fiction that doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of many of the kinds of people I know and love. So: yay for the Outer Alliance!

The group’s mission statement: As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity. I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.


Mad Props

As I mentioned before, my Marla Mason series is kaput, and since I won’t be writing more of those books… it’s proposal time!

It’s a peculiar thing about being a professional writer. The first novel you sell, you almost certainly had finished before you sent it out — it’s a rare writer who can sell a debut without having a completed manuscript, and for good reason: the publisher needs to know you can finish writing a book.

But, after you’ve sold a book or two or three based on finished manuscripts, you get enough credibility that you can try another approach: selling based on some sample chapters and an outline/synopsis. The sample chapters are there to give editors a sense of the writing style, the voice, the tone, and all that stuff, and the outline/synopsis is to show you have some idea where you’re going.

Here’s a little secret though: you can usually deviate pretty widely from the outline without anybody getting upset about it, as long as you don’t, like, totally change genres or something (though individual editors will doubtless vary in their tolerances for deviation). Hell, the sample chapters I included in my proposal for Poison Sleep were cut entirely from the novel when I rewrote the whole beginning! But my editor didn’t mind, because I made it better.

So I’ve been proposal-ing. I have ideas for three novels I really want to write, all with sequel potential. I decided trying to do all three would kill me (not to mention overwhelm my agent) so I settled on the two that seemed to have the most commercial potential. Both are sort of divergences for me: one’s a fantasy in an alternate-historical milieu, one’s an epic fantasy (though a quirky one). For each, I needed about 10,000 words of sample chapters (50 pages or so), and synopses.

The epic fantasy isn’t that tough to write. I spent a long time working on the characters, the plot is quite solid, and the world is well established in my mind (I’ve given glimpses of it in my stories “Another End of the Empire” and “Over There”). Since I know that one will be easier… I did the other one first.

The thing about writing a historical book, even one with a pretty radically-altered history, is that it requires research. I didn’t want to do hundreds of hours of research for a first 50, because it would be basically a lot of wasted time if the novel doesn’t sell, but I picked a time I knew a bit about anyway, got a few books from the library, and poked Wikipedia and other corners of the internet fairly vigorously. If I wind up doing the whole book, I’ll have to research more, of course, but I got enough to make the first 50 work, I think. I polished and revised that first fifty a few times, then turned to the dreaded synopsis.

After years of hating synopses and finding them mysterious and terrible beasts, I’ve hit on an approach that works for me: I write the synopsis like I’m telling a friend everything that excites me about my novel (albeit in a slightly more organized fashion, with fewer digressions). It’s kind of informal. I do my best to make the synopsis itself an entertaining document, rather than a dry recitation of events. If I can match the tone of the novel somewhat in the tone of the synopsis, so much the better. In short, I try to write synopses that don’t make me want to gouge my eyes out with boredom. Does this produce perfect synopses that editors find irresistible? I dunno. But it’s the only way I can actually force myself to write the things, so it’s what I do.

I got that proposal/synopsis done and sent it off to my agent a couple of days ago. As for the more epic fantasy piece… that’s what I’m working on the rest of the day. It needs another 4,000 words or so of fiction and, then, the dread synopsis. Wish me luck.


What To Do When The Sky Is Falling

I know I haven’t updated here in recent weeks; the Worst Year Ever continues to eat up my life. I mentioned the death of my boss a few weeks back, and we’re still sorting out the consequences of that at work, though we’re also managing to get the magazine finished on time, which is the important bit.

The latest blow was the cancellation of my urban fantasy series. See that book cover over on the right, that says Spell Games? That’s going to be the last Marla Mason novel, at least from that publisher. A combination of the crappy economy and not-so-great sales = the end. Not sure where we’re going from here — my agent will see if other publishers want to pick up the series, and if not, I may write a fifth book anyway and self-publish, or do it as an online serial (like my ongoing novella Bone Shop), or something wacky like that. It’s still a story I want to tell.

This does give me the opportunity to address the question: what do you do when your career crashes into a wall?

If you’re me — and your wife was just laid off a few weeks ago and you lost your steady freelance work and making money is a priority — you hustle, hustle, hustle. This past month I wrote auditions for two different work-for-hire projects, one my agent chased down, one that fell serendipitously into my lap. I already got turned down for one of them — though they’re paying me a nice hunk of dough for the proposal I wrote, even though they’re not using it, and seemed to like me in general, just not for this project, so we’ll see what the future holds. It’ll be a while before I hear about the other one, but if it comes through: money, for pretty fun work. Here’s hoping.

