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, & Mischief and the forthcoming Spirits, Spells, & Snark — 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+, ello

Novels Vs. Short Stories and Career Building (Circa 2006)

March 7, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

I feel the need to give this reblog an intro. The career building portions of this post are radically out of date. I’m not at all certain how much of a boost starting in short stories will give a career these days, and I’m far enough out of the short story scene that I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. That said, I do think the impacts on craft and time management and risk taking are still pretty good. So, without further ado, the OP:

In one of the threads Erik asked why some of us had recommended that Sean focus on short stories for a while rather than novels. It’s a topic worth talking about at some length as it’s advice I give to every aspiring writer these days—if you can write short stories, it’s the best available way to build your career. There are a number of reasons for this.

The market: In science fiction and fantasy the big publishers are collectively breaking something between 20 and 50 new writers per year. I’m not sure of the exact number, both because it varies and becuase the editors I’ve talked to aren’t terribly specific, but it tends to be on the low end of that. In short stories, the numbers run into the low hundreds and there are venues that are open solely to new writers or that hold a fixed number of slots open for new writers. On top of that, the competition is lower. In the middle tier of short story markets a writer is competing against considerably fewer writers for a significantly larger number of available spots.

Diversity of story: The short markets are also willing to take more risks on the really bizarre and the stuff that crosses genres. This is a twofer. It lets a writer have more room to experiment and it can be used to establish that there’s a market for the outre. Short story readers write letters to the markets and those often get published. If something with a different flavor draws a lot of attention at the short story level, the book editors will pay attention to that.

Failing spectacularly: This is directly related to the diversity issue. I came into writing from theater so I’m used to thinking in terms of rehearsal and seeing that as the opportunity to fail really spectacularly without consequences. Short stories can be like novel rehearsals. They give you a chance to try out effects and improvisations that are either going to end in something extraordinary or in total disaster without the consequences of attempting the same feat in a novel. It’s much easier to walk away from the smoking wreckage of short story.

Time into product: Let’s say that 10,000 words of text takes a fixed amount of time to write, whether it’s for a short story or novel. I know, it doesn’t. But for the sake of argument let’s say that it’s at least close. Let’s even assign it a time. Call it two weeks. Some writers are a good bit faster than that, other writers will be much slower, but it’s within the realm of reason. That means that a novel (arbitrarily 100,000 words since that’s slightly on the high side of what the publishers are looking for in a new writer at the moment) takes about 20 weeks to write. Let’s say a short story is 5,000 words, again arbitrary, but with some basis in fact since that’s the high end for a lot of markets. So, one week per short, or 20 shorts in the time it takes to write a novel. That’s 20 chances to sell that first piece of writing and start building a reputation vs. 1.

Splash factor: George RR Martin has already said this better here, so I’ll quote, of his first novel: it was not just another novel being thrown out there with all the other first novels, to sink or swim. It was “the long-awaited first novel,” and that makes a very big difference in a career. And: A novel may pay more initially, but if your concern is to actually build a career, you do yourself a lot of good by building a reputation with short stories first.

Finally, learning curve: And I actually think this is the most important reason of all. In my own career, I wrote three novels before ever trying short stories. I’m not a natural short writer and when I started out it was like pulling teeth to get them down on the page. Also, I wrote a lot of things that were not shorts, though they were genre and of the right length. Mostly, they were lost chapters. However, I persisted, writing nothing but shorts for three years. In that time I wrote something like fifty shorts, more than half of which have now seen professional publication or are forthcoming, and a gazillion fragments for a total of something like 250,000 words. I created hundreds of characters and dozens of worlds. I had to come up with something like a 100 plots (there were a lot of fragments) and write a huge number of beginnings, middles, and endings. And all of it had to be short, there was no room for wasted words or blind alleys. I learned a ton about the craft of writing and about idea generation, and the vast majority of it is also applicable to novels. Would I have learned as much from writing 2-and-a-1/2 novels? Possible, but highly unlikely.

Of course, none of this matters if you’re one of the fraction of authors who simply can’t write shorts. But if you can, it’ll do you a world of good over the long run.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 13th 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project)

The original post also included these questions, but, as I’ve elected not to enable comments at kellymccullough.com, I’m separating them out below and people’s answers can be found at the Wyrdsmiths version:

And now I’ve talked way too long when I should be working on The Black School, so I’ll open the floor to comments and questions. What do you write? At what length? Why? Are you a novelist first last and always? A short story writer? Bitextual? Do you dabble in the truly outre. . .poetry? I do, and again, I’ve learned things there that apply to my other work.

