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

Where do I get my ideas?

May 6, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

I build them.

I can’t say how tempting it is to end there, but I won’t.

This is one of those perennial questions that all writers get and it’s surprisingly hard to answer in a way that satisfies both the person who asked and yourself. But here goes.

The initial fragment of an idea for one of my stories or novels could come from anywhere: old research, a dream, a conversation at a con, two apparently unrelated words clicking together in my head. But that’s not a story, that’s a starting point. The real work happens when I take that moment, whatever it is, and start sticking bits onto it and asking, “well yes, but then what happens?” Or, “all right, that’s cool, what else can I throw into the stew?”

Goblin + laptop isn’t a story, but it popped up in my head as an interesting combination of concepts. Make it a laptop that becomes a goblin and is the familiar of a sorcerer and you start to get there. Add that the sorcerer is a hacker who uses code to cast spells and combine it with a parallel worlds story where the worlds are accessed as you would webpages, using the medium of the goblin/laptop and you have the seed of the WebMage books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 18 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


More on Self-Promotion, Some Numbers

May 4, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project

I’m unconvinced that anything besides writing more and better books has much of significant impact on career/sales, and the more I learn about the business, the more that I feel that way.

Self-promotion can have a sales spike effect. Of that I have no doubt. But how big a spike? And how important is that spike in relation to the kinds of numbers involved in a successful book or, more importantly, a successful career? Take my first book. In the first six months I sold an average of 75 copies* a day every day. That earned out my advance plus ten percent.

This is fabulous and I’m delighted. But in order to have any real impact on sales (the kind of impact that would really change advances or earnings) I’d need to find something that would improve that by a minimum of something like ten books per day every day for a similar period. To have a career that will allow me to survive without a second job (which most writers have) or a spouse who is the primary source of income and insurance (my case) I would need to sell at least 150 books a day every day for the rest of my life +inflation. To make a decent living I’d need to make that something more like 300 books a day. To crack six figures it’d have to be ~800 books a day.

I would love to believe that I could come up with a self-promotional effort that would have a several hundred books per day kind of impact on my sales and that wouldn’t eat up so much time that it would counterproductive in terms of producing the next book (or preferably the next several books).

However, I’m pretty sure that if I take the same amount of effort that kind of promotion-driven sales bump would require and apply it to writing, I can produce a complete extra book (or even two). Given that the best promotion that I know of is to have another book come out, one that’s as good or better than the last one, that seems like a simple bet. Especially when you consider that in addition to a new book’s impact on backlist a new book generates its own sales to add to that per day number, and it will hopefully help me build a personal brand as a fast reliable author (both with publishers and readers).

So currently that’s where I’m focusing my main effort–writing spec books in the gaps between contract books. Will it work better than all the other self-promo stuff? I don’t know for sure, but I personally find writing more books both more rewarding and more quantifiable than any other promotional effort I could engage in–I love writing, that’s why I do this.

Of course, that’s not going to be everybody’s answer and I completely respect people who’ve chosen to do more self-promotion than I have, but it’s just not my thing.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 15 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Slow Going

May 3, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Whining, Writing

2013 Update: This is part of my reblog series, though it’s one I waffled about throwing in. I don’t think it’s all that useful in terms of being a helpful process post, but I do think it’s probably worth throwing in as an example of things that don’t change. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at this or how fast you normally write. There are always slow times, and they’re always frustrating. Witness my past three weeks. Sigh.

I don’t think there’s a writer alive who doesn’t find themselves wishing they wrote faster. If not in general, then on this or that day or project. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a slow writer or, as in my case, a relatively fast one, you always wish you could go a little faster. That’s how the third WebMage book has been going for me.

Last week and much of the week before that I was sick.

The week before was a travel week with three days eaten up on the road.

The week before that I was getting the final draft of my previous novel off to my agent.

The week before that was spring break and Laura was home instead of teaching. Even after 18 years, having her around distracts me from writing–I tend to spend a lot of time just being happily aware of her when she’s around.

And that’s a month of slow production, and there was another slow month before that. I’m just under half way through the novel after 3 months which is a bit over half the rate I’d hoped for and a third of my max production rate. It’s very frustrating.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 1 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


Friday Cat Blogging, FimbulWinter Edition

May 3, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

What the hell is that white stuff coming from the sky? It can’t be snow, it’s May!


Wait, what now? That can’t be right.

There is no snow on the couch. There is no snow on the couch.

There is no snow on the couch…….

Ima sleep here and be cute till it goes away. ‘kay?

Jus’ having a little confab with Mr Toilet brush. I whiskey there was shnow. Hic.

At last my eebul plans come to fruition. FimbulWinter is begun. I can reveal my true…

Wait, I’ve just been informed I’m not Loki God of Eebul. Damn. Wake me for summer.

Admitting to Writing

May 1, 2013 in Musings, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

A few weeks ago Miss Snark had this to say Don’t ever talk about your novel socially until it’s published. Ever. here. She followed it up with this post in which she expanded upon her thesis.

