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

Pitching Your Book Part III: Bite Sized Advice

April 3, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

Practical advice on writing synopses.

1. Learn how to do it. If your career ever takes off, it’s likely to be an important and painful part of your life.

2. This is easiest if you can A, write several of them in quick order, and B, get your hands on someone else’s synopsis to read and really thoroughly critique. Knowing what worked or didn’t work for you in someone else’s synopsis is a great learning tool. Doing this with several is better, and synopses that have sold books are probably best, especially if you can read the book at the same time. You needen’t ever give the critique to the author, that’s not why you’re doing it.

3. The normal structural stuff: one inch margins, double spacing, etc.

4. The abnormal structural stuff: Present tense. Five pages is standard for most synopsis requests. For pitch sheets one page, (single spaced!?!-what’s up with that?) is what I’ve been told is standard and how I do mine. different editors and agents often have different rules for these, so YMMV.

5. Dig through your favorite books. Read the dust jacket or back of book blurbs. Really study the ones that successfully represent the book in question. Try to write several of those for your book. Do the the same with the ones that strike you as bad. Pick the best of your sample and expand from there. Don’t try to trim it down from the book.

6. Again, what’s cool to you should drive the synopsis. But don’t forget plot, character, setting, and theme.

7. Try to write it in the same style as the book, not the same voice necessarily, but a funny book should have a funny synopsis.

8. Pace and swear. No really, this helps. So does a long walk away from the computer where you mutter to yourself about what your story is really about.

9. Call your writing buddies. If they’ve read the book, ask them what they thinks its about. This will be enlightening and possibly terrifying. If they haven’t read it, tell them about it. Remember what you’re telling them and use it.

10. Treat yourself when you’re done. The job sucks and you deserve a pat on the back.

11. It goes to eleven!

12. Write the one sentence version. Expand from there.

13. If you outline, grab the outline and trim it to the right size. Then edit for tone and format.

14. The rules can sometimes be bent. My WebMage outline was ten pages double spaced. Both agent(s) and editors were cool with this. Don’t try this at home, i.e. without the approval of your agent if you’ve got one.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 2 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


Pitching Your Book Part II: Building The Pitch

April 2, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

Synopses suck. Really, they do. It’s pretty much a truism that if you the writer could have condensed what you wanted to say down to five pages, you’d have written a short story. So, we’ll just take as a given that you are going to lose a lot of detail in the process of converting your baby into its operating instructions. This is doubly true of pitch sheets (more on those later) and pitches, which have the added benefit of performance anxiety, a live audience, and any issues you personally have with public speaking.

So, first, the pitch. A pitch is the verbal version of the pitch sheet, which is your novel on a page, and worse, it begins with the tag line, also known as the one sentence version. Aiee!

There’s all sorts of advice out there on how to do this, what to include in the synopsis, proper format, etc. I’m just going to assume that if you want to look for those things you can, and focus on the key internal emotional context. If you can get that, the rest is an extremely aggravating exercise specific to the book.

What someone is really asking when they ask you about your book is not all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they’re asking is: Why should I read this book? What’s exciting about the story?

Now, you can never really pick out what will excite someone else about your work, because everyone outside your head interacts with your story in strange and mysterious ways. What you can pick out is what turns you on about the story. For example, I’m a world-driven writer. I do all the other things too, plot, character, theme, prose, etc, and as a part of a pitch or synopses I need to talk about those things. But at core, what gets me going is coming up with a cool world and exploring it through story.

It has been my experience that when I start with setting, and let my enthusiasm about the world drive the conversation, editors and other writers become involved in the conversation and interested in what I’m telling them. Contra, when I start with what I think they want to hear, I bomb.

So, with my novel The Black School, I might start out with “It’s an alternate World War II novel set in a world where industrial scale black magic— sacrifice magic—has become the most important means of combat.” Then I’ll go on to give my audience some of the back story of the world because that’s where a lot of the cool is-like, there is no white magic, at least not at the beginning of the book.

