Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.41: Deep Dive: Erin’s Short Fiction Extravaganza

If you write short stories or enjoy speculative fiction, this episode is for you. Our host Erin Roberts has written short stories, interactive fiction, and has built worlds for tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs). For the next 8 episodes, we’ll be diving into three of her short stories. This week, Erin explains how to write outside of traditional genre classifications. We talk about the importance of antagonists, tone, and the horror genre. And we discuss how to decide if your short story should become a novel. 

We highly recommend you read Erin’s three short stories to get the most out of these next 8 episodes! Read Erin’s short stories: Wolfy ThingsSour Milk GirlsSnake Season. Note: these books involve some darker themes. All of these short stories are available for free online and also have audio versions available. 


Take a line you’ve written a while ago that you absolutely love. Try rewriting it as the writer you are now.

Thing of the Week: 

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap 

Liner Notes: 

Interview with Erin on the podcast Just Keep Writing

Wolfy Things by Erin Roberts 

Sour Milk Girls by Erin Roberts 

Snake Season by Erin Roberts 

Writing Wonder

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Join Our Writing Community! 






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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: I often think of my protagonist as the antagonist of somebody else’s short story. Genre can be bookseller’s version, where do we shelve it, the critic’s version, what is the cultural lineage of this, and the reader/writer’s version, what’s useful, important, what does it feel like? Is it horror if the writer didn’t intend to scare you, they just wanted the character to do a horrible thing? What drives speculative fiction in short form is the power of clear and simple metaphors. There are horror stories where the protagonist is up against an antagonist and loses and horror happens. In these stories, our protagonist is the horror, doing things that we are horrified by. The antagonist is trying to prevent bad things from happening, and fails. Short fiction packs a lot in a small space. In a Myers-Briggs of writers, there are long and short writers. 

[Season 18, Episode 41]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive: Erin’s Short Fiction Extravaganza.

[Dongwon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] ‘Cause you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Erin] I have managed to put off my deep dive until the very very very last, but the time is here.

[Dongwon] You were very very determined to go last.

[Erin] Right.


[Erin] Very determined to go last. I have no idea why, but I’m really excited to talk about my work, I guess…


[Erin] But also to just give a… To shine some light on short fiction as a whole.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Erin] I am merely a conduit for the love of short fiction. But I want to talk a little bit first about why I picked the 3 stories that I asked you all to read, and then see if you have any questions for me, otherwise I’ll just ramble about them at length. So, the 3 that I picked are Wolfy Things, is the first story that I ever had published, so I felt it really represented the beginning of the extravaganza when I was really just kind of getting things off the ground. I was just saying before we started recording that I can tell it’s my first published story because I just can. Something about the way that it’s constructed, I’m like, “Oh, it’s early on.” But I still love it. I picked Sour Milk Girls because it is my buzzy-ist story, I would say. It’s the story that ended up in year’s best collections and like almost made the Hugo ballot. So it’s the story that sort of people know me the most for and were most excited about. Then, I picked Snake Season because I think it is the closest to where I’m going as a writer. I think it’s like sort of the truest to…

[Howard] Oh, no…


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I’m like, “It’s the truest to my voice of murder.”

[Dongwon] Let’s go.

[Erin] Weirdly, it’s also the one that’s been translated into the most languages. It’s been translated into, I think, Spanish and Portuguese and… Anyway. So, people can be horrified, I guess, in many different languages.

[Mary Robinette] Ha. You said horrified. You… I was saying earlier, we were having this conversation about whether or not Erin writes horror. I was like, “I think you do.” She does not think she does. But, ha ha…

[Erin] It’s you all. You brainwashed me into thinking it.


[Erin] I think so much when I write, I think about what I’m writing as, just like one individual person’s like troubled story, that I don’t see like… What they’re doing may not be… I would not use my protagonist as like life lessons. I wouldn’t follow in their footsteps.


[Erin] If they told you to do something, I would say, “No.” I often think of my protagonist as the antagonist of somebody else’s short story.


[Erin] That I just decided not to write.

[Howard] Oh, man.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] But I…

[Mary Robinette] Accurate.

