An Interview With Mary Robinette Kowal

So in the past, I’ve been known to interview folks from time to time.

Today, helping me continue that fine tradition, is the inestimable Mary Robinette Kowal.

Heya Mary,

Well, hello there!

Thanks for agreeing to do this.

Problem is, I’m really bad at introductions. So let’s do it this way:

Let’s say you’re at a party and you end up mingling with people you wanted to impress. What sort of things about yourself would you casually drop into the conversation to prove that you’re awesome? They don’t all have to be true.

The fact that I’m a professional puppeteer is always a conversational cheat. If I really want to hold onto the conversation I’ll then follow up with working in Iceland, or a story of a show gone horribly, horribly wrong. The fact that I’m an author… I’m still not used to that.

It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one that’s still not used to it. I’ve always written, but I’ve only been an author, (that is to say a professional writer) for a comparatively short period of time.

Okay. My turn. You’re also Vice President of SFWA.

True, but there are two types of people to whom I would be chatting with at a party. People that would have no idea what SFWA is and people who DO know and want me to fix something. The last thing I want to do is to remind them that I’m the vice president. Besides, I’ll be out of office at the end of June.

You’re also a Hugo Award winner and a Nebula nominee.

Oh… yes. Those don’t seem real sometimes. I just… I wouldn’t bring them up at a party because they feel like bragging. I sort of feel like I didn’t have anything to do with being tapped for those, even though I know that it’s for my work. It’s just that they were such amazing surprises that I feel more like it’s a gift the fans gave me and that I shouldn’t take credit for it.

Although at panels at conventions I totally do, because it provides context. Just the party setting that feels awkward. I guess I should also mention that I won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008 and my work has received two UNIMA-USA Citations for Excellence, which is the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve.

Also, I’ve met Sting. You did say it was a party, right?

Oooh. That’s definitely braggable. Was he cool?

He was very cool. I taught him the lyrics to a song, but to get that story, you’ll have to ask me at a party. A girl needs some mysteries left to talk about.

Lastly, but not leastly, I should mention that you’re the author of the recently published Glamor in Glass.

A book I enjoyed to a startling degree, despite the fact that it was well outside my usual reading habits. (For more details, you can read Pat’s review on Goodreads.)

Let’s start with an easy question. What Muppet do you feel the strongest emotional connection with?


At World Fantasy this year I saw someone stop in the hallways and thank you for “writing a regency novel that doesn’t suck.”

Do you think of yourself as a regency writer?

La! At this point, it would be hard not to but– and this is important – it is not the only genre or time period I write in. That’s something that my agent and I talked about at length when we were making career plans for me, in fact.

When I’m writing short form, I write all over the map. Science-fiction, horror, secondary world fantasy. It’s all fun. But in long form, we’re keeping me in the historical fantasy realm, and my first four novels will all be set in the Regency.

Assume that I’m an idiot and don’t know what Regency literature is.  Could you explain the genre to me?

This is basically work that is set loosely in the Regency period, although most people expand it to include the 1790s up through the end of the 1820s. That means that you are looking at stories influenced by Jane Austen and the Napoleonic Wars. So Georgette Heyer and Patrick O’Brien are both writing in the Regency but they write completely different books. I clearly am more on the Austen end of the spectrum.

Do you find it tricky to write in a well-defined historical time period?

Yes. Oh, heavens, yes. Part of the trouble, of course, is making sure that you get the details right but the larger challenge is making all of that accessible to a modern audience. Jane Austen could say that a room was done in the most fashionable style, but  my readers have no idea what the fashion of the day was– actually, let me rephrase that. SOME of my readers don’t. Others can tell you the exact thread count of the preferred muslin fabric. And that doesn’t even get into trying to explain that today’s muslin is NOT the same thing as muslin in Austen’s day. Ah… language.

How do you deal with that sort of thing? I mean, the language has changed in some pretty drastic ways over the last 200 years…

Most of it hasn’t, thank heavens, and is still recognizably modern English but where it did change, it was often a doozy of a shift. Like the word “knowledgeable” which used to mean famous and now means well-read or educated.

In Shades of Milk and Honey, I tried to get the feel right but didn’t worry overmuch about if a specific word was period-correct for 1814. Two days after the book came out, a fan called me to tell me that I’d misused the word “check.” It meant “to stop” so a line like, “I shall check on the strawberries” became unintentionally comic.

In an over-reaction, I created the Jane Austen spell-check dictionary for Glamour in Glass. Basically, I took the complete works of Jane Austen, ran it through an engine that created a list of unique words, which I then plugged in as a spell-check dictionary. It flag any word that she didn’t use. From there, I looked it up to see if the word a) existed in 1815 or b) had shifted meaning.

I did take pains to use words that were accessible to a modern reader, and even used a couple that didn’t exist because they were the right word. At the end of the day, authenticity is less important than the story. If it gets in the way of a reader understanding, then I’m doing it wrong. But since language reflects the culture that uses it, an attention to word choices can enhance the texture of the novel.

Can you give us another word or two you had to do without?

Leyline. I thought it was this ancient word, but it turns out that it was coined in the 1950s.

Wastepaper basket. Trashcans, wastepaper baskets, garbage cans… none of these exist even as a concept. Everything got reused, fed to the pigs, or burned in the fire.

I’ve actually got a list of the words I cut on my website.

If you had to pick your favorite story of all time, in any medium, what would it be?