Blade Reforged Cover Art!

March 6, 2013 in Books

Sparkly! Sparkly! Sparkly!

BladeReforged

Goals and Projects Sept 2006

March 6, 2013 in About Kelly, Books, Reblogging Project, Surreal

Hey All,
I find that occasionally stating my goals helps me get more accomplished, especially if I put them up someplace public. So, here goes.

Front and center:

My current project is a historical fantasy trilogy set in an alternate World War II with most of the action of the first two books set in Edinburgh and the third traveling from there to Dachau. It’s quite dark and it’s YA. The Black School which is the first of them is my second YA novel so far, as cracking the YA market is my next major goal. I’m hoping to knock off six thousand or so words of that in the next couple of days. I’m really excited about this one.

Running Second:

Submission Novels: This is the stuff that’s out looking for a home or waiting for a response, any of which could become my main project with no warning. That includes Cybermancy, the WebMage sequel, contracted and handed in but as yet unread by my editor. The Urbana and Uriel, both being held by my editor for further consideration. Winter of Discontent, out with another editor. Numismancer, likewise. And Chalice: Artbreak, the aforementioned other YA, on the desk of my agent who plans to get it in the mail shortly.

Complete Shorts: At the moment I’ve got exactly zero short stories out and I need to fix that, so some time in the next month or two I need to sit down, re-read all my shorts, make some adjustments, and figure out who might be interested in what. I’d like to have at least ten stories back in the mail by the end of October.

Unfinished Shorts: I’ve got about six shorts that need to be completed or rewritten, but I have no idea when I’m going to find the time.

Unfinished Novels: I have a several chapters of a contemporary fantasy novel, Outside In (a secret history of architecture), sitting and waiting for me to get back to it. Likewise a mystery, Ave Caesar, which is supposed to be the first of series of light murder mysteries set in theater and film productions with an actor as the detective.

Trunk Novels: Apprentice Assassin, book I of the Assassin Mage trilogy (written three years before the appearance of the Robin Hobb book of similar title and bearing no resemblance to same). This one is awaiting a rewrite to convert it from a high fantasy general market book into a YA and is my lowest priority at the moment since it’s the first of a trilogy I’m not up for finishing at the moment. The Swine Prince, a high fantasy farce that’s ninety percent rewritten. It just needs a new first three chapters to get it out the door, so maybe ten days worth of work counting reread and rewrite. I’m hoping to get to that one within the next year so it will stop giving me guilt-inducing looks whenever I pass it in my files.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 11th 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project )

Following up on the current state of the above: I finished The Black School and its sequel The Eye of Horus. That project is still looking for a home and it contains some of my best writing and worldbuilding to date. Cybermancy is currently going into a second printing, which makes at least two print run for each of the five WebMage books (WebMage is in its 5th or 6th run). Uriel is more or less permanently trunked. Winter of Discontent, The Urbana, and Numismancer are all still all under submission, currently as a package deal. Swine Prince is out somewhere as well. Apprentice Assassin did not get rewritten but it did get stripped for parts for the Fallen Blade books. Outside In and Ave Caesar are both benched, though I still have vague hopes of finishing them in my copious free time. I stopped writing and submitting short stories almost entirely, though I have published one of my backlist shorts since then and written another on request which will be out soon.

(The original post also included questions, but, as I’ve elected not to enable comments at kellymccullough.com, I’m separating them out below and people’s answers can be found at the Wyrdsmiths version):
What are y’all working on? What do you hope to get done soon? What’s sitting in your trunk making rude noises and inducing writer’s guilt?

The right damn word. . .argh

March 6, 2013 in Musings, Reblogging Project

I was writing yesterday. I’m working on the first chapters of a brand new book, which means that I’m laying out all the new terms. As so often happens, I know what the stuff is, but not yet what to call it. So, when I got to the first actual use of a particular new word, I dropped in a (placeholder) and kept moving. No big deal, I’ve done this many times and I know I’ll come back to it.

Then as I’m writing another scene, I realize that this scene has implications for something I’d done earlier and that I’m going to have to change that scene because of the new stuff. Again, no big deal, this happens all the time. But when I go back and look at the scene, I realize it means changing what I think was pretty tight little paragraph and coming up with the right word*. So, (placeholder).

