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, School for Sidekicks, Magic, Madness, and Mischief, and Spirits, Spells, and Snark — Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has Patreon and Ko-fi pages for those who are interested in supporting his work more directly. 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+, ello

Friday Cat Blogging

June 21, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

A Friday Cat Blogging Credo:

Lurk with intent

CB_1469

Sleep with reckless abandon

CB_1471

Stop and smell the rosezzzzzzzzzzzzz

CB_1472

View the world with worry and paranoia

CB_1473

And don’t forget to mock the photographer

CB_1470

Thinking Days

June 20, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

One of the hardest things for me as a writer was learning to accept thinking days. I was raised in North Dakota and Minnesota both of which have a strong ethic of “never complain” and “if it’s fun it’s not work” and “if you’re not accomplishing something at this very moment” you’re lazy. Garrison Keilor’s takes on the subject are deadly funny if you were raised as I was.

A writer has a lot of jobs that look and feel like work, and a couple that don’t. The writing itself is easy to see as work. If I’m writing I’m working. Likewise sending stuff out to my agent or publishers, dealing with same either via phone or email, revising, editing, reading galleys, etc. There is obvious work happening in all of those situations. Research is a little bit less clear. If I’m looking up a detail of Greek mythology that’s relevant to the story right now, that’s certainly work. If I’m reading mythology looking for stuff for the next book, that’s still pretty obvious, but it’s treading dangerously close to fun.

Reading widely because that’s how I find new ideas—can I really call that work? I can and I do, but my inner Minnesotan does more than a little hmphing at the idea. Self-promotion? Ooh, that’s a hard one, mostly because I don’t actually believe that most of it works (see not accomplishing things above). However, since it’s an expected part of the industry, I can squeak some out without guilt.

All of that is nothing, nothing at all compared to thinking days. Tuesday was a thinking day. I did a lot of stuff around the house. I wandered around the internet and wrote on blogs. Every twenty minutes or so I’d stop back at my working plot document and put another bullet point into the “stuff what has to happen” section. I got maybe 300 words down. If this was a writing day a 300 word count would be a catastrophe. I can do 300 words standing on my head in a bucket. A normal day when I’m fully into a project is 2,000+ and I’ve gone as high as 6,000. However 300 is pretty good for a thinking day. Sometimes no words actually make it into a document on thinking days.

I just wander around and think and don’t actually write at all. And despite the very grim look my inner Minnesotan is giving me about this, it’s still working. In fact, it’s critical. The reason I had thinking day Tuesday was that I hadn’t done a scene-by-scene outline for this book yet—in part because there were several significant decisions that needed to be made and I still wasn’t sure which way I’d go on them. Making the wrong decision and writing it into the book can be quite costly to fix (in terms of time). A day spent thinking about story and structure now can save me ten days later on. It’s still frustrating.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog September 17 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Woke up with a bit of book lodged in my head

June 19, 2013 in Books, Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

Update 2013: Not sure if this will interest anyone other than me since it’s mostly a process post on a book I haven’t gotten the chance to write you, but I’m bringing it over so I have a copy on the site.

Storms last night, big ones. They set off the sirens and sent Laura and I to the basement at 4:00 a.m., always a pleasure, especially since it means herding cats. I was just starting to nod off after getting back to bed when I realized I had a chunk of book lodged in my brain.

Since I can’t leave story alone, I started nibbling around the edges of this one and pretty soon realized it was both quite large and, technically, on my schedule. It’s the beginning of the Halifax book that I’ve mentioned once or twice before, which isn’t supposed to show up for at least a year– possibly more since I’ve got 3 books firmly scheduled in front of it and, depending on the vagueries of contracts and such, as many 7. Update: 9 and counting.

Silly book, I don’t have the time to write you right now. Unfortunately, it’s not listening and I quite like what I’ve got so far – 1-2k words and big bit of plot, character, and setting. Maybe I can cheat and carve out a bit of extra writing time in the mornings before I’m really awake. I’d have to see if I could hold two novels in my head while writing them in parallel for a bit, but that might make a fun challenge.

