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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode no. 31: Mary Robinette Kowal, Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

Mary Robinette Kowal writes science fiction and fantasy and starts writing all her novels during NaNoWriMo, which takes place each year in November. Her latest novel, Spare Man, has been nominated for a Hugo award.

Show notes:

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Mary Robinette Kowal has written more than a dozen novels, but she started out in a very different career, working as a professional puppeteer. "When I was in college, I was doing a production of Little Shop of Horrors, with a giant man-eating plant, which I was performing. At the end of the show, a professional puppeteer came up to see me and I was like, wait a minute, someone will give you money to do this? And I basically changed career choices on the spot. I did that for about 20 years, mostly touring, and a little bit of film and television."

I asked if puppetry informs her writing, in the sense that she makes characters act. "Absolutely. I have 20 years of working with an audience and seeing how they react to body language, character, all of that." She then talked about the four principles that bring a character to life, which are "focus, breath, muscle and meaningful movement. Focus is what they notice, it's the same thing on the page, what your character notices and pays attention to, those are the things that indicate what they're thinking about. Breath is replicated by your punctuation. Writing developed to convey the spoken language, and punctuation is the way we encode our pauses. You can manipulate that, not only in the language of the character, but also in the language of the narration, to indicate something about the mood of the piece. Breath and rhythm are closely related. The longer a character lingers on something, the longer they're thinking about it, the more emotionally invested they are in it. And in writing, if I do narrative description, I look for the natural pauses in the flow of a scene to put that description."

I asked why Mary Robinette writes fantasy and science fiction. "It's what I read. I love the way it takes the natural world and tips it on the side so you can kind of see the interstitial pieces. I like the way it invites the reader to have a conversation. Much like puppetry, science fiction and fantasy have metaphor built into it. I like that additional expressive freedom. And also like dragons and spaceships are cool."

Mary Robinette has been using Scrivener for about a decade. "When I started using it, I thought, this is going to be too complicated. So I took a novella that I needed to revise and put it into Scrivener, and then broke it into scenes as a way to ease myself into it. And now I compose directly in it. I use it for my outlining. I start using it from early in a project, as part of the brainstorming phase."

Mary Robinette has developed a process over these ten years, which leverages Scrivener's unique features. "My basic process is that I do a single document where I come up with a synopsis. Then I break it apart into individual lines and use the [Split at Selection] feature to break those individual lines into individual files. Then I take those files, which is my general idea of what I think is the shape of the novel, and set them up in the Binder, using something like the Seven Point Story Structure. Then I take that list of beats that happen in the novel and plug those into the appropriate spots, and then I look for holes. That allows me to think about the balance of the novel really early."

Mary Robinette has started writing most of her novels during NaNoWriMo. "I usually write the first two-thirds to three-quarters of a novel during NaNo. The pressure helps me, the community helps me. I do pre-planning. Before I get in, I come up with my outline, I have my tent posts, I do some exploratory free writing before I get in, so that I have a sense of voice. If it were my first NaNo, I would do that exploratory free writing as part of NaNo just to count for words. But I try to have a really good sense of what the project is so that when I start, I can go and I have momentum, and I don't have to stop to figure things out."

I asked her for tips on what people should do to get ready for NaNoWriMo. "One of the things that you should think about before you sit down to do NaNo is, why are you doing it? Are you doing it because you want to participate in the community, in which case, make sure you hop on to the forums and find out where meetups are. Are you doing it because you want to finish a book? If I'm doing it to see if I can write 50,000 words, then I would think about what areas of craft I want to explore. I would say, okay, today I'm just going to write that scene that I was planning, but I'm going to really think about dialogue. And the next day, I'd concentrate on description and just shorthand my dialogue. If it's not beautiful prose, I'll fix it later. But mostly, what I would say is just think about what is going to be joyful for you and then chase that. Marie Kondo your way through NaNoWriMo."

Kirk McElhearn is a  writerpodcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the Write Now with Scrivener podcast.

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