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

19.11: A Close Reading on Voice- An Overview, and Why Time War

The book that became a New York Times Bestseller because of a tweet. Well, it won LOTS of awards when it came out, but it was rediscovered by a Twitter account with a large following. So– let’s get into it!

On our first episode diving into Voice using the short novel “This Is How You Lose The Time War”, we talk about why Voice is essential and some working definitions of how we want to talk about it. We also explain why we chose this book and highlight some of the things it’s done well, and what you can learn from it!

Thing of the Week: Scavengers Reign

Homework: Take a sentence from a work you love that has a strong and clear voice. Write a scene based on that as a prompt, in the same tone and voice as the original.

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! 






Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Voice in fiction. Voice, mechanical, aesthetic, and personal. Tools for voice on the page: pacing, accent, attitude, and experience. Pacing is cadence or rhythm, pauses, punctuation. Accent is word choice and sentence structure. Attitude is attitude. Experience is how the character views the world. Aiming to give you tools so that you say, “Oh, I can do that.” 

[Season 19, Episode 11]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 19, Episode 11]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A Close Reading on Voice — An Overview and Why We Chose Time War

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because 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.

[DongWon] So, this episode is the first of our close reading series. I’m very excited to dig into this one. We’ve chosen for our first module here to focus on the aspect of voice in fiction. We thought what better book for that than Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s This Is How You Lose The Time War. This was a novella that was published in 2015 that features two alternative voices from two different POVs and [garbled] as letters written between them. It won a bunch of awards. It’s been very popular. I think the voice in this book is very distinct and very powerful and much of the charm of the book is in how these two different writers are approaching these characters and how the voice is carrying through.

[Howard] There’s also the elephant in the room which is when I got this book out to reread it and showed it to my 22-year-old and told them, “I think you might like this book a lot,” they said, “Yes. Bigolas Dickolas said the same thing.”


[Howard] “I will get to it eventually.” They will get to it eventually because I’m going to bring this copy back and shove it in front of them. Yes, this book got huge props… Was it 21, 22?

[DongWon] It was the… Oh my gosh… What, 23?

[Howard] I do not remember.

[DongWon] Summer 23.

[Mary Robinette] 23. Summer of 23.

[Howard] This is… I mean, we’re recording this in fall of… Or in December of 23. So…

[DongWon] It was this summer.

[Howard] It was this year.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It won all of the awards when it came out, and then it was rediscovered by Bigolas Dickolas, and now is a phenomenon sweeping the globe.

[DongWon] Yes.

[Howard] Part of the reason it’s doing that is that the voice is so strong and so… It speaks to a lot of people. I think voice is the reason it does that.

[Mary Robinette] So, I want to just put something out, that is we’re talking about voice, that the voice of this is one of the things that is so important. But voice is also one of those wiggly words that we use a lot. I find that it tends to mean 3 different things. There is the mechanical voice, which is, like, the style. First person, 3rd person, the mechanics of it. There is the aesthetic voice, what it sounds like. Then there’s the personal voice, which is what the author brings to it. We are primarily going to be focusing on the aesthetic and mechanical voices when we’re talking about this. In part because we don’t know which parts which author wrote, so it’s harder to pin down and say this is because of their life experience.

[DongWon] They have said who wrote which part.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, they have now?

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] For a long time, they refused to.

[DongWon] Yeah. Oh, I’m pretty sure that’s public. So I have the other elephant in the room is that I have a particularly inside perspective on this book, because the first 2 books we’ve chosen, I swear to God, I did not do this on purpose, I did not suggest these, are both books that I have worked on is a literary agent. So, Max and Amal are both my clients and I have worked on Time War since its inception. So I have a little bit of inside perspective and sometimes filtering out what is public and what is not is a trick for me.

[Howard] Drop the knowledge, DongWon.


[DongWon] But I will very gladly give a few peeks behind the curtain when I can.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Double check them on that one.

[DongWon] I will.

[Mary Robinette] So, the… For me, one of the things that struck me immediately the first time I started reading this was that there was a poetic denseness to the language that you see less often in science fiction. It’s… I can think of other examples, but the poetic denseness was one of the things that pulled me in, and also, slowed me down. Because I felt like I needed to savor the book as I was going through, that the language, the voice itself was as important as the plot. That it was inextricably tied together.

[Erin] Yeah. I think some of that is the form of the book itself. Because so much of it is epistolary, it’s in letters, I think that there’s a certain indulgence in some ways that, as readers, we give to a letter. We sort of assume that it will be like… That you’re going to lean into maybe the poetry of things when you’re writing a letter to another person and what… I think it was such a smart idea, because while in like non-letter prose, you might be like, oh, this is a lot, in a letter you’re like, oh, no, this completely makes sense, because it’s such an expression, such a personal expression, and therefore a way in which a voice can come out so cleanly and clearly.

