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

19:02: Q&A Episode with WX Core Cast

We have a LIVE podcast recording from September 2023, when we were hosting one of our writing retreats on a cruise ship in Alaska!

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This episode features questions from our writers, and those who attended our 2023 WXR Cruise to Alaska! We answered questions about success, what happens after you’re a NYTimes bestseller, and how you can record your own audiobook. 


Go listen to the most recent episode of the podcast Just Keep Writing

Thing of the Week: 

Just Keep Writing is a podcast cohosted by Marshall, our incredible recording engineer. It’s a podcast for writers, by writers, to keep you writing. The podcast focuses on building community and lifting marginalized voices. Learn more at, or listen wherever you get your podcasts!

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


Q: How do you keep motivation going for long-form projects?

A: What motivates you, generally? What got you engaged in the first place? Carrots, rewards, for the next piece. Short term rewards. Novelty, interesting, challenging, and urgent. Promise someone else? 

Q: How do you find comp titles similar to yours?

A: Think about a Venn diagram. That overlap identifies your audience. Step back, and look at it from a high level. Get someone else to suggest comp titles.

Q: Does a bad self-pubbed book mean you are doomed in traditional publishing?

A: Not really.

Q: How do you keep track in a long project of what you are writing and the hooks you are setting up?

A: Reread. Notes to yourself. Reverse engineer your outline.

Q: What personality systems do you use when building characters?

A: Any tool that works for you is a good tool. Ability, role, relationship, status, and objective. What motivates the characters, how do they react in situations, and what is their emotional core.

Q: What surprises are there in doing your own audiobook narrations?

A: Don’t project, and don’t get flustered by mistakes, just keep going.

[With apologies for possible mistakes on names of the questioners…]

[Season 19, Episode 02]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Q&A, on a boat.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] 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.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] This is the Writing Excuses workshop and retreat. We are coming to you from the past, 2023, with a roomful of writers.


[Mary Robinette] They have some questions for us. You all get to join in learning about their questions.

[Chris] All right. So, I’m Chris, and I was wondering what… How do you keep motivation going for long-form projects, and don’t say money?



[Dan] I’m glad you don’t want us to say money, because this is not an industry in which you make money.

[DongWon] It’s shocking how ineffective that is at not motivating you in the middle of the project. I think that can be very exciting in the beginning, but you get paid on signature, and then you get paid on delivery. So, when you’re in the middle, you’re at the farthest distance between the times that you get paid, at that point. So it doesn’t feel very exciting, it doesn’t keep you in the moment. So, I think you’re right to think that that’s not going to be the answer.

[Erin] One of the things that I like to think about is that this isn’t the first longform thing you’ve ever done in your life, probably. So, a lot of it is figuring out what motivates you generally. Like, if you’re running a race or any time you were in school and you had to do a project, what kept you going? Then, figure out what’s the version of that that works for writing. Because what motivates you is going to be very different than what motivates me or any of us.

[Howard] Couple of brain hacks. The first is something about this project got you motivated to start it. Find a way to go back and look at that and remind yourself of why you got engaged in this. What is it about this project that brings you joy? The 2nd is sometimes with the daily grind, you need to place a carrot out in front of you, some sort of reward for writing a thousand words or for finishing this broken scene or whatever it may be that slowing you down.

[Mary Robinette] So, I have ADHD, and I have this problem all the time. What I’ve found is that giving myself small-term immediate rewards can often help, because then I’m thinking about, oh, if I just write 100 words… Like, there’s a program called Written Kitten. You write 100 words and it gives you a picture of a kitten. I will write ridiculous quantities of words for kitten pictures.


[Mary Robinette] So, what you’re looking for… The kind of 4 things that will drive an ADHD brain, and I think this works for other people, is novel, interesting, challenging, and urgent. So, if you can figure out what’s new about what you’re trying to do today? What is interesting about it? If you can set yourself a challenge, like, can I write 100 more words than I did yesterday? Urgency. If you set a timer, like, how many words can I write during this time? Sometimes it’s just I’m going to go to a different coffee shop, that that’s the thing that will do it. But it’s tricking your brain into finding the new joy every day.

