The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

Debugging Stories: How to Revise Like a Programmer

When hackers are shown in movies, they’re always frantically typing code. Unfortunately, this isn’t very much like real programming. Real programming does require writing code, but it’s usually not done very quickly. There’s often a lot of code reading involved, a lot of sitting and thinking, sometimes some discussion, and then a bit of typing. Even with a lot of forethought and careful testing, most programs don’t work perfectly. That’s when the programmer turns to debugging.

Debugging vs. Editing

Debugging is what programmers call the process of identifying and removing bugs from software — bugs being things that the software does that we really don’t want it to do. In some ways, it’s a lot like revising and editing fiction, although they obviously have their differences.

Computer programs are very literal. Programming is a creative process because there are multiple ways to make a given thing happen, but the instructions are either correct or incorrect. They do what you want, or they don’t.

In fiction, there are many more ways to do a given thing, and fixes are often qualitative rather than quantitative — mostly coming down to taste. Because of this, it’s often harder to tell that there’s something wrong with a story, or identify exactly what it is. There might be hundreds of ways to fix those problems in fiction. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

The Debugging Process

Debugging can be broken down into a few common steps:

  1. Identify possible problems
  2. Identify possible solutions
  3. Make a change
  4. Test
  5. Repeat as necessary

These same steps are a great roadmap for editing.

1. Identify the Possible Problems

It may seem obvious, but it’s hard to fix something if you don’t know what’s broken. As writers, we often have vague feelings that something’s not quite right, or not as good as it ought to be. This first step asks that we really try to identify what the problem might be.

Consider a novel that feels like it’s dragging in the middle. That’s the sort of vague critique that writers often face, but it’s not specific enough to “debug.” The middle might drag because the protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal, or because they’re not pursuing that goal, or because there aren’t enough interesting obstacles standing in their way. Maybe too much time is spent on a side character.

Try to figure out a problem that’s specific enough to describe in a sentence or two. If you think there are multiple problems, focus on one at a time. You may not be sure that you’ve figured out the actual issue. That’s okay. This is a scientific hypothesis. It will be proven or disproven later on.

2. Identify the Possible Solutions

Once a possible problem is identified, the obvious next step is to think about the ways it could be fixed. Don’t just run with the first idea you think of. This is a great time to do a little brainstorming. It’s easy to come up with ideas, but it’s more work to actually implement them.

The next step will be to implement your plan, but don’t throw away your other ideas immediately. You may think of a few improvements that naturally work well together and want to implement them all. Or you may find that the first fix you try doesn’t work, at which point you’ll want to come back and try something else.

3. Make A Change

This is the hard work, but you go into it well-equipped with a problem that you want to fix and a plan for fixing it. Take something out that doesn’t belong, add something in that was missing, or tweak what’s already on the page.

Occasionally, it’s apparent straight away that the chosen path is not going to work. Don’t feel obligated to write out a “solution” that didn’t pan out. You can always go back to steps #1 and #2. However, it’s important to write enough that you (or trusted readers) can make an informed decision about the change. It’s also important to differentiate between a bad solution and a hard one. A great solution that’s tough to implement might just need a few revisions to really shine.

4. Test

In software, once you think you’ve fixed the bug, you run tests to prove it. In writing, the only test that can really be performed is reading the new version. Depending on where you are in the writing process, it might be enough to read it yourself and make a judgement, or you may want to have other readers go through it, or even compare different versions.

The important thing is to make a decision: is it better than it was before? Is it better enough? If so, then you’ve solved your problem. Congratulations! If not, then you’ve got more decisions to make.

5. Repeat As Necessary

A failed improvement isn’t the end of the world. Difficult bugs don’t always get fixed on the first try. You just need to move back to a previous step and try again. If you now think you’re fixing the wrong thing, go back to step #1 and re-evaluate the problem. If you’re still convinced that you’re addressing the right problem, but aren’t satisfied with the result of your solution, go back to step #2 and try another solution from the list, or come up with new solutions.

It’s All About Problem Solving

This debugging formula isn’t a magic formula for success. It’s just a tried-and-true method for problem solving that can be applied to a variety of situations. Writing is an intensely personal experience, and it can be frustrating and disheartening when a story you love just isn’t working. Sometimes writer’s block is just the writer’s brain flailing in the face of an annoying problem.

These steps can provide a dispassionate process for working through that frustration. Addressing the problem through small steps with clear goals makes the problem itself seem less overwhelming. The option to backtrack and try again makes failures seem more like setbacks than crushing defeats.

