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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough and I met at Convergence where we had a blast creating chaos on panels together. I hadn’t had time to read his books until he agreed to guest, but Broken Blade is an adventure fantasy. I couldn’t put down Book 1, it’s followed by Bared Blade and his latest Crossed Blades from Ace Books. He is also the author of the Webmage series of five books which mix internet and sorcery, so urban science fantasy perhaps? A full time writer/cat wrangler, he’s married to physicist Laura and lives in MN where he dabbles in politics amongst other things. He can be found online at, on twitter as @KellyDMcC and Facebook.

Kelly D. McCullough: Chaos on panels…moi? *bats eyes*  

SFFwrtchtSFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?  

KDMCC: I’m a third generation fan. My mother and grandmother were part of the campaign to save Star Trek TOS and read fantasy and science fiction to me in the cradle. In other words, I was doomed from the get go.

SFFWRTCHT: Good fortune for us. Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?

KDMCC: Tolkiein, Zelazny, Tim Powers, Pratchett, McKillip, Gaiman, Norton, Martha Wells-the list is very long.  Books: Amber, LOTR, most of Powers, all of Pratchett, The Graveyard Book, Element of Fire…and on and on and…

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

KDMCC: Early. At eleven, I dedicated my life to theater. Finishing my BA at twenty-two, I realized theater was incompatible with having a life. My wife to be was the catalyst there. But as an in-the-bone artist, I needed a new direction and decided to try writing a book. At which point I fell head over heels in love for the second time in six months, this time with the writing process. There’s nothing I’d rather do, and I’ve never looked back.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?

KDMCC: Reading. Writing. Reading. Writing some more. Joining writers groups. Reading. More writing. Etc. ~3,000,000 words so far. That’s 3 million words of fiction. I’ve done another 200-400k of nonfiction. I moonlight in hard SF for teaching science. Have worked with projects for NSF, NASA & Hubble. Practice, show stuff to readers, listen. The usual.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? How long before you made your first sale?   You said a book? 

KDMCC: I wrote three novels, didn’t sell any, then switched to shorts. It was seven to eight years from first book to first short sale. ~100 or so rejections.

SFFWRTCHT: You just released your third Fallen Blade book, but before that, you wrote five in the Webmage series.

KDMCC: I sold two Webmage books based on my editor loving the first one, and had to expand out from what I’d originally planned as a one-off.   Those were a ton of fun to write. Webmage was books 4, 9, 11, 12, & 14 of the novels I’ve written. The gap books are all out on submission.   That is 4, 9, 11, 12, & 14 in order of novels I’ve written.   Books 1 and 3 are trunked, though I stole bits of 3 for the Blade books, and might rewrite 1 from scratch.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about the Webmage books. Magic and cyberspace are intertwined? Sounds like urban fantasy or even scifi?    Where’d the idea for that series come from?  

KDMCC: Structure then inspiration…Cyberpunk/urban fantasy hybrid heavy on snark and humor. I invented a new subgenre with it. Mostly I just think of it as fast fun adventure fiction with computers, Greek gods, and a Trickster main character. Beach read. I’m old. The idea came from this new thing called the world wide web, and me thinking, hey this is cool. Wonder if I can tell a parallel worlds story in a fantasy mode instead of sci-fi using the web as my core metaphor and coding for magic? They were enormous fun to write. Sometimes I miss Ravirn, he was closer to me than Aral is.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea for the Fallen Blade series come from and which came first: world, plot or character?

KDMCC: I asked my editor what she was interested in seeing next, and she asked if I wanted to try some more traditional fantasy. So I went away for a week or two, spun up an idea built on top of earlier musings and pitched Aral Kingslayer to her as three to five books. She liked it, and away we went. It started with world. My stuff almost always starts with world. Then usually character.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s a Blade of Namara, what’s a shadow jack and who is Aral Kingslayer?

KDMCC:   1) A Blade is an assassin in the service of the Goddess of Justice-at least until she ws murdered. Now? My characters are working on that. 2) A jack is like a private eye, or free-lance operative ala Michael Westen of Burn Notice, only on the wrong side of the law.  3) Aral? Blade, then a drunk and a shadow jack. Now? A good man in a bad world trying to find his way-the classic Noir PI story.

SFFWRTCHT: I’d call this adventure fantasy but with a contemporary edge in many ways. How long did the novel take to write? 