[Erin] I will say, for me, that… For me, I actually will work better sometimes for other people than I will for myself. So there’s this thing that I participated in a few times called the grind. Where they put you in a group of people you don’t know, and every day, for the entire month, you’re expected to send them a piece of writing. They don’t really read it, you don’t really read theirs, but the feeling that these people are waiting at their email for me to have written something will help me get words on a page. That’s because I know myself, and I know that other people… Like, feeling that I’m going to let somebody down is sometimes more motivating. Which is… We’ll talk about that in therapy.


[Erin] But it’s more motivating then thinking that I’m going to let myself down.

[DongWon] This is one of the reasons that when I talk about trying to figure out what your next project is or what you want to be writing, that I say separate out market concerns from what you’re interested in. Because if you’re writing something purely cynically for the market, then when you run out of motivation, it’s really hard to get yourself back into it. Because if you don’t have that kernel of love for the story that you’re doing, if you don’t have that enthusiasm, then that well is much shallower, I think. So, being able to pull from a deeper sense of investment in the project I think is really important.

[Mary Robinette] All right. Let’s go on to our next question.

[Grovewit McCain] Hi, my name is [garbled Grovewit McCain]. I’m wondering… This is a question about querying. When searching for comp titles, are there any tricks to finding books that would be similar to yours?

[DongWon] This is one of my favorite topics. The question is about comp titles, and are there any tricks to sort of finding ideal ones. Unfortunately, there’s no real tricks to it. This is always a challenge. It’s one of the hardest parts of my job, and it’s one of the hardest parts about figuring out how to query. Right? So my general piece of advice that I give about comp titles is to think about it like a Venn diagram. Because what you’re trying to do is target the audience for your book. Comp titles are how you kind of zero in on that. So you’re looking for 2 things that overlap and define a clear area. That is going to be the audience for your book. That’s what you’re trying to communicate to the agents that you’re writing that letter to. So, really step back, look at it from a very high level. You’re… People always make the mistake of digging too deep into, oh, this plot detail kind of works, or this aspect of it kind of works, but not that aspect. You’re going for top level vibes. Right? You’re going for the overall feeling of what the project is, or, when you say it, what’s the first thought somebody has about that book, about that movie, whatever it is. So, keep it high level, look for things that are in your category, look for things that have the energy you’re trying to bring, and look for the kind of people who like what you’re doing. Who are you writing for? Work backwards from that to what do they like that’s similar to your book.

[Howard] It’s also useful to find someone who knows how to do comp titles, and is willing to give you a little help. I’m working on a serial prose thing in the Schlock Mercenary universe, and my first comp title was, yeah, it’s like Doc Savage meets Douglas Adams. My friend Brandon said, “No, it’s like Murder She Wrote meets Guardians of the Galaxy.” I realized, oh, yeah, yours is way better than mine was.

[Dan] I love how DongWon’s advice was here’s how to do this, and Howard’s advice was cheat.


[Dan] Listen, use any tool you’ve got. If you can cheat, cheat. Please.

[Unknown] Let’s say, purely theoretically, you published a book as a 17-year-old, self published a book as a 17-year-old, and it’s real bad. How doomed are you in trad pub in the future?

[DongWon] If you have published a book previously that you feel like might be holding you back, if it’s self pubbed, you are 0% doomed. On the trad side, basically, if you’ve self pubbed a thing, we care if it has sold a ton of copies. Otherwise, it doesn’t really impact what anybody’s looking at. When you’re going to publish your first book with a traditional publisher, we’ll just say it’s your debut, or your trad… Your traditional debut or big 5 debut or whatever it is. Right? It doesn’t impact it much. Nobody’s going to be digging into that history and being like, “Wow. This person published a book as a teenager. We are blacklisting them from the industry.” That just doesn’t happen. Right? So, we’re more interested in success when it’s coming from an indie market versus stuff that didn’t perform as much as you would have liked it to.

[Patrick] Hi! My name is Patrick. I handed a manuscript off to a friend. She read it, and she said, “I really like this part. I’m excited to see where it’s going.” I don’t remember writing that part.


[Patrick] How do you keep track in a long project of where you were going and the hooks you were setting up?

[Dan] Practice.

