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 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

Locus of Control—Stress and Writing

March 19, 2013 in Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

So, something we’ve talked about in Wyrdsmiths from time to time is how life stress affects our writing. There seem to be two basic models.

1. Stress = no writing.

2. Stress = more writing.

Under number one, the writer needs a place of calm to work from, and stress prevents that. It’s more complex than that of course, but I’m much more qualified to talk about the second model because that’s where I land.

Under number two, the writer finds writing to be one place in their world where they can exert some real control and so does more and more writing work.

As I said above, I tend to the second of those models, though there does come a point where stress can push me over the edge into reduced productivity—it never seems to truly stop me. I think in my case that’s an interaction between control issues and being a happy writer. Writing makes me happy, and when I’m happy I tend to write more. It’s a positive feedback loop. There’s the converse negative feedback loop, not writing makes me unhappy, being unhappy means I write less, etc. But I’m simply not as prone to that because being unhappy also makes me want to do something to exert control over the situation, and for me work is one of the best ways to re-exert control, which breaks the negative cycle and kicks in the positive one.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 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, I’m separating them out below and people’s answers can be found at the Wyrdsmiths version:
So, how about y’all? Do you fall into mode 1 or mode 2? Or something completely different? How does mood interact with writing for you?

Fallen Blade World Development.

March 19, 2013 in Books, Writing

I was recently asked about how I developed the world for the Fallen Blade books and what tools I used to keep track of that development.. This is my answer to that question

I built the bones of the Fallen Bladeworld twenty years ago, wrote a novel and-a-half in it, and then set aside, so some of the details are fuzzy at this point.

When I first laid it out, I started with the idea of familiar-dependent magic. I’ve always liked familiars, but in general I think they haven’t had as deep an impact on their mages as they ought. That’s where the two part magic/familiar system came from. Then I spent a bunch of time trying to figure what the various ramification of that were just on the mage/familiar partners and what the the failure modes and strange combinations might look like.

Then I put together the original rough map and started thinking about culture and history and cultural history and migration patterns and place names and cultural cross currents. I wrote an 18 page magic system supplement for the world that worked with the Warhammer role-playing system.

As I was writing the first book I ran a campaign in the Fallen Blade (then Assassin Mage) world to play test some of my thinking. There is no better why to find the holes in a magic system than to game it with a bunch of rules lawyer role-players. I had to give that trial type up eventually as it draws on the same part of my brain and creativity as writing and I really can’t manage both given my schedule these days.

After I wrote the first novel I wrote a couple of shorts in the places in the world that had particularly odd mage/familiar interaction. Then I wrote about 1/3 of a novel in the non-human southlands where magic operates slightly differently—I really hope to get back there at some point. Through it all I kept track of stuff on the map, in a catch-all file labeled “assassin_mage_stuff.doc, and in a glossary.

Then I put it all aside for 20 years until my editor at Ace asked me if I wanted to try writing some more traditional fantasy. I said yes, went away for a bit and decided that the Assassin Mage world had some really spiffy pieces that I’d like to salvage. So I went ahead and built the Blades on the wreckage of the Assassin Mages and built the cultures of Tien, and the Magelands, and Varya which I’d only sketched out the first time. I also created the first pass at the pantheon, as religion was very important to Aral in a way it wasn’t to my original protagonists.

At that point, I started a new glossary, pulling across the stuff that overlapped from the old version, and building a lot of new stuff. I looked at Han China and late Republican Rome for Tien in terms of architecture and people and economies—I also grabbed other stuff from other places, but Rome and China are the core. I spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of magic on economies before I started actually writing and I created a monetary system when I hit the first Spinnerfish scene, because once you order food you need to know how much it’s worth and what the coinage is and all that stuff. Economics is critical for real depth.

Somewhere early in writing Broken Blade I decided I needed to have different days of the week and a calendar and that meant I needed to know something about seasons and axial tilt and the cultural history of the calendar because of the names of days and months. There, I borrowed heavily in my thinking from the history of the regulation of the calendar by the Pontifex Maximus in late Republican and early Imperial Rome.

The original world was quite strong on magic systems and the geography and ancient history weren’t bad, but in those days I didn’t know to think about economics of magic, or cultural bleed over borders, or that names oughtn’t be all linguistically neatened up due to that some cultural bleed and to borrowed words and historical remnants. I started with something that was culturally simplistic in much the same way that the Belgariad is, but time and deeper thinking after the original pass taught me a lot more about how those things have worked historically in our own world and how to apply that knowledge to creating a more realistic feeling fictional world.

The big takeaways for me from the process: For keeping track I have my glossary, a calendar, a monetary system, a catchall file for things like gesture, and my various plot outlines. Important things to think about for world: History, history, history, economic, cultural, technological. How does magic impact that? Is magic expensive or cheap, rare or plentiful, etc. Mine real history, blend eras and places, but make sure to do it carefully and to file off any serial numbers you don’t want showing.