[Mary Robinette] Interesting, because I actually have the opposite experience when reading, which is that the letters are the more straightforward prose than the 3rd person passages.

[Erin] Interesting.

[Mary Robinette] Isn’t it interesting?

[Howard] An example. The piece… There are 2 pieces that hooked me on the first page. The first piece, 2nd line and beginning of the 3rd paragraph, “Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world. This was fun, she thinks.”


[Howard] Okay. I’m on board.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] I’m on board. Then, paragraph 4, this is where the prose gets dense and does a whole bunch of worldbuilding for us. “She holds a corpse that was once a man. Her hands gloved in its guts, her fingers clutching its alloy spine. She let’s go, and the exoskeleton clatters against rock. Crude technology. Ancient. Bronzed depleted uranium. He never had a chance. That is the point of Red.” Okay. You’ve thrown a bunch of cool technical terms at me, and I’m like, “Oh, wow, future battlefield… Wait. Crude technology. Wait. What?”

[Mary Robinette, DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] Now I have… That’s the 2nd hook.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] The first hook is, “[gasp] That was fun.” The 2nd hook is how advanced is this? Please world build some more for me.

[Mary Robinette] Right. I think that that was part of what I’m thinking about… And we’re going to dive into this way more in the next episode, when we’re talking about… Like, we’re going to do really close reading about Red’s perspective, looking at these first pages. But, in general, one of the things that Amal and Max are trying to do in this book is describe this time war which is technology that we don’t have and an understanding of time that we don’t have. So they are using this metaphor poetic language to attempt to communicate something to us because we don’t have the language for it. So that juxtaposition of those 2 things, of, like, this is a very highly technical thing I’m going to attempt to explain to you people who are locked into this single timeline… It makes things really juicy and lovely.

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to pick this. I wanted to pick it both because I deeply love the voice of this book, I find it very affecting and very sort of pleasurable to engage with. But then, there are really almost 4 different voices in this book. Because you have the Red sections, you have the Blue sections, you have Red letters and Blue letters. Each of them has a distinctly different voice that is communicating different information and different worldbuilding as we go. So one of the reasons I wanted to examine this one is we get to sort of do that contrast between, okay, what’s happening here versus what’s happening here versus what’s happening here. So it felt very useful as a teaching tool in addition to one that is just, oh, they are executing this at a very high level and is delightful to engage with.

[Howard] Yeah. Let me circle back on that teaching tool briefly. You can pick up to similar books by different authors…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] And compare voices and ask yourself, why do these sound different? Why do these feel different? Why do these work differently? That’s valuable. Having that experience in one book where the same narrative, a singular narrative is being run in multiple voices is utterly invaluable. There’s… I cannot think of a better teaching tool for voice then reading and rereading and analyzing your own experience as you pick up the book again and again than this book.

[Erin] While this book is… Has a very sort of unique style, it’s also something that you can do in books with multiple POVs. So if you wanted to take what we’re doing in this close reading and apply it somewhere else, you could take a book that has a lot of different points of view and think about how is the voice being done differently by the author from one character to the next.

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, this is just an extreme case, which I think is what makes it so useful. Right? Of having such distinctly different voices, and it’s such a voice-y book. What I mean by that is there just leaning so much into that voice as a forward component of it. Which, in part, they get away with because it’s a shorter book. Right? It doesn’t overstay its welcome. This might be more difficult to do at great length. But, given the compactness of the book and how quick the experience of reading it is, you can really push pretty hard on the voice lever. Which they’ve done in this case.

[Howard] I have a question that I’m going to pose after our break.

[DongWon] I want to talk to y’all about Scavengers Reign. Which is one of the best things I saw in 2023. It’s an animated series on Max that tells the story of a group of survivors crash landed on an alien planet after their colony ship malfunctions mid journey. What makes the show wonderful is its incredible art style, but also its approach to how they portray alien life and how humans interact with it. It’s really deeply interested in systems and ecologies, and tells a really beautiful story about how humans interact with their environment and with each other. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

[Howard] The big question is if you are but one author, but one mortal author…


[Howard] Trying to write multiple voices, as you said, a novel with multiple POVs. Can you do it this well?