[Erin] I just… Even though that’s the case, for me, it’s really, I think I get so much in their head and have to understand them in order to make them somewhat sympathetic on the page, that I can’t think of what they’re doing or what I’m doing as horror. Because I get why they did it, and I decided to make them do it, even though it may be something that is beyond the pale in the normal, like… In the normal life of things.

[Dongwon] I love this as a way of thinking about genre. I think one thing with conversation about genre get so muddy in a certain way, because there’s almost 3 different ways in which we use the term. One is how I use it, which is very much the book selling side. Where do we put this in the store, what bisac code do we put on this, what gets… What comp titles do we use? Right? Like, how do we sell this? Then there’s like the way critics use it, which is… I’m not even going to dive too deep into that, but it tends to be more about what’s the cultural lineage of this. Then there’s like how readers and writers use it, which is much more like what’s useful to you, what’s important to you, what does it feel like? So I love this idea that you separated out so much of your process from necessarily what the bookstore genre of it is because you need to access a space where you can look at it in a way that these are just people doing things. Yes, the things that they are doing are very upsetting, but they are doing things for relatable reasons. Right? So, I mean, even Sour Milk Girls where she does one of the worst things I’ve ever seen a character do in a story to another character. It’s so upsetting the thing that she does to Princess, but it’s so understandable and relatable, even if I wouldn’t make that choice, I can understand why she does it in a way that I think, for you, I can see how internally, that’s not horror, that’s just a person. Right? That’s a flawed person who lives in a deeply flawed world trying to survive in whatever ways that she can. Her experience and trauma and psychology all lead her to this place of doing this upsetting thing.

[Howard] The context in which… Ghost does things to Princess. Ghost is not doing anything to Princess that society has not already done to Ghost.

[Dongwon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] In reading that story, there is horrific revelation after horrific revelation. At first it just looks like they live in an orphanage. No, this is worse than an orphanage, this is… Something’s being done to these kids. As we learn more about it, it gets… You experience horror. So in talking about genre, I always go back to our Season 11, Elemental Genres. I keep turning the page because I keep looking for the next horrific reveal. I experienced dread, but I’m sort of thrilling, reveling in it. It grows so nicely out of that symmetry between what society is doing and what the character is doing that when we get to the end, it is the perfect horrific inevitability. So, yeah, circling back around, yes, Erin, you’re writing horror. Are they going to shelve it as horror? I don’t care, I just want to read it.

[Mary Robinette] Something that I just want to circle back to, you said that your antagonist… Your protagonist is the antagonist in someone else’s story.

[Dongwon] Great line.

[Mary Robinette] It’s like… When I think about all of these stories, I’m like, “Oh, yes.” One of reasons that these work, I think, structurally so well is that you have a character who has set out to achieve a goal. They come up with a plan, they have obstacles, they have all of the markers. It’s just as a reader, I do not want them to achieve that goal.


[Mary Robinette] Like, that is… I can see why actually you would make the argument that it’s not horror, because in horror, generally speaking, bad things happen to the protagonist. In this case, you’re like, “Oh, no, your protagonist is absolutely…” And I can see all of the stories that are written from the other character’s point of view.

[Dongwon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] It is… I’m like, “Oh. Yes.” Okay, I will grant your point about how these may not be horror.

[Erin]’s Thank you. I think it also comes back to, like, what… Intentionality…

[Mary Robinette, Dongwon chorus] Yeah.

[Erin] So we were talking about, just before hand, in all the fascinating conversations we will reprise here, about that there’s 3 different genres of the body. Humor, erotica, horror. They all try to make you feel something in a very visceral level. So, to me, to set out to write horror is to say I want to scare you. I want you to feel dread. I never intend… That’s never a thought that goes through my head. I just want my characters to accomplish a horrible thing which might make you feel horror, but I’m not thinking. At the end, if you said, like, “I was totally fine with everything they did and I felt like I was like I’m cheering them on,” I might have some questions about your moral compass…


[Erin] But I wouldn’t feel like I didn’t accomplish my goal as a writer. Whereas, I feel like in a horror story, if you say like, “I wasn’t scared at all,” that you’ve missed something.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] The same way that if you didn’t laugh at humor…

[Dongwon] [garbled]

[Howard] Last night we joked during D&D, we joked about you being chaotic evil or what… This is more like chaotic IDGAF…


[Howard] Chaotic WTF. I just… I am doing a thing and you’re going to have experience, but that’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the thing.