I’m also writing short stories — those, at least, I can still sell without much trouble — and more actively pursuing reprint sales. There are lots of secondary markets out there, especially in the podcasting world, that pay pretty well, particularly considering the fact that I’ve already been paid for the story once when I sold it the first time…

I’ve gotten into the editing side of things too. I’m doing an anthology of reprint stories about the devil (Sympathy for the Devil) for Night Shade Books, and an original anthology of SF stories about artificial sex partners (not erotica, though, mostly) called The Naked Singularity for the new small publisher Fugu Press. Neither will make me rich, but it’s cool, interesting work I’m excited about, and it swells the coffers here in the PrattShaw house.

Plus I’m writing book reviews, which I haven’t done in years, and am quite rusty at, but it’s ultimately a way to get paid for reading books and having a few organized thoughts about them, so it’s not a bad deal.

The upshot is, despite wandering in the desert novel-wise, I’m still pretty busy. I haven’t even pushed the limits of work I could churn up — I’m still just doing stuff I like. If I get really financially desperate there are other ways I can make money by generating copy… it just won’t be very fun copy to write. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

In the meantime, I’ve got a couple of completed novels out on the desks of various editors, and am writing proposals for some original fiction projects I’d love to write, even if I do have to start over under a pseudonym (one even more pseudonymous than T.A. Pratt!).

See, I’m a writer. So what I do is, I write. Even when the sky is falling.


Goodnight, Charles

When I got to work yesterday morning, I heard the bad news: my boss, Charles N. Brown, was dead. For those who don’t know, Charles was the founder, editor-in-chief, and publisher of Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field; basically the trade publishing magazine for the SF business. Also my day job for the past, oh, seven years and eleven months.

I owe Charles a lot. First of all, he gave me a job when I desperately needed one, having just moved to Oakland with no prospects. I was lucky; one of my Clarion workshop teachers happened to be one of Charles’s best friends, and she vouched for me, so I basically had the job as soon as I interviewed.

I started out driving the boss around, which was the low-man-on-the-totem-pole job, but it was also an opportunity to hear all his stories about the field. And since he was a fan from, oh, 1947 or so (he read his first issue of Astounding at age 10 and was a science fiction convert for life), he had a lot of stories. He seemed to know everybody in the business, where all the bodies are buried, and he was an endless fount of fact, opinion, jokes, and (occasionally) withering disdain. Over the years I moved up the ladder, doing more and more writing and production work for the magazine, and eventually became senior editor, where one of my responsibilities is writing obituaries.

And so, yesterday, I started writing Charles’s obituary. I hope I do it well. I’m trying to write it as he would have wanted.

I had issues with the man sometimes, certainly, and he could be cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and stubborn, and had a tendency to demand things be done his way and his way only — I won’t pretend he was perfect. (I noted to some other staff members yesterday that we who worked so closely with him are unlikely to descend into hagiography now that he’s gone.) But he was also a friend and a mentor who helped my career in immeasurable ways. He connected me with my agent, Ginger Clark. He gave me a valuable and astute critique on my first novel, even though angsty fantasies about art students and magic doors and coffee shops were pretty far away from the conceptual, sociological, and hard SF he most loved. He introduced me to more people in the business than I can count. He taught me to edit, and to write copy very quickly in a way that requires minimal editing afterward. Access to his research and fiction libraries expanded my horizons beyond my ability to describe.

And on a more personal level, he taught me how to make a moist Thanksgiving turkey, taught me about wine and Scotch, shared my love of screwball comedies and barbecued meat, and was never stingy when it came to bringing vast platters of dim sum into the office. We had champagne when we finished an issue, and in the summers, we’d sit on the back deck after work and drink wine I could never afford otherwise and ate cheese and told bad chokes. He threw great parties.

He gave me a job working in a beautiful art-filled house in the hills. A job that, in many ways, defines a lot of my adult life.

It’s hard to imagine that life without him.


Bones and Boats and Experimental Publishing

A few weeks ago, Catherynne M. Valente (Tiptree winner, onetime featured poet in my ‘zine Flytrap, master of nested narratives) announced a new project: she would publish a YA novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, as an online serial, updated weekly.

She explains why, but the gist is that her partner was unemployed longer than they’d expected, and money was running out, and even though she’s got some books coming from big publishers in the pipeline, they needed money now; and, so, she was asking for reader donations to support the book.

I spread the word when I heard about the project, and I gave (a pitifully small amount, all we could afford) myself, and when I told people about it, I usually said, “Help if you can. This could just as easily be any of us.”

Two weeks later, it was us. My wife was laid off unexpectedly last Tuesday afternoon. I also lost my regular freelance writing gig (which I did for her company). Our income was suddenly diminished by three-fifths, and my wife (and our son’s) health insurance goes away at the end of July. We have a little savings. We can pay rent next month. But after that… After that, things get dicey.

