Kelly McCullough writes fantasy, science fiction, and books for kids of varying ages. 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+
So, mystery author extraordinaire, Nancy Pickard, posted some thoughts and questions on agents this morning and it turned out I had a lot to say in response. Here are my comments from over there:
I think you absolutely must be friendly with your agent. I think that it also is a great thing to make friends with them over time, but I’m leery of starting off the relationship as friends because if it doesn’t work out* you have a major problem.
Ooh, I should probably back up one from that, I really believe that having an agent is a huge asset in this business both to sell your work so that you don’t have to do what is a really big second job on top of writing, but also because a good agent will do wonders for you in contract negotiations and long term improvement of both your revenue stream and flexibility**. This is doubly true as more and more publishers stop looking at unagented works.
Multiply submitting…I’m with Miss Snark on this, exclusives suck and should only be entered into when there is no reasonable alternative. Submit to a bunch of agents (though you’ve got to read guidelines and tailor the pitch). Only agree to an exclusive if it’s an agent high on your list and for a finite window and for a full. If you’ve got stuff out with multiple agents and someone asks for exclusive on the full, be honest, tell them you’ve got the partial out elsewhere and that you’re willing to give them an exclusive on the full for a finite period–probably not less than three weeks and certainly not more than a couple of months. Don’t submit multiply to several agents at the same house, but other than that, go for it.
I will say that I think it’s best to send in waves. Maybe five at a time in the first couple so that you can get a sense of the response to your initial query and synopsis and adjust as necessary.
Finally, as I said, Miss Snark is the best thing ever to happen to online agency discussions, and I am eternally bummed that she no longer updates her blog. However, the archives are still there and a while back I went through and read and indexed the whole thing by topic: Miss Snark index. The vast majority of basic and even advanced agent questions have answers in her files and they are both smart and funny.
Okay, going to stop now since I’ve already grabbed a huge chunk of Nancy’s comment real estate. Hope it’s useful.
Oops, I lied. Two last things, I have my doubts about the average value of in-person pitches, but for anyone who’s interested, I’ve sunk some time into talking about pitches and synopses: Pitching and Synopses parts 1, 2, and 3. Plus, what a synopsis should do.
*possible reasons for not working out, they don’t sell your work, you don’t agree on the way your career should go, you change genres into something they don’t/won’t represent, major life changing events knock them out of business for a significant time, etc.
**Mine has a standard contract with all the houses he works with that is much better than the base contract. With that the starting point for negotiations we don’t have to fight over all kinds of things that unrepped authors do. Also, his negotiations for me have a lot of impact on options and no competing works clauses, very important in my case since I write fast.
Here’s an interview I recently did with a college student for his honors creative writing project. It’s broken down into three sections, one on craft, one on the business of writing, and one on my personal relationship to the work.
1) Where do your ideas for plot/character/setting come from?
Fundamentally, I have a weird brain. I suspect that my neural networks have more cross connections than most, and that leads me to mixing ideas that wouldn’t get mixed in a more neurotypical brain. So, goblins and laptops, or faerie and car crashes, or a thousand other strange things that I’ve either written about or put aside for later use. Often, I’ll get a flash of an idea in a dream: a picture, or a scene snippet, or a bit of magic. That’s where it starts with a flash of insight either waking or sleeping. After that, it’s pretty much methodical construction of a story around the initial idea. For example, take a dream picture, and try to figure out what would have needed to happen to get there. In the course of doing that I generally get an ongoing cascade of new ideas, but it’s really mostly a flash of an idea and then a lot of work making it into a story. Ten percent inspiration, ninety percent applied craft.
2) How often do you find yourself rewriting a scene or reworking a character?
That’s an it-depends kind of question. I start each day by going over the previous day’s writing and smoothing out the prose, but I don’t do a lot of major rewrite at this point in my career. At least not on the fantasy side of my ledger. Something between 75-90 percent of the text in one of my Blade novels was there in first draft, and the ideas, plot line, and character flow are pretty much all there in the rough. But I’m in the midst of writing my 20th novel at the moment, and things were very different 15 novels ago.
Back then, I’d say that about 30 percent of the rough survived to final draft. I’m also still figuring out how to write for children, having recently completed what will be my first published middle grade novel—School For Sidekicks. There, I’d guess 60 percent of the rough survived, but due to major additions that’s only about 40-50 percent of the final version.
3) Does the urge to nit-pick over a specific word or line ever really go away?
I don’ think that it does for those who have the urge, but that’s never been my particular bugaboo. At least, not at novel length. Certainly, I do it when I’m writing poetry or super-short stories. But fundamentally, when I’m working at length I’m a story over sentence writer. That’s partially because I try to write windowpane prose most of the time. I don’t want the reader to notice my sentences, I want them to be clear water that allows the reader to focus on the story. With a novel, you need to get a hundred thousand words on paper more or less. If you’re going to accomplish that in any reasonable amount of time, you have to give yourself permission to suck in the first draft. The funny thing is that when I do give myself that permission to suck, I often find on later reading that the level of the prose is better than what I write when I get too self-critical.
