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

Writing Speed

March 29, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

This was written at a time in 2007 when the current slapfight in the writing blogosphere had to do with whether or not fast writing can be good writing. I tend to feel that the question is at best irrelevant and at worst silly. Some writers write best when they’re writing fast, some when they’re writing slow. Also, using frequency of publication to decide whether someone is a fast or slow writer is virtually guaranteed to give you incorrect results.

I know people who publish less than one book a year, but actually write that book in a binge that takes about a month. I also know people who’ve put out three books in a single year where the writing has actually gone on over a decade. I know people who consistently write more than five good books a year. And I know people who write one good book over the course of 18-30 months working steadily. For the record, I’m a reasonably fast writer and working at getting faster. But that’s actually not so much a production decision (though that’s a factor) as it is a quality decision.

The stuff I write the fastest is also generally my best work. I’m less choppy in every way when I write five days a week and several thousand words a day. For the past few years that’s meant binge writing, where I do 15-30,000 words in a big chunk and then do life support stuff for a while. Some of my very best writing has been in the biggest binges and I’m wondering if I that doesn’t mean I should simply be writing more and more often. At the moment I’m gearing up to find out. At this point in 2013, I can say that the answer was more or less yes. Faster helped, though I’d still like to pick up the pace a bit more, and I am going to be experimenting with techniques designed to pick up my pace with the next Fallen Blade novel.

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

Rule Breaking

March 28, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

One of the more important aspects of writing the fiction of the fantastic is the creation of internally consistent rules of magic. Whether the magic is of the sorcerous variety or the technological doesn’t matter for this formulation. As I’ve mentioned before, this has to do with the double charge against the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief due to the combination of the narrative being fictional and the world being one that is made up or extrapolated. For the reader to have the buy-in necessary for a successful reading experience, they need to feel that the logic of the world is compelling.

The funny thing about this is that another principal of successful story telling is rule breaking. This isn’t always the case, but in much of heroic or romantic fiction, the protagonist is going to end up having to overcome some sort of impossible odds. Whether that triumph is against an unjust system, a BBE (Big Bad Evil) type villain, the obstacle to romance, or against his or her own inner demons doesn’t matter so much as the simple idea of overcoming. In order for that overcoming to be satisfying to the reader, they have to believe the seemingly mutually inconsistent ideas that the protagonist has no realistic chance at success and, at the very same time, that the protagonist is going to triumph and that good will win in the end.

A significant portion of the fun of reading an F&SF narrative is trying to figure out how that triumph is going to occur. In the best stories, not only is the reader surprised by the eventual resolution, but they are also able to look back from the end of the story and realize that the ending was completely set up by the preceding events and, in some ways, was almost inevitable. The best way for this to happen is for the author to set up the rules so that they are consistent and that a consistent application of them will doom the protagonist while simultaneously structuring them so that there is a loophole or some way to break the rules that is consistent with them that allows the protagonist to emerge triumphant at the end.

So, you’ve got to have consistent, believable rules. They have to apply throughout. They have to be constructed so that there is some way to break or avoid them that is also believable. Simple, no?

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog January 16 2007. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Individual Taste, Critique and Recusal

March 27, 2013 in Critique, Reblogging Project, Writing

One of the things I do as a part of my life as a writer is read and critique manuscripts for friends, students, proteges, and other writers of various sorts. This can be entertaining, educational, frustrating, and rewarding, all at once or by turns. Over 15 years of doing this, I’ve developed a number of personal rules on the topic. The main ones are these:

1. Always tell the truth.

2. Always be constructive.

3. Always try to help the writer achieve their goals. See also: Don’t try to make them write the story I would have written from the same premises.

4. Sometimes following rules 1-3 means recusing yourself.

2 is easy, 1 and 3 not so much, though 4 can help with that. Everyone has personal reading biases and tastes, things that work for them or don’t for reasons completely unrelated to the comparative success of the work. For example, most time travel stories don’t work for me. That includes any number of award-winning works that are loved by lots of other readers.

So, if someone gives me a time travel story and it’s not working for me, I don’t go into great scathing detail about the inherent problems of paradox and meaning. None of that is going to help the writer and it’s likely to aggravate both of us. Instead, I recuse myself and politely let them know that I’m not a good reader for this particular story. This can also be frustrating for both reader and writer, but hard experience has taught me this is much the better choice.

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

Pen Names

March 26, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project

There are five good business reasons to use a pen name. At the time I wrote this I believed the following to be true:* I am likely to write under multiple names for the first two, and it is possible that at some point I will be forced into the third, though I hope not.

Overpublishing (see H&F III below). You produce more novels than the market, in the form of your editor(s) are willing to let you publish. This can be because you’ve got a big back catalog that shouldn’t all be released at once, or because you’re simply a fast writer—more than two books a year. I definitely fall into category one, and I’m hoping to fall into two as well once I can get loose of some non-writing commitments and gear up to writing at the pace I think I can comfortably achieve.