[DongWon] Yeah. Well, one thing I want to point out as we go into this close reading series is we’re picking these as examples we hope are instructive. We’re not saying you have to do what these authors are doing or replicate these. We’re picking examples that are really pushing the boundaries of what is possible in this particular severe. So, this is pushing the boundaries of voice. When we get to Memory Called Empire, that is pushing the boundaries of what you can do with worldbuilding. When we get to Fifth Season, that’s going to be pushing the boundaries of what you can do with structure. I do not recommend trying to replicate these things. We’re showing you big examples so you can take lessons from them and learn from them.

[Mary Robinette] So, I’m going to give you a couple of words that we’re going to be using as we’re going through. As you probably know, I am an audiobook narrator, and when I’m trying to learn how to do character voice, when I’m teaching it, there’s a couple of tools that we use that are very useful for doing voice on the page. So, pacing, accent, attitude, and what I call experience. So, pacing is kind of the cadence, the rhythm of the voice. Where they pause, whether they’re doing long sentences or short sentences. Where they put the punctuation. That’s something that you manipulate really by punctuation. It’s replicating the way we pause in speech. Accent is all about word choice and sentence structure. It’s not about pronunciation, which is what a lot of people focus on. So you’ll hear us talking about the word choice and sentence structures that are specific to each character. Then, attitude is exactly what it sounds like. When you’re talking to someone on the phone, and I know that a lot of people never do that anymore, but you can tell… Well, when you’re listening to us, you can tell if we’re smiling or not smiling. Mechanically, that’s because the shape of our facial mask changes. But really it’s that our attitude is driving the way that everything happens. On the page, you’re manipulating that with word choice, sentence structure, and punctuation. Then, experience is about what… How the character views the world. So, specifically, when you’re hearing us talk about Red and Blue, you’re going to hear us talking about the use of botanical metaphors versus the use of mechanical metaphors, depending on which character we’re talking about. That comes from their experience. So those are a couple of levers that you can push very consciously without having to, like, have this extensive acting career or, in Amal’s case, Amal is a poet and is using a lot of additional tools. But these are 4 things that I find very useful.

[Howard] In… Oh, gosh, this would have been 40 years ago. I was reading the liner notes… Liner notes? Must have been, on a Billie Joel album. Billie Joel talked about getting his start. He said, “I listen to things on the radio and I told myself I can do that.” That… I wanted to be a rock star for years. Then I got into cartooning and into writing because I looked at things and said I can do that. I look at Time War and think I can’t do that.


[Howard] If you are feeling the same thing, I just wanted to express some camaraderie, a little bit of commiseration, and a little bit of hopefulness, which is that as we go through these, we want to give you the tools so that on your 3rd or 4th reread of one of these close reads, you begin to tell yourself, “Oh. Oh, I can do that.”

[Mary Robinette] It doesn’t even have to be doing that entire… Like, you can’t write Time War because that’s where the personal voice comes in. Their own experience, the thing that drives them. But you can use the tools that they’re using in Time War. That’s the piece that we’re hoping that you’re going to get out of these really close readings, that here’s this tool that you can use and apply to your own personal voice and your own experience, that that will come out on the page.

[DongWon] Well, one thing to keep in mind is also that this is 2 people. Right? This is a collaborative process. They’re bringing double the firepower to this project, and anybody who’s read Amal and Max’s work individually knows that those are already some pretty heavy guns that they’ve got. So, there’s something special that can happen in a collaboration where the sum is even greater than the individual parts. It’s very hard to get to. I don’t love a collaboration project, actually. It’s one of the grand ironies of this book, is I tend to be fairly opposed to them because they’re so difficult to do well. But in this case, those 2 came together in a way that their voices really braided together in this really powerful way that leads to the reading experience that we have in front of you.

[Mary Robinette] So, Erin, you tend to do fairly voice-y fiction also when you’re writing. What are the things that you think about when you’re looking at Time War in kind of relation to the way you approach your own work?

[Erin] I think, I like the way that you broke down sort of the different stuff, pacing… I’m going to forget them all now.

[Mary Robinette] Pacing, accent, attitude, experience.

[Erin] Pacing, accent, attitude, experience. I really wanted that to be like something I could say, like PAAE. That’s not really…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. Sorry.

[Erin] It’s okay. But I think that pacing, especially… Like, I love to look at the way in which other folks use punctuation. Because, like, really as writers, I find us to be a controlling lot.


[Erin] You know what I mean? We don’t just want you to read it, we want you to read it how we would read it in our own homes. So thinking about, I wonder if this… If the way I’m reading this is the experience that they intended me to have. Why is… In the thing that Howard read earlier, okay, there are some shorter bits in there. There are things that are 2 word sentences. Why is this. Here, why not a dash? Why was this not a semicolon? Oh, it’s because I need to stop all the way here. I like to really think about that because when I’m doing it, I know the effect that I’m going for. What I like to try to do is listen to somebody else and wonder about the effect that they are going for. It’s sort of like the listening to the song on the radio and going I think this song is meant to make me sad. Why and how? Because if I’m writing a song that wants to make somebody sad, I should think about if I understand how they did it, then I can understand the way that maybe I could do it better.