*the right word—a digression. For me, the right word is not to be confused with what I will call the perfect word. The perfect word is one of those things that writers, with their invariably huge vocabularies, know exists to perfectly describe the thing in question. Usually it’s a polysyllabic monstrosity of the 25 cent to 50 cent variety that makes you smile when you think of it. It also all too often ruins the flow and the voice, and should probably be tossed seconds after it occurs. The right word, on the other hand, is usually only a nickel word, and it’s appropriate to the character’s voice, the setting, and the situation—easy to find, right?

Anyway, I now have two placeholders and 2,000 shiny new words done on the book. Laura comes home, reads the new stuff, makes appropriate happy noises, and reminds me we have a faculty thing. (It was lovely by the way, soup and fresh bread with the English department folks–we seem to spend a lot more time with them than with Laura’s own Physics people) Social obligations pleasantly fulfilled, we return home, do some reading and head for bed.

That’s when the placeholders creep out of their spots and start whispering in my ear about things unfinished and how important they are. I ignore them, pick up Ellen Kushner’s Privilege of the Sword, and try reading a bit more. This only makes things worse.

So, almost three hours after Laura has gone to sleep, I crawl out of bed and bang my forehead on the keyboard for twenty minutes until I’ve got something better than placeholders. I’m really happy with one and will probably keep it throughout, but the other turned into a multi-word sensory flow thing that may yet have to go. We’ll see.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 8th 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project )

The original post also included these questions, but, as I’ve elected not to enable comments at kellymccullough.com, I’m separating them out below and people’s answers can be found at the Wyrdsmiths version:

So, do you find yourself dragged out of happy sleep by words whispering themselves incomprehensibly (it’s always incomprehensible otherwise, you could just jot them down and be done) into your ears? Oh and that’s metaphorical, of course, I don’t actually hear voices;-) What writing problems invade your dreams or prevent them?

What do you do when you’re stuck?

March 4, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Writing

Like all writers, I occasionally reach a point in a story where I stop moving. I won’t call it writer’s block because I know people who have suffered from the real thing, and this is nothing like as severe. For one thing, I rarely come to a complete stop, I just slow down a lot. For another, the duration is usually pretty short, somewhere between an afternoon and a week. It generally depends on how long it takes me to notice that I’m really not getting anywhere and figure out why. For me, it’s always the same reason—I don’t know what happens next.

Once I’ve identified the problem, my traditional method for solving it is to lie on the couch on my back porch and stare out the window and daydream while occasionally mumbling to myself. (May I just note that I love that part of my job involves daydreaming and talking to myself) A particularly vexing problem might involve me wandering around the house, pacing and talking aloud to whichever cat I happen to pick up.

Then, when I know what’s coming, I write it all down in mental shorthand and start moving again. Or, if it’s a really big issue, I write it all down, call up another writer friend and rant about what happens next for a while, and then start moving again. Usually Lyda is the person who hears these rants, but occasionally it’s Sean or Shari (S.N. Arly). It’s always someone who has read at least some of the story to date.

So, I have a system that works well for me, but lately I’ve been trying out a new variation. My friend and fellow writer, Philip Lees (we were at Writers of the Future together) often goes for a long walk when he’s stuck, refusing to turn around and come home until he’s got it. This is a twofer–not only does he get good exercise, but he puts himself in a position where he has plenty of time to think past the immediate issues as he’s walking back. And he usually arrives at the keyboard not just ready to write, but eager to do so.

So, lately I’ve been adopting Philip’s method, which is really quite close to mine, and it’s been fabulous. Yesterday I got a four mile walk in along the beautiful Red Cedar river, solved my immediate writing problems, arrived home eager to work, and didn’t have to feel in the least bit bad about dessert.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Aug 31, 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project )

The original post also included this question, but, as I’ve elected not to enable comments at kellymccullough.com, I’m separating it below and people’s answers can be found at the Wyrdsmiths version:

What about you? What do you do when you’re stuck?

Oh, and seven years later this is still pretty much what I do when I’m stuck, although I’ve added a voice recorder to my tools so I can mumble to myself as I walk out the plot.

Writing is Fun. No, Really Really Fun

March 1, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Writing

Sometimes the sheer weight of dour posts by writers lamenting the existential awfulness of writing makes me want to bang my head on the wall.

I like my job. I like writing. It’s fun. Writing is joyous and freeing and an absolute delight. I play make believe every day, and people pay me for it. If you had told me as a child that was an actual job, I would never have been in any doubt what I wanted to be when I grew up. Seriously, I am excited to go to work almost every freaking day.

