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

Conception to Completion (pt. 3 of 3)

May 9, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

The Final Installment--in which the book gets finished and a party is thrown.

Further Chapters: This happens concurrent with the following section. In essence it’s very simple, put in-scene the narrative you’ve developed. In practice it’s messy. You may find out that one of your clever ideas doesn’t work. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to find a good critic to read your working draft, they may point out things that need to be changed to make a better story. For one novel not all that long ago, I scrapped two chapters worth of working outline and started over. I kept some of the same events, but shifted the emphasis and removed the supporting characters entirely to emphasize the central role of the protagonist.

Advanced Blocking: This may or may not be necessary depending on your own individual process. I find that when I’m having trouble with a scene it usually means that I need to take a step back from the actual writing and figure out what I’m trying to achieve with a scene and how best to achieve it. So I might put together something like “Chapter 12, Scene one” with a description of what I want to happen and why, then follow with “scene two,” etc. until I’ve fully blocked out the chapter.

Finish/Clean-up/Ongoing Rewrite: Once the first draft is finished (if you haven’t already) it’s time to go back and clean up any messes made by the changes that will inevitably have drifted in from the initial conception and do things like throwing in foreshadowing for a scene not originally anticipated. A person can also do all of this as they go, going back and inserting whatever adjustments that need to be made as soon as they occur, and this is actually the model I follow though I don’t necessarily recommend it. For many writers what it leads to is a dead stall where they are continually rewriting their first chapters and never actually moving forward.

Celebrate: This is key. If you’ve finished a book you owe yourself a dinner out at the very least, and possibly a blow-out party.

A Final Note: I can’t emphasize enough that this is only one way to reach the goal of a finished book. I know writers who have no idea what’s going to happen with the story from day-to-day and who just “follow my characters around and see what happens” and who write excellent novels. I know writers who would be paralyzed by my model, sinking hundred of hours into blocking and outlines and not working on the text at all. Think of this as one possible starting point. Use the parts of it that make sense or help you move forward, discard those that don’t.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 24 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Conception to Completion (pt. 2 of 3)

May 8, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

Part 2–in which I talk about actually starting work on the book. Okay so this is a bit of cheat because I do do some of the initial writing in tandem with the earlier stuff.

Three Chapters: At some point in the process, beginning as early as halfway through basic blocking or anywhere thereafter, I need to actually start writing the book so that I can get a handle on who my characters are and the style I’m going to use to write the story. I find that I am often surprised about some of the details of the story and characters both here and later, despite the fact that I have a very good idea of what the story will look like in overview. I typically start these chapters during the blocking process and finish them in tandem with the basic narrative outline as the two inform each other.

Note: Three is not entirely an arbitrary number, because the basic book proposal format is three chapters (~50 pages) and a detailed narrative plot outline. As a writing tool, three chapters is purely a suggestion as it may well take longer than this to really figure out where the story is going to go and how it will get there. In an adult-length novel ~100,000 words, I will usually nail this down somewhere between 15-20,000. First time authors would be advised to have a completed manuscript before submitting the proposal version in any case.

Working Outline: This is a very different critter from the narrative outline. Here my goal is not to tell the story to a third party reader, but rather to blueprint it for myself. It will include both the events of the story and the structural reasons for those events. So, it might include something like “Draft student into school. Establish teachers, also the student TAs.” This tells me that at this point in this chapter I need to write several short scenes showing my lead character in his classes. One of the purposes of these scenes is to establish some of my other characters and make them distinct. The depth of description in a working outline will vary widely from author to author, and should include everything that you think is important in the scene at the minimum level of detail necessary for you to remember it. This isn’t the story itself and all the time I spend here is time that I don’t have to work on the actual finished product. Generally, the more inexperienced the writer, the greater the detail they should put into this sort of outline.

A working outline should at the very least lay out all the major events. In my case, I like to lay it out chapter by chapter. For Black School what I did was looked at my first three chapters to get an idea of what my chapter length was going to be (this can vary wildly depending on the story) and then mapped it against the max number of words. YA is short: 30,000 at the low end up to 75,000 at the extreme high end. I chose to shoot for 60,000 as a ceiling and to bring it in shorter if possible. That meant 16-20 chapters. Just getting in all the events listed in the narrative outline took about 14 chapters leaving me 2-6 chapters for unexpected surprises. I determined this by looking at the events in the narrative outline and seeing how much space they had taken up in my three demonstration chapters. This is an extremely inexact science, as one event might be a paragraph in narrative because of its importance, but only a short scene in text, while another might be a sentence in narrative, but a chapter and a half in text.

