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

Deciding Not To Quit

April 8, 2013 in About Kelly, Publishing, Reblogging Project, Writing

We had an interesting discussion at Wyrdsmiths the other night about not quitting writing. It was stimulated in part by a note in the acknowledgments of Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty and the Midnight Hour “to Dan Hooker for calling the day after I almost decided to quit.” It was something that resonated for me when I read it—I always read acknowledgments—so I brought it up at the meeting.

It was a moment all of us who were there had experienced at least once, and I suspect that almost any writer you talk to, no matter how well published, will be able to tell you about that moment. Maybe five times I’ve felt frustrated and depressed enough about the whole writing gig to seriously contemplate finding something else to do, but I’ve had only one true deciding not to quit moment.

It came in January 2005 right after a Wyrdsmiths meeting. At that point I had a good agent who believed in my work, more than 20 short stories either in print or forthcoming, 2 novels in the trunk and 5 out with various editors none of which had sold. I was also having major family stress and had seen a three book hard/soft deal that was over three years in the making fall apart at the last possible moment. That had happened a couple of months earlier and several editors had passed on the books involved since.

I was depressed, not clinically, but damn close, and I felt like 15 years of hard work had officially gone to hell. But worse, far far worse, I wasn’t enjoying writing. I was doing it—I can’t not—but I wasn’t taking the joy from it that I always had. For perspective, I’ve worked at art or entertainment my entire conscious life. I pursued theater in serious way from ages 11-22. When I was 23 I switched to writing and found the second great love of my life (my wife Laura is the first) and I never looked back. Not until January 2005.

So came, the meeting that sent me over the edge. The trigger doesn’t matter. It wasn’t about that, it was about me and writing. I drove home (an hour) getting more and more down the whole way. When I got in I went off to stare at the ceiling. For probably three hours I did nothing but think about how something I had loved and pursued for years had come to this and how I just wasn’t feeling the joy of it anymore. And I tried to figure out what else I could possibly do with my time—I was writing full time. And the answer was nothing. Nothing. There wasn’t anything else that appealed to me half so much.

I don’t know what I’d have done if something else had occurred to me. And the fact that nothing did was totally bleak at the time, because I felt like the only thing I wanted to do was going nowhere and would continue to go nowhere. But in retrospect it was a powerful moment. I had come to place where I realized that writing wasn’t just something I did that I could walk away from. It was who I was down in the bedrock, and I would keep at it no matter what.

The next day I got up and wrote, though I didn’t much enjoy it. And the next day. And the day after that. And somewhere in there I started to love the work again, and then WebMage sold and Cybermancy. In the last year and a half I’ve written three novels that I am damn proud of, one of which is hands down the best work I’ve ever done. And now, two years on, I’m finally loving writing with the same joy and deep passion that I found when I first started. 2014 edit: adding that seven years and eleven novels have passed since I wrote this and I’m more in love with writing than ever.

Deciding not to quit was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and one of the hardest. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 22 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Friday Cat Blogging

April 5, 2013 in Friday Cat Blogging

Despite appearances, this is a picture of cats hatching diabolical schemes

I’ve never hatched a diabolical scheme in my life.

She’s lying, you know.

I dream dreams of eeeeeevil!

Mmmmm, eeeeevil dreaming.

My diabolical schemes are totally better than theirs!

Amateurs, all of you, amateurs.


“Lie” vs. “Myth”

April 5, 2013 in Musings, Reblogging Project, Writing

Elizabeth Bear started me thinking about this with a post that is both fabulous and true for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. It’s about reading and writing and cultural expectations and the idea of epiphantic healing and I wanted to like it much more than I did, since it clearly touched a lot of people. But something about it didn’t work for me at a very deep level, and my subconscious has been picking at what that something is until this came out:

In the dungeon nothing is wild and free

Sometimes a myth is all that keeps you alive, a myth in the shape of a story or book. You can’t leave the dungeon. If you could, it wouldn’t be a dungeon. But stories are day passes that let you out for a time, myths that let you believe for a little while that there’s another kind of place, one where happily ever after really happens and that a moment of magic or insight can make the pain stop. When you’re in the dungeon you don’t need someone to tell you that those moments aren’t true, that pain doesn’t just go away, or that the magic moment is never going to happen. You know that.

What you need is very different from what you know. What you need is that day pass, that myth that allows you to believe that somewhere the reality of the dungeon is the myth, and the idea that it can all be made better is the truth. It’s the myth that keeps you sane, the myth that allows you to keep breathing every day, to hang on a little bit longer.

How you got into the dungeon isn’t as important as the dungeon itself, but I’m a storyteller, so I’ll tell you a little bit about one kind of dungeon.

