Some Thoughts on Communication: Clarity, Engagement, and Codeshifting

September 10, 2015 in About Kelly, Events/Appearaces, Musings, Publishing, Readings and Signings, Writing

An academic friend asked me if I would be willing to put together some thoughts on how I use communication skills in my profession. Since I’m a novelist, a wall of text fell out. I thought it might be of use to others, so here it is.

As an author with a dozen novels in print, my entire job is communication. Primarily that’s via the written word in my fiction, and on social media which I use to keep in touch with my audience and draw in new readers on the professional side, but I also do a lot of public speaking and appearances.

In the written form I mostly work at novel length, but also do things like twitter micro-fiction to keep people entertained in the long gaps between novels. Working at 140 characters is a particular challenge as you’re forced to pack a lot of meaning into a tiny space. Often, in my case including a full joke including punch line, since much of what I do is humor.

That tiny space in need of a big punch is also something I do on the public speaking side of my job. I do a lot talking on panels at science fiction conventions and literary events. When you’ve got four to six people all talking over the course of an hour event, you have on average 10-15 minutes total to address the topic, and to make an impression on the audience. Usually that will come in a series of 30 second to 2 minute chunks in which you need to try to do as many of the following as possible: address the topic, be wise, be clever, be funny, be profound, share your love of the work, share the space with fellow panelists, don’t be a jerk, advertise for you work. Note, I put advertise last. On panels your job, beyond addressing the topic, is to make yourself interesting and likable enough for people to want to look into what you do.

On the public speaking side, I also do personal appearances at schools, keynote speeches, and readings/signing at bookstores and other venues. Each of those requires different sorts of public speaking skills.

Schools are generally mix of reading from my work and question and answer. Kids are a tough audience. They get restless easily, they don’t want to be talked down to, and they’re very curious. I generally keep reading sections with kids to very short pieces and try to spend more time addressing their questions. I’ve found that treating them with complete honesty and like miniature adults in terms of respect is what works best for me there.

Another note on question and answer involves making sure your audience has heard the question and that you’re answering the right thing. With quiet speakers or people who are anxious or otherwise garble the question, I will often restate it for the audience while making eye contact with the speak to make sure I’m really representing what they’ve asked. Sometimes this involves code-shifting, i.e. taking a question that’s asked in a very academic way and shifting it into a more vernacular sort of speech. Or, taking a convolute or slangy construction and rephrasing it more succinctly and clearly.

Keynotes are tougher. I’m a writer by trade which means I normally spend my days alone with a keyboard. Giving a 30-50 minute speech followed by question and answer is a radically different environment and it always makes me very happy that my background is in theater which taught me the value of clarity, enunciation, speaking at a conversational pace, vocal discipline and sustain and how not to say “um” all the time. It also taught me to practice my speeches beforehand.

My theater background is also a huge benefit to me for readings, where it helps me with characterization, dramatic timing, and making sure my audience feels I’m engaging them. For example, I simulate lots of eye contact during a reading—making sure to look out into the audience and rest my eyes on faces in different places. That’s my theater teachers taught me to do even when completely blinded by spotlights and a dark house. I used to do actual eye contact when I could, but I can’t shift between near and far vision that well anymore.

Signings, which often coincide with readings are another and different communication challenge. You need to give a little time and genuine attention to everyone who comes out to have a book signed. These are your hard core readers, the people who most care about your work and they’ve earned that consideration. Especially those who come out again and again. I’m terrible with names, and I make that part of my patter. I let people know that I remember their faces and when I’ve seen them before even if I can’t remember names or spell them to save my life.

That connection is what’s really at the core of all of my non-fiction communication. Whether it’s chatting with people on twitter who’ve liked my work, answering fan mail, meeting readers at signings, or making eye contact while reading and giving speeches, you have to make sure to actually connect with people, to respect them, communicate clearly, and to make sure you’re giving them your best self.

