Writing Excuses 7.15: Editing Mary’s Outline

Mary Robinette Kowal graciously loaned us an outline she was working on in 2003. For this podcast, Mary reads from her outline, Brandon interrupts her, and we dissect. This is a brutal process. Know, fair listener, that we love Mary a lot.


In completely unrelated news, Writing Excuses Season Six has been nominated for a Hugo Award for “Best Related Work.” You may feel free to extend congratulations and good wishes in the comments below.

Liner Notes: Want to follow along in Mary’s outline? Here it is!


Take an existing folk tale and re-tell it using the Dora the Explorer formula for quests.

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal, releases this week! We’ve put links to it over here on our brand new Book of the Week page!

44 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.15: Editing Mary’s Outline”

  1. I don’t remember what we edited out at 20:13, but it was a doozy. We all re-positioned our mikes, even. I think it may have been a vacuum cleaner, or maybe an escaped cat.

  2. Best wishes, hope you all win the award. No question, the best writing podcast I listen to. (Not just because it’s the only writing podcast I listen to either.)

  3. Congratulations on the nomination! You all deserve it, and I wish the best for you! I love all the insight & motivation you provide each week.

  4. One of your best eps.
    Some really great stuff in here. Thanks.

    Looking forward to part two.

  5. First off, congratulations on the nomination! You guys all rock!

    Good on Mary for putting herself out there, not only for you guys to critique her outline, but allowing all of us to hear it!

    It’s always informative, and I can’t wait for part 2.

  6. First, congratulations on the nomination. The competition seems stiff to me, but good luck.

    Second, for those of us who are so far past the Dora stage that we can’t even find it on a TV (assuming there was time, which there is not for me), is the “Dora format” explained somewhere, even in a snarky hatefest about Dora? (Because if adults will hate it, odds are good someone has said, “And the plot of every Dora goes like this…” in a blog or article or whatever.)

    Congrats also to Mary for putting this out there.

    Some general comments…
    I do love the podcast, and there are episodes I adre. For instance, I very much enjoyed the “Ending Your Novel” episode; I thought it had a lot of useful information. (And of course the Puppetry episode and the Hollywood Formula episode.)

    From my viewpoint, this has been an odd season for you folks. You’re experimenting with new approaches, which is good, but it can come across–to me, anyway–as self-indulgent. (My rule of thumb–Do I want to listen to this in the car when there’s someone else there?) Oddly, I enjoyed the marshmallow episode, but thought the April Fools one didn’t work. (That might have been timing: perhaps I just like the first one I hear.) On the other hand, you’ve done, what, about two hundred of these episodes so far? Even at fifteen minutes apiece, that’s a lot of material, so I think that experimentation is vital to avoid you four getting bored. Ideas to be absorbed and then abandoned or combined with something already on the slate:

    I’m sure you’re already doing it, but do examine the earlier episodes without Mary to see which ones her additional insights will help or change, and revisit those.

    It might be worth revisiting length issues: Flash (or comic strip) versus short story versus novellette versus novel. I realize you’re all working primarily in novels, but Dan is experimenting with short fiction, Hugo-award-winning Mary has certainly worked in short fiction, and Howard is working in an extremely compressed form.

    As a person who doesn’t historically outline, just picks and ending and dives for it, I’m still curious about what Dan and Howard have to say about finding the structure of the story inside the mess of first drafts and already-published material.

    There might be an interesting discussion about speed of writing, number of revisions, and fallow time for manuscripts. I get the impression that several of you are very quick and that Brandon (like Asimov) spends all his time at writing so he seems quick.

    I wonder if there might not be something to discussing how television episodes work: The A plot, the B plot, and the arc, and how those might apply to any stories, novels, or series that you write.

    Also–as a tabletop roleplayer myself–I am curious how the structure of writing *adventures* and *campaigns* differs from the structure of a story or novel. Brandon might have some insights there because of his dealings with the Mistborn Roleplaying Game. (Though getting one of the writers from it onto the podcast wouldn’t be awful, either.)

    Anyway, some thoughts.

    Keep going!

  7. Mary – Any chance that you will be reading your new book for audible? I really enjoyed listening to the first one. I see that it won’t even be released on Amazon until the 10th though and no mention of the audio book.

    Dora? I’ve looked and don’t see it on anywhere, I don’t suppose there is an outline of it some place?

    Lastly – This was a great pod cast – I always have issues with outlining anything – really I should likely take a class on it, but so far I haven’t really found anything. Is there a book that covers outlining that might be a good place to start?

  8. Congratulations once more.

    Just thought I’d stop in and say thanks for the effort it must take to make this work show as regular as clockwork. A lot of the shows I listened to have ceased to be with the turn of the year. So thank you and as always great info.

    While I’m here I’ll request a show on Short Stories and because it needs to be said,

    “Smeagol, no swiping!”

  9. Quick note. I think the elevator ride was an excellent example of a transitional scene that takes the plot from the every day to the fantastic.