It’s the dungeon of being a child who doesn’t have the power physically or legally to walk away from the situation that causes the pain. The pain doesn’t even have to be something that everyone would agree is awful, though often it is. All it has to be is unbearable and inescapable by normal means. When you’re in the dungeon, instant healing is not a “lie” it’s a “myth” and a reason to keep on keeping on. And with this particular dungeon sometimes you do get out, sometimes you grow up and you get the keys to the dungeon and you walk out into the light. And while the healing won’t actually be instantaneous or magical, that moment that you realize you’re out is, that epiphantic moment.

Sometimes a lie is a myth. Sometimes a lie keeps you alive long enough for myth to become truth. Again, for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. So, if people want to keep writing myths where breakage can get better in a moment, there’s an audience out there who really needs them.

Clearly Bear’s answer is right for her and for a lot of her readers. I just had to write this because some people need a different truth.


There was a lot of interesting and valuable writerly discussion that followed in the comments when I originally posted this in 2007. I’m going to include some portions of my comments here as they clarify and expand on my points, specifically in regards to a question raised by one of our commenters about character development and the idea that epiphantic healing leaves someone “untouched.”

I’m not actually talking about coming out untouched. I think that’s actually one of the chief spots where I disagree with Bear’s post, the idea that epiphantic healing means being returned to the initial state.

Now, it may be that I’ve missed all the books she’s talking about and she has missed the ones that I have read, but I have never seen characters made whole in a way that returns them to their initial state.

That would miss the entire point of character development and maturation that goes on in the vast majority of stories, and I don’t know of a single  author outside of certain types of media tie-ins (where they’re not allowed to significantly change the characters) who does healing as reset.

What I usually see in epiphantic healing is a step forward into a new state of wholeness, not a step back into the old.

Another thought. Maybe it has to do with the way I see the intial state pre-breakage.

Elizabeth talks about the teapot lid that’s been glued back together being her best, scars and all. To me that implies a rigidity and completeness to the inital state that I don’t see in people. It also implies that the proper state of the thing in question is it’s original state, hence the gluing back together. She was speaking metaphorically of course and the state she’s talking about is clearly not meant to map directly onto a human being.

So what she intended and what I got may be wildly different things.

But I think of people in a much more plastic work-in-progress kind of way. Take a perfect new block of clay. Say it’s pristine and geometrically perfect. Then break it apart. Shatter it. That’s more how I see a person who has been broken. If you have the right sort of mold, you can near instantaneoulsy smash the disparate piece into a new, complete shape.

That’s how I see epiphantic healing in a novel, remembering of course that the new shape is going to have tags and loose bits and is open to being reshattered and reformed again. Of course, the piece can be put back together slowly and shaped lovingly into something perfect over time and that’s much more likely the way things will go. It may also get mixed with something else, fired, utterly broken, etc.

Anyway, I’m really not trying to say that Bear is wrong. She’s perfectly right for a given value of truth and a given value of broken. I’m just saying that there are many values for those variables and one person’s horrid lie is another’s life-saving myth, or even soul-saving truth.

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

Pitching Your Book Part IV: What a Synopsis Should Do

April 4, 2013 in Publishing, Reblogging Project, Synopses Etc., Writing

I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately. The marvelous agent/blogger Miss Snark* claimed at one point that all a synopsis had to do was be short, not painful to read, and show that the author hasn’t screwed up somewhere in plotting the book. I’m not sure that I agree. Those seem like good minimum conditions, but I think I want more from my work than to demonstrate I haven’t screwed up in the minimum number of words.

I want to leave the reader with questions that interest them enough to want to read the whole manuscript. This does not mean questions about what happened–those are by way of screwing up, because the reader of a synopsis needs to end their perusal knowing what happens. What I’m talking about are questions of method. I want my reader to say something like That’s cool, I want to see that or, Really? Why didn’t I see that coming, I have to read this, or just, oooh, nice.

A well written synopsis gives conflict, plot, setting, character sketches, and some genuine flavor of the book, at least in my opinion, and if that takes slightly longer, I think it’s okay. I keep coming back to the idea of talking about what excites you about this story as a writer, because that’s what’s going to convey the important parts of the book’s flavor. Perhaps this is another instance where strong voice is important.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 20 2007 (this one is out of its original sequence to include it in synopses week), original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

*Once upon a time there was an agent who also blogged under the nom-de-blog of Miss Snark. She was smart, funny, and extraordinarily helpful. Enough so that as a reader/working writer, I went through and read here entire blog front to back and created an index for it. That index was one of the most useful tools for educating writers that I’ve ever created. It was  originally published at Wyrdsmiths, and now I’m mirroring it on my site.

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.