I’m a local politician as well as an author, and many of these things are cross platform skills: the speech making, the clarity and engagement, etc. This is especially true of the code shifting, which I want to talk about a bit more, as it’s something that’s often overlooked or undervalued. My most valuable skill for politics, which is mostly meetings, is code-shifitng. English isn’t really one language, it just sounds like it.

Academics, for example, use one primary set of jargon when speaking casually with each other, a separate one for written communication that will be part of the permanent record, and wide variety of in-disicpline lexicons. Or, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and a corporate lawyer may well use the same words but with meanings that vary from the same, through similar, to wildly different. I do a lot of inter-English translation as part of the politician side of my life.

Code-shifting is a skill honed through theater and public speaking, but developed through growing up in a variety of settings. My earliest memories are of being rural poor in North Dakota living with my single mother and grandmother—one version of English. At six I moved to Saint Paul and became urban poor—another version. As I went to a hippie school and we moved into the middle class, I learned two more sets of the English language. At ten my mother remarried to a carpenter—yet another set terms and meanings. When I went to college I learned both basic academic and the professional jargon of theater. When I later married and my wife went to grad school, I learned both of the more advanced forms of basic academic as well as the specialized versions of education and physics.

Being able not just to code-shift, but to recognize when people are speaking different versions of English and help bridge the gap between the two is one of my best and most useful communication skills. It helps with every part of my job as a novelist and public speaker as well as my political hobby.

Darkened Blade Launch Day

April 28, 2015 in Books, Fallen Blade, Publishing, Readings and Signings

Darkened Blade is out today! One bizarre and possibly self-protective quirk of my psychology means that every time I have a book out it comes as a huge surprise to me on launch day.

*panics* *runs around like poultry sans cranium* *deep breaths*

So, yes, Darkened Blade is the 6th and final book of the Fallen Blade series and it’s out today and it would be awesome if you all went out and bought it. Maybe even two—it makes a great present, slender affordable, shiny cover, good a paperweight, absorbs spills, etc.

And now I’m off to hide under a rock until my reading tonight at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble in Minnesota

If you’re wondering where else I might be doing things that involve the book or appearances in general. Here’s my current list of upcoming appearances.

More info on Darkened Blade on it’s own page here at my website which includes an excerpt. Or the the Fallen Blade series as a whole…

Oh, and here’s a recent interview I did at Scrivener’s Soapbox podcast if the Darkened Blade launch day scramble isn’t more than enough me for you.

George Scithers RIP (2010)

April 19, 2015 in Professionalism, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

On this date in 2010 I posted a farewell to George Scithers. As part of my ongoing efforts to get copies of all my various bits of creative centralized or mirrored on my own website I am posting it again here:

George Scithers has left the building and it makes me very sad. He was one of the editors who bought my first story along with Darrell Schweitzer at Weird Tales. He’s also the editor who is a part of one my all time favorite writing anecdotes which I call: Same story same editor different day.

You see, I was an idiot once (well more than once, but I’m just talking about in relation to George here). At World Fantasy a number of years ago George asked me why he hadn’t seen anything of mine recently so I hallway pitched him a story called FimbulDinner and he asked to see it.

The problem was that he had already rejected this particular story a couple of years previously, but I’d forgotten that, and apparently so had he.

Anyway, I sent it, then realized a week or two later that he’d rejected it, and sent a note apologizing for the mistake. My note crossed the acceptance in the mail, and the story was published by Weird Tales.

There are two lessons in that anecdote. First, don’t do this if you can possibly avoid it. Second, all that any rejection means is that that editor didn’t buy it on that day.

George was a splendid old fellow and I’m going to very much miss knowing he was somewhere in the world.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 19 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Next Up: Darkened Blade + School for Sidekicks

April 3, 2015 in About Kelly, Books, Fallen Blade, Publishing, Sidekicks

So, it’s one month out from the launch of Darkened Blade, the sixth and final book in the Fallen Blade sequence, which is kind of hard to believe. After that, my next novel will be School for Sidekicks, a snappy snarky full length novel aimed at kids and all those adults who happily read fun books without worrying about target audiences which just received a starred review from Kirkus.