Also, make some things radically different from your sources and original thinking. When I first set out to writer Bared Blade the Durkoth were leftovers from my Assassin Mage era and weren’t all that different from dwarves, but when I mentioned that to Lyda Morehouse she said “NO DWARVES” and she was absolutely right. So, if I’m not doing dwarves what do subteranean fey look like? Etc.

P.S. for those who might be interested I’ve posted both the Fallen Blade glossary, and the original Assassin Mage glossary.

Revision, and Editing vs. Writing—boggled

March 18, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Sean said something in the comments on this post that completely blew my mind and I just had to pull it out and unpack it where others can comment. “I, too, see the revision process as a form of “editing”, whereas I think Kelly would think of it as just “writing”” and then Sean talked a little bit about authorial vs. critical modes in writing.

This is so alien to how I see the book process that I just boggled. For me, the whole thing is writing the book. There is no line between my inner editor and my inner author. I write, edit, and even read all from the same part of my psyche, and I don’t think it’s ever occurred to me that there was any other way to do it. The same voice that writes the sentence assesses it before and after and then rewrites and even copyedits.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 6th 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, I’m separating them out below and people’s answers can be found at the Wyrdsmiths version:

Quick survey: Do you compartmentalize your writing processes? Creative and Analytical? Or is it a sort of continuum? Or is it all just in one big box? Or something completely different?

Fun With Dismorphia

March 18, 2013 in About Kelly, Speaking Up

This is another one of those things that men aren’t supposed to talk about, like crying. Which is exactly why I’m feeling the need to talk about it now. Before I get started, let me note that I’m not asking for sympathy here, I’m sharing this entirely in the hope that it will make a few other people with the same issues feel less alone.

I suffer from low level dismorphia. It’s not severe and it’s not debilitating, but it’s very real and it has significant impacts on my life and self image. Without making a fairly large effort I don’t really see what I look like. Instead I see how much I diverge from what I think I should look like.

At the moment I’m down about thirty pounds from my heaviest weight of 218. At 190 I weigh what I weighed when I got out of high school nearly thirty years ago, and—though I was a fairly serious martial arts type athlete back then—I’m actually in better shape now. I’ve lost thirty pounds total but more like forty pounds of fat, and I’ve packed on a lot of muscle. Honestly, even when I was heavier I wasn’t in terrible shape or really all that fat.

By any objective measure I look much better and am in much better shape than I was five years ago.

But I don’t see it. Not unless I actively try to do so. Even then, it’s hard. What I see is the five pounds or so of body fat that I have left, and, if I let it, it makes me angry and depressed and pushes all my self-loathing buttons.

Best part? The closer I get to the ideal I see in my head, the worse the dismorphia gets. I think that’s because I can see the me that I think I’m supposed to be more easily as the bits that don’t fit that image get peeled away.

One particularly charming aspect of the whole thing is that it’s not actually possible for me to make my body fit the image in my head. Not even if I lose that last five pounds of fat and and pack on another fifteen of muscle. That’s because the image in my head isn’t just in perfect shape, it’s also a fundamentally different body type. I am a human tank, broad shouldered and thick everywhere—a natural born weightlifter—while the image in my head is more the dancer or runner type.

Nothing I can do is going to transform me into that person. Yet it’s what my brain thinks I ought to be. I suspect that this image comes from a combination of media images, the year I spent in that shape after I hit puberty and before I filled out, and the decade I spent immersed in theater and dance between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. Dance and theater are major breeding grounds for dismorphia.

At forty-five I have much better mental and emotional tools to deal with the dismorphia and what it wants to do to my sense of self, but it’s a battle that I have to fight and win anew every single day. It never gives up, it never goes away, and it’s never ever farther away than the next mirror. It has danced me along the edge of the land of eating disorders, it daily takes the edge off my joy at being as fit as I am now, and I know that it will always be waiting for me on the bad days.

I won’t let dismorphia beat me, but it will always be there trying.

Never Give Up

March 17, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

Every story you send out is one more chance at publication, every time you send it out. Just because twenty-four editors have said no, doesn’t mean the twenty-fifth won’t say yes.

My longest dry spell on an individual story is nineteen misses for one hit. My friend Eric Witchy recently sold something to a major new market on it’s 32nd trip through the mail. You should always start at your dream market and work your way down, but never stop sending things out.

Also, keep track of who is reading and editing at magazines. An editor may have turned a story down for a market five years ago, but if the editor moves on that’s a market you can now send the story to again since the new editor hasn’t rejected it yet for that magazine.

That’s how I sold my 4th novel first, and how many others have sold novels even further along the line than that. Kris Rusch, Elizbeth Bear, Barth Anderson, Lyda Morehouse. None of these people sold the first novel first. Neither did many others you would recognize.

Keep pounding your forehead against the wall. The forehead heals, the wall doesn’t.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 5th 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project)


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, 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


    • 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


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, 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?