So next time you run into a big “bug” in your story, don’t just blindly revise in hopes of fixing it. Debug it!

How to Research for Fiction

No matter what you’re writing, at some point you’re going to have to do some research. It may be the details of exoplanets or ion drives for sci-fi. It may be mythology or medieval society for fantasy. It may be the royal court of Victorian England for historical romance. Every genre and style of story can benefit from some kind of research.

However, research can be challenging. Sometimes, the information you want is difficult to find. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. When I started my novel, Razor Mountain, I quickly discovered just how little we know about prehistoric humans more than ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes, there’s far too much information available, and it can be completely overwhelming. It’s easy (and dangerous) to get sucked into endless YouTube or Wikipedia links in the middle of a writing session.

There’s a great discussion around research for fiction on episode 15.41 of the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that the best question to ask is “How little research can I do?” I take that to mean, “how can I do exactly enough research to write this thing well?” Research can be fun or frustrating, but ultimately it only has measurable usefulness if it contributes to the writing getting done.

When trying to limit your research, there are three important questions: when to research, what to research, and how much to research.

When to Research

Research can be done before, during, or after the first draft of the story.

Before starting the actual writing, you may have an outline, but you will be at the point where you know the least about your story, and therefore the least about what you need to research. However, before writing is a great time to do general research about a particular setting, a culture, a time period, or other broad parts of the story’s milieu. This kind of undirected research is a great way to find new ideas that will feed into the story and the characters.

N.K. Jemisin suggests traveling to places that you’ll use as settings in your stories. Of course, that’s only feasible if the setting exists in the modern world (or you can glean something about the past from visiting the present). It’s also time- and money-consuming, and not always practical for many writers or smaller projects. Sometimes Google Maps street view is good enough. However, if you’re making money from writing, travel can sometimes be used as a tax write-off, and a great excuse to see new places.

During the actual writing is when it’s easiest to find smaller details that need to be researched. These may be simple facts or figures to look up, like the three tallest mountains in the U.S., or more general ideas, like what types of fruit you’re likely to find in the green room of a Chinese TV talk show. It’s more rare to suddenly realize you need broad knowledge of a particular setting or culture, but that can happen as well, especially of you are an exploratory writer, and you’re discovering your plot as you go.

After writing the initial draft, research is sometimes an important part of editing. Things that didn’t make sense or need to be expanded may require research.

Putting Off Research and Filling Blanks

Research, especially at a broad level, can be infinite. You can know the answer to the three tallest mountains in the U.S., but if you’re researching the Canadian punk scene in the mid-1970s, you have to go in knowing that there is no end-point. The research is done when you feel like you have enough to write the story.

This mindset of “how little can I research” helps to avoid the problem of research as procrastination. Writers find a million ways to procrastinate, and research can be a dangerous one, because it feels useful. If it’s not putting words on the page, it’s really just a form of entertainment, not productivity.

This kind of undirected research can completely derail a writing session. In Writing Excuses 15.41, Cory Doctorow suggests using the old journalist notations, TK (for “to come”) and FCK (for “fact check”). When you’re writing, and you need a fact that you don’t know, just throw TK or FCK into the manuscript with some placeholder text and keep writing. This can also work when you need to remember something from earlier in the story — was the murder weapon in the study or the library? Just TK it and keep writing.

These strange abbreviations are sequences of letters that tend to not show up naturally in English, so it’s easy to search for them later. You can always come up with your own notations, but I’d suggest you use something that’s easy to search out in a manuscript. You might dedicate time to a research session instead of a writing session, going through these notes and finding what you need to fill in the blanks, without worrying about it detracting from the day’s word count.

Plot or Detail?

Sometimes, research will be needed for details, and sometimes the result of the research will directly affect the plot. The details and little bits that bring the world to life can often be FCK-ed for later. It doesn’t really matter what fruit is available in the green room. It won’t affect what the character does when they go on TV. On the other hand, if you discover that there really aren’t any talk shows on TV in that country, that may derail the next couple of scenes.

It’s important to differentiate between these detail and plot-vital questions. Skipping over a plot-vital question and continuing to write may backfire when you get to the research and the answers turn out to be incompatible with what you’ve written. This is a recipe for depression, as you’re forced to throw away hard work and change the course of the plot.

Details, on the other hand, are relatively safe. They can usually be put off for later research without much consequence. It’s important to understand the difference.

Using What You Know

One of the best ways to avoid research is to already know things. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Chances are, you’ve lived in a few places. You may have a job, and probably know other people who have jobs. You’ve been places. You’ve seen things.

