Link to the novella: http://www.maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/i-am-43-today-have-a-novella-as-a-party-favor/
[Mary] Season eight, episode 24.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project In Depth, Kiss Me Twice.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I loved this story.
[Brandon] This was wonderful, Mary.
[Mary] Thanks, guys.
[Brandon] This was a really enjoyable story. This is Mary's Hugo nominated, perhaps Hugo award-winning...
[Mary] Let's not do that.
[Brandon] Knock on... Plastic?
[Dan] Let's jinx it.
[Mary] Thanks, guys.
[Howard] This will sound especially silly since we're... People are hearing this...
[Howard] Six months after...
[Brandon] We should do this one early on, so that people can have more awareness and vote for it for the Hugo.
[Dan] That's totally what we should do.
[Brandon] We should put this up next week.
[Mary] I'm fine with that.
[Howard] We're all good with that.
[Brandon] Let's talk about this project of...
[Mary] This is very meta...
[Brandon] And you have a character.
[Mary] Yes, I have a character named Metta.
[Brandon] Tell us about the inception of the story. Where did it come from? What was the foundational idea?
[Mary] This is one of those cases where I started freewriting this. I had gotten a trigger... I can't remember what the trigger was, but I started with my detective Scott Huang walking into a police station and seeing the AI, Metta, dressed up... Presenting herself as Mae West. I knew I wanted to do a murder mystery. I got a little bit into it and was like, "This is too big for a short story." I decided to do it as a novel instead. I actually used it as my Nanowrimo that year. I wrote this is a novel originally. Then when we sold... Science fiction murder mystery, which I describe as CSI with a Mae West AI. Then when we sold Shades of Milk and Honey... I had been writing all over the map, and we were going to brand me as historical fiction. Realizing that the chances of me selling a science fiction novel were slim, I cut it down to a novella. Because at the time...
[Brandon] Were you having trouble with it being novel length?
[Mary] It was 60,000 words. It was short, and I knew I needed to expand it. There were a couple of different places that I knew it needed to expand. The plot was actually not as tight as it is now. I was a little more convoluted. I knew that I was either going to need to add at least 20,000 words to it or cut 20,000 words...
[Brandon] In the position in your career, you decided cutting. Was there any consideration for the story? Did you feel like it could go equally either way, up or down?
[Mary] Actually, I did. The... I had alternating viewpoints between Huang, who is the detective, and basically the thing that happens within... Basically the first scene is that they steal Metta. They steal her hard drive, and then have to reboot her from a backup. So there are two Mettas running. I was having alternating POVs from Metta Prime where she was trying to... She was trying to figure out who had taken her.
[Brandon] Right. And where she was. So all the things that were being sent, in the original story... In the story as it is, she sends clues. In the original story, you got to see her come up with those clues and send them, rather than getting them interpreted after-the-fact.
[Brandon] Okay. What was your process for... When you decided you wanted to cut it, how'd you go about doing that?
[Mary] Well, the first thing I did was I stripped out all of Metta's POV. Then there were also subplots. There was originally a love story subplot between Huang and one of the CSI people. There was also a plot with mother and he had a partner.
[Brandon] Wow. So you went and just took the ax to a bunch of characters.
[Mary] Some of them survived. The CSI woman is still there.
[Mary] Griggs is still there. His mother is still there. But only to serve specific functions within the major plot. Cam, who was his partner, is completely obliterated. I don't think he... I don't think his name even is in there anymore.
[Brandon] I was going to say, I don't miss the partner. It feels so much tighter without a partner. The idea being that they don't need a partner because they have this AI always watching.
[Dan] That Metta is everyone's partner is the impression I got.
[Brandon] Yeah. And that's a great aspect to have for this.
[Mary] That was still...
[Howard] She's a force multiplier. Literally. The police force is multiplied.
[Brandon] By Metta.
[Mary] The one thing that I do miss from it, which I get a little bit, is that there was jealousy between Cam and Metta. And the... Which is more important... Which is more real. That made a little bit more on point, but I don't think that it's something that I necessarily need. There's another character who is... Whose name I have forgotten... Delarosa, who was a minor background character who didn't like Metta, but in this one, he serves as the major antagonist against... Within the department. So I bumped his role up a lot, when I had to get rid of Cam. Some of Cam's lines actually got...
