Mary Robinette Kowal is an award-winning novelist and puppeteer. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the Nebula, she’s won three Hugos and the 2008 Campbell for best new writer.
Here, she talks about how she learned to write good stories reliably.
In 2000 Mary Robinette Kowal suffered a wrist injury, forcing her to take a break from performing. Instead she picked up on her old hobby of writing fiction as a way to keep in touch with her niece and nephew and, in 2004, decided to start submiting her work to markets.
“I have always worked in the arts and my training was such that artists should be paid,” says Mary Robinette Kowal. “I rediscovered that I enjoyed writing, and it’s a little crass, but my thought was ‘how do I get paid for this?'”
“One of the secrets to being published is that you have to improve your craft, and my training from puppetry and the arts taught me that you go to someone to learn how to improve your craft.”
Practicing a set of tools
Mary chose to attend Orson Scott Card’s literary boot camp, which she credits with giving her a set of tools to work with.
“I approached writing the same way that I approached improving my other art forms: I broke it down into techniques,” says Mary. “Then I worked on those techniques individually.”
Revising a story while focusing on a single technique allowed Mary to concentrate on improving one set of skills at a time. One revision she would look at her dialogue, the next on her setting and descriptions. Little by little, her story would take its final, polished form.
“I would go back and improve it by layers,” says Mary. “I didn’t try to improve it all at once, it was very much about working on a piece at a time.”
The main advantage Mary gained from Orson Scott Card’s literary boot camp was a new understanding of story structure.
“[Orson Scott Card’s] MICE quotient was the thing that unlocked everything for me,” says Mary. “Not so much for characters, because I had dealt with characters on stage for 20 years, but for the overarching story structure.”
Trusting your emotions
But attending the literary boot camp didn’t turn Mary into a star writer overnight.
“When I came out of Scott Card’s boot camp,” says Mary, “I knew I had an understanding of story that would allow me to write good stories reliably, but it took a good year to internalize those techniques. And even though I understand how the techniques work now, I’m still surprised that they do.”
But there’s more to writing a good story than mechanically following a set of tools.
“I describe it as trusting my reader response,” says Mary. “One of the things that a lot of writers forgets is that we’re our own first readers. Everybody has a favorite film or book that they have consumed over and over again, but that still gives them a visceral, emotional reaction. As a writer, even though I know where the story is going, I should still have that visceral, emotional reaction to my work, or it’s not working. So I know that I have written a good story when I respond to it emotionally.”
Looking for conflicts
Learning a set of tools consists in large part of making them your own, figuring out what works for you, and what doesn’t.
“I actually approach the MICE quotient a bit differently than Scott Card does,” says Mary. “He mostly deals with the outside of the story, the beginning and the end. I also look at the sort of conflicts the concepts generate. For example, a milieu story is a story about a place, it begins with when you enter the place and ends when you leave. Therefore when your character is progressing through the story all the conflicts should be things that prevent them from leaving, otherwise they belong to a different narrative.”
“A good example of this is if you look at the trash compactor scene in star Wars, which is a milieu scene: they have to get out of the trash compactor. So when the walls start closing in on them that’s a conflict that is directly related to the place and being able to get out of it. Whereas if a Storm Trooper or Darth Vader had appeared in the doorway, that would have been a new event, a different type of conflict, and they would have had to resolve it differently. It’s that understanding of what the different pieces did that helped me unlock my own story structure.”
Outline for writing or for selling
One of the problems Mary faced in structuring her novels was outlining. Even though she’s a writer who prefers to outline, the outlines weren’t working quite as well as they should for her.
“What I eventually realized,” says Mary, “was that there were two types of outlines. One was the type that you wrote to help yourself understand where the story was going, acting like a road map with multiple possibilities of how to get to the end. The other was a selling tool that needed to make sense to other people.”
“As soon as I understood that, I started doing outlines that actually worked for me, meaning that I was able to work out my plot problems in short form instead of having to write the novel and figuring it out while writing it.”
This allowed Mary to sit down and analyze her plot in a way that was free and structured at the same time.
“It is like going on a trip and you realize that they’re doing road construction,” says Mary. “You still know where you want to go, you just have to figure out a new way to get there. I figure out where I want it to go and then I think about what the smartest thing my character could do to get to that point is. Then I follow it up with: how does it go terribly, terribly wrong?”
Advice for writers
Above all, one should realize the limitations at every step of the process.
“Do not judge the quality of your own writing by someone else’s finished product,” says Mary Robinette Kowal. “Remember that your first draft can always be polished and that someone else’s first draft looks terrible but you never see it.”
“The corollary is that you shouldn’t try to change your process to match someone else’s process, because in the end it is the finished product that matters. How you get there doesn’t matter. You can try different people’s techniques to see if they work for you, but everybody’s brains are wired differently. Find what works for you.”
Then one has to have an ear for one’s own writing.
“Trust your inner reader,” says Mary Robinette Kowal. “Write the stories you want to be reading, and when you start losing attention, when you start to feel like it isn’t very interesting, it probably isn’t. So back up a little bit, remind yourself why you were excited about the story in the first place, and then write that story. It sounds very flippant, but it really makes a difference when you start thinking: ‘what is it I want to read?'”