4) What are your ideal conditions for writing (quiet/noisy, alone/crowd, light/dark, etc.)
I prefer quiet and as close to being outside as I can get without having to deal with bugs. I just built a new studio to work in. It’s a tiny room, 8′ x 10′ with windows on three sides, and nothing in it by chaise lounge and a comfy chair with a foot stool. When I look up from my laptop, I’m looking out into the wide world. It’s perfect. Neil Gaiman’s gazebo is a similar space—peaceful and surrounded by green—and I love borrowing it. I _can_ write any place I’ve got enough space for a comfy chair with a footrest and relative peace, but a good view of the world is best.
5) What kinds of writing goals do you make for yourself, if any, regardless of deadlines?
I’m a working writer, which means that deadlines are pretty front and center in my goal structure, so I keep close metrics on wordcount over time. Beyond that, I’m always trying to push myself to try things I’m not sure I can pull off. If I’m not stretching, I’m not growing, and that’s a recipe for creative death. I also try to work across genres, which is why I’ve written everything from humorous fantasy, through horror, to superheroes and hard science fiction. I don’t want to be trapped into writing the same things over and over again like so many writers.
6) About how much time do you spend on writing a full novel?
Around three months of actual writing time, usually over a six month period with lots of time off for thinking and other tasks. I’ve written a book in 95 days, but it’s not much fun to have to push that hard.
7) Do you tend to write a slew of work, then revisit and edit afterward, or edit as you go?
I edit iteratively as I go, but I don’t advise doing it that way. It works great for me, but for most writers it seems to lead to a bad feedback loop, where they keep writing and rewriting the same opening chapters or short story over and over again.
8) When you come up with an idea (plot/character/setting) that doesn’t fit into the section you’re currently writing, how do you keep track of it?
I generally either make a voice note, or tuck in a brief summary down at the end of the book, or send myself an email. Most of the time that serves more as a way of fixing it in my memory than anything, and I may not actually go and look at it ever again. It just helps keep it in my head.
1) How did you end up with Penguin?
The usual route. My agent submitted a book to my editor there. She liked it, made an offer, and I’ve been there ever since.
2) What are the pros/cons of having an agent, and how do you get one?
That’s a huge question, in part because it’s one of the things that’s changing radically in the industry right now. When I broke in, having an agent was pretty critical, and mine is worth his weight in fancy chocolate. He’s excellent with contracts and with pitching editors, which has served me very well. He’s got established relationships with many publishing houses, which means that the contract we start negotiating from is much better than the one an unagented writer would start from. I don’t begrudge him a penny of his fifteen percent. That said, publishing models are shifting radically right now, and that’s changing the relationships between author, agents, and editors. I think there’s still a lot a good agent can do for a writer at the moment, but I’m not sure what the publishing world will like in five or ten years. Also, there are a lot of bad agents out there, and a bad agent is worse than no agent.
Getting an agent has a couple of forks. If you’re a new writer, it’s a pretty set process involving queries and partials and ton of things that are no fun to write. If you’re established, or partially so, things are different. I got my first agent because I was selling short stories and because he repped some other folks in my writers group and was interested in my work. I got my second agent when the first one left the agenting biz and my new agent took over a section of my old agent’s list. If I were looking now, I’d tell friends what I’m trying to sell and ask around to see who’s doing good work in those areas.
3) What exactly does an editor/publisher do, from the author’s perspective?
You could pretty much teach a seminar on that subject. It starts with acquisitions, paying an advance (which means they’re shouldering the upfront financial risk), big picture editing, cover art, copyediting, book design, typesetting, proofreading, publication, wide channel distribution, promotion, legal department, etc, etc, etc. The big ones there that are really hard to do for yourself are editing, risk management, distribution, promotion, and legal, though pretty much all of what they do makes the book better or the author more secure. Things like Kickstarter and electronic distribution are shifting what’s possible in terms of making a successful career of writing, but how much is going to change and how far it will go are open questions.
4) What would be your #1 “Do” and #1 “Don’t” for professional fiction writers?
Do: Act in a professional manner. You need two of three things to succeed in this business. 1) Be easy to work with. 2) Deliver the work on time/be reliable 3) Sell really well/be a freaking genius. 1 and 2 are all about acting professionally, and that’s a hell of a lot easier to control than sales and genius. To quote Neil Gaiman: “People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Don’t: Fret about the things you can’t control. There is no surer path to a nervous breakdown than to freak about the things you can’t control. Things like how big a marketing push you’re going to get, how well your book will be received critically, how well you sell. Those are all things that we would like to believe we can control, but by and large they are beyond the writer’s control. That’s part of why so many writers get caught up in self-marketing to the detriment of getting the work done, because they believe they can have a much larger impact on sales than is remotely likely. The biggest sales spikes I’ve seen have had nothing to do with marketing, they’ve all been because of art projects I took on for fun that attracted internet eyeballs. Whereas any number of things I did hoping to boost sales have had no discernible effect.