[Dongwon] I will say… I will grant you what you’re saying on Wolfy Thing and Sour Milk Girls. I will say I made the mistake of reading Snake Season…


[Dongwon] Right before I went to bed.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yes. Bad choice.

[Dongwon] I was upset. The image of Sarah, the image of the donor, is just so upsetting to me. It’s so emotional too, though. I mean, what drives speculative fiction in short form so well is the power of the metaphor. Right? One of the things I love in short fiction is it’s so clear and simple about what the metaphor is. Right? In Sour Milk Girls, it’s the state is robbing them of their identity and memories, because that’s kind of what the foster system is invested in doing, is erasing who you were to be this person that can be entered into new situations. Right? So, just this mother’s trauma over her dead daughter, over this monstrous thing that she’s afraid of in herself and in… I don’t know how to unpack all the things in that because it’s so rich and textured and dense, like, that’s the beauty of that image. But, yeah, I’m very scared of that little girl. She’s definitely haunting me.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Well, I think that one of the things that also happened for me as we got deeper into the story was wondering how much of Sarah’s appearance was actually just Mary’s view of her, like, was this just a normal little girl who just wasn’t a baby anymore, and that that’s something that she couldn’t stand. Like, the fact that I don’t know and there’s just enough ambiguity in there? I mean, I feel like she’s… It is… She is horrifying and also what if she’s not?

[Dongwon] Yeah. Exactly. Because do you know something, maybe she’s fine?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] On that disturbing note, we’re going to take a slight break. When we come back, I have a question to ask you all.

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[Dongwon] My thing of the week this week is Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap. In my personal opinion, I think Isabel Yap is one of the greatest science fiction short story writers we have in the game right now. She’s an incredible talent and this is her debut collection of stories. It came out a couple of years ago in 2021 from Small Beer Press. The work that she does in here is so wide-ranging and delightful and engaging. She pulls from her Filipino ancestry in bringing in some traditional myths and monsters in the story, and the way she blends fabulism and horror and supernatural elements with grounded relatable concerns of contemporary characters is incredibly powerful and wonderful. I think this is a phenomenal collection and I would love for all of you to go check it out.

[Erin] We are back, and my question is ready, which is, who do you see as the antagonist of these stories? Because I’ve been thinking about it, and I actually think there’s a slight shift in the antagonist… In who I see as the antagonist of all 3 stories that I think makes Snake Season feel the most horrific. But I’m curious…

[Howard] Wolfy, the antagonist is Erin. Sour Milk Girls, it’s Erin.


[Howard] Snake Season, it’s Erin like 3 times.


[Dongwon] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I’m upset at you in particular…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, yeah [garbled] statements.

[Dongwon] No, I mean I’m not sure who the antagonist in Wolfy Things is, actually. That’s kind of an interesting one. It feels much more like portraiture than really like a strong… Like this intense metaphor about society in a certain way. Sour Milk Girls is definitely the state. Then, for Snake Season, it’s almost just like the world. Like there’s a… She just exists in a world that is stacked against everyone in the story in a certain way.

[Mary Robinette] Like, she’s… She has decided that the conjureman is the antagonist. Like… I think from her point of view, from Marie’s point of view…

[Dongwon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] The conjureman is the antagonist.

[Dongwon] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] But I don’t think that he actually… He…

[Dongwon] I don’t think he’s a good dude, though.

[Mary Robinette] I don’t think he’s a good dude. But structurally speaking, like, he does serve the function of an antagonist.

[Dongwon] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] She has…

[Howard] There are horror stories in which our protagonist is up against an antagonist and loses and horror happens.

[Dongwon] Yep.

[Howard] Just in general. In these stories, I think… In all 3 of them, our protagonist is the horror. The protagonist is the one who is ultimately doing the things that we are the most horrified with. So the antagonist is the one who’s trying to prevent bad things from happening. I’m just… In broad structural strokes.

[Dongwon] Totally.

[Howard] There is… That is a flavor of horror in which we are sympathetic with, we are following a character who is on a path, their goals are going to lead them into the horrible place, and the antagonist is the one who is putting obstacles in front of them, and the antagonist is going to fail.

[Dongwon] There’s no Freddie, there’s no Candyman, there’s no [garbled]

[Howard] You stop thinking of antagonist is villain, and start thinking of them as the person who’s in between the protagonist and their ultimate goal.

