How to Take (or Ignore) Science Fiction Writing Advice, Sanity Management, and Whether or Not to Self-Publish

Thoughts from Science Fiction Author Kelly McCullough

Sci-fi and fantasy author Kelly McCullough offers informal thoughts on writing, derived from a career spanning twenty-one novels, successful self-promotion efforts and time spent as a teacher of the writer’s craft.

McCullough’s work can be found at (click here).

The passages below are adapted from musings by McCullough and are lightly edited for the sake of contiguous formatting.

“Every successful writer is a black swan event.”
Kelly McCullough

To Outline Or Not to Outline?

I always feel strange talking about the benefits of outlines, when I don’t really use them that much anymore. I did intensively outline eleven (novels).

My outlining process used to include a narrative outline for tone; a structural outline for length and scene order; and a timeline outline. The triple outline process really helped me put the structure and plot to one side while I worked so I could focus on story, scene, theme. I stopped outlining not because I stopped valuing the outline, but because with enough practice I was able to remove the scaffolding.

I’m still doing all the same things I used to do in the outline, but twenty-one novels (written) means I can do it in my head quickly and subconsciously.

Basically, as with any expert process, what is and is not a _problem_ has changed with time — more on problems in a moment.

My wife is a physics professor and physics education researcher. One thing that comes out of problem solving research is the idea that experts and novices experience problem solving very differently. Things which are major problems for a novice are barely even exercises for the expert. So, an expert might “chunk” ten steps that are each a problem for a novice into one easy step.

The outline provides a scaffold for one of the problems that needs to be solved to write a novel. Whether you need a scaffold depends on things like experience, and what parts of writing come easily for you. If plot/structure are hard for you, you might need scaffolding.

Outlines can be great tools for the right mind. They can be boat anchors for the wrong one. The key is always: Does this help ME write?

Narrative Outlines

A narrative outline is basically the document I use when selling on proposal. It’s supposed to tell the story in miniature, so I want that outline to reflect the voice of the piece, heavy and dark, breezy, silly, full of wit, etc.

The goal is for the reader to be able to get a sense of what the story will feel like as much as see what happens.


In an actual proposal, I generally add stuff about what the story does/is — mystery, revenge tragedy, etc., but the core is tone.

“Does this help ME write” is the core of EVERY technique issue. Everyone’s process is different. Keep what works, jettison the rest.

On “How To” Books for Writers: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Advice

This is the reason prescriptive writing books drive me nuts. This is THE WAY IT IS DONE is always going to be wrong for/hurt some writers.

When I teach writing, I try to be descriptive — this works for me, it might help you. I also offer alternate examples from other writers. There are lots of useful expert techniques for writing. The trick is to adopt only those that move your work forward. There is no advice (beyond simply to write) that is so perfect it can’t grind an otherwise promising and productive writer to a halt.

Don’t write “what you know” if that’s not helpful. All writing is NOT rewriting — you might be the rare “first-draft writer”.

That latter is no excuse to special snowflake (i.e. to be too precious about works in need of revision). You can almost certainly do better, but it might be that you do better on the next story.

One reason I’m super cautious about HOW I give writing advice? I’ve given the wrong advice to a writer at the wrong time and done harm. I’ve also gotten the wrong writing advice at the wrong time. Because of that, a book that I loved working on will never be written.

Another thing on outlines: YOU DON’T HAVE TO FOLLOW THEM.

You can, at any time depart from any part of your outline if you see a better way.

The Myth of Success Through Self-Promotion

Super tired of the self-promotion can save/make your book meme. It presumes a LOT of skills on the part of the author.

Yes, you, the author, may be a marketing genius and really good at appearances. Many (possibly most) authors are not. (See also: introverts.) It also presumes location and/or resources that many author will not have — time/money/access to venues online and off.

If you put the marketing success mostly on the shoulders of the author, you’re setting most of them up for crushing failure.

I say that as the rare writer who is an extrovert with a theater background and mad people skills. I am good at selling me and my work. I am fucking good at marketing myself, but I am NOT going to be the asshole who says that if you aren’t, your career is going to die.

You can be insanely good at self-marketing and have your career blow up. You can be awful and succeed. So much is out of your hands. I have twelve large press novels in print; nine earned out. That I am decent at self-marketing has only the most coincidental relationship to that.

I know writers who are better writers or marketers than I am or who are harder workers than I am who haven’t had anywhere near my success.

Every successful writer is a black swan event. Considering the competition, we’re pretty much all unicorns of one type or another. Trying to generalize from your own successes as a writer to what everyone else should be doing? Mostly, it’s confirmation bias bingo. I also know writers who are shit at marketing, or who don’t write as well as I do or work as hard who are more successful. So much is luck.

Self-Marketing and Sanity Management

Every writer has their own process, and their our own sanity management techniques. What drives me into a rage is when we prescriptively say my sanity management technique or process is the one true way. Especially when we tell people they’re doomed if they don’t what we do.

Basically, I think insisting that all writers must also be self-marketing geniuses is a recipe for causing a lot of self-doubt and harm.

I know extraordinarily successful writers who:

1. Ascribe their big success to effective self-promotion.
2. Ascribe big success to ignoring self-promotion in favor of writing the next thing.

Both sets are right. Both sets are wrong. Both sets haven’t got any way to tell which of these things is true. We’re all black swans.

One of the biggest truths of publishing is that nobody knows what makes a big success. The problem is, that’s not a satisfying answer. As pattern matchers, we try to come up with things to _make_ a more satisfying answer, but it’s confirmation bias all the way down.

Corp Accountant (CA): I see most of your profit comes from a few books. Why publish the others?
Editor: No one knows which will be which.

CA: Oh.

One source of publishing misconceptions comes from privileging plausible wrong answers over “no one knows” even when the latter is right. We’re sense-making creatures. We WANT things to make sense even when that comes at the expense of truth or fact. We also don’t like to say “I don’t know” when we’re supposed to be the expert in an area. It’s scary and it’s hard.

We want our success to make sense — to point to things and say: I did that right, and I am smart/awesome/wise and that’s why I succeeded. That’s compounded because part of why we succeed is that we DID something smart/awesome/wise and have every right to be proud of it.

Okay, I think I’m all ranted out now. Might be time to go work on a book.

Read more from Kelly McCullough at

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