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

19.14: A Close Reading on Voice- Epistolary Storytelling Through Voice

What’s epistolary writing? Well, it’s writing through letters. But it’s also a lot more than that. As we continue to dive into the concept of Voice, we want to explore the importance and power of the letters that Blue and Red write to each other throughout “This Is How You Lose The Time War.” If you haven’t already listened to our episodes introducing this novella, we recommend you go back and start with Episode 11 (of this season, Season 19)!

And if you’ve been reading along with us while listening to these episodes, please let us know on Instagram. Tag us in a post or comment @writing_excuses ! 

Thing of the Week: clipping.” by Story 2 

Homework: Write a short note from one of your characters to another about something that’s important to them. Now rewrite it as a text message (change the format). Then rewrite it as a letter that will be screened before it gets to them by an outsider (change the context). And finally, write it as the final message they will get to send during their life (change the stakes).

You can buy this (and all the other books!) through our bookshop link.

Close Reading Series: Texts & Timeline

VoiceThis is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar (March 17) 

Worldbuilding: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (May 12) 

Character: “You Perfect, Broken Thing,” “The Cook,” and “Your Eyes, My Beacon: Being an Account of Several Misadventures and How I Found My Way Home” by CL Clark (July 7) 

TensionRing Shout by P. Djèlí Clark (September 1) 

StructureThe Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (October 13) 

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.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Epistles, letters, and voice. What do letters do for voice? 2 things at the same time, what you plan to say, and knowing that it is written for a specific audience, how you present it. 2nd person! Can we be luxuriant and indulgent without epistles? Yes, using pacing, accent, attitude, experience, and focus. Try free indirect speech. Epistles let you concentrate it. Playfulness or humor in the midst of serious situations, like gallows humor. Epistles have a performative aspect, with the character conscious that their words will be judged. The signoff yours. Repetition and resonance! 

[Transcription note: I have tried to get the quotes from the book correct, however, I may have made mistakes. Please refer to the book if you want the exact wording or punctuation!]

[Season 19, Episode 14]

[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 14]

[Mary Robinette] Hey, listeners. We want your input on season 20. Which, I have to be honest, does not sound like a real number. What elements of the craft do you want us to talk about? What episode or core concept do you use or reference or recommend the most? Or, what are you just having trouble with? After 20 seasons, we’ve talked about a lot of things. What element of writing do you wish we’d revisit for a deeper dive on the podcast? Email your ideas to [email protected]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A Close Reading on Voice – Epistolary Storytelling through Voice.

[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.

[Erin] At the very beginning of our journey in this book, I talked about how much I love the fact that it used epistolaries, that it uses letters. So we’re going to really dive into how voice is working within the epistolaries in this particular episode. I actually want to start before we get into a specific reading that I’m going to ask DongWon to do, just to…


[Erin] Just to hear him do it, is that I’m wondering sort of what is it… Why do we use epistolaries? What is it that letters actually do in voice? I’ll say, for me, one of the things I like about using letters is that there are 2 sort of things going on at the same time. There’s what you planned to say, and the fact that you know you’re writing it to a specific audience, that your character is writing it to someone. So they expect it to be read. That changes the way that they actually present themselves in the things that they put on the page.

[Mary Robinette] I do agree because I think that one of the things that that illuminates is very clearly what the character thinks of the other character. Because of the way they frame things, the… All of the subtext that goes into that epistolary letter. It is also, I think, one of the things that is fun because there is the epistolary that is the letter, and then there’s also things that are… Like news articles, and these are very different because they are written to a broad audience, whereas a letter is written, as you said, to one specific person. That is, I think, that’s fun.

[DongWon] The letter epistolary, the thing I love really about it is I’m such a sucker for the 2nd person in a piece of fiction. I love the you address. It plays with your subjectivity as the reader in such an interesting way, because it forces you into the position of the person on the other end of this. Right? So, in this case, switching between Red and Blue, and using the 2nd person… I’m put in the position where I have to identify with the person receiving the letter in a way that I think is really fascinating to me, and I think really deepens the connection to character in this book. It’s a really clever trick that I really love.

[Howard] How do I know what I think, until I see what I say? I have operated on that principle for decades.