[Mary Robinette] My… One of the arguments that I will occasionally have with copy editors who will never see the argument back, like, the book is never returned to the copy editor with my No!


[Mary Robinette] But I’ll have things that are phrased like a question, but I do not have a question mark, because they are not said with a rising tone. Like, “What did you say.” Like, what did you say… Like, there’s a falling tone there. If you put a question mark, it’s a very different, “What did you say?” That kind of thing. I see early career writers, and I know I did it myself, get hung up on the grammar and having something grammatically correct is not what you’re trying to do when you write. Grammar is there for when you need to express clarity in some way. But most of the time, what you’re looking for is just do these rhythms flow?

[Howard] I look at grammar as the rule set that we play by when things are complicated and we need to make sure that everything is working well. Breaking those rules is what we do when we need a new rule in order to communicate something different. So we will deliberately throw down a word like mis-underestimate which isn’t a word, but which we can kind of tell what it means and away we go. The copy editor will say, “Hey, this isn’t a word,” and you say, “But it’s my word for this book.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] One way to think about voice is that voice is about clarity for the reader. It’s about clarifying the reader’s experience of all the information you’re trying to give them. Right? Because it is the vessel with which that’s handed over. So, sometimes, the way you achieve that clarity is by breaking grammatical rules, by using a very complicated language, or inventing your own word sometimes. Because what you’re trying to do is communicate what the emotional experience that you want the reader to have is. Right? So voice is your first interface with them. It’s the first… It’s why we’re doing this as our first module, is voice is the first and the last thing that you will encounter while reading a book.

[Erin] Yeah. I also think… Something else that just occurred to me, a bit of a side note, is that the other thing that I really like to look at is that… Is… Once you create voice and people understand what that voice is, you have to keep doing the work, but in some ways, you’ve already established who this person is. The way that they talk, the way that they think, and it actually helps to put their voice in the mind of your reader.

[DongWon, Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] Like, one of my favorite English sentences is, “I didn’t say you got to keep the money.” Because you can put the emphasis on every single word in that, like, I didn’t say you got to keep the money. I didn’t… Like, it’s a different… It’s a slightly different meaning. If you have the voice of the character established, they will emphasize, hopefully, the word that you would emphasize when you were writing it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is very similar to what happens in audio fiction. There are character voices that I cannot sustain for an entire thing. Like the [low shack] Luidaeg in the October Daye books. I’m talking like this. I can’t do that for an entire page. So I hid it really hard at the beginning, and then I back off and use it for emphasis where I want to drive home this is the [low shack] Luidaeg speaking. I find the same with… When I’m writing, that I will use those embellishments, the… Sometimes it’s just as simple as italics, but sometimes it’s like the flourishing words at places where I want to remove ambiguity about who’s speaking or what they mean or places where I want to add emphasis. It’s like, no, this is seriously this person.

[DongWon] Well, one last thing I wanted to point out here is another reason I think this is a great book to use is so much of the character development and plot development is communicated through alterations in voice. The voice evolves over the course of the book, and as it does, we grow with the writer. Or the characters, and our understanding of the world that they live in also evolves. Right? So we get to sort of see how you can use voice as an active tool in your fiction.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] I think people think about it as kind of a passive set thing. Right? In the first paragraph, you set your voice, and then it’s the same throughout. That, ideally, is not true. It grows and changes with you. I think this again is a pretty radical example of how you do that.

[Howard] Before we jump to our homework… Isn’t that what we’re getting ready to do next? Before… I would like to send us home with a passage that I think fits beautifully. “I am glad to know you love reading. Perhaps you should next write from a library. There’s so much I want to recommend.”


[Mary Robinette] That’s perfect.

[DongWon] That is perfect. On that note, I have our homework for you this week. So. What I would like you to do is to take a sentence from a work you love that has a strong and clear voice. So think about what are some voice-y pieces that you’ve read that you really enjoy. Take that sentence and write a scene based on that as a prompt in the same tone and voice as the original. So, I’m not trying to get you to replicate the original scene, but take that… Take what you love about why it sounds the way it does, and try and extend that into your own fiction and make that voice a little bit your own.

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

[Howard] Hey, podcast lovers. Do you know that you can upgrade your experience here with our ad-free tier on Patreon? Head over to to enjoy an ad free oasis as well as access to our virtual Discord community where you can talk with your fellow writers.