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

19.15: A Close Reading on Voice: Tying It All Together

As we conclude our first deep dive of our close reading series, we want to explore how the evolution of voice helped carry readers throughout “This Is How You Lose The Time War.” We also talk about the relationship between character arcs and language, learning and voice. Stay tuned for next week’s episode, where we interview Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar on what it was like to write “Time War” together! 

Thing of the Week: 

Princess Weekes


Write a short outline of your work noting where the voice changes and evolves to reflect the character growth and change rather than focusing on the plot beats

A Reminder

That starting May 12th, we’ll be focusing on Worldbuilding and reading A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. If you’re going to buy this book, we have this bookshop link available for you to do so! (If not, go support your local library!)

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: Voice can be an active part of developing plots and character arcs. As the character changes, their voice changes. Characters learn. Allow yourself to love to write. When you can’t write with joy, reach for craft. Use the tools in revision. Use pacing, punctuation, word choice, accent, sentence structure to make the character more them. Allow yourself to be yourself as you write, use the personal voice! Use the smiley face! When something is good in what you are reviewing or critiquing, put a smiley face by it. Look for the key phrase, the sentence or paragraph that really sounds like the character, and use that to ground yourself as you revise or write more. Take big swings! Push yourself, and aim at the home run. Watch for falling into the same rhythm, sentences, and repetition by accident. Try reading it aloud to catch this! Check the musicality of your text. Deconstruct what you’re doing, just step back and look at what you are trying to accomplish and how you are doing it. 

[Season 19, Episode 15]

[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

[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]

[Season 19, Episode 15]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A Close Reading on Voice – Tying It All Together.

[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, we are reaching the end of our first sort of module, talking about This Is How You Lose the Time War. We want to focus a little bit on both recapping some of the stuff we’ve talked about, but also making sure it feels actionable for you, the audience, about how you can start to apply this to your own fiction. So one of the things I really wanted to focus on, I think we’ve hit a number of times over the past few episodes, is we can sometimes think about voice as a very passive element of your story. You decide the voice at the beginning, and then once you sort of finish your opening section, you’re like, “That’s the voice for my book.” I hope you can see from the past few episodes as we looked at Red and Blue and the letters individually, how voice is an active participant in developing the plots, in developing the characters, and really carrying the reader through in a way, with much more clarity than if the voice hadn’t evolved.

[Mary Robinette] This is something that is a factor that you will find in most fiction that you’re going to be reading or writing, that… If you have a character arc, I should say. If you have a character arc, your character at the end is not the same person they were at the beginning. So it is natural that the voice of the character would evolve over the course of the story. But we often don’t think about it. We just let it go for a ride. So, thinking about some of the tools that we’ve used here, the big one that I would say for adjusting things is the experiential nature of the character. Like, that they are seeing things differently at the end than they are at the beginning. So you’re going to be using different language to highlight things, as one example.

[Erin] I think another thing is, building on that different language, is also that characters learn things. You know what I mean? There are things we always carry with us, like, if you were the child of fisherfolk, maybe you always use fish metaphors throughout the rest of your life. But if you suddenly learn magic, or you learn how to become an engineer, or you go to space, the type of language that you use will change. I think a lot of times, again, we will sometimes think, “Oh, I’ve set up the knowledge that my character has at the beginning of the story,” and then that knowledge changes. But has the language changed with it? So you can sort of look at a paragraph from the beginning of something you’re writing and something at the end and say, “Do these seem the same?” If they do, is that a choice that I’ve made, or is that something I’ve defaulted into?

[DongWon] Well, one great example of that is in the letters, they start referencing this thing that’s like Mrs. Levitt’s Guide, which is some kind of…

[Mary Robinette] Etiquette.

