Karen McCullough

Karen McCullough

This month, Karen McCullough will answer questions here on The Writing Page, Humps, Lumps and Dumps Page. Karen lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in Spanish and Anthropology. She recently retired from being Senior Web editor for Reed Business Information. Karen writes fantasy, has a serious love of all things dragon, and her own web design business. She has had four novels of romantic mystery/suspense published by Avalon Books, a fantasy role-playing game book published by Iron Crown Enterprises, and sold a number of short stories in the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and romantic genres. She is now a full time writer and has her own web design business.


Books by Karen McCullough

The Grey Mountain, 1992, Iron Crown Enterprises
Stormtide, 1992, Avalon Books
Blue December, 1991, Avalon Books
Programmed For Danger, 1990, Avalon Books
The Night Prowlers, 1990, Avalon Books

Questions for Karen McCullough

Welcome Karen! Glad to have you, welcome.

Glad to be here. Thank you!

Q: How did you get started in writing? And how long have you been writing?

A: I’ve been writing most of my life. I think I wrote my first short story at the age of ten or so. It was a one-page mystery and I thought it was pretty good. I didn’t have the courage to show it to anyone else though.

I didn’t begin to write seriously, with any thought for publication, until about twenty years ago, when my husband picked up a short story I’d been noodling around with, read it, and told me he thought it was pretty good and I should consider seeing if someone would publish it.

That particular story remains mercifully unpublished—it wasn’t really that good—but the seed was planted.

Q: You like to combine romance, mystery and fantasy, why?

A: I grew up reading in all those genres and I love them all. People tend to write the kinds of things they like to read, and since I read all of them, my writing tends to sprawl into them, too.

Q: What groups do you belong to?

A: Mystery Writers of America
Southeast Mystery Writers of America, Vice President
Romance Writers of America, Published Authors Network
Futuristic, Fantasy & Paranormal Chapter, RWA
Gothic Romance Writers Chapter, RWA, Charter Member and Treasurer
Writers’ Group of the Triad

Q: Have you done any workshops, and if so, what were they about?

A: I’ve done numerous workshops over my career. I can’t remember all the topics I’ve covered–everything from how to format a manuscript to some advanced critique workshops.

My favorite one is a workshop I’ve given fairly often at writers’ workshops and conventions. It’s an interactive session on writing dialogue. It’s always fun.

Q: What are the benefits of belonging to specific writing groups?

A: There are lots of benefits: support, critiques, sharing of information, just contact with other people. Writing is a pretty lonely occupation. I sit in front of my computer all day, pounding on the keyboard. I may not talk to another human being for hours on end.

Q: Do you have critique partners, and if so, how do you work together?

A: Yes, I have a couple of critique partners, although we’re kind of sporadic. Generally we just trade pieces of our work whenever we feel we’re ready for it, or need input from another set of eyes.

Q: What is your writing routine?

A: I don’t really have a routine. I fit the writing in with my web design business, but since the web business is what keeps the roof overhead, it comes first. I generally do most of my writing in the evenings and on weekends.

Q: Dragons? What’s up with the Dragons?

A: I fell in love with dragons ages ago and I can’t exactly remember why. But all it takes is a dragon on a cover to sell the book to me. And I collect dragon figures and images. I knew it was getting out of hand, though, when I got a toothbrush holder in the shape of a dragon. [I’m going to try to get a photo of some of my collection posted on my web site. I’ll let you know about it when it happens.]

I think dragons are a quintessentially male symbol…huge, powerful, aggressive, dangerous, uncontrollable. Why else would the best known set of stories about dragons feature virgins being sacrificed to them? And as if that isn’t Freudian enough—there’s those long, narrow snouts, long narrow necks, long, narrow tails…and they breathe fire. No wonder people of both sexes love them!

When the dragon showed up in Wizard’s Bridge I was astonished and delighted. And then he proved to be such an unusual dragon…a lot of fans have told me he was their favorite part of the story.

Q: In your experience, what have you learned about the business of writing?