[Brandon] Went to him. Here's a question for you. You've expressed before that doing a caper is not something that you've done a lot, and yet I felt that the caper aspect of this, the mystery, what the bad guy was pulling off and things like this, all worked very well. How did you go about plotting that? Was it completely free written, and then revised into making work, or...
[Mary] Because I started this as a Nanowrimo, I free wrote the first part of this. So I just throw out clues after clues. I was following the model of have several possible suspects and then decide when you get to the end who it is actually. Then I stopped, figured out who I wanted it to be in the last one third of the original novel. I put it down. It was actually a little bit of a mess. The two people I really need to give credit to our Diana Rowland, who is a paranormal...
[Howard] Former policewoman.
[Mary] Former policewoman.
[Howard] Police procedurals are her thing.
[Mary] Yes. So she writes police procedurals that are paranormal that are great. She took a look at it, and told me all of the things where Scott was being completely stupid. Then Sheila Williams, the editor at Asimov's, took this story in a much rawer form than I usually send them in. She was very, very helpful in helping me figure out what to do. Largely, what it was with the plot was streamlining it. It was too complicated when I first started it. So I threw out a lot of the conspiracy angles. Although those are still there. I just... What I had to do was sit down and really think about, "Okay. If I were a villain, what would be the cleanest way to do this?"
[Howard] What's the simplest way to do it without so many failure modes that I'm just guaranteed to get caught?
[Mary] Right. It was not easy for me. A lot of it really was writing it incorrectly, and then going back and fixing it.
[Brandon] Let's pause for our book of the week. Mary, you have our book of the week. It is Empire State?
[Mary] Yes. This is Empire State by Adam Christopher. I became aware of this because they asked me...
[Gunshot? No, sneeze!]
[Mary] They're doing a lot of really cool things, where they're letting other people play in this world. It's an alternate history, set in the Prohibition. So it's playing with the whole Gotham City thing, and there are superheroes. They asked me to make a puppet show to go with it.
[Brandon] Oh! Wonderful.
[Mary] So I'm doing a toy theater that's going to be published, so that you can actually printed out and play with the characters. But it's really...
[Brandon] Who are they? Is this the publishers or is it...
[Mary] The publisher. That's being published by... People... That... Are... Really... Nice... And...
[Brandon] That you totally know who they are, but...
[Mary] I totally know who they are, but I'm looking at the audible page, and that's not helpful in this context.
[Brandon] But who wrote it?
[Mary] Adam Christopher wrote it. One of the things that's actually really interesting about it is that they show the same events from different vantage points. It's got a very interesting narrative structure.
[Brandon] Okay. Cool.
[Howard] Speaking of audible, audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can go pick up a copy of Empire State for free if you start your 30 day trial membership. Anything else you pick up during the 30 days is 30% off.
[Brandon] All right. Mary, you have expressed interest in perhaps returning to the novel form of this?
[Mary] Yes. There has been a nibble, because it's Hugo nominee. There's been a nibble. A question about whether or not this can be a novel. I think people like the Huang and Metta relationship.
[Brandon] Right. When we were reading it, the comments between Howard and I was that it felt very like classic Caves of Steel Asimov, except updated and more modern, with modern character sensibilities and with modern characters as opposed to kind of... So it flowed really well. It was like some of the stuff we used to love, but written like today's fiction.
[Howard] I'll say this. One of the tense elements for me was what has happened to Metta Prime? Because if Metta Prime has been corrupted and the information that's being fed to Metta Back... Metta Backup... Is bad, that's awful. If you put Metta Prime's POV back in, I worry that you'd lose some of the tension that really drew me through the story.
[Brandon] You mentioned those scenes to me. I thought, "Those are awesome. I don't want to read those in the story." That was my first instinct.
[Dan] Yes. I thought the same thing.
[Mary] Let me tell you... So when I first wrote them, I wrote them from Metta's POV and was trying to write them as if she were really an AI and trying... They were actually very distancing. The conceit that I have come up with to make them, I think, somewhat more interesting and also to play with the Mae West thing is that... She is used to having multiple inputs and fragmenting herself to speak to multiple people. She has the full set of Diamond Lil... She's got that, the entire movie, so that she populates the film... She takes... She splits herself into each of the characters in the film and is trying to... Basically to keep herself from going mad without sensory input and is... So she has all of these... Like Cary Grant and Mae West are speaking to each other, trying to solve the film... Trying to solve the mystery. As they are hacking into her, they are losing parts of the environment, so that you wind up...