Oh, and for those of you who’ve been paying attention to my process, this one’s a real oddity. I don’t have strong ideas about the contours of the world at the moment. I’m not even sure about the edges of the magic system beyond the way they affect the protagonist personal situation. I’ll have to see how that goes. Since I’ve caught this one forming, I’ll try to add bits of the how of it as I go.

A bit more on the Halifax book

 I’ve known ever since I wandered around the Citadel that I was going to write something set in Halifax with the old fortress as a major component. What I hadn’t planned was doing anything about for the next two years or so. Books take time, and I’m currently all booked up. Also, I find that I need to let ideas marinate in the back of my head for a while before I get something really useful. This has taken as long as ten years and rarely takes less than one. So, not only was I not planning on working or even thinking about this, I honestly didn’t think my back brain would spit anything out at least until next summer. I was wrong. I even know why I was wrong. Two reasons:

First, The Halifax environment was so rich that in its marination phase bits of it dribbled down onto other brain structures that had already been bubbling away for years.

Second, I just finished Zelazney’s A Night in the Lonesome October. This is one of those books that I’ve had kicking around the house on and off for more than a decade. I’ve even gotten rid of it on at least two occasions, but it keeps coming back–I think I’ve been given three copies over the years and bought two. I’ve picked it up, read four pages, and put it down quite a number of times. Three nights ago it had come out on top of the bookdrift on my bedside table once again, and I decided to try it one last time before getting rid of yet another copy. This time it was fabulous, fast, fun, dark, and most importantly, educational. I learned something new from this read something about both plot and character. Really, about a specific kind of plot and a specific type of character: The Big Magical Event, and the World Weary Cynic. They’re F&SF staples and I’ve used variations of them over the years, but I suddenly had new insights into how they work at a deep structural level.

Cool! Something that I would find a use for in years to come–after it had marinated a bit. Except, my subconscious took the shiny new toy and dropped it into the same bucket where the Halifax stuff was soaking and there was something of catalyst reaction that reached through all the other layers Halifax had already touched on and then somehow cross-connected itself with some things I’d been thinking about the WebMage series and what to do after book five (assuming that ACE is interested in five) that would extend the brand I’ve been developing with them while still giving me something new and exciting. Et voila, the Halifax book leaped from my forehead nearly fully formed.

I don’t know if all of that makes any sense to anyone else, but that’s what happened. I was mugged by a book that hasn’t even been written yet.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in two part on August 28 and August 29 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

 

New Writer Cycle-Strange Monkey

June 18, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Writing

So this is going to be another post in which I talk about not being like all the other monkeys, which is more a reflection on my own personal oddities than on anyone else’s experience

It all started because Jay Lake was talking about being a newbie in the F&SF writing world in response to Paul Jessup’s post on the same phenomena* and Lyda Morehouse linked to both in her benchmarks post here on the Wyrdsmiths blog.  I find my experiences to have been quite different really from the start–not better, just different–and I’m not sure why that is, but I’m guessing it has to do with two things, coming out of theater and the way I’ve always set up my personal goals.

Goals first: Mine has never been to be the best thing ever or to win the respect and adulation of the writing world (mind you I’d consider achieving either of those things as a hell of a perk). Nor have I ever set out to crack this or that market as anything but an interim goal. No, what I’ve wanted to do from day one is tell stories and make a career of telling stories. Please note that I won’t be able to tell if I’ve truly achieved that goal until I’m quite old and looking back, and that any individual sale or award or whatever will only count as a signpost at best. And in response to Lyda’s benchmarks post mentioned above, I’ve always counted my benchmarks by stories produced and sold, with the markets that take them being almost irrelevant as long as they meet professional criteria.

Background: Because I grew up in theater I learned in my bones that nothing would come easy, that I would always have to work in a continuous and ongoing way to improve my craft, and that it would be a lifetime endeavor. I also learned in my bones that other people would be able to see things in my work that I couldn’t–both positive and negative and that if I could learn from something that one of them pointed out I would get better.