A: A lot more than I can easily summarize here, but it probably boils down to: this is a business, and you have to treat it like that. You’re a supplier to the industry. Be professional in all your dealings with everyone in the industry.

Q: How have you seen the market change regarding fantasy books?

A: When I started writing in the early 80s and even into the mid90s, you couldn’t sell a romantic fantasy novel. There was absolutely NO market for them. Now everyone LOVES it.

New Questions and Answers for Karen – 5-27-06

I’d like to thank Karen for being here this month.

Q: Romance and fantasy can be a dynamic combination, what draws you to them?

A: Well, it’s all fantasy, really, isn’t it? We all know that the Happily Ever After isn’t just a given. Life still happens, but it’s nice to have an end-point, to leave things we’re there’s hope and some expectation of happiness. I just like my fantasies a bit more far-reaching. I like playing with magic and fantastic creatures. I enjoy exploring the possibilities they present. After all, many of those fairy tales we all grew up with were basically fantasy romances.

Q: What are you working on now with your writing?

A: I have a couple of romantic suspense novels that are making the rounds right now. Both have some paranormal elements. I have two current works in progress…a fantasy romance (a sequel to Witch’s Journey) and another paranormal romantic suspense. I’ve just finished up initial edits on Shadow of a Doubt, a Gothic romantic suspense/police procedural, which will be re-released by Cerridwen Press.

Q: What have been the major contributions to your writing career?

A: I’m not sure I understand the question. Who has helped me out? My husband has been extremely supportive. I was fortunate to work with a couple of excellent editors early in my career. I’ve had some very good critique partners. I’ve finaled in or won some contests along the way. All of those things have helped advance my career.

Q: Rejection is a part of a writer’s life, how do you handle it?

A: Badly. I hate it. It sends me into a tailspin each time I get one, and I get plenty of them. In fact, I’ve gotten so many you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But I’m not. I keep telling myself that it’s part of the process and it’s going to happen but that doesn’t usually stave off the depression and feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, and the inevitable questions about why I continue to torture myself this way.

One thing that helps, though, is I’ve made this bargain with myself. Every time I get a rejection, I get to go treat myself. Usually means a trip to the local Starbucks, but it might also be a Krispy Kreme donut or a new pair of shoes.

Q: How do you keep yourself motivated?

A: I’m not sure, in truth. I’m very, very stubborn, and this is what I want to do with my life. The fact is I just don’t seem to be able to stop writing, which means I’ll never stop trying to get what I write published.

Q: What obstacles have you faced in establishing your writing career?

A: Sigh! Lots of them. I had a great run of four books sold in quick order after I had my first published novel accepted by Avalon in 1989. Then the editor I was working with there left and the new one wasn’t as wild about my work.

As I was struggling with that, real life intervened in the form of the need for more income. For five years or so, I had a full time job and four teenagers living in my home. There was no time or energy left for writing. When I finally got back to a more reasonable schedule and started writing again, the market had moved on and I had to start all over again. Worse, I tended to write cross-genre books and at that time (eight years ago) nobody would buy cross-genre books.

So I published my romantic adventure/suspense and my romantic fantasies with an epublisher. The epublisher went out of business. I moved the books to another epublisher and they, too, went out of business. ImaJinn Books picked up the romantic fantasies. Cerridwen Press will be reprinting my Gothic suspense/police procedural sometime in the future—it’s under contract with them, but I don’t have a release date as yet.

It’s been a heck of a roller coaster ride.

Q: For new writers, could you provide five tips, or more, for them?

A: 1. Learn everything you can about the craft of writing, including becoming as expert as you can at grammar, punctuation, and usage.
2. Read, read, and read some more.
3. Network with other authors to learn more about the business side of publishing.
4. Muster your courage and submit your writings…start with contests or critique groups if you’re not sure you’re ready for prime time.
5. Be persistent. Rejections happen. Sometimes a LOT of them happen. Many authors get rejected hundreds of times before they get anything published. And guess what: rejection doesn’t end once you get that first book or story published. They’re a continuing fact of life in this business.

Q: What do you think new or even established writers should avoid?