[DongWon] Etiquette manual. Thank you. That teaches them how to write letters. Red is using this actively, and we see Red discover postscripts and all kinds of different aspects of letter writing. But it’s also a cue for the audience as well of showing how literally Red and Blue are teaching each other how to speak to each other. Right? We’ll see poetry start to appear in Red’s letters. We see this back-and-forth about different elements of letter writing, about postscripts and things like that. I think it’s really reflecting what Erin is talking about, of how you can actively and deliberately have your characters learn how to speak and how to write in a way that shows their ongoing entanglement in the way that language changes.

[Howard] The tool that I would first recommend that you, fair listener, take from this whole close read. Allow yourself to love to write.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] Let yourself love it. Lose yourself in it. In our previous episode, I used the word luxuriate, Erin used the word indulgence. Embrace those. Please. Luxuriate in it, indulge yourself in writing. And that joy will begin to lock in some of these tools for you. Because I’m watching Mary Robinette work from notes as she talks to us and lists these things that we can do deliberately, and I think I will never be able to do all of that deliberately. That’s fine. I’m just going to have fun with it, and then remember those rules and rewrite deliberately.

[Mary Robinette] Well, so frequently the tools that I list are things that I used to punch up my fiction, that it’s… Sometimes it’s stuff that I do unconsciously, because I come out of theater. So, getting into a character voice and rhythm is something that I was trained to do and have internalized. But other times when I’m writing with depression, I cannot write with… Through the joy. I lean… I reach for the craft, and I’ll let myself get something down that’s messy, knowing that I can come back and I will look at it and say, “Okay. Pacing wise, where does this character pause? Is this a character that speaks in long fluid sentences? Or is this a character that speaks in short punctuated sentences?” I will go through and I will adjust my punctuation, I will think about the word choice, I frequently go back in even with something that I have written from a place of joy, will go back in and look at how I can dial up a character’s particular accent. Like, what are the word choices and sentence structure that makes this character more specifically them? How do I remove the ambiguity, so none of the other characters on the page could have said that sentence?

[Erin] I think we do a lot of this subconsciously all the time. I think about being in a meeting, or even listening to this podcast. You’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. That’s such a so-and-so thing to say.”


[Erin] Or, like when somebody says to me, they’re going to use a long metaphor and talk about their cat, because that’s what they always do…

[Mary Robinette] Have I told you about Elsie recently?


[Erin] Who is Elsie?

[Mary Robinette] Elsie is my cat, who uses buttons to talk. It’s very much… Carry on.


[Erin] That was absolutely… The cat who has no shame. I’ve been looking at pictures of my own cat all day. But I think that… Think about the things that you do. How do you recognize somebody else’s voice? Then, what is it about it? Is it the lens… Is it the things that they reference? Is it a specific word that they always use? That is a thing that they always come back to? Then think about how can you create characters that have that same depth and richness?

[Mary Robinette] Also, think about who your character is addressing, because that is one of the things, again, that we do naturally that Erin was just talking about. So when your character is speaking to someone else, do they have the same rhythm every time? Or do they change it based on who they’re talking to?

[DongWon] Yeah. I think one thing that comes through clearly in this is kind of going also to what Erin’s saying that allow yourself to be yourself as you write. This is the 3rd part of voice that we didn’t talk about, which I’m forgetting the exact term you used for it, but…

[Mary Robinette] Personal voice.

[DongWon] Personal voice. Right. Red and Blue sound very distinct because there written by different people. I get the distinct pleasure of being friends with these people, so I know how they talk. These are such heightened versions of how Max speaks and how Amal speaks. But their natural rhythms and their natural proclivities in how they talk, how they construct a metaphor, are coming through and they let that happen. Right? There was no hiding who they were. They were in fact amping that up, I think, to make that distinction very clearly felt the different sections. So, I think one other lesson you can take here in addition to let yourself have fun, write from a place of joy when you can, is also just because we’re giving you all these tools to manipulate voice, to use it in different ways that are very deliberate, don’t feel like what we’re also saying is you have to hide who you are. The way you talk, the way you think, the way you speak. Sometimes, the most distinctive fiction is the one that feels like you are talking to the person who wrote it.