So I thought about what I could do, to make money for health insurance, mostly. (Doing without isn’t an option; our son has congenital glaucoma, and gets examined under anesthesia at least twice a year; he’s had a few surgeries so far, and willl likely need more in the future.) I’ve had a lot of fans vocally clamoring for another book in my Marla Mason series, and have been telling them all that the future is uncertain; my editor has proposals for two more books on her desk, but the publisher hasn’t yet decided whether or not to go forward. But, maybe, if I could give them something…

I had the idea many months ago to write a prequel novella about Marla, to tell how she developed into the sorceress, badass, crime boss she eventually became. I’ve touched lightly on her past in the existing novels, mentioning certain events, and the idea of fleshing them out appealed to me. I also saw how I could include some genuinely surprising revelations about Marla, things that nobody knows — and I saw a way to do it without making it seem like I’d been unfairly withholding important information in the already-published books.

But it was a back-burner project; novellas are hard to sell, and the couple of small presses I queried about it weren’t interested. So I never wrote it. Until…

My wife was laid off. And the need for money soon became pressing.

Last week I announced Bone Shop, a reader-supported serial novella about the early life of Marla. Yesterday I posted Chapter One, and the response so far has been very gratifying.

We writers are all trying to make our way in a rapidly changing commercial landscape. I don’t know if experiments like Cat’s and mine (and various other authors before us — we didn’t invent this approach!) will work out in the long run, or become the new normal, or come to seem quaint and strange. But, pragmatically — and, like Marla, I try to be pragmatic — I don’t care if it’s sustainable or heralds a new age, not at the moment. It’s bringing in some money right now, and allowing me to write something I’m passionate about at the same time, and that has to be enough.

(Though if anybody knows of good jobs or juicy freelance gigs, let me know. My wife has been a catalog copywriter and retail buyer for the past 7.5 years, and also has office manager/admin experience. She’s awesome and any company’d be lucky to have her.)

-Tim Pratt


Something Old, Something New

It’s been an interesting week for me, short-story-wise. One of my newest stories — as in, I wrote it this past January, and it’s the newest-but-three of all my short fiction — went online at Strange Horizons: “Another End of the Empire”.

Also this week, Daikaijuzine posted a reprint of my first ever published story, which first appeared in a little ‘zine called Maelstrom back in 1999: “53rd Annual Mantis Homecoming Dance”.

Now, writers are poor judges and critics of their own work, and I’m not going to subject you to some compare-and-contrast essay here, but it occurs to me that there’s a cool decade between these two stories — more like eleven years between the time they were written, actually. Makes me curious about how far I’ve come as a writer, and how many things about my approach have remained the same.

First, “Mantis Dance” was derivative (in the best way), inspired a bit by the skewed weirdness of James Sallis’s story “53rd American Dream” from one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies. I wanted to capture the feel of that story, the sense that you’re in a recognizable world, but then things twist and reality undergoes a sudden shift away from the familiar. Vertigo, confusion, discontinuity; those are the things I wished to create in the reader. (Dunno that I succeeded, but that was the goal.) Other qualities I note in that story: the prose is pretty clunky, the characters are caricatured in the extreme, the violence is pleasantly gleeful, it’s about high school and was written when I was only three years out of high school, and the best line — “Take out their knees, and they’re on the ground. Once they’re on the ground, they’re meat.” — was stolen (er, borrowed, with permission, actually) verbatim from something my friend D. said to me once. It’s also a pretty painfully ham-fisted metaphor for teenage male/female relationships and the social dangers of high school.

As for “Another End of the Empire,” well, hell, it’s derivative, too — inspired by every fantasy I’ve ever read with a Dark Lord and a soulless totalitarian empire. But, in this case, my wish was to subvert, not to replicate, those prior reading experiences. At the same time, though, I wanted to pay homage to the things I like about those stories. I wanted to humanize the inhuman dark lord, I wanted to mess around a bit with notions of dire prophecy, and I wanted to both have fun and create something that’s ultimately emotionally affecting. I can’t speak to whether or not I succeeded, but I can say I was aiming a lot higher with this story, trying for a much more ambitious set of goals. And the characters, though dependent to a certain extent on stereotypes — my dark lord is referred to as Dark Lord Mogrash! — are a lot more well-rounded, with their actual characteristics playing against type. Also: the prose is a lot better. The metaphors are better integrated. There are some nice moments of whimsy. The descriptions are more robust. So, you know, good to see I became a better writer in the intervening decade.

But, more importantly, I went from attempting to copy (ineffectively) another author’s voice to developing my own. I did a lot of chameleon writing when I was younger — I’d read something I thought was cool, and would try to write something in that style. It was an important part of my development, but the copying was a means, not an end. It gave me more tools for my trade, more tricks in my repertoire, all on the way to creating my own voice. I learned to aim higher. I gradually developed a voice of my own. Both were necessary. Both are ongoing.

I’m not saying either of these stories is deathless prose that will outlive me, but I’m pleased with how far I’ve come in ten years. It gives me hope for the next ten.

-Tim Pratt