Reading Tim Pratt

The Unassuming Author

Tim Pratt, Philcon 2019’s Guest of Honor at the Phillip K. Dick awards

Tim Pratt is a prolific author of over twenty-five novels. However, where his writing truly shines is in short fiction. He is also a chameleonic writer, crossing genres effortlessness from fantasy to horror, YA to space opera, tie-in media to urban fantasy, steampunk to sword and sorcery.

In fact, he can write anything. And he is also an editor and a poet.

You would expect someone of his pedigree to have an inflated ego. You would be wrong. If there are two words I would use to describe him, they would be: professional and honorable.

In all my dealings with Tim Pratt as Philcon‘s chair for 2019, I can assure you he cannot be any more charming, accommodating, and respectful. A true gentleman and decent human being. His professionalism and enthusiasm for the field are unparalleled.

The science fiction and fantasy field are dominated by bigger than life personalities. Fans equal the big-name authors with those uber-famous authors with a large following. They are big names for a reason.

It is easy to underestimate Pratt in that ocean of loud and boisterous authors. The kind who makes headlines. And yet, Tim’s impressive resumé is not to be overlooked.

First, you do win or are nominated for every single major award without bringing high-quality writing.

Second, you do not hit number one on the best-selling lists or published a decade long series without developing a following.

Third, the stories he tells stay with you years after they are published.

How many authors can say that? Not many. In a way, I want to be like Tim Pratt–quiet in my little corner while letting my words do all the noise needed.

He is the unassuming author, and he has plenty to teach us. But first, let us talk about his writing.

The World Shaper

Tim Pratt’s Sympathy for the Devil

Tim Pratt’s imagination has no limits. Not only can he tell stories but he can build extraordinary worlds you may want to visit (or not, the Briarpatch is kind of scary).

The best way to describe Tim’s literature is: human nature meets the extraordinary and (barely) survives.

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is as much about comic book stories and portal fantasies coming to life with sinister results as much as Marzi learning to overcome her phobias and to trust and love again.

Briarpatch is a dark fantasy where the leader of a death cult manipulates Darrin into finding “the light” and the Northwest passage in the briarpatch. Or it could be about a depressed, grieving man finding purpose.

The Marla Mason series could be misunderstood for an urban fantasy with sexual magicians (pornomancers) and ancient gods but about the titular character dealing with the responsibilities of guarding the city of Felport.

The Nex could be read as a ‘science-fantasy’ where Miranda crosses universes or as Miranda (Randy) learning to cooperate with friends and rivals to defeat the Regent.

Tim has written hundreds of short stories but the two he will always be remembered are “Little Gods” about a grieving husband tempted by the goddess of despair to get his wife back–after he pays a price.

And “Impossible Dreams” where a film lover encounters a parallel universe video rental store where films never made are available. Except he ends finding something more exotic than just films.

The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars are space operas with lying aliens, conspiracy cults, space pirates, and political intrigue. Conversely, they are stories about a diverse crew of adventurers seeking answers without awakening a sleeping danger.

His work as an editor is also worth reading. His collections and anthologies are well curated. Sympathy for the Devil, in particular, does make us feel sorry for Satan. Just a bit.

Again, the common thread among these different novels is Pratt’s talent for worldbuilding interesting settings and characters with a ‘laugh in the face of death’ attitude.

These are novels willing to push boundaries and invite discussions about gender, power, and love.

What Can Writers Learn from Tim Pratt?

Some of my Tim Pratt’s books

Just like Steven Brust, Tim Pratt has lots to teach us as writers. His writing lessons are like his personality: unassuming and yet, impactful.

  • Give readers assertive females – whether it is the kickass (and very stubborn) sorcerer Marla Mason, Rangergirl’s Marzi, The Nex’s Randy, The Axiom trilogy’s Callie and Elena, and Briarpatch’s Echo, Pratt loves writing female characters who are confident and in charge.
  • Ground the weirdness – Pratt’s books feature worlds unlike our own even when set in modern-day Santa Cruz or San Francisco. Nonetheless, he makes them feel real to the reader in spite of all the oddness going on. Grounding the supernatural with details from the “normal” world helps.
  • Experiment and cross genres – Tim Pratt never gets stale for his readers. He keeps reinventing himself by writing in different genres. Even when he writes in different genres, his author’s voice remains constant.
  • Be inclusive – Pratt’s novels feature characters from diverse backgrounds. He wrote LGBTQ characters decades before it was acceptable and believes in literature reflecting the real world. Even better, he does not make a big deal about it.
  • Keep raising the stakes – good novels are about conflict and steadily increasing the risks for our heroes. The more conflict, the less you will bore your readers, even across books. For instance, look at Marla Mason. She starts as a mercenary, becomes a detective, a freelancer, a demi-god, and ends a goddess. She keeps changing and evolving and so her stories.
  • Pull at the heartstrings – Pratt is not afraid to make his readers cry. Dead and grieving are common themes in his novels. So is belonging and finding make-shift families. He knows the more you make your protagonist suffer, the more empathy he or she inspires.
  • Use humor and banter for levity – Even in the direst situations, he does not miss the opportunity to crack a joke. He understands the reader needs those funny moments to cope with all end of the world stuff.

Those lessons listed above are solid advice for any aspiring professional. Likewise, Pratt’s fiction deserves to be read by a wider audience seeking serious but fun science fiction and fantasy.

Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from Tim Pratt is that good writing, humility, and professionalism can take you far. That there is power in quietness. We should trust our work will find an audience.

Reader, what is your favorite Tim Pratt novel? What have you learned from reading him?


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March 2023