Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal is a 2023 guest lecturer for the Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Mary Robinette is the author of The Spare Man, The Glamourist Histories series, Ghost Talkers, and the Lady Astronaut Universe. She is part of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo awards, the Nebula and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Uncanny, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary Robinette, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit her at maryrobinettekowal.com
In this excerpt transcribed from a question and answer session, Mary Robinette answers questions about voice and incorporating reader feedback without losing that voice.
QUESTION: What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
MRK: Trust your own taste.
So you’re gonna hear a lot of people over the course of your career talk to you about voice, and voice is badly defined. I think that voice means three different things. And you’re gonna hear people say, “It’s important to develop your voice.” “Don’t worry about developing your voice. It’ll come naturally.” “I love that voice.” You’re gonna hear all of this.
Coming out of puppet theater, which is what I did, when we say style of puppet, we also mean three different things: mechanical, aesthetic, and personal.
Mechanical—literally, what kind of puppet is it? Marionette? Moving mouse? Like, what is it? With writing, mechanical is first person, third person, second person, omniscient. … Mechanical—it can also be, like, YA voice. All of these—there are mechanics to that.
Then you have aesthetic. That’s gonna be with the puppet hand-carved from Appalachia, Muppet—what does it look like? And with voice [in writing], it’s gonna be everything from Jane Austen to Bronx to “neutral,” which basically these days means that you sound like a middle-class white man. But neutral prose—there is no such thing. Jane Austen was writing neutral prose in her day, so it’s just whatever is fashionable in that moment. But the thing is, that’s something you can learn. Like, you can mimic that. That’s a thing that can be taught. Mechanics can be taught.
Then we come to personal. If you hand the same puppet to two different puppeteers, it looks like two completely different puppets. Which is why, with Kermit the Frog, when Jim Henson, his original puppeteer, died and Steve Whitmire took over, everybody freaked out because just the small idiosyncrasies in their taste caused them to perform the puppet differently. And so it looks like a different character. When you’re writing, the small idiosyncrasies of your taste cause you to write things in a different way than someone else will.
And so when I say trust your taste, that is the one thing that no one else can teach you. But you have spent your entire life as a reader honing your taste. You know what you like. You know what you enjoy reading. You know what moves you. Trust that, because that’s where your personal taste, the personal voice, comes from. And I can teach you mechanics. I can teach you aesthetics.
What you’ll see frequently is someone will read someone else’s work, and they’re like, “I wanna do that.” And so they copy the pieces of what they can. They copy the mechanics, and they copy the aesthetics, and in doing so they completely write over their own taste because they aren’t thinking about it and valuing it. So the best advice that I can give to you is: trust your own taste and value it.
QUESTION: My question is related to your first-time writer advice about trusting your voice. … It feels like my novel has lost its voice and, essentially, what made it special. How do you address that? And how do you find a good balance between critique and writing?
MRK: You have to know what story you’re trying to tell. Every person who is giving you advice is going to be telling you how they would tell the story. So I ask my readers to give me very specific information:
* I ask them to tell me what they think is awesome, so I don’t accidentally fix it, and also just because you need people to encourage you.
* I ask them to tell me where they were bored because that’s usually a pacing problem.
* I ask them to tell me where they’re confused because that’s usually an order of information problem.
* And I ask them to tell me where they don’t believe stuff.
So: awesome, boring, confused, disbelief. And disbelief is usually where I have violated their sense of the world.
And then I have to know what my story is going to be—what I want it to be—and I evaluate the feedback that I get based on four different things, and those four different things are: “Doh!”, “I see, but …”, “Nope” and “WTF?”
So “Doh!” is: Oh, yeah, no, you’re 100% right. Yeah, no, that’s very wrong, and I definitely need to fix that. “You’ve changed the name of your captain five times in this novel,” and you’re like, oh, whoops! Or, “Did you know that people can’t actually go through wormholes?” and like, oh, right! And I am trying to do hard science fiction, so [with] those things I make a note to myself, and I figure out how I’m gonna fix them.
The “I see, but …” is usually where they have identified a problem, but not the problem that they think they’ve identified. So like: “You know, the airship captain and the first mate, they have this really complicated relationship, and I’m really curious about what was going on with them. And why was he so snippy? And how did he get that scar on his cheek?” And you’re like, “Oh, no, you want me to slow down and tell you. You want me to answer all of those things.” But the actual problem is that the airship captain is supposed to only get them from point A to point B, and I have made him too interesting. So I need to pull back on the details. So I see, but you’ve identified the wrong thing.
“No” is when they just want you to tell a different story. I once wrote this murder mystery set on a planet that was very low sodium and got feedback. … I’m so glad that this happened to me at a point where I was pretty comfortable with myself because I got the thing where they actually send you an entire letter back. It’s like, here’s information, and there’s a critique, a review of how you can improve this, and they’re like, “We think that you should set this story 400 years earlier, with the founding of the colony.” And I’m like, no, that’s just a different story. You want me to tell a different story? The answer to that is no. So you have to be confident in, or you have to have some idea of, what story you want to tell.
And then the “WTF?” is when they give you a piece of feedback that makes it feel like they have just read a different story. So, in one of the books of mine—I can’t remember now which one, it was The Glamourist Histories [series]—I got this feedback. A reader was like, “I really wish that I had known before this point that Vincent was manic depressive.” And I’m like, “What the…? No, he’s not. At like…how did you? What? I mean, he’s an artist, he’s moody, but manic depressive? No.” And so I went back to the reader, and I asked … “Can you point to the place in the text at which you realized that Vincent was manic depressive?” And it was a single sentence, in a single word in that sentence, and it was, “Vincent paced around the room with manic energy.” And I pulled that out. And there had been a number of other people that had given me kind of a “no” response because they didn’t like Vincent and the way he was responding. … I tend to have readers go through my fiction in waves, and in the subsequent waves it went through, I stopped getting the responses that were causing me to have the “no” reaction, because I had been violating, I had been causing this disbelief in readers. All of the disbelief things were going away because they were all hitting that word. So the WTFs are gold, but you have to reevaluate them. …
Figure out the thing that you want. Take a second, back away from the story, write down on a piece of paper one sentence: “This story is about…” Not the plot, but how you want people to feel at the end of it. What core piece is important for you? … In corporate speak, what’s your value statement? Write a value statement and a vision statement for your story, and then carry on.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for clarity.