Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Group Interview of Kelly

Updates:

A class My friend Jonna's class has been studying WebMage and they sent me a block of questions and I figured I might as well post the questions and answers here for anyone who's interested. Also, my friend Dave's comments made me go looking for the initial description of the WebMage idea and I've included it at the very bottom of the post.

L's Questions:

1. What inspired you to write WebMage and the novels that followed?

I started messing around with the web back in 1997 or thereabouts and one of the things that fascinated me about it was the way all of the pages reminded me of individual worlds linked together by the internet. Parallel worlds stories are a long standing form in science fiction and fantasy, and this looked like a fabulous way for some entity to arrange worlds. That's where the first glimmer of the idea happened-I think I called it World Diving when I wrote it down. More on that in later questions.

As for the series:

I hadn't originally intended WebMage as the first book in a series, but along about the time it sold, I came up with the idea of Ravirn hacking into Hades. That led to the second book, Cybermancy, which has its roots in the Orpheus story and a two book deal. Time went by, I finished Cybermancy about a month before WebMage pulled a starred review from Publisher's Weekly and started a sales run that meant a second printing in the first month of release. Since I had a great time writing Cybermancy and the books looked like they were doing well I decided I should think about writing another one or two in the WebMage world. My agent and editor both thought that was a dandy idea, and I sat down to see what I could come up with that would keep me excited about the characters and their world. Out of that process came CodeSpell and MythOS and next SpellCrash which will be the end of the series arc. So that's the business side of the story.

The writing side starts with having fun hanging around with these characters and playing in the WebMage world. I want these books to be readable as standalone novels, but also to have an arc where the characters grow and develop and deepen across books. That means that what happens in each book is going to have spillover into the next and later books. Especially the things that Ravirn does that are stupid or the result of hard choices.

2. Are there particular conditions or is there a particular place that you like to write?

My ideal writing space is a screen porch with a nice view of the outside world and about 75 and sunny. Failing that, I like lots of windows and temperature control. Oh, and I need a nice comfy chair and a lap desk for my computer.

3. How did you go about creating the world in WebMage? What process did you use?

After I had the initial story idea I started picking at the edges, what kind of story could I tell that would let me really play with the concept of parallel worlds in web type environment? I decided to go with magic rather than a scientific setup because most parallel world stories go the other way and I wanted to do something really new.

That in turn gave me my main character, Ravirn. A hacker/sorcerer was the logical protagonist for that kind of story. Since I like familiars, I gave Ravirn a familiar appropriate to someone who lived in both those worlds, a shape-changing goblin/laptop combo. When I started to think about plot, I figured that I should have a hacking episode gone terribly wrong--this was for the short story that started it all. So, what was Ravirn's target? Had to be the heart of the web itself if I was going to really get into meat of the idea. Who would build a web to keep track of all these worlds? That stopped me for a day or two until I came up with the idea of the Greek Fates using this new technology to do their age-old job. To raise the stakes I made Ravirn a grandchild of one of them, and bingo, I had the heart of the story that gave birth to WebMage.

T's Questions:

4. As far as the Greek mythology in Webmage is concerned, what inspired you to take that angle on the story?

My upbringing and early reading was weighted heavily toward the classics. My mother and grandmother started reading me Shakespeare and the Greek and Norse myths long before I was old enough to understand them. Also Tolkien and Asimov and a lot other science fiction and fantasy. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to things like Lear and Lord of the Rings and Oedipus Rex. So a lot of my core storymaking sensibilities are rooted in the classics and f&sf. As I noted above, I was looking for someone who would build a world-spanning magical web. When I thought of the Fates it seemed exactly right and the rest of the mythological structure built from there.

5. Did you have to do any special research or manipulate the traditional Greek stories to make everything fit in with the plot you had originally imagined?