5) Do you feel that the industry requires a career author to work on multiple projects at once?
It depends on how you define multiple projects. It’s pretty much a given that if you’re putting out a book a year you will be working on different phases of several books at once. Drafting on one, editing on a second, marketing on a third. If they’re all part of a series, is that multiple projects or is it all part of one big one? Personally, I like working on lots of things because it keeps me entertained. But I also know writers who have been slowly crafting one big writing project for years to the near exclusion of others—Pat Rothfuss and The Kingkiller Chronicles, for example.
1) What character, out of the ones you’ve written, is your favorite and why?
That’s a really hard call. I love Melchior and Eris and Ravirn in the WebMage books, because they’re all sarcastic and witty and fun to write. In the Blade books, I’m really happy with Aral, and Triss and the buddy cop/marriage dynamic they’ve got going on, and I love writing Kelos and Faran because they’re both such damaged hard-asses. I’m also really pleased with the Dyad in Bared Blade which was very difficult to write because she’s a person with two bodies and three personalities. Foxman and Burnish who are in School for Sidekicks (which will be out next year) were both wonderful fun. Foxman’s an over the top billiionaire superhero, and Burnish is an up and coming superhero daughter of a superhero father who has been badly wounded by the world. There are some others that make the list from works that aren’t yet published as well. If I had to make a choice right this minute, it would probably be Kelos, but that’s because I’m writing him for Drawn Blades right now, and he’s such fun to play with.
2) What is your favorite scene you’ve ever written and why?
I’m going to stick with published works for this, because it would be cruel to talk about things that aren’t out there yet. Given that, I’d have to say it’s a touch call between the farewell sequence at the end of SpellCrash and the final battle and wrap up of Blade Reforged. What I love about the SpellCrash scene is that it was written as the closing sequence of a five book arc, and I actually got the time to say goodbye to each of the major characters fully and in turn. It was bruising to write, but it also let me close that series with closure for my readers. The end of Blade Reforged is all about redemption. Aral wins an impossible fight by accepting that doing so will almost certainly kill him. He lets go of life in order to do the right thing. And, in doing so, he becomes once again what he had been before the fall that put him where he is at the start of Broken Blade. Then, after he has become a sort of avatar of Justice, he is in a position for something numinous to happen restoring him in body as well as soul. I’m really proud of that one.
3) I’ve been following your work since WebMage, and I believe that the Broken Blade series has demonstrated your growth as a writer. Do you feel the same – why? What lessons did you take away from WebMage that you applied to Broken Blade?
Yes and no. A lot of what I’m doing in Broken Blade parallels things from currently unpublished books that were written before or during the writing of the WebMage books. I think Black School, which is one of the unpublished novels written between Cybermancy and Codespell, is as good as anything I’m doing now, and I really hope I can find the right publisher for it.
I’m definitely a better writer now than I was when I wrote WebMage, especially in terms of prose. At the same time, what I was trying to achieve with WebMage is so different from what I’m trying to do with Broken Blade that it’s hard for me to compare them. In many ways, writing humor is harder than writing gritty, which mean I can do things that look more difficult in Broken Blade because they don’t have to be funny too.
School for Sidekicks, which comes out next year, is pure humor for a middle grade audience. I suspect that it’s going to look much easier to write than the Blade books, when the opposite is true.
I’m always trying to improve, and to achieve things I couldn’t with previous books, so in that sense, yes. But it’s not necessarily as linear a progression as it looks to the reader.
4) Has there been any point in your career as an author where you found yourself thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?” If so, what was it?
Not really, but that’s because I’ve had great mentors from very early on. My Writers of the Future win was my third publication, and, through friends I made there, I was introduced to Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch who took me under their wings. I learned an enormous amount about the business and craft of writing from them. And, through them, from Raymond Feist, Kevin J Anderson, and George R.R. Martin among others. I’ve also had great resources through my various writers groups, which include a lot of people who have sold books and stories. More recently, I’ve learned incredible amounts about managing a busy career from watching my friend Neil Gaiman managing what I think of as Neil Gaiman inc. In the last two years I’ve made the transition from being a writer who says yes to every opportunity because I needed the work to being a writer who has begun to say no to things due to time and energy constraints because I’ve become so busy. Neil was incredibly helpful in figuring out how to deal with that.
5) Why do you gravitate towards fantasy fiction, in particular?
It’s in my bones. I’m a third generation fan of the genre, and I was raised on Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love the world of science fiction and fantasy. Part of that is because you get to write about big important things like honor and justice and good and evil without having to be ironic about it. Those things matter enormously to human beings, and f&sf is one of the few genres where you can pull out all the stops and be honest about that.
