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 the forthcoming Spirits, Spells, and 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

Cutting (words) Is Always Tough—Do It Anyway

March 16, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

In this post commenter Muneraven made a comment about cutting material in comments and when I started to answer I realized it really deserves a front page post. Doug beat me to some of it here, but I think there’s more to add.

Cutting’s always hard. So how do you go about it.

First, what Doug said. Anything that doesn’t serve the story’s core has to go and what the core is will vary by writer.

Second, cut big. The best lesson I ever had on that was in my first short story sale (the original WebMage story). Everyone in my writers group at the time agreed that the first half of the story was outstanding and that the second half was good, but that they didn’t belong together. I ended up throwing away the ending (it’s still around here somewhere) and writing a new one. It taught me to be brutal and cut big chunks where possible rather than nibbling around the edges.

Third, time and emotional distance help. One of my stories has sold to at least one nice professional market that paid me in advance before they folded and didn’t publish it. That story was 8,000 words the first time out, but my writers group said it was flabby. I didn’t see any flab, so I sent it out after making some of the other changes they suggested. No sales for one year and I didn’t look at it at all in that time. At the end of the year I looked it over (annual review is something I do for all shorts when I’m working the short markets). They were right. It was flabby. I cut 4,500 words and started sending in it back out. Got a few nibbles that said it needed some more motivational work for the characters. One year later I looked at it again. Added in 2,500 brand new words that covered some of the same ground the missing 4,500 had. Sold it to the next market. If you can’t figure out where to cut, put it aside and come back to it in a year.

Fourth, sentence origami. My friend Mike Levy coined this phrase to describe taking sentences, sussing out the core meaning, and then refolding them to say the same thing with fewer words. I got rid of about 12,000 of the 18,000 words my editor wanted me to cut from WebMage that way. It can work wonders if you’re careful, brutal, and diligent. About 1,000 of the words I chopped out of the WebMage short mentioned in my third point above went this way as well. In that  vein, Here is an example from the WebMage Novel: 1st version “So I nodded my head in assent” 2nd version “So I nodded my head” final version “I nodded.”

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 2nd 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:

Does anyone else have any suggestions for chopping the appendages off your darlings?

More GF Desserts

March 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

Gluten-free 5 minute chocolate cake for 2:

From our local co-op newsletter, this recipe. I don’t care for chocolate all that much but I really enjoyed this. Of course, its advantages are also its disadvantages (5 minutes! 2 servings!)

Mix together:
4 Tbsp. rice flour (I used all purpose GF flour)
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. xantham gum
2 Tbsp. baking cocoa
1/4 tsp. baking powder

In separate bowl, mix:
1 egg
3 Tbsp. milk
3 Tbsp. oil
splash GF vanilla extract

Combine both mixtures in a large microwave safe mug. Toss in 3 Tbsp. chocolate chips, if desired.

Microwave for 2.5 – 3 minutes. The cake will rise over the top of the mug; don’t be alarmed. Allow to cool and tip out onto a plate. (I ate it hot, not waiting for it to cool.)

English Sticky Toffee Pudding (a Pamela’s Products recipe)

Yield: 8-10 servings

Ingredients:

    • 1 cup boiling water
    • 1 tsp baking soda
    • 10 oz pitted dates
    • 1-1/2 cups Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix
    • 1 tsp baking soda
    • pinch of salt
    • 8 oz soft butter (1 stick)
    • 5 tbsp sugar
    • 2 eggs
    • 1 tsp vanilla
Toffee Sauce:
  • 1/2 pint whipping cream
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 4 oz butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350º.

Pour boiling water on dates and baking soda let sit for 5 minutes.

Grease and line a round pan with wax paper. Beat sugar and butter until airy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat again until well mixed. Stir in Pamela’s Baking ; Pancake Mix and salt with a spatula until well mixed. Add date mixture. Pour into pan. Bake 30 minutes in center oven.

Let cool 5 minutes then invert onto a serving plate.

For the sauce, melt butter and sugar together then add cream and simmer while stirring for 3 minutes. Pour on the cake and serve with fresh whipped cream.

Whipping cream to serve.

 

Friday Cat Blogging

March 15, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Hey, look what I can do!

Sexay! We can haz Kitty Dance Party!

Kitty Dance Party!

Gross! Did you see that?

I am fresh out of rips to give.

Hey the McCullough cats are having all the fun. We should have Kitty Dance Party too!

Like this: Kitty Dance Party!

You touched my tail. Now you must die.

I are not a cat and haz no dance party, but I haz a ducky, and a zzz, and wanted to share.

Quick, Quick, Slow, Speed and the Writer.

March 15, 2013 in Writing

I was asked a question on facebook about getting writers to write faster. Since my response grew into two posts plus a bunch of commentary, I’m going to pull it out, clean it up, and put it over here as well.