Not a lot actually. I had a very solid grounding in the Greek myths from my childhood and I try to stay true to the archetypes of the Greek gods as much as possible with the books. I did have a couple of copies of the myths around to double check names and minor details but mostly it was all in my head. Likewise the computer stuff. My mom's a coder and bug checker and my grandmother was a computer test equipment technician in her last job, so I grew up in an house saturated with computer geekery. Then, when my wife was in college, I spent a lot of time messing around with computers to help her out with various classes as an undergrad and grad student so I had to keep up to date on that too. I did make mistakes there, but a couple of my first readers are IT professionals and they pointed out where I needed to make changes.

6. What inspired you to go with a cyberpunk story fused with other areas of science fiction? What are your favorite science fiction or fantasy genres to read?

I covered the first half of this in 1 and 3. As far as favorite genre, that shifts over time. At this point I'm reading mostly fantasy and probably more urban fantasy than other sub genres, but I've got about 1,500 f&sf titles on my shelves, almost all of which I've read, and there are another 5-600 that I've read but not kept. But I really select my reading based more on writers than sub-genre.

And actually, I probably read more non-fiction than fiction at this point in time. I read around a 100 books worth of material a year. Before I was a writer I read more.

7. What was your inspiration for the character of Ravirn?

As I noted in three, his role came out of my thoughts on how best to tell the story. I really needed a hacker/sorcerer to explore the core idea. The specifics of his personality on the other hand is pretty close to mine, probably the closest of any of my protagonists to date, though he's more of an idealist and I'm not really interested in hacking.

C's Questions:

8. Why are all of your fates and furies women?

That's an easy one. Because that's the way the Greeks thought of them. But I don't think that's a very satisfying answer, so let me tackle a related question.

Why did I focus on the female members of the Greek pantheon? It's really about the characters I find interesting. To me the female portion of the pantheon seems much more complex and real, and besides that I've always liked strong women, both in real life and in my reading and writing. More specifically, given a choice between writing about Fate, Discord, and Vengeance on the one hand or War, Storm, and the Sun (Mars, Zeus, and Apollo) I'm much more interested in the former. As the books go on you'll see more gods (Zeus, Hades) and goddesses (Persephone, the Muses, Nemesis, Necessity, Athena) but as you can see, I still tend to favor the goddesses. As a counterpoint, MythOS, which comes out next year, takes Ravirn off to meet the Norse gods and there I deal pretty much exclusively with male members of the Pantheon, Odin, Loki, Thor, Tyr, Fenris, Jormungand, Hugin, and Munin. That's because in the Norse myths I find the guys got all the good roles.

9. What gave you the idea of webgoblins and why would they turn into laptops...instead of some futuristic item?

I like familiars as I mentioned above, and I was looking for one that would fit with Ravirn's dual nature of sorcerer and hacker. I'm not entirely sure of why a goblin popped into my head rather than a pixie or an elf except that I wanted someone snarky and that triggered goblin for me. As for laptops, I wrote the initial story in '97. I wanted the story set in a sort of moving window of the now and I suspect that laptops will be with us for at least another decade or two--it depends on how fast certain technologies are moving. If you want an idea of where I think laptops are going, you can see it in Loki's tech toy in the forthcoming MythOS, something the size of a cellphone that will use projectors and lasers and sensors to give you a virtual keyboard and screen. I think we'll have keyboards in some shape for writing at least for quite a while to come yet, though they will probably eventually give way to voice recognition.

10. Why put Ravirn in the family of fates rather than another family?

That was dictated by the idea of making the mweb a tool of the Fates. As a writer, one of the things I always try to do with any story is keep raising the stakes. Another is to try to show the inherent complexity of relationships between people. Interfamily conflict is a great way to do both of those things. I wanted Ravirn's relationship with the bad guys to be more complex and painful than just white hats vs. black hats. Putting him in a situation where his ideals were in conflict with his sense of family and belonging made all of his choices harder and more costly and it let me show the Fates in a more complex way too. I find the ideas that Atropos expounds in a couple of places to be morally abhorrent, but I can also see how someone could believe in them strongly and feel that what they were doing was the right thing to do. I think antagonists need to be every bit as three dimensional as the protagonists and this helped get me there.