In general I’m in complete agreement with Miss Snark, but I just don’t buy this one for a number of reasons, some of which may be genre specific. 2013 update: Exactly six years on I find this even more ridiculous than I did at the time.

1. I’m an F&SF author, and making the rounds of cons and talking about your work in progress is a big part of career development.

2. I wrote full time for a while before selling a novel. If I hadn’t talked about the novels I was writing I’d have had an awfully hard time explaining what I did during those years, since most people you meet will at some point ask you what you do.

3. Much of my social circle is now made up of professional and aspiring novelists and English professors. Talking about unpublished novels is a huge part of the normal conversation. It was not always this way, but developed in part because of a willingness on my part to both talk about my work and to welcome other writers into my life.

My life wouldn’t be nearly as rich if I hadn’t always been willing to talk about my writing. Further, those aspiring novelist connections really helped me get through some rough times on the way to publication.

On the other hand, I don’t think I talked about my first novel socially before it was finished, and that I would highly recommend.

It’s an interesting topic, and one made more so by the massive amounts of support her pronouncement generated in the comments thread. I’m wondering whether that’s about her audience, genre, or what.

2013 update: I’m going to pull out and edit some of my comments from the thread that followed as well, since they expand and clarify my thinking.

Comment 1) If you read the whole comment thread and the surrounding context it becomes pretty clear that Miss Snark’s not just talking about pitches to agents in inappropriate places (which is not just rude, but stupid and actively counterproductive to boot). She’s pretty clearly talking about discussing your writing to anyone anywhere outside of a business setting. Later she says this:

“It’s rude. It’s rude to talk about something no one else knows about or can read. Like showing your vacation slides…the only person really interested in how good a time you had is …that’s right: you.”

and this:

“I don’t care if you think it’s ok to do this. It’s not. Not ever. If you think you’re the exception, you’re not.”

I will concede that my first point falls into one of her exceptions. However, 2 and 3 are very clearly outside her acceptable window.

The comparison to asking for legal advice or medical advice only holds for the instance of the inappropriate pitch, which I won’t defend. A more appropriate comparison would be to say that a doctor may never talk about medicine at that bar or barbeque or whatever. Likewise the lawyer may never talk about the law.

I find this simply silly as I have discussed medicine, med-school and medical issues with doctor friends at any number of social settings. Likewise, I regularly talk about writing and works in progress at social events. The idea that one would exclude the possibility of talking about one’s work at any social setting is frankly ridiculous.

Oh, and though I’ll concede the point on cons as business events, they’re also social events and its the social side that is much more likely to see me talking about my writing–as opposed to panels where I’m mostly talking about the specifics of the panel topic.

Comment 2) If for example she said: “You should never pitch an editor or agent that you happen upon in a purely social setting. Never.” I’d mostly be right there with her. As I said above, it’s not just rude, it’s also stupid and may well close a door forever.

But she very specifically says don’t tell anyone, not just don’t pitch agents at dinner parties. Four of six points are pretty clearly addressed to the idea of telling no one, not just not telling publishing professionals. This is made clear by the fact that she explicitly names publishing professionals in points 5 and 6.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 1 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


Generic Universal Blog Post

May 1, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Silly

Clever title

Paragraph describing brilliant idea/latest (your area here) slap fight/cool new internet meme.*

Paragraph explaining relevance of same.

Paragraph relating topic to personal experience or expertise.

Pithy summation.

Appeal to readers to do the rest of your work for you.

*or insider joke for regular readers…like this footnote.

Patience is a Virtue…Arghh!

April 30, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Publishing, Reblogging Project

A comment by CJD in one of my Wyrdsmiths posts back in 2007 included this: “the struggle is with embracing that kind of strange patience (embracing uncertainty and ‘no applause,’ as the Buddhists say).” It got me thinking about writing and patience and the fact that it’s one place I am quite Zen.

One of the first things I learned back when I started down the writing road was how to be genuinely patient about things I had no control over and the corollary skill of figuring out which things I do and don’t have control over. It’s an important skill for a writer to try to develop.

I don’t have control over how fast editors will respond to my stories. I do have control over how many stories I have in the mail, and who gets what when. I don’t have control over whether or not a given market will buy a book of mine. I do have control over how good the book is.

At one point this led my father-in-law to comment on my being a type z* personality. The specific incident that made him say that had to do with a waitress having forgotten to get my order in with the cook so that my food failed to come at the same time as everyone else’s. My response was just to smile and tell her to get it to me when she could. I don’t have control over when my food comes. I do have control over whether or not to let it raise my blood pressure.

I get a lot of questions from friends and family about when will I see covers, copyedits, royalties, etc. I can usually answer these questions with educated guesses based on contract language, past experience, etc. and if asked I will dredge up the information, but I don’t think about it much otherwise. I’m not sure, but I think this drives some of them crazy—that I have to work to give them such important information and that it doesn’t seem to interest me.

But those are all whens that I can’t control, so there’s very little point in worrying about them or even thinking about them. Things I can control are how I react to the cover when it comes, when I turn in my copyedits relative to my deadline, and what I’ll do with any royalties.