To Be Continued (As always YMMV)

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 24 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Conception to Completion (pt. 1 of 3)

May 7, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

How do you put together a novel? There are 1,001 and one ways, every one of them right. I thought I’d talk about how I do it in hopes that it might be of some use to others, or at least a good place to have a discussion of ways and means. So here’s the first part of my process using the book Black School as my model.
Before I start writing the actual book.

Conception of idea: What do you want to write about? This is question one. In my case I usually start with a world or magic system. Starting with a character or a scene or a situation all work too. It helps if you can articulate the idea in a sentence–I want to write about ___________. Or a pitch “World War II with sacrifice magic and dark fey Nazis” for example. That’s a gross oversimplification, but when I say it, my listeners will have an instant sense of where I’m going, and so do I.

Basic blocking: Write out the idea in some detail. Shoot for at least two to five single spaced pages. Put flesh on the bones of the one-sentence description above. Try and think through the ramifications of the ideas, i.e. How would a military magic school work when the magic is built around sacrifice? How big a school? How many students? How many teachers? Where is the school? What is its relationship with the local military? Etc.

By the time I reached the end of this process for The Black School I knew the number of buildings on the campus and what their purpose and design was, my total student body, student rank in relation to general military, class schedule, dorm arrangements, etc. That let me open the first day of the book knowing where my lead character had to be and when, if he followed his schedule. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I needed to know, but it gives the flavor. I come back to this and add to it all through the writing of the novel as more details become clear.

Narrative Outline: What is my actual story? In my case I started with a solid idea of where I wanted the story to start, where I wanted it to end, what kind of general transformation I wanted in my main character, and who that character was. That’s a good start for this model. Other models can work just as well and may mean knowing a lot less about the overall story.

For the narrative outline I typically end with a five page overview (standard length in 12pt Courier). In this case, a page on the school, magic system, and main character, to set the scene. Then I started with my opening scene and wrote a very loose description of events over the next four pages, introducing new characters as they came into the story.

The outline had to answer the following questions: What does the main character want? What do they need? What are they going to get? What obstacles do they have to overcome to get there? What do they have to give up to get what they need? How are they going to fail on the way? Failure is key to plot. If the main character doesn’t fail from time to time, then there’s no dramatic tension or payoff when they succeed.

The final version of the narrative outline should tell the main points of the story in a voice as close to the actual fiction as possible.

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

Where do I get my ideas?

May 6, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

I build them.

I can’t say how tempting it is to end there, but I won’t.

This is one of those perennial questions that all writers get and it’s surprisingly hard to answer in a way that satisfies both the person who asked and yourself. But here goes.

The initial fragment of an idea for one of my stories or novels could come from anywhere: old research, a dream, a conversation at a con, two apparently unrelated words clicking together in my head. But that’s not a story, that’s a starting point. The real work happens when I take that moment, whatever it is, and start sticking bits onto it and asking, “well yes, but then what happens?” Or, “all right, that’s cool, what else can I throw into the stew?”

Goblin + laptop isn’t a story, but it popped up in my head as an interesting combination of concepts. Make it a laptop that becomes a goblin and is the familiar of a sorcerer and you start to get there. Add that the sorcerer is a hacker who uses code to cast spells and combine it with a parallel worlds story where the worlds are accessed as you would webpages, using the medium of the goblin/laptop and you have the seed of the WebMage books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 18 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


More on Self-Promotion, Some Numbers

May 4, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project

I’m unconvinced that anything besides writing more and better books has much of significant impact on career/sales, and the more I learn about the business, the more that I feel that way.

Self-promotion can have a sales spike effect. Of that I have no doubt. But how big a spike? And how important is that spike in relation to the kinds of numbers involved in a successful book or, more importantly, a successful career? Take my first book. In the first six months I sold an average of 75 copies* a day every day. That earned out my advance plus ten percent.

This is fabulous and I’m delighted. But in order to have any real impact on sales (the kind of impact that would really change advances or earnings) I’d need to find something that would improve that by a minimum of something like ten books per day every day for a similar period. To have a career that will allow me to survive without a second job (which most writers have) or a spouse who is the primary source of income and insurance (my case) I would need to sell at least 150 books a day every day for the rest of my life +inflation. To make a decent living I’d need to make that something more like 300 books a day. To crack six figures it’d have to be ~800 books a day.