11. Why Lachesis as his grandmother?

I wanted him to have a relationship with the Fates that was both close enough for complexity and far enough away to make him seem more human. Also, the Fates have been around for a really long time and I wanted Ravirn to be a child of the modern era, someone who grew up with computers, and I felt that meant some distance in the blood line. Why Lachesis as opposed to Atropos or Clotho? That's tougher. I felt that Atropos' role as the cutter of threads naturally made for a harder harsher character and a logical antagonist for the story. That left Clotho and Lachesis and I honestly don't know why I chose one over the other, though I'm very glad I went the way I did, as it gave me some lovely dynamics to play with with Clotho later in the story and the other books.

E's Questions:

12. What are your main influences of your writing? How did you come up with WebMage specifically?

I'm a lifelong fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and the classics. My education favored those and the greats of theater (my degree). Everything I write is built on those foundations. Tolkien, Asimov, Shakespeare, Greek and Norse myth, Norton, McCaffrey, Cervantes, Molière, Niven, Heinlien, Zelazney, etc. As for the how, see 1 and 3 above.

13. What prompted you to include Greek mythology into your writing of WebMage?

See 4.

14. Have you dabbled in any other genres besides Science Fiction? Who are some influential authors to you?

I've written horror and memoir shorts, and poems as well as co-written short plays, but I'd have to say that it's all been pretty close to f&sf. As well as the folks mentioned in 12 I have to give a nod to Tim Powers, Mercedes Lackey, Terry Pratchett, Marion Zimmer Bradlley, Garth Nix, Colleen McCullough, Anne Rice and the group of folks who did the Wild Cards series. Also, for their wise council and mentorship: Dean Wesley Smith and Kristin Katherine Rusch, and to a lesser extent Raymond Feist, George R. R. Martin, Kevin J. Anderson, and Tim Powers (again).

15. How did you get started in writing? What would be some advice you have for prospective authors?

From the ages of 11-22 I pursued theater with great passion. I was dead certain I was going to work in the industry and even landed the occasional paying gig in acting or tech theater. Then I met the woman I'm now married to—we've been together for almost 18 20 years—and realized that theater and anything resembling a normal home life aren't terribly compatible. The hours and the travel are both deadly for relationships. About that same time I got my first computer and decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I fell in love with the process inside of a week and haven't really ever looked back. The funny thing is that I think theater probably prepared me better for writing what I do than an English degree would have. I did renaissance festivals, stunt work, slapstick, makeup, stage combat, lighting, all sort of things really. I got a feeling for story and scene that has served me very well, and developed skills like fencing and dancing that map directly onto writing fantasy.

The advice question is always a tough one. There are a million and one business things I could tell you*, none of which would be the least bit helpful when you're starting out and all of which are critical once you start selling. The single most important thing you can do if you're interested in writing is simply to write.

Write.

Write more. Write again. Revise. Send out. Write more. All of those things are predicated on the initial writing. You achieve success in this business by the expedient of writing, improving your writing, and not giving up. The formula is a simple one to lay out but it can be awfully hard to follow, especially the not giving up part.

This is something I've blogged about extensively:

http://wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com/2007/10/because-it-cant-be-overemphasized.html
http://wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com/2006/09/write-next-story.html
http://wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com/2007/03/loving-craft.html
http://wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com/2007/02/deciding-not-to-quit.html
http://wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com/2006/10/never-give-up.html

*I will give you one business note. Money always flows to the writer. If you start submitting your work around and anyone who see it asks for money for development or anything else, run, do not walk for the exits. That is the sign of a scam artist. The only person who ever gets money from a writer is their agent and that comes only as a percentage of money paid from the publisher after the publisher starts sending checks. I actually blog a lot about the writing craft and business at wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com and much of it has been indexed.

M's Questions:

16. Were there writers from your childhood that inspired you?

See 4 and 12 above and add: Richard Adams, Eve Titus, C.S. Lewis, Margery Sharp, Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, Michael Bond, and E. B. White.