[Mary Robinette] You just reread it. I have people come up to me all the time and tell me how much they liked something, and I’m like, “Um… Good.”

[Howard] The lesson that I learned from Mary Robinette was to say, “I’m so glad you like that. I’m so glad you noticed that.” I reread my stuff regularly… Well, not regularly, but often, and find that I did not remember writing a thing, but it’s right there, and it’s making me laugh.

[Dan] Here. Let me ask you a question. Is this someone who read… Because they’re excited to see where it’s going. So, clearly, this is not a full manuscript. Was this like a chapter by chapter or scene by scene situation?

[Patrick] It’s not finished, but I gave them like 18 chapters.

[Dan] Okay. 18 chapters. What I found with people when you’re in that kind of beta reading stage, like, I want you to read this, I want to get feedback, you are going to get very different feedback from someone who reads the whole thing versus someone who’s reading chunks of it. The people who read chunks of it will give you much more granular feedback, which can often be very helpful, but they tend to hyperfocus on details that don’t matter. Whereas someone who reads the entire project might not even notice those little details, because they’re looking with a much wider lens. So, it might just be that this isn’t a big deal, because… Of course, with 18 chapters, that’s a lot, so… Yeah.

[Erin] I would also say to leave yourself notes. I’m a big fan of doing things that your future self will appreciate in all ways.


[Erin] But especially with writing. So, as your writing, if there’s something that you are really excited about as opposed to assuming that you will remember that later, because you very well may not, it’s really nice to sometimes go, like, “Oh, this is great. Make sure to come back to this.” Leave yourself… Sometimes I literally keep notepaper on the side of my desk, or a PowerPoint, because I’m a weirdo, and I will put in, “This is something that I really want to come back to.” I’ll do the same thing if I’m rereading a section of a manuscript. I’ll be like, “What’s jumping out to me right now?” Then leave myself a note about it. So that when, 3 weeks from now, I have forgotten that section, I can look at those notes and use them as signposts to what was really motivating me and when I want to make sure ties back to my original thoughts.

[Mary Robinette] I also look at it as an opportunity. That sometimes they mention something you don’t remember writing. This is an opportunity to say, “Oh, I accidentally did something cool.” Sometimes you did it on purpose in the moment, but you forgotten it. So how can I use that going forward? If you’ve read my novel Ghost Talkers, and if you haven’t, please do. Mrs. Richardson is nowhere in my outline at all. But I started… She plays a really pivotal moment, because I had situations like that, where someone said, “Oh, I really like this.” The other thing that you can do if you did not leave yourself notes is you can reverse engineer your outline. So, you can go back and do that reread, as part of your prep for continuing forward.

[Howard] I’m excited to take some more questions, but we need to wait until after our break.

[Emma] Hi. My name is Emma. I’m the producer. I’m going to do the thing of the week this week. Because it is another podcast that is cohosted by Marshall, our recording engineer. It’s called Just Keep Writing. It’s an amazing podcast. It’s a podcast for writers by writers. The whole purpose is to build community and to raise marginalized voices. Marshall and his cohosts are just incredible, and they have some wonderful guests on the show. Some of them are guests we’ve interviewed. But, as fellow writers and podcast listeners, I highly recommend checking out Just Keep Writing. You can listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or go to

[Emma] I’m going to ask a question that we have from the Discord, which is we have a writer who relies heavily on the Enneagram when they are plotting their character arc. The Enneagram… Dan’s looking at me with confusion.

[Dan] Yep. I’ve never heard of this.

[Emma] It’s a personality… It’s not quite a test, but kind of similar to…


[Emma] Myers-Briggs.

[Dan] Myers-Briggs.

[Emma] Thank you. So this writer is wondering if you all use certain personality type systems when you are building your character?