Why fantasy to a much greater extent than science fiction? Three things. First and foremost, it’s more timeless. Fantasy ages well. Read Shakespeare’s fantastic works, or Lord Dunsany, or Tolkien and you will find that time has mostly been gentle with them. Science fiction dates itself much faster. Secondly, I simply find it easier to write fantasy at book length. I’m married to a physicist and have a good grounding in science. It’s easier for me to suspend my belief for pure magic than it is for science hand-wavium like faster than light travel, or many of the other grand tropes. Third, it generally pays better. There seems to be a bigger market for magic than for science fiction, and as someone who makes a living in the field that’s something I have to consider in focusing my energies.
So, in response to Steph’s ScienceOnline09 post which I linked earlier and with some trepidation, my responses:
Questions for Science Fiction Writers
* Why are you writing science fiction in particular? What does the science add?
I actually write very little science fiction these days. I am much more an author of fantasy. This is despite the fact that I am an occasional science educator married to a physicist…or is it? I truly love science and I work to make sure all the non-supernatural stuff in my books is as accurate to the real world as it can possibly be. I read several science magazines on an ongoing basis and keep a close eye on the world of science. And that in combination with quirks from my own personality, is in large part, why I write mostly fantasy.
The interstices where a non-scientist can write scientifically accurate, broad-scope, science fiction have contracted enormously in the past twenty years.
Many of the areas that I find most interesting in terms of story have reached a point where I don’t find much that is written in them genuinely scientifically plausible. I’m not at all sold on the singularity. I find the idea of faster than light travel ever more implausible. Ditto serious extra-solar system travel. I still like aliens, but I don’t see us interacting with them anytime soon, not physically at least. I’ve never bought time travel as a science trope, though I love magical time travel. Psionics? Nope. Etc.
Now, many writers can and do write perfectly reasonable workarounds for these issues, and I still enjoy reading them, but my ability to suspend disbelief doesn’t extend far enough to actually write them. Certainly not at novel length, which is what I prefer to write. I don’t know that that will hold forever, and if I find a fabulous SF idea that I can really buy into, I might well write an SF novel.
Yet another group of writers have found things in SF that really interest them that are fully scientifically plausible but that don’t really hit my sweet spots in terms of what I want to write, and I must note that the ones who are doing this often have extensive science backgrounds.
I love science. I love science fiction. But for me as a writer they are sadly not two great tastes that taste great together.
On the other hand, I can and do try to make my fantasy as rigorous as possible and I very much approach creating worlds and magic systems from the point of view of someone who wants an internally consistent and theoretically robust system. My studies and work in science and science education have made me a much better writer of fantasy.
* What is your relationship to science? Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool? Do you have a favorite field?
I married into the family. At this point in time my wife is the chair of a physics department. When we met, she was a senior in high school planning on becoming a physics professor and I was a theater major in college who had always had an interest in science. We are very close and in many ways I shadowed her through grad school, helping to write papers, design research studies, and work on curricula.
My involvement was strong enough that I developed a close friendship and intellectual bond with her adviser that led to my own work in science education, writing and editing various curriculum projects in physical science. I have a broad field interest in science though my work in science education is most deeply rooted in basic physical science.
* How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?
For my own science fiction work, paralyzingly so. For what I get out of others, not so much. When I need to check accuracy I tap the rather large academic network of scientists that I’ve developed through my wife and my own work in science education as well as various online resources and an extensive personal science library.
* Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers
I don’t know that I have recommendations. The vast majority of science and science fiction blogs that have found their way onto my list got picked up because I know and like the people writing them rather than because of content. I think all of them have great content as well, but it’s nothing like an objective judgment. Thinking in terms of science and science fiction as a crossover point I will say that you could do worse than to read Jay Lake’s blog. He does a great job of aggregating cool links from both fields among other things.
My friend Jonna’s class has been studying WebMage and they sent me a block of questions, so I figured I might as well post the questions and answers here for anyone who’s interested. Also, my friend Dave’s comments made me go looking for the initial description of the WebMage idea and I’ve included it at the very bottom of the post.
1. What inspired you to write WebMage and the novels that followed?
I started messing around with the web back in 1997 or thereabouts and one of the things that fascinated me about it was the way all of the pages reminded me of individual worlds linked together by the internet. Parallel worlds stories are a long standing form in science fiction and fantasy, and this looked like a fabulous way for some entity to arrange worlds. That’s where the first glimmer of the idea happened-I think I called it World Diving when I wrote it down. More on that in later questions.