17. Do you base your characters on people from your own life?

Not really. There are bits and pieces of people I know or have known scattered through my characters, but mostly my characters are little bits of my personality split off and played against each other. I have occasionally likened it to being professionally schizoid, in that I spend my days breaking my brain into multiple pieces and assigning personalities to the various bits so that I can spend several hours being a bunch of different people. It can make me a little strange at the end of the work day as I slowly come up out of the world of the book and its characters and reassemble myself and reground myself in the real world.

18. Which character in WebMage do you identify with most?

Ravirn and/or Melchior. People who know me well see both of them in me and have argued on more than one occasion over which is closer to my core personality. Unfortunately there's little doubt that of the two I look more like Melchior. The character that I have the most fun writing is Eris. I love her attitude and even more I love her problems.

19. How difficult was it to get published the first time?

It took me eight years and around a hundred rejections before I sold my first short story. Then another six years and fifty or so rejections before I sold a novel. I was also writing and selling shorts in there, so my total count of rejections is around 450 for 5 novels sold and 20+ short stories. I do much better with poetry, but it doesn't pay enough to justify the work involved.

On the other hand someone in my writers group sold her first book to the first editor it was sent to after having it picked up by the first agent who looked at it. On the other other hand, I've got a friend who's been doing this longer than I have and who, despite being a good writer with dozens of short stories sold, has never managed to sell a book in America.

For more general purposes it looks like this: For every novel that is published the editors have looked at and rejected between 500 and a 1,000 other books. That number is both much better and much worse than it sounds. Better, because for every hundred books submitted 90 of them are so poorly written as to not really be in contention. Worse, because that 500 to a 1,000 includes books by already established authors. So, I've got 5 novels either in print or forthcoming and that means that 2,000-4,000 of those rejected books were competing with the 4 of mine that sold after Penguin had already invested time and effort in making me a success story. It does get easier after that first book but it's not a sure thing. My editor rejected 4 books of mine after she bought the first pair.

That said, if you write well and are persistent beyond all reason you have a good chance of selling a book. Publishing is about 15 percent talent, 15 percent luck, 20 percent craft, and 50 percent banging your head against the wall until you knock it over. The thing to remember is that your forehead heals and the wall doesn't.

H's Questions:

20. What made you decide upon creating a story that infused both ancient Greek mythology along with new age technology?

See 1, 3, and 4 above.

21. Did you place any of your attributes into the characters within your story/stories?

I did and I do. As I noted earlier Ravirn has a lot of me in him. Particularly his snarkiness and pigheadedness. His adrenaline junky, wild man tendencies owe a lot to my younger self. Melchior's sarcasm and tendency to be a bit on the cynical side are mine as well. Cerice's almost OCD level of organization is rooted in my own. You can also find chunks of my philosophy and world view scattered all around the books, sometimes in very unlikely places. For example, Eris' comments on uncompromising idealism (refusing to choose between the lesser of two evils) being responsible for some pretty bad results has a lot to do with the way I felt about Ralph Nader in 2001. I'm all through the books in many ways, but I also have characters, even my heroes, say and do things that are 180 degrees from what I think is the right answer.

22. What originally inspired you to take up writing science fiction-fantasy?

A big chunk of your answer can be found in 15 above and in 4. Basically I was raised to be a fantasy and sci-fi author. I'm pretty sure that wasn't the intent of either my mother or grandmother but it was the result--I didn't spend much time with my dad as a kid, though he is also an f&sf fan and a good friend.

I'll add here something my wife calls "leaking weirdness."

I'm pretty much wired for creating stories out of thin air. When I was little I did it as part of the elaborate scenarios that constituted much of my playing--I used to build Asgard out of blocks and use my toys to act out the final battle of Ragnaroc. I also used to vanish into the woods around the farm where I spent summers for hours, playing Robin Hood and other scenarios. Later, I channeled that energy into theater, and especially improv at Renaissance Festivals and the like. Then I quit theater and wrote my first novel and my second and so. It turns out that I don't do well when I don't have something like that soaking up the creative energy. If I go too long without writing I will begin to have vivid dreams and wake up spouting off about things like "llamaflage" or a "Connecticut Buffalo in King Heifers Court"--leaking weirdness. My wife's normal response to this is to give me a very patient look and tell me to go write something.