You’re kidding, right? I mean. One story. Can you answer that question? The one I have reread the most frequently is Steven Brust’s The Sun, The Moon, and The Stars but my favorite changes by the hour. And seriously. What’s your favorite?

I am as constant as the moon. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle holds its place firmly in my heart.

That is a beautiful book. See, now I’m tempted to say The Princess Bride since I realized you said any medium.

Johnny Depp, or Brad Pitt?

Nathan Fillian.

Agreed. You’re the first one to realize that was a trick question.

What’s your revision process like?

I don’t revise. What you see is exactly the way I write it. It takes me about a month to write a novel.

Um. What?

I’m messing with you. I just wanted to see your face when I said that and totally should have asked for a camera.

God. Wow. Yeah. You got me.

I was really ready to hate you. Like, hate you forever and ever. Seriously.


In truth I have a fairly fluid revision process. I put a lot of work into having an outline that is structurally sound so that I can put my writing effort into the emotion of the scenes. While that outline gets tweaked and adjusted as I go, it does mean that my revisions don’t usually involve major structural shifts.

I also write with alpha readers following along. They are seeing raw draft. I instruct them to just talk about how the story is playing and not to talk about sentence level issues. Generally, I stay about two chapters ahead of them, which I find is about the right spacing to be able to adjust to their reactions to the story and not need to ask them to re-read material that I’ve altered. Occasionally, I ret-con things for them. Having that give and take is helpful for me.

It also gives me the freedom to focus on the story and not the language. After I finish the story, I do a read-through to look at structure and pacing. Then my last pass is a language pass. I do a once over with the spell-check dictionary then read the entire thing aloud to adjust flow.

All told, I spend a couple of months in the outline/research phase, about two months to get the first draft, then another three months to revise and edit it.

Okay. That’s an acceptable timeline. We can still be friends.

Oh good. That would be awkward at parties otherwise.

You’re relatively new to the publishing world. How has getting your book published changed your life?

Well, I’m doing a heck of a lot less puppetry. I travel almost as much as when I was on tour. And no one tells you this, but writing is really hard on your body.

How do you mean, specifically?

I was in a really active profession and writing is so sedentary. I put on about fifteen pounds, just because I wasn’t moving around enough. My lower back hurts from sitting too much. As a species, we’re just not designed to sit all day.

Now, I’ve got a standing desk that I use at home. I walk at least a mile every day, and do push-ups and squats daily to try to stay at least a little fit. I’m back down to about five pounds over my performance weight and feel pretty okay with that.

How many copies of your own books do you currently own?

One and a half shelves. But that includes magazines and anthologies. Shades of Milk and Honey itself? Seven copies. We have a small apartment.

What’s the most shameful self-promotional thing you’ve ever done?

Worn a white spandex body-suit?

Don’t bother googling it folks. I just tried and came up dry….

It’s what we wore in the puppet show that my company performed at WorldCon in 2011. There is actually a photo out there someplace.

We’ll see if anyone can find it and post it in the comments below.

Do you have a particular piece of grammar that you screw up regularly?

Lie, lay, lain, laid…. I just avoid using the word.

God. I’m awful at that one too. It’s just wired into my head wrong.

It’s just mean is what it is.

If you could punch one literary figure in the face, who would it be?

Hm… Tricky. Someone living could fight back. Someone dead would be all icky plus the bother of digging them up.

Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin before she began her day’s writing. Do you have any little rituals that help you write?

I set a timer or try to meet up with friends. I’m a natural procrastinator, so I have to create deadlines.

So you mean you actually meet up with friends to write?

I do. Usually at my local coffee shop – which contributed to the aforementioned weight gain – but that doesn’t always work out. What I’ve lately been doing are virtual hangouts via Google+. We do 45-minutes of writing, followed by 15 minutes of chat. It’s great because it allows each writer to retain control of her own space but also socialize. Plus, the power of peer pressure means that everyone winds up being productive. Laura Ann Gilman said, “It takes the lonely out of writing.” She’s totally right.

That’s something I’ve been struggling with for years. I have some pretty serious erimitic tendencies, but the solitary nature of the profession still gets to me.

Is the beard an outward representation of your erimitic aspirations? And really? Did you just really use erimitic in cold blood?

Yeah. That’s how I roll.

And that’s why I like you.

A while back, I made a joke about Transition Putty on my blog. That being, of course, the what we writers buy at Home Depot to smooth out our rough transitions.

If you could have some sort of handyman tool like that, something like Plot Spackle or a Character Level. What would it be?

Didn’t you get the toolbelt? I thought they assigned that to everyone when you sold your first short story. Oh… wait. You’re only a novelist. No wonder. Right… Sorry, dude. Anyway, out of that set, I find that I use the Handwavium pellets the most.

Ah, good old Handwavium, most unstable of the inner-transitional elements.

Thanks much for gracing us with your presence and indulging my curiosity, Mary.

Always a pleasure to chat with you, especially if you’re going to give me a chance to brag and play with your head.

*     *     *

As an added bonus, Mary has agreed to play with us here in the comments section of the blog for a couple of days. That means if you want to ask her a question, you can. And if she wants to answer it, she will.

This is the first time that I’ve done this sort of thing with another author, so I’m trusting y’all to be your regular genteel selves.

Which is to say that if you kids don’t behave yourselves, I swear I will turn this blog around.

Have fun,


This entry was posted in Me Interviewing Other Folks, recommendationsBy Pat102 Responses


  1. Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:19 AM | Permalink

    There was one question I wanted to ask but didn’t get around to in the interview:

    Do you like the standing desk? I’ve been thinking of getting one….

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:55 AM | Permalink

      I really do like it. I find that I surf less when I’m at it. I think that’s because when I get the urge to drop what I’m working on, usually it’s my brain telling me to take a break and go for a walk but that manifests as “jogging” to a webpage and then around the internet.

      The problem is that most of the internet is verbal and narrative. When I’m writing and have the urge to escape, it’s just my brain needing some processing time, which it doesn’t get on the internet. Walking on the other hand, gives me time to chew through things and I’m much more likely to walk away from the computer if I’m already standing.

      In fact, I’ve been thinking about making the jump to a walking desk, but I want to try one first.

      • Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:55 AM | Permalink

        I have a friend who’s a reference librarian who swears by his. But I can’t imagine typing at one…

    • DrFood
      Posted April 18, 2012 at 2:14 PM | Permalink

      I swear that I hadn’t read any of this when I (finally) emailed you about how wonderful walking desks are. On the 16th of April.

      That’s just slightly disturbing. It reminds me of my childhood, when my mom insisted that my dad is psychic and would have us all think hard to prod him to pick up some milk on his way home from work. You know, back in the dark ages before cell phones. It worked!

  2. LionsRampant
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:03 AM | Permalink

    Excellent interview!

    Though Mary cleverly escaped the question of which literary figure she could punch in the face. I am hoping that there is a true story behind not answering that, possibly a Lionheart/Jean-Claude Van-Damme-esque fight in the basement of some building, surrounded by cars positioned in a circle with the headlights on, lighting up the fighting area, or Mary and the unnamed author in an emptied out, inground pool…hmmm. Who was it Mary?

    P.S. Mr. Rothfuss, if Mary named you as the literary figure she would punch in the face and you voided her answer to spare our feelings…well played sir.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:16 AM | Permalink

      It is far better in your mind than it would be in real life. In real life, I’d probably try to stage an intervention.

      • LionsRampant
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:35 AM | Permalink

        Haha, I just chalked your answer up to you wanting to keep several mystery stories for these parties you’re attending.

        Note to self: Get invited to these parties.

        Second note to self: Obtain horrible vice so that Mary can set up an intervention for me, possibly in the form of a party to bring everything full circle.

  3. Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:34 AM | Permalink

    “I was really ready to hate you. Like, hate you forever and ever. Seriously…Okay. That’s an acceptable timeline. We can still be friends.”

    ^ I laughed. But I was ready to hate her too.

  4. Diplomatic_Justice
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:41 AM | Permalink

    I’m afraid I primarily fail to post on blogs so this may or may not be awkward and/or horribly phrased. I apologize. I haven’t read the above-mentioned book but will look into it. It was a very convincing review (Five stars? Survey says yes.)

    I’m interested in who you’d punch, too; however, I took the question to imply generally fictional characters. If you’re going to be punching “real” people, as a human, I feel instinctively obligated to be just as interested.

    Additionally, do you ever judge books by their covers?

    Pat: I enjoyed the format of your interview. You should do this with greater frequency and regularity. That is not to imply that you should commit to this with any manner of exertion that may, in the end, deny me the general reading of your blog. I require its wit.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:00 AM | Permalink

      I see I’m not going to get away without punching someone, although it’s really not in my character. I mean, the thing is that just because I’m not the right audience for something doesn’t mean that it’s so misbegotten that someone deserves to be hit for it.

      Additionally, do you ever judge books by their covers?

      Absolutely. That’s what covers are for, when done well. They are a trailer for the book to entice me. When covers aren’t done well that often, though not always, says something about the publisher.

      That doesn’t mean that every book with a fabulous cover is wonderful or that every book with a crappy cover sucks, but when trying to weed things out in the bookstore, it’s more often useful than not.

      Which sucks for authors who get crappy covers.

  5. rappy7
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:07 AM | Permalink

    You definitely put her on the hot-seat, Pat. I thought “P” stood for Pat. I know now it stands for Pitbull.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:39 PM | Permalink

      Yes. I’m known for my daring and incisive Muppet-related questions.

  6. Mitchell Hundred
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:41 AM | Permalink

    Ms. Kowal,

    If you could be any American President (fictional or historical), which one would you choose to be?

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:05 AM | Permalink

      None? No time for writing? Plus they go grey really fast.

      Otherwise in the real ones… do I get to change policy, or do I just have to live through the life that they already had?

      • Mitchell Hundred
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Permalink

        You can change what you want, but you have to live their lives in the same time period as they did.

        And they do sometimes have time for writing, if they want. Teddy Roosevelt wrote tons and tons of stuff.

        • Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:30 PM | Permalink

          In THAT case, I’ll go for William Henry Harrison, because there’s the greatest opportunity for change. First up? Giving a shorter inauguration speech so I catch pneumonia and die one month into office.

  7. Kara J
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

    Johnny Depp, or Brad Pitt?

    Nathan Fillian.

    Agreed. You’re the first one to realize that was a trick question.


    That quote above absolutely made my day!

    Thank you for doing this, Pat and Mary – and as a result of this interview I have now ordered Mary’s books to read. :)

  8. heisindc
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:21 AM | Permalink

    Also ordered Mary’s books.

    As a non-writer, but always hoping to be, what first took you from puppetry to writing? I understand the storytelling angle, but what got you off your butt and start writing?

    Thanks, Pat!

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:10 AM | Permalink

      My brother moved to China with my niece and nephew. At the time, the only easy way to stay connected was email and correspondence with a 10 year old and a 12 year old wasn’t flying.

      So I started writing a serial, which I sent them in installments. About three installments in, I decided to outline it. About six installments in, I realized that I had something here and that it was probably a novel.

      Then, because I’ve worked my entire adult life in the arts, the next logical progression was to try to sell it. One of the routes that was recommended for that was to sell short stories. So I started writing them.

      Actually, over at the Writing Excuses podcast, we’re dissecting that first novel’s outline right now. If you are curious.

  9. Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:46 AM | Permalink

    Hi Mary.

    What are three pieces of advice you would give to aspiring writers?

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:06 PM | Permalink

      1. Write something you want to read
      2. Finish it and submit.
      3. Don’t feel like you have to sell things in the order you write them.

  10. Kyle F.
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:06 PM | Permalink

    How do you respond to the accusations that you are a secret wizard?

  11. Cellophane
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:22 PM | Permalink

    Hello Mary,

    Have you read “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel” by Susanna Clarke? Interesting fantasy/alternative history novel around the same time period that you write about.

    When writing, what do you look at most often, or is idiosyncratic to your writing (e.g., I always look for breath units or sentence length).

    Best Regards,


    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:11 PM | Permalink

      Have you read “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel” by Susanna Clarke?

      It came out as I was working on Shades of Milk and Honey and I thought I was doomed. Then I read it, loved it, and realized that, aside from the time period, it was nothing like my novel. Whew.

      When writing, what do you look at most often, or is idiosyncratic to your writing (e.g., I always look for breath units or sentence length).

      I try to pay attention to what my character is thinking about and what the outward manifestation of that attention is. So, a lot of body language, which also allows me to control pacing.

  12. Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:22 PM | Permalink

    Dear Mary,

    Fancy meeting you here! Really enjoyed the interview. Pat was his usual, utterly sincere and charming self.

    My question is this: What are your brief thoughts on new authors going straight to ebooks first and seeking traditional publishing later?

    Michael J Winegar

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:22 PM | Permalink

      What are your brief thoughts on new authors going straight to ebooks first and seeking traditional publishing later?

      There are no brief thoughts on this, but I’ll try.

      First: “traditional publishing” is a term coined by PublishAmerica as a derogatory term for commercial publishing.

      Second: Ebooks are just a technology.

      Third: What I think you are actually asking about is choosing to self-publish electronically and then hope that later a commercial publisher will pay for the right to print a paper copy.

      I think we’re in a bubble right now in which that is a viable alternative for some authors but that it won’t last because the consumers need some sort of gatekeeper or filter in order to sort out the things they want from the things they don’t.

      The industry is undeniably changing, but if every author self-publishes that’s not going to scale well. The audience will still turn to a gatekeeper, but those gatekeepers will wind up being bloggers or trendsetters like, say, Pat. I know him, so in that environment I’m going to have an unnatural advantage over someone who does not.

      As much as people might rail about the unfairness of the publishing industry now, it actively seeks out unknowns and gets them in front of people.

      The average self-published author sells 150 copies.

      Ah— but what about the shift to making authors do their own publicity? That’s always been the case, except for certain authors. It’s just that now there are more options for self-promotion, so more authors are doing it.

      Personally? I’d rather have a commercial publisher give me money, then let them also do the bulk work of creating and selling my book for me. Either way, I’m going to self-promote. With a commercial publisher, I get to spend more of my time writing and am guaranteed income.

      • Liam
        Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:39 AM | Permalink

        “I’d rather have a commercial publisher give me money, then let them also do the bulk work of creating and selling my book for me. Either way, I’m going to self-promote. With a commercial publisher, I get to spend more of my time writing and am guaranteed income.”

        It’s so nice to hear an author come out and say this. There is absolutely no shame in paying other people to do things that you don’t know how to do, or that they can do better.

  13. dmbeucler
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:56 PM | Permalink

    I love the idea of the Austen dictionary! Genius. Do you have any favorite reference materials from for the regency (besides Austen of course)?

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 2:19 PM | Permalink

      I should really put together a bibliography of reading materials, but here’s a brief selection. (We’re moving next week, so my books are already packed. I’m working on memory.)

      Dancing Into Battle: A Social History of Waterloo
      The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams
      The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency
      The Mirror of Graces
      Georgian & Regency Houses Explained by Trevor Yorke

      • dmbeucler
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:01 PM | Permalink

        Thank you! I’ll look these up. :-)

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 8:41 PM | Permalink

          I think I might want to read a few of those, too.

          • Posted April 17, 2012 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

            The Complete Servant, in particular, is good for anyone writing even secondary world fantasy because of the detail it goes into what it takes to run a household. It was published in 1825 by a married couple who had been in service for fifty years.

            It’s got a ton of information about home remedies as well.

  14. rjleduc
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:08 PM | Permalink


    I was wondering what the motivating reason for choosing to write in the historical fantasy realm versus the secondary world fantasy?

    I was wondering if there was something particular about the time
    setting that spoke to you?

    In addition to scifi/fantasy, I’m a big fan of Jane Austin (my
    favourite is “Pride and Prejudice” with Elizabeth Bennet one of my favorite heroines) so I am hoping I will like your books which I
    ordered a few days ago.

    On a side note, when you found out that the first sentence of “Glamour in Glass” was accidentally left out, did you throw/break anything ;-) Is there a voodoo doll of a certain staff member lying
    around somewhere, full of pins?

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Permalink

      I was wondering what the motivating reason for choosing to write in the historical fantasy realm versus the secondary world fantasy?

      For me there is no either/or. I love both, it’s just that the historical fantasy sold first. I know that seems crass, but it’s really just that I love fiction and can happily play in a lot of different areas.

      That said, I picked the Regency because it was a time of great social change. Between the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and fashion, society was more mobile than in many other eras.

      One of the things I particularly like about SF is that it allows you to take the natural world and turn it to the side to see past the familiar. With secondary world fantasy one does have a greater burden of drawing the links between the familiar and the strange.

      Also, I liked the clothes. The pretty, pretty clothes.

      On a side note, when you found out that the first sentence of “Glamour in Glass” was accidentally left out, did you throw/break anything ;-) Is there a voodoo doll of a certain staff member lying
      around somewhere, full of pins?

      There was a certain amount of swearing. Once I got past that, I fell back on something my mentor taught me back when I was training as a puppeteer. A set had just fallen. On me. In front of a live audience. And he said, “Mary, some day you’ll look back on this and laugh, so you may as well laugh now.”

      That’s been a very useful mindset for approaching things that go wrong. And, you know, mistakes happen. I want to know how it happened so that it never, ever happens again, but am not otherwise interested in revenge.

      If it happens again though, all bets are off.

      • rjleduc
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:52 PM | Permalink

        “Also, I liked the clothes. The pretty, pretty clothes.”

        ahh.. So, do you have in your contract that for the covers of your book, all models must be the same size as you and you get to keep the outfit afterwards? ;-)

        • Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:25 PM | Permalink

          Ooo… No, but that’s an excellent thing to suggest to my agent.

          I do, however, write in items that I covet so I can purchase them as “research.”

  15. likeashadow
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:13 PM | Permalink


    I had more of a compliment then a question. :)

    I saw the play you put on at World-con in Reno. It was one of the most emotionally impactful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Thank you. You rock.

  16. Jongleur
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:25 PM | Permalink

    Hey Mary,

    How do you start writing a novel? I’m a beginning author and I’ve got an outline for a really awesome book but any time I try to sit down and start writing, I get stuck and nothing comes out. If you have any thoughts on this, that would be awesome.

    Also, how do you get short stories published? I’ve written some short stories, but was wondering if there is any best way to go about getting them out there.


    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:27 PM | Permalink

      It depends on why you are getting stuck and that’s a tricky thing to answer for someone else. My first and easiest suggestion would be to set a timer for fifteen minutes. During those fifteen minutes your fingers are not allowed to stop moving, even if what you are writing about is just trying to figure out what happens next.

      Also, how do you get short stories published?

      Check out for a good market database. Search through the list for markets that seem like a good fit for your story. Then start at the highest paying market and work your way down.

      While waiting for rejection letters — because that’s what we do as writers — distract yourself by writing and submitting other stories. Eventually, one of them will sell.

      • Jongleur
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:19 PM | Permalink

        Awesome! Thanks!

        • Jongleur
          Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:26 PM | Permalink

          Man, I’m just getting over the fact that a real, published author just replied to a question I asked…way cool.

  17. HeroineOfCanton
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 4:50 PM | Permalink

    Hi Mary,
    I love you over at Writing Excuses, and I’m so excited to listen to the rest of your outline. I’ve also been making my way through all of the eps discussing POV, because I am having the worst time nailing down the right POV for a novel I’ve now started three times. First I started with rotating 3rd person limited with a cast of thousands. But it was obvious pretty quickly that rotating through a dozen characters was going to be overwhelming, so then I went down to just the two characters I liked so well that I felt I needed to write the book in the first place. But I soon realized that was too limited, so I switched to omniscient, and I’ve been playing with various forms of that, but I’m still not happy. Any suggestions or is my answer hiding in an older ep of Writing Excuses that I just haven’t gotten to yet?

    And thanks, Pat for having Mary here!

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:31 PM | Permalink

      Allow me to recommend Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint if you haven’t read it already.

      Now… I’m going to offer some advice that may or may not work for you. What I do with multiple POV stories/novels is to write down the outline of plot events without worrying about whose POV each scene is in.

      Then I go back to each scene and decide who has the most at stake. That’s my POV character. If the answer is a minor character and one of my main characters is in the scene, then I usually need to alter her motivation and put something in jeapordy, even if it is at a purely emotional level.

      Then the last bit of advice, which is really just permission if you need it. You might have a novel that you aren’t yet ready to write. It’s okay to put it aside and write something with a simpler structure and then come back to this one.

      That’s what Brandon did with Way of Kings. I’ve done it with both short stories and novels. There’s nothing wrong with building your writing muscles with other projects if that’s what you need to do.

      • HeroineOfCanton
        Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:34 PM | Permalink

        I’ve read OSC…twice! Love that book. And I really like your outline idea. I think I’ll give that a try. And if that doesn’t work, then hey, maybe there is some other story out there waiting for me to write it instead.


      • Deborah Wolf
        Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:23 AM | Permalink

        “Then I go back to each scene and decide who has the most at stake. That’s my POV character. If the answer is a minor character and one of my main characters is in the scene, then I usually need to alter her motivation and put something in jeapordy, even if it is at a purely emotional level. ”

        Aiiii! Lightbulb moment! Oh, THAT was just beautiful.

  18. KngLugonn
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:00 PM | Permalink

    Was the interview in person? If so then when Pat asked:
    If you could punch one literary figure in the face, who would it be?

    You should have socked him in the nose. (Just kidding, Pat, no one wants to mar your extremely manly, yet lovely, face.)

    I, too, really enjoy your contributions over at Writing Excuses. You provide a different kind of quirk.

    Any tips on letting go while writing? I think I am so afraid of writing something awful that I never get very far on one thing before giving up. As an example, I’ve gotten maybe forty pages into a work based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears (because of one of your writing prompts) and I think I have a good story resolution in mind, but I’m paralyzed by the middle. I haven’t touched it in months, afraid that I’ll take it down an unworkable path.

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:35 PM | Permalink

      Pat, all of your readers are so violent! Is there something I should know?

      Oh… wait. I’ve read your books. Yes. Yes, it all makes sense now.

      Any tips on letting go while writing?
      I’m a big fan of the timer. Set it for fifteen minutes and tell yourself that your fingers can’t stop moving or Patrick Rothfuss will come to your house and punch you in the nose.

      I haven’t touched it in months, afraid that I’ll take it down an unworkable path.
      What’s the worst thing that can happen?

      You toss some words. I keep a scrap folder and when I steer a story wrong, I just cut the words and toss them in there. Sometimes, I even reuse them in another part of the story.

      The thing is that there are no wasted words, much like there are no failed experiments. Sometimes, you need to take something down the wrong path to understand what the right one is.

      • Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:59 AM | Permalink

        “Pat, all of your readers are so violent! Is there something I should know?”

        It happens when I let them have too much sugar. And methadone.

        • Posted April 17, 2012 at 10:52 AM | Permalink

          Darn. And I was going to bring cookies.

        • chaelek
          Posted April 17, 2012 at 9:07 PM | Permalink

          Sweet, sweet methadone.

          Hey, at least we all put on pants this time. That’s progress, is what that is.

          • Oatmeal
            Posted April 18, 2012 at 7:41 AM | Permalink

            We were supposed to be wearing pants???

  19. Beolach
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:03 PM | Permalink

    Do you have a particular piece of grammar that you screw up regularly?

    Lie, lay, lain, laid…. I just avoid using the word.

    My first thought after reading this.

    • HeroineOfCanton
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:04 PM | Permalink

      Unshelved! Librarians unite!

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:36 PM | Permalink

      Thank God that writing isn’t multiple choice, that’s all I have to say.

      Except Choose Your Own Adventures, but that’s a different beast.

  20. dcashd
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:00 PM | Permalink

    This was such an awesome interview! I was smiling the entire time. Just placed an order on Amazon for Mary’s books! Thank you both!

  21. Jongleur
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:20 PM | Permalink

    I forgot to ask earlier, would you recommend a writer’s name or not?

    • Posted April 16, 2012 at 7:16 PM | Permalink

      If you have a very common name, then yes.
      If you have a need to keep your writing life separate, then yes.
      Otherwise, it seems like an unnecessary barrier.

  22. He without a clever name
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:33 PM | Permalink

    I love it when other authors besides Pat come and visit. I got to complement and ask a question or two with Kristen Britain (author of Green Rider) a few years ago in the comments on Pat’s blog during Worldbuilders, and it made my month. It’s exciting to see others come and play with us for a bit, doubly so I’m sure for those familiar with Mary’s work.

    So ten Awesome points for you, Mary Robinette Kowal. I am now going to go check out your works (Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass are very cool titles. Cool titles make me happy.)

    And yay for puppets and those who pull their strings or have their hands inside them!

    • He without a clever name
      Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

      “Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly what we could expect from Jane Austen if she had been a fantasy writer: Pride and Prejudice meets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It is an intimate portrait of a woman, Jane, and her quest for love in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.”

      Amazon’s description of the book. That sounds pretty awesome.

  23. formflow1
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 10:36 PM | Permalink

    Princess Bride was a book before it was a movie. It was written by a screenplay writer (William Goldman, Butch Cassidy & TSDK, Maverick) so the movie is mostly word for word the book. The book just has additional character background, an alternate ending, and extended scenes. If you like the movie it is a must read.

  24. Prufrock
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:28 AM | Permalink

    It’s good policy to interview with good authors — I find that most of the good books I discover come by way of trusted reviewers like Pat. So well played. I’ll go read your stuff now.

    Now to important items — I am having a hard time with your middle name. Because it’s just too close to being the French word for “faucet”. Like being named “Faucette”. So it’s distracting.

    But I bet you get that all the time.

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 12:35 PM | Permalink

      Actually, no, so that’s kind of a cool problem to have. I mean, I know it’s close to faucet, but most people don’t.

      What I usually get is people who think that my middle name is my maiden name and try to hyphenate it with my last name. It’s an easy mistake to make, but tends to make me a little cranky nonetheless. I’m named after my grandmothers and most of my Dad’s side of the family calls me MaryRobinette as though it were one word.

  25. HeroineOfCanton
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

    I just wanted to say that I started working on a much more detailed outline last night. (I already had a fairly broad one for the entire book and only something detailed for the first section.) Going through the process, I see that I don’t really need to go omniscient, which I just can’t get entirely comfortable with, but that it will work well with 5 POV characters. And 5 POV characters is a comfortable number, unlike the dozen I was contemplating at first, which just felt so very unfocused on what really matters.

    Thanks Mary!

  26. Photon
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 1:01 PM | Permalink

    What, if any, movies are you looking forward to this summer?

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:32 PM | Permalink

      We’re moving to Chicago in a week. I have absolutely no idea what movies are coming out. What do you recommend I watch for?

