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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal has vast experience with entertaining others. For years, she has served as a puppeteer in both live performance venues and on television programs like CBS’ Lazy Town. As a writer, her short stories have appeared in magazines like Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Strange Horizons, amongst others, and her debut novel, Shades Of Milk and Honey is out from TOR. A sequel is set to follow in 2012. She’s also the current Vice President of Science Fiction And Fantasy Writer’s Of America. Find her on the web at

SFFWRTCHT: Why we don’t we start by having you tell us about how you got into writing.

Mary Robinette Kowal: I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. For years my focus was puppetry, because it combined everything I love. But when my brother moved to China with his kids, I wrote a serial to keep in touch with them. It reminded me that I loved writing.

SFFWRTCHT: What a great Aunt! I’ll bet they loved it. When and what was your first sale?

MRK: My first sale was “Just Right” to The First Line in 2004. It’s a non-genre story.  I submitted five times before my first sale but I spent twenty years in theater telling stories that way. I think putting in the time learning storytelling and about audiences was really important.

SFFWRTCHT: Shades Of Milk and Honey is described as Jane Austen with magic and written in a Regency style. The story of a woman who is ready to give up her dream of finding a husband, set in the English countryside, it tells of her struggle with jealousy and anger as she watches others around her getting the attention of men she longs for, while wishing she herself could find true love. Ironically, Jane’s own gifts have their own appeal, as she is gifted in a prized magic called ‘glamour. Do you tend toward historical or classical settings?

MRK: I truly sort of write all over the map. SF, Fantasy, Urban fantasy, a little horror.  There’s a sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey due out in 2012. Glamour in Glass. I have some unpublished short stories in the same universe.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you come up with the idea for the story?

MRK: I came up with the story for Shades as a way to explore what would happen to fantasy if it were constrained by the Regency.

SFFWRTCHT: I assume you spent a lot of time researching the language of the age. How do you go about that? Which resources helped you most?

MRK: When I wrote it, I would read a chapter of Jane Austen and then write a chapter.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you outline your novels/stories before writing them? Or do you just let the story unfold as the muse wills it?

MRK: I do outline stories and novels before writing. Usually. Sometimes I seat of the pants it.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you see fairly complete scenes in your head, or does the writing force you to fill it in?

MRK: It depends. Sometimes I know a scene and write the story around it. Sometimes I just have “Something bad happens.

SFFWRTCHT: How many passes through betas do you use before sending to agent/publisher?

MRL: It depends on the story. Sometimes two or three. One story had eight revisions.  I tend to read all my stories aloud after finishing them. Long-form, I have people reading along as I write. I train them. I ask them to tell me about their reader experience. What bores them. What they don’t believe. What they don’t understand. Things that are cool. Where they think the story is going, if it’s a chapter.

SFFWRTCHT: Does Glass connect to the previous novel as a continuation besides characters or is it a stand alone story?

MRK: Glass takes place about six months after the end of Shades. We follow the married couple on honeymoon.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve mentioned that using a typewriter/handwriting will affect the voice of the story. Can you please elaborate?

MRK: The media I use to write affects the speed with which I write. That mechanical change can alter the rhythm of my words. Shades was written strictly on the computer, in Iceland.

SFFWRTCHT: The story which first made me a fan was “Clockwork Chickadee” which I discovered in Clarksworld. Where did that idea come from?

MRK: For my friend Beth Wodzinski’s birthday, her boyfriend, Sean Markey, put together an anthology of bird stories.

SFFWRTCHT: How close to the final version is your first draft? Do you do a lot of rewriting?

MRK: I write fairly clean first drafts.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you continue to write in non-speculative genres or is your focus in SFF and horror?

MRK: My focus is definitely Science Fiction and Fantasy with a little Horror. I think I only have two non-spec fic stories.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a about your day job: puppetry. Are you freelance? Part of a troupe?

MRK: Basically, give me money, I’ll shake the dolly. I make, perform and build, though not always for the same show. Truly, in the past year or 2, writing has become the primary occupation. I freelance with the puppetry.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve taught at Rainforest Writer’s Village on this: how can puppetry help our writing?

MRK: The four principles of puppetry: 1. Focus indicates thought. What your character is looking at is what they’re thinking about. When writing description, you can only show the reader 1 thing at a time & rely on them to build the picture from that. So e order in which you show things and WHAT you show are very important. It tells a lot about the character. 2. Breath or rhythm equals emotion. You don’t normally notice people breathing unless it means something. Writing developed as a way to record spoken language. That means that the rhythm of the “breath” in writing is important. How long you linger on something, is an indication of how a character feels about it. 3. Muscle. This means that the puppet should appear to be moving by itself. Internally motivated. Just like a character in fiction should be internally motivated. 4. Meaningful movement. Because everything is stripped down, every word on the page carries meaning.

SFFWRTCHT: What is your writing routine like? Regular times? Sporadic? How do you discipline yourself? Do you stick to a regular word count?

MRK:  I should stick to a daily wordcount and really mean to, but fall off the wagon periodically. I have to use a timer when I write because I’m a natural procrastinator. It’s annoying. I set it for fifteen minute loops. I’ll get thirsty & look at the timer. “Really? You can’t survive eight minutes without water?” There’re two types of procrastination: “I’m being stupid” and “Story has taken a wrong turn”. The second is useful.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you spend a lot of time laboring over every word?

MRK: Nah. If I understand my character, it will all follow from that. I basically look at what a character wants and then deny it to them.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you get past writer’s block? Any techniques you can suggest?

MRK:  Look at what’s causing the block. The way you react to working on the story can often tell you what’s wrong with it.

SFFWRTCHT: What made you decide to run for Vice President of SFWA? What’s that been like as a growth experience/business opportunity?

MRK: I think SFWA is an important organization. Volunteering gives me a way to try to make the field better for writers. And man, you learn a LOT about the backstage aspects of the business.

SFFWRTCHT: You get hired to read stories by others a lot.  Is that all freelance? Do the authors request you?

MRK: It’s freelance. Sometimes authors request me. Usually, it’s the publisher.

SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your biggest writer influences?

MRK:  Orson Scott Card, Guy Gavriel Kay, Jane Austen, Nancy Kress.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novelThe Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter.