Saturday, November 19, 2022

Mary Robinette Kowal and the Five Words That Sold Me a Novel


Scott D. Parker

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?

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Can I Get a WITNESS?

Scott's note: This week Richie Narvaez guest blogs here.  Richie has a story in the new collection Witnesses for the Dead, and he's here to tell us the background behind this most compelling story, one I read and enjoyed quite a bit, both for the excellence of the story itself and for the fascinating history I learned about from it involving the island of Puerto Rico.

Here's Richie...

Can I Get a WITNESS?

by Richie Narvaez

My story, "The Gardener of Roses", in the newly released anthology Witnesses for the Dead (Soho Crime, edited by Gary Phillips and Gar Anthony Haywood) starts with a news flash:

“FBI agents shot and killed the dangerous terrorist Edilberto Santos de la Mar today after he opened fire on them in front of his home in Hormigueros.”

And then we enter the POV of the protagonist: 

“Except that wasn’t how it happened.”

Indeed, that was not how it happened. My story is based on the U.S. government’s assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, an activist fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico. The FBI laid siege to his property in Hormigueros. Ríos fought against their M4 carbines with his pistol. He was shot by a sniper and then left to bleed to death.

A 237-page report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General claimed that Ríos posed an imminent threat to the agents, but the report was dismissed by many Puerto Ricans as a cover-up. His death sparked protests all over the island and he became a folk hero.

When Gary and Gar asked me to contribute to this anthology, I said yes right away because I teach G and G in class! They’re stars to me. But also the subject matter was close to my heart. Evil happens in the world, thriving in secret and in shadow. When there is a witness, and the witness is brave enough to come forward, that witness must be protected and supported. 

For this story, I invented a witness as a way to enter the story, and I changed names and the time frame to give me more leeway with the plot: a Puerto Rican student journalist witnesses an assassination and has to find a way off the island before the FBI gets her. (In real life, Ríos’s wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado, survived to give an account of the siege. The report contradicted her testimony.) 

What I hope is that through my story, and this blog post, I can draw attention to the struggle of Puerto Rican freedom fighters like Filiberto Ojeda Ríos (who was, by the way, known for his rose gardening). Many people do not realize how much Puerto Rico has been trying to pry off the yoke of its colonial status. The U.S. treats the island like a poor relation maintained by handouts, and that is a wrong that must be brought to light.

Do get yourself a copy of this important anthology. I am lucky to share pages with Scott Adlerberg, Cara Black, Christopher Chambers, Sarah M. Chen, Aaron Philip Clark, Teresa Dovalpage, Tod Goldberg, Gar Anthony Haywood, Darrell James, Gary Phillips, S.J. Rozan, Alex Segura, and Pamela Samuels Young.

All royalites from the sales of the anthology will be donated to the Alliance for Safe Traffic Stops, which provides compliance solutions in the form of training, education, awareness, and strategic partnerships between law enforcement and the community.

You can find the book at your local bookstores and online here:

Monday, November 14, 2022

Quick chills

By Marietta Miles

I am always up for something scary. No matter the season. However, there is something perfect about settling in for a good fright when the chilly winds of Winter rattle and knock upon the door. As a scare enthusiast I have read, watched and visited a plethora of imaginative terrors. So, in order to keep on keeping on, I’ve expanded my dread-inducing diet.

Super spooky shorts are great when you need a thrill but haven’t the time to truly commit. You need a quick chill, not a long and looming tale. Plus, I believe it is a true challenge to create, develop, and wrap-up a memorable fright fest in less than 30 minutes and I love watching how creatives work around the challenge.

For the creepy cause I have consumed a myriad of shorts films and video. There are plenty to choose from and there are those that I would not watch again to those that I emphatically suggest. Here are my favorite spooky shorts for your viewing pleasure.


Suckablood is the 5th film in the Bloody Cuts Horror anthology, a project created by participants of the British 48hr Film Challenge. Suckablood is a dark, gothic bedtime story directed and narrated by Ben Tillett. The visuals are like a macabre layer cake, beautiful and terrifying. With rhyming narration, a familiar sense of childhood fear, and shocking but gorgeous gore Suckablood reminds the viewer of the dark side of our beloved fairytales.


Curve is a short film written by Tim Egan and starring Laura Jane Turner. From the very beginning of this short there are questions. Concerns and terrifying mysteries. Laura, her character name is never given, awakens injured and trapped on a smooth, curved surface set above a “sentient abyss.” The entire film is her attempt to swallow her suffering and inch closer to safety while the true and horrifying nature of her reality is expertly revealed.

Attic Panic

Attic Panic tells of a woman tidying an attic, distracted by her chore until she notices a movement nearby. And so, begins the simple and terrifying story. With no score to rely upon, the film uses natural noises and sounds to amplify the growing terror. The not so special setting and the smarts of our protagonist makes the twist all the more scary. David F. Sandberg made his debut with the highly acclaimed Lights Out film. He also directed The Conjuring Universe spin-off film Annabelle: Creation and Shazam!, the seventh installment in the
DC Extended Universe.

Lights Out

And speaking of Lights Out, this short also takes a position on my list. The three minute film tells the story of a woman, home alone, and the creature stalking her. A lean tale with no background or backstory, watching the hunt is terrifying enough, only what happens in the moment.