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 Short Fiction

July 30, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

The major magazine markets for short F&SF are dying. Pretty much everybody agrees on that. The reactions range from please help save them (slushmaster) to so what (Scalzi). People have talked about causes, among them: the writers aren’t stretching enough (VannderMeer) and the short markets have become a bunch of writers writing for other writers who edit and put out stories for writers who read writerly stuff–see point four here (Bear). I tend to favor the club scene theory Bear is talking about plus a dash of the idea that the internet has really changed the way people digest small chunks of content, i.e. substituting blogs for shorts.

2013 update: Though the print magazine continues to decline, the online market for short fiction has really expanded into a much more viable scene in the years since I originally wrote this post. Many authors with an established fan base have also started publishing shorts either stand alone or in micro anthologies via Amazon and other ebook venues. At this point, only six years on from the original, I am no longer giving advice on what to do with shorts in terms of publishing, as my focus on novels has left me hopelessly out of date. OTOH, my main point about shorts from the writing/learning to be a writer point of view still stands…I think.

I give you all of that as a sort of background to what I really want to talk about, which is why I write short stories and I why I think any F&SF writer who can* write shorts should. Sarah Monette talks about some of the same things here in terms of why she writes them, and that’s definitely worth a read. One place where I disagree with both her and Scalzi is in terms of what shorts can do for a career, so I’ll start there.

Both Scalzi and Monette mention that there are better ways to raise your profile for readers–blogging is mentioned–and I agree on that. The thing that shorts can do for you career-wise that blogs and many other venues don’t do, is establish you as someone who has been vetted by some sort of serious professional editorial process. While that may not sound like much, it means a lot in terms of bona-fides for agent queries. And getting an agent is becoming ever more critical in breaking into the novel biz via the large houses, which necessity is something I’m going to talk about in its own post later. Beyond that, Monette’s point about learning how to be a professional writer through the short story markets is a great one.

Monette also talks in brief about the risk-taking element, the fact that you can try things in a short that you wouldn’t dare try in a novel. I’d go beyond that to say that short stories are one of the best venues a new F&SF writer has for learning the craft, because in addition to being daring you can afford to be mundane–to practice the simple things.

You can write ten or dozen shorts where you focus on mastering a single aspect of craft like plot or character and let the rest of the stuff go hang. The brevity of the form allows for a lot more of the try/fail cycles an artist need to master the craft.

A short also forces the writer to pay attention to things they might not have to in a longer piece. If you’ve got a 5,000 word cap on how long the story can go, you have to make the hard choices about what elements of the story are important enough to keep on the page. You have to go for late entry and early exit. You have to make damn sure that every single word is important. You can’t have extraneous scenes that don’t advance the core of the story. In a short a writer knows that they must catch the reader’s attention right now and hold onto it–there’s no time to do anything else.

And, guess what? Those things are all true for novels as well. Sure, in the longer form you can get away with earlier entry and later exit and longer chunks that don’t do anything more than show off some cool side bits, but the question is: Should you? The answer: Maybe, but you should never do it unawares or unweighted. Short story writing helps teach the balancing skills a writer needs to decide when and where to go long.

*Some writers simply aren’t suited to the medium, and that’s fine.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 29 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging—Construction Edition

July 26, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Did you just hear a crash? Because I thought I heard a crash.

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Yep, that was the ceiling in the mudroom, I think.

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*crash*

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You think?

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Yuh-huh. We heard the crash all the way out at Castle Gaiman.

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Did someone say crash, because I didn’t hear anything. Also Ima trying to nap here.

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Author/Reader Interaction and Dumbledore’s Sexuality

July 24, 2013 in Other People's Books, Professionalism, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

Much ink has been spilled over J.K. Rowling’s revelation that Dumbledore was gay. I’m personally glad she said it for a number of reasons, one of which is a writing reason.

She showed respect for her readers. Giving an honest answer to an honest reader question is a matter of simple authorial courtesy. As an author, my default response to reader questions is to answer them to the best of my ability, unless answering them will create spoilers for later books.