  10. Thanks – a wonderful way to talk about structure. I have little to add, every point that came to me while listening, you addressed.

    I think the most significant statement is Dan saying the beginning looked fine as far as he knew without knowing anything more about the book (which is why I’ve learned to tell myself, and friends, not to sweat too much about the beginning at first, because odds are it will be completely re-written after the first draft).

    I am less concerned about the kids not doing much, depending on how this is written. I have no problems with young observer characters, particularly in books aimed at younger readers. I would expect the kids to do something brave toward the end, and it would be nice for them to have an arc, though that might not be clear in this very plot oriented outline, that might be something the writer discovers going through the first draft. But I love the old Oz books, and Dorothy doesn’t really do all that much, not in the sense of a traditional hero, but she’s still a very strong character and a brave one. Her character might not show up much in an outline, but it’s very apparent in the working of the story, in her interactions with the other characters.

  11. Thanks to Mary for being brave! This was great. I do love listening to the brainstorming ‘casts, but this is the perfect accompaniment to that — how to plan out a story and make it work.

  12. * Special skill of Mythology Knowledge is demonstrated by Carter Kane (Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan).

    * Rough explanation of Dora the Explorer formula:
    1. The protagonist (usually Dora) is confronted by a problem, wish, desire or similar which requires her to travel to some location; she decides to go there.
    2. The Map gives an overview of the areas (almost always 3 areas) that must be traversed to get to the destination.
    3. Dora travels, and traverses the areas. Usually various things must be done, various items used, friends met, riddles solved, instructions remembered… before each area (or point, or whatever you call them) can be traversed. Also, usually Swiper (“that sneaky fox”) tries to swipe a crucial item somewhere along the way.
    4. Dora reaches the goal. Yay!!!
    Anything I missed?

  13. Thank you, Robinton!

    Boy, that formula works very well for Lord of the Rings. The three areas for Frodo are, say, Rivendell, Mordor, and Mount Doom itself.

  14. I can’t wait for the next one. Honestly I wouldn’t mind if your episodes were a *little* bit longer on a regular basis. Not perhaps 40 minutes length. But maybe 20-30 minutes? You often have so much to say and sometimes I feel as if you cut yourselves off to fit the time limit. Of course, I understand that recording time is a factor too, especially when one of you is not local.

  15. I liked the episode, but I feel compelled to point out that Brandon started out suggesting that the guys NOT say “I don’t know about the motivation,” and assume that the outline would get filled in during the writing, and then his strongest complaint was that the characters seemed flat and unmotivated.

    Some of the comments (why are there two cats? Are these names too complicated? Hey, this seems to follow the Dora plotting!) were good, but you guys really picked at the fact that her characterization wasn’t in the outline, after stating that you guys weren’t going to look for that!

  16. @Lita: Alas, Macmillan Audio decided that they did not want to produce the second book in audio.

    I’m glad you are all enjoying this. It was very helpful to me at the time, and re-listening to the episode makes me want to pull the novel out and fix some of the issues.

    But… maybe after my husband and I finish our move to Chicago.

  17. Hugo nominations already?!!? But I haven’t even finished my story. :-(

    Seriously, though, congratulations!

  18. Fred

    I think what Brandon was saying was to not question motivations for each thing the characters do scene by scene. He did say they could bring up larger overall character motivation problems for the story arcs. If I remember correctly, Brandon was saying that the kids weren’t really doing anything and the Monkey King seemed to be doing all the problem solving. That is a plot level motivation problem rather than a scene level motivation one.

  19. One thing about the transition from Act 1 to Act 2. One of my favorite writing-advice-givers, James Scott Bell, describes this moment as “passing through a door”. It’s not just that they “decide” they will go on with the plot, it’s that some event happens which makes it so they *must* go on: this becomes the only way to proceed. Otherwise, at any point afterward, they could just change their minds and go home. They have to be “glued” to the antagonist somehow, be it through an immediate threat of danger or some facet of their character. I think Mary provides this with the threat from the Bone Demon: another reason to move that conversation earlier.

  20. I was wondering is it possible to have links or attachments of Mary’s outline (and possible future outlines) for us to look at? Some of us would benefit from seeing a visual copy.

  21. I don’t care if it runs long but I want to hear Dan and his wife and their Dora plot of LOTR.

  22. Oh. Yeah. Has anyone mentioned to Brandon that what he thinks is probably only an opinion? the opinion of a successful author yes, but … really …

  23. @Howard: “I’d read that book”

    You can. It’s called “Journey To The West.” It’s basically “Characters get into trouble, Sun Wukong bails them out” over and over again, in many variations.

  24. WE Band –

    Thank you so much for this episode and what you will post next week. I think this is fantastic material for those of us who are just getting started and don’t know a whole lot about how to set up our stories into an outline format or how to break down an outline into something simple. I also devour the idea that the one outline WE happened to use was a mid-grade fantasy based on Journey to the West. Rad.

