She had me with five words: The Thin Man in space.
Still, I hadn’t read the book yet so I honestly waffled over whether or no to attend Mary Robinette Kowal’s author event promoting her new novel, The Spare Man, at Houston’s Murder by the Book. I ended up saying ‘yes’ and I’m so glad I did. Not only was the event one of the more entertaining I’ve been to, but the writing advice—and the personal advice—was more than I could have expected.
Knowing next to nothing about Kowal other than she wrote The Calculating Stars (a book I’ve not read but know it won multiple awards), one of the questions I was going to ask if I got the chance was how she came to be the narrator of her own books. Well, that question never needed asking because soon after her event began, she did a reading. Or, rather, she performed a passage from her new book. She had a narrator voice, a female voice as her main character, and then a good male voice as that character’s husband. Not only was she reading, she acted as well as she could holding up her laptop. Moreover, unlike some narrators who are challenged when speaking for the opposite gender, Kowal does a great male voice. Now that I've started listening to The Spare Man, I can say that not only does she do good male voice, she does multiple ones. I know I'll have a lot of great listening time as I consume her audiobooks.
(Speaking of the audiobook of The Spare Man, literally as I'm typing this post (on Thursday), Kowal just posted on Instagram that Audible has named the book one of the Best of the Year.)
The folks in the audience were clearly existing fans of Kowal because they asked specific questions almost as if it was a continuation from an earlier speaking event. A curious one was about her cat, Elsie, who, evidentially, can communicate with her. At the live event, Kowal described a panel of buttons in which a word (spoken by Kowal) is activated when Elsie presses the button. It is a fascinating idea and I had to see for myself. There are multiple videos on her Instagram page (MaryRobinetteKowal) and it's so fun and cool to watch. The funniest story she told to those of us gathered at the bookstore was a time when Elsie pressed the buttons to say "lie down, sleep" and Kowal interpreted that as Elsie wanted a nap. When her cat hadn't joined her on the bed after a few minutes, Kowal investigated and discovered Elsie eating Kowal's sandwich.
But this is an author event and the focus turned back to books, the writing of books, and how her experience as a puppeteer helps her create good prose. Using a small stuffed dog--to represent Gimlet, the little dog the two main characters in The Spare Man own (modeled after Nick and Nora Charles's dog Asta in the Thin Man movies)--she explained how puppeteers create emotion with only movement. Her ingrained knowledge of that craft permeates into her fiction as she breaks down the body language her characters show and reassembles them into words.
When I rose my hand, I asked her how she came up with the concept of The Spare Man. After all, I told her, she sold me the book in five words. She revealed she often has an elevator pitch to describe her current writing projects because it gives her more focus on what the story's DNA is. Too often, we writers, when asked about a book we've written, start to blather on and on about this character or that setup. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. Having the story's idea condensed to a few sentences at the beginning of a project can sure streamline the writing. I've actually got that in mind on my current work in progress and I'll admit, it's a great idea.
If these pleasantries were all that Kowal offered, it would have been worth the trip. But what I wasn't expecting was some excellent writing insight, and it was prompted by a question about NaNoWriMo.
Kowal was diagnosed with ADHD at age 49. Like many folks with ADHD--I likely have it although not formally diagnosed--there are moments of hyper focus and then there are other moments when you just can't get things done. One of the reasons why Kowal mentioned she enjoyed NaNoWriMo so much was of four factors: Novel, Interesting, Challenging, and Urgent.
In this case, Novel is both the literal novel someone is writing as well as the other meaning of the word, 'new.' Typically, writers who do NaNoWriMo start a brand-new novel in November. Thus, we're all excited. Interesting is self-explanatory. You have to be interested in your story for you to actually write it. Challenging is also self-evident. It is challenging to write a book, but it is even more challenging to do NaNoWriMo which is 50,000 in the 30 days of November (that's 1,667 words per day). I've done it numerous times but I have also failed so I know what it's like to be on both sides. But when you hit the groove, boy is it something. And Urgent. Again, with the 1,667 words-per-day threshold hanging over your head, if you miss a day or two, it can be daunting to catch up. Thus the urgency embedded in NaNoWriMo is a motivating factor.
When Kowal mentioned these four things, a light bulb went off in my head. It helped to explain, in part, why I've been so challenged this year in regards to writing. There are other major factors as well, but her short list helped me see myself in a different light.
It also made me wish I'd have started NaNoWriMo this year. But there's always next year.
In my research on Kowal, I found two immensely helpful posts. One is an interview on the Strange Horizons website entitled "Writing While Disabled" (2021). In this lengthy interview, Kowal uses her own experiences and diagnoses to explain how she works through her challenges and produces the award-winning works she does. I ended up printing it out and highlighting multiple passages.
The second is from her own website (and it's referenced in the interview). In a 2015 post called "Sometimes Writers Block is Really Depression," Kowal describes how her depression knocked her away from writing and the tools (both tech as well as interpersonal) she uses to overcome her challenges. The links she provides might be helpful to some writers who might be struggling.
To top off this wonderful author event, in each chair were the best handouts I've ever seen. Here's what she provided.
That's a "brochure" for the inter-planetery cruise liner the characters in The Spare Man are in. That's Gimlet, by the way. The laminated card on the left is a "baggage tag" while the center one is a "boarding pass" (the number on which was used for a drawing to give away the plush of Gimlet). And, of course, an actual "do not disturb" door hanger (with "service requested" on the back). Seriously, how cool is that? Plus check out the design. It is so 1930s.
Mary Robinette Kowal has been on the peripheral of my radar for a few years now, but with The Spare Man, she is firmly in my sights. In fact, I already have my next selection for my science fiction book club already picked. Have a look at her website. I bet there is something there that you'd like to read. For mystery fans, I'd recommend starting with The Spare Man.
I mean, why not. She sold me in five words.
How about you?