[DongWon] I find these so delightful is the letters can be quite silly in a way that’s really good. So. Anyways, Erin is torturing me by making me read this.

“My perfect Red. How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored? Perhaps you’ll tell me once you finished with this strand?”

[DongWon] Just like these little references and jokes layered throughout… It is so delightful to me. Then, there’s a later line in the same letter that… This taunting voice. Right?

“A suggestion of corruption in my command chain? A charming concern for my well-being? Are you trying to recruit me, dear Cochineal? And then we’d be at each other’s throats even more. Oh, Petal, you say that like it’s a bad thing.”

[DongWon] There’s so much dialogue here, there’s so much voice-iness here. The characters are coming through. It’s such this crisp playful way as, like, Blue taunts Red through this whole letter. We’re going to see such, like, different evolution in the tone of their letters to each other as we go. But these early ones are such a hook for the audience.

[Erin] Yeah. I think I’ve been thinking since we talked about it a few episodes ago, why I find these to be so dense in some ways. I think it’s because I’m responding to the denseness of personal indulgence as opposed to the denseness of poetic prose.

[DongWon] Oh, I love that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] You know what I mean? Because these are the moments in which I feel like I get the best sense of who they are, because of the way that they’re trying to present themselves, as opposed to… Which is like the splash of color against this beautiful backdrop of poetry. Which I absolutely love.

[Howard] Indulgence is definitely the right word there.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] The luxuriating and indulgent… That I can feel… I can feel in reading these how much Max and Amal just love to write.

[DongWon] Oh, yeah. And love to write to each other. Right? These letters… They wrote these, this novella, sitting literally back-to-back, passing a laptop back and forth. So one would write the letter and hand it to the other. I think that’s where that sense of playfulness comes from. You can feel the friendship in this, you can feel the taunting, back-and-forth, as they’re both trying to show off for each other in a way that I think comes through.

[Howard] Oh, you’re going to go Blue du ba de…


[Howard] Well, I got some draft punk on tap for you, baby.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Howard] Hey, I’ve got some questions about how these epistolaries… Not just how they work, but how we can do the same sorts of things. Maybe even do the same sorts of things without being epistolary. But I think those questions have to wait until after the break.

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[Erin] I’m excited to tell you about a song this week. It’s a song Story2 by the group clipping. What I love about songs, just in general, is that they have to get put so much story into, like, a really small space. In this case, it’s through a character study of a guy named Mike Winfield. I won’t tell you much more, because it literally takes 3 minutes to actually listen to the song. But one thing that I want you to listen for, maybe the 2nd time around, or as your sort of enjoying it, is how he gets so much about who Mike Winfield is, where he’s been, and the tension of the current moment, all at once. The 2nd thing to look for is something that clipping does that’s amazing is they change the time signature of the song as it goes and tension is tightened, which is something that you may be able to use in changing the tempo of your prose. So, look at how they decide when to change that tempo and what you can learn from it by listening to Story2 by clipping.

[Howard] Let me start with this question. The luxuriance, the indulgence, the loving to write. Can we do this without resorting to epistolary? Are these tools available to us in other ways?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Absolutely. They’re still using the same tools that we’ve been talking about for voice all along. They’re still using pacing, accent, attitude, experience. Focus, even. But what they’re doing is that, in the epistolary, it gives you a little bit more freedom… Just a little bit… To have some of those repetitions, some of the more colloquial language. You can do that absolutely when you’re not in epistolary form. That’s where we… That’s where that free indirect speech that we’ve been talking about comes back in. That some of the things that are very specifically their phrasing, if you took that, and you shifted it to 3rd person and you put it into the middle of a paragraph of action, just a sentence out of that, you would get that same sense of the character, but you would get it spread out through the book instead of in this compressed place of the epistolary where it’s isolated in form.

[Erin] I also think being playful in the middle of ser… In, like, a serious situation is something that we can all use. I mean, you are the humor expert, so you know this sort of better than anyone, but, I think, that that’s something to think about here is that just because a topic is serious or a theme is serious doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for play. That room gives us a breath. It’s like gallows humor. Even in the worst of times, people often use humor to respond to it. There’s an episode of Deep Space 9 that I love where all the people are gonna die, and how they respond to it shows you so much about their character. One person gets quiet. One person jokes. One person plans. That shows a lot in the way…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] I mean, you can do that in voice. Somebody who starts making a list at the… Imminent death is coming, is going to feel different than somebody who jokes about the different ways they could die.

