Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 15: Writing Process Q&A, with Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal joins us again, live at WorldCon 67 in Montreal! This time we fell back on that tried-and-true “Questions from the Audience” format, so the topic is pretty much what the audience asks for on the fly.

If the questions were all over the map, our answers require a new school of cartography. It all kind of fits under “process,” though, so for categorization purposes, we’re calling it that. Also, we failed to discover the Northwest Passage. Maybe we’ll find it next week, when Mary joins us for a third episode for more questions from the WorldCon 67 crowd.

In completely unrelated news, something cool happened to us at Dragon*Con on Saturday. We’ll talk about it in an upcoming ‘cast.


20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 15: Writing Process Q&A, with Mary Robinette Kowal”

  1. Another great ‘cast. Now I can honestly say that I write like Mary Robinette Kowal: I use Open Office and I expand my outline. ;-)

  2. I had always discarded the idea of directly expanding the outline that way, but the point Mary makes about distraction during the time you switch to the outline is valid.

    Although I think I may just set up a dual monitor solution instead so I can have both open and visible at once >_>

  3. The advantage (I find) is that I can add to the outline on the fly. If I realize I need to add an unplanned scene and don’t have time to just write the thing then, I’ll embed a couple of sentences outlining the scene so that I can just pick up and go next time I sit down. (Or if I don’t have all the details yet, this gives my subconscious a chance to chew over them.) I set it off with different typographic conventions (font, color, whatever works) to make it stand out from the real prose, and easy to clean up later.

    It’s similar to a technique of software programming, where you write a comment describing what the code is supposed to do, then write the code to do it. You can pretty much outline the whole program first that way.

    For that matter, when I’m on a roll with a long scene there are parallels with what Howard does. With a vivid image in my mind of what the action is I’ll mostly just write the dialog to get it down. When that’s done I’ll go back and fill in details, only with words instead of pictures.

  4. I would be interested in learning more about the outlining technique Brandon uses. I don’t recall seeing any previous Writing Excuses addressing outlining. The method Brandon mentioned is very similar to the technique I recently developed to use on my current novel. I thought I was unique in this but to hear that Brandon does the same intrigues me.

    Brandon (or anyone who may know), if this outlining method is discussed elsewhere I would be interested in obtaining links. I recently posted what I’m doing for my outline on Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack forum, linked below if anyone is interested:


  5. Great ‘cast, as usual. I want to hear more from Mary!

    And thanks for the link, W.B. Thinking about means, motive, and opportunity just spurred me to a much better idea for a short story I’ve been working on.

  6. When I found out that I was a discovery writer, my writing really opened up. At first, I avoided outlining because it cramped my style. I soon found out that my discovery writing could take me into places that I couldn’t write myself back out of.

    Recently, I figured out how to do what I call discovery outlining. I put myself in discovery/improv mode and make up an outline. It’s a lot easier to throw a hopeless outline away than an entire manuscript.

  7. I have discovered there are advantages to listening to these ‘casts at home while sitting at a desk as opposed to listening on the morning commute – like the ability to take notes . . . I’ve gotten some good little things jotted down from this week’s ‘cast. And thanks Howard for again dropping the name of the wiki software you use. I’m going to look into it and see if it will help with managing my various projects – game design/school projects as well as my writing projects.

  8. @JohnBrown

    At the risk of destroying the magic, here’s an example. Spoilers ahoy.

    One of the themes I’d chosen to develop was Humanity; kind of a “what does it mean to be human” idea. One of the manifestations of John’s inhumanness was his friendship with Max–he doesn’t really like Max, he just hangs out with him because he knows, objectively, that he needs some kind of normalizing influence and pseudo support structure. I brainstormed other ways to bring out the theme, and filled up a whole column of my notebook, and one of the entries somewhere in the middle was “Max finds out John is just using him.” I thought that was one of the strongest ideas on the list, so I put it in my outline and moved it around until I found a good place for it.

    Now here’s the important part: I didn’t just brainstorm the scene and shove it in there, I searched long and hard for the very best place to use it. I knew it would be a painful, even devastating scene if I timed it right, so I found a moment where John was spiraling out of control, where he was already questioning his humanity and desperately needed to strengthen his tenuous link to it, and BAM–Max discovers it’s all a charade and throws him out. It flows from the characters and advances the story, so it doesn’t feel (I hope) like a random scene I brainstormed on a list of “important themes.”

  9. Interesting. I really like this idea. It’s not plot per se, but seems like simply brainstorming ways to come at an issue and opportunities you might use as you plot the story arcs. It seems like a great way to think about things characters must learn and inner struggles as well.

  10. It’s cool to see your interview with Mary Robinette Kowal. I met her at Readercon this year. We discovered that we had stories in the same issue of Aoife’s Kiss, and to our mutual embarrassment, neither of us had read the other’s.

  11. Long-time listener, first-time poster.
    A great episode. I particularly enjoyed hearing the technologies/methods used. People spend a lot of time bashing Word and searching for the perfect software suite for the creative writer. We often overlook the fact that miracles can be worked with the simple team of pen and paper. The important thing is to write.
    That being said, my current method of outlining involves FreeMind, the open source mind-mapping program. I’ll do a little brainstorming, bubbling up themes and conflicts, then create a node for each scene (with a little summary of important points attached as a note). I link each scene node to a word processing file (WordStar, in my case–that’s right, WordStar for DOS), which I can launch right from the outline.
    As my writing progresses, I change the outline/mindmap to reflect the evolution of the project. I can restructure the nodes or change the links without difficulty.
    I quite enjoy working this way, but the final construction of a draft must be assembled manually. There are plenty of tools/methods to facilitate the concatenation of disparate files like this, but it is still another step to be taken, another thing to do that is not actual writing. I don’t mind such changes of pace in my workflow, but other people may.

  12. Also,
    The insight into Dan’s outlining process is particularly helpful and interesting.
    It is always a pleasure to get a peek into the systems that work for people who work (and work well).
    Thanks guys, for providing an aspiring public with such an enlightening forum.

  13. Thank you for such a great podcast.

    I’m just getting into writing a novel and I just found you guys while doing some research on the net. You have so much information for us who are just getting into the craft. I’m currently downloading all three seasons and catching up.

    Can’t wait for future casts!

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  15. My problem right now is that I don’t really know whether I am an outlining writer or a discovery writer. When I write short stories or plays, I tend to be more of a discovery writer, but when I write novels I tend more towards the “500 first chapters” person and I think it is because I don’t do enough outlining for my novels. I usually get through about the first 1/4 of a book, and then I get distracted from the story or I move on to another project or I have some kind of life event that keeps me from writing for a couple weeks, and when I go back to the story it has lost all of its magic. I don’t really know what comes next, because I lost the feel of the characters.

    So, I decided to start my next novel by giving myself “world-builder’s disease.” Maybe by developing much more detailed outlines, I will be able to get this novel finished.

  16. Hopefully this can help some of the MS Word users. A new feature (to me) for MS Word is the WORK menu. The WORK menu lets you permanently list the files you work on frequently. No more file/open then hunt for the files. Apparently for 2007 this feature was rolled into the recently opened docs menu where you can PIN them to this menu.

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