That meant that I never had that I’m the best thing since sliced bread, why don’t they see my genius thing going on, or, at least, only for spans of a few minutes at a time. An early confirmation of this came when my wife was reading my first novel and would point out an awkward sentence. I could see that she was right, but couldn’t then see how to fix it. That was occasionally frustrating, but since I’d already experienced similar things in theater, I knew it was a stage, and that the way to get past it was to improve my craft.

I do admit to the occasional brief bout of look at what all the cool kids are doing and if only I hung out with them I’d have an easier time, but that was balanced early on by the enormous satisfaction of getting acceptances and encouragement from editors who didn’t have any reason to say nice things to me but the quality of my stories.

I guess that’s all a long winded way of saying: Focus on writing the stories and getting better. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. There is no secret password or magic clubhouse, and wasting energy looking for them will only take away from the important stuff. Also, there are 1,001 and one ways to write and every one them correct.

P.S. Jay’s exactly right to talk about a member of the f&Sf professional writing community in terms of large high school—in part because it’s about the right size, and ape hierarchies are pretty consistent in how they self-organize. At the same time, I went to an open school, and was simultaneously, a gamer, a theater geek, a student government nerd, and one of the popular kids, so I firmly believe that breaking the mold is possible.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 24 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

*2013 Update: The original version of Paul’s post has vaporized, so the current link goes to the wayback machine.

Milestones and Playing for an Audience

June 17, 2013 in Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

I bumped into myself the other day–the child me that is.

On Tuesday I went to a concert in the park with my wife and her parents. It was a typical small town affair held at our bandshell with a bunch of enthusiastic amateur musicians sharing their joy and talents. The audience paid intermittent attention to the music while they ate pie and ice cream sold by one of the local community groups. The reason I mention it here is the little girl.

A tiny blonde, maybe 5 years old, she was standing on the grass between audience and band and very obviously pretending that the former were there to watch her and the latter to provide her with background music while she performed a silent play. At the end of the first number when the audience clapped she made a big show of bowing to everyone there. I remember being that little girl–okay, so I was a boy, but the intent was the same.

Sometime when I was very young, call it 5, I started telling stories to anyone who would listen, mostly myself in those days. I don’t remember a time where I didn’t love the stories or having an audience. Somewhere along the line I learned that there were people who got to do it for a career and I never looked back. That led me into theater at the ripe old age of 11 where I stayed until I got my first computer and wrote a novel at 22—right after finishing a BA in theater.

I’ll be turning 40 on Sunday and yet in so many ways I’m still that kid playing make believe at the concert. The business side of the business can be a royal pain, but the storytelling and playing for an audience are still a blast 35 years on. So, to that little girl–go for it, kid! You never know where it might lead. Someday someone might even pay you to entertain yourself. Oh, and the audience too.

2013 Update: With my 46th birthday coming up in a bit over a month and having just started writing my 20th novel. This. Still, and always.

(Published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 20th 2007, and before that at SFnovelists. Original comments may be found at both sites. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project and getting all of these in one place.)

My First Break as a Writer

June 15, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Writing

This is the story of my first professional sale.

I’m proof that you don’t need connections or anything but a good story, at least at the short fiction level. I made my 1st sale by sending out short stories to markets that looked good in the market reports and collecting heaps of rejection letters. I didn’t know anybody at the short markets and I didn’t have any special in. I collected more than 90 rejection letters before I had my 1st sale—WebMage to Weird Tales. It came within a few months of my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sales. Respectively, The Wyrm OreBoreUS to TOTU, Soul of the Samurai to a pro rates magazine that paid me promptly and went under before they published the story, and The Sharp End to the Writers of the Future contest.

On the novels front, my path was a bit stranger. I’d had something like 20 short stories bought or published when I joined the Wyrdsmiths and had recently shifted back to writing novels–my first love. Not long after that I was at MiniCon where I met Jim Frenkel—then agent to fellow Wyrdsmiths Lyda, Naomi, and Harry. He said, “You’re a Wyrdsmith? Hi, I’m your agent, what have you got for me to look at?”

