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

19.16: An Interview with Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar

Today we get to talk to the inimitable Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. Amal and Max are on the podcast to tell us about how they wrote a book together (hint: they didn’t write it together in the form of one voice.) They talk to us about the practice of writing letters, collaboration, and the revelation of friendship. They talk about the complexity, harmony, and cadence of two-author projects. We also talk about that voice in your head that criticizes your writing, and how to work with it and harness your authentic desire to tell a certain story.  

Thing of the Week: 

From Amal- Hollow Night 

From Max- Talking Man by Terry Bisson 


From Max and Amal: Take a passage of something you’ve written and rewrite it in three different ways: as if it were being sung, as if it were being shouted, and as if it were being whispered. 

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 Max Gladstone, Amal El-Mohtar, Mary Robinette Kowal, and DongWon Song. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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Writing Excuses 19.16: An Interview with Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar


Key points: Co-authoring can blend voices or contrast them. Compressed or expanded? Bringing your own personal tastes, experiences, references to your writing builds your own voice. A shell on the beach or the whole beach? Build the runway as you’re flying the plane…

[Season 19, Episode 16]

[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]

[Mary Robinette] This is just a warning. Max and Amal are really amazing, so we know that this podcast is going to go very, very long. This is not 15 minutes long, because they are that smart.

[Season 19, Episode 16]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] An Interview on Voice, with Max and Amal.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] And I’m DongWon.

[DongWon] This week, we are very lucky to have two guests with us. As you all know, we’ve spent the last several weeks diving into This Is How You Lose the Time War, and doing a close read, and talking about different aspects of how voice is used in the book, how the different characters are distinguished from each other, and all these different aspects of the way in which voice is very much put forward in the book. We are so lucky today to be able to talk to the authors themselves, Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, who are both here with us today. Max, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself to our audience?

[Max] Sure. Hi. I’m Max Gladstone. I am one of the co-authors of This Is How You Lose the Time War, and also the author of I guess about 10 books. Probably notably the Craft sequence, of which the most recent book Wicked Problems, is just out, maybe a week ago as you listen to this.

[DongWon] Yep. And Amal?

[Amal] Hi. I’m Amal El-Mohtar, and I am also the other co-author on This Is How You Lose the Time War. I’m also a critic, I write a column for the New York Times on science fiction and fantasy. I review stuff there more generally. I write short stories and poetry. I just today, this is time of recording, not time of release, finished a book that I turned in. It’s hard to say that, because it’s a revision.


[Amal] But I just keep convincing myself it’s a book. It’s called the River Has Roots.

[DongWon] It is a book, and we are very excited about it. It’s gonna be great.

[Mary Robinette] I… Am making… I want this.


[Mary Robinette] If only I knew your agent to convince them to send me a copy when it’s ready for people to read it.

[DongWon] Yes. When it is ready, you absolutely will be getting one. I’ll make a note to remind your agent. So…

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[DongWon] So. For… What I kind of wanted to start with for Time War, is… Obviously, we picked this book because the voice is very strong. One of the unique things about this… A lot of written projects have a goal of blending voice, where you cannot tell the difference between them. Right? You look at something like The Expanse, for example, written by James S. A. Correy, which is two authors, but there’s no sense of a difference in voice from chapter to chapter. A lot of times, people are working together to try and blend it and smooth it out. You guys did exactly the opposite. Right?

[Amal] Yeah.

[DongWon] I think of both of you individually as incredibly voice-y writers. Right? Like Max, the Craft sequence has such a specific tonality and specificity in the writing. Amal, your short fiction has, like, this… There’s this lyricism to it. Seeing that emerge in Time War was really interesting. How did you guys think about approaching that in terms of each of you bringing very different modes of writing to this project?

[Amal] I mean, so partly the project emerged from the fact that we wanted to preserve our different voices essentially. Like, we wanted to make a virtue of the fact that we recognized we had very different voices and styles and modes. I mean, Max had written several novels and I had written only short stories. That, in and of itself, sort of constrains… Or, not constrains, but defines the voice that goes into that. We’d also been writing each other letters by hand. So, as a consequence, the fact that you have a voice and sort of nothing else in a letter was a means to kind of going, hey, how do we want to get both our voices in here without trying to make them be not our respective voices? What if we had them write letters? So, it really just like the… The project itself kind of came out of the fact that we wanted to preserve our voices.

