The right tool for the right job

For a short time I experimented sharing links and off-the-cuff posts on this blog.

Turns out people aren’t interested in that kind of thing here. They want to see it on social media. So I’m going back to that.

Find me daily on:

I post the same things on all those places. Pick whichever you like best and follow me there.

And you’ll find my best work on Light Reading, for news and insights about the telecom industry.

This blog isn’t going away, but it will update slowly. I’m working on a couple of longer blog posts, and I’ll share personal and professional news here.

New Orleans newsroom, around 1900
New Orleans newsroom, around 1900

This is a new thing that I’m doing

I miss occasionally writing personal tech reviews and essays, so I’m going to do more of them. And because professional publication still has advantages over self-publishing on social media — aside from getting paid — I’m looking to get this writing published professionally.

This is my first effort — a review of the writing pad Ulysses. I’ve done most of my writing in Ulysses for the past two months. The developers, The Soulmen, updated the app this week with a new Mac version and its first iPad version. Here’s what I think:

Review: Ulysses for iPad and Mac


The article appears on Six Colors, a new Mac site edited by Jason Snell. I’ve been a fan of Jason’s work since soon after I started using the Mac in 2007, and am pleased to see him doing this new thing after his departure from Macworld. And now I’m pleased to be involved in it, even if my involvement is only a one-off. Which I hope it won’t be.

Light Reading is still where I do most of my work, and this freelancing is done with their blessing. I don’t plan to do great volumes of it — one thing I learned when I tried to do a lot of personal tech writing a few years ago is that I don’t have a lot to say. And I only want to write when I have something to say.

And now here’s my review of Ulysses:

The father in Stephen King’s Cujo runs a small ad agency. He creates an ad for skin-diving gear featuring the photo of a tough guy and the phrase “MISTER, I DIVE FOR A LIVING, I DON’T MESS AROUND.”

When I read about Mac writing apps with “beautifully minimal” designs, or an app that is “your own private writing room,” I roll my eyes.

Mister, I write for a living. I don’t mess around.

Until recently, I’ve been dissatisfied by every writing app I’ve tried for the Mac. Some are too complicated (Word, Scrivener, BBEdit). Others are too simple — they don’t do enough (Byword, TextWrangler, etc.).

I was intrigued by Ulysses III, by The Soulmen, when it came out in 2013, and I gave it a try right away. But it just seemed too weird to me — too different from other writing apps that I was used to.

However, when I heard in December that Ulysses was coming out with an iPad version, I gave it another try. I do a significant amount of writing on the iPad, and I liked the idea of using the same app and accessing the same document store in both places.

And this time I was hooked. I’ve been using Ulysses as my primary writing software since then, for all my important writing and much of the extemporanea I toss off on social media too.

Read the rest. 

I’ve had the same politics since I was 11 years old

I said that in a discussion elsewhere with a friend who went from fire-breathing conservative in the late 90s and early 2000s to equally volcanic liberal today.

He asked me if I ever had any doubts. My response:

I constantly reconsider individual issues. I’ve softened my stance on guns and am increasingly becoming exasperated with the left’s obsession with identity politics.

I’ve refined my views in other ways. I realize now that the US requires a thriving market, as well as robust federal, state, and local government, and I’m increasingly becoming exasperated with the left’s mistrust of business. I’m becoming MORE certain that the right’s hatred of government is deranged.

I’m more inclined to listen to people who disagree with me.

I’ve changed in those ways.

But I’m still a liberal. I supported the Democrat in every presidential election since 1972, and in no case do I now believe I made the wrong choice. In the 70s I supported gender equality, gay rights, treating people as equals regardless of race and ethnicity, and the principle that society has an obligation to help the poor, disabled, and otherwise disadvantaged. I still support those things.

By the way: I see mistrust of business as a tool the creative class uses to sabotage itself. If you think asking for money is wrong, you won’t get any.

These photos show why I’ll never be allowed to work at Wired

My desk.