[DongWon] The thing I love about the humor here, though, is… When I encounter humor in fiction sometimes, it’s very frustrating, because it undermines the emotional beats of the overall story. Here, the humor never contradicts the story, it never contradicts the character beats. It is so clearly a character masking an emotion or taunting somebody else or being playful. But it takes the world seriously, and it takes the stakes seriously, and finds a way to be funny in the middle of that. Right? So I think the overall impression when people talk about Time War, when they think about this book, is of this lush romanticism, of this like deep character work and poeticness. But the experience of reading it… I often find myself laughing out loud at different beats of the book. It’s much funnier than I think people remember after they come back to it.

[Howard] As a humorist, that is what I reach for when I’m writing anything that is not… Would not be categorized as humor. During a critique group for one of the shorts that I published in Space Eldritch, a friend said, “The jokes that you put in this scene kind of undermines a whole lot of tension and horror that’s been happening.” My response was, “I know. I got too tense and scared, and so I just did it.” The rest of the group was like, “So did we. Thank you.” I was like, “Oh. Okay.” So this is a… It’s not to everybody’s taste, but I reflexively use the tool correctly. That’s one of the things that so cool about these kinds of tools is that sometimes if you are getting too tense, you are getting too emotional, you realize, “Oh, I need to… I need to turn a phrase in a way that makes me giggle.”

[Mary Robinette] This is also that… That sense is also something that your character will be experiencing while they are writing the letter. So there is a performative aspect to an epistolary section, where the character is conscious of the fact that their words are going to be judged, so they are trying to present themselves in a certain way. When we look back at that first letter from Red…

“My cunning methods for spiriting her from your clutches. Engine trouble, a good spring day, a suspiciously effective and cheap remote access software suite her hospital purchased 2 years ago, which allows the good doctor to work from home.”

[Mary Robinette] It’s like I’m just going to show off just a little bit. You think you’ve got me? No, no, no. Look at how clever I am. I set this up 2 years before you even got here. That kind of performative nature, I think, and how am I going to be judged, is, again, a thing that you can bring outside of the epistles into the way your character’s moving through the world. How are people going to judge me, by the actions that I take and the words that I say in the text of a letter, it becomes very, very clear.

[Erin] Yeah. I think it really also is a great way to show character development, because the way you move through the world changes, and therefore the type of performance. You get better at performing, maybe other people get better at judging, they become more familiar with you. I know we wanted to look also at some of the letters from the very end, because how does the relationship change? I know, Howard, you had some thoughts about how the…

[Howard] Oh, Lord.

[Erin] Even the signoff changes from the very beginning to the end…

[Howard] Yeah. There’s a…

[Erin] Of the letters.

[Howard] There’s a technique, that I need to give a name to so that I can just call it a thing, in which you define the terms for your reader and one of the terms that gets defined, through these epistolaries, is the signoff yours. This is from an epistle that Red’s writing to Blue.

“I am yours in other ways as well. Yours as I watch the world for your signs [epithenic as a horospeck?]. Yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery. Yours as I review your words, by their sequence, their sounds,, smell, taste. Taking care no one memory of them becomes too worn. Yours. Still. I suspect you will appreciate the token.”

[Howard] Then Red closes the letter.

“Yours, Red.”

[Howard] Every letter afterward is closed, whether from Red or Blue, with the word yours. Now we know what that word means to them. Because Blue would not write yours absentmindedly. Blue would write yours saying, “Yes. All of these definitions you gave me and more.” So, by defining the terms here, Max and Amal have lent weight to the word so that one word can do a huge lift all the way through the rest of the book.

[DongWon] I really love about this technique is it lets them be more directly emotional from the perspective of the character then you would get in narration sometimes. Right? In narration, you sort of have to have a little bit of a step back. Being able to fully embody for pages at a time the deeply lovesick romantic characters that we’re seeing can lead to a more direct address. In particular, there’s one line it that I’ve seen quoted many times, but I’d love to reference it here just to show how far we’ve come from the playful tone of the early letters to now in these, like, deep professions of love.