A few weeks later I sent him WebMage. He liked it and I signed up with his agency. He sent the book to one editor before he quit the agenting business. At that point he asked Jack Byrne of Sternig-Byrne to look at a few of his clients for possibly representation. I was one of those. I liked Jack’s style and he loved my work and I’ve been with him ever since.

It did take three more years—in which time I wrote three more novels—before WebMage sold to Ace, but that was mostly because WebMage and two of the other three in that group were tied up for a good bit of time in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at a multi-book hard/soft deal with a publisher who will remain nameless.

2013 update: The editor who tried to put that deal together is currently trying to put together another three book deal with the unpublished books from that original deal. Which goes to show how very strange this industry can be. Will keep my fingers crossed.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 8 2007 , and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging Black Armband Edition

June 14, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

No captions today. Just kitties soaking up sun for the one who is gone.

CB_1466

CB_1468

CB_1465

CB_1467

CB_1464

Farewell Princess

June 14, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

Last night a grand dame of the cat world left us. Princess was the cat of my friend Neil Gaiman. She was a once-wild, wonderful, fierce, old lady with a mean streak a mile wide and fur like white silk. She sent more than one person to the hospital, and spilled my blood on at least one memorable occasion. She was beautiful and tough and more than half a creature of faery. She was also my friend—I visited her nearly daily while borrowing Neil’s running paths—and I loved her dearly. I will miss her, as I know Neil will, along with a whole lot of other people. She touched many lives in her twenty-two-plus years. Because I haven’t the heart for words right now, here are some of my favorite pictures of her (a few have captions because they insisted on it, but most don’t):

This is the very first picture I ever took of her in January of 2011

IMG_5633

She loved to drink out of the tap, and insisted that the humans oblige her

IMG_4071

IMG_0184

She wasn’t often cuddly, but was very fierce about it when she was

IMG_0234

IMG_0565

This is my favorite shot of her

IMG_0640

IMG_0660

IMG_1103

Because some pictures must be shared

IMG_2407

IMG_2715

IMG_3286

She started drinking out of my glass when she was too tired to go down to the sink

IMG_3436

IMG_3716

Simply beautiful

IMG_3841

She was so fierce

IMG_3863

Pretty sure she was trying to figure out how she’d reach the gas pedal

IMG_4357

IMG_6158

IMG_7773

IMG_8034

IMG_8405

IMG_8687

IMG_8746

With her long time housemate Coconut

IMG_8962

IMG_9037

IMG_9103

Sleeping in the library

IMG_9744

Claiming me for her own

IMG_1380

And this is the last picture I took of her—napping on my lap shortly before leaving us

IMG_1383

Goodbye Princess, you had a hell of run

 

Owning Your Work (pt 2 of 2)

June 13, 2013 in Critique, Reblogging Project, Writing

Part 1 can be found here.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a good critique group or first readers, you’re going to get a lot of advice on your work, some of it spot-on, some of it close to the mark, and some of it that you violently disagree with. (If you’re not that fortunate, I’d strongly recommend doing something about it as you’ll learn a lot both by getting and giving critique).

The spot-on stuff is easy. You just do it. The close is also pretty easy, as it can be adapted to fit. It’s the violently disagree with that’s hard, because as much as you might like to, you shouldn’t just dismiss it.

Readers offer suggestions because they either 1) disagree with the choice you’ve made, 2) they’ve missed something you expected them to get, or 3) they’ve gone somewhere you didn’t expect. In all of those cases, it’s important for you as a writer to understand why that happened and whether it’s because you didn’t put something down on the paper that was in your head, because you’ve left something sketchy where you should have filled in the details to keep your reader on the path, because you didn’t think of it, or simply because your reader has missed something obvious—it does happen.