Quite a number of people seem to disagree for various reasons political and literary. On the former I will simply say that I disagree vigorously. On the latter however, I am going to go into a little more detail as it is relevant to the core reasons for this blog’s existence.

The essentials of the literary argument are that the text is everything, and that authors should simply shut up about anything beyond what is on the pages in black and white because many readers don’t want the author messing around with their version of the empty pages that lie beyond the borders of the text.

My biggest problem with this it that it gives more weight to the readers who don’t want to know the author’s thoughts on something than it does to those who do, and it does so at a disproportionate cost to the curious.

J.K.Rowling was asked a direct question by a reader who really wanted to know Rowling’s answer. If Rowling had the answer in her head, should she really deprive those who are interested just so that those who aren’t don’t have to hear about it?

It seems to me that if an author doesn’t answer questions, it penalizes those who want to know the answers far more than answering penalizes those who don’t want to know. With the exception of a few very big names it is astronomically easier to avoid author answers to reader questions than it is to divine those same answers if they’re never given. If they stay in the author’s head, no one will ever know the author’s opinion but the author.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 25 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Because it Can’t be Overemphasized

July 21, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Writers write.

I want to put that all alone because it is the central point of this blog. It’s all about the writing. Everything else is fundamentally by way of amplification or refinement.

I’m teaching an advanced class on writing fantasy at the moment, one aimed at people who’ve completed at least one novel and who are serious about pursuing publication and I’ve told them several times that if they only take one thing away from my class it is this:

Write.

On the broader stage, I am trying to teach them techniques of craft, ways to think critically about their work, and how to form alliances with other writers to help them move forward. I’m showing them how to put together synopses and to see and talk about the hooks in their work. I am exposing the realities of the hard slog that is the norm in the quest for publication. I want them to understand the realities so that 50 or 100 rejections become a mark of honor, a sign of things written and submitted instead of a soul-crushing obstacle. But amongst all the lecture and critique and questions asked and answered I keep repeating two things.

1. Take everything I say as a tool to be used or discarded as it suits your needs. If something I tell you helps you to write, use it. If it stops you, discard it and find something that gets you writing.

2. There are 1,000 and 1 ways to write a book and every one of them is right. Find what works for you and use it to write.

Are you seeing a theme?

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.

Being published takes time and effort and deep down-in-the-bone stubborn. It takes craft and talent and luck and more than a little blood sweat and tears to boot. But mostly it takes this:

Writing.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 23 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging

July 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

I will make you pay for this indignity, thumb-monkey! You’ll rue the day!

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How will you manage that?

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By using this* when the thumb-monkeys buy it for me.

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That could work.

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Let me know when it gets here, I have some eeeebil I mean kind thoughts on uses.

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I can’t get past rue the day. Who talks like that?

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*image courtesy of Matt Kuchta channeling the feline id.

Difficult Things

July 19, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Publishing, Whining, Writing

The most difficult things I’ve attempted as a writer are to write funny and to write poetically well—i.e. in a way that doesn’t look overwrought or overwritten.

I’m not actually sure which is harder, but I know which I’m better at. The books where I’ve written poetically are none of them in print yet, though I’ve had more than one editor say very nice things about them. Mostly that they like them but don’t think they’re commercial enough. I’ve even had editors try to put deals together for them, but as yet they have all gone boom at some point.

Funny on the other hand. Well, even my more serious books get reviewers saying nice things about the elements of humor. I’m good at funny. I have the checks to demonstrate it. Poetic…well, I think I’ve done it well when I’ve tried, and the lurkers* support me in email—I have the very kind rejection letters to demonstrate it.

The thing that I occasionally find frustrating about this is that if you’re doing comedy right, it looks effortless. The reason this is frustrating is that when it gets really hard, as it does sometimes, you feel a bit of a jerk for saying “Hey, this is hard, and I’m stressed about it.” Whereas, no one thinks twice if you’re known for writing beautiful, poetic prose, and you say “Hey, this is hard, and I’m stressed about it.”

This is because, when you’re reading along and you come across a long beautiful poetic passage, you generally think something like “wow, that’s gorgeous, I wish I could write like that,” or “wow, that’s gorgeous, they sure can write.” It’s obvious that what the poetic writer is doing is hard, and people acknowledge it without even thinking about it.

OTOH, when you’re reading along and you come across something really funny,** you laugh and keep right on moving, because that’s what a good joke does. It makes you laugh and it makes you feel a little lighter and more ready to go on. It acts as a lubricant for life, and lubricant is something you generally notice most in its absences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather have the book contracts and the money that comes with them and make people smile when they read than be able to get more sympathy when I’m feeling whiny. But it was something I was thinking about, and when I’m feeling thinky I generally end up writing about it, because, hey, writer—that’s what we do.

One final note here and I shall go back to attempting to make the very difficult look like slipping on a banana peal. Neil Gaiman. Among the things that make Neil one of the best writers in our field is his ability to simultaneously do both. He writes things that are beautiful and poetic and funny, which makes people say “Wow, that’s gorgeous, how does he make it look so easy,” and then laugh about it, which is amazing.

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*In this case lurker = editor.

**There are exceptions, of course, mostly in the realm of socially relevant humor, where you laugh because it hurts, or because it’s uncomfortable. But the kind of humor I write is mostly there to make you feel like your day just got a little better.

Dinosaur Moment(s)

July 18, 2013 in About Kelly, Publishing, Reblogging Project

When I first started breaking into the business of writing F&SF I was fortunate enough to meet and by mentored by a number of Big Name Authors. I am eternally grateful to those folks and that’s part of why I’m here with the other Wyrdsmiths doing this writing blog thing. There’s not a whole lot I can do for the BNAs who helped me out, but I can pass on that help to the folks who are climbing the mountain behind me.

Those BNAs gave me a huge amount of good advice on the craft of writing, and a great deal of good advice on the business of writing post-first novel offer. The one place where I had to carefully filter the advice I was getting was in the area of landing that first sale. This is because the world of publishing has been changing at astonishing speed over the last thirty years or so, and advice that was stellar then (whenever then may be) is sometimes simply invalid for the newbie unpublished writer of today. I will occasionally (and entirely goodheartedly) call this stuff dinosaur advice-magnificent in its time, but not such a great idea now that all these nimble little mammals have started cluttering up the scene.

In my class last night someone asked me a question about getting a start in writing by publishing with small presses. In that instant I knew that I had just had my first dinosaur moment–I’m sure I’ll have more. I know that small press is changing the face of the industry and I’m pretty certain that it’s going to change it much more radically in the very near future. There are quite a number of small presses that are doing great work, getting books in distribution channels, winning awards, and giving their authors exposure they just couldn’t get elsewhere. So far so good. But in terms of submitting to small presses, their relationships with agents, and even where to find that kind of information I am totally clueless. In short those darn whipper-snapper mammals are changing the face of publishing and me–big old dinosaur that I am–I don’t understand the rules of the new game.

Update 2013: I’ve had a lot more of these in the six years since I wrote this post. I basically no longer give advice about short story markets. I still don’t know much about the small press scene. And self-publishing, which used to be mostly vanity press and anathema to a career, has blossomed into the indie-publishing movement where a ton of fascinating new models for making a living writing are springing up. Given the rate of change in the publishing industry, I’m starting to think that break-in advice has a finite life cycle of 1-3 years at this point in terms of the business side. On the other hand, the writing side doesn’t change much: Write something really good. Find a way to get reader eyeballs and transfer reader dollars to your bank account. Rinse. Repeat.

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

King Lear, Ian McKellen, and Character

July 17, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

Last night (as I’m writing this) I was fortunate enough to see The Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear with Ian McKellen (major props to my aunt Lee for scoring the tickets—2013 update: Lee has since passed away and I miss her). W. O. W.!

I have seen many great performances of Shakespeare including several other Royal Shakespeare productions. None of them was in the same league as this one. Lear, Goneril, Edmund, and Kent were beyond extraordinary. Regan, Gloucester, and the Fool were merely astonishing. Everyone else turned in the kind of performance that would have made a scene-steeling star turn in any other company. It was the playgoing experience of a lifetime and the small touches were every bit as telling and smart as the big ones. I’m only going to touch briefly on a few things so as to get to the part where this becomes a writing post.