[Max] Absolutely. I think the correspondence that we’d maintained for about a year or so before starting to write Time War played a bridging role because we both developed a voice in our own letters toward one another and we understood a kind of dynamic and play in letter writing that also was not about obscuring or rubbing away the standout aspects of one or another voice. When you’re writing… When you’re exchanging letters with someone, you don’t think, “Oh, I need to make my voice in the letter match theirs.” You might sometimes think, “Oh, wow. That letter really moved me, so now I feel a desire to confess or to reveal something in confidence to match.” There’s a sense of not exactly competition, but generative play…

[Amal] Yeah. Very much.

[Max] When you’re exchanging letters. I think the entire structure of the project came from the fact that we recognized our 2 voices were pretty different, and yet that we had many of the same concerns bringing us to the page. How to preserve what was valuable and create a structure where the commonalities could reinforce one another…

[Amal] Yeah.

[Max] That suggested 2 different characters, that suggested not overwriting each other, but instead, responding to one another.

[Amal] I think one last thing I’ll say on that, too, is that the place that this project had in our friendship, I think was also kind of a definitional aspect, because the 2 of us were getting to know each other and doing that thing that you do in early friendship where your sort of unpacking yourselves to each other in ways that are about revelation and connection and stuff, across and because of our differences. There… I think that invited a form of writing a project together that was about mutual discovery, as opposed to kind of the meld. I mean, the melding is a consequence of the discovery, if that makes sense. But to start with 2 voices that are very different, and then bring them into a kind of harmony to each other that doesn’t obliterate them, was, to me, part of it too.

[Max] When I come to read to author projects, I am often picking apart who wrote what. I have a pretty solid… I’ve only read a couple of the expanse That novels, but I have a pretty solid guess as to who writes which sections on a section by section level. It took me… As a kid, it took me 4 or 5 reads through Good Omens before I thought I had a really solid read on what parts were Neal’s and what parts were Terry’s. But that’s always fascinated me. I writers can be almost in the same zone, and also, nevertheless, revealing themselves. Things like word choice and joke cadence. I love it.

[Mary Robinette] I’m curious. I really want to dig into things like word choice and joke cadence. But kind of before we do that, I want to acknowledge that there is… There are 3 voices, at least, happening… Or 4, depending on how you want to define it. Because there’s the voices that are in the letters, but there’s also the narrative. I’m curious, like, did you… Were you thinking about keeping your voices separate in the narrative parts, as well, or were you focused on that more in the letter, the epistolary portions?

[Amal] That is such a good question. I don’t think we discussed that part, particularly. I think that definitely that was the area where I felt our respective styles were most coming to the fore. In the… Especially early on, mine were very… I always think of mine as very compressed, and Max’s as more expanded. Or expansive. That… Those are 2 things that kind of change over the course of the book. But we didn’t… I don’t think that we, like, set out as we were writing it to be like we’re keeping our voices really different in the 3rd person sections. How did you feel about that, Max?

[Max] I took a pretty strong let Bartlett be Bartlett approach to the project. I figured there was no way that whether… I figured that there was no way that we were going to end up producing scenes or letters that sounded like one another unless… And this did end up happening… We were specifically sort of in friendly competition with one another a little bit.

[Amal] Yeah.