  25. **P.S.
    I just went to the http://www.writingexcuses.com/bow and was unable to find the links. I can see the few paragraphs there introducing the links, but am unable to see any links. Perhaps its my browser, but thought I would bring it up in the event of an unintentional goof. Cheers.

  26. @Ed I am … annoyed. By an overarching note of arrogance. Everyone else is doing ‘this might improve’ Brandon is ‘This is disappointing, it should be this way.’ About an outline. Which he has apparently read in advance.

  27. Great concept for an episode (or three), execution… well…

    First and least, it’s a YA outline, which makes it of limited interest to me. Thus far, it feels like a Magic Treehouse book gone wrong to me. Something more classically genre might have piqued more interest from me.

    Second, there’s very little of the balance and interplay between all 4 commentators we usually see. Brandon dominated the conversation (yeah, I know, it’s basically been his day job). Howard said, what, one thing? Dan, not much more. Mary basically reads her outline and chips in a couple of clarifications.

    Third, it feels rushed. I know you went long and only got through two-thirds of it, but maybe spending 3 podcasts, slowing it down, and getting more discussion would have worked better?

    Good idea, but could use some fine-tuning. My 2 cents.

  28. Congrats on the Hugo nomination!
    I don’t know if you guys accept podcast suggestions but I would love to hear a podcast about 1) how to write comedy and 2) how to find a good writing college. (There’s got to be more than just BYU.)
    Thanks for another podcast. You guys keep me writing and imagining.

  29. Manny:
    BYU is not an especially good writing school, and in fact it can be an outright hostile one for people trying to write genre fiction. They’re gaining their positive reputation thanks to the rapidly growing number of Utah-based writers, but the truth is a) BYU doesn’t actually appreciate that reputation, going so far as to drive their genre fiction symposium away, and b) this reputation is based more on the local writing community, which is incredibly active and supportive, than on the school itself. There is only one university-level writing program I know of that embraces genre fiction, and I forget which university has it at the moment; I want to say it’s in North Carolina, but I’m sure someone else knows better than I do.

  30. @Dan Wells, thanks for the response. I had always assumed BYU would be good for writing since you and Brandon Sanderson both came from there. (Plus my favorite comedy writers Jared and Jerusha Hess). But I will look into the one you are talking about. I’m focusing on the southeast US and TN, NC, AL, and FL, are all right where I am looking. I was actually looking at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, which seems to have a pretty cool creative writing program (http://www.english.fsu.edu/crw/). Thanks again!

  31. @Ed — not sure how I got dragged into this. Share the what now? (Never mind, actually. I’ll take your word for it.)

    @Paul Wright — Early on in Writing Excuses history Brandon, Dan, and I decided to start dropping the weasel-words out of our discussions. “It’s just my opinion, but…” need never be said. This is ALL opinion. Our casts are shorter and punchier without all the qualifiers that you might get if we were discussing this over beverages-of-choice at the bar at World Fantasy.

    Some of our opinions are more dearly held than others. Some are founded in quite a bit more practical experience. Some are off-the-cuff observations whose cementing in the digital world lends an undeserved permanence to them. But it’s all just opinion — even when Brandon puts on his “Yes, I Do Actually Teach A University-Level Course On The Subject” voice.

  32. @Manny
    BYU has over 30000 students, any university that size is bound to produce a few good writers every now and then as a matter of statistics. Staff is more important than alumni when you’re looking for a school.

    The school Dan was probably thinking of is NCSU. John Kessel is a sci-fi writer and director of the creative writing program.
    I would also assume the University of Kansas with its Center for the Study of Science Fiction is probably fairly genre fiction friendly.

  33. @previous poster, that is a valid point. And thanks for shedding light on it. I’m going to have to look into that.

  34. Really enjoyed this episode, and thanks to those that shared the Dora outline sites! I wasn’t able to locate any on my own search. Its only recently that I’ve switched from wandering maplessly (like my new word?) through my stories to writing outlines, so I enjoy seeing what works for others. :) Also, I can definitely take this Dora format and share it with my 4th grade students to help them when they’re outlining. Huzzah!

  35. @Onymous

    It wasn’t just a matter of statistics — there are some specific reasons (mainly passionate, hard work) why BYU has produced so many excellent genre fiction writers. This Mormon Artist magazine article tells part of that story.

    But as Dan alludes to, it’s always been more about the community than institutional support when it comes to genre fans and writers at BYU, although, sadly, that support is, from what I have heard, worse than it has ever been. I don’t quite understand that — if I was trying to create excitement around the English department and the (relatively new) MFA program, I’d put a major emphasis on genre, YA, middle grade and children’s fiction. But what sounds good to us higher ed marketing professionals may not always mesh with the academic goals of the department.

  36. Congrats on the nomination!

    I have been listening to Writing Excuses since the first season and I can say this podcast has had a huge impact on me. I always wanted to learn how to improve my writing (they don’t teach novel writing in English classes!) and these podcasts constantly give me something new to think about and improve upon. Thank you!

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