[Dongwon] Well, this is why I think it’s so useful in certain cases to really let go of genre expectations and not think of it as a genre piece in certain ways and just follow the story where it goes. Right? Tonally, and voice wise, I may look at this and say horror. I think Howard’s right, and you’re right, when I break it down to the core elements of the story, horrific things are happening. I think you’re right, though, that is not a horror story.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] Aha!


[Dongwon] You convinced me.

[Mary Robinette] Well, I also want to say that I don’t think that every story has to have an antagonist. In, I think Wolfy Things… I’ve forgotten the main character’s name. I remember Lee’s name, but I don’t remember the POV character’s name.

[Erin] Nikki.

[Mary Robinette] Nikki. I think Nikki is the protagonist, and the antagonist. I think he is both.

[Erin] I think… What I would say is that for me, or what I think I was trying to do, and it’s interesting to go back and see whether or not that work. For me, I think, society, culture, the world, as it is is the antagonist. I think that a lot… I think that all 3 of these stories, to a degree, are my kind of thinking about, ruminating on the idea that the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s [garbled]

[Dongwon, Mary Robinette chorus] Yeah.

[Erin] And that ultimately the reason the society is the antagonist is that the protagonist is monstrous, but they are only monstrous because they are in a world that creates monsters. Therefore, in them trying to figure out the world and where they fit into it, they start with good intentions, but they ultimately are kind of in like the classic tragedy sense, unable to escape who they are and how they’ve been made…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] And what has created them. I think that Snake Season is the place where that is the least clear.

[Dongwon] Yeah. I love that.

[Erin] Like, the culture is like much more, like, hopefully like the culture of the town and their hatred of wolves is pretty clear, and the state’s direct like manipulation of these poor girls is pretty clear. But in Snake Season, it’s a lot less like it’s just kind of the world in less of a directly antagonistic way and more just like how do you fit into the world as it is.

[Mary Robinette] But it’s also like in Snake Season, at least to me, it was about how she only felt like she was supported after her child had died.

[Dongwon] Yeah. The only time people came out in a sympathetic way for her.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Instead, she had the conjureman who’s like bossing her around, and her husband who’s not there. And she’s alone. She’s alone with a child that she’s trying to raise by herself while her husband goes off and works. The only way she gets people to come out is if a child dies. She’s not conscious of that, I don’t think. Not like… Or she’s… That is the lie she is telling herself.

[Erin] She’s not, like, waking up and journaling…

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Erin] No one has visited me for months…

[Dongwon] Time to kill a baby.

[Mary Robinette] Kill a baby.

[Erin] That would be horrible.

[Dongwon] Yeah.

[Erin] But you can’t say that to yourself.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] So you create a world in which that is what’s happening for you, so you can get the emotional joy… Or not… The emotional comfort that you want.

[Howard] As we explore these structural interpretations… I love doing this. I could do this all day. It’s important to recognize that a large part of this comes from us, within, what we bring to the table, what are reading experience was. When I read Wolfy, I at first thought the wolf was the antagonist. After reading it, I feel like Lee is the antagonist. Because there’s a moment when I was reading, when I felt like, “Oh. Nikki’s objective has changed.” Nikki wants to talk to the wolf, meet the wolf, learn who the wolf is, and Lee prevents that from happening, by falling on his own knife. Lee, you klutz. Nikki’s goals change and he follows through with the original plan. But that is an interpretation which… Okay, in critical senses, maybe it’s wildly invalid, but based on what I brought into the book, that’s the experience that I had. That’s one of the things that I love about short fiction in general is that it’s so tight that we have all of these experiences so close together within 30 to 45 minutes of starting the story. It’s easier to unpack, easier to talk about, and I talk about it for way longer than I would on a 300,000 page…

[Dongwon] Yeah. I would love to touch on this actually. Each of these stories implies a massive world. Right? World building, technology, magic, societal stuff… The amount that you get into 6000 words in terms of gesturing at a bigger world is truly extraordinary and breathtaking. But also, I think, especially Sour Milk Girls could sustain a novel length work, right, with what you have there. I could see something bigger possible in that space if you want it, but that’s not what you wanted. You love short fiction. You like writing short fiction. You believe in it, as do I. I adore it. But I’m curious to hear more about your thought process, about why short fiction, why is that how you wanted these stories to unfold. Why do you like working in that space?