As for the series:
I hadn’t originally intended WebMage as the first book in a series, but along about the time it sold, I came up with the idea of Ravirn hacking into Hades. That led to the second book, Cybermancy, which has its roots in the Orpheus story and a two book deal. Time went by, I finished Cybermancy about a month before WebMage pulled a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and started a sales run that meant a second printing in the first month of release. Since I had a great time writing Cybermancy and the books looked like they were doing well I decided I should think about writing another one or two in the WebMage world. My agent and editor both thought that was a dandy idea, and I sat down to see what I could come up with that would keep me excited about the characters and their world. Out of that process came CodeSpell and MythOS and next SpellCrash which will be the end of the series arc. So that’s the business side of the story.
The writing side starts with having fun hanging around with these characters and playing in the WebMage world. I want these books to be readable as standalone novels, but also to have an arc where the characters grow and develop and deepen across books. That means that what happens in each book is going to have spillover into the next and later books. Especially the things that Ravirn does that are stupid or the result of hard choices.
2. Are there particular conditions or is there a particular place that you like to write?
My ideal writing space is a screen porch with a nice view of the outside world and about 75 and sunny. Failing that, I like lots of windows and temperature control. Oh, and I need a nice comfy chair and a lap desk for my computer.
3. How did you go about creating the world in WebMage? What process did you use?
After I had the initial story idea I started picking at the edges, what kind of story could I tell that would let me really play with the concept of parallel worlds in web type environment? I decided to go with magic rather than a scientific setup because most parallel world stories go the other way and I wanted to do something really new.
That in turn gave me my main character, Ravirn. A hacker/sorcerer was the logical protagonist for that kind of story. Since I like familiars, I gave Ravirn a familiar appropriate to someone who lived in both those worlds, a shape-changing goblin/laptop combo. When I started to think about plot, I figured that I should have a hacking episode gone terribly wrong–this was for the short story that started it all. So, what was Ravirn’s target? Had to be the heart of the web itself if I was going to really get into meat of the idea. Who would build a web to keep track of all these worlds? That stopped me for a day or two until I came up with the idea of the Greek Fates using this new technology to do their age-old job. To raise the stakes I made Ravirn a grandchild of one of them, and bingo, I had the heart of the story that gave birth to WebMage.
4. As far as the Greek mythology in Webmage is concerned, what inspired you to take that angle on the story?
My upbringing and early reading was weighted heavily toward the classics. My mother and grandmother started reading me Shakespeare and the Greek and Norse myths long before I was old enough to understand them. Also Tolkien and Asimov and a lot other science fiction and fantasy. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to things like Lear and Lord of the Rings and Oedipus Rex. So a lot of my core storymaking sensibilities are rooted in the classics and f&sf. As I noted above, I was looking for someone who would build a world-spanning magical web. When I thought of the Fates it seemed exactly right and the rest of the mythological structure built from there.
5. Did you have to do any special research or manipulate the traditional Greek stories to make everything fit in with the plot you had originally imagined?
Not a lot actually. I had a very solid grounding in the Greek myths from my childhood and I try to stay true to the archetypes of the Greek gods as much as possible with the books. I did have a couple of copies of the myths around to double check names and minor details but mostly it was all in my head. Likewise the computer stuff. My mom’s a coder and bug checker and my grandmother was a computer test equipment technician in her last job, so I grew up in an house saturated with computer geekery. Then, when my wife was in college, I spent a lot of time messing around with computers to help her out with various classes as an undergrad and grad student so I had to keep up to date on that too. I did make mistakes there, but a couple of my first readers are IT professionals and they pointed out where I needed to make changes.
6. What inspired you to go with a cyberpunk story fused with other areas of science fiction? What are your favorite science fiction or fantasy genres to read?
I covered the first half of this in 1 and 3. As far as favorite genre, that shifts over time. At this point I’m reading mostly fantasy and probably more urban fantasy than other sub genres, but I’ve got about 1,500 f&sf titles on my shelves, almost all of which I’ve read, and there are another 5-600 that I’ve read but not kept. But I really select my reading based more on writers than sub-genre.
And actually, I probably read more non-fiction than fiction at this point in time. I read around a 100 books worth of material a year. Before I was a writer I read more.
7. What was your inspiration for the character of Ravirn?
As I noted in three, his role came out of my thoughts on how best to tell the story. I really needed a hacker/sorcerer to explore the core idea. The specifics of his personality on the other hand is pretty close to mine, probably the closest of any of my protagonists to date, though he’s more of an idealist and I’m not really interested in hacking.
8. Why are all of your fates and furies women?
That’s an easy one. Because that’s the way the Greeks thought of them. But I don’t think that’s a very satisfying answer, so let me tackle a related question.