A: Negative thinking or behavior of any kind, and especially bad-mouthing other authors, editors or agents in public. The publishing industry isn’t a huge one and word gets around. In fact, get out of the habit of being negative about others, whoever they are. It’s bad for your psyche. Think positive.

Q: What research books are on your book shelf?

A: Many more than I could list here. I’ve got six shelves worth, featuring everything from writing how-to books to dictionaries, style books to crime reference manuals, medical books, linguistics texts, history books, travel guides, and an extensive collection of folklore from around the world.

Q: What do you like to read?

A: I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance.

Q: You have a website design company. How did you get into designing websites?

A: It’s a long story that I’ll try to condense. I had a year of post-graduate study of computers many long years ago. I never finished the degree because one of my professors offered me a job with a start-up software company. After a fifteen-year career as a software engineer, I burned out on it. (I knew it was time for a change when I started dreaming lines of code—and no I’m not kidding or exaggerating.)

I started writing about computers and software for a couple of magazines, then expanded my writing horizons into other sorts of articles. Eventually I was offered a job as an associate editor at a trade publishing company. Then I was promoted to managing editor. When the company decided they needed web sites for their publications (this was in the late 90s, during the boom), I was the logical choice to spearhead the effort.

I taught myself HTML from scratch, with a book and the help of a couple of experienced coders who generously helped. I went on from there to learn more about coding in ASP and PHP for web-based applications. A couple of years later, a much larger, multi-national company lured me away to create web sites for a group of their magazines. It was fun for the first few years…until the corporate bureaucracy suddenly found the web and decided it was their future. The job got less and less fun as the bureaucracy got more and more intrusive, until I got fed up with it and retired to start my own business.

Q: When you design a website for a client, how do you go about helping them decide what they want?

A: I have a questionnaire I send to my clients as soon as they sign on that asks them about color and layout preferences, the feel they want for their site, whether they want specific graphics, etc. Based on their answers, I’ll generally do a couple of design prototypes and run those by the client to see what appeals to them. From there, we’ll go back and forth, refining the design until it’s exactly the way the client wants it. If they ask for things that I don’t think are a good idea, I’ll explain to them why I don’t recommend it, but ultimately this is the client’s site, not mine and they get what they want.

Q: Writers are told they need a web presence, even if they aren’t published, for an unpublished writer, what should they be trying to accomplish by having a website?

A: I think the main reason for an unpublished writer to have a web site is to demonstrate to agents and editors that you’re a professional and you’re serious about pursuing a career as an author.

Q: I’ve read your short stories on your website, they’re funny, romantic and very good reads, do you prefer writing short stories or novels?

A: Thank you! I don’t write many short stories because ideas just don’t generally come to me in that form. It seems like all my short story ideas try to turn into novels. Several of my novels actually started out as attempts at short stories that just kept growing and getting more complex.

Q: In your fantasy and scifi writing, have you done any world building? If so, how hard is it?

A: Yes. Like many fantasists, I start with a quasi-Medieval world, then layer in new geography, populations, technologies, and add in the rules of my particular system of magic for this book(s), and figure out how it affects everything else. It’s hard, but then it’s easier in some ways than doing the research for a non-paranormal historical. At least I get to make up the rules.

Both Wizard’s Bridge and Witch’s Journey involved considerable world-building since I had to have a universe where magic worked, but only in certain ways and for certain people. Then I had to create a world with conflicts occurring on various levels, the national, regional, family and personal. Everything interacts with everything else so it can get enormously complex!

Q: I see you designed a fantasy game along the lines of Toliken’s middle earth, what led you to create it?

A: My son loved role-playing games when he was growing up. He loved The Lord of the Rings, too, and his favorite role-playing universe was Middle-earth. The gaming rights to that universe used to belong to a company called Iron Crown Enterprises (back before the movies were released and those rights became much more valuable). Joe saw an advertisement in an Iron Crown newsletter for people to write gaming modules for them. He suggested to me that we collaborate…he could develop all the tables and weapons charts, etc. for the game while I wrote the scenarios. We worked up a sample, sent it to Iron Crown and a couple of months later we had a contract to do an entire book.

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