[Brandon] That is genius. That's really cool. My question to you is, could it work for not Metta Prime? For new Metta? For the reasons Howard just said, Metta Prime... Whether... The new Metta's the one that I think has the best character arc. Because she, number one, knows she's a backup. She can worry, "Am I just going to get deleted once the new one comes along? Should I want to be deleted?" She worries she's being hacked. She doesn't know if she can trust her memories. All of these things are so much more fascinating than "I'm trapped in a box. Let's find out how to escape the box."
[Mary] Ah! But... Yes, this is a piece you don't have. She's not just trapped in a box. They are actively corrupting her and hacking into her. So she's not just in a box, she's being attacked by a virus. In fact, the original title for this was Virus Attached.
[Brandon] We want you to write the novel you want to write. I still react to... Is there any way to have that conversation in the new Metta's viewpoint, because her...
[Howard] Structurally, the way I would think of it... Give me that tension for the first two acts. When Scott figures out, "Wait a minute. All of the bad information I'm being fed is so obviously bad, it's not subtle enough... I think I might be getting... Metta Prime is out there, and she's actually trying to help me in some way." Okay?
[Brandon] That's true.
[Howard] Then we have a moment in Act Three where we go into Metta Prime and we see her fighting for her life in the framework of that film. That can be incredibly powerful. It relieves tension against the hack on Metta Backup, but ratchets the tension on Metta Prime all the way through the ceiling, because now we see how desperate she is.
[Brandon] Now, I want to say, we are reacting to the story we liked.
[Howard] That's exactly what I'm doing.
[Brandon] So what you're seeing from us is, we don't want the story we liked to change, even though what it may change into is something better. I think we should probably leave that point alone.
[Mary] This is one of those things that it is hard to tell because what I have in my head is the novel that I wrote the first time. That is not necessarily the novel that I need to return to.
[Dan] Well, I wanted to ask about that. I thought it was really interesting that you talked about a love story between Huang and Griggs, because my favorite part of this novella by far was the love story between Huang and Metta.
[Mary] This was...
[Dan] That's what I would love to see developed.
[Brandon] I loved the... Just to add onto that. The jealousy that you get... Just a bit of a sense between the different detectives who all have a Metta, and which one... Are you treating them like you treat me? I thought I was special. But in the back of their mind, they know they're not.
[Mary] Yes. That is one of the things that I enjoy as well. The love story between Huang and Griggs was one-sided. Griggs was interested in him. He was kind of oblivious to it. Also, there was a thing where Metta kept trying to set him up with her, because she knew. She's like she totally knows that he has a thing for her. Because that's her job. Her job is to understand her detectives. She's like, "I am not a possible option."
[Howard] Okay. I will accept that pitch. You can put the romance back.
[Brandon] That works just fine. That actually enhances what we liked.
[Dan] Yes, but... I really want to see that developed more. Like scenes... For example, when he brings Metta home at night and they have this really long let's... Introduce the girlfriend to Mom kind of conversation. I want to see that taken further.
[Brandon] See, you could do...
[Dan] I understand it could be very difficult.
[Brandon] No, no, you could do [Grigg's thing?]
[Howard] With Griggs in the story, we get the benefit of the forbidden romance type thing that you're describing and the weirdness of it with the tension of this can't possibly work and there's somebody else who's going to get hurt.
[Brandon] No, what you have to do is, you have to feed the possibility for the reader that they're... Metta keeps saying, "No, this can't work." She knows this can't work. She's trying to set him up. But as the story progresses, he's very deeply involved in rescuing her and things like this and you can... You have to feed the reader's sort of hope. We're all going to hope. You have to feed that hope. But then you can also have the tragedy of Griggs and things like this. I think there's a wonderful complex thing that could go there that doesn't diminish the... The story could very easily start with Metta being like, "There's no way. I'm an AI. There's no point in this. Let's get him..."
But by the end, she's not so sure.