“Write what you know,” is such well-worn writing advice that it borders on trite, but it is undoubtedly the best way to avoid research. In Razor Mountain, I decided that one of my protagonists is a former software developer from Minnesota. That happens to be my current job, and the place I live. There are plenty of other things that I have to research for that book, but any questions that come up about living in Minnesota or working in software will probably be easy for me to answer with my own experience. By using what I know, I can do less work and get the same quality result.

Just be aware that using the same knowledge over and over, to the point of it being a crutch, can be obvious to your audience, and even get a little boring. Not all your protagonists have to be writers, Stephen King. There are other professions.

Don’t Rely on Tropes and Stereotypes

Just because you want to limit your research doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners, especially when it comes to people and their cultures. One of the reasons old movies and books with minority characters are so often cringy is because they rely entirely on tropes and stereotypes for those characters and cultures.

Some of this can be avoided by finding readers who live in the places you’re depicting, or come from the same culture as your characters. These days, those people are often called “sensitivity readers.” They’re living research assistants, with the personal experience that you’re lacking. Whatever you call them, they invaluable.

When working with this kind of reader, it’s even better if you can work with them as you write. It’s better to ask questions up-front to avoid plot-breaking discoveries. And your reader will definitely appreciate reviewing work that already works hard to understand who they are or the culture they come from. Of course, like any person who works in a professional capacity to help improve your writing, you may have to pay them. This is skill and knowledge that you’re getting from someone else, and it’s as valuable as something like editing or cover design.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Research can make stories feel more real, but it can also be yet another form of writerly procrastination. It’s important to ask “when, what and how much,” as you delve into research. If you can use what you know, you may be able to skip that research and spend more time writing. If you can TK or FCK those detail, you can avoid derailing a productive writing session and come back to that detail later.

Research may seem like a daunting thing that requires travel and first-hand experience, but there’s a lot that can be discovered through the internet, and even through your local helpful librarian and (gasp) books. If you can find experts on a topic, they can be a great resource too. When it comes to depicting a culture or group that you aren’t a part of, finding readers and consultants to fill in those gaps in understanding can be a necessity.

Don’t let research scare you, but don’t let the allure of knowledge distract you from actually getting the writing done either.

Asking For Feedback

No matter what I’m writing — short story, novel, or something else — I’ll start with a first draft, do some amount of editing, and then start to feel the need for feedback. No matter how great you are at editing and revision, you can’t catch everything. In fact, if you’re me, you can’t catch a lot of things.

As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, feedback is going to be interesting. While I’m going to start with a buffer of a couple completed chapters, I’ll be publishing as I write. Unlike my normal process, I’ll be interleaving the first draft writing, editing, and incorporating feedback for different chapters.

Regardless of the project you’re working on, getting feedback is critical to making your writing the best it can be. However, it’s important to understand that you’re not just throwing a manuscript over the wall to your reader and expecting them to toss back some notes. To get the most out of your readers, it can and should be a collaboration!

Who Is Your Reader?

When you’re asking for feedback, consider who you’re asking. If you have friends and family who are willing to read, that’s a fantastic resource. Many writers have a spouse or trusted friends who act as beta readers. You might also have writer friends, a critique group, or fellow writers on a critique website.

The largest differentiator between your early readers will probably be between “regular” readers and fellow writers. Readers tend to look at what they like or dislike about a story, and point out typos and grammar issues. Writers are much more likely to think about story structure or word choice, and to think about how they would do it were they writing your story.

If you use the same readers for several projects, you’ll get to know what feedback they’re good at giving. If you use a big online critique group or service, you might get different people every time. In either case, there’s a simple way to stack the deck in your favor and get more of the feedback that you want. Ask for it.

Know Your Weaknesses

First, think about what your own weaknesses are. What mistakes do you make? Writer, know thyself! The easiest way to do this is to pay attention when you’re editing. Keep track of the errors you fix and the things you improve.

For example, I love asides in the middle of sentences — like this one — and I have to restrain myself when it comes to em-dashes, parentheses, and sometimes colons.

I also tend to hedge when I’m not entirely sure about a moment in the story. For example, I might say that a character felt angry when or seemed upset when it would be more forceful to just say that the character was angry or upset. And then, I usually try to do away with that telling entirely, and show that the character is angry or upset through their actions or words.

If you don’t already pay attention to your editing like this, taking inventory of your foibles as a writer is a great way to improve. It’s also a way to build up a list of things for your early readers to look for.