[Mary Robinette] As I read this to you, I want you to think about 2 tools that we’re talking about, repetition, and then there’s also resonance. That’s where you recognize that there’s a link between something you’ve said before and something we’re saying now. So this section has some lovely repetition in it.

“I love you. I love you. I love you. I’ll write it in waves, in skies, in my heart. You’ll never see, but you will know. I’ll be all the poets. I’ll kill them all, and take each one’s place in turn, and every time love’s written in all the strands, it will be to you. But never again like this.”

[DongWon] The thing I love about this passage… I mean, other than it’s like heartbreakingly romantic and so beautifully written. But it’s so clearly identifiable with Red. That Red’s most romantic gesture is I will kill all the poets through all of time…


[DongWon] And replace them. Like, that’s her solution to making sure Blue understands how much she loves her.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It again resonates with that first moment when we met Red on the battlefield. The thing about this resonance is that it’s one of the ways that you can allow the reader… That you can make space for the reader. That’s something that is really important in stories, I think, because the reader inhabits half of the story. Like, the writer has the thing, and then we invite the reader to it. But you bring so much of yourself to it, your own experience. When you are imagining a voice, you are using your own experience to imagine that voice. So, having these resonant moments where you can insert yourself and you can feel that, where you’re drawing the connections yourself, makes it stronger than the stories where everything is explained out completely. Those stories tend to get very flat.

[Erin] One other thing I love about this, and the mention of repetition and all that, is that one of the first things we see is the repetition, which we talked about in a previous episode. “She has won. Yes, she has won. She is certain she has won. Hasn’t she?” That is… Repetition can be both sure and unsure. Like, repetition’s very interesting. Because sometimes you repeat something because you know it, and sometimes you repeat something because you wish you knew it. You want to convince yourself of it. Seeing Red move from this sort of trying to repeat the things I have been told and taught are important…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] To something I am claiming as important for myself is just a great way to look at how the same tool can be used 2 different ways, and is also a great way to show movement in the character as a whole.

[DongWon] This goes back to the previous episode, but in the way that Blue communicates confidence and vulnerability in her voice, we’re seeing that come out of Red now. Red is much more confident in this scene than she’s ever been in the early scenes. But that confidence is coming through an incredible vulnerability. An incredible moment of stress and distress in this letter as she’s communicating how much she loves Blue, but also knows that Blue is dying at her hand in these moments. Right? So, the incredible complexity of what’s happening here, but we’re seeing a Red that is so much more certain and aware of herself and what she wants and who she is then we’ve seen up until this point in the book.

[Mary Robinette] She’s also doing a thing in this where she is using some of the cadence of Blue with the listing. “I’ll write it in waves, in skies, and my heart.” But doing it with Red, short, punctuated sentences. So it’s this thing where she is both reflecting the person that she loves and also truly expressing herself.

[DongWon] She’s learning how to write this way. Right?

[Howard] The line, “Red may be mad, but to die for madness is to die for something,” is… Ah… I get chills.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] The confidence. The acceptance. The decision. And the… I’m in the chapter where Red is at a dead run trying to fix an unfixable problem.

[Erin] I think on that chill we will move to the homework for you. Which is to write a short note from one of your characters to another about something that’s important to them. Then you’re going… Make it short because you’re going to have to do it a couple of times. Rewrite it as a text message. So you’re going to change the format a little bit. How does that change the way that this note is happening? Then, right it is something that’s going to be screened. Think about the ways somebody in prison might have their letter read by someone else who doesn’t care about it before it gets to their intended target. So that changes a little bit of the context. Then, finally, right it as the final message they will ever get to send in their life. Which changes the stakes.

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

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[Mary Robinette] Support for today’s show comes from the Inner Loop Radio. If you listen to us because you’re a writer, then you’ll also want to listen to Rachel and Courtney talk about how to stay inspired, how to stay focused, and how to stay sane. Subscribe now to the Inner Loop Radio on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, or any other podcasting site. Get inspired, get focused, and get [lit] on the Inner Loop Radio.