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

19:03: Behind The Scenes with our Producer and Recording Engineer

A few months ago, we were on a cruise ship in Alaska recording podcast episodes for 2024!

This live recording features a Q&A with cruise attendees, who were given the opportunity to ask questions to Marshall Carr, our audio engineer, and Emma Reynolds, our producer. In this episode, we talked about the benefits of MFA programs, astrology, and how to continue learning without being overwhelmed. 

Homework from Emma Reynolds

What homework would you give yourself as a writer today? What homework would you have given yourself a year ago? Let us know your answers on instagram, tag us @Writing_Excuses and we’ll repost you!

Thing of the Week from Marshall Carr: 

A Necessary Chaos by Brent Lambert

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: Is there value in a creative writing MFA if you’ve no plans to teach or become an editor?

A: Yes. Multiple values. A sign that you take writing seriously. Community. Consider other programs, too.

Q: If you’re faced with the possibility of working on multiple projects, or moving in a few different directions in your career, is there a way or rubric that you have to decide what you actually put your time and effort into?

A: What are you most excited about? Does it feed my mind, my stomach, my soul?

Q: How do you handle success? What do you wish you knew before you made it, or made it to the next level?

A: You always have to keep going! You’re screwed. The goalposts move, but you have accomplished something! Be proud of what you have done. Success comes in many different flavors.

Q: How do you ingest new craft lessons, and level up without going into overthinking?

A: Go back to your community. Make a scrapbook of your understanding. Try new things! Think about how you would teach it to someone else.

Q: How do you deal with doubt from people in your personal life about your writing?

A: Remember that people outside the writing business may not understand what you are doing. Find the joy in writing, and separately, think about publishing. Train people, explain what you are trying to do. 

[Season 19, Episode 03]

[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

[Emma] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Behind the Scenes Q&A with Emma and Marshall.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Marshall] And we’re not that smart.

[Emma] I’m Emma.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Marshall] And I’m Marshall.

[DongWon] In this episode, we decided to have Emma, our producer, and Marshall, our sound engineer, on the episode with us. We are still on the Writing Excuses cruise. We wanted to have our lovely audience ask some questions of the other podcast hosts, but also have Emma and Marshall talk a little bit about how the podcast operates behind the scenes.

[Emma] This is a question from the Discord. From Beth. It’s actually not a question about the podcast, but it will be relevant to Marshall. Is there value in a creative writing MFA if you’ve no plans to teach or become an editor?

[Marshall] Yes. I would say so. I know several folks that, in my program that aren’t planning on teaching. There’s a lot of other things you can do with an MFA. But, for me, what I got out of the program, more than anything, was some amazing writing from some amazing instructors and professors. So I feel like that value alone… I have a novel out of it, I’ve got like a half dozen short stories. For me, I was having a hard time writing. Like, finding the time to write. So, starting the MFA forced me to find that time and I produced some amazing stuff.

[DongWon] Yeah. From the perspective of a literary agent, whenever I see a query come in and the person has an MFA, it does a few things. One, it tells me that they have put very serious time and energy and money into getting a degree and pursuing a career in writing. I think what Marshall is saying is exactly spot on. One of the main things you get out of that is time to write and the requirement of having to produce writing. So, for me, that just is this indicator of, like, okay, you’re taking this seriously. Not that other people who don’t have an MFA haven’t. But it’s a sure signal, at least, that you’ve done this thing. So it is helpful from my perspective of oh, this person has an MFA. Okay, that stands out a little bit.

[Erin] I’ll also say, as somebody who has an MFA and did it actually so that I could teach, look at the MFA program and the cost of it. So there are programs in which everything you do is completely covered and basically you’re just giving your time. There are programs where you’re actually going to have to spend some money, and either you’ve got that money or you may have to take out loans. So, really think about, like, what the value is that you’re putting on it and whether you’ll feel good at the end of it, you think, having put that investment into it. So, if you’re like, “No, I don’t want to spend X amount of money, but I do want to have that dedicated time,” maybe one of the shorter programs like Clarion or Clarion West or Odyssey, which are programs within speculative fiction that are more affordable might work for you. Maybe even getting all your friends and going into a cabin in the woods, which we’ll be talking about in a few episodes will work for you. So, there are other ways to get there, but I had an amazing time myself in the MFA. It’s a great way to build community.