[Mary Robinette] My feeling on this is that any tool that gives you traction is a good tool. Because I come out of theater, where basically our job was to read the text and then figure out who the character was, I don’t have a lot of tools for coming up with characters, because it’s the parts of writing that comes most naturally to me. When I do have a problem with a character, I tend to reach for something that’s like… I look at their ability, role, relationship, and status, and try to figure out what’s driving them. I’ll try to think about super objective or objective. But most of the time, I only do that if I’m stuck. Then I will go back and I will… I’ll examine my own text to look for those things, to look for those markers to help me understand where I should move next. But I don’t do that pre-work. Because it comes naturally to me. But it doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

[DongWon] When I’m making an NPC for an RPG, I definitely do sun, moon, and rising sign. Just as, like, a little touchstone to return to in improv moments of like, how is this character going to react in this situation? So, something… I mean, there’s a million different rubrics you can use for this. Any of them could be useful. It’s just a way to crystallize in your own mind what motivates character, how do they react in a situation, and what is their emotional core.

[Erin] I also think… I love these types of personality tests, and sun, moon, and rising, and all of that. One of the things I like about them is that they make explicit some of the ways in which we relate to and see the world. So, sometimes you won’t think… Like, how do I feel in social situations, is not a question people were thinking about as much until everyone started talking about extroverts and introverts. It made people think differently about the world. So, sometimes even if I don’t use the specific character type, I’ll think, what am I learning about the world from the way that this particular personality test breaks things down. Earlier today, I was actually speaking with somebody about from Myers-Briggs, there’s intuitive versus sensing, which is sort of do you like things that you can touch and taste and hold or do you like things like figuring out, like making leaps of logic, I believe is true. I was thinking about what way a specific text was like going through things. So, you could have a detective, for example, in a detective story that is really based on the physical and the sensory, or you can have something that’s based on huge leaps of logic and gut feelings. So, even thinking about the way that portions of text can have personalities and can have personality traits is a fun way to use that system in maybe an unexpected way.

[Dan] I… Uh… I’ve tried to use personality tests before and find that they don’t work great for me. But what I do do a lot is kind of fancast my characters, with people I know, or actors, or whoever. What that does is it gives me a clear sense of kind of specific mannerisms and ways of speaking. If I’m writing a character, and in my head I’m thinking of Aqua Fina, for example, that’s going to come across in the page. That doesn’t mean that it has to, like, were it to be adopted, that it would have to be cast the way that I imagine it. Just because it gives me… Like I said, some specificity that really helps me characterize them.

[Rebecca] My name is Rebecca, and this question’s probably more for Mary Robinette. I’m looking… I’m indie pubbed, and looking at recording my own audiobook. I got a little bit of a theater background. I was just wondering if there were… Was anything that kind of caught you by surprise as you started doing audiobook narrations? Things I should be looking out for?

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that catches a lot of people when they’re going from stage in particular into audiobooks is that you don’t project. Some people have a really hard time backing off. So you’re kind of doing everything as an aside, and it’s very intimate, like, you’re telling a story to someone who is sitting right next to you. That’s… That was a surprise to me. The other thing that was a surprise was how many mistakes I was allowed to make. What they’re looking for isn’t… I mean, obviously a clean read is ideal. But what they’re really looking for is the ability to do a punch record and not get flustered. Like, every time you get flustered and apologize, you’re slowing things down. So when you make a mistake, the engineer backs you up, he starts recording again, and then he’ll punch in. You’re supposed to just keep talking, as if you’d had never stopped. So learning to do that and matching your own tone of voice… That was one of the skill sets that I… It’s very specific to audiobook. Everything else translates pretty well. But those 2… Like, don’t project, real intimate, it’s all an aside, and then learning how to just match your own tone, is… Are the 2 things that I would say to cultivate.

[Howard] There are a bazillion technical aspects of this. One of the things that you may find is that the voiceover community, there are a lot of people who do voiceovers, and who will do tutorials on how to set up your fan studio so that you can create a voiceover reel. Which is a cheap way for you to figure out how to get acoustic isolation and a consistent ambience for the room your recording in. These are things that are going to be important because you don’t want your levels jumping around, you don’t want the background room sound changing. But it’s all very technical stuff, and it’s… You end up training yourself to be an audio engineer if you’re doing it yourself.

[Emma] That’s all we have time for. I am going to do the homework tonight, or today. Which is to go listen to the most recent episode of just keep writing That, the podcast that Marshall, our recording engineer, cohosts.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go listen to Marshall’s podcast.

[DongWon] Hey. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Congratulations. Also, let us know. We’d love to hear from you about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success story. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].