In two seconds of side business in the opening scene—side business that managed to be the center of attention just for those two seconds without distracting from the main action, Regan established herself as an alcoholic and set up her own poisoning at the end of the play. Ian McKellen somehow managed to give Lear enormous dignity while naked from knees to armpits and wrestling with his clothes in the storm scene. The fool did quite a number of his pieces as singsong while playing a pair of spoons and managed to be both terribly funny and terribly tragic simultaneously. Kent’s exit at the end of the play to go commit suicide was so right and so poignant at the same time that it hurt.

And all of it was in some cases despite the writing. Yes, you read that right. Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers ever to have walked the earth, and in every other performance I have seen, the writing has transcended the acting. Where there have been moments that fell short it was always because the actors couldn’t quite live up to the play. In this case, the acting was so good that it exposed the weak spots in the writing. Despite the fact that it was Lear, despite the fact that it is one of the great plays, despite Shakespeare’s phenomenal pen, he was outperformed.

Cordelia’s performance in particular was positively heroic in a way that exposed the weakness of the part. The actress’ Cordelia was outstanding, Shakespeare’s not nearly so much. Likewise Edgar, who put into face and gesture things that Shakespeare did not put into the text.

And that is exactly what you want your characters to do in your books. To transcend your writing of them. This is why you want to leave some gaps in description and to sometimes choose to imply things about motivation instead of spelling them out absolutely. So that your actors and set–provided in a novel by the imagination of the reader–have room to do more than you can make them do on your own.

The writer who spells out absolutely everything leaves no room for the reader to make the book their own, and that investment of reader interest and effort is priceless. Of course, you can’t make them do too much of the work or you will lose them on the other end. As with everything in writing it is a matter of balance.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 15 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Stephanie Zvan’s Very Smart Writer’s Spreadsheet

July 16, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

My friend and fellow writer, Stephanie Zvan, built a really useful novelist’s spreadsheet quite some time ago and I’ve been meaning to talk it up for ages–with her permission of course. It’s a very smart tool for looking at story on a scene by scene basis. Across the top are a series of categories, each with it’s own column and description.

The top row looks like this-reading from left to right:

1. Blank
2. Scene Functions:
3. Scene Plot
4. Story Plot
5. Character
6. Emotion
7. Senses
8. Info/Worldbuilding
9. Going Beyond/Literature
10. Blank

The second row has corresponding descriptions for each column. So:

1. Blank.
Scene

2. Scene Functions:
Description (of scene function)

3. Scene Plot
What are characters’ immediate goals? What conflicts are set up or resolved?

4. Story Plot
How does this scene advance or hinder characters’ long-term goals?

5. Character
What’s revealed or demonstrated about characters? Do they grow or change?

6. Emotion
What emotions is this scene intended to elicit?

7. Senses
What senses have you engaged?

8. Info/Worldbuilding
What necessary or cool information is given to the reader?

9. Going Beyond/Literature
What elevates this above narrative? Illuminating metaphor, wicked description, elaboration on theme(s), etc.

10. To Do

The first column then has a list of scenes by chapter running from top to bottom, 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, for however many chapters and scenes are appropriate.

This allows the writer to look at each scene and how many of the goals it meets in an eyeblink and also to do a more in depth analysis of the piece on a topic by topic or scene by scene basis. As a spreadsheet it also allows for the writer to easily expand the number of topics covered.

One could add a column listing all the characters who appear in each scene as a tool to see whether some characters could be merged or eliminated. Or in a novel with many points of view, a column that says who is the POV character for each scene might allow for tying some sense or tag to each character to make sure that is engaged in each scene from their POV.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 12 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging

July 13, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

I iz same size as hole, I fits!

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You just keep telling yourself that…

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This is what fitting looks like.

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Who needs to fit when there iz laps?

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You’re all unfit!

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Bonus drawer full of ebil!

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