And now, a digression (are you surprised? Didn’t think so). If you can write more than two books a year without a significant deterioration in the quality of your work, your chance for long term financial success as a writer is significantly increased. This is because, A, you get paid more on simple linear basis and it helps build a dedicated readership if you produce reliably and, B, a good part of writing income is a non-linear phenomena. Book advances can run anywhere from ~5,000 dollars (a typical advance for a new writer) to ~3-4,000,000-deep fantasyland for almost everyone but the tip-top sellers in the fiction markets. Advances are based on previous sales which are wildly non-linear. 20,000-50,000 copies is pretty good for a first book, and what a lot of writers sell each time out. However, every so often, for reasons that no one seems to understand, a book will hit the sweet spot in the reading public’s mind and take off like a rocket. It is not unlike winning the lottery, though the returns are generally lower in comparison to the work involved. And, of course, the more books you write and sell, the more chances you have to hit big.

Multiple Unrelated Genres or Styles. Say you write sweet sappy romances, dark vicious serial killer murder mysteries, and oblique literary fantasy. The readership overlap for these is not going to be huge, and if a reader of one of these stumbles on another by dint of looking your name up and ordering from the other genre, the cognitive dissonance may cause them to have trouble reading future books from the you they liked before. In my case, I’ve written high-fantasy farce, adventure fantasy with a humorous element, dark adventure fantasy, urban noir fantasy, and dark to very dark YA fantasy. If you add in short stories and partials, I’ve also written space opera, hard sf, psychological and fantastic horror, light murder mystery, romance and a variety of poetry. I guarantee that someone going from my farcical FimbulDinner short (WT #339) to The Black School’s ultra-dark WW II YA without any warning is going to feel a certain amount of whiplash.

Dead Name. Because of the way sales are now tracked and books bought, an author, even a multiple-award-winning author with decent if not great sales can end up in a position where the editor who loves their work can’t buy books from them under that name anymore. This leads to one of two choices, quit writing or use a new name. For people like me, who can’t not write, the choice is an easy one. It’s even one I’ve consciously planned for and, though some writers have trouble with the idea of writing under a name other than their own, I don’t. One of the reasons I’m seriously considering starting a pen name sooner rather than later is to try to establish multiple parallel careers from the get-go. For writers who choose this route there is a decision to be made in concert with their editor, which is: how open should I be about being multiple people? There are writers who use multiple pen names that everyone who wants to make even a modicum of effort can dig out. There are also writers who have pen names that are so secret that when the writer makes an appearance they do so under that name with no hint to anyone that they exist as any other person. And, of course, there are writers who fall everywhere in between.

Necessary Anonymity. This can come from having a dead name, mentioned immediately above, or from having a non-writing career that is incompatible with your literary work. For example, an author who writer fetish erotica as second career or hobby while working with children in the day job. This is one of those cases, where no matter how good and responsible the writer is in their day job, there is going to be a certain percentage of parents who would object violently to the idea.

Unpronounceable/Hard to Remember/Too Long for a Book Spine. I think this one is self-explanatory.

Other reasons. There are many other reasons why someone might choose to write under a pen name, but I think I’ve covered the bases for business choices. I’d like to note also that I’ve heard from a couple of editors that they prefer where possible to have writers write under their own names, and are somewhat suspicious of writers who “don’t want to put their name to their work.” Also, anyone submitting work under a pen name must include their real name with the submission. Names and pen names are authorial tools, use them well. And that’s all for now.

*These days, I am much less convinced that I would ever write under a pen name. The field has changed radically with the growth of indy publishing—writing under a pen name makes much less sense in a world where your career is much less dependent on finding a good publisher than it is on making sure your readers can follow your career wherever it goes.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 21st 2006, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


That’s Snow Dragon, It’s a Madcap Adventure!

March 25, 2013 in Pets and other friends, Silly, Surreal

Matt Kuchta and I have a now well established madness to our methods. It starts out with a suggestion for some sort of thing we can build or break or film or make.

For example, Matt says: “Hey, Kelly let’s build a white elephant in Neil Gaiman’s backyard.”

The next thing that happens is escalation. I go out to the yard and look around and think: hey, look at that giant mound. Then I come back with: “Screw elephants, let’s make a dragon, a really really big dragon!”

Now in the real world the next thing that happens would be someone talking us down. But here in the Land of Hijinks, the next question is generally: “When can we start?” Or, “Who’s crazy enough to help?” Or, “High speed, time lapse, or stop motion?” Or, “I wonder what sort of pictures we could take with the finished product…”

Then you get things like this:

IMG_4674 - Version 2

Photo: Kelly McCullough

Which looks like this from above (230 feet from nose to tail tip):


Photo: Kelly McCullough

And like this, with yours truly in the Vallejoesque role of the slave girl being rescued by the heroic barbarian…or something like that:


Photo Matthew A Kuchta

Or the filmic version of the construction (Video link for those who can’t see the embed):

(click on space above if video doesn’t appear immediately)

Building the Snow Dragon from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.