[Mary Robinette] The way I often describe this is you’ve spent your entire life honing your tastes as a reader, and you’ve got good taste. So trust your taste when you’re writing.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Erin] I would say as both a reader and a listener. Because I think there are ways of writing, ways of speaking, that actually don’t make it into fiction as often. So if you love the way that your auntie tells a story, you know, maybe there’s a way to take that and put that on a page in a way that nobody else could because nobody else has your auntie. Well, except your relatives.


[Erin] So, just get that and put that on the page. Because it comes from you and your experience, it will feel real and it will feel valuable to the reader…

[Howard] Depending on the relatives, it might be a sister or a daughter.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] You are still right. None of them have your version of her.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s the personal voice. So, the thing about this is that what we’re trying to do here is to teach you the mechanical and the aesthetic voice and how to manipulate them. What we hope is that you can learn to inhabit your own personal voice. Because mechanical and aesthetic can be learned. Personal is all about just learning to trust yourself.

[Howard] I have a smiley face for you. After our break.

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[Erin] This week I want to talk to you about Princess Weekes. She has some of my favorite YouTube video essays on the Internet right now. She has this way of bringing excellent story, culture, and media analysis that has helped me immensely in crafting my own work. She looks at popular or unpopular works of media, asks the right kinds of questions to get you thinking, and explains why it did or didn’t have the impact it was looking for. Specifically, her video on why The Last Duel failed was an excellent critique of how you can look at a movement like Me, Too or see the problems in representation of women, and then try, but fail, at addressing the true reasons the movement happened. But you should really go watch all of her things. That’s Princess Weekes on YouTube.

[Howard] One of my biggest fears when I pick up the long lists of tools and techniques is that it will suck the joy out of whatever it is that I’ve written, that it will become mechanical, that it will become cookie-cutter or recipe or whatever. My solution for this is the smiley face. In red pen, when I am reviewing my manuscript or when I’m critiquing someone else’s, if there is something that sings to me, makes me laugh, it was a wonderful metaphor, whatever, I put a smiley face next to it. That means there may be other things you need to change in this document, but don’t break this bit. Don’t break this bit. I gotta tell you, the smiley face has been the most valuable critique mark that I write to myself, because it stands as a reminder.

[DongWon] Absolutely.

[Howard] Because when I go back over the text, I don’t always remember how much I loved that the first time I wrote it or the first time I reread it.

[DongWon] It’s such a huge mistake I see early career editors make. Right? When they’re starting out and doing their first books that they’re working on, they’ll give feedback and the author will be like, “I thought I wrote a good book. What happened?” I’m like, “You did write a good book. This person just forgot to write down all the parts where they liked this.” Right? They forgot to do what I think of as an alignment exercise of, like, first you tell the writer here’s what I loved about this book, here’s why it’s important, here’s why all these things are working. Now let’s get on to some of the stuff that isn’t working that will further highlight what does work. Right? So I think when it comes to voice, when you go through your manuscript, I think this is great advice from Howard, of learn to recognize what things do sound like you and you like that fact. Right? Lean into that going forward.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s a more of this, please. This is something… I love calling it an alignment exercise. This is, again, trusting your own taste, trusting that personal voice. You… Books that you love, you’re not the only person that loves that book. When you read it, you have an emotional response to it every time you read it. So when you’re reading your own book and you have emotional responses, trust those emotional responses. Those are genuine things that you experience as a reader. If you like it, lean into it. It’s like, “Oh, okay. I did that well.” And when you’re learning, you can use these tools to say, “Okay, what did I do well here? How can I do that intentionally, and heighten it later in other parts of the book, so that this thing that I love, I continue to be good at?”

[Erin] I also think with voice specifically, because it can be hard to really capture the voice of a character, at least it is for me, is sometimes I’ll go through and find a sentence or a paragraph where I feel like, “This is the person.” Like, I really got it here. Sometimes I’ll have to write my way into it. Like, I’ll start writing the story, it’s not quite there, it’s not quite there, and then I’m like, “This is the phrasing that this character would absolutely use 100% of the time.” I will highlight that, and then when I go to either revise or write more, I will start by grounding myself in that sentence or paragraph and say, “Okay. This is what I’m trying to get to, this is the feeling. Now, can I carry it forward?”

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] As someone who has built PCs, I love the word grounding myself…


[Howard] Because if I forget to ground myself, I’ll destroy a $1500 video card…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Absentmindedly.

[Mary Robinette] Well, this… In audiobook narration, we call this thing that you’re talking about, we have a word for it, it’s called a key phrase. It’s used to get yourself into the rhythms of the character, so that you remember what is your pacing for this, what is the accent of this character, what attitude do I have? I think that that’s the thing that you’re looking for when you’re looking for this phrase, it’s like… It embodies all of those things in a single moment.

[DongWon] Yeah. Kind of building off of this, the one thing that I also want people to remember when experimenting with voice, in addition to the other elements we’ve talked about, is don’t be afraid to take a big swing. Don’t be afraid to push yourself and reach for the tonality, the voice, the emotion that you’re looking for, whether that is the blunt muscular brutalism of Red or the deep poetic organicness of Blue. These are huge swings in terms of voice. Right? There really aiming for the fences with how far they’re pushing this, and I think that’s part of the joy of the book and that’s part of the playfulness of the book, is this sort of high wire formalist act that they’re pulling off here. Then we see that again in the letters, the way they become so profoundly hugely romantic. That’s… That is not a thing you see very often in text. I think one of the reasons people responded to it so well is both the humor, but also the “Oh, my God, these characters are so in love with each other,” and feeling that in your body as you read it is really wonderful.

[Howard] Sports ball has the best metaphor here. You miss 100% of the pitches you don’t swing at.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] You take that big swing, and, speaking as someone who is at this moment remembering very vividly some of my young writer mistakes and fears, you will miss some of those pitches you swing at. The good news is that as a writer, you get to go back…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] And rewrite. You get to put the novel in a trunk, or the story in a trunk, and come back to it 10 years later and say, “Oh. Now I have the skill set to finish this thing that I wanted to do,” or, you come back 10 years later as Dr. Frankenstein, and this is more liked my approach, and say, “Oh, that corpse is only good for parts.”


[Howard] But I know which parts!

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Yeah. Not to stress everyone out, but from a publishing perspective, we’re in an era where base hits aren’t good enough. Right? You’ve gotta be swinging for the fences. It can be okay if you get on base, but that shouldn’t be your target. Your target should be the home run. So I encourage you to do all these things that we’re talking about in terms of finding a way to get to that joyful place that you’re writing from, but also to make sure you’re pushing yourself and reaching for the thing that is really distinctive, is really going to stand out, is really personal.

[Mary Robinette] [garbled] As we’re talking about this, I want to flag a thing that I see happen with early career writers with voice, that is an… Asking for a mistake, and I see it happen a lot, which is this idea we’ve been talking about pacing and finding the rhythm of the voice, is that you will have a character or the… Just the language of the text itself, where everything has the same rhythm, where all the sentences are the same length, and you have this accidental repetition that, again, can flatten something. All your paragraphs are the same length. In the real world, you have this variety of rhythm. Something that you can really see when you look at This Is How You Lose the Time War is how intentionally they’re using when the character speaks in long sentences versus short sentences, when the switch happens, when the variety takes place. So look at your own work and think about if you’ve been thinking my prose falls flat, and your urge is to add more adjectives, take a look at it instead and see if it’s something that you can fix with your punctuation. Fix by just breaking up how the sentences are structured.

[Howard] I am almost shocked and amazed, Mary Robinette, that you didn’t tell us to try reading it out loud. Because often that is how I identify it, when I realize just in the pattern of my breathing, in the pattern of my nodding, of my body movements, I’m like, “Oh. This is all written to the beat of the song I was listening to…”


[Howard] “When I wrote it.”

