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

Rejects and Rejectomancy

April 25, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

Rejectomancy is the art of reject divination, or trying to figure out what the editor or agent really meant from the few short sentences of the rejection letter. By and large it is a fruitless and frustrating pursuit, especially with form letters. And even with personal rejections it’s not a great idea, though some of those can be quite clear. That’s because what a reject means is very simple:

This story did not work for this editor on this day. That’s it.

The best illustration I’ve ever had of this principle comes from a mistake I made, emphasis on the word “mistake,” as in do not do this.

I have something like 400 rejections to date. One of them is for a story later sold to that same editor at that same magazine with no rewrite—FimbulDinner to George Scithers at Weird Tales. At the time I had something like 25 stories out making the rounds. When you have dozens of stories going to dozens of magazines and anthologies with wildly different response times, careful bookkeeping becomes very important.

I’m pretty good at these things and keep a spreadsheet with pages arranged by story, by market, and by editor. Unfortunately, I somehow failed to log the particular rejection in question (a personal). As mentioned above, George had bought other stories of mine and he was actively looking for me to submit more.

At the World Fantasy Convention a few weeks later he asked me what I was sending him next. Having failed to log this particular story, and having forgotten he’d rejected it, I mentioned the title, gave him a two sentence pitch and promised to drop it in the mail ASAP.

So, I did that. Then about two weeks later, I stumbled on the rejection in my to-file stack and realized what had happened. Aiee! I thought. This was and is a significant faux pas. So, I quickly banged up a note admitting to and apologizing for my mistake and offering to pull the story. It crossed with the acceptance and contract in the mail.

Same story, same editor, different day, different result.

I am not suggesting that anyone should resubmit a story to an editor who has already seen and rejected it, far from it. I screwed up. I also got lucky.

So, the moral of the story is: reject = not for this editor on this day, send it on to the next one. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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

The Spanish Exposition-Outlines (A Cautionary Note)

April 24, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

During  my original run of outline posts over at Wyrdsmiths, my friend and fellow author Lyda Morehouse brought up something that I felt was quite important

Lyda said. “It might not matter what you call it, but when I first started writing novels I felt I HAD to outline like that and it pretty much scared the crap out of me.”

This is the most important thing to know about outlines:

If outlines don’t work for you, or if you need to call them something else, or construct them in a different way—say as clusters of words on a whiteboard, do that. There are a 1,001 ways to write a novel, every one of them right. If something works for you, do it. If not, don’t let anyone tell you that it should. Move on and find something that does work. Everything we say here is meant by way of suggesting things that may help, not as laying out the one true path to novel success.

Lyda does things in her process that would drive me over the edge and vice-versa and yet both methods produce novels that sell. The only thing that really matters processwise is that you write and that you finish at least some of what you write.

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


The Spanish Exposition-Outlines (Part II)

April 22, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

Outline, a personal lexicon:

Sketch/Brainstorm: When I have a new idea for a story I always write it down in brief and tag on ideas for expanding the idea into something with a plot, characters, and fully realized setting. This can run anywhere from three sentences for a short or poem to two or three pages for a multi-book idea. I have hundreds of these in my ideas file, including probably 30-40 novel outlines sufficiently fleshed out to start writing.

Working: When I actually start in on a new project I take the sketch outline and expand it to something that gives me a good idea of the first third of the story, a rough idea of the middle bits and a good handle on the ending. How much work this is depends on how fully fleshed out the sketch outline was. This will typically run around 3-5 pages and include notes to myself along with the narrative paragraph blocks–things like “establish ruthlessness in dialogue here,” or “she will return in book two as a ghost.”

Timeline: In order to keep the days of the week, dates, moon phases, holidays, etc. organized, I almost always create a timeline for each novel with important events attached to specific days and dates and sometimes times of day or other time indicators. I do this both for the arc of the story and for historical and future events relative to the story. That last part is where it becomes more like other outlines as I use this as another type of sketch/brainswtorming tool.

Ongoing: As I’m writing, I constantly update the working outline with ideas for upcoming bits of business, plot points, character nuggets, and magic system chunks. At some point, generally when I hit the place where the working plot goes all sketchy I will sit down and lay out a chapter-by-chapter scene-by-scene outline for what happens from there to the end of the book. This can run as much as 30 pages single spaced.