The Awl obtained a copy of an internal Wired memo sent from Scott Dadich, editor in chief, to San Francisco employees. Dadich scolds the employees because the newsroom is a mess.

Here’s the memo in full.


It’s an embarrassment: coffee stains on walls (and countertops and desks), overflowing compost bins, abandoned drafts of stories and layouts (full of highly confidential content), day-old, half-eaten food, and, yes, I’m going to say it, action figures. Please. WIRED is no longer a pirate ship. It’s the home of world-changing journalism. It’s the West Coast home of Condé Nast. And it’s increasingly a place where we, and our New York colleagues and owners, host artists, founders, CEOs, and advertisers.

No, not action figures?!

Yes. I’m going to say it. Action figures.

Now here’s why I wouldn’t be allowed to work at Wired:

My desk.
My desk.
I've been resting my tea flask here for years. Do you think it left a mark?
I’ve been resting my tea flask here for years. Do you think it left a mark?
Minnie often hangs out in a corner of my office. Holy crap, there's a lot of dog hair on that dog bed.
Minnie often hangs out in a corner of my office. Holy crap, there’s a lot of dog hair on that dog bed.
You know who else would never be allowed to work at Wired? This guy.
You know who else would never be allowed to work at Wired? This guy.

I’ve invented a new word: “Productiviate”

This is not how I spent my vacation.

I'm back to work today after a two-week vacation. I wanted to stay home, relax, and get things done around the house. I did that.

I also made up a word: "Productiviate."

Productiviating may result in actual improved productivity. And it may prove to be a waste of time. It's hard to tell which way it will go when you're productiviating.

Examples of productiviating include trying out new software, changing up your online social media workflow, changing RSS readers, and rearranging the things you carry with you every day in your pockets.

Those aren't just examples — they're what I did.

This is not how I spent my vacation.
This is not how I spent my vacation.

Write on

The new productivity software I tried is Ulysses III writing software for the Mac. I like it a lot so far.

It's a nicely designed text editor. That part isn't special; there are plenty of nice text editors. 1

The special part of Ulysses is that it combines the editor with a database for organizing documents. Documents don't live as files in the Mac Finder; they live inside the Ulysses database. They're not even called "documents" in Ulysses; they're called "sheets." You can glue sheets together for projects, tag your sheets with keywords, save them into folders, and more.

Ulysses is like Evernote but it's optimized for text documents. And Ulysses is fast; it doesn't have the bloat that's crept into Evernote.

Ulysses is also like Scrivener but without the overwhelming variety of features.

Ulysses syncs with a companion app, Daedelus, for the iPhone and iPad. Or, rather, Daedelus syncs with Ulysses — Daedelus doesn't support some of Ulysses' features. The developers have an iPad version of Ulysses in beta.2

I'm not getting overly excited about Ulysses yet. I've tried plenty of writing apps on vacations, weekends, and evenings that fail to survive even a few minutes of the actual workday. Ask me again Monday lunchtime what I think of Ulysses. And then ask me again a month after that if I'm staying with it.

Social media

I'm no longer posting just to Google+ and letting Friends+Me automatically propagate to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. I'm posting to each of those four services manually. It's only a little extra work, and the payoff is a better experience for the people I interact with.

I'm using Buffer to space out the posts over time on Twitter and Facebook, and the native Tumblr queuing capability to do the same thing on Tumblr.

We'll see if this lasts. I've switched back and forth between native posting and Friends+Me before. I seem to derive as much pleasure from fiddling with my social media settings and workflows as I do from actually using social media.


Until a couple of days ago, I used Inoreader as an RSS reader. Inoreader is great, but the Web interface is a bit cluttered and the options for iPad clients aren't great. I tried a few alternatives, and finally settled on the most popular RSS reader: Feedly.

Feedly has done a lot of work since the last time I looked at it, in 2013. The Website is really nice, clean and uncluttered.

To access Feedly on the iPad, I'm using Newsify, which was recommended by Federico Viticci at MacStories. As Viticci notes, Newsify isn't well-known, particularly among Mac bloggers who are usually my guide to such things, but it's got a nice, clean, uncluttered user interface and better support for the native iOS share sheet than other RSS readers I've tried.