[Max] Whereas, as things moved on, I was like, “Arg. Amal really got me with that scene. I wonder if I can do something that is like that, but in my own style?” So there was a little bit of trying to cap one another’s verses, I think, that started to happen midway through. In part, the virtue of the compressed composition… We did the first two thirds of this book in a really short period of time. Like, a couple of weeks, basically. Over a writing retreat for the first draft. Meant that we were drawing on a lot of influences and a lot of deep and broad roots in the genre storytelling. So, I was pulling off of a lot of new way of science fiction. The first section feels very much like a Zelazny riff to me, especially out of Creatures of Light and Darkness, or maybe some early Delaney. There’s Le Guin that pops in there, there’s a… You’ve got a William Gibson sort of quote in one section. Amal, though… 


[Max] Well, the cyberpunk sort of happened that… There’s a real game, which I think came out of a conversation… There’s a sort of computer real game that comes out of a conversation the 2 of us had about Michael Moorcock’s Iron Dragon’s Daughter. There’s a sort of… So there’s… The book is extremely referential. I found myself leaning on the broader languages of science fiction and fantasy in order to solve the many prose scenes so quickly. So you can orient somebody into a new scene, a new genre, a new corner of this massive timeshifting multi-verse rapidly. I felt like you were doing much the same, but since we were coming so much from our own experiences, things that we recognize, our own weird interests, they naturally had a very full and personal voice to them.

[Amal] They did. I mean, so, 2 things. One, the sort of capping verses thing. Right? There are so many things in Time War that you are referencing that either at the time or still currently I don’t have any experience of…

[Max] Like this.

[Amal] I have read exactly one Zelazny novel, and you gave it to me. It was A Night in the Lonesome October…


[Amal] Which is not in any way… It is an extraordinarily perfect book. But it’s not the tone or universe of what you were doing here. I had never listened to… Or, I, never deliberately or consciously listened to Bob Dylan. But when you threw in “Everyone’s building them big ships and boats,” and then, like, “as the prophets say,” became a thing that I just kind of started bouncing back to you and stuff…

[Max] I’d never listened to 3 Dead Trolls in a Baggie!

[Amal] Exactly. This is the thing. So, I’m, like, my references were also very niche and opaque and probably much more rooted in my benighted doctoral research. So there was a lot of 19th century British romanticism in there. There’s a lot of… Just a lot of, like, my stuff. So I feel like what we kind of did was give each other room to bring all of our toys out of our respective closets and, like, pile them onto the ground between us, and make the dinosaur talk to the robot, and make [garbled]


[Amal] So, I feel, like, that’s kind of what we did rather than decide that we wanted to follow 2 different things. I feel like we created a space for each other to bring our respective nonsenses to.

[Mary Robinette] This is just something that I kind of want to draw a line under for our listeners. That bringing your own personal taste… This is something we keep talking about season after season. That your own experiences, your own tastes, the references that mean something to you, are part of building a voice that is specifically yours. Things that even when you’re trying to match someone else, you can’t do, unless you have that same… You can bring that same experience. It’s something that makes it joyful.

[DongWon] There’s a term in literary criticism called anxiety of influence. Right? I can’t remember who it comes from, but it’s this anxiousness of, “Oh. I’m making this too close to X. I read Y, and now my book has too much of that in it.” What I love about Time War is how much you both just hang a lantern on it. Right? Like, that repeated refrain of “As the prophets say,” or just like the direct quotes, the million references that are happening throughout in the way in which you flatten all culture, and you’re welcome to make a literary 19th century romantic poetry reference and a pop song from the early 2000’s reference…


[DongWon] With the same equal weight because it is through the perspective of these 2 people to whom it’s all ancient history to them, that are all figuring it out. So, I think what I was really surprised by on rereading the book is when we talk about Time War, when we think about it, when people are tweeting about it, it is in the context of this like lush romantic story. Right? Between these 2 people, this grand scope love story, this like queer romance, all of that. I genuinely forgot how funny this book is…


[DongWon] Like, how did the 2 of you think about the humor, and the referential reality, and like… Almost like Monty Python-ness of it sometimes. Like, how deliberate was that in you working on the project, or how did you work that into the voice of it all?

[Amal] Can I say it is such a boon to… I have never thought of myself ever as a comic writer, as, like, someone who could write something…


[Amal] I think I have an enormous, like, I cannot stress how enormous my respect is for people who are and who do and who are comics, and who, like, do comedy in general. Like, it blows my mind, it is like watching magicians as far as I’m concerned. But the huge boon that I felt this project did is that if you are trying to make the person sitting across from you laugh, suddenly you are! Suddenly you are a comic, suddenly there’s no anxiety about it, you’re with someone who you trust, and you are sharing all your goofy, weird stuff that you have been talking about over the course of your year-long correspondence. If you’re just trying to make each other laugh, that’s what that’s really what I felt it was. Like, we kept… Especially in the sort of player versus player section of the book, just kind of back-and-forth, I think we were both thinking of spy versus spy, the comics, and how those are funny. We were thinking of how out doing each other and being… Like, being in that kind of competition.