Length: This is a specialized form of ongoing outline. By the time I move to the ongoing outline I generally have a very good idea of the book’s natural chapter length which can vary widely depending on all sorts of factors including number of POV characters, type of POV, and target audience–I generally write shorter chapters for YA. What this allows me to do is take my ongoing outline and figure out how long the book is likely to be based on chapter length and how much material needs to go into each chapter and scene. More importantly, it allows me to add or subtract story elements to help me achieve a target length–I’m usually within a thousand words of target length when I finish a draft. Since writing to length can be very important to editors and for specific markets, this is an enormously valuable tool and simple to use. Do I have too many chapters? Collapse some scenes and ideas together. Do I not have enough, open some scenes out into full chapters or add others to achieve effects I hadn’t thought I’d have room for.

Narrative/Proposal/Pitch: This is largely a sales tool, though I also use it to do brainstorming/sketch work for books that are part of a proposal but not yet written. These have to have a very specific form and often have set lengths–particularly for newcomers to the field. They can run from 1-5 pages either single or double spaced depending on submission guidelines and they must be in present tense (with the exception of quoted material from the book). They also can’t keep secrets.

2013 Update: The last couple of books I’ve pretty much taken the narrative outline and worked off that, with with my ongoing outline done as voice notes and bits thrown into the text at the end of the book, and my timeline bits tossed into the master timeline for Fallen Blade. After novel fifteen (Broken Blade) I moved into a looser process. I still use all the processes described here, I’ve just gotten much better at doing them in my head.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 28 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging

April 19, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

LASER treat tracking systems emgaged.

There were treats and nobody woke me?

You snooze, you no gets treats. Sorry. Iz because rulez.

Did someone say zomezing aboutzzz…oh, never mindzzz  zzzzzzzzzzzzz


I have nothing but disdain for your petty cute picture taking ways, thumb-monkey.

What the heck? Someone said treats. Then there were naps, and now no treats. Confuzed.

I am not a cat, more like a very small dragon, but I too like treats….

Dragon? Hmph, I eat dragons for breakfast.

The Spanish Exposition-Outlines (Part I)

April 19, 2013 in Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

I started to write a comment in Sean Michael Murphy’s post on outlines, but it quickly turned into Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch—my chief use of outline is as a book writing tool…book writing tool and book selling tool..selling and writing… My two main uses for an outline are book writing and book selling…and structuring. My three uses are… and so on. Now it’s become so big that I’m actually going to do it as a two or three part front page post.

Over the years I’ve become a militant outliner. My first two books were written off the cuff, and though I still love the bones of both stories, I can see how knowing where I was going from the beginning would have produced a better end product. My third had a crude outline, and my fourth had a cruder one. Since then, I’ve gotten steadily more efficient and focused with outlines and it’s led to big improvements in writing speed and quality.

Brief digression: I hated outlining in college. Absolutely hated it. I would go to great lengths not to have to write outlines for papers, even going back and writing outlines post paper in classes that required them so that it looked as though I had followed the desired process. To all the professors who tried to get me to outline back then, mea culpa, you were right, I was wrong.

2013 update: second brief digression. The last couple of books I haven’t outlined as completely on paper, but that’s mostly because I can hold an entire book in my head much better now, and I do much of my outlining as voice notes these days.

Back to the main topic. I use many different types of outlines in my work (updated to add timeline):


These each have their own foibles and uses, and I’ll get into that in part II tomorrow.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 28 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Story and Sleep

April 18, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Reblogging Project

I’m an insomniac. Let’s start with that. Sleeping is a skill I’ve never fully mastered and I am subject to both going to sleep too late and waking up too early, as well as occasional bouts of being awake in the middle. In general this is no fun, and actually in specific as well, now that I think about it.

But what does this have to do with writing you might ask. And it’s a reasonable question. I’m not entirely sure it has anything to do with writing, but it definitely has to do with being a writer, or more specifically a storyteller. Not only do I tell stories literarily (my writing) and socially (at parties) but I tell stories to myself in a more or less continual stream.