Also, Newsify is fast; it's great for flicking rapidly through a lot of articles to find the relatively few you want to pause over. My previous iPad newsreader of choice, Mr. Reader, seems slower.

Everyday carry

Did you know that "everyday carry" is a thing? People spend time discussing what they carry around in their pockets every day. They fuss over getting just the right mix of tools. These people use the phrase "everyday carry," or "EDC," to describe their interest.

Many of these people have guns and other weapons as part of their EDC.3

There are even blogs devoted to EDC.

For my EDC, I decided I like having my iPad Mini with me as I walk around the house. I have a couple of pairs of 5.11 tactical pants4 that I wear nearly every day.5 After some trial-and-error, I now keep the iPad mini in my left front pocket, my wallet in the flap pocket above my knee, the iPhone in the pants' special phone pocket,6 and my keys in my right pocket.

Why do I carry my keys around the house? It's because I go in and out the back door to get from my office to the house proper, and if I don't lock the door Sammy the cat might open the door and get out. He knows how to open doors.7

I also did non-productiviating activity. For example, I got caught up on expense reports.

And since then another two receipts came in, which I need to expense. It never ends.

I consolidated online services to save money.

I have two main domains — and, acquired in 2002 and 2004 respectively. I used as my personal email address 20014-2010.8 In 2010 I was self-employed and switched to because I thought it sounded more professional. I've stuck with for my email since. is hosted at Yahoo, and points to Gmail. is hosted by an outfit called Westhost. The website is hosted there, and email goes to the same Gmail account as

I also have this blog, at, which is hosted by WordPress.

After trying various options to sort out that tangle, I decided to just leave everything as it is, although I was able to reduce my Yahoo service by about $35 per year. The whole thing took about a day, which is a lot of time to spend for a relatively small savings. I had hoped to save a few hundred dollars by consolidating domains. But I'm still pleased I did it, because I needed to sort out what I was paying for and how much.9

Also on vacation

I spent lots of time with Julie.

I picked up and put away some things. Not enough. It's never enough.

I slept a lot.

I sat around and read a lot. You can tell I did that because I posted a lot on social media. For me, reading is followed by posting on social media the way eating is followed by10

I played with Minnie, and saw friends a little bit.

Can't beat that for a vacation.

And now back to work.

  1. Although actually it's a REALLY nice text editor.
  2. Another neat feature of Ulysses — the software makes it easy to write footnotes. I'll try not to get carried away with it.
  3. To my knowledge, the weapons are not used with each other during arguments about EDC. Though that would be awesome.
  4. "Tactical pants" are just cargo pants that went through basic training.
  5. In warm weather, I wear the shorts version of the same pants.
  6. A main reason why I like these pants is because they have a phone pocket.
  7. I think Sammy might have been behind the Sony hack.
  8. I don't remember for sure why I didn't just use Part of it is that I didn't then know how to forward email to one server and host a website on another server. Also, I had the idea that my brothers might also use addresses. They weren't interested.
  9. Also, I'm glad I haven't been spending hundreds of dollars a year unnecesarily. I guess. Although the extra money would have been nice.
  10. I need to work on that metaphor.

Angel with a gun: The first two Bobby Dollar novels by Tad Williams

Bobby Dollar is an angel, but not very angelic. He doesn’t wear a white robe and halo and live on a cloud. He lives in California, carries a gun, drinks too much, and likes muscle cars.

But he’s a real angel, a servant of the Lord, helping to send recently departed souls on to their final reward — or punishment.

I’ve known about the series for a couple of years, but a recent interview with the author piqued my interest. Williams described how he was influenced by the noir detective novels and movies of the mid-20th century, and also by spy novels of the Cold War. The Bobby Dollar novels envision the eons-long conflict between Heaven and Hell as a kind of Cold War, with the adversaries sniping at each other in a restrained fashion, trying to gain an advantage without setting off Armageddon (literally in the case of the Bobby Dollar novels). Bobby Dollar is a low-level operative with only an inkling of the big picture. Although he’s an angel, he’s never talked to God. He doesn’t know anybody who’s talked to God. He’s just trying to do a job, and (as in a Cold War spy novel), often seems to have more in common with adversaries on his own level than with the high command of his own side.