After that, I’ll address the specific setting and the characters involved: The Black School, a young mage student, his mage girlfriend, the teachers, the enemy—shape changers from another dimension—etc. As I go along, I’ll also explain my themes: industrial impact on environment, the ethics of war, the implications of fighting a genuinely, verifiably, evil enemy, when does the end justify the means?

That’s all rough and off the top of my head as I sit here, but it’s also the product of a lot of practice. I’ve been answering the What’s it about? question for years on more than eighteen novels and dozens of short stories. Mostly those questions come from friends, family, and fellow writers, but that’s all to the good. If you practice with a friendly and genuinely interested audience, you’re going to have better results at crunch time.

The things you’re excited to tell your sci-fi buddies about your work should be the exact same things you’re excited to tell an editor or agent, because agents and editors aren’t the job, they’re people who are really interested in the same kinds of stories you are. Neither job is one that someone gets into without loving the genre (Note: the same is true no matter the genre). Run with that, talk about what excites you in the field and what you love about your story and others. You may not make the sale, in fact, considering the odds against any particular sale, you probably won’t. But you might make a friend and you’ll have a hell of lot more fun.

I’ll go into more specifics on pitch sheets and synopses later—though it looks like I may have to write a brand new part four to this series to do it, hmm.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog January 30 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

The Cultural Poison of April Fool’s Day

April 1, 2013 in Musings

This may seem strange coming from someone who makes a good bit of his living off writing funny stories and humor-heavy novels, but I think April Fool’s Day is pure cultural poison.

First off, many of the “jokes” that pass for humor on April Fool’s aren’t funny. As John Scalzi has noted, the failure mode of clever is asshole. An awful lot of the posts and stories that appear on April Fool’s are supposed to be clever but aren’t. What that makes them is an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader.

But it’s not just that so many April Fool’s pranks fail, and fall into asshole mode because of it. It’s that so many of them start in asshole mode even when they’re successful. The bulk of April Fool’s jokes are premised on the idea that some number of readers/viewers will fall for them. The punchline is “Ha ha, you bought this crap we’re selling, you’re an idiot.” The goal is humiliation, and that’s not funny. It’s cruel.

Much of it is also asymmetric in the worst way, pranks played by the powerful on the powerless. News organizations printing false stories that some small number of their readers will buy into. When a “joke” consists of some powerful media entity making John Doe look like an idiot, that’s the powerful afflicting the powerless. Even when the asymmetry is smaller, say a moderately well known media figure privately jerking their fans around, it’s punching down. Good humor punches up or in.

Finally, April Fool’s humor tends to pollute the public information stream. Some people believe the joke, and never ever get over that, and they propagate it forward over and over again. Others deliberately misuse the dross created for April Fool’s. Photoshopped pictures or links back to articles that never get updated with an April Fool’s tag will be injected into the public conversation to intentionally enrage or discredit. The internet is forever, and a gag put up by the AP or the NYT can continue to bite people in the ass for years after the day. Scientists and others will have to spend valuable time debunking these things again and again. Time that could otherwise be spent on advancing knowledge will be routed into cleaning it up.

I guess it’s really not all that strange that April Fool’s pisses off this writer of humor. Most of the jokes of the day are bad for one reason or another. As someone who strives to craft the good kind of jokes, the poorly crafted or cruel variety that is marketed as humor on April Fool’s devalues the very idea. And that pisses me right the hell off.


Pitching Your Book Part I: The Elevator Pitch

April 1, 2013 in Publishing, Synopses Etc., Writing

This will be a multi-post discussion of pitching, pitch sheets, synopses, and proposals, none of which are much fun for most writers.

We’ll start with the elevator or, personal, pitch. Why do it at all? That’s the first question since it’s really the book that makes the sale. What’s the point? I’m not too fond of them myself, for reasons I’ll explain below, but here are a number of reasons why you might want to do this.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows a writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting their own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help a writer feel that they’re not up against some giant inhuman system and make them feel empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give their novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on the writer’s skills on that front—a related but not identical skill to novel writing—they could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they’re interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I’m sure there are many other reasons, and I’m sure some of you could name them.