Someone smiles at me as they drive past me on the freeway? I automatically make up all sorts of things to explain the smile. I can’t help myself, given any starting point and something unknown, my brain starts filling in the gaps. This is one of the two chief sources of insomnia for me–the other being problem solving–I can’t get my brain to shut up and quit telling stories. I seem to need the damn things.

As with most storytellers, I am an avid consumer of storytelling (that might even be the root of being a storyteller–an impulse that says “well, if nobody else is going to tell me a story…). Often this leads to reading–yes, the horror, a writer who reads–quite often at night, when I might otherwise be sleeping. Because of this and the complete exhaustion of some life stress I made a discovery about three years ago.

I sleep better if I don’t finish reading the book. In fact, I can almost always go straight to sleep if I put it down at a cliffhanger moment. If, however, I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open but I still push on to the finish to see how it all ends, I will then spend the next several hours wide awake.

This is because (I think) when there’s still story left at the time I put the book down, my brain stays in happy reader mode–the story is still in the hands of the author and therefore it is not my problem. OTOH, if I finish the book, the storytelling part of my brain knows that the author is done and realizes that if it doesn’t do something right now the story will end! There will be no more story! Aiee!

And so my brain kicks into high gear telling a new story. It may be the story of what happens in the book after it ends, or it may be the story of what’s going to happen to the stupid cat who is sitting on my head. That part’s not really important. The important part is that story is once more my responsibility. I bring this up because last night, like an idiot, I finished the book.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 26 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Tastes Right

April 17, 2013 in Critique, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

I do all sorts of things as a writer and critiquer on the basis of how they taste to me, whether the words feel right in my mouth as I’m mentally speaking them—I always internally voice as I’m writing, perhaps because I came to writing from theater.

The best example of this comes from a critique I did for fellow Wyrdsmith Sean Michael Murphy. There was a sentence where I wanted one word changed—I don’t remember which one now, but that doesn’t really matter. It was one of a large number of suggestions. Sean was pretty happy with most of the suggestions, ignored some, and wanted to understand what I was thinking with others. This was one of those last and the conversation went something like this:

Sean: Why did you suggest this change? I think you’re right, but I’m not sure why.
Kelly: It just tasted better.
Sean: But why did it taste better?
Kelly: It just did.
Sean:…(waiting patiently)
Kelly: (unable to let the silence stay silent, begins mentally unpacking the process) Let me think about it…

It turned out that when pressed I had six separate reasons for wanting this one word changed. For me, the change reinforced something in the sentence, reinforced something in the paragraph, reinforced one of the story’s themes, amped up a plot point, showed a contrast between character voice pre and post traumatic event, and removed a slightly clumsy related word repetition.

I’ve found that’s usually the case when my brain says something tastes better rather than opting for a specific reason—my sub-conscious has a bunch of reasons to change something and is too lazy to articulate them all without being pressed. My new structural sense is definitely atasting thing because it’s hugely complex. I trust it in part because I know that the taste of something is very important for my process, but I still want to unpack it because I enjoy unpacking.

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

(Spidey) Sense of Structure

April 16, 2013 in About Kelly, Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

Writing can get easier. I won’t say that it does, because every writer has a different journey, but it can.

The good news, I’ve recently developed a strong sense of novel structure. The bad news, it’s still almost entirely intuitive rather than conscious. The worse news, it took 10 books. The better news, it seems to be shifting into a conscious process as I’m writing number 11.

I’ve had a pretty good handle on how to plot since my fourth book—the first three are decently-plotted, but it was a messy organic process. But I didn’t fully develop this structural sense until writing number 10, The Black School, + 30 or more outlines. I got inklings of it with number 8, Chalice, but it mostly blinked out for 9, Cybermancy. And now I’m occasionally managing to consciously invoke it for 11, MythOS.

This is a pretty typical development process for me in terms of learning how to do something in writing:

1. Consciously set out to learn how to do X
2. Beat my head against the wall on X
3. Lose track of the fact that I’m trying to learn X
4. Get compliments about how well I’m handling X
5. Notice that X makes sense to me intuitively—it tastes right*
6. Think about how I’m doing X
7. Bafflement
8. Forget that I’m thinking about how I’m doing X
9. Answer someone’s question about X and realize I now get it
2013 Updated to add:
10. Forget that I ever didn’t know how to do X
11. Forget how to explain X
12. Grrrrr

*Tastes right. I’ll talk about this in some depth with my next post.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 15 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project. In and effort to elicit comment at the old site, I wrote the bit that follows at the end. No response. This is one of the many reasons I have not enabled comments here at

Thoughts? Arguments? Digressions? Large purple groundhogs?

