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

World Building and Willing Suspension

March 23, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Or: if I want my reader to believe in the fantastical…

Willing suspension of disbelief is a key part of the interface between the writer and reader of fiction. If your reader doesn’t believe in your story on some emotional level, there’s really not much point. Likewise, most speculative fiction starts off with a believability deficit since it’s A, fiction. B, fantastic in some way. The one possible exception to this is true hard science fiction where the idea is to create a fantastic element that is potentially real, or even likely, in the future.

The setting component of this is world building. It is at root, both very simple and terribly hard. The basic thing you have to do is create a magical what if with internally consistent answers. Nothing loses a reader more thoroughly than a world that’s clearly self-contradictory. Yes there exceptions. Alice in Wonderland, other dream-logic books. There are always exceptions in writing, but it’s a good general rule.

A what if example might go something like “What if spells are real and performed by computer code?” You the author have to think the what if through and figure out all of the possible repercussions, both immediate and secondary. Then, once you’ve constructed a logical structure for your magic, you need to set out to game the rules, by which I mean find every possible loophole, or make sure there’s no wishing for more wishes.

This is for two reasons: First, your reader is going to be doing it and you need to find any obvious flaws before they do and fix them. Second, and more importantly, as you construct your story, you’re going to need to put in surprises and reversals, and one of the best ways to do this is to “break” the rules in such a way that your reader is surprised and yet feels that they should have seen it coming and that the rule breaking is actually an outflow of the rules and not a mistake in their construction. Breaking the rules is a huge part of fiction in general, not just world building, and worth its own post a bit later on.

The basic process I use for world building is to come up with a broad general what if. WebMage: What if spells are done by computer code? Then I figure out some broad ramifications and frame them as sub what ifs. What if all sorcerers were hackers? What if computers then became magical creatures and familiars? What if the universe were organized like the web and multiple worlds could be visited by means of a magical internet? Each of these generates a chain of consequences and further questions. As I’m plotting, I frame the what ifs mentally and then write out my answers to create a basic narrative. There’s much more to it than that, but this gets at the basic process.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 30th 2006. and comments can be found there—Reposted as part of the reblogging project, and edited for clarity)

Friday Cat Blogging

March 22, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

They called me insane. Insane!

Might be a reason for that. Just sayin’…

Bored by this discussion. Move on.

Me toozzzzzzzzzz…

I don’t know why you all keep yammering when this damn mouse won’t die!

Speaking of insane…

I will destroy you all when my plot comes to fruition!

You live with her and you called my mousie thing crazy?


Sneaking up on Character

March 22, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

I have mentioned elsewhere that I am not a natural character writer. I think I’ve gotten fairly good at character development, but it really is something I’ve had to work very hard at and will continue to work at because I know that it requires major processing for me, unlike say plot or world building. Which of course means that I spend considerable time thinking about the subject. This post was part of a discussion I’d been having on another blog which I thought worth sharing here.

One of the funny things about my difficulties with characer is that I’m actually a people person and an extrovert. I enjoy and am energized by social situations. I tend to make friends easily and to be pretty good with empathy and with understanding how the people around me are going to react to my actions and words. So, it’s not human results that I have trouble with in character building, it’s human motivations. And that’s where another of the funny things comes in. I didn’t realize that I had a problem with motivations until I left acting for writing and ended up with a lot of first readers telling me that what I was writing wasn’t how real people think.

I discovered that there all sorts of things that any number of people do or believe for reasons that I simply can’t figure out by starting from my own base assumptions and understanding of how the world works, things that only make sense to me if I consciously create a thought experiment in which I alter the foundations of what I think of as personal logic. Instead of true sense-making I just try to figure out an internal emotional consistency for a character and then work backward to find a belief structure that would support their actions.

Whether I’m actually anywhere close to creating a good model for what’s going on in real people’s heads is on open question, but the method allows for fairly successful character modeling, and I’m now more likely to get complimented on character than roasted.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 15 2006 and comments can be found there—Reposted as part of the reblogging project, and edited for clarity)

Real vs. Believable

March 21, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

As writers of fiction, and particularly of the fiction of the fantastic, we encounter a constant tension between writing things in a way that feels real and a way that is real. It’s a complex dance and one that involves different steps for different writers. Some will prefer to come closer to the actions of a real person, like you or I as we would imagine ourselves to be, acting in a given situation. Some of us see it as an opportunity to create people who make better decisions than we would or worse, more extreme in any case.

I tend to fall into the latter camp. I write fantastic fiction in part because it gives me the chance to write heroes and villains who are larger than life, more noble and more villainous. They’re wittier, nastier, and smarter, but also generally less complex and less ambiguous than real people. They’re surer of their motives and, most importantly, more fun to read about (at least in my opinion).

Fun is an element that doesn’t get talked about enough in writing. I’m a strong believer that reading should be an act that brings joy to the reader, and part of that is fun. Real life can get pretty dismal at times and part of the reason that fiction exists is as an escape and inspiration for those times, a way to transcend the mundane. Escapism isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s a high virtue of fiction.