There’s also a strong noir influence to the Bobby Dollar novels. Bobby is quick with his fists, his gun, and a wisecrack. He’s more likely to hit the bottle than he is to pray.

And there’s a woman — or should I say a dame — Casimira, the Countess of Cold Hands, a demon who Bobby thinks is fundamentally good. As a reader, I’m not so sure.

Bobby is an Advocate, a kind of heavenly lawyer, and when one of his clients’ souls goes missing, Bobby sets out to solve a mystery that runs him afoul of the highest powers in Heaven and Hell. He uncovers a conspiracy to upend the heavenly order. That’s the action in the first book of the series, The Dirty Streets of Heaven.


In Happy Hour in Hell, Bobby goes to Hell — literally — and gets a tour of the underworld, which exists on multiple levels, and contains whole cities of the damned and demons.


The theology of the Bobby Dollar stories is a sort of generic Judeo-Christian religion. Bobby doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t know whether things are different elsewhere — whether there’s a Muslim afterlife, a Buddhist afterlife, and so on. Bobby is pretty sure the rules have loosened up since previous centuries, and he’s our only guide to the afterlife. Like I said, he’s a low-level operative, and doesn’t know anything about the big picture, and neither does anybody he knows.

And yet the books do tackle one of the biggest questions of theology: If there is a God, and He is good, how can he permit suffering? In particular, eternal suffering? On multiple occasions in the stories, we see characters who are punished out of proportion to their sins. We see characters who are people who have literally become monsters, but who seem driven by mental illness and without free will. Bobby’s visit to the woods of Hell where suicides are punished is particularly haunting — surely, even if suicide is a grave sin (and I’m inclined to the belief that it is), a just God would not torment the souls of suicides for all eternity?

Those are some pretty heavy questions. Did I mention the guns? And the wisecracks?

There’s a third book in the series, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day; it came out in September. There’s also a novella, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig.” I haven’t read either of those yet.

One final point of the series that I find nifty: The novels take place in San Judas, a fictional California city that seems to occupy the location of real-life San Jose. The tourists assume San Judas is named for the guy who betrayed Jesus, but it’s really named for Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. San Judas is an amalgam of the real-life San Francisco Bay area. Various real-life and made-up Bay Area landmarks are compressed in closer proximity, into a single city.

The effect makes San Judas resemble Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. That’s partly my opinion and partly according to various things I’ve read and heard on the Internet. I can’t remember where — but start with this author interview and this comment on the author’s message boards.

The Bobby Dollar books are fast, enjoyable, thoughtful adventures, with plenty of action, humor, creative world-building and gruesome horrors. Bobby seems like he’d be a fun guy to hang around with — at least until the shooting starts and the monsters come up from Hell.

Tim Powers: Interview With a Secret Historian

Tim Powers with sword (left). A day in the life of a science fiction/fantasy writer.

Tim Powers’ novels start with real historical events and imagine occult forces behind the scenes. On Stranger Tides is an adventure story about magic among 18th Century pirates (and was the basis for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name). Last Call casts gangster Bugsy Siegel as the mythic Fisher King in 20th Century Las Vegas. And Declare connects British Cold War traitor Kim Philby with Noah’s Ark.

Powers writes a rare combination: Densely researched and rich novels that are also fast, exciting reads.

Tim Powers (Photo: Roberta F)
Tim Powers (Photo: Roberta F)

I interviewed Powers in February. Our conversation, like his books, was rich, entertaining, and fast, and it’s taken me this long to beat the transcript into an article

I kicked off the discussion by describing Powers’ novels as “secret histories.” But Powers said he doesn’t think of his work that way. He just thinks of his work as science fiction, fantasy and horror.