Part the first: Was just asked how to get a writer to write faster (not me, mostly no one worries about my speed.) My response is that it’s a bit like dealing with a weeping angel. They only move when you’re not staring at them. In my experience many, if not most, writers who are working slowly do so at least in part because they are feeling self-conscious/perfectionist about the work. Poking them about it is like looking over their shoulder, which only results in deeper levels of self-consciousness/perfectionism and even slower writing. Do not nudge the slow writer. It is not helpful.

I will also note that pushing a writer does not result in good art. Neil Gaiman, who sometimes writes slower than people might like him to had something much harsher to say on the topic a few years ago which is also germaine.

Part the Second: Further to the subject of fast and slow writing. I am a fast writer, probably somewhere around the tenth percentile—people like Kris Rusch or Kevin Anderson or Jay Lake write much faster but the vast majority work more slowly. This is useful for me in that it makes it much easier for me to fulfill my commitments and take on more work. But there’s no special virtue in it, or vice in writing slowly. It’s simply the way I’m wired. Different writers have different gifts and skills. Some of us find it easy to create interesting characters. Some build worlds without breaking a sweat. Some can weave intricate plots the same way that they breathe. Some write five times as fast as others without stretching. We all strive to get better in the places we are weak, but there’s only so much you can move the needle on some of these things.

Part the Third (in response to comment from Eleanor Sayre about my language when speaking of writing speed and the implication that it’s more an inherent trait than a skill):  To some extent that’s exactly how I think of it. I’m going to steal some terminology here from writer friends* and talk about what we sometimes refer to as the “box it came in” or “the hand you were dealt” theory of writing skills/talents. Say there are 50 things that make a professional writer. Every one of us starts out with different levels of ability in those fifty things. That’s your opening skill/talent set. Some of them can be moved a lot relatively easily, like the ability to construct a competent sentence. Some of them are very hard to move, like speed of writing.

I tend to think of any given ability as sitting on a sliding scale between talent/gift (which is hard to move) and pure skill, which is easier.

Speed seems to be very hard to move. Some people can do it, but not many and generally not without a lot of effort. I have always written fast if I can simply make the time to sit down and do it, and I can force myself significantly faster if I need to. That’s a fairly rare ability but it’s not a function of effort or practice on my part, it’s just one of the cards I drew.

*Not sure who coined each of those but I associate them with Elizabeth Bear and Jay lake.

 

Drafts and Revisions, Fixed or Mutable?

March 15, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

A conversation that went on in the comments to this post seemed interesting enough at the time to move out to a front page post. It’s about drafts and revisions among other things.

I know a number of writers who work like Erik, who said of first drafts, unless I make a major discovery along the way or I screw something up massively I try to leave my work alone as much as possible. That number includes (I think) Wyrdsmiths’ own Doug Hulick. I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong. This produces a pretty distinct first draft.

Another school is one in which the writer is constantly making changes that ripple up and down the line. Lyda and I both do this. So I don’t really have a first draft, because I’m constantly making changes that then necessitate further changes throughout everything written so far, and because I do those changes at the time they occur to me. One part of the rough draft might have gone through ten revisions while another came straight off the keyboard and has never been touched.

I was talking about that with Sean on Thursday night and about how it affected and informed character. He was saying that one of the reasons that some writers might not want to force a character into doing something necessary for the plot but unnatural to their internal makeup is that they feel it might make the character flatter and more limited. That idea struck me as very odd, and I realized something about my process. I trust the plot (the story) more than I trust the character.

So, if I get to a critical point and I’ve built a character who, for lack of a better term, doesn’t want to do something it means (to me) that I made a mistake in crafting the character, so I go back and change the character’s past to make their actions in the present make sense. I don’t try to force the character to do something unnatural, I revise the character to make it natural. And one of the reasons it’s easy for me to do this mentally is that my first draft is very mutable.

So, anyway, here are the stages I go through:

1. Drafting stage, in which nothing is terribly fixed, though I do outline and follow that outline fairly closely. This is a very mutable draft and informed by critique from my writers group(s).

2. Clean up and beta draft. The end result of this is supposed to be a pretty clear and polished version for first readers.

3. Submission draft, i.e. going out to my agent and editor after I’ve made the changes I find useful from first readers.

4. Final draft, the submission draft with whatever changes my agent, editor and I agree on.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 30th 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, what’s your drafting and revision process. Do you first draft? And, more importantly, why do you do it the way you do?

Character Traits

March 14, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

This post was originally written in response to one of Lyda’s writing students asking: “How do you keep track of your character’s various personality tics and traits?” Her answer is here. What follows is my take:

Short answer, I don’t keep track of any of those things unless they’re directly germane to the plot.

Longer answer, I deal with characters in much the way a director deals with actors. There’s a script. They follow along. If someone wants to know what their motivation is, I make something up and then go back and layer it into the early parts of the story. Say that on page 138 it becomes important that Johnny is fanatically attached to the color blue and that impacts the plot in a way I hadn’t thought about in the original outline. I write the scene on 138, note the new twist down in my constantly updated plot outline, then go back and look for places earlier in the story that I can introduce the idea of color attachment, both personally for Johnny and thematically for the story.

