Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and young adult fiction. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series — Penguin/ACE, and the forthcoming School for Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr. — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star — part of an NSF-funded science curriculum — and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited — funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Kelly on Twitter, Facebook, G+
May 25, 2013 in Writing
Someone recently asked me about where I get my character names. I do a mix of things.
1) Researching names and words appropriate to the cultures I’m drawing on for a piece and adopting or adapting them to fit my story—Haemun from the WebMage books, and most of the human side-characters in Fallen Blade fit the mode.
2) Grabbing names that suit the character more less at random from the depths of years of reading—Melchior is one of those coming as it does from descriptions of the three wise men in the bible, which in Mel’s case I think of the three wise guys.
3) Pulling random sound combinations or names out of my back brain because they taste* right—Ravirn and Aral both fall under this latter rubric. Ravirn was originally a short story character and I hadn’t planned to do much more with him, so I didn’t put much thought into the name, just reached into my back brain for something that sounded good. Aral, I came up with on the spur of the moment for an email discussion I was having with my editor.
*Taste is the word I use to describe back brain processing of things in my writing. Mostly that’s at the sentence or word level, but it’s also how my sense of how novel structure works. I write in a very spoken-word-oriented mode, saying things in my head as I write them—and I check my grammar etc. as I write by the way it feels in the mouth of my mind.
May 24, 2013 in Silly
Found these in an old writing thread (circa 2002). Someone had sent a friend some added stanzas for the song “That’s Amore.”
So the original verse looked like this:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie
Someone else had added these, among others:
When an eel bites your hand
And that’s not what you planned
That’s a moray.
When our habits are strange
And our customs deranged
That’s our mores.
Which led the following to crawl out of my brain:
When a Greek serves you wine
and the vase tastes of pine
When the man on the stage
Croons songs all the rage
That’s Mel Torme
When the cook in the kitchen
Makes food that’s bewitchin’
That’s a gourmet
Here are two more really bad ones that I threw into the original post (I include these mainly as an example of the sorts of thing that I would normally delete and that my archivist insists should be saved for posterity):
When the queen of the elves
Makes men lose themselves
She’s a glamour fey
When the sound of your poems
Are drowned out by groans
That’s the clamor way
May 24, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging
My first book was written on my first computer. This is not a coincidence. Without modern writing tools and the ability to freely move paragraphs around and make corrections I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I need that freedom to change my mind.
In fact, freedom is generally important to me in writing. My first book was written on a generation one MacIntosh which I could easily pick up and move around the apartment to suit my current whim. Much of it was written with my feet up on the couch, the keyboard in my lap, and the computer off to my right on the coffee table. Terrible ergonomics, but ideal for my thinking process.
Now I do all my writing on a laptop and I have for as long as I’ve been able to afford one. This means I can write on the porch, at the coffee shop, in bed, sitting in the corner under a stairwell at one of my wife’s physics conferences, even tucked away behind a display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and I’ve written happily in all those places.
2013 update: In reading this again now, I realize it’s probably worth noting that the desire for freedom in my writing space extends to the idea of societal expectations of work space. Put me at a desk and it becomes very difficult for me to write. I think that’s because my sub-conscious interprets desk as day job space. Likewise I find I work better on a chaise or easy chair with my feet up and lots of open visual space around me—ideally with lots of windows and an outdoor view. I really really don’t like feeling constrained.
On the other hand, I know people who draft long hand with a pen, on an actual typewriter, using voice recognition software, or dictating into a tape recorder while walking in the mountains. Everyone does it differently and we all have our reasons. The only thing that really matters is that the writing actually gets done.
So I’m just back from two weeks wandering around the Canadian maritimes with friends (Or, I was in June of 2007 when I first wrote this). On one level it was a vacation, on another level it was very much a business trip. One of the most important things a writer can do is collect new experiences, ideas, images, and places that can be filtered and focused and used as grist for the mill of our work.
For me, travel is one of the most important ways to develop new ideas and scenes for works in progress and works yet to be, in part because I’m a world driven writer. On this trip I had two particularly fabulous visits that will be incorporated into future work, as will the whole trip over time. Oh, and I might get a bit of blog fodder as well, if you hadn’t guessed.