What Are You Worried About?

When I write, there are some parts of the story that are rock solid. They’re straightforward and I know exactly what I want to do. I write them, and it comes out pretty well. Then there are other parts of the story where I’m less certain that I’m doing the right thing. I know there’s room for improvement. I feel like the character’s actions don’t quite match their personality, or the story is taking a detour, or the words just don’t fit together in the way I’d like.

You’ve probably had similar feelings. We all have parts of the work that we’re worried about, for one reason or another. That’s great. Those are perfect targets for your beta readers. Let them tell you whether you’re right to be worried, or doing better than you thought.

Asking For What You Want

Now we get to the crux of it. You have a list of your writerly tics and foibles. You know the parts of your story that you’re worried about. And you have some readers waiting in the wings.

If you have readers with a particular set of skills, you can always sic them on specific problems. Maybe you have a reader who is great with grammar and spelling. Don’t feel bad telling them to focus on those things. Don’t prevent them from bringing other issues to your attention, but cater to their strengths.

If you have readers who are generalists, or you’re not sure what their feedback strengths are, you can always include a few bullet point notes with your manuscript to guide them. Have them pay attention to a particular character that you’re unsure about, or particular scenes. Also consider whether you want to put these notes up-front at the start, guiding your reader to pay more attention to that particular thing, or at the end where they will prompt your reader to reflect on your concerns after they’ve finished reading.

You don’t always have to be extremely specific either. Maybe you’re worried that your comedic sidekick character, Phil, is unlikable. Rather than asking that directly, you might just ask how the reader feels about Phil. You can suss out their feelings without guiding them too much in one direction or another.

Guided Feedback is Great Feedback

Almost any beta reader feedback is going to be beneficial. When you find good readers, you need to take care of them and nurture them as a precious resource. You’ll find that they’re even more effective when you ask them for the kind of feedback you want.

Nobody knows your story-in-progress better than you do. If you have concerns about some particular part, there’s a good chance they’re justified. Use your beta readers to shore up those weaknesses and turn them into strengths, and your stories will be better for it.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #45

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I revised Chapter One, with special attention to the opening. I spent time evaluating options for book covers.

More Book Cover Action

Much like in my writing, I’m finding that making a good book cover is not about the first draft. It’s about revision, revision, revision. I am, admittedly, trying to be cheap and do it myself, instead of dropping cash on the many fine businesses that would be happy to provide professional artists to help me out. I got myself into this mess, and I’ve been doing my best to get myself out of it.

A couple weeks back, I had rough ideas for what a Razor Mountain cover might look like. First and most obvious thing: with a title like that, it pretty much has to have a mountain on the cover. Apart from that, the book is in many ways about duality: past and future, acceptance and denial, life and death, God-Speaker and Christopher. That’s not necessarily an easy concept to get across visually, but I had a vague idea of the mountain being split in half, and the shape of a person in a dark space beneath it, also split or doubled. I imagined a line down the middle, with the regular colors on one side, and a photo-negative effect across the other side.

I continued to think about what I wanted. I looked at lots of book covers. I researched tools and techniques and companies and prices. I wrote a post about it.

I tried creating a prototype by hand, with colored Sharpie felt-tip pens. I enjoy doodling and painting from time to time, but I was not particularly satisfied with the result in this case. It does look slightly better in person — the lighting is bad and the colors are pretty washed-out in this photo — but it’s not something I want to put on the front of my book.

Welcome to Disappointment Mountain.

Next, I moved on to Canva. I started by modifying their premade templates. My next cover was certainly better, but it’s a little too simple, with even fewer visual elements than the Sharpie disaster. It also looks a bit outdated, like a paperback cover from the 70s. In retrospect, the font is more of a fantasy font, with a vaguely runic look. Still, this looks like a book cover to me, even if I’m not that excited about it.

There’s probably dwarves in that there mountain.

I came back a few days later, energized to make another attempt. With some Canva experience under my belt, I trolled through Pexels for royalty-free images of mountains, silhouetted people, cities, etc. I also fired up GIMP (a.k.a. GNU Image Manipulation Program) and did some light editing. I’m hardly a graphic designer, but I’ve played around with GIMP and Photoshop in years past, so I can do some simple things like filters or gradient transparency.

The end result was actually pretty close to my original vision. I spent a surprisingly long time on little tweaks, like the silhouette of hills that separate the top section from the bottom. Fonts are also incredibly difficult to get right. I spent ages flipping between fonts. I still vacillate between this being too cheesy and just right. It definitely feels more like a thriller font.