DARKENED BLADE  metal porthole; Shutterstock ID 82146736

Two Books A Year…eep!

March 30, 2015 in About Kelly, Books, Fallen Blade, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

2015 Update: This post about adapting to having two contracted books a year was originally published as I was working on Bared Blade. The pressures remain pretty much the same, and though I’ve since managed to write a Blade book in just 88 days now, I’m not sure I’m really capable of much more than two books a year.

So, this year I made the jump from having one book under contract per 12 month window, to having two books under contract per 12 month window. Now, at first glance you might say: That’s a doubling of your work load, what were you thinking?

What I was thinking was that in each of the previous four years I’d written two books, one on contract, one on spec. And, since I haven’t yet sold any of the spec books, though I do expect to, I would be doubling my income with no concomitant increase in work load. Turns out I was wrong.

Over the last decade or so I’ve tended to work in spurts with gaps of weeks or months between. Since ’06 that’s produced around 150-160k words per 12 month period, or one adult fantasy and one YA written on spec. And that’s been a mostly stress free level of production.

Under the new deal I’m only contracted for 180k per 12 months, which shouldn’t have been that much more work. But I also made the jump from contemporary fantasy to secondary world high fantasy and that seems to add about 20 percent more effort to the process. I’d heard something like that from George R.R. Martin at some point, but he was moving from science fiction to fantasy, and I was just changing types of fantasy. Surely it wouldn’t be that bad…

Add in that the first book went 7k long and that I expect this one to do so as well, and suddenly it’s the equivalent of 220-230k of what I was doing before. That’s 70-90k extra, or nearly another adult novel’s worth of effort. I’m getting it done and not dying, but it’s a major change.

The biggest adjustment from one book a year to two is how fast it catches up to me if I take a break. I’ve often dropped out for a month and a half of downtime at the end of a book, or when I needed to think about the story, or just to spend more time with my professor wife when she’s off from the University. Now, if I haven’t worked ahead, a month and a half is a 22k word deficit that I have to make up some time in my remaining four-and-a-half months.

When that was on a spec book, it didn’t really matter. I could always punt my personal deadline a little further out. I almost never did, but knowing that I could made a huge psychological difference. So, an extra novel’s worth of work plus more than doubled pressure. I think I’ve found a balance that makes it work for me, but it’s going to be very interesting seeing how things go when we hit my wife’s summer break this year.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 23 2011, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Self Promotion, Lyda’s Question, and Confirmation Bias

March 26, 2015 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

In a post on the Wyrdsmiths blog, my colleague Lyda Morehouse posed the following question about self-promotion:

But it does seem to work for some people on some level, and I always end up wondering by what magic is that done?

I think it’s pretty straightforward actually, and it all comes down to that word seem. Here’s how I think it works (all numbers made up).

If fifty percent of all authors do self-promotion, and a random six percent of all authors cross over into best-sellerdom than three percent of authors who do lots of self-promotion are going to cross over into best-sellerdom purely by chance. Then, at least some of those authors are going to figure that it was self-promotion which made the difference whether it had anything to do with it or not. See also: confirmation bias.

Likewise, if you’re watching from the outside, you might think the only thing that differentiates them from the herd is  self-promotion, and then leap to the same conclusion. For that matter, I will even concede that some particularly clever bit of self-promotion that hasn’t already been done a bunch of times might catch the mood and go viral, but I think that’s as much a form of luck as having the book do the same thing.

Great books with tons of self-promotion die. Barely adequate books that get very little push become best sellers. Most of the difference there is luck in hitting the right literary kink for the moment.

We want the industry to make sense, so we tell ourselves stories–we’re authors, telling stories is what we do. That book did so well because the author came up with the really awesome book trailer. That one did poorly because the cover sucked. This one over here is a best-seller simply because it’s that good.

But the truth is, nobody knows what’s going to make a book take off. If there was a real answer, there’s be a publisher somewhere that didn’t sell anything but best sellers.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 22 2011, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Awards Eligibility 2014

January 15, 2015 in About Kelly, Publishing

For anyone who is interested.