I would love to believe that I could come up with a self-promotional effort that would have a several hundred books per day kind of impact on my sales and that wouldn’t eat up so much time that it would counterproductive in terms of producing the next book (or preferably the next several books).

However, I’m pretty sure that if I take the same amount of effort that kind of promotion-driven sales bump would require and apply it to writing, I can produce a complete extra book (or even two). Given that the best promotion that I know of is to have another book come out, one that’s as good or better than the last one, that seems like a simple bet. Especially when you consider that in addition to a new book’s impact on backlist a new book generates its own sales to add to that per day number, and it will hopefully help me build a personal brand as a fast reliable author (both with publishers and readers).

So currently that’s where I’m focusing my main effort–writing spec books in the gaps between contract books. Will it work better than all the other self-promo stuff? I don’t know for sure, but I personally find writing more books both more rewarding and more quantifiable than any other promotional effort I could engage in–I love writing, that’s why I do this.

Of course, that’s not going to be everybody’s answer and I completely respect people who’ve chosen to do more self-promotion than I have, but it’s just not my thing.

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

Slow Going

May 3, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Whining, Writing

2013 Update: This is part of my reblog series, though it’s one I waffled about throwing in. I don’t think it’s all that useful in terms of being a helpful process post, but I do think it’s probably worth throwing in as an example of things that don’t change. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at this or how fast you normally write. There are always slow times, and they’re always frustrating. Witness my past three weeks. Sigh.

I don’t think there’s a writer alive who doesn’t find themselves wishing they wrote faster. If not in general, then on this or that day or project. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a slow writer or, as in my case, a relatively fast one, you always wish you could go a little faster. That’s how the third WebMage book has been going for me.

Last week and much of the week before that I was sick.

The week before was a travel week with three days eaten up on the road.

The week before that I was getting the final draft of my previous novel off to my agent.

The week before that was spring break and Laura was home instead of teaching. Even after 18 years, having her around distracts me from writing–I tend to spend a lot of time just being happily aware of her when she’s around.

And that’s a month of slow production, and there was another slow month before that. I’m just under half way through the novel after 3 months which is a bit over half the rate I’d hoped for and a third of my max production rate. It’s very frustrating.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 1 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


Friday Cat Blogging, FimbulWinter Edition

May 3, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

What the hell is that white stuff coming from the sky? It can’t be snow, it’s May!


Wait, what now? That can’t be right.

There is no snow on the couch. There is no snow on the couch.

There is no snow on the couch…….

Ima sleep here and be cute till it goes away. ‘kay?

Jus’ having a little confab with Mr Toilet brush. I whiskey there was shnow. Hic.

At last my eebul plans come to fruition. FimbulWinter is begun. I can reveal my true…

Wait, I’ve just been informed I’m not Loki God of Eebul. Damn. Wake me for summer.

Admitting to Writing

May 1, 2013 in Musings, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

A few weeks ago Miss Snark had this to say Don’t ever talk about your novel socially until it’s published. Ever. here. She followed it up with this post in which she expanded upon her thesis.

In general I’m in complete agreement with Miss Snark, but I just don’t buy this one for a number of reasons, some of which may be genre specific. 2013 update: Exactly six years on I find this even more ridiculous than I did at the time.

1. I’m an F&SF author, and making the rounds of cons and talking about your work in progress is a big part of career development.

2. I wrote full time for a while before selling a novel. If I hadn’t talked about the novels I was writing I’d have had an awfully hard time explaining what I did during those years, since most people you meet will at some point ask you what you do.

3. Much of my social circle is now made up of professional and aspiring novelists and English professors. Talking about unpublished novels is a huge part of the normal conversation. It was not always this way, but developed in part because of a willingness on my part to both talk about my work and to welcome other writers into my life.

My life wouldn’t be nearly as rich if I hadn’t always been willing to talk about my writing. Further, those aspiring novelist connections really helped me get through some rough times on the way to publication.

On the other hand, I don’t think I talked about my first novel socially before it was finished, and that I would highly recommend.

It’s an interesting topic, and one made more so by the massive amounts of support her pronouncement generated in the comments thread. I’m wondering whether that’s about her audience, genre, or what.

2013 update: I’m going to pull out and edit some of my comments from the thread that followed as well, since they expand and clarify my thinking.