First was a place called Woodleigh. It was one of those weird tourist attractions driven by an eccentric genius with intense focus. In this case it was a good sized parklike area studded with miniature versions of important British landmarks in varying scales, including a Tower of London big enough to walk through and a Westminster with doors only a few inches high but with two tons of lead used in the roofing. Fascinating and utterly bizarre, it will be a major and important setting for parts of WebMage book IV. In fact, the book will take place almost entirely in the Canadian Maritimes.
Second and even more important for me was Halifax and in particular, The Citadel—an 1850s era British fortress with a mix of kilted re-enactors and actual soldiers manning it. The place was fantastic and I literally couldn’t move without getting story ideas. In all I collected scenes and ideas there for WebMage IV, The Eye of Horus, Outside In, and a new as yet untitled book to be written after I’ve got some free time again, maybe 2-3 years out at the current rate. I took well over a hundred pictures and made a number of short cryptic notes that tie back to big ideas for various stories. A lot of it needs to marinate in the back of my head for a while, especially the future Halifax book, but some of it will come out more immediately with WebMage IV and Eye of Horus. 2013 update: It did indeed come out in both of those books.
May 18, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging
Give in to your hatred, Luke.
How many times do we have to tell you you’re not Darth Vader?
How can anyone care about that movie anymore when there’s a new chair on the porch?
Couch over porch any day. The toes know, the toes know.
The toes know? Is that like a zen thing?
No, but I am a Zen thing. The Zen of behind the radiator.
So in response to a question Sean M Murphy posed on the Wyrdsmiths blog about how to write funny, I have this to say: Use your toes.
More seriously, this is a really tough question, and I’m not sure there is a satisfactory answer. Humor is incredibly subjective and the line between funny for me and funny for you is thin one. There are jokes that I find hysterically funny that my wife barely laughs at and vice-versa. Likewise, delivery matters.
There are jokes that are funny when told by a master that aren’t funny at all when an amateur tells them. There are jokes that are funny only because of very specific cultural contexts and jokes that are only funny when one person tells them. There are jokes tuned for gender, for age, for military experience. There is, in short, almost no such thing as a universal joke.
Medium matters too. I know people who are very funny in print but who aren’t often funny in person, and vice-versa. That has a lot to do with context and subtext. When you tell a joke or make a funny comment in person, you’re using a very different set of tools than when you do the same thing textually. Things that could sound quite mean or hurtful on the page can be delivered in person with the appropriate tone and body language to convey that the whole thing is really good natured. Just as something that might seem flat and overly subtle in person can be hysterically funny on the page.
None of which answers the question. I write humor almost as easily as I breathe. Even in my very earliest attempts at fiction I could often generate an out loud laugh from my readers. How do I do it?
Some of it is a talent for the funny in text, and I don’t have any idea how to transfer it. Some of it is by creating characters with a long term friendly fencing relationship, so that the reader know that even the mean jokes are in the spirit of fun. Some of it is always directing the harshest jabs at my protagonist so that the reader gets it filtered through the (unhurt) eyes of my main character. Some of it is by making a lot of the humor self-directed. You’re allowed to say awful but funny things about yourself that you would never consider saying about someone else. Some of it comes from always making sure that the characters are aware of the absurd in their situation–not by breaking the 4th wall and talking to the audience, but by realizing the inherent humor of being chased by a 600 foot firebreathing woodchuck.
Oh, and at least in my case, humor tends to be very very dark. A moderately funny bit in the midst of the world coming apart can be much funnier than the best joke ever while your characters are having a happy tea with no danger in sight.
Finally, a lot of it is hit and miss and fearlessness. You put the joke in and see who laughs. If you’ve got beta readers or writers group readers they’ll tell you when you’re funny and when you’re not. You also understand that sometimes you fail with some readers, that something that’s funny for one reader won’t be for another and you accept that you can’t make everybody laugh all the time.
For the intro, see part one below. I’m going to move on to models for thinking about plot in this and the next post. All of these can be applied to either internal or external plot.
Model 1-Plot, what, why how: Plot is confusing in part because when writers and readers talk about it, they’re talking about several different things, and we rarely differentiate explicitly.