Why did I focus on the female members of the Greek pantheon? It’s really about the characters I find interesting. To me the female portion of the pantheon seems much more complex and real, and besides that I’ve always liked strong women, both in real life and in my reading and writing. More specifically, given a choice between writing about Fate, Discord, and Vengeance on the one hand or War, Storm, and the Sun (Mars, Zeus, and Apollo) I’m much more interested in the former. As the books go on you’ll see more gods (Zeus, Hades) and goddesses (Persephone, the Muses, Nemesis, Necessity, Athena) but as you can see, I still tend to favor the goddesses. As a counterpoint, MythOS, which comes out next year, takes Ravirn off to meet the Norse gods and there I deal pretty much exclusively with male members of the Pantheon, Odin, Loki, Thor, Tyr, Fenris, Jormungand, Hugin, and Munin. That’s because in the Norse myths I find the guys got all the good roles.
9. What gave you the idea of webgoblins and why would they turn into laptops…instead of some futuristic item?
I like familiars as I mentioned above, and I was looking for one that would fit with Ravirn’s dual nature of sorcerer and hacker. I’m not entirely sure of why a goblin popped into my head rather than a pixie or an elf except that I wanted someone snarky and that triggered goblin for me. As for laptops, I wrote the initial story in ’97. I wanted the story set in a sort of moving window of the now and I suspect that laptops will be with us for at least another decade or two–it depends on how fast certain technologies are moving. If you want an idea of where I think laptops are going, you can see it in Loki’s tech toy in the forthcoming MythOS, something the size of a cellphone that will use projectors and lasers and sensors to give you a virtual keyboard and screen. I think we’ll have keyboards in some shape for writing at least for quite a while to come yet, though they will probably eventually give way to voice recognition.
10. Why put Ravirn in the family of fates rather than another family?
That was dictated by the idea of making the mweb a tool of the Fates. As a writer, one of the things I always try to do with any story is keep raising the stakes. Another is to try to show the inherent complexity of relationships between people. Interfamily conflict is a great way to do both of those things. I wanted Ravirn’s relationship with the bad guys to be more complex and painful than just white hats vs. black hats. Putting him in a situation where his ideals were in conflict with his sense of family and belonging made all of his choices harder and more costly and it let me show the Fates in a more complex way too. I find the ideas that Atropos expounds in a couple of places to be morally abhorrent, but I can also see how someone could believe in them strongly and feel that what they were doing was the right thing to do. I think antagonists need to be every bit as three dimensional as the protagonists and this helped get me there.
11. Why Lachesis as his grandmother?
I wanted him to have a relationship with the Fates that was both close enough for complexity and far enough away to make him seem more human. Also, the Fates have been around for a really long time and I wanted Ravirn to be a child of the modern era, someone who grew up with computers, and I felt that meant some distance in the blood line. Why Lachesis as opposed to Atropos or Clotho? That’s tougher. I felt that Atropos’ role as the cutter of threads naturally made for a harder harsher character and a logical antagonist for the story. That left Clotho and Lachesis and I honestly don’t know why I chose one over the other, though I’m very glad I went the way I did, as it gave me some lovely dynamics to play with with Clotho later in the story and the other books.
12. What are your main influences of your writing? How did you come up with WebMage specifically?
I’m a lifelong fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and the classics. My education favored those and the greats of theater (my degree). Everything I write is built on those foundations. Tolkien, Asimov, Shakespeare, Greek and Norse myth, Norton, McCaffrey, Cervantes, Molière, Niven, Heinlien, Zelazney, etc. As for the how, see 1 and 3 above.
13. What prompted you to include Greek mythology into your writing of WebMage?
14. Have you dabbled in any other genres besides Science Fiction? Who are some influential authors to you?
I’ve written horror and memoir shorts, and poems as well as co-written short plays, but I’d have to say that it’s all been pretty close to f&sf. As well as the folks mentioned in 12 I have to give a nod to Tim Powers, Mercedes Lackey, Terry Pratchett, Marion Zimmer Bradlley, Garth Nix, Colleen McCullough, Anne Rice and the group of folks who did the Wild Cards series. Also, for their wise council and mentorship: Dean Wesley Smith and Kristin Katherine Rusch, and to a lesser extent Raymond Feist, George R. R. Martin, Kevin J. Anderson, and Tim Powers (again).
15. How did you get started in writing? What would be some advice you have for prospective authors?
From the ages of 11-22 I pursued theater with great passion. I was dead certain I was going to work in the industry and even landed the occasional paying gig in acting or tech theater. Then I met the woman I’m now married to—we’ve been together for almost 18 20 years—and realized that theater and anything resembling a normal home life aren’t terribly compatible. The hours and the travel are both deadly for relationships. About that same time I got my first computer and decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I fell in love with the process inside of a week and haven’t really ever looked back. The funny thing is that I think theater probably prepared me better for writing what I do than an English degree would have. I did renaissance festivals, stunt work, slapstick, makeup, stage combat, lighting, all sort of things really. I got a feeling for story and scene that has served me very well, and developed skills like fencing and dancing that map directly onto writing fantasy.