[DongWon] Okay, great. Let’s take another question from the audience.

[Question] If you’re faced with the possibility of working on multiple projects, or moving in a few different directions in your career, is there a way or rubric that you have to decide what you actually put your time and effort into?

[Dan] Well, I have been in this position several times. I have made this decision based on many different criteria. What I have found works best for me, and everyone is different, is put your time into whatever you’re most excited about. It is virtually impossible to predict of these 3 projects I want to write, which one is going to sell better. It’s… Making those decisions based on personal investment and excitement is usually what’s going to produce the best work.

[Erin] Sometimes you do know ahead of time. So, I do a lot of freelance work, and the way that I like to think about it is will it feed the following 3 things. So, will it feed my mind? In my learning something, a new craft, something I’ve always wanted to tackle, like, I really want to learn about game writing, so I’ll do this game writing project even though it’s something new. Might be a little scary. Will it feed my stomach, and by that, I mean is there some monetary value that might go towards my groceries? Which are important to me. Thirdly, will it feed my soul? Is it something that really excites me, on like a fundamental level? If you can get none of those things, maybe just don’t do that project. It doesn’t seem great. If it feeds only one, I always go soul first, really, a lot of the time. If you can get 2 or 3, like, that’s when you really know that something is a project that you maybe want to put more of your attention towards.

[Emma] We have another question from the Discord. This is from [Kalamai Simmons]. How do you handle success? Is there anything you wish you knew before you had made it? I’m going to just tack on that you can say made it to the next level.

[Dan] Well, that’s an important distinction, really. That’s what I wanted to talk about, which is the thing I’ve learned about success and thinking that I’ve made it, is that you’ve never made it. Like, you never hit a point where you can just rest on your laurels and your career will take care of itself without you having to try anymore. Like, I’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list, and 2 years later, couldn’t sell a book to save my life. It… You always have to have that in the back of the mind that this is a job and not just a privilege that you have that people will always throw money at you for everything you write.

[DongWon] There’s an essay, I think, I’ve mentioned a few times over the years from Daniel Abraham, who’s a brilliant fantasy author, half of the James S. A. Corey writing team. He wrote this essay and I can’t remember exactly the phrasing of it, but the title of the essay is basically, like, You’re Screwed. The refrain that comes up over the course of the essay is something along the lines of, like, “Okay, you’ve decided you want to be a writer. You’re screwed. You’ve managed to publish your first short story. It’s now you’re screwed because now you have to figure out how to write a novel. Now you have to figure out how to get an agent. Now you have to figure out how to publish that novel. Now you’ve hit the New York Times bestseller list. Now you have to do it again.” One of the things that it really just gets across is that every time you get to the next level, the goalposts do move forward. But, you also have done all of this cool stuff at every step of that career. So, the important thing I think, for me, that I get from that essay is both recognizing that no moment are you truly done, at no moment are there no more goals to strive for. But also, at every stage of that game, you have accomplished the thing that you were so excited to do when you were one tier down from there, looking at the next tier.

[Erin] Yeah. There’s a similar essay called the Writer’s Hierarchy of Doubt, I believe.


[Erin] Which is done by like a series of questions, I think the most common of which is why am I not Ted Chang. But, like, it asks, like, many questions that may come up over the course of a writing career in the same way. I often like to think of it, and this is basically what DongWon just said, but it is you may not ever feel like you have fully made it, but where you are is making it to someone, including, most of the time, your past self. So I also think it’s good to be gracious about where you’ve gotten to. A lot of times, if people come up to you and are like, “Oh, my gosh. You are so great. You succeeded in this way.” The instinct can be to be like, “Oh, no, because I haven’t done these other things.” It’s nice to say, like, “Thank you,” and take that moment to appreciate, like, where you are, and to be gracious to those for whom it is a big step as opposed to undercutting it and being like, “Well, this is nothing.” Because for folks, including you in the past, it is something, and it’s something to be proud of.

[DongWon] My version of that essay is why do people keep asking me if I’m Ted Chang.


[We know why.]

[Dan] I think it’s important as well to keep your mind open to different definitions of success. When I started 15 some years ago, I always used to joke that I didn’t care so much about like bestseller lists or anything, I just wanted high school kids to have to read my book in English classes. Now I’ve had both. I get assigned a lot in school, and I have been a bestseller. But, last night while we were standing around in the halls of this cruise ship, somebody walked up to me and said, “Are you Dan Wells? I love your books and your podcast.” That was such a more satisfying level of success than any of the money I’ve ever gotten. Any of the other kinds of fame or prestige or whatever. So… And then, of course, there’s also the I have 6 kids and I am able to feed them. So, that feels like success as well. Solidly mid-list rather than a bestseller, but my kids get to eat every day.

[DongWon] With that, let’s take a quick break.

[Marshall] All right. I’m on thing of the week this week. My name is Marshall. I am the recording engineer for the podcast. I’m going to recommend everybody by my friend, Brent Lambert’s novella from Neon Hemlock Press. It’s called A Necessary Chaos. It is incredible. He has worked really hard on it and it’s amazing. It’s basically a queer black spy versus spy fantasy action story with magic, deep worldbuilding, and incredible, incredible writing. Basically, if you’re a fan of How to Lose the Time War, with a mix of like Kate Elliott, you’re gonna love it. So check out A Necessary Chaos by Brent Lambert.

[DongWon] Okay. Let’s take another question from the audience.

[Question] Hi. So you’ve all been at this for a while. My question boils down to how do you all ingest new craft lessons? Like, at this stage in your careers, and level up yourself as an author without kind of like going into overthinking mode?

[DongWon] Yeah. Marshall, you just finished your MFA. I mean, that’s a fire hose of new craft lessons. Right?

[Marshall] Oh, yeah. I’ve had plenty of new craft lessons. But I keep learning from my community and my friends and when I podcast and reading their stuff. So I feel like I’m always leveling up my writing when I’m talking about writing and engaging in that community. An MFA helps, of course, too, but that was more refining my work a bit more and finally work shopping some of my stuff. But, honestly, I keep going back to my community.

[DongWon] Yeah. Emma, you’re newer at this, but in the last year, you’ve also been exposed to how we talk about writing, all the craft lessons that we talk about. How has it been sort of like jumping into this deep end of craft talk?

[Emma] Um… It’s been really cool. I think it’s cool to… Like our hosts are at such… Like, you’re all different ages and at different stages in your careers, and the way that you are all able to dive into one of our podcast episodes and learn from each other is really cool. Like, it definitely hits home, like you’re never done learning, you’ve never figured it out. It actually kind of reminds me of something you were talking about earlier, which is the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs and this idea… I think my mom told me this one time, where I was getting a little maybe too into astrology…


[Emma] And reading about myself. My mom was like, “The way that I think about all these personality tests and all these things about yourself is that there is definite… There’s always something in them to learn. There’s like a different lens that they offer to you, and also, you do not have to consume it all or take it all on.” You get to kind of like create this little scrapbook of understanding of the craft of writing, the craft of yourself, and I’m really proud of myself for just saying that.


[Emma] That’s it.

[Dan] I’ll just add, I’m a big fan of trying new things. I… Back when all of my books were first person, I realized I’d never written a third person book. Well, okay, let’s try one. I’d never written a present tense book. Okay, let’s try one. So that’s how I kind of ingest new craft stuff. I learned new things from our… My cohosts all the time. That’s how I figure out if I like them or how to do them, is just learn by doing. I’m going to play with this new toy for a while.

[Erin] I learn a lot by teaching, but you don’t have to be a teacher to do this. One of the things I’ll do is if something, if I don’t understand something or there’s something I really want to work on, I will go, “Okay. Let’s say I needed to teach a lesson about this, or do a podcast about this, or even write a blog about it.” All like Google a bunch of different things, and then try to distill it for myself into something I could tell someone else. That helps stop me from getting like too in the weeds, is, I’m like, “Okay, I took all this in.” Now I’m going to tell my cat, who, like, knows so much about writing, you all, about what I learned and what is going on. I’ll actually deliver that information to her. That helps me figure out what are the parts that are sticking with me and that I really want to take with me into my writing. You need to get a cat, it’s required.


[DongWon] So, I think we have time for one more question.

[Scarlett] My name is Scarlett. Do you have any advice for dealing with doubt from people in your personal life, with regards to writing. As an example, when I finished a work in progress, I ran out of my room, super excited, went to my housemate, and went, “I finished a first draft.” She went, “Well, it’s not like it’s published or anything.”



[DongWon] Listen, I got like tarps in the back of my truck…


[DongWon] I got shovels. Just tell me where to show up, I can help.