[DongWon] That’s what I was going to say is…

[Howard] Oh, my.

[DongWon] I encourage people to think about the musicality of the text. Right? Think about the rhythm, the sound, all of those things. One way to switch stuff is to change the music you’re listening to. If you write to music, whether it’s wordless or with lyrics, find something with a different BPM. Find something with a different tonality. That can help you shift out of one rhythm. Or, even if you’re not using that specifically, just think about it as a piece of music, of when do you want to change your time signature, when are you heading into the bridge, when are you heading into the verse. Right? Those are all things that will help you unlock those tools of rhythm, of sound and poetics, and of repetition, which is also a very common thing in music, of when are you coming back to the same beat, the same note.

[Erin] I also think it’s just fun to sometimes deconstruct what you’re doing. There’s this song that I love called Title of the Song in which each ver… It’s like declaration of my feelings for you, elaboration on those feelings. The ver… The actual versus are telling you what the song would be doing. Sometimes, when something feels off to me, I’ll actually say like, “A long ass sentence that appears to be explaining the world. A really short quip.” Like, I’ll actually look…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] At what my thing is… What my sentences are attempting to accomplish. If it’s the same thing 8 times in a row, then it doesn’t quite work.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] Because, to think about musicality and karaoke, one of my favorite things, even the most amazing singer, if they just come out and belt, with no variety, they never make their voice softer, no matter how good the tone is, people will start to tune out, about 2 like sentences in. Because they’ll be like, “Oh. Okay. That’s what’s happening here. Back to my conversation.” The way you keep people in a song is the way you keep people in writing, by using variety so that not quite sure what’s coming next and they feel like you’re taking them on a journey that they want to go on with you.

[Howard] The song between the servants, This Is As Good As It Gets, in season 2 of Gallivant, the actress is trained as a Broadway singer, and they don’t let her off the leash until the last 2 verses of that song, and she belts… I get chills every time I hear it, because I realize that was the message of this song. She is breaking free from a life of servitude and accepting that she is good enough to not have to eat olives off the floor. They communicate that with that note of… Just a couple notes. Oh, I get chills just thinking about it. So, yeah. Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Changing the rhythms. It’s something that we’re hardwired… We’re hardwired to pay attention to repetition and then to also tune it out. The reasons are that if there’s something that’s a sameness, that’s… If you think of us as humans as animals, that’s not important information. You know what it is, you’ve identified it. So you’re listening for the threat or the opportunity. The threat of the rhythm of someone stalking you. Or the drip drip of water that is a food source… A water source. So, again, like when you’re placing those repetitions in your text, you want to be placing them in points where it’s carrying information that the reader needs as opposed to just accidental repetition that the reader tunes out as unimportant. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, it’s all green. It’s true, it’s leaves.”

[DongWon] Yeah. If you want an example of how pacing and repetition can really enhance your experience, I love Tina Turner’s rendition of Proud Mary, which starts very slow and then gets incredibly fast and intense by the end of it. I think that sense of… That increasing excitement and thrill and danger, all those things are communicated in that song as it changes very differently tonally from the beginning to the end. So, I want all of you to sort of think about the musicality and think about that tonality. Think about rhythm and repetition, as I’m demonstrating right now. As you’re like really digging into how to keep building the voice of your work.

[Mary Robinette] I think that brings us to our homework.

[DongWon] Our homework for this week is I want you to write a short outline of your work in progress. This would be a new outline. I want you to instead of focusing on what are the plot beats for your characters or… You could even do this for a single character arc if you don’t want to do it for the whole book. But instead of writing down what happens to the character, make notes about how the voice of that character will change with these events. Make a little bit of an outline so you have a sense of the arc as the character changes how they see the world, how they’re going to talk about the world, and experience it.

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

[DongWon] Please rate and review us 5 stars on Apple podcasts or your podcast platform of choice. Your ratings help other writers discover us for the first time.

[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.