Plot the what, plot the why, and plot the how. Very often we focus on plot the what, the sequence of events that take us from the beginning of a story to the end, and talk about it in great detail.
The what of plot can be anything and everything and is easy to overthink and to worry about to distraction.
The why of plot is the most important thing for the writer to think about. And, fortunately, it’s much simpler. Why do the things in a story happen? Fiction is the art of crafting stories with a purpose. That purpose can be as simple as crafting a ripping yarn, or as complex as, well, pretty much anything you can conceive of.
The key to a well plotted story is mapping the why onto the what. The how follows naturally after that. Why are you telling the story? What do you want out of the story? Once you have an idea of that you can move on to the how.
In my case, the why is usually built around wanting people to come see my cool world. I decide what parts of the world I want to show off. Where in the world can I place the story for maximum tourist advantage? Then I map out a loose path through the set, and start thinking about what sort of character would follow that path, which leads me to conflict and another way to think about plot.
A note on cost: There is no plot without cost. If the characters in your story don’t have to give anything up (cost) there is no tension, and so no story.
Model 2-Plot as conflict: One writer, (sadly, I can’t remember who) said that all you need to know for plot is “things get worse.” Anytime in the story when you don’t know what comes next, make things worse. Done well, this is true enough. Done wrong, it becomes “hit the bird.” (Disney’s Alladin. Don’t know what to do, hit the bird.) As I said, done right it works. Things keep getting worse for your Protagonist until the end when they get better.
I prefer to think in terms of conflict. Plot is getting from point a to point b with the maximum amount of interesting and appropriate mayhem (conflict) in between. Your character wants or needs something (internal vs. external) and chooses to try or is forced to try to get it or to get away from having to get it. How that plays out, and what he or she loses or gains along the way is plot. This is a sort of hero’s journey model.
Model 3-Plot as conflict part B; internal vs. external: In most fantasy fiction you will have a protagonist and an antagonist, or hero and villain. In conflict type B, the conflict and plot are driven by the opposing needs of the hero and the villain, remembering always that the villain is the hero of his or her own story. This leads us back to internally vs. externally driven plots.
Model 4-Plot as motion: In normal life, long periods go by without anything of significance happening. In fiction everything is a significant happening, or should be. If it doesn’t move the story somehow, it probably shouldn’t be in the text. In plot as motion we start at a point of stasis, or immediately after a point of stasis has been destabilized. The story then revolves around getting to a new point of stasis which involves motion through the world and through time. Attempts to halt or redirect the flow of motion create the conflict necessary to interesting story-telling.
I’ve spent a good bit of time over the years thinking about plot and I thought some of those ideas might be of interest to y’all. I’ll start with a definition of terms today and then discuss four models of plot construction in the next part.
The basic equation of plot as I see it goes a bit like this:
Plot = How Conflict interacts with Cost to achieve resolution
Conflict = The difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be
Cost = Price of resolving conflict
That said, there two basic types of plots. Internally driven and externally driven.
Much of classic fantasy and most of classic science fiction revolves around externally driven plot. Sauron seeks the one ring. Either Frodo and co destroy it or are destroyed. No internal transformation has to take place in any of the characters. They have a goal. The trilogy is built around achieving that goal. In fantasy the external plot is usually driven by a BBE, or big bad evil. Sauron. The White Witch. Etc.
Most lit fic and an ever growing portion of F&SF is internally driven. Internally driven stories usually revolve around the problems of the character though many have explicit external villains as well. The protagonist is broken in some fundamental way, either some time before the action of the book begins, or very soon thereafter. They then go on a journey which either fixes them, or transforms them into someone who no longer needs to be fixed.
I personally try to write a story with both external and internal plot drivers, as I feel that a fusion of the two makes for a stronger story.
May 10, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging
Go way! Dreaming.
Dreaming of things she put on the shopping list perhaps?*
I is dreaming of the existential horror of being devoured by my own toes.
You are one strange neurotic little cat…
I’z dreaming of being a giant panther!
Good luck with that…
I am dreaming of the taste of your soul.
Bonus friday cat doggerel written about our late and much loved Spot.
Because: A) “cat doggerel” is fun to say. B) I found it in the glove compartment
*Shopping list art actually by Matt Kuchta—who left it there when we weren’t looking.