“What makes it secret history is an inevitable consequence of setting fantasy stories in the real world,” Powers said.

“When you read the LA Times there’s no mention of dead people coming back to life or anything like that. And so if you’re going to say magical stuff is going on, but there is no mention of it and most people aren’t aware of it, you pretty much have to say it’s secret history. That’s unavoidable,” he said.

Where he gets his ideas
Powers’ books start with his recreational nonfiction reading. “I’ll be reading some nonfiction just for fun, a biography or history or a book on sailing or something. And some detail will snag me and I’ll say, well, that’s enigmatic. And then if I come upon one or two more snags, I think there are enough oddities here that there is probably room to hang a book on it.

“And then I’ll start reading obsessively on whatever it is, as opposed to just recreationally. While I’m reading, I’m looking at it as if I’m a cold case detective. Except, while a normal researcher would be trying to figure out what really did happen, I’m looking for an imaginary supernatural story.

“Aside from the supernatural requirement, I’ll let the clues dictate what the secret backstory is. It may turn out to be ghosts or genies or vampires or some less refined thing, but I really do — maybe out of laziness and lack of imagination — let the research dictate the elements of the story.

“For example, in the book Declare, I was reading about Kim Philby, just because I find those guys fascinating.”


Philby was a high-ranking member of British intelligence who worked as a double agent before defecting to the Soviet Unionin 1963.

British/Soviet  double agent Kim Philby on a Soviet stamp.
British/Soviet double agent Kim Philby on a Soviet stamp.

Philby “had been seen on the Turkish-Soviet border under really unexplainable circumstances,” Powers said. Philby had been very close to his father, who had been an early explorer of the Arabian desert and possibly discovered the lost city of Wabar (also known as the “Atlantis of the Sands“). Both Philby and his father “had a real weird attitude toward Catholicism and baptism.” Philby’s father converted to Islam.

Despite their close relationship, Philby “wasn’t terribly upset” when his father died. But Philby was “devastated” when his pet fox died.

“And the fox used to drink whiskey and smoke a pipe,” Powers said.

“And so I figure, you’ve got a lot of stuff in the Arabian desert, you’ve got the facts of Philby and his father both being very averse to baptism, you’ve got the lost city of Wabar, you’ve got possible reincarnation of the father into a fox. Then I checked out the Arabian Nights in the [Richard Francis] Burton translation.

“And there’s a lot of fox mythology in Arabian folklore. And so the research indicated genies, and it also indicated the details of espionage, Philby being a secret Communist agent during World War II and thereafter. And so really the whole course of the story was dictated predicated on what the research gave me.

“It’s not as if I arrived with the story I want to write. I combed the research looking for pieces of the story I’d eventually write.

“Often I’ve thought if you could get a really thorough big detailed biography of anybody, you can approach it with the kind of paranoid squint I use for research, and almost certainly find enough clues to hang a book on it.

How he started writing secret histories
It started with Laser Books, Harlequin Romance’s attempt to start a science fiction line in the 1970s. “They went 30 or 40 volumes and then decided science fiction didn’t sell nearly as well as romance did and canceled it. But then, the editor, Roger Elwood, said to me and KW Jeter and Ray Nelson, there is a British publisher who would be interested in a series of books about King Arthur reincarnated throughout history, would you guys like to write books in that series?”

Laser Books

The three authors divided history among themselves. Jeter wrote about Arthur in Victorian times and Powers wrote a story about Arthur returning in the Siege of Vienna in 1529.

“I discovered that setting up a book in actual history gives you a whole bunch of cool stuff for free,” Powers said. “If you want a map of the area your story takes place in, you don’t have to draw it, there is a map of Vienna. And if you want to know about the religious beliefs, or what the economic situation was, you don’t have to make anything up. You can find out what those things actually were. They’re all real colorful and dramatic and you get it all for free.

“That project collapsed. The British publisher decided they didn’t want those books after all. And we were all three of us left with books about King Arthur at various points in history. Jeter sold his to DAW Books, which was Morlock Night, and that was kind of the beginning of what was called steampunk. There were other things previously but those weren’t called steampunk.

