Why This Is How You Lose The Time War Works

This book might as well have been titled This is How You Win All The Awards. In 2020, This Is How You Lose The Time War won the Hugo and Nebula award for best novella. I finished it in one day, laying in bed crying.

Needless to say, everyone should read this book. And every writer can learn something from it. 

Just in case you haven’t read it, the book is set up as letters between time travelers, on opposite sides of a war. Red and Blue are manipulating the future so that their side will have an advantage. Their letters to each other are at first mocking, then playful. Then, they become love letters scrawled out over trees and mountains. 

This is a story that took chances. I don’t read a lot of books that are just letters back and forth. This is an example of two authors (Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone) knowing their craft well enough to do something like this. To write a whole novella in letter form, you have to understand what you’re doing. You don’t have dialog. You don’t have a third-party description. You have a limited point of view. With all of these restrictions, you’ve got to know how to use what you’ve got left. (This is something I’m learning as I write the second season of my audio drama, AA.)

This book is also an example of trusting the story enough to tell it the way it needed to be told. Not every story could be told in a letter format. Not every story could be told in a journal format, like so many of my favorite books from childhood. 

But some stories can. Some stories won’t work any other way.

Don’t be afraid of writing your story the way the story wants to be written. Be it a series of letters, or even tweets. If you have a story that isn’t working, this might be a great way to fix it.

Another thing that was striking about this book was its literary flow. The words are beautiful, they flow like a poem. And that’s something I wish more speculative fiction authors would embrace.

There’s still a disconnect between genre writers and literary writers. While one focuses on pure storytelling, the other wants the writing itself to be pleasurable. Both of those things can work together, but you’ve got to put the work in to make it happen. 

Now, a warning. The story should always come first. I’ve read some truly bad writing because of a damn good story. I’ve yet to sit through a boring story because the paragraphs were just so beautiful. 

Finally, This Is How You Lose The Time War was an achievement in co-writing. Each of the authors wrote for one of the characters. This worked wonderfully because it allowed both authors to bring their own voices and style to the story. In an episode of Writing Excuses, Amal El-Mohtar talked about writing in a gazebo with Gladstone, sending chapters back and forth to each other. This sounds like a blast. This is probably part of why the book was so fun to read. 

This could only be done because each writer trusted the other. They respected each other enough to follow along where the other one lead. Clearly, it worked out very well for them. 

To wrap things up, here is what you can learn from This is How You Lose The Time War. 

– Trust your craft enough to try something different.

-Trust your story to tell you what format it needs to be told in.

-Don’t be afraid of literary writing, even in speculative fiction.

-When you’re working with others, let both of your styles and voices shine. 

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