So, that’s how things happen here in the Barony of Madcap in the Land of Hijinks.

More of Matt’s marvelous photos of the process can be found at his Flickr set.

With many thank yous to our enablers and volunteers, in this case: Todd Zimmerman, Ethan Zimmerman, Mandy Little, and Laura McCullough. And to Neil Gaiman for supplying the snow and the setting, and to Woodsman Hans for help on the snowblower front.


The Shape and the Power of the Voice

March 25, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Voice is the difference between fiction and a sort of journalism of events that never happened. Strong voice is “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this our sun of York,” instead of “My brother’s victory made me feel good.” Strong voice is “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” instead of “things were mixed.”

The single most important element of fiction is storytelling. And that can be broken into having a good story to tell and telling it in a compelling way, i.e. strong voice. It is one of the more difficult aspects of craft to master, and the vast majority of writers begin by copying someone else’s voice. To have a strong consistent voice that is distinctly yours is a significant achievement.

There are series of steps where it comes to voice which most professional writers must pass through on their way to mastery:

1. Recognizing and understanding the idea of voice.
2. Writing with any voice at all (usually imitated).
3. Finding a voice of one’s own.
4. Using that voice.
5. Doing so with consistancy.

There is a 6th step as well, but it’s essentially optional. It is creating voices that are distinctive and personal and that also suit the tone of the written piece perfectly, so that each story is both completely yours and completely its own. That last one is very difficult, and I don’t know anyone who does it with real consistency. But 6 isn’t necessary to a long and fruitful career or to excellent writing. There are any number of writers whose work I love and respect who only ever go as far as step 5. Whether they could master 6 if they wanted to is, of course, an open question since it has to be exhibited to be judged.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 8th 2006, and original comments may be found there. Reposted as part of the reblogging project)

Perfect Books

March 25, 2013 in Books, Reblogging Project

Over the years I’ve found a few of what I call perfect books, stories where I wouldn’t change a word. There are hundreds of books that I love and periodically reread and thousands that I’ve enjoyed, but only a few that I would call perfect, and some of my favorites don’t make the list. Here they are, in no particular order:

Roger Zelazny-Nine Princes in Amber
Roger Zelazny-A Night in the Lonesome October.
Vernor Vinge-A Fire Upon the Deep
Robin McKinley-Sunshine
Martha Wells-The Element of Fire
Martha Wells-Death of the Necromancer
Tim Powers-Anubis Gates
Tim Powers-Last Call
Christopher Hinz-Liege Killer
Neil Gaiman-Neverwhere
Neil Gaiman-The Graveyard Book
Lois McMaster Bujold-A Civil Campaign
Neil Stephenson-Zodiac
Emma Bull-War for the Oaks
S.M. Stirling-Marching Through Georgia
H. Beam Piper-Space Viking
Terry Pratchett-Feet of Clay
Terry Pratchett-Small Gods
Pamela Dean-Tam Lin
Nina Kiriki Hoffman-The Thread that Binds the Bones

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 4 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project, and updated to add The Graveyard Book and A Night in the Lonesome October)


March 24, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Writing

Tolkien and Shakespeare are the foundations on which all my later reading and writing are built. I was raised by an English major who began to read both to me before I could speak. She read me children’s books as well, but my strongest early memories of story come from the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard III, The Tempest, Lear, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. The rhythms and poetry and magic in those stories are so deep in my soul I can’t separate inspiration from self.
Andre Norton was the first author whose work I pursued on my own, and I can hear her sometimes as I write a sentence. She was followed by Anne McCaffrey whose influence I’m sure is there even if I can’t pick it out. Then came H. Beam Piper who is still one of my very favorite authors for his ability to layer deep and intricate historical context into stories that read like space opera. As a reader I dabbled with Niven and Pournelle, flirted with Kurtz, and fell hard for Zelazney. His self-aware sarcasm and understanding that family makes for the bitterest enemies is plain to see in WebMage and its sequel Cybermancy.

After I started writing came Terry Pratchett—an international treasure whose synthesis of humor and hard truths I try to touch on in my own lighter work—and Tim Powers—who I can’t praise highly enough—is a looming shadow in my dark stories.

I’m sure I’m missing others, but those are the strongest influences, the ones I’m sure have colored everything I write. This post has also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to do here, post my list of perfect books, and my definition of what that means. Perhaps tomorrow. In the meantime, think about what you consider a perfect book and what might go on your list.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 3rd 2006. Reposted as part of the reblogging project, and edited for clarity)


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?