C's Questions (Being a rebel, C didn't write any questions but instead made statements inviting comments.):

23. The use of magic in WebMage was interesting and different.

Thanks. I tried and try to create something new with each world I build, whether it's magical or sfnal. I sometimes call myself a world-driven writer since creating logically framed magic systems or science-fictional futures is what really interests me as a writer. The story and characters almost always come after the place and mode for me.

24. The plot of WebMage has lots of hooks to keep you reading.

Again, thanks. I would probably write travelogues of places that never were if I were just writing for myself. Writing for others makes me think about story and what makes it interesting: high stakes, characters the reader will identify with, interesting circumstances, cost, reversal, betrayal, things hidden from the characters and thus the readers, lulls to allow the reader a chance to breathe, chapter structure that leaves the reader with questions at the end of a scene that will draw them on to the next one, and resolutions that satisfy the reader's desire for closure and sense of justice while not glossing over the complexity of life or the idea that nothing worth having ever comes cheap.

Update:

Original description of WebMage, verbatim: World-Amberesque family of mages. Responsible for creation of www, internet, and cell phone net. This is actually the material component of spell that allows them to communicate worldwide and across the dimensions. They create webspiders that drop through alternate realities and report back to them via the web. Each mage has a familiar that is essentially a walking talking laptop with a built in cell phone. They travel from reality to reality via Decision locuses. Each locus is a location where a decision was made. Thus, if you want to get to a world where reagan didn't win you would go to a voting booth and follow one of the decisions to vote against him into the appropriate world. They call it world diving.

8 comments:

Kelly Swails said...

Thanks for posting! Lots of good nuggets 'o info there.

Kelly McCullough said...

Glad you liked it.

Jonna said...

Great questions, and wonderful insights! Thanks for sharing.

E said...

Thanks a lot for answering our questions Kelly. I'm sure for a lot of us it was the first time to experience the intracacies of being a writer. It was a fascinating read as well. Best of luck to you.

- E

Anonymous said...

Kelly,

My memory is that Webmage the short story was first written in 1994. Am I wrong about that? It might be of interest to discuss that expansion of short story, to novel, to series.

Also, the thing I remember most strongly about Webmage ver 1, was the sense of place, and how the U of MN campus and area was central to the genesis of the story. That strong sense of place really let you stretch your legs into a rip-roaring chase adventure which supplied the early energy for Webmage, while you explored what the story was about. Without the energy of that chase/adventure, I wonder if you'd ever been able to carry forward into the subsequent books. I know that's a lot less glamorous than having a vision of Ravirn hacking Hades, but especially for students, I think it's notable that part of the genesis of the whole thing was: "A guy kinda like me getting chased through places I knew." For people interested in the process, that starting point seem a lot more manageable to comprehend than the complexity of the grand exotic adventure its become. Especially for those of us who didn't learn our Mythology in the crib....

DaveHD (I can't seem to publish using my DaveHD Livejournal login)

Kelly McCullough said...

Jonna, you're welcome and thanks (it was Jonna's class, btw).

Likewise, E, you're welcome.

Dave, my first reject on the story is '98, which agrees with writing it in '97 but it could be late '96. I loved the initial version of that chase scene, but it definitely came after the parallel worlds stuff. It was a very nice bit of travelogue, imho. Sadly, it mostly got scrapped after everyone in that writers group agreed that it didn't further the story. Too much brute force running around, not enough clever thinking a way out of the problem.

Anonymous said...

Kelly, thanks so much. I was very intrigued by all the answers. WebMage is really great, and im looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Im a very big fan of Norse Mythology as well so i was very excited when you said that MythOS is going to have Norse elements in it. Again, thank you.

-L

Kelly McCullough said...

You are most welcome, L, glad you enjoyed the book and the answers. I hope you have fun with the rest of them. MythOS was particular fun to write since it gave me a chance to play a bit further afield and do a little otherworld traveloging.