Now, say that the character of Johnny wasn’t actually fond of the color blue. I’ve rewritten his history at this point, so now he is. Simple as that. I hired these people to play certain parts. If that doesn’t happen, they’re out looking for a new job while a new actor comes in, identical in every respect but the fact that this one will do the job.

Does that mean that nothing off script happens? Of course not. If an actor improvises something that’s cool and that moves the main story forward (the story I wanted to tell from that get-go, since that’s how I write) I use it. Whole chapters have been born this way, and huge important new sections.

Of course, all my characters are really sort of like little split-off bits of myself since I don’t actually believe in their independent realities. It’s all a matter of “if I were this person in this situation…”

So, if it’s critical to the story it goes in the plot outline. If it’s merely a telling detail, I just store it in memory as it comes up, I can always do a word search if I lose it. If it’s not that important, I don’t generally know or care. It’s all about what move the story forward.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 27th 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:

I’d love to hear what other writers have to say on the subject since Tate and I, so far apart in conception, are so close in practical execution.

Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

Write the Next Story

March 13, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

Whenever anyone asks me what’s the single most important thing they can do to sell their book, I always tell them to write the next book.

This is one of the fundamental rules to follow in the quest for publication. Every time you add a story or novel to your inventory you increase your odds of selling and you get vital practice that will make you a better writer. The vast majority of writers don’t make the break on their first story or novel. The first novel I sold was my 4th, but I didn’t sell it until I’d already completed 7 and having my editor read and really like #6 had a lot to do with selling #4. I’m at 9 now with only 1 in print and 1 forthcoming, though it’s likely I’ll sell at least 6 of the remaining 7. My short story career is similar, though I’ve been publishing longer in shorts and have now sold something in the neighborhood of 30 of 50.

It’s easier to sell if you have more stuff out, because you have more stuff, because it familiarizes editors with your name, because it demonstrates that you’re not a one story writer, and because with every story you get better.

So, practice. Write the next story. And remember one of the best things about being a writer as opposed to many other kinds of artist is that you occasionally get to sell even your practice work.

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

Writers Need Practice Too

March 12, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

Speaking of passion and persistence, as the last few posts have, leads pretty naturally into something I want to talk about that doesn’t get stressed often enough.

My former sister-in-law is a symphony orchestra cellist. My step-brother is a world-class, make-a-living-at-it target shooter. Both of these professions have several things in common with what I do as a writer. First, the success rate is very low. Second, they require extreme passion. You can’t get there without really wanting it. Third, talent. There’s seems to be a minimum level of talent without which there wouldn’t be much point in starting down the road. Fourth, lots of hard work. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

Hard work. Kari and Matt both dedicate thousands of hours a year to practice. So do I. For some reason this idea often surprises people. There is a not uncommon belief, fostered perhaps by the fact that most people learn to write as a matter of course, that writing is something one can just do. People who would never expect a professional cellist to be able to play without rehersal, or a target shooter to be able to hit the mark without practice, seem shocked by the idea that you have to write a lot to master the craft. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked about short cuts or the aghast looks I’ve gotten when I say that there aren’t any.

Which brings me to my next point and the subject of tomorrow’s post:

Practice—Write the next story.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 24th 2006—original comments may be found there. Reposted as part of the reblogging project)

Nota Bene: minor changes have been introduced in the opening paragraphs of this post to make it make more sense out the context of the Wyrdsmiths blog where we were having a more general discussing of passion and persistence. The relevant thread takes place here.

The Author With and Without Makeup

March 11, 2013 in About Kelly, Silly

Over on twitter, Michael Thomas (‏@michaeldthomas) said: Now I want to see side by side pics of SF pros in and out of makeup.

So, on the left we have the without picture, and on the right with

KellySkullKellyNotSkull

Photo credit: Tesla (Aldrich) Seppanen on the left, Matthew A Kuchta on the right.

Talent vs. Craft vs. Persistence

March 11, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Note, this was originally a response to my colleague Lyda Morehouse in response to her contention there’s there’s no such thin as talent.

Interesting question, Lyda. I don’t think I agree with you on the basic point, but I’m pretty close to you on the end conclusion.

I’d say that talent definitely exists, but that it’s a minimum condition. There seem to be, at least in my experience, some people who simply don’t have the right wiring for writing fiction. But they’re a minority. There are also a tiny minority of people who seem to be able to write wonderful stuff from the first word they put on the page.

But for the vast majority of folks it’s about craft and persistence, and I’d argue that persistence is the more important virtue for a writer.

I have a formula for writing success that I give my students and anyone who wants to know: 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. Your forehead heals, the wall doesn’t.

In other words, talent helps, but no more than luck, and a lot less than craft and persistence.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 22nd 2006—original comments may be found there. Reposted as part of the reblogging project)