KDMCC: Broken Blade took five months and change for the first draft, 6-1/2 total. Next three all clocked in under five months. I mostly find it easier to write fast.  I can keep the whole structure of a book in my head much easier for three to six months than for a year. I feel like I write a better book when I’m moving fast too, like the story is pulling me through cleaner.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written novels and shorts. Any difference in your writing process between the two forms?

KDMCC: Definitely. Novels are easier, you have room to look at the scenery and underscore things subtly. Shorts have to be tight. It just feels like a cleaner process if I can burn through it without getting too distracted by shiny side paths.

SFFWRTCHT: You know that’s about my cycle on most books too. I can’t labor too long or I just get lost. Tell us about the world. The City Of Tien in Zhan is part of a larger set of kingdoms, right?   

KDMCC: It is. I have an elaborate cultural history for the area that includes various waves of settlement over several thousand years. Tien/Zhan owes a lot to Han China and late Republican Rome, though it’s neither of those places-magic changes history. Magic changes everything, especially the economics of production, and things like gender interactions and hierarchies. One fun thing about writing this series was the opportunity to do thought experiments on magic and historical structure.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you work on worldbuilding the Blade’s world before writing? Or is that what the trunk novels ended up as?

KDMCC: The trunk novel supplied some of the core bits, but I mostly did the work immediately before and concurrent with writing.  I nailed big chunks in about two weeks-deadlines were tight-then worked as I went. Things like what buying a meal meant, figuring out exchange rates, relative values, currency system, economic impacts of magic on food production, etc.

SFFWRTCHT: You mention three to five books, but you just turned in the fourth. How many books are planned in the series?   Did you sell them all at once? 

KDMCC: Four are out or in production and my editor and I are discussing a fifth right now. Beyond that? Up to nine total. I pitched three with rough outlines of two more attached. Then did arcs for individual books, chunks, and the whole series as I went.  Sold three in the first pitch and was offered a bridging contract for four while waiting on numbers. Discussing possible second bridge now.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

KDMCC: I get up, I put caffeine in until I’m coherent and then I write. Midday walk/run with borrowed dogs plus workout. More writing. I use Word, mostly because it’s what my publisher’s workflow runs on. I’m a linear writer so any word processor will do.

SFFWRTCHT: Speaking of outines, do you outline or pants it and how detailed are your outlines?

KDMCC: I’m a hardcore outliner. I usually have 2-3 different types for any novel. Narrative, structural, timeline.  Outlines for me aren’t set in stone, but I tend to follow closely because I build around the way the structure feels.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?

KDMCC: I used to like to write to music, but these days it’s usually silence or maybe classical.    Routine: when I’m on deadline, I’m a wordcount guy. 1-3k a day depending on circumstance.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you come to be with ACE?

KDMCC: Pretty much the traditional way. My agent submitted to one of the editors he worked with, she liked it, et voila.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

KDMCC: Had this discussion with couple of other pros recently. Consensus: Best advice: one glass of water for every glass of alcohol. More seriously, the single most important bit of writing advice is simply to write. Everything else is window dressing. Worst writing advice? That’s harder, there’s so much of it… Anything of the “there is one true way to write variety.”

SFFWRTCHT: So TRUE about “the one true way. Do you have any short stories set in the worlds of Fallen Blade or Webmage?   Anything free online to sample? 

KDMCC: There’s one Webmage short free at along with most of my published shorts and poems. No Blade stuff yet, but there are sample chapters of those on the website as well.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

KDMCC: Confirmed: 2013 I’ve got a short in a forthcoming Zelazny tribute anthology and Blade Reforged, the next Fallen Blade. Beyond that, things get sketchy. [Since the original Twitter interview, things have firmed up, with Kelly’s first YA, School For Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr. coming out from Feiwel and Friends in 2014, and two more Blade books now in the works, Drawn Blades (2014), and Darkened Blade (2015).]

SFFWRTCHT: Has your career gone the way you thought it would? Or have you been surprised by the directions things have taken?

KDMCC: More or less everything after not selling my first novel to universal acclaim has been making it up as I go along. Somewhere in there I developed a more realistic plan, but there’s a lot of improvising involved.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.

2 Comments on SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author Kelly McCullough

  1. Kelly is a good guy to meet and to know.

    “forthcoming Zelazny tribute anthology”? Which one is this, Kelly?

  2. Kelly McCullough // February 26, 2013 at 10:17 pm //

    Warren Lapine and Trent Zelazny are putting it together. I don’t think they’ve named it yet. I wrote a Madwand story for it.

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