Okay, so here’s my promised explanation of why I don’t like to pitch my novels. First off, I’m a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I’d have stayed in theater. I really really don’t miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I’m not fool enough to decline to talk about it, and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That’s because if I have to improvise on the subject of novels I turn into a babbling cretin. The question “What’s your novel about?” induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into “wit” mode and tries to say things like “it’s about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?” This is not a smart idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor’s nightmare, when the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it’s in a terribly important performance and that it doesn’t know its lines!

Then there’s the writer half of my brain, which immediately starts whining to itself. “If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.” This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice—or at least that’s what my internal writer voice says.

Basically, without proper preparation, it’s all bad. The separate parts of my brain make horrible individual decisions and then start yelling blame at each other when it all goes to shit.

So, what should you do when you’re on the spot? I’ll talk about that next time in part II, Synopses Suck.

This post was originally written in part to respond to a thread over at making light. In the original thread there was some discussion of the pluses and minuses, real and perceived, of pitching a book to an editor.

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

Coming from Theater (improv)

March 30, 2013 in About Kelly, Reblogging Project, Writing

This is going to be another Kelly is a strange monkey post. As in, “I’m not like the other monkeys,” or at least many of them. I didn’t come to writing from English, or Creative Writing, or even Script Writing. I came from theatrical performance with a heavy emphasis on improv. I worked Ren Fests for a decade and rode the circuit for a year or two. There seem to be a couple of places where this background either informs or drives my take on writing in a very different direction from what I see in many other writers’ process posts.

First, rejection and bad reviews. I don’t much like them, but they don’t hit me nearly as much hard as they get to many other writers. I think that’s because I’ve bombed on stage and failed pretty spectacularly at auditions. I’ve been rejected personally. Me. Not my written work filtered and refined and sent out, but me, in the flesh and immediately. In improv you can’t even blame bad material, because its yours and you’re making it up on the spot.

Second, I don’t have a preconceived idea of what the perfect finished product will look like. There is no platonic ideal of the story in my head that I have no hope of living up to. When I start a story, even one of novel length, I’m essentially doing guided improv. I know my situation and my punctuation points (things that have to happen for the story to work). I even have a pretty detailed outline. But I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get from scene A. to scene B. and I don’t know how I’m going to play them, poignant, bitter, darkly funny. That’s all business figured out on the fly and enormously fun to write.

My end product is usually much better than my initial idea because that idea was never anything more than a carefully crafted skeleton to hang all the bits on. And, if you just go by the skeleton you can to tell what the species is, but its hard to say whether you’re going to get my great aunt Hattie or Michelle Pfeifer. Also, because its improv, if I started over again from square one, I know that I might end up with Ethyl Merman instead.

Anyway, there’s nothing superior or inferior about my process. It’s just different enough that I thought it might be worth noting. There are a million ways to tell a story, all of them equally right or, I suppose, equally wrong.

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

Friday Cat Blogging

March 29, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Not sure what my thumbmonkey sees in this thing. No purrs. No furs. No fun.

I know, I know…wait, can someone help me untie my feets?

That which has been seen cannot be unseen. Not even yoga cat gone wrong.

I can’t find the off ramp from dis thumbmonkey! Keep having to circle its head.

We are not amused, but we are picturesque.

I’m getting too old for this shit, someone wake me when it’s time for my closeup.

Look, I is sphinx! Is like cat right? You blog me now?

Writing Speed

March 29, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

This was written at a time in 2007 when the current slapfight in the writing blogosphere had to do with whether or not fast writing can be good writing. I tend to feel that the question is at best irrelevant and at worst silly. Some writers write best when they’re writing fast, some when they’re writing slow. Also, using frequency of publication to decide whether someone is a fast or slow writer is virtually guaranteed to give you incorrect results.

I know people who publish less than one book a year, but actually write that book in a binge that takes about a month. I also know people who’ve put out three books in a single year where the writing has actually gone on over a decade. I know people who consistently write more than five good books a year. And I know people who write one good book over the course of 18-30 months working steadily. For the record, I’m a reasonably fast writer and working at getting faster. But that’s actually not so much a production decision (though that’s a factor) as it is a quality decision.