“And I, luckily, sent mine to Lester Del Rey at Del Rey Books. Del Rey made me rewrite it entirely, and so I took King Arthur out and arranged the stuff and that that became The Anubis Gates.

I mentioned an essay by blogger and fantasy author Jo Walton, where she discusses how science fiction and fantasy readers approach fiction differently than other readers, picking up clues to what’s important about a story that other readers, unaccustomed to science fiction and fantasy, will miss. Powers said it was a good point.

“For example, my father was a big reader — fiction, nonfiction anything — but he could never get more than a chapter into any book of mine. It was the same with any science fiction or fantasy. He never learned the clue-discerning trick that science fiction and fantasy fans do.

“I think I would like to minimize that because, ideally, you don’t want your readership to be the people who are primed for that kind of thing. You look at Michael Crichton, say, and he manages to write a lot of what you’d have to call science fiction, but got everybody reading them. You ideally want make clue-discerning more evident, more reliably findable.

On the other hand: “I’m always very glad to have my books labeled and shelved as science fiction fantasy,” he says. Some editors and writer believe there’s an advantage to being published as mainstream, but Powers disagrees.

“The stuff I write is that weird goofy stuff, and I want it to be shelved where people who go looking for weird goofy stuff go looking. If a straight John le Carre reader were to pick up my book Declare, he might be comfortable enough in the first chapter or two, but by the time genies start popping up he’d have the same reaction my father had, which is, ‘Wait a second, hold it, when did this turn stupid?”

Getting Started
Powers says he wrote many first chapters of uncompleted books when he was in college.

“You come home at night. You don’t want to go to bed. You take out a piece of paper and you write CHAPTER ONE. And you write two pages, and you figure that’s pretty good. So you go to bed.

“And then the next night you’re in the mood again, so you pull out a fresh piece of paper and you write CHAPTER ONE. And you write a whole different thing.

“And eventually you realize, I’ve written a whole lot of page-and-a-halfs of various CHAPTER ONES. Add it all together, it’s a lot of words. But it’s not anything. What you’ve got to learn is: Every night when you’re in the mood, instead of starting something fresh, continue that previous thing until it’s done. Which was a tricky thing to learn, actually.

“And you need to remember that first draft work is supposed to be pedestrian and lifeless and stupid, and so if you write thirty or forty pages of first draft and you read it and find that it is in fact pedestrian and lifeless and stupid, you’ve got to tell yourself, good, we’re right on track, this is how it’s supposed to be. This leads to a finished book, which will ideally be good. This is one of the necessary steps. Rewriting and revision will make it, we hope, lively and interesting and suspenseful.

“I’ve always thought people who claim to have writers’ block are snagged at that point when they see that it’s stupid and tepid and lifeless. And obviously a person who has writer’s block isn’t claiming that they’re incapable of writing a sentence or a paragraph. They’re lamenting that when they do write a paragraph it’s dumb. And I would want to tell them, keep going, good, it’s supposed to be dumb. You’ll touch it up, you’ll fix it, you’ll polish it.

“In my own first drafts, when I re-read them, it always seems like a bunch of people in street clothes holding scripts, standing on a bare stage, looking at tape marks on the floor and reading from the script very haltingly. And you think ok, well, that’s the first rehearsal. We’re going to get sets, we’re going to get costumes, there will be real drinks in the glasses, this isn’t the finished production.

Work habits
Powers writes 9 pm to 1 am.

“Greg Benford said you should write in the mornings because you’re smarter in the mornings. And I paid attention to that for a couple of days until I realized, no, I’m stupid in the morning. I don’t get my full IQ working until around noon. And from 9-1 at night there’s really not a lot of interruptions. It’s not like you’re going to go running off to do errands. The phone is unlikely to ring. There’s really no distractions from writing. From the outside at least.

I said the Internet is a mixed blessing for avoiding interruptions. You can do errands on the Internet to avoid interruptions, and email replaces phone calls. On the other hand, I said, Wikipedia is always a temptation.

