Author Archives: Kevin Ikenberry

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.

 

Phoenix Comic Con

This year, I had the privilege of attending a few cons that I’ve never been to courtesy of Bard’s Tower. Much more than a traveling bookstore, Bard’s Tower is a celebrity author experience. All of the books at the booth for a particular show have their authors there selling, signing, taking photographs, and much more. It’s been a great experience with them this year at both Florida SuperCon and Phoenix Comic Con.

Out of all the shows and cons I went to this year, my favorite (to this point) was Phoenix. I used to live in the Phoenix area and I have many family and friends there, so in a sense going to Phoenix was like going home. Being back in the Valley of the Sun was outstanding, but the show itself taught me a lot of how successful conventions really operate. The staff took exceptional care of all the authors present, and there were some outstanding science fiction and fantasy authors present. The panels were well themed and always attended well. For me, it was my first real chance to get to know several authors I’ve been social media friends with for years and even to meet a few new ones. I have the opportunity to sit on a panel of military fiction authors including Jason M. Hough, Weston Ochse, Myke Cole, Alan Smale, and me. I can’t even begin to tell you how nervous I was at the start of the panel. We had a tremendous discussion and I left there with some incredible role models in how to be a great panelist. Everyone brought a unique perspective to the discussion and their professionalism was incredible.

At the booth, on the convention floor, was another area that completely astounded me. When I arrived, my books were placed next to the legendary Alan Dean Foster. I’d met Alan last year at WorldCon and we had several great discussions during our time at the booth. On the other side of me was Dan Wells. I seriously had imposter syndrome for about an hour until I heard Dan Wells pitch someone my novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL. At that point, I settled down and got to work. Meeting fans and potential readers is a great experience and Phoenix did not disappoint at all. Many of you might have heard of the security incident on Thursday that snarled up the entrances on Friday for a little while. Standing in a line anytime is frustrating – imagine doing it in near triple digit temperatures by 9am. The delays that fans experienced on Friday were quickly solved by the amazing uniformed security personnel and the con staff. More importantly, the fans took it in stride with more than I could count trading their cosplay weaponry for weapons made from cardboard. It was outstanding to see everyone working together to keep the con a great safe experience. I was completely impressed.

While there, I had the chance to hang out with my brother James A. Owen, my friends Mark Gardner and Christopher Ferguson, and I got to meet one of my comics idols from the 90s, artist Whilce Portacio. I got to talk with Chaos Comics founder Brian Pulido and his wife Francesca again (and again in Denver, too) and met too many readers and fans to count. Our Bard’s Tower booth was a pretty big hit anyway, with authors like Jim Butcher, Claudia Gray, and Sherrilyn Kenyon joining the others I’ve mentioned along with Kevin J. Anderson, Michelle Cori, S. Usher Evans, Quincy J. Allen, Neo Edmund, Ramon Terrell, LJ Hachmeister and Steve Diamond. The weekend was a whirlwind. Several fellow Superstars came by the booth, too – Jace Killian, Helen Savore, Holly Heisey, and Eva Eldridge. I barely sat down the entire time. During the convention, I sold more books that at any other convention I’d previously attended. It was amazing. Outside of the convention, I had drinks with amazing authors and got the chance to have one of my favorite Phoenix food experiences after a too long wait.

Will I return to Phoenix next year? Yes. I’m looking forward to it already. That’s the thing about good conventions that go the extra mile to take care of their guests and their fans. Sometimes a convention will choose one over the other and the effects are noticeable. Phoenix was never that way. Every day, at least one staff member stopped by and asked if they could help us in any way. The security personnel were amazing, too. To have a serious incident one day and be a smoothly ran machine by the end of the convention was incredible. I’m in awe of their effort.

If you’re in the Phoenix area next year, come to the convention. I guarantee you that you will not be disappointed.

When Disaster Strikes – Getting My Momentum Back

I’ve blogged on the Fictorians before about the infection that nearly killed me in 2014. What I may not have mentioned that outside of that scary situation and hospital stay, it really wrecked my writing momentum. This was February 2014. If we rewind back to mid-2013, I went into the most productive period of my writing at that point. From July 2013 to January 14, I wrote two novels. I wrote what became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL and another shorter novel that’s my tribute to Elmore Leonard called SUPER SYNC. In that six month period, I also wrote a few short stories and my overall total of words written was probably somewhere near 180,000. This was an incredible time and I really felt like I was getting into a higher gear when everything came crashing down.

After my illness, I barely wrote anything new for a year. Yes, I sold and went through subsequent edits on both SLEEPER PROTOCOL and an earlier novel RUNS IN THE FAMILY, so I was “writing” but I wasn’t writing anything new, which we all know are two entirely different things. But, in that period from April 2015 to January 2016 came the impetus for the sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL and I decided to try my hand at a prequel to RUNS IN THE FAMILY. Writing was slow and arduous. There were several times when I wanted to simply give up. I was going to publish a novel, after all. I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to be happy with one book on that shelf by my deathbed. It was time to write more, so in January 2016, I decided that it was time to get off my ass and write. I’d been incredibly productive before then, and I believed I could get back to, or surpass, my productivity. It just required self-discipline to get into the chair and write and a little faith that I would get better, both mentally and physically.

It was slow going at first, but I outlined an alternate history novel. From there, I went into the draft of VENDETTA PROTOCOL with the goal of writing it in three months. SLEEPER PROTOCOL took me 7 weeks and I figured I would need about double the time. Turns out, I wrote VENDETTA PROTOCOL in 9 weeks. Because I could feel myself getting faster and I trusted myself as a writer. Was it perfect? Hell, no. But I was getting it out of my head. I turned around from that draft and wrote a novella LANCER ONE. After that, I was asked to submit to a military science fiction anthology, so I wrote a 9,000 word story “Stand On It.” At the end of 2016, I started work on the alternate history novel I’d outlined in February-March. I worked on that draft into February of 2017.

Not long after I finished that project, my military science fiction anthology story turned into a novel titled PEACEMAKER. I wrote that novel in less than three months. During that time, I was asked on short notice to provide a story for the upcoming X-PRIZE: Avatars anthology. I had to turn it around in two weeks – I did it in a week. All of that “new writing” ended back in June of this year. I’ve been editing ever since. The results are crazy.

PEACEMAKER get worldwide release on August 25th. VENDETTA PROTOCOL gets an ebook release on September 13th and a print version following. The novella LANCER ONE is due out in October. The first anthology A FISTFUL OF CREDITS was released in June and is selling like hotcakes. The X-PRIZE anthology is due later this year.

Two weeks ago, I turned in the alternate history project to my editor/mentor. It’s the most difficult book I’ve written to date. I’ve now laid out a plan for the rest of 2017 and it’s ambitious as hell. I can get it done, though. My momentum is back. How did I do it?

Go back a few paragraphs. For me, it’s about putting my butt in the chair and writing. Yes, I plot and outline, but I’m also thinking about the books and projects all the time. I take a lot of notes. Some of them work, others don’t. The best ideas I don’t have to write down because they stay with me. Once I’m committed to writing the project, I let go of my inner critic – that little bastard that likes to click the backspace button more than he types. I write because I know that I can fix it later. I get the story out of my head. If it comes in short or over the desired word count, I go back and fix it. All of that is faith in myself. Will I make mistakes? Yes. Can I fix them? Yes. I’ve taken very strongly to the belief that I can fix anything in editing. The result is my productivity is higher than ever.

Let go. Have faith. Write.

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.