Comment 1) If you read the whole comment thread and the surrounding context it becomes pretty clear that Miss Snark’s not just talking about pitches to agents in inappropriate places (which is not just rude, but stupid and actively counterproductive to boot). She’s pretty clearly talking about discussing your writing to anyone anywhere outside of a business setting. Later she says this:

“It’s rude. It’s rude to talk about something no one else knows about or can read. Like showing your vacation slides…the only person really interested in how good a time you had is …that’s right: you.”

and this:

“I don’t care if you think it’s ok to do this. It’s not. Not ever. If you think you’re the exception, you’re not.”

I will concede that my first point falls into one of her exceptions. However, 2 and 3 are very clearly outside her acceptable window.

The comparison to asking for legal advice or medical advice only holds for the instance of the inappropriate pitch, which I won’t defend. A more appropriate comparison would be to say that a doctor may never talk about medicine at that bar or barbeque or whatever. Likewise the lawyer may never talk about the law.

I find this simply silly as I have discussed medicine, med-school and medical issues with doctor friends at any number of social settings. Likewise, I regularly talk about writing and works in progress at social events. The idea that one would exclude the possibility of talking about one’s work at any social setting is frankly ridiculous.

Oh, and though I’ll concede the point on cons as business events, they’re also social events and its the social side that is much more likely to see me talking about my writing–as opposed to panels where I’m mostly talking about the specifics of the panel topic.

Comment 2) If for example she said: “You should never pitch an editor or agent that you happen upon in a purely social setting. Never.” I’d mostly be right there with her. As I said above, it’s not just rude, it’s also stupid and may well close a door forever.

But she very specifically says don’t tell anyone, not just don’t pitch agents at dinner parties. Four of six points are pretty clearly addressed to the idea of telling no one, not just not telling publishing professionals. This is made clear by the fact that she explicitly names publishing professionals in points 5 and 6.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 1 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


Generic Universal Blog Post

May 1, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Silly

Clever title

Paragraph describing brilliant idea/latest (your area here) slap fight/cool new internet meme.*

Paragraph explaining relevance of same.

Paragraph relating topic to personal experience or expertise.

Pithy summation.

Appeal to readers to do the rest of your work for you.

*or insider joke for regular readers…like this footnote.

Patience is a Virtue…Arghh!

April 30, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Publishing, Reblogging Project

A comment by CJD in one of my Wyrdsmiths posts back in 2007 included this: “the struggle is with embracing that kind of strange patience (embracing uncertainty and ‘no applause,’ as the Buddhists say).” It got me thinking about writing and patience and the fact that it’s one place I am quite Zen.

One of the first things I learned back when I started down the writing road was how to be genuinely patient about things I had no control over and the corollary skill of figuring out which things I do and don’t have control over. It’s an important skill for a writer to try to develop.

I don’t have control over how fast editors will respond to my stories. I do have control over how many stories I have in the mail, and who gets what when. I don’t have control over whether or not a given market will buy a book of mine. I do have control over how good the book is.

At one point this led my father-in-law to comment on my being a type z* personality. The specific incident that made him say that had to do with a waitress having forgotten to get my order in with the cook so that my food failed to come at the same time as everyone else’s. My response was just to smile and tell her to get it to me when she could. I don’t have control over when my food comes. I do have control over whether or not to let it raise my blood pressure.

I get a lot of questions from friends and family about when will I see covers, copyedits, royalties, etc. I can usually answer these questions with educated guesses based on contract language, past experience, etc. and if asked I will dredge up the information, but I don’t think about it much otherwise. I’m not sure, but I think this drives some of them crazy—that I have to work to give them such important information and that it doesn’t seem to interest me.

But those are all whens that I can’t control, so there’s very little point in worrying about them or even thinking about them. Things I can control are how I react to the cover when it comes, when I turn in my copyedits relative to my deadline, and what I’ll do with any royalties.

This is not to say that I don’t get impatient, just that I try very hard not to. In my case that means learning not to think about the things I can’t control, and to focus intensely on the ones that I can. It’s something midway between denial and low grade meditation. I’m sure there are other ways of handling the issue of writer’s patience, but that’s what works for me.

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

*subsequent events have caused my father-in-law to rethink that one, as it’s not that I’m type z it’s just that the hyperfocused version of me mostly comes out when I’m sitting at my laptop with no witnesses.