Short Story:

Rope Burns, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination (October 2014 issue)


Drawn Blades, ACE books. (October 28, 2014)

Audio Books:

Broken Blade, Paul Boehmer (Narrator)  Tantor Audio (March 4, 2014)

WebMage, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

Cybermancy, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

CodeSpell, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

MythOS, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

Spellcrash, Vikas Adam (Narrator) Audible Studios (August 27, 2014)

In Translation:

Krieg der Klingen: Roman (German Edition) Frauke Meier (Translator), Bastei Entertainment (June 13, 2014)

Reblogging SpellCrash Launch Stuff

January 6, 2015 in Books, Publishing, Reblogging Project, WebMage, Writing

Post 1: SpellCrash Launch Event Tomorrow/New Series

Heyo folks,

Sorry for the infrequent posting on my part. Been both busy and constrained in what I could talk about writing wise while I was in talks with Ace about the next series. Hopefully now that the latter is settled I’ll be around more again. More on that below.

First though, I’d like to note that I’ve got a book launch event for SpellCrash Tuesday May 25th at the Har Mar Barnes and Noble in the Twin Cities. It starts at 7:00 pm and runs for an hour. Mostly Q&A and book signing, but there might be a bit of a reading as well if time permits.

And on to the books thing. My agent just announced it, so that makes it officially public news. The Chronicles of Aral Kingslayer sold to Anne Sowards at Ace. It’s a high fantasy/detective noir hybrid and the initial deal is for three standalone books built around the same lead character, with a possibility of more later if these do well.

Post 2: SpellCrash launches today, eep!

Despite this being my fifth book launch, I find myself as elated and baffled and nervous and delighted and just plain punchy about the idea that something I wrote is hitting shelves all over the country today as ever. I don’t think that I shall ever get used to the idea.

It’s an enormous privilege that I get to do something I love so much as my job, and that I get to see my work on the same shelves with the writers who were such a huge part of making me who I am today. I grew up on books, reading every chance I got in my childhood. From the time I learned to read until fifteen or so I read pretty much every day. Sometimes only a little bit, but more often a couple of chapters, and in summers when I was off from school, a book or two a day. With adolescence and then the demands of adulthood that tapered off a bit, but it’s been a rare month when I haven’t knocked off at least a couple of books.

Science fiction, fantasy, and superhero comics formed the core of my younger reading, though I branched into historical and mystery, myth and legend, even the odd bit of mainstream fiction. My ideals and goals, and even the way I think were shaped by endless hours of Tolkien and Norton, McCaffrey, Dickson, Niven, Piper, Kjelgaard and Heinlein among many others. To say nothing of Stan Lee, and all the writers at Marvel and DC. As I’ve gotten older the list has only got longer and stronger: Powers and Pratchett, Bujold, McCullough (Colleen), Lackey, Weber, Cook, Hughart, Martin… I could go on and on and not reach the end, because it will continue as long as I do.

Writers weren’t my heroes when I was younger, but they created them, and I loved and honored them for giving me their worlds to play in and peopling them with my heroes and villains–gods, demons, monsters… I wanted a fire lizard of my very own, a magic ring, a blaster… Again, the list is endless. But most of all what I wanted was a doorway into other worlds, and despite the fact that I didn’t realize it right away, my writers gave me exactly that. They did it again and again and again with each new book. And it is my dearest hope and fondest ambition to provide a few of those same doors for my readers.

So, if it strikes your fancy, open SpellCrash and step through into some other place for a little while. That’s what doors are for.

spellcrash comp.indd

Updated to add some book and author links that should have been in there in the first place:

The first chapters of all five books are up on the online fiction page of my website for anyone who wants to see them, along with some short stories.

My website, where I blog. Also Twitter and Facebook

Reviews of the new book: Huntress (currently the top review on the page), and Skunk Cat. And, for flavor, probably the most thorough review of book I in this series, WebMage.