Powers agreed. “And you go to Wikipedia for some virtuous reason, because you need to find out about something. Except there’s those words in blue and you click on those and oh gee what is that, and pretty soon you’re eight levels in and you can’t find your way back to the page you started out wanting to look at. And then there’s a little sidebar that says ‘two-headed dog,’ and you think, well, jeez, what the hell’s that.

“And then if anything leads you to YouTube, you’ve had it.

“Though YouTube is very useful for research. For example, in my last pubished book I had a character at the top of the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And I thought, well, is there a railing? How wide is the walkway? What do you see from there? Is it really noisy with wind? I’ve never been up there.

“Well you go to YouTube a hundred people have been up there and videoed it. And that’s true for any situation you can imagine. I wonder what it’s like to be on a sailing ship, squarerigger, standing at the bow in he middle of a storm. It would be useful to get some sensory impressions of that. I’ve never tried it but I’m sure a hundred people on YouTube have done it.

“What would it be like to be on skis going over a cliff in the Alps? Some poor devil has videoed it. You get to experience it to the extent of those two senses, sight and hearing.

I recalled a conversation where he said he finds it easier to write about places he’s never been.

Powers replied, “Yeah, that’s probably right. It’ll all be new and exotic. You get picture books, or YouTube, or with Google Earth you can drop the little orange man down into the street and look around. It will all strike you as new and intriguing and you’ll notice details that characterize it for you. If you’re looking at someplace you’re real familiar with, a lot of those evocative details that would strike a stranger and a reader as remarkable are going to kind of fall out of your radar. You’re too familiar with it.

“I remember the first time we went to Las Vegas for research for a book. All kinds of things struck me as striking and odd and peculiar and questionable. I noted them all and put them in a book. If I lived in Las Vegas, I don’t think those would even have caught my attention.

“I had a book set in Venice. Hemingway wrote a book set in Venice, Across the River and Into the Trees. Hemingway was great guy for details. I said, ‘Why don’t you read Across the River an Into the Trees, and see if you can pick up some striking little elements you can use?’ Except Hemingway was so familiar with Venice he didn’t even describe the damn place.

“I have lived within an hour of LA since 1959 and am fairly familiar with it. When we’re driving around for research, I try to think, ‘Be a tourist. Pretend this is your first time. What the hell is that? When did they do the pavement this way? Who would have thought you needed parking meters on this street?’ I try to look at it fresh.

A thousand words.
Powers puts in a quota of a thousand words a day.

“That gets interrupted sometimes because you stop and think, ‘Hold it, we need to know a whole lot more of what this guy is up to than what we are aware of so far.’ And I’ll go to a scratch file and talk to myself for several pages until I can figure out what he is up to. But then I will resume the thousand words a day.

The scratch file is a stream-of-consciousness document.

When planning out stories in your head, “you come to a conclusion which is likely to be dumb and you don’t remember all the steps of logic that led you to it,” Powers said. When “thinking into the keyboard” you’ll also come to a dumb conclusion — but you can backtrack through your thought process, find the fork where things went wrong, and take a different path. When planning a story that way, Powers even types “um um um” as if he were thinking out loud.

Powers also uses scratch files to sketch out scenarios of different ways the story might play out.

“I’ll say, ‘Did he know his friend had been killed when he spoke to this person in the diner?'” Powers writes out the consequence of what would happen if the character knew, and also what would happen if he didn’t know, and works on the one that looks best.

Powers keeps a long, “obsessively detailed” outline of his novel in progress. The outline is thorough and searchable, and Powers tries to include searchable key phrases and mark passages in bold and red to find details that need to be referred to later in the story, such as when a character last appeared in a story and what he was wearing at the time.

Powers outlines in advance. “I try to outline so absolutely that I’ll never be stuck with a question as I’m writing. My outline, before I ever start, includes bits of dialogue, even some descriptions. Of course when you’re actually writing the book, it turns out there’s things you didn’t think to outline. But I try to minimize those snags by outlining in advance to a obsessive or insane degree.”