This is not to say that I don’t get impatient, just that I try very hard not to. In my case that means learning not to think about the things I can’t control, and to focus intensely on the ones that I can. It’s something midway between denial and low grade meditation. I’m sure there are other ways of handling the issue of writer’s patience, but that’s what works for me.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 25 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

*subsequent events have caused my father-in-law to rethink that one, as it’s not that I’m type z it’s just that the hyperfocused version of me mostly comes out when I’m sitting at my laptop with no witnesses.

R E S P E C T and R E L I E F

April 29, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Publishing, Reblogging Project

2013 update:  One of the fundamental social problems for the beginning writer in America is the resistance of friends, family, and even total strangers to the idea that writing is a legitimate pursuit.  At least, until you’re making money at it. My experiences abroad have been very different, but here in the USA there is a major cultural bias against work that doesn’t bring in a paycheck. Without that monetary stamp of approval, strangers will say things like “no, I meant what do you do for a living.” Family will ignore your boundaries and ask you to do all sorts of things during your writing time because you’re not really working. Even friends will often fret about your chances and worry that you’re wasting time you’ll never get back. It is because of this that eight years on my primary feeling about getting my first novel published is still relief despite the unusual levels of support that I personally experienced on my road to publication. Now, on to the reblogging. 

As part of a longer post over at her personal blog my friend and fellow author Lyda Morehouse wrote: Writers, in particular those who haven’t got book or short story credits to their name yet, have a hard time convincing their friends and family that what they do is real and important. Getting a paycheck is something you can wave in people’s faces to say, “Yes, actually, I got paid to write, thank you very much.”

This brought me back to trying to explain to people how I felt when I sold WebMage (the novel-when I sold the short story I was unambiguously delighted). Now, let me first note how fortunate I am in my friends, family, and writing community. Pretty much from the get go, I’ve had incredible support from people who really believed in me and what I wanted to do. In particular, my wife, Laura, has never wavered in the slightest in her belief in my writing, not even at those times I myself was wavering.

When I sold the novel I had quite a few friends who were not upset exactly, but certainly concerned about my apparent lack of wild excitement. Part of this was because I was going through a particularly difficult family trauma and there was fear on the part of my friends that the strain of that was devouring my joy. There may even be some truth to that hypothesis. But it wasn’t the whole or even the majority truth, because I was intensely engaged in the experience of having sold a book. It’s just that what I was feeling was mainly relief.

Relief from my own occasional conviction that I was never going to make it.

Relief that I would never again have to say “yes, I’m a writer of novels but…”

Relief that I had not let down all the people who had supported me on my way here.

Relief that the long trial of apprenticeship was over.

I have had a hard time explaining this to most people, though there are two major categorical exceptions: 1) Other writers-who have been there. 2) Ph.D.s-who have also been there. With the latter, all I had to say was “Do you remember how you felt when you passed your defense? Like that.” And the response was a knowing nod or a wry smile.

Selling the book or passing the defense means you have passed through the fire. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a career or be a success. It just means that you have survived the ordeal of getting to the place where those things are now genuinely possible. That may sound pessimistic, but it’s not. It’s the voice of relief, and it’s everything.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 19 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Sci Fi

April 27, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Reblogging Project, The Genre

So, I stumbled on this iteration of the sci-fi/skiify/SF/Science Fiction discussion, via Frank Wu who links to Lucy Snyder.

This one fascinates me. I personally use sci-fi, SF, science fiction, and speculative fiction pretty interchangeably, and I’ve never understood the conniptions some folks have about the term sci-fi. This is despite the facts that I’m a third generation fan, that I’ve been going to conventions for 25 years, and that I write and publish in the field.

I really don’t get it. Yes, some people use the term to denigrate the field. However, for those who think science fiction is a waste of time, it’s not about terminology it’s about content. They’re going to dump on science fiction no matter what you call it. In my experience they also use the term science fiction to denigrate the field. If you talk to them about SF, they assume you mean San Francisco until you explain it to them, then they dump on SF. Likewise speculative fiction.

This whole debate seems to me to be a sterling way to let the people who hate the field define the way you should talk about it, and to turn the term sci-fi into something that people who are on the pro science fiction side of the fence use to bash each other over the head with. In short: getting worked up over sci-fi seems terribly counterproductive.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog April 13 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

2013 Update: Adding in my comments from the original post in response to Lyda noting that Sci-Fi registers as a media fandom thing for her or a non-reader thing.

I don’t get the non-readers thing. I’ve used the term sci-fi all my life and I am not a media person and never have been. I don’t watch television at all and haven’t in more than a decade and I rarely watch movies. I come from a family culture of reading first and media as a distant and barely visible second. I picked up “sci-fi” exclusively from literary sources.

Actually, thinking about it, it rings as an academic/literary term for me, c-sci, poli-sci, sci-fi.

Friday Cat Blogging

April 27, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Not so sure about this new tower style litter box…

Argh! That which has been seen cannot be unseen. Grosssssss!

We’re judging you for your litter box humor.

Look over there, a ctulhu-yeti!

Wait, what the hell was that?