Writing Order /= Publishing Order

April 15, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

Update up front: I originally wrote this in 2007 when I had just finished my 10th novel and started my 11th. My 1st, which was also my 4th came out last year, and my 9th was going be my 2nd.

You with me so far? My 11th may well be my 3rd, but I’m hoping that my 12th won’t be my 4th, because there are several earlier books that I’d like to see sell and go to print before that and I might try to slip a 12th in before I write the 4th that’s currently sold.

It’s moderately complex now, and likely to get crazy over the next couple years, and that’s ignoring that some of the books were written concurrently. When you add in proposals and partials (which could be characterized as quantum manuscripts) it gets really loopy. So I thought I’d put it all down here as a memory aid and to illustrate an earlier discussion about why you can’t tell anything about writing speed from publishing speed.

Currently complete and projected novels in writing order (updated through 2013):

01. 1990 Uriel
02. 1991 The Swine Prince
03. 1992/1993 The Assassin Mage
04. 1998/1999 WebMage
05. 2001 Winter of Discontent
06. 2002 Numismancer
07. 2003 The Urbana
08. 2005 Chalice book 1
09. 2006 Cybermancy
10. 2006 The Black School
11. 2007 CodeSpell
12. 2008 MythOS
13. 2008 The Eye of Horus
14. 2009 SpellCrash
15. 2010 Broken Blade
16 2011 Bared Blade
17. 2011 Crossed Blades
18. 2012 Blade Reforged
19. 2013 School For Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr.
20. 2013 Drawn Blades
21. 2014 Darkened Blade
22. 2014 ?????

Currently complete or projected novels in tentative publishing order:
01. 2006 WebMage
02. 2007 Cybermancy
03. 2008 CodeSpell
04. 2009 MythOS
05. 2010 SpellCrash
06. 2011 Broken Blade
07. 2012 Bared Blade
08 2012 Crossed Blades
09. 2013 Blade Reforged
10. 2014 School For Sidekicks: The Totally Secret Origin of Foxman Jr.
11. 2014 Drawn Blades
12. 2015 Darkened Blade

But any of the following could end up in print between #2 and #4 (2013 update: That was the 2007 order and projection—now Uriel is out of the lineup, though some of the others might get slotted in somewhere after Blade Reforged but before Darkened Blade)

Winter of Discontent
The Urbana
The Black School (goes to my agent in March)

Plus there are proposals which could get written at any time
Chalice books 2-4
The Eye of Horus (proposal—now complete)
The Shadow in the Blood (proposal)
2013 update adding a few more books in pontentia:
The Hand of Light (Black School III)
Aqua Vitae (series proposal)
Mirror Duel (series proposal)
Nightmare Academy
The Uncrowned Prince (series proposal)

And partials which may or may not ever get written (still true)
Outside In
Ave Caesar (mystery)

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

Jade Dragon: A Tragedy in Doggerel

April 15, 2013 in Silly, Writing

In the year of the Falling Yeti in the century of Eviscerated Yak, the only jade dragon that has ever graced our world died, taking a perilous beauty with her. Due to the heresies of the Staggering Sloth cult five centuries later, all known pictures of the early dragons were destroyed.

Fortunately, the great poet Vash Tilborn was alive in the days of the dragon’s youth—a witness to her early glory, and the perfect man to describe her draconic magnificence.

Unfortunately, before he had the chance, he saw the transcendent dancer Aishen Bira dance her Portrait of a Jade Dragon. Whereupon, he put aside his quill and said that no mere words could paint the dragon as well the dance of Bira, and that he would not write of her.

Only one other poet was willing to venture onto the ground that Vash feared to tread. Some thirty years after the death of of Vash, Sjel Seastrand—known as The Incomparable for his ability to find exactly the wrong rhyme—laid down his own verses on the jade dragon.

The only contemporary art we have that references the most beautiful of all the dragons who have ever lived is this:

Jade Dragon:
She is big she is awesome.
Better than pig, better than possum.