[Dan] Back when I had published my first book… I think I actually had to out at this point. One of my neighbors was like, “Oh, you’re an author. You have a book out.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve got two published books.” He said, “Where can I find them?” I’m like, “Bookstores.”


[Dan] He looked so confused. He was like, “Really? You’re in bookstores.” I’m like, “Dude. You don’t have to hurt me this bad.”

[DongWon] One thing, I think, is useful to keep in mind, is people outside of the writing business have so little understanding of what this process looks like and what it means to write a book. So, one of the things that I wish people would stop telling writers or asking writers is, “So. When are you going to publish the book?” Because there’s so many reasons to write. There’s so many reasons to put words to page, to tell stories, that aren’t just focused on the I need to turn this into money, I need to participate in the industrial process of taking a story and turning it into a book. I recognize that most of the people here want to do that, and a lot of people listening to us want to do that, but what I would encourage you to do is to find the joy in the writing first, and then, as a separate step, decide I would like to publish this. I would like this to be in the world, I would like to be paid for it. But those are 2 separate things. Writing in your journal, writing fan fiction, writing a story for your friends, all of those things are incredibly valid, beautiful forms of writing that you can celebrate. That also means writing a novel that no one will ever see is an incredible accomplishment that you should be very proud of. Now, other people will immediately jump to, “It doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t published it,” but I think that is a very toxic point of view, and that comes from a place where they just don’t understand what it is that you’re doing. They don’t understand what it is to try and be an artist in this world. If you find the joy in yourself first, I think that will help insulate you from some of the sting of other people not understanding where you’re coming from.

[Erin] I also think you can train people a little bit. That sounds bad, but in ord… By letting them into the process, more than the product. So if you say to somebody, like, “Oh, my gosh, like I am trying to get, like, 2 chapters done, and I’m like really trying to figure out what’s going on with my main romance.” You don’t have to tell them more than that. Then, when you come and be like, “Oh, my gosh, I figured out the romance, and I finished my chapters,” they know that it’s something to celebrate, because you told them that’s what you were trying to do. So they’re not thinking of it in a commercial sense, their thinking of it in a supporting you sense, the same way they would support any other tasks that you were trying to accomplish in your life.

[Marshall] I think what DongWon said is really important. I haven’t published yet, I’m going to say. But I’ve been at this so long that people in my life know that I’ve been doing this. As soon as I finished my first book, not the one for my MFA, my mom was like, “Can I read it? I really want to read it.” Because she’s known my whole life that I’ve been wanting to be a writer. So I think maybe getting a new roommate… Besides that, surround yourself with people that are going to support you whether they understand or not. I don’t think my family really understood it in the beginning. But they do now, regardless of publication and everything else.

[Dan] A good sense of perspective is to remember that writing books is especially weird for this exact reason. Right? Like, I’ve got a neighbor who paints, and everyone’s like, “Oh, cool. Those are really neat.” No one has ever asked her if she sells them, or told her she’s a failure because they’re not in museums. I’ve got several neighbors that get together and play basketball in the mornings before they go to work. No one has ever apologized to them for being failed NBA stars. Yet, with writing, especially with writing books, that’s what… That’s kind of the attitude that we tend to get. I think a lot of it is because it’s not immediately visible. Like, I can show you the painting that I made or you can watch me play basketball. But if I say I’ve written a book, you just kind of have to trust me that it’s real. So, keeping that perspective of well, it’s because they don’t see it or because they think about it differently, it’s not that they undervalue it so much as they just don’t understand it. So, like Erin was saying, you can use this as an opportunity to educate and to let them in.

[DongWon] I just want to say thank you to all of the attendees of the 2023 Writing Excuses workshop and retreat for all of your wonderful questions. It was a delight to hear your thoughts, and I hope that our answers were somewhat illuminating. Now, I believe Emma has our homework.

[Emma] Your homework is to think about what homework you would give yourself as a writer today. Then, I’m also curious what homework you would give or you would have given yourself as a writer a year ago. What are those 2 different pieces of homework, how are they different, and I’d love for you to share one of those on social media, and tag us at writing_excuses on Instagram and we’ll re-post your story, or your homework. Maybe we will actually use it sometime in the future.

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

[Mary Robinette] Hey, writer. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Let us know. We love hearing about how you’ve applied the stuff we’ve been talking about to craft your own success stories. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].