[DongWon] It’s a Tom and Jerry aspect…

[Amal] Yeah.

[DongWon] To Red and Blue.

[Amal] Yeah. Absolutely. It’s so… Just kind of… We would talk about how to set up a sort of situation which could result in a certain… I don’t know if we talked about punchlines. I was about to say punch line. I’m not totally sure if that’s true now. Except, like the [wax feel] pun…

[Max] Yeah.

[Amal] And stuff like that.


[Amal] That definitely took some engineering, I think. Right? Or if we had just mentioned it in passing. But it’s, like, the fact that…

[Max] It’s a lot of, like, oh my gosh can we get away with this?

[Amal] Yeah.

[DongWon] Form a layer of it. Right? Because you have this layer between you as writing the line and the reader receiving it, because it’s meant to be sent to this other person, that… It’s like you can get away with some jokes that you wouldn’t be able to get away with if it was just straight narration. Right? It’s because it’s one of them trying to impress the other by making this very silly joke.

[Amal] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. I think things said in dialogue or in a letter, you can get away with in ways that you can’t in narration. I also, again, want to say, just a very useful thing, a very useful tool, is the specificity of audience…


[Mary Robinette] Like, that… The way you tell Red Riding Hood if you’re telling it to kindergartners is entirely different than if you’re doing a Red Riding Hood retelling for like Apex Magazine, which is all science fiction horror. There are… Even if you have the same beats, it’s just tonally so different. Thinking about… I… One of the things that works really well for me when I’m writing is to think about a specific person…


[Mary Robinette] That I am writing for.

[Amal] Yeah.

[Max] [garbled] secret text of this book, as far as I’m concerned, is that it was laser focused… My sections were laser focused on being written for Amal, just sitting there.

[Amal] Yeah.

[Max] There is… It’s so easy to let the world into the back of your head, telling you what you should write, whether that concerns about being sufficiently literary or sufficiently science fictional or fantastical or being enough like the books that you read when you were 14 or being too much like the books that you read when you were 14. That… The chattering can overwhelm the authentic desire that is bringing you to the page to write about this weird little guy or weird little girl.

[Amal] Yeah.

[Max] I think it’s a… It was so liberating to not care in the composition whether it worked for absolutely anyone except for you. I don’t know if you felt the same way.

[Amal] Yeah, no, I did. Very much. The… Like, I say… When I say that I have this sort of awe of the comics and stuff like that, I don’t feel like it’s a sim… Like, it’s not the same vibe to imagine myself on a stage making an audience laugh as it is being in a living room with my friend, trading jokes back-and-forth. Right? Which is also a question of voice, I think. The… There’s so little in Time War, I think, where we are ever [sheeting] towards an audience. I really feel like we are so… That we were so… When we were writing it, just… I mean, literally, the physicality of sitting across a table from each other. So whenever I looked up from my screen, I was seeing you. We…

[Max] I just need cackling when I’m writing.

[Amal] Yes.

[Max] Like you hear that and…

[Amal] Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s just so much of oh, I’m so excited for the bit where we like swap laptops and read what we’ve written and stuff. And get the reaction. It’s such a different thing than to be so in your own head imagining an audience that doesn’t exist and… I mean, gosh, when we were writing Time War, we hadn’t yet, like, signed with DongWon either. Like, we didn’t know it was going to be a book. I didn’t…

[Max] [garbled] yet.

[DongWon] No, not yet.

[Amal] No, we started…

[DongWon] I think the first thing that you guys sent me was…

[Amal] It was. We were… I’m sorry to belabor this timeline, but it is like rooted in my head. We…

[Max] It’s all timelines, man.