[Howard] The nice thing about working at novel length, depending... I mean, novel length is a widely variable thing, is that some of the things that we loved about this short story can fit in their entirety inside a novel, and then we move on and we explore something else.
[Dan] That is very true.
[Mary] As we're talking, it occurs to me that one thing that I don't do, and I didn't do it in the original, either, is that I don't do POVs... I don't give any of the other detectives POVs with Metta in her different aspects.
[Howard] I would... I feel like... If it were me, I want a Delarosa POV. I want a Delarosa POV because he is speaking the opinion of many, many humans in this society. Distrust for AIs. As a science fiction reader, we... I want to know more. I want to know why. I want to know what his experience is. I think that could be very fascinating. I think it becomes a more complex, and therefore more interesting story if...
[Brandon] Personally, I would rather see her point of view with him, and see how she changes to match, and she just basically becomes a smart...
[Howard] Well, that would be part of Delarosa's...
[Brandon] No. I mean, I don't want to see through his eyes. I want to see through her eyes when she's with him. Because I'm not interested enough in Delarosa to have multiple viewpoints from him. I am interested in both Mettas enough to have multiple viewpoints from them.
[Dan] Well, one of the things that I think definitely needs expansion is the resolution at the end, who the actual killer was. It's all part of a plot to liberate AIs, which I want so much more of that is in here. Showing how Delarosa treats the AI is another piece that could build that half of the story significantly.
[Mary] If I expanded this back up, it would be book one... I mean, it would be...
[Brandon] The Continuing Adventures...
[Mary] Of... Yes.
[Howard] Okay. I'm in. I will buy this. From a consumer's standpoint, obviously. I'm not a publisher.
[Mary] I do... I have to say that I do go back and forth...
[Dan] Yes you are.
[Mary] On whether or not to have the other POVs because I think one of the things that works better in the novella form is that it is single POV, which... There's not the recalibration that the readers have to go through when they switch POVs.
[Brandon] I think that you would not lose very much of that by adding just Metta. Anyone else you add is going to change the chemistry a lot. That could be good, it could be bad. But...
[Howard] The nice thing about adding Mettais that you then get pseudo-POVs.
[Brandon] From all over.
[Howard] From all of the other characters, because Metta is seeing... She's right there with them. She's seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, not smelling what they smell.
[Brandon] I mean, I would love a Dela... A viewpoint with what's his name that doesn't like AIs, where she's...
[Brandon] Basically, just a computer program for him. She's saying, "Affirmative." She saying, "Confirmed." She's just acting just like...
[Mary] This is the biggest problem that I ran into with... With writing the Metta POVs in the original version, is that she is experiencing so many different things all at once. Trying to convey that.
[Brandon] Right. You need some sort of affectation, like you came up with the other one.
[Brandon] I mean, there are things you could do. It's like... She has one consciousness. If you want to get across that she is boundless, but you also want her to be relatable, you say each subroutine is a consciousness that then feeds back into the same memory. So she's almost splitting herself for each of them. That consciousness is acting like an individual subroutine. You could do that. Or you could say she turns her attention to one place at a time. She just has so much computing power that she can do a couple seconds here, a couple seconds there, a couple of seconds here. That could be really tough to write, but pretty awesome if you get it right.
[Howard] One of the things that was fun is the exploration of the software architecture, if you will, of these AIs. The idea of vows, the idea of personality subroutines. I got the impression that... And this was really cool, that the process swapping, perspective swapping takes time. There needs to be a reason for it to take time. The transfer of information between Metta Mae West and Metta Affirmative, Mr. Delarosa, sir... Moving information between those two. I like that she has limitations.
[Brandon] All right. We really are out of time. We're way over on this.
[Mary] That's actually... With her total...
[Brandon] So we're just going to have to call it. Y'all have to read the story. Maybe we'll check back with Mary after she's spent more time building it to see how it's going. Writing prompt? I'll go ahead and give one, unless someone else... One thing that was so fun about this was taking a character from a film... A tele... An actor and using their lines in an interesting way. So your writing prompt is to go pick one of your favorite films... Or one of your favorite actors. Take a bunch of quotes from different films. Use of those quotes to construct a character that can say all of those quotes realistically in a different setting completely. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.