I also created several different layouts with these same elements slightly rearranged. Unfortunately, different services want square (or even circular-cropped) “cover” images, and in some cases I may want the image without the title and author overlaid, for cases when they already appear in text nearby.

More Revision

I don’t have too many specifics to report on the editing front. I took several more passes through the first two chapters, mostly making small line edits. Now they’re going to my first beta reader, my wife. I’ll be back to looking for more critique partners and beta readers this upcoming week.

Results

I continued revising and editing the first two chapters and I created a book cover that I’m satisfied with.

Reference Desk #8 — Working it Out

There’s a rare thing that happens sometimes in great comedies. The writers insert an episode, a scene, or even a few lines of dialogue that create a dramatic, emotional impact. A little island of seriousness among the jokes.

When this is done correctly, the knife twist from lighthearted laughs to pathos can be every bit as impactful as a similar scene within a drama, where the entire show may have been building up to it.

Fans of Futurama will know what I mean if I mention Fry’s dog, Seymour. Fans of Scrubs will remember Ben Sullivan. And fans of Adventure Time might just get a little choked up when they hear “Everything Stays.”

Birbigs

I’ve been a fan of Mike Birbiglia for a while, and I think it’s mostly because he lives on that edge between humor and pathos. He considers himself a stand-up comedian, but his on- and off-Broadway shows often feel like half dramatic one-man-show, half stand-up special. They revolve around events as serious as sleep-walking through a second-story window or being T-boned in a hit-and-run car accident.

Working it Out” is Birbiglia’s podcast. As you might expect from a comedian’s podcast, there are plenty of popular comedian guests, from John Mulaney and Hannah Gadsby to Jimmy Kimmel and Frank Oz. But rather than being a simple excuse to joke with friends and acquaintances, Mike makes it something halfway between an interview show and a critique circle. It turns out he is deeply studious when it comes to the craft of telling jokes, and the craft of storytelling.

The through-line of the 40 episodes that have been released so far is the new show that Birbiglia is developing. It started with the title “The YMCA Pool,” but he now calls it “The Old Man and the Pool.” It’s a comedy show about getting older and coming to grips with your own mortality.

In the first episode, Mike tries out some of the material he’s working on with his friend and “This American Life” luminary, Ira Glass. Ira gives him advice that involves significant rewriting, and he accepts it graciously. By episode 25, when Ira returns, Mike has done his rewrite. They run through it again, and discuss it in depth. Mike jokingly asks, after half a year of revisions, how close his story is to being worthy of “This American Life.” And Ira deadpans, “halfway there.”

The Vulnerability of Revision

What makes Birbiglia’s comedy work so well, and the knife-twist that makes it hit so hard, is his vulnerability on stage. The podcast is different from a stage show, of course, but it still works because he’s willing to be vulnerable in front of an audience.

It’s clear that Mike doesn’t shy away from the hard work of revision. Guests bring their work in progress, and he brings his, and they hash it out, every episode. Some of the guests are clearly less into the workshopping aspect than others, but Birbiglia’s enthusiasm shows through.

If you’ve read any of my writing development journals, you can probably see why this appeals to me. There’s something raw and awkward about a rough draft. It’s hard enough to be confident about work that’s polished to a mirror shine, and it can outright hurt to reveal the grotesque early versions of the art we’re passionately trying to create, in the midst of its creation. But it’s immensely reassuring to be reminded that it’s like that for everyone! Art doesn’t spring fully formed from our minds, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It has to be shaped and reshaped. Bits added on, and bits sanded off. The slow, steady grind of progress.

Of course, it helps to have a few jokes to lighten the mood, even if they are jokes about death.

60. Rosebud Baker: Addicted to Comedy Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out

Rosebud Baker can make anything funny. She has jokes about the tragic death of her sister, her own struggles with addiction, and why nurses seem to be a little too cocky. Mike and Rose kick around jokes about what to do when your Uber is filling up with water, how much urine is in a public pool, and why some of us marry our dads. All that, and a story about toasting a U.S. president when she was a kid. https://www.safehorizon.org/
  1. 60. Rosebud Baker: Addicted to Comedy
  2. Bill Hader: This Episode Has It All
  3. 59. Alex Edelman: A Jewish Person Walks Into a Meeting of White Supremacists
  4. Hasan Minhaj: Sometimes Living Through History… Sucks
  5. 58. Jimmy Carr: Life Is Better With Laughter