I am a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy. I love magic deep down in my bones, and being a writer is magic. I conjure magical realms into existence before breakfast, invent alien races while my tea brews, and convince other people that my invisible friends are their friends too, giving them a life beyond the confines of my imagination.

Sometimes, I write myself into a corner with no apparent exits where I can’t see any way out. And that’s fun too because then I get to be Houdini and make the impossible escape. It can be dark and scary and hard then, but I like solving difficult problems and pushing myself to do things I didn’t know I could do.

Do I have days where it is hard? Of course. Do I have days when I am depressed? Likewise. Do I have days when I get stuck in a story and it’s extra hard and extra depressing? Yep. Do I acknowledge that I am particularly neurochemically fortunate in that my depression is usually a mild and passing thing, and that many other artists are less fortunate? Absolutely.

None of that changes the fundamental truth that my job is ball.

Friday Cat Blogging

March 1, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging, Pets and other friends

Dude, pass the ‘nip.

How about if I pass out insteazzzzzzzzzz…

Why did no one offer us the ‘nip? We are not amused.

You ever get the feeling everyone else is at party you weren’t invited to?

All the time, dude, all the time.

Is my head wet, or is that just you?

 

 

Dream and Story, or Leaking Weirdness

March 1, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

As Eleanor mentioned, I get some of my ideas from dreams. I thought it might be interesting to talk about that at least a little bit more both in terms of story development and why I think this happens. I have very vivid dreams, but only if I’m between writing projects or it’s been a couple of days since I’ve written.

This is either a subconscious manifestation of something my wife calls “leaking weirdness,” or leaking weirdness is a conscious manifestation of the subconscious phenomena. In either case, if I go for more than a couple of days without actively working on my fiction, I start to get a little strange. The longer I go, the stranger I get, and the stranger I get, the more frequent are Laura’s suggestions that I “go write something and get it out of my system.”

Basically, as far as I can tell, I need to tell stories, to invent new worlds and people and share them. If I’m not working and I can’t get them down on paper, they start to leak into my dreams and out of my mouth, especially first thing in the morning. This has led to such bizarre leaking weirdness ideas as llamoflage, and Robert the Bruce Springsteen-you can take our lives but you canna’ take our guitars.

It has also led to some of my better story ideas on both the dreams front and in terms of leaking weirdness. Basically my brain, seemingly independent of my conscious will, starts to put things together that might not normally go together, like goblins and laptops in WebMage, or food fights and the twilight of the gods in the short story FimbulDinner.

One final note on process, and then I’ll end this ramble. The ideas I get from dreams almost never come complete and coherent. I’ll get one really striking image in a big mish-mash of dream-story that resonates for me. Then, when I wake up, just past the edge of dreaming, I’ll try to identify what’s so cool about that image by telling myself a story about it, filling in a background and future developments that were missing in the dream, and converting impression into narrative in a very conscious way. The dream provides the seed, but I have to plant it and nurture it arrive at something that’s worth sharing with others.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Aug 26, 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project )

The original post also included these questions, but, as I’ve elected not to enable comments at kellymccullough.com, I’m separating them out below here.

So, as Eleanor asked, where do you get your ideas? Do your dreams whisper narrative in your ear? Do billboards mix with Celtic mythos and drink recipes in your waking mind? What makes you a writer of the fantastic?

Screw That—Write What Rocks Your World

February 28, 2013 in Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

Original Title: Write What You Know—Not

Every writer has heard writing truisms that drive them crazy.

“Write what you know” is one of mine. Like so many commandments it has a strong grain of truth in it – i.e. if you don’t have a clue about something, there’s a good chance you’ll make stupid mistakes when you talk about it. Prominent examples in fantasy and science fiction include: biological impossibilities, violations of elementary physics, and historical abominations like the juxtaposing of weapons that are just simply not technologically compatible a-la a katana and rapier duel – barring unusual circumstance that one’s going to end real quick with the katana wielder bleeding all over the place. Again, every writer is going to have their very own examples of this. Heck, I’ve made some of those mistakes myself-ask Lyda about the burial vault incident some time.

However, the big problem with “write what you know” is that if we all did that, there’d be a ton of books about sitting in front of a computer typing, with occasional trips to the bathroom and grocery store, and some especially exciting entries on going to science fiction conventions.