[Amal] We started writing it in Jun 2016, which I know because it’s [garbled breakfast?] Which happened while we were doing it. We finished it in December 2016. And, DongWon, I signed with you in November 2016. So it was… The bit where Max and I were sitting across from each other, that was all in the summer. It just… I didn’t know you were going to be my agent yet, didn’t know… Like, how this was going to be a project that moved in the world, didn’t know if it could be a book, because it was a novella. Like, had really no idea what it was going to look like outside of our collaboration in that moment. I think that’s…

[Max] This is one of the few things in my career where I felt 100% confident that it was going to be a book, and it was going to be great.


[Max] Like, I had no doubts whatsoever. Everything else is doubts to the sky

[DongWon] I think that confidence comes through in the book. But, yeah, I think I would love to get into more of the details of the mechanics about how you get across some of these different aspects but let’s take a quick break before we dive into these details.

[DongWon] This episode is sponsored by Better Help. Making your mental health a priority is always a challenge. It’s easy to not prioritize it, especially when you’re trying to figure out how to write a book. I think we have some deep cultural idea that artists should be tortured and depressed to make their best work. But, in my experience, struggling to find clarity and motivation will hurt your process a lot more than help it. In my own life, therapy has been essential to figuring out how to navigate an industry seemingly designed to give all of us anxiety. Being able to talk to an expert can help you set better boundaries and the balance between the demands of your work and your art, and navigate the complexities of being a published writer. That said, finding a therapist is never easy. Especially if you’re not in a major city like I am. That’s where a service like Better Help can be of use to help you start the process while you figure out what your needs are for your mental health journey. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist. Learn to make time for what makes you happy with Better Help. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s better help…HELP dot com slash WX.

[Amal] Okay. My thing of the week is a 2017 game called Hollow Night. Which is amazing. I started playing it over the holidays when I was sick, and just fell into it. I thought, well, I’m very late to this game. Then shortly… Like, halfway through it, realized when I was talking to Max, that Max had also recently finished it. We both kind of come to this 2017 game at the same time. It’s tremendous. It’s a 2D side-to-side platformer in a kind of Metroid Vania way. This might not mean anything to you if you don’t speak the language of video games. All I will say about it is it’s tremendously satisfying, beautifully designed, beautiful to look at, beautiful to play game in which you are a small bug that is a knight wandering through this kingdom called Hollownest trying to confront this strange plague that has turned everyone into weird mindless creatures. Then, you’re getting the lore of this kingdom, you’re getting it in like all these beautiful bits here and there, your meeting weird cool characters, you are thinking about life and existence. It’s just a gorgeous game. I spent many hours playing it. It’s just something that feels very endlessly generative. I love talking to people about it. I love [garbled] quoting the invented language that’s in it. I keep going [batamada] at people…


[Amal] Or by people, I mean my [bffs]. But, anyway, it’s so gorgeous.

[Max] It just sounds so wonderfully bored when she says it. It’s so great.

[Amal] Batamada…

[Max] I really care about those 2 bugs marriage. Like, much more than I care about many fictional characters marriages.

[Amal] Very true. Yeah. Hollow Night. It is super great. It’s from an indie team. From 7 years ago. It cost us a princely sum of C$18 to buy on twitch. So it has given us a tremendous amount of enjoyment.

[Max] My thing this week is a novel by Terry Bisson called Talking Man which I bought on the Internet after seeing the first 2 pages or 3 pages of it going around Blue Sky and just having the back of my skull blown off by reading them. Just intense, deep, weird American fantasy about a wizard from the end of time who is also like a kind of long bearded big bellied dude who runs a junkyard and has a few acres of tobacco in the rural Kentucky. Amazing Road novel American and a fantasy with sort of slipstream engines and people sliding from one reality to another. It’s wonderful. It touched on a lot of this material in a book I wrote called Last Exit. It’s wild to pick up a novel from 30, 35 years ago and see something that’s playing with a lot of the same themes and characters and energy and see how differently it worked out then, and to notice the correspondences. Very generative, very cool. And electric.

[Mary Robinette] So, I want to now dive into some of the real nitty-gritty of this. We’re going to talk about language. You said that you… That there’s differences in imagery and cadence from author to author. So we’re going to start on page 1. Because one of the things I loved in this book, all the way through, is the way you are using color in the way the colors serve as metaphor. So it’s not just their names, Red and Blue, but also the things that you choose to point out. So, like, on the first page when Red wins, she stands alone. Blood slicks her hair. Just immediately painting her with literal red. Farther down on that page, after a mission, comes a grand and final silence. Her weapons and armor fold into her like roses at dusk. You use these places of… These spots of color kind of all the way through the book. What I’m curious about is, like, how conscious that was? Because there’s another point deeper into the book, and I’m like, “Was this on purpose? Because if it is, it’s awesome.”


[Mary Robinette] If it’s not, it’s still awesome and I will take it. There’s another point, deeper into the book, in chapter 8, where Blue is at… In London Next, and describes it as sepia tinted skies strung with dirigibles. The viciousness of Empire acknowledged only as a rosy background glow. I was like, “Is that on purpose?”


[Mary Robinette] Is that on purpose that Blue is starting to get infected by Red?


[Mary Robinette] Because if it’s not, if it’s not just say, “Yes, I’m so glad you noticed that.”


[Mary Robinette] If it is, it’s… Either way, it works really well.

[Amal] Well. Yes, I’m so glad you noticed that.


[Amal] There are a few things. So… I know for my part… I don’t know. Max, you start. You…

[Max] No no no. You started talking first. You gotta go first.

[Mary Robinette] I just also… I just also want to acknowledge for the listeners, and by them time to think, that this is a book that they wrote 5 years ago, and I know that my awareness of my decision process from 5 years ago is… Like, I’m frequently like, what, that’s a sentence that I wrote? So…

[Amal] Here’s a funny thing about that, actually. So. To me… Unless… I actually do recall all my state of mind while I was writing that scene. There’s actually, there’s just so much about this particular book that… Because of the experience of writing it, I think, so much of my mindset or my decisions has actually stayed with me in ways that are surprising. But I know that when I was… A thing about me is that I am quite synesthetic, in general, when I write. So there are always sort of inadvertent correspondences for me between sound and color and texture. I’m often doing truly absurd things to light which I extremely realized in the thing that I most recently finished writing. So, to me, in that moment, the rosy is doing like 6 things in my head at the same time. One of them was wanting to evoke the smell of roses, because of the teahouse, because of the moment in London That Was, because of Empire and attar and Damascus and all of that. Another was visual, which is like the… Talking about it being a sepia tinted place, was because I was slightly roasting steam punk stuff. Which I enjoy. I enjoy problematically and whatever. But I… And partly, a huge part of me roasting this is roasting my enjoyment of this thing. Like, knowing the thing is the product of truly vicious and terrible polities in the world, and yet it has produced these beauties that are so sensory and stuff like that. Within all of that, is Red. As well. Like, there’s this… Now, I really don’t think that I… Like, I don’t think… I’m trying to remember now, does Blue ever call her Rose? I don’t think so. Because I never really… I don’t know. Actually, this is a place where I’m not 100% sure now [garbled]

[DongWon] I don’t remember her doing so, but it’s possible she does at some point and [garbled] but there’s so many synonyms in there.

[Max] I don’t remember it. I suspect that she doesn’t, because I feel like that would have been something you’d pull away from as being too close…

[Mary Robinette] She does.

[Max] She does?

[Amal] Is it a Burns reference?

[Mary Robinette] Chapter 10, my red, red Rose.

[Amal] My red, red Rose. Yeah.

[Exactly. Now… Okay.]

[Amal] So, then yeah.


[Max] There we go.

[Amal] But… Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] But that’s the only time.

[Amal] But this is the thing is, like, I wasn’t… I want to make clear that I wasn’t writing it going this is a reference to Red. It was like there is a palette that is coming together from the experiences of the previous letter. If that palette is sensory across a few different senses, I’m trying to make this one word evoke all of those things. If that makes sense?


[Mary Robinette] But I love that idea of layering. It’s something that… When we talk about muscular writing, that this is often what we’re talking about, is a word that is doing more than one thing. I do think that that’s something that you often see coming out of short story or poetry because we have to be so compressed.