[Erin] So this is a great question, specifically for Sour Milk Girls, because of its origin story. So I actually wanted to, and maybe still do, want to write a novel about 5 different women whose lives have been screwed up by this memory, the memory as a commodity system. Ghost was going to be like sort of the protagonist, through which this larger thing happened much later in her life. Not much later, but like in her 20s. I was trying to get her voice. So, for me, as a writer, if I cannot hook into the voice of the character, I cannot write the story. Which is one of the reasons I’m extraordinarily slow writer. Because I will rewrite the first paragraph and the first page over and over and over until the character sounds right to me in my head and I have some sort of instinctive sense of how they see the world and then I can move forward. Then it gets much easier. But that process can take a long time. So I could not hook into the voice of Ghost. I kept trying and I kept writing these horrible things I didn’t like. So I was like maybe I need to go back and do a writing exercise for myself of some pivotal moment in her life early on that turns her into the person that she was at the time that the novel that I was writing, which is kind of a compulsive kleptomaniac, a compulsive memory kleptomaniac. Why become a compulsive memory kleptomaniac?

[Howard] I forget.

[Erin] I was trying to figure out what is the thing? Like, why… Where did she start going down this path? So I wrote… Started writing this writing exercise. I was like, oh, this writing exercise feels a bit like a story actually. Let me finish it. Then I did. I was like I think I could publish this. So it’s sort of an accidental story that comes out of me…

[Dongwon] I love that.

[Erin] Trying to understand the novel form. Because I don’t get it. I have this theory that I’ve told people before that there should be a… Like a Myers-Briggs of writers…


[Erin] Where, first, like introvert/extrovert, I think some people tend long…

[Dongwon] Yup.

[Erin] And some people tend short.

[Dongwon] Absolutely.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] As writers. I tend short. I think I tend to just… The way that my sentences are constructed, a lot of times, I try to jam a lot in there in a way that won’t… Wouldn’t work. It would be a lot for like a longer work. You need to kind of stretch things out and dole them out differently. So I… When I try to write longer works, I often end up coming up with ideas that I then break off into shorter things. Because I’m trying to understand and trying to get to a place where I could write a novel. I also… Yeah, I think like it is a lot of it’s about natural tendencies and my own speed because I’m slow, writing a short story is a much easier…

[Dongwon] Totally.

[Erin] Kind of thing for me to set out to do. But I think even… I’m the opposite. We’re going to talk later in this deep dive about what happens when all your short stories, people are like, “That should be a novel.” Which happens a lot to my students. Like, they’ll be like writing this short story, and I’m like, “This is not a short story, this is a prologue.”

[Dongwon] Yep.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] I have the opposite, where even when I come up with novel ideas they sort of come out in short story form. Because I think I’m so focused on one character. Part of it is that I get so into the idea of the single character that you need a broader cast a lot of times in order to make a novel work, and I want to be so much in this one person’s head that it’s hard to think about taking them on such a long journey.

[Dongwon] It’s funny, you and I were chatting before recording, and you… Just talking about an idea that you had. I was like, “Oh. That actually sounds like a short story…”


[Dongwon] Not a novel.” I think you would need to do something to make it more novel size. So it was really funny to hear you say that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I’m like, I want to sidebar with you and talk to you about how to fix that, because…

[Erin] Oh, cool.

[Mary Robinette] Because I’ve…

[Dongwon] Would you, because she needs to write the novel [garbled]

[Mary Robinette] I know, I would like it too. Yeah. It’s… You’re right. You are so… Because I also went from short story to novel. So I know the thing that happens. But I’m pretty sure we can talk about that at some point later in the deep dive. Right now, we should probably pause for homework.

[Erin] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] The homework assignment is take a line that you’ve written a while ago that you absolutely love and try rewriting it is the writer that you are now, because your style changes, your understanding of how language changes, your interaction with it changes, your taste changes. Take that original line, read it once, put it to the side, and then rewrite it as you are now.

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Erin] Would you like to help other writers be out of excuses? Review us on Apple Podcast or your podcast platform of choice. Rate us 5 stars and help someone like you find us.