      • Photon
        Posted April 18, 2012 at 3:57 AM | Permalink

        Well, personally, I’m a LARPer and a big fan of anything LARP related. I sought out “The Wild Hunt” like a denner crazed draccus. So naturally, I’m looking forward to “The Knights of Badassdom” with Peter Dinklage, and Summer Glau.

        However, I realize you’re probably not as much of an enthusiast as I am.. so euh.. I hear the Hunger Games is doing pretty well?

        ( And I might mention, The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and PR’s recomendation of The Cabin in the Woods. )

        • Posted April 18, 2012 at 2:29 PM | Permalink

          Oh, I forgot that The Avengers was coming out. Yes, I’m looking forward to that. I sometimes need exploding movies as an escape route.

  27. Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:30 PM | Permalink

    Hi Mary,

    That was an amazing interview and I HAVE to read your book now. I’m going to “check” it out on Amazon ASAP. I have a friend who is a professional puppeteer as well. She’s been struggling to mix her passion with her career. She’s been moving to education at middle school’s and things like that. Do you have any suggestions on ways to interweave your puppeteeryness (that’s a new word) with non-standard professions to create a new career?

    Also, how did your puppeteeryness play into creating your novel? Did it help you in some awesome and distinct fashion that you think sets you apart from others who don’t have that skill?


    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 2:41 PM | Permalink

      Puppetry combines really, really easily with education. The K-6 crowd provided my bread and butter for years. I mostly performed, but I also taught workshops which I developed by looking at the core curriculum of the school systems and then creating programs that catered to that.

      As for how my puppeteering affected my writing… it turns out that it is a really useful lens for talking about creating characters. For instance, in puppetry we say that “Focus indicates thought.” What the puppet is thinking about is what it is looking at. The same is true when you’re writing. What you are having the character focus on tells the audience what the character is thinking about.

      And it’s the same for what the character is looking at, or feeling or smelling for that matter.

      In addition to what the character is looking at, the writer has control over what the reader is looking at. Because as a writer, you can only show the audience one thing at a time. You have to rely on their imagination to build that picture based on that one thing at a time you can show them. So the order in which you show things also becomes important.

      There’s this form of puppetry called overt puppetry which is where the puppeteer is in full view. Within about five minutes you stop noticing the puppeteer because they are using focus to direct your gaze. Humans are trained to look at what someone else is looking at. Like if I’m talking to you and I keep looking over your left shoulder, you are eventually going to turn around to see what the heck I’m looking at.

      So as a puppeteer, what I’m looking at is what I want the audience to look at. I am controlling what I want them to look at by what I am focusing on. I am also, as the puppeteer, controlling what I am saying about what my character is thinking about by what my character is looking at.

      As a writer, I can take that same principal and direct your attention by what I show you on the page and the order in which I show it to you.

  28. Casey9182
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 3:34 PM | Permalink

    All of this puppet talk has brought to mind one of my favorite scenes in the series so far, the one where Puppet speaks with Kvothe.

    I’ve never seen a live marionette show, but I imagine I would enjoy one very much.

    • Posted April 18, 2012 at 1:12 AM | Permalink

      What’s your closest major city? I might be able to recommend something. Meanwhile, check out Puppeteers of America. They have listings of festivals, performances, and puppetry centers.

      • Casey9182
        Posted April 18, 2012 at 9:09 AM | Permalink

        Houston, TX

        I’m sure there has to be something near me. Thanks for the site, I’ll check it out.

  29. Tattered Lucidity
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 8:26 PM | Permalink

    Just a comment, no question :) I sat in on a few panels that you did at Norwescon, Mary, and I wanted to say thank you! Because of some of your advice on panels, I made myself sit down and write a short story and now I’m tweaking it, and my goal is to submit it and take the rejections just to get myself used to it!

    Also, I purchased the ebook versions of Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass. Finished the first on my flight out to Missouri yesterday and plan on reading the next on my way home on Thursday. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kudos and well done :)

    • Posted April 17, 2012 at 10:24 PM | Permalink

      Oh, I’m so glad. I do think that one of the most valuable pieces of training a novelists can get from short stories is the ability to roll with rejections.

      I’m also delighted that you enjoyed SOMAH and hope you like GiG as well.

  30. B. G.
    Posted April 17, 2012 at 10:42 PM | Permalink

    I just watched a talk you gave at the Superstars Writing Seminar back in January 2011. I have recently started attending weekly Writers’ Workshops in my area, and it has been an odd experience reading my pieces out loud. At first, it was weird, but the more I do it, the more exciting it becomes. It opens a new perspective to my story and has me rewriting sentences that I would not have noticed were crap before.

    Anyway, what I want to say about that video is this: I have been fairly nervous about the upcoming weeks because I am now bringing dialogue into my pieces. Your talk has shone some light on voicing and pacing that have definitely settled my nerves. I didn’t realize there were so many ways to talk. I’m excited to teach myself these different tactics and see what characters I can create with my voice!

    I do have one question that is about writing: I seem to have an issue writing out an actual story. I can grasp concepts and write down emotions in a very poetic state such as prose, but I can’t seem to write a real start-to-finish story. I have all of these ideas/characters/plots/emotions in my head. I used to think that plots were a whole story, but I have proven myself wrong again and again. Mostly what I produce are beginnings or settings when I think I am actually writing a story. I feel like I put a lot of effort into it, and I have accomplished something great. Then, I realize I have only a setting.

    Any advice on how one can expand a setting/beginning? Perhaps I just contemplate too much on where a story COULD go rather than actually write it out?