The process I go through when I’ve been handed a suggestion that seems to me to come out of left field is thus: 1) put it aside for a moment to see if my backbrain can field the ball and figure out what went wrong. 2) Wait to see if anyone else had the same problem/suggestion, or one that came in the same place. 3) ask questions of the critquer.

That last should be handled delicately. The person making the suggestions is giving of their time and perspective, and you owe them the courtesy of being both polite and respectful no matter how wrong-headed you might think this particular comment is. You’re not trying to defend whatever they’ve disagreed with, you’re trying to find the root of the disagreement.

I try to ask questions like, okay you’ve said X, can you expand on that a bit? Or, if I’ve got an inkling what’s wrong, here’s what I was trying to do there, did that come through? Or, sometimes, what if I told you x about what’s coming up, would that change things?

This is one of the places where the Wyrdsmiths really excel—often, while I’m still trying to figure out what lost someone, another person in the group who has better perspective, figures it out and gives me the piece I need to make sense of the critique, or better still, proposes a solution that fits into the spot-on frame, thereby saving me a ton of work.

Of course, sometimes it comes down to artistic or philosophical differences about where a story should go, and there you have to be willing to say X is going to make some percentage of my readers unhappy and accept the consequences, whatever those might be. It’s not much fun, but it’s what owning your work means.

Update Elizabeth Bear has a link to a post on editorial letters at Blue Rose Girls that’s relevant to the topic at hand.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 26 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Owning Your Work (pt 1 of 2)

June 12, 2013 in Critique, Reblogging Project, Writing

Getting comments and critique on your work is one of the most valuable ways to improve it. It’s also something that you will have to deal with if you’re planning on working with agents and editors. Finding the right balance between doing what’s asked of you and putting your foot down is tough, especially when it could mean killing a deal (always a matter of last resort). There are two main questions you have to ask yourself when you look at a suggestion.

1, does it make the story better? If the answer to this is yes, you move on to question two. If it’s no, you have to take a moment and think about why the suggestion was made (okay, so you should do that if it’s a yes too, because you’ve just been offered a chance to learn something). I was going to talk about this in brief below, but I’ve discovered that it wants to be its own post on rewrites, so more on that later.

2, and potentially much harder to answer, does it advance the purpose of the story? This is the place where things go foggy and vary wildly depending on what sort of writer you are. If you’ve got the whole story in your head or in an outline and someone makes a good suggestion that doesn’t follow along, you’re posed with an immediate dilemma, go with the shiny new thing or stick to your outline. I’ve done both depending on the situation.

My very first short story sale involved taking the second half of a 6,000 word short and throwing it away to write a new ending. I’ve also looked at a beautiful idea and quietly (and somewhat sadly) put it aside. One of the few times I’ve really gotten hammered by a member of one of my writers groups (and rightfully so) was when I let myself slip at the time it was suggested and say that I wasn’t going to do something. I had good intentions, but it was a breach of etiquette and absolutely the wrong way to handle the choice.

In general, if you’re not going to take a suggestion, there’s no reason whatsoever to tell the person who made it, because it will only make them feel as though they’ve wasted effort. There are two exceptions to this. A, editorial/agent suggestions, in which case you discuss the problem the suggestion addresses and try to work out a comprise (more on this in the rewrite post). B, book length works where this person will be critiquing the story on an ongoing basis and where not taking the suggestion will have a significant impact on the reading of the story.

That latter was the case in the scene wherein I got hammered. I handled it the wrong way. What I should have done was shut my mouth and given myself a couple of days to think about it. Then, if I decided it still mattered (it would have in this case) I should have waited for the next meeting and spoken with the critiquer on an individual basis about why the (genuinely excellent suggestion) was incompatible with the novel I was writing.

What they wanted me to do would have made a good story, but it was a story that I had no interest in telling. The only way to stay sane in this business is to write what you love and love what you write. You are the one who is writing it and you are the one who’s name goes on the byline–it has to be something you believe in. You have to own the story.

Part 2 can be found here.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 23 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)