Oh, and a few buy link for the series. Dreamhaven and Uncle Hugos both usually have signed copies of most my stuff. Also: Indiebound, B&N, Amazon

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 24 and 25 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

No, the publishers are probably not going away tomorrow

December 19, 2014 in Musings, Publishing, rant, Reblogging Project

I personally adore reading on a screen—when my publisher shifted to an all electronic work flow for editorial I was delighted—and it’s certainly very likely that e-books will become a large part of books sold sooner rather than later. At the same time, I don’t think that books are going away any time soon and I’m not at all certain that the shift to CD and MP3 is a good comparison to a shift to e-readers.

For one thing, the formats killed off by digital music had much shorter histories and testing periods. The LP lasted what, a bit over 40 years as the primary delivery system for recorded music? (2014 edit: and is now undergoing a renaissance among audiophiles) Recorded music itself goes back to the 1850s and has had significant format improvements every 20-40 years. The book in codex form goes back to Republican Rome with only minor changes—that’s 2,000+ years of optimization.

For another there’s the delivery model. Publishers, in one form or another, go back further than the codex (Sosius and Co would be a Republican Roman example). Record companies? Not so much. It’s perfectly possible that digital is going to completely and utterly change all that in a year or five or ten, but everyone said the internet made recessions obsolete too, and look what happened there.

The codex (and many of the big publishers) have survived the advent of talkies, radio, television, the serious audiobook, and (so far) the e-book. The weight of history is currently on the side of publishers and physical books surviving for at least a while longer and e-books only becoming a part of the mix.

Is it possible that physical books will go away completely? Meh, we’ll see. Become boutique items only? Probably, but it may well take a lot longer than the digital visionaries expect it to.

Are publishers going away? Almost certainly not. Despite what many people have been saying lately, they serve a lot of valuable purposes in the production of books. Will the current publishers be the publishers of tomorrow? Some of them probably will, some won’t. Just as some of the publishers of yesterday are the publishers of today.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Feb 8 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

No, Really, Publishers Do A LOT For The Author

December 18, 2014 in Musings, Publishing, rant, Reblogging Project

I wrote the note below in response to someone saying (for the 5,000th wrong time in this Amazon thing 2014 edit: Macmillan Amazonfail Feb 2010) that publishers are no longer necessary because of internet distribution of ebooks. It takes a lot of money to produce a book in terms of editing, copyediting, PR, and even gatekeeping (yes there’s value to gatekeeping, it helps readers find books they have much better odds of enjoying). Now, the particular comment I was responding to was a slightly more sophisticated version of the “you don’t need publishers” argument in that it at least acknowledges that those things need to happen and suggested outsourcing. But that’s still not a terribly workable model because it ignores the economics of the situation. So let me address that:

Under the current model one of two things happens: 1) I write the book, my publisher buys (the rights), fronts all the other costs, and I get paid so that I can eat while I’m writing the next book, then—assuming I earn out—more money comes in on a regular basis starting between 6 months and several years after publication, allowing me to continue to eat. 2) My publisher buys the book on proposal and I get paid in advance to write it, then they front all the other costs and the rest follows.

If I want to become my own publisher I have to front all those costs myself and have to wait till the book earns out (maybe) to recoup those costs (again maybe) up to several years after I’ve fronted them. But, since I don’t have a spare 3-20k* sitting around that I can bet on a possible return potentially several years down the line, what actually happens is I stop writing and find a new job and there are no more Kelly McCullough books. So, yes, ____ was pretty much all wrong.

And that’s without accounting for things that my publisher does that don’t go directly into the making and selling of the book, like my publisher’s legal department—which I hope never to become any more familiar with than I am now. In a perfect world none of my books will ever get involved in a legal dispute of any kind, but if someone decides to sue me for any reason whatsoever in regards to my writing, the fact that I have a major publisher on my side significantly reduces the chance that a frivolous (or otherwise) lawsuit bankrupts me.

*Updated to add: I should probably also note that 3-20k is what a publisher pays for copyediting etc. and that the price they get based on their volume and reliability is much better than the price I would be likely to get for those same services (assuming I want a similarly professional job).

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Feb 3 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)