“I Write for the Future I Want to Have”: Writing Advice from Mary Robinette Kowal and Cady Coleman’s Boskone Talk

Boskone 55 took place over the weekend of February 16-18, and featured Guest of Honor Mary Robinette Kowal, who balances careers in puppetry, costuming, voice acting and writing. During her Guest of Honor Hour, Kowal sat down with her friend, former astronaut (!!!)-turned-writer Cady Coleman, to talk about how all of her work converges to make her a better writer, especially where it concerns her forthcoming novel The Calculating Stars, building on the universe introduced in her Hugo Award-winning novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.”

We’ve gathered some of the highlights of the talk below!

On the Joys of Collaboration:

Kowal: “I would periodically send [Coleman] things, like, ‘OK, Katie! Time to play Mad Libs. Right now my astronaut says, ‘reach over and handle the [JARGON]!’ [laughter] …and then she sends it back with the [JARGON] filled in.”

On Levelling Up:

Kowal: “A person was discussing how discouraged they felt by their writing progress, and explained that, at 28 years old, they had been writing for three years. OK. So, you’re a Level 28 Human, and a Level 3 Writer. And they went ‘ohhhh.’ Everything is new. It’s not that you can’t handle it, it’s just that you’re still in the process of leveling up! The thing I did not say to them—because this is disheartening—is that you never STOP leveling up… but if it’s easy, that’s when you need to worry about it. When it’s difficult, that means that you’re pushing your boundaries and your limits, and growing. When it’s easy, that means you’re repeating things. When it’s difficult, that’s a sign that you’re getting better.”

On the Unique Strengths of Science Fiction:

Kowal: “Science fiction and fantasy takes the real world and tips it over to the side so you can see all the gaps in between.”

Mary Robinette Kowal Cady Coleman writing advice Boskone

Photo: Irene Gallo

On the Importance of Puppets:

Kowal spoke at length about the ways her twenty-year career in puppetry (“I’m a Level 20 Puppeteer”)  has intersected with her writing. Some of this was mediated by her character, Lee, who was able to demonstrate some of the concepts Kowal apples to both art forms. For instance: “As a writer, my job is to manipulate the audience’s emotions, [so] I think about who I am speaking to, and who I’m writing a story for. […] The way you tell ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for kindergarteners is different from the way you tell it for 6th graders, different from the way you tell it for high school students, or for adults. If you don’t think about who you’re going to speak to, you’re not going to use the language they can receive. It’s important to include yourself in the audience, but once you decide to publish, you are publishing for other people.”

Kowal and Lee demonstrated the nuts and bolts of character creation, with Kowal mentioning a particular pitfall many writers fall into, of using tangents and interior monologue to convey backstory, rather than sticking to action: “Focus indicates thought. What you’re looking at is what you’re thinking about. So on the page, whatever the character is focused on is what they’re thinking about. And where a lot of writers go wrong is that they do something like [breathless character voice]: ‘And then there were aliens coming from the sky! …so, he jumped into the ’57 Chevy that was just like the car that his parents used to drive when they were going to strawberry fields to pick strawberries and he remembered the way the birds would wheel…’ and the reader is like, ‘Yeah, OK—there are aliens???’”

Kowal put this same concept into puppetry terms: “Breath indicates emotion. Typically speaking, you don’t notice someone else breathing, unless it indicates emotion.” As Lee, Kowal demonstrated sadness and anger through breathing: “The only thing that changes is speed. On the page what you’re looking at is the rhythm and the length of sentences, the length of paragraphs. These give a sense of breath on the page.”

On the Importance of Acting…

Kowal: “We’re trying to break apart things the people do naturally and give it to you in just words, so that you build a picture in your head. You have to have a really thorough understanding of how people do things. I think one of the best things a writer can do is take some acting classes.”

…and the Importance of Reading:

Kowal: “Read outside of your box! Pick a magazine that is not a topic that you’re interested in, that is not targeted to you; read it cover-to-cover, including the advertisements, because it tells you so much about this other group. The lens of ‘normal’ for this other group is completely different in ways that are more explicit than reading non-fiction about that group.”

On the Importance of Lady Astronauts, Fictional or Otherwise:

Coleman: “When The Martian came out, we tripled the number of astronaut applications. From 6,500 to 18,000. It took twenty years to triple that number. And it’s because [media about the space program] can have such an influence. The only thing that would have been more perfect is if The Martian had been about a woman. I never thought about being an astronaut until I was already almost an adult, when I finally met a woman astronaut. You see those pictures, of Mercury 7—none of them is me. You can fast-forward to now—we did a live special from the space station, and they just happened to pick a time to film when it was an all-male crew. It was an epiphany for me. I suddenly realized that when this aired live, 9-year-old girls could watch this event and not see a single person that they identify with. So even if [‘The Lady Astronaut’] wasn’t so fun, I would have still been onboard to help.”

On the Importance of Reclaiming History:

Kowal: “‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ is set in what I jokingly call my ‘punchcard punk’ universe,” Kowal explained. “It’s an alt-history in which 1952, an asteroid strikes Washington, DC. This novelette took place about 40 years after the asteroid strike. So I sat down to write the backstory—Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Story. Spoiler alert: she’s not an astronaut when we start. I wanted to highlight all the women who worked in the early space program. I was writing this before Hidden Figures came out, before that book was written, and when you start realizing how thoroughly and heavily women were involved in the space program, and how active people of color were involved, and how they’re just… left out. Erased. I’m only at one of those intersections—definitely not at the mathematician intersection. I realized that this had been an evolution over the course of my own writing. My Austen pastiche [The Glamourist Histories series] is all white people all the time, and  then in Without a Summer, I deliberately set in in London so I’d have a bigger cast. But then the more research I did, I realized I had been flat wrong [about the whiteness of Europe] and I was flat wrong because of the media I had consumed. And I was now compounding that problem because of the media I was creating. So now one of the things I do is assume that women and people of color have been erased from the narrative that I know, and I try to put them back in the narrative, and I try to center them as much as possible. For instance: the early JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab] had an all-female computing department. They did not hire men because they felt they disrupted the work ethic. In the 1940 and ’50s, one of the questions that new applicants would be asked was—and this is period language—‘How do you feel about working with Negroes?’ and if your answer was ‘I’m not comfortable,’ you were not hired. Because they had excellent mathematicians from everywhere.”

On the Importance of Story:

Kowal: “We’re made of narrative. We respond to narrative in ways that we don’t respond to a fact. Cory Doctorow actually talks about storytelling as a survival trait, that being able to empathize with a character is a survival trait because if you don’t have this trait, if the story is unable to hack your brain, and someone tells you, ‘I went over there on that cliff and the ground gave way and I almost fell, and it was really terrifying! It was really unstable, and I nearly died!’—if you don’t internalize that in some way, you’re going to go over to the cliff, step on the unstable ground… and DIE. Being able to internalize narrative is part of what makes us human and keeps us moving forward and growing. One of the responsibilities I have is knowing that people are going to internalize what I write. I try to write for the audience I also try to write for the future that I want to have. I am writing books that would have made Past Me reach that future. That’s something I thought about very consciously for the Lady Astronaut books.”

The Calculating Stars is available July 3 from Tor Books.


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