[DongWon] Yeah. I want to go back to that word compressed, because, Amal, when you were talking about your style, your voice, and Max’s voice, I think… You referred to Max’s voice as feeling more expansive to you and yours is, I think you said compressed.

[Amal] I did.

[DongWon] Is the word that I remember. It struck me because I think of you two in the opposite way.

[Amal] Oh, interesting.

[DongWon] I think of Max, particularly in the voice of Red, as being very clipped, very muscular in a slightly different way. Muscular is like a, almost like a [louarish] kind of tone, that like short sentences, little bit sort of firm endings to things. There’s still an expansiveness to it, in the sense that by word count and certain descriptions, that there is more of that closed offness that comes from Red and sort of implies her worldbuilding versus Blue’s perspective, which is a little bit more rambling and secure with this and all of these things. Even though I think I see what you mean by [condensed garbled] But I’m curious how these 2 words, like, when you’re approaching your voice and how you think about your voice and maintaining it or developing it, nurturing it, how does that play in there in terms of that expansiveness and that compression?

[Amal] Well, what I meant when I said that was… There’s like a metaphor in my head which I keep kind of coming back to, to think of Max’s writing versus mine, and it’s a question of sort of strength. Like, to me, the thing that Max does that I aspire to, is describing humans in action in an area in a way that is visual, visible, and embodied. Something that I feel like my strategies for describing people in a place doing stuff is one that is extremely evocative instead. Like, I find it very difficult to actually do the thing that Max does. Whenever I read something that Max has written in a project that we’ve done together, I’m always like, how do I do that? It’s always like, oh, how did he do that, and how can I do that? So the metaphor that I come to is that I feel like I’m picking up a shell on the beach and looking deep inside it, at like the nacre and the light hitting it and smelling it and touching it, and, like, Max has a capacity to describe the beach. Like, he just like looks up from the cell and actually sees the environment and stuff. So that’s what I meant by compressed versus expansive. It’s really like a compression of vision, if that makes sense, in my mind, and an expansion of vision.

[Max] I think of this in terms of… I think of my approach to scene work in terms of Go a lot. The game of [garbled] So you’ve got… One of the… I’m not a very good player, so as I make this analogy, those of you who are good players, I apologize. It’s a game of alternating turns to create structures in space on a board. So the goal, one of the major goals, is to do as much with each individual stone, each individual move that you’re making, to create a structure as possible. To create a structure that is loose enough to cover a large chunk of the board and give you influence over it and more territory than your opponent. Positional gain. Without being so loose that the whole thing falls apart. I feel this is very important to me in science fiction and fantasy, and in genres of worldbuilding. Or in which we… The words worldbuilding keeps coming up. Because you have to… Or we are called to, I find myself called to, create character with depth and drama, with pace and intent and eagerness, with human feeling, and yet also with an orientation to the world. Giving the reader an invitation to this space that they can master to play around in and feel around with their mind. It’s a lot to do. So I’m finding myself thinking a lot on a sentence by sentence level, what is this doing? How many different things is this accomplishing? Especially in Red’s sections, which are, in my mind, so in conversation with great new wave 70s and earlier American science fiction. With like apex Le Guin, Ursula K. Le Guin and with Zelazny’s work and with many other writers. Those are 2 that really stand out in my personal canon. The work of each sentence is to suggest volumes. So in a way, there’s a compression and an expansiveness of vision. It leads to a very quick sentence, because you want the reader to encapsulate the entire sentence, too, like, swallow it like a pill, so then it does work on them.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think about it… There’s a concept in architecture about compression/expansion, too, where you introduce someone into a compressed space, so when they come out into the more open space… Frank Lloyd Wright used this a lot… It feels like even more expansive and expressive. I think that’s something that you do in your paragraphs, Max, where you guide people in a compressed space, expand out, and then compressed back down to transition out of that scene. Then, Amal, your metaphor of the seashell in the beach is so perfect, because I think there is something more circular and something a little bit more elaborate in terms of the density of how you draw people and move them through space. I really love hearing both of you talk about that relationship.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Same. I was listening to that. The… I had… Interestingly, a slightly different take away from DongWon about the difference between the way… What you choose to describe when you’re talking about things. Because, for me, one of the things about short fiction in particular is that you will often take one image that stands in as a representation for the whole place. Because you only have time to describe the one thing.