The stuff I write the fastest is also generally my best work. I’m less choppy in every way when I write five days a week and several thousand words a day. For the past few years that’s meant binge writing, where I do 15-30,000 words in a big chunk and then do life support stuff for a while. Some of my very best writing has been in the biggest binges and I’m wondering if I that doesn’t mean I should simply be writing more and more often. At the moment I’m gearing up to find out. At this point in 2013, I can say that the answer was more or less yes. Faster helped, though I’d still like to pick up the pace a bit more, and I am going to be experimenting with techniques designed to pick up my pace with the next Fallen Blade novel.

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

Rule Breaking

March 28, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Writing

One of the more important aspects of writing the fiction of the fantastic is the creation of internally consistent rules of magic. Whether the magic is of the sorcerous variety or the technological doesn’t matter for this formulation. As I’ve mentioned before, this has to do with the double charge against the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief due to the combination of the narrative being fictional and the world being one that is made up or extrapolated. For the reader to have the buy-in necessary for a successful reading experience, they need to feel that the logic of the world is compelling.

The funny thing about this is that another principal of successful story telling is rule breaking. This isn’t always the case, but in much of heroic or romantic fiction, the protagonist is going to end up having to overcome some sort of impossible odds. Whether that triumph is against an unjust system, a BBE (Big Bad Evil) type villain, the obstacle to romance, or against his or her own inner demons doesn’t matter so much as the simple idea of overcoming. In order for that overcoming to be satisfying to the reader, they have to believe the seemingly mutually inconsistent ideas that the protagonist has no realistic chance at success and, at the very same time, that the protagonist is going to triumph and that good will win in the end.

A significant portion of the fun of reading an F&SF narrative is trying to figure out how that triumph is going to occur. In the best stories, not only is the reader surprised by the eventual resolution, but they are also able to look back from the end of the story and realize that the ending was completely set up by the preceding events and, in some ways, was almost inevitable. The best way for this to happen is for the author to set up the rules so that they are consistent and that a consistent application of them will doom the protagonist while simultaneously structuring them so that there is a loophole or some way to break the rules that is consistent with them that allows the protagonist to emerge triumphant at the end.

So, you’ve got to have consistent, believable rules. They have to apply throughout. They have to be constructed so that there is some way to break or avoid them that is also believable. Simple, no?

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog January 16 2007. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Individual Taste, Critique and Recusal

March 27, 2013 in Critique, Reblogging Project, Writing

One of the things I do as a part of my life as a writer is read and critique manuscripts for friends, students, proteges, and other writers of various sorts. This can be entertaining, educational, frustrating, and rewarding, all at once or by turns. Over 15 years of doing this, I’ve developed a number of personal rules on the topic. The main ones are these:

1. Always tell the truth.

2. Always be constructive.

3. Always try to help the writer achieve their goals. See also: Don’t try to make them write the story I would have written from the same premises.

4. Sometimes following rules 1-3 means recusing yourself.

2 is easy, 1 and 3 not so much, though 4 can help with that. Everyone has personal reading biases and tastes, things that work for them or don’t for reasons completely unrelated to the comparative success of the work. For example, most time travel stories don’t work for me. That includes any number of award-winning works that are loved by lots of other readers.

So, if someone gives me a time travel story and it’s not working for me, I don’t go into great scathing detail about the inherent problems of paradox and meaning. None of that is going to help the writer and it’s likely to aggravate both of us. Instead, I recuse myself and politely let them know that I’m not a good reader for this particular story. This can also be frustrating for both reader and writer, but hard experience has taught me this is much the better choice.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog January 13 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Pen Names

March 26, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project

There are five good business reasons to use a pen name. At the time I wrote this I believed the following to be true:* I am likely to write under multiple names for the first two, and it is possible that at some point I will be forced into the third, though I hope not.

Overpublishing (see H&F III below). You produce more novels than the market, in the form of your editor(s) are willing to let you publish. This can be because you’ve got a big back catalog that shouldn’t all be released at once, or because you’re simply a fast writer—more than two books a year. I definitely fall into category one, and I’m hoping to fall into two as well once I can get loose of some non-writing commitments and gear up to writing at the pace I think I can comfortably achieve.

And now, a digression (are you surprised? Didn’t think so). If you can write more than two books a year without a significant deterioration in the quality of your work, your chance for long term financial success as a writer is significantly increased. This is because, A, you get paid more on simple linear basis and it helps build a dedicated readership if you produce reliably and, B, a good part of writing income is a non-linear phenomena. Book advances can run anywhere from ~5,000 dollars (a typical advance for a new writer) to ~3-4,000,000-deep fantasyland for almost everyone but the tip-top sellers in the fiction markets. Advances are based on previous sales which are wildly non-linear. 20,000-50,000 copies is pretty good for a first book, and what a lot of writers sell each time out. However, every so often, for reasons that no one seems to understand, a book will hit the sweet spot in the reading public’s mind and take off like a rocket. It is not unlike winning the lottery, though the returns are generally lower in comparison to the work involved. And, of course, the more books you write and sell, the more chances you have to hit big.

Multiple Unrelated Genres or Styles. Say you write sweet sappy romances, dark vicious serial killer murder mysteries, and oblique literary fantasy. The readership overlap for these is not going to be huge, and if a reader of one of these stumbles on another by dint of looking your name up and ordering from the other genre, the cognitive dissonance may cause them to have trouble reading future books from the you they liked before. In my case, I’ve written high-fantasy farce, adventure fantasy with a humorous element, dark adventure fantasy, urban noir fantasy, and dark to very dark YA fantasy. If you add in short stories and partials, I’ve also written space opera, hard sf, psychological and fantastic horror, light murder mystery, romance and a variety of poetry. I guarantee that someone going from my farcical FimbulDinner short (WT #339) to The Black School’s ultra-dark WW II YA without any warning is going to feel a certain amount of whiplash.

Dead Name. Because of the way sales are now tracked and books bought, an author, even a multiple-award-winning author with decent if not great sales can end up in a position where the editor who loves their work can’t buy books from them under that name anymore. This leads to one of two choices, quit writing or use a new name. For people like me, who can’t not write, the choice is an easy one. It’s even one I’ve consciously planned for and, though some writers have trouble with the idea of writing under a name other than their own, I don’t. One of the reasons I’m seriously considering starting a pen name sooner rather than later is to try to establish multiple parallel careers from the get-go. For writers who choose this route there is a decision to be made in concert with their editor, which is: how open should I be about being multiple people? There are writers who use multiple pen names that everyone who wants to make even a modicum of effort can dig out. There are also writers who have pen names that are so secret that when the writer makes an appearance they do so under that name with no hint to anyone that they exist as any other person. And, of course, there are writers who fall everywhere in between.

Necessary Anonymity. This can come from having a dead name, mentioned immediately above, or from having a non-writing career that is incompatible with your literary work. For example, an author who writer fetish erotica as second career or hobby while working with children in the day job. This is one of those cases, where no matter how good and responsible the writer is in their day job, there is going to be a certain percentage of parents who would object violently to the idea.

Unpronounceable/Hard to Remember/Too Long for a Book Spine. I think this one is self-explanatory.

Other reasons. There are many other reasons why someone might choose to write under a pen name, but I think I’ve covered the bases for business choices. I’d like to note also that I’ve heard from a couple of editors that they prefer where possible to have writers write under their own names, and are somewhat suspicious of writers who “don’t want to put their name to their work.” Also, anyone submitting work under a pen name must include their real name with the submission. Names and pen names are authorial tools, use them well. And that’s all for now.

*These days, I am much less convinced that I would ever write under a pen name. The field has changed radically with the growth of indy publishing—writing under a pen name makes much less sense in a world where your career is much less dependent on finding a good publisher than it is on making sure your readers can follow your career wherever it goes.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 21st 2006, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)