The advice question is always a tough one. There are a million and one business things I could tell you*, none of which would be the least bit helpful when you’re starting out and all of which are critical once you start selling. The single most important thing you can do if you’re interested in writing is simply to write.
Write more. Write again. Revise. Send out. Write more. All of those things are predicated on the initial writing. You achieve success in this business by the expedient of writing, improving your writing, and not giving up. The formula is a simple one to lay out but it can be awfully hard to follow, especially the not giving up part.
This is something I’ve blogged about extensively:
*I will give you one business note. Money always flows to the writer. If you start submitting your work around and anyone who see it asks for money for development or anything else, run, do not walk for the exits. That is the sign of a scam artist. The only person who ever gets money from a writer is their agent and that comes only as a percentage of money paid from the publisher after the publisher starts sending checks. I actually blog a lot about the writing craft and business at wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com and much of it has been indexed.
16. Were there writers from your childhood that inspired you?
See 4 and 12 above and add: Richard Adams, Eve Titus, C.S. Lewis, Margery Sharp, Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, Michael Bond, and E. B. White.
17. Do you base your characters on people from your own life?
Not really. There are bits and pieces of people I know or have known scattered through my characters, but mostly my characters are little bits of my personality split off and played against each other. I have occasionally likened it to being professionally schizoid, in that I spend my days breaking my brain into multiple pieces and assigning personalities to the various bits so that I can spend several hours being a bunch of different people. It can make me a little strange at the end of the work day as I slowly come up out of the world of the book and its characters and reassemble myself and reground myself in the real world.
18. Which character in WebMage do you identify with most?
Ravirn and/or Melchior. People who know me well see both of them in me and have argued on more than one occasion over which is closer to my core personality. Unfortunately there’s little doubt that of the two I look more like Melchior. The character that I have the most fun writing is Eris. I love her attitude and even more I love her problems.
19. How difficult was it to get published the first time?
It took me eight years and around a hundred rejections before I sold my first short story. Then another six years and fifty or so rejections before I sold a novel. I was also writing and selling shorts in there, so my total count of rejections is around 450 for 5 novels sold and 20+ short stories. I do much better with poetry, but it doesn’t pay enough to justify the work involved.
On the other hand someone in my writers group sold her first book to the first editor it was sent to after having it picked up by the first agent who looked at it. On the other other hand, I’ve got a friend who’s been doing this longer than I have and who, despite being a good writer with dozens of short stories sold, has never managed to sell a book in America.
For more general purposes it looks like this: For every novel that is published the editors have looked at and rejected between 500 and a 1,000 other books. That number is both much better and much worse than it sounds. Better, because for every hundred books submitted 90 of them are so poorly written as to not really be in contention. Worse, because that 500 to a 1,000 includes books by already established authors. So, I’ve got 5 novels either in print or forthcoming and that means that 2,000-4,000 of those rejected books were competing with the 4 of mine that sold after Penguin had already invested time and effort in making me a success story. It does get easier after that first book but it’s not a sure thing. My editor rejected 4 books of mine after she bought the first pair.
That said, if you write well and are persistent beyond all reason you have a good chance of selling a book. Publishing is about 15 percent talent, 15 percent luck, 20 percent craft, and 50 percent banging your head against the wall until you knock it over. The thing to remember is that your forehead heals and the wall doesn’t.
20. What made you decide upon creating a story that infused both ancient Greek mythology along with new age technology?
See 1, 3, and 4 above.
21. Did you place any of your attributes into the characters within your story/stories?
I did and I do. As I noted earlier Ravirn has a lot of me in him. Particularly his snarkiness and pigheadedness. His adrenaline junky, wild man tendencies owe a lot to my younger self. Melchior’s sarcasm and tendency to be a bit on the cynical side are mine as well. Cerice’s almost OCD level of organization is rooted in my own. You can also find chunks of my philosophy and world view scattered all around the books, sometimes in very unlikely places. For example, Eris’ comments on uncompromising idealism (refusing to choose between the lesser of two evils) being responsible for some pretty bad results has a lot to do with the way I felt about Ralph Nader in 2001. I’m all through the books in many ways, but I also have characters, even my heroes, say and do things that are 180 degrees from what I think is the right answer.
22. What originally inspired you to take up writing science fiction-fantasy?
A big chunk of your answer can be found in 15 above and in 4. Basically I was raised to be a fantasy and sci-fi author. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intent of either my mother or grandmother but it was the result–I didn’t spend much time with my dad as a kid, though he is also an f&sf fan and a good friend.
I’ll add here something my wife calls “leaking weirdness.”