[Mary Robinette] You have to leave… Then you leave space for the reader to describe everything else based on the one thing that you’ve described. In novel form, I feel that I can describe that thing and I can describe several things that are in that space. That is… So that’s a question of like what are you picking for your imagery and things like that. Which is different, to me, from a question of cadence. They’re related. But cadence, to me, is about sentence structure, about the rhythm of the language. When were talking about clipped, DongWon, when you’re talking about clipped for Max or for Red, Max has expressed the Red, is that there is a more mechanistic sound… Rhythm to that. That cadence. Whereas Blue has this organic lyricism and that’s… That, to me, is much more about the sentence structure more than what they are choosing to describe. Like, you could describe the seashell in that clipped mechanistic style, either way, and it would express different things by the pairing of… Not just to is looking at what, but the way they express it. So, listener, when you’re hearing us talk about like lyricism versus clipped or expansive, the tools that we’re talking about are sentence structure and word choice, and we’re talking about imagery and we’re talking about focus and we’re talking about contrasts, like compression/expansion, it’s the contrast between 2 things, which is doing the work for you.

[DongWon] This conversation… Oops. Sorry.

[Amal] No, that’s all right. I picked up the book to kind of open it randomly the… An example in the book of what Mary Robinette had pointed to. I do… I think that it is… There are 2 parts. Whenever I have Blue try to evoke in a letter a place, I… It is through a very… Very, very focused sensory mechanism. When she talks about Garden in this sort of deflecting, but also intriguing way. She talks about eating honey and cheese, or something like that. Right? Like a… We do have superb honey, and stuff like that. When she talks about the [respite] that she is in at… Afterwards. Anyways. When she is in an un-colonized North America. She starts by saying, like, “I’ve been [needle salfing?] for my sister’s children.” It’s like the focus on like the idea of [needle salfing] is the thing that sort of carries me through. I guess the one thing I want to say about voice in this instance, about my experience of writing Blue in this book, was of always looking for the thing that was going to carry me through a conversation in a way that would evoke the world and evoke contact with the world without me necessarily knowing what world I was describing. Because it’s being invent… Like, building the runway as we are flying the plane. That’s how it works. Right? Anyway. Yeah, if that makes any sense. So, yeah.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think this conversation could easily go on for 3 hours. I mean, this could easily be just…


[DongWon] The longest podcast ever recorded. You 3 are some of my favorite people to talk to about craft, and this conversation is truly delightful, but… Unfortunately, we should probably call it here. I believe the 2 of you have some homework for us.

[Max] We do.

[Amal] Yes. So, voice, quite famously and I think as expressed on this very podcast, means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Teaching and talking about voice can talk about one given author’s voice, you can talk about a character’s voice, we can talk about affect and so on. So I wanted to kind of make a virtue of that plenitude and give you a slightly chaotic piece of homework. Which is, I want you to take a passage of something that you have written and rewrite it in 3 different ways. One, write it as if it were being sung. 2, write it as if it were being shouted. And, 3, write it as if it were being whispered. That’s your homework. Courtesy of Max and me collaborating on this exercise.


[Mary Robinette] I love this homework so much. Excuse me. [Whispered] This is really great homework.


[DongWon] I’m not singing it.

[Mary Robinette] [singing] This is really great homework. Just for you, DongWon.

[It’s homework]

[DongWon] Thank you so much, both of you, for joining us. This has been truly delightful. It’s such a great way to close out this series, of being able to talk to you directly about so many different aspects of voice.

[A malt] Thank you so much for having us on. It is such an enormous compliment to get to talk to people who’ve read the books so deeply and to talk about it on this level. So, thank you so much.

[Max] Yes. Enjoyed the conversation. Thank you both for having us.

[Mary Robinette] You’re amazing.

[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.