So, give yourself permission to make the choice that should be real instead of the one that is real from time to time. Not only is it more satisfying, it often makes for better stories. Not more real, better.

Ironically, choosing what should be real over what is real may also make a story more believable, because what people want to believe has a huge effect on what they do believe.

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

Because It Clearly Needs To Be Said In More Places

March 20, 2013 in Speaking Up

Consent is really not all that hard to figure out. No means no. Not yes means no. Unconscious means hell no.

Sex without consent is rape. Period.

Posting this here because I am sick to death of so many people pretending so hard that this is not the case.

Writing Combat

March 20, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Part I

The other day I taught a 3 hour workshop on writing combat scenes for fantasy. This is a meet-the-weapons deal where I bring in swords and knives and things so that my students can get some real idea of how these things look and feel. As part of this kind of workshop I always do a big Q&A component to tailor the content toward what the people who attend are actually writing.
I love doing these both because I did a variety of western and eastern martial arts when I was younger and because I invariably learn things. I’m a good generalist on muscle powered combat, rather than a tightly focused specialist, so at least one of my students always has a more in-depth take on some of the esoterica than I do. For example, at this session I had a couple who’d been doing research on traditional Native American missile weapons. They were able to to share that the Native Americans they’d been studying used a string grip style much more like the Asian thumb ring model than the European three finger grip, a fact which I did not know. Cool stuff.

But perhaps of more interest is what the questions tell me about what’s important to my students as writers and readers. I always get a lot of questions about what to emphasize in a fight scene, how much detail to go into, level of gore, things like that. My answer on all of those btw: is that it’s a mix of two things

1—giving the reader an accurate picture of what they’re looking at.
2—Showing the reader what’s important to the character.

My main point though is always this: Story is king. Accuracy and reality are important because some subset of people will know when you make mistakes and that costs you in the willing suspension of disbelief area that is so critical for keeping your readers in the story. But reality is less important than story. It’s important that you know the rules not because you must never break them, but because you need to know when you’re breaking them and decide whether doing so does something important enough for the story to make it worth the break.

Part II

Some questions from my workshop and thoughts on why they matter.

How can you tell someone is a sword fighter? This one was phrased in the Sherlockian sense. What would give away a swordsman to an informed observer. My answer involved looking for the muscles in the forearm and wrist that have to be developed to control the sword, physical stance and confidence, visible awareness of surroundings. There are lots of other good answers and other avocations that will share many of the same traits, dancers for example. My fencing improved significantly in the window when I was both unofficially TA-ing a stage combat course and taking modern dance because there was a lot of overlap in skill sets.

In the workshop description you mention the physics of swordplay and that a rapier is always going to beat a broadsword—why is that? So I talked about the time-to-target issues of a weapon that is already extended in front of you and very close to your strike point vs. one that need to have a good swing for full effectiveness and is thus several feet at least from the strike point. A thrusting weapon is simply faster than a swinging weapon. Then we discussed the history of weapons as a history of technological innovation and development and how advances in weapons drove advances in armor and vice-versa. And also how things like improved steel making technology and the introduction of gunpowder or the long bow changed things.

Updating to add: The rapier/broadsword thing assumes light or no armor and comparable skill. The armor assumption comes from the technological innovations that help to drive the invention of light swords like the rapier—i.e. that something like the longbow, crossbow, or gunpowder has driven people out of heavy armor. Can I construct an entirely plausible duel where the broadsword wins? Sure. Is it technologically likely? Hell no.

Who owns swords and other weapons? I was particularly pleased with this one. Weapons are often expensive and, depending on where you are in history, they can be very expensive. The socioeconomics of weapon ownership is something any fantasy or science fiction writer should take into account. If, for example, a sword costs a year’s earnings for a peasant, and the owner is not a rich noble, how did they get the sword? How does its cost affect the way they treat the blade?

At root these and other questions are all about making your writing believable, and I’ll talk a bit more about that in my next section.

Part III

In any work of fiction you must bring your reader with you. You must convince them to believe in the reality of the unreal parts of your story, the term most commonly used for this is “willing suspension of disbelief.” If your audience doesn’t believe in your story, you’ve lost them.

Speculative fiction has a double charge against willing suspension of disbelief in that it is both unreal in the particulars of your characters’ stories (i.e. fiction), and in the setting (the world of the fantastic). So the spec fic reader has to work doubly hard to suspend their disbelief, which means the spec fic writer has to work doubly hard to earn that suspension.

Because of this, the spec fic writer has to be even more careful with details than the general fiction writer and ground the non-fantastical and fictional details very firmly in reality. Understanding and writing believable combat is very much a part of that since combat is so often an important aspect of the literature of the fantastic. So is making sure that your fantastical details are internally consistent. And getting your science right.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in three parts in October of 2006 and comments can be found there—possibly worth a look as discussion was useful and lively. One. Two. Three. Reposted as part of the reblogging project, and edited for clarity)


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.