I’m pretty much wired for creating stories out of thin air. When I was little I did it as part of the elaborate scenarios that constituted much of my playing–I used to build Asgard out of blocks and use my toys to act out the final battle of Ragnaroc. I also used to vanish into the woods around the farm where I spent summers for hours, playing Robin Hood and other scenarios. Later, I channeled that energy into theater, and especially improv at Renaissance Festivals and the like. Then I quit theater and wrote my first novel and my second and so. It turns out that I don’t do well when I don’t have something like that soaking up the creative energy. If I go too long without writing I will begin to have vivid dreams and wake up spouting off about things like “llamaflage” or a “Connecticut Buffalo in King Heifers Court”–leaking weirdness. My wife’s normal response to this is to give me a very patient look and tell me to go write something.
C’s Questions (Being a rebel, C didn’t write any questions but instead made statements inviting comments.):
23. The use of magic in WebMage was interesting and different.
Thanks. I tried and try to create something new with each world I build, whether it’s magical or sfnal. I sometimes call myself a world-driven writer since creating logically framed magic systems or science-fictional futures is what really interests me as a writer. The story and characters almost always come after the place and mode for me.
24. The plot of WebMage has lots of hooks to keep you reading.
Again, thanks. I would probably write travelogues of places that never were if I were just writing for myself. Writing for others makes me think about story and what makes it interesting: high stakes, characters the reader will identify with, interesting circumstances, cost, reversal, betrayal, things hidden from the characters and thus the readers, lulls to allow the reader a chance to breathe, chapter structure that leaves the reader with questions at the end of a scene that will draw them on to the next one, and resolutions that satisfy the reader’s desire for closure and sense of justice while not glossing over the complexity of life or the idea that nothing worth having ever comes cheap.
Original description of WebMage, verbatim from my notes: World-Amberesque family of mages. Responsible for creation of www, internet, and cell phone net. This is actually the material component of spell that allows them to communicate worldwide and across the dimensions. They create webspiders that drop through alternate realities and report back to them via the web. Each mage has a familiar that is essentially a walking talking laptop with a built in cell phone. They travel from reality to reality via Decision locuses. Each locus is a location where a decision was made. Thus, if you want to get to a world where reagan didn’t win you would go to a voting booth and follow one of the decisions to vote against him into the appropriate world. They call it world diving.
This is what Kitty Consensus looks like in the McCullough household:
Leith on one of the new radiator benches because it’s cold out
Ashbless on the last of the old radiator benches because it’s cold out
Isabelle, ditto (though you can’t see it in the close up)
Nutmeg: Where are we going next, Boss?
Go way. S’eeping.
But, have you seen what’s hanging out outside my window here at Castle Gaiman?
Not my problem. Sleeping.
Well, then what about Cerbermingo?*
Still not seeing a reason why we should stop sleeping.
What about this thing?*
Okay, now that’s kind of creepy.
And random pirate dog says “Yarr!”
*All demonic flamingos are the sole product of the demented imagination of Matt Kuchta. Management takes no responsibility for any nightmares generated by same.
You think you’re so smart!
What do you mean you’re not coming downstairs?
Surely you must be joking Mr. Feynman
You were done with this, right?
Ash, Jordon, and Isabelle doing their group rendition of “It’s about damn time you turned the radiators on!”
Leith says, “You ladies can have the radiator, I’m going for the couch in the office.”
Finally, Meg. “Boss where are we going next? Do you want to take my picture? I…I…What was I saying?”
So, someone asked me about National Novel Writing Month. I figured I might as well share that answer here.
I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo:
Pros: 1) I’m for anything that gets people who want to write writing. It’s a great exercise for getting an initial draft done for one fairly large category of writers. 2) It’s a great way for someone to learn that they really can crank out a lot of words on a deadline. 3) There is a large group of writers for whom the exercise of being forced to shut down the internal critic is a fantastic thing.
Cons: 1) Unless you’re talking YA, 50,000 words does not a novel make and expanding something from 50,000 to a more reasonable number is a lot of work, more in my opinion than simply writing 90,000 to start with would have been–if the goal were 50,000 words of a novel in a month instead of a 50,000 word novel, I’d be more enthusiastic. 2) A lot of writers, even a lot of pros simply can’t come close to hitting that pace—I write two novels a year on deadline and it’s very rare for me to have a 50k month. Fostering the idea that you need to be able to write that fast to get somewhere can be actively harmful to slower writers. 3) There is a small but real number of writers out there who need to be encouraged to listen to the inner editor more rather than less and NaNo may encourage them to foster bad habits.
Overall, I would recommend to most writers that they try NaNo at least once or twice, but not to get too upset if it doesn’t suit them. I’d also recommend that they move on from NaNo to Novel in 90 or some other challenge that has both a more realistic end goal and pace. Even among the pros, 50,000 words a month is very fast. I can name maybe a dozen writers who beat it regularly and no more then twenty or thirty (me included) who can hit it occasionally during parts of a book. One book a year, ~500 words a day every single weekday is both much closer to the average and much easier for most to manage.
I should note here that anyone who finds that NaNo works well for them should absolutely keep doing it as long as that’s the case. Never give up on something that genuinely works for you.