    • Posted April 18, 2012 at 1:27 AM | Permalink

      There could be a lot of things going on there, so I’m going to throw out an exercise that might help.

      For your next story, try to limit yourself to two characters and one scenic location. There can be passersby, but the conflict is between two people.

      Pick one to be your POV character and decide what she wants. It has to be something specific, like an ice cream cone, or to play at the Met.

      Decide what she needs to do first to get the thing she wants. Say, it’s ice cream, so she needs to leave the office.

      Think of the story as answering a series of questions which are basically, “Does she achieve her goal?” Each question can be answered with a Yes, but; No, and; Yes; or No.
      A straight Yes gives you a happy ending.
      A straight No gives you a sad ending.
      Yes, but, on the other hand, continues the action by making things worse for the character.

      Does she leave the office? Yes, BUT the elevator gets stuck.
      Does the emergency phone work? No AND there’s a creepy guy on the elevator with her.

      And so on. Basically, you figure out what your MC wants and then systematically deny it to her.

      Give yourself ninety minutes in which to write. For the first hour, torture your character like this. For the last twenty minutes, work toward a simple Yes or No.

      • B. G.
        Posted April 19, 2012 at 4:50 PM | Permalink

        I’ll be sure to give that a try. It sounds like proper advice for this.

        Thank you very much!

  31. priscellie
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 12:16 AM | Permalink

    Great interview! Mary, I greatly enjoy hearing you on Writing Excuses every week, and your April Fool’s Day prank was one of my favorites. I adored your audio performance of “Shades of Milk and Honey,” but I haven’t seen a release date for an audiobook of “Glamour in Glass.” Is one planned?


    • Posted April 18, 2012 at 1:29 AM | Permalink

      I had a great deal of fun with that prank. It was astonishing how many people who had met me fell for it.

      I would very much like to do an audiobook of Glamour in Glass but Macmillan Audio, who have the rights, decided not to do one at this time.

      • Casey9182
        Posted April 18, 2012 at 9:16 AM | Permalink

        I’ll make sure to send my scathing emails to Macmillan right away.

        I’m some what addicted to audio books. It’s unfortunate they decided not to produce GiG.

        (just picked up Shades of Milk and Honey from

        I noticed that you read your own book for the audio version. I’ve always wondered, does the author have a say in who reads their book? If so, do they present people to you or is it just a final approval type of thing?

        Pat, I would love to hear how you found Nick Podehl.

        • Posted April 18, 2012 at 2:35 PM | Permalink

          Sometimes an author can make a request, but they don’t actually get a deciding vote.

          I got to read my own only because I’m also a professional narrator.

          • Diplomatic_Justice
            Posted April 20, 2012 at 10:05 AM | Permalink

            Do they then pay you to narrate your own book or do you just get to skip out on paying someone?

  32. brian199
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 11:04 AM | Permalink

    No one has found the aforementioned picture? :(

  33. kbehlings
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 11:04 AM | Permalink

    Patrick, I emerge from the woodwork as a witness to the white bodysuit. I have no photos; let it suffice to say that Mary donned one, and she looked fantastic in it, though perhaps a little…unusual. (This was not a solo performance; there were three other white-bodysuited entities who shall remain nameless.)

    After her performance and the following meet-and-greet at a nearby pub, Mary was so gracious as to insist that we (out-of-town strangers) use her guest bedroom overnight. She even awoke early to bake muffins for us the next morning, in spite of facing a very busy day. I have never forgotten her hospitality.

  34. DrFood
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 2:37 PM | Permalink

    Late to the party, but thanks, that was a lot of fun. It gave my google toolbar a workout, because I am/ an idiot and I didn’t know what regency fiction was. Also SFWA–shouldn’t that be SFFWA?

    It’s too bad The Complete Servant isn’t available as an e-book. I have too many books on my “to read” pile right now to add another.

  35. DrFood
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 2:38 PM | Permalink

    See? an idiot who can’t write decent html, either!

  36. Posted April 18, 2012 at 7:16 PM | Permalink

    This has been wonderful fun. I’m heading to JordanCon tomorrow as GoH and then come back and immediately move to Chicago so… it’s unlikely that I’ll spot any incoming questions.

    Thanks, Pat, for inviting me to play. You’ve got lovely readers. Even the violent pantless ones.

  37. Posted April 18, 2012 at 10:44 PM | Permalink
  38. Posted April 20, 2012 at 10:40 AM | Permalink

    Pragmatic question, Mary:

    Ever tried a standing desk?

  39. Gavin
    Posted April 22, 2012 at 8:26 PM | Permalink

    So I spent 15 minutes looking for my comment then I realized I commented on the last one but I think that the best authors in the world should have a breakfast club and Mary Robinette Kowal should be the groups Molly Ringwald as long as you guys agree to deny Stephenie Meyer membership to that club. She wrote one series in hte vampires/romance genre who cares Anne Rice beat her to it any way so did Bram Stoker enough said.

  40. ClownBaby
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:37 PM | Permalink

    After reading this great interview, I went to Amazon to buy one of Mary’s books and also pick up a copy of “The Last Unicorn” for my daughter. She loved the movie, and as I often do I’ll use this opportunity to further her appetite for reading. Here’s where the story takes a funny turn and why I’m posting a comment. So I find my way to “The Last Unicorn” page, I scroll down and lo and behold here are the other books that are recommended to me: “The Name of the Wind” & “The Princess Bride”. Now either the Internet is becoming omnipresent, or it was just a magical coincidence.

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