A Powers outline might be a hundred pages single spaced, with auxiliary files on specific topics like Kim Philby or the British Secret Service — about half of the length of the finished book.

“In order to build a building, you put up so much scaffolding that the scaffolding outweighs the building,” Powers says.

Powers writes sequentially, unlike many writers who write scenes out of order and then stitch them together.

“I could never write Chapter 13 before Chapters 1-12. For one thing, there would be an infinity of tiny details that carry through, and if I wrote chapter 13 in isolation I wouldn’t know what those are. It’s like if you took one segment of a building out, and tried to design the 13th floor before you design the rest of the building, you wouldn’t know where to put the plumbing and wiring,” Powers says.

Social media
Powers doesn’t blog or use social media. “My publisher set up a Facebook page for me, but there is very little activity on it, and I don’t get on as often as I should, I’m sure. A lot of times people say, ‘You have to do that, you have to tweet, blog, Facebook.’ I always think, well, why? And they say, well, to promote your work. And I say, well, that seems vulgar. I’m supposed to talk about my books? What am I supposed to say about my books? I know the opinion I’d have of somebody who wouldn’t shut up about his damn books. I don’t want to be that guy.

“And Twitter. What are you supposed to talk about? What you had for breakfast? ‘Oh, my cat vomited on the keyboard again.’ I’ve never seen a purpose for it that I thought it would be worth me participating in.

“To an extent, I think I have an advantage in that I have been [writing professionally] forever. I think I’m fortunate in that I’ve been published since the 70s. I think if I was starting out right now, the online presence would be much more urgent. It does seem like there’s this vast churning crowd and you’ve got to do something to draw people’s eye to you.

“I’m always afraid that the things that intererest me would be of only mild interest to other people most of the time. And I have a kind of reflexive reluctance to talk about my own work, unless somebody asks. Like on panels, I don’t think I ever mention the titles of my books.

“I’d have a horror of seeming to say I think you should try out one of my books. You may as well get ‘obnoxious pig’ tattooed on your forehead.

“I always think of something Eric Flint said, he said the best way to promote your book is to write another book. Which I find comfortable because that’s what I want to do. I always think advice must be correct if it confirms me in what I’m already doing.

“Some people do it really well. I always read John Scalzi‘s blog. There’s a lot of blogs I keep up with and I find them entertaining. I’m glad Scalzi publishes books every now and then of his collected blogs. But if I did it, I don’t think anybody would be interested in a book of The Collected Blogs of Tim Powers.”

Powers most recent novel is Hide Me Among the Graves.

He’s revising his next novel, which he expects to finish by the end of the year. He describes it as “The House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills. When a brother & sister return to the big old house they grew up in, horrible consequences from the 1920s pop up to give them a bad time.”

You won’t find Tim Powers on the Works of Tim Powers, and you probably won’t find him on his Facebook page either.

Judaism & Me

When I was in my teens and 20s I went through a cliched period as a self-hating Jew and tried to act WASP.

I wore a cowboy hat sometimes in college. I looked as ridiculous as that sounds. I’m a Jewish guy from Long Island — that’s never going to change. I was chubby then too. Chubby guys shouldn’t wear cowboy hats.

In my 30s, I made a conscious decision to just embrace my ethnic Judaism. I wondered whether to re-cultivate Jewish speech patterns and mannerisms I’d consciously rid myself of, and shed some Gentile speech patterns and mannerisms I’d cultivated. But then I decided screw it, I am who I am and I’ll act how I’ll act. My Jewish rejection is part of who I am too.

I still like to wear boots occasionally though.

The cowboy look was popular when I was in college. Southern Rock was big and the movie Urban Cowboy had just come out. You know who really rocked the cowboy look? A Jewish guy from Buffalo, N.Y., I went to college with. He’s a Facebook friend now — I won’t name him or tag him but maybe he’ll read this.



This was a fun game on Twitter Friday night: Come up with a line that badly explains a film plot, and tag it #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly

My contributions:

That should be “man,” of course.