I mean, come on people, science fiction and fantasy are about writing what you think is cool, not what you know. I’ve never met a vampire or an elf. I’ve never killed anybody with a sword, though I have fenced. I’ve never ridden in a rocket ship. And yet I’ve written about all of those things, and I’ve even moved people by writing about them, or at least that’s what the email in my in-box suggests.

Write what rocks your world, and if you hear a truism that drives you crazy, stick your tongue out at it and keep moving.

So, go ahead, tell instead of showing once in a while, use a cliché, go wild! It’s only fiction, and if you’re not having fun maybe you should be doing something else. It’s not like we make the big bucks.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Aug 18, 2006 original comments may be found there. Reposted as part of the reblogging project )

Self Promotion, or How to Start an Argument Among Writers

February 27, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

I’m going to recycle and expand some points I made in Swordsmith’s excellent publishing diary segment on agents over on Daily Kos because I think it’s a topic worth talking about, and because I know there are those who will disagree vehemently.

Swordsmith’s right that you’re mostly on your own as far as book promotion goes when your first getting started, though I’d like to say that my WebMage publicist at ACE, Maggie Kao, has been fabulous and very responsive. I will also note that there are definitely some self-promotion things that are worth doing. But in general I think most self-promotion is a bad use of a writer’s time. And that’s for three main reasons.

First, if you’re a good enough writer to get something published, you’re almost certainly a pretty damn good writer. This is for the simple reasons that the odds of success are lousy. That means you’ve got a highly specialized skill set for writing. So, one of the first things you have to ask yourself is: do you also have the skills for promotion? If not, you’re almost certainly better off investing the time and effort you’d spend on promotion in making your next book irresistible.

Second, with the print numbers of a typical big press book there’s really not a whole lot the author can do to make a significant dent in sales. Sure you can maybe move a few hundred copies by investing hours and hours in promotion, but a few hundred copies doesn’t really matter that much when the print run is 40,000 and no matter what your personal production level, those hours are valuable.

Third, if you do move ten thousand copies of your first book by your efforts alone, you’ve put yourself in a dangerous box. With the way sales are tracked now the last thing in the world that you want is to have your sales numbers moving down from book to book, and that means that with your second book you then have to move more than that ten thousand copies by your own efforts, and more still with each successive release. And, unless you can work some kind of magic, that means you have to put more and more effort into promotion with each release and that leaves you less and less time for writing, which is presumably why you started out doing this in the first place.

My basic rules for promotion are that it should involve no money, no time, and no effort. I’m willing to bend the rules a little for pure promotion’s sake, but not much. Some time, a little effort, a couple of bucks.

I will also bend them for things that I enjoy doing, like cons, readings, and interviews. I’m a social person and an escapee from the theater asylum. I like meeting new people and being out on stage. I would do these things even if I wasn’t writing, though the book sure helps get interviews. But that’s me.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t like those things, or if you’re not good at them, don’t feel guilty about keeping it to a minimum. Even if you do enjoy them, realize that it’s a trade off. Time spent on promotion is time spent not writing.

I would never say that a writer shouldn’t do any promotion, just that you have to be very careful about how much and in what way. As I said, I do signings, though not many, and readings, and a few conventions. And all of those things are more important for someone who is just getting started than an old pro.

One other thing I do and I would urge any writer to do is I stop whenever I’m passing a book store that’s likely to have my stuff so I can make connections with the clerks and offer to sign stock. Likewise when I’m traveling which I do a fair bit for other reasons, I make sure to locate and visit book stores in the area.

All that said, there are, of course, going to be exceptions to this rule, instances where self-promotion made the difference in someone’s career, but it’s something to think about very carefully.

One my own personal mentors, Dean Wesley Smith does a much better job of arguing the case for how to balance things than I do, and some of that is at his blog which has tons of writing info. Unfortunately, more of it is in my head from past conversations and that’s why I wrote this, to put it out where others could see and maybe make use of it.

On the original posting of this (see below for details) my fellow Wyrdsmith Lyda Morehouse/Tate Hallaway posted a comment saying that she’d like to see my take on this point in three years. It’s seven years on now, and I still feel pretty much the same way—I still don’t buy into the idea that more self promotion does a whole lot of good. I do  have to note that changes in publishing mean that my mention of a 40k print run is now very much on the high end of things.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Aug 08, 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project )

Update: adding links to the original posts with comments, mine, Lyda Morehouse’s response, my response to Lyda’s response, Eleanor Arnason riffing off the discussion, likewise Naomi Kritzer adding a bit.