Author Archives: Kevin Ikenberry

Reading The Runes – A Guest Post by Nick Thacker

I’ve always said that we are our own worst critic… until you get married. It’s a tongue-in-cheek phrase, to be sure, and while my wife is certainly generous with her critiques of my clothing choices (“those shoes with that pair of pants?”) or my decisions regarding parenting (“you’re feeding them that?”), she’s been nothing but encouraging when it comes to my writing career.

In fact, she was the reason I decided to bite the bullet and go full time in 2017. I’d been writing fiction for around five years, and toward the end of 2015 I decided to begin treating it more like a business – setting a schedule for myself, word count goals, dabbling with marketing and advertising, and spending more than an hour a year on taxes.

It was sometime in January, during one of our scheduled date nights, when she asked me the fateful question: “So, when are you going to quit your day job and write full-time?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’d made more money in the previous three months from my fiction than either of us had in our full-time day jobs, but the thought of abandoning it all and going full time as a writer was, in short, terrifying.

But she prevailed, and we came up with a plan: Sometime after Easter (I worked at a church, so doing anything major before Easter is near impossible) I would have “the talk” with my bosses. We’d come up with a solid plan for my transition out and into the world of self-employment.

My first day of full-time writing was July 1, 2017. I walked downstairs into my “new” office – the basement – and sat down to write. I wrote a couple thousand words, got tired, and went upstairs to get lunch. After lunch, I sat back down and tried to write and found out that writing all day long wasn’t something I could do easily. I was good for three, maybe four thousand words a day. On a crazy caffeine-fueled day, maybe five.

What was I supposed to do with the rest of the time?

Well, I soon found out.

Almost immediately my sales began to slump. They drifted down, at first on par with what I was making at the end of the previous year, then even lower. By August, I was down to what I was making at my earlier full-time job.

Then my wife quit her job. It was something we’d planned, and talked about extensively, and it was something that had been in motion for some time, but it had snuck up on us. And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time financially.

My book sales continued their downward sloping run until I was frantic, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. (“Is this the universe telling me I’ve made a horrible mistake?”) I tried reaching out to colleagues, tried launching the next book, and starting thinking about a contingency plan in case I had to start job hunting in the next few months. We had an emergency fund for this very thing, but I’d never thought we’d actually have to use it.

I kept churning out words, however, and I started advertising my work on Amazon and Facebook once again. I’d stopped when my sales were doing well, and I thought that perhaps the “lag time” from starting/stopping ads could be around 2-3 months, meaning that while I’d stopped them months ago, I was only now seeing the effects. That also meant that I needed to start advertising once again, and hope that sales increased in a few months.

Advertising and marketing became my full-time job, and writing my part-time job. I put in four to five hours a day analyzing sales data and planning campaigns, building ads and reading everything I could get my hands on about marketing and advertising. I went to conference in November with the sole purpose of learning the ropes of “writing as a business.”

My December sales are looking up, but I’ve learned that this whole game is one of risk, hard work, and countless unmeasurable variables. It has huge opportunities and the upside is great, but there are always going to be learning curves, pride-swallowing sessions, and perhaps visits to a counselor.

My 2018 will be different. I’ve learned what it takes to succeed as an indie author in the current era: to constantly be working on the next book, to build relationships with others in the field, and to never be sitting idle. I’ll be learning new things as much as possible, planning long-term goals, and treating my writing like a business.

I won’t be subjected to the emotional swings of seeing my hourly, daily, and monthly sales data, because I won’t be allowing myself to act upon short-term data. I will work to improve my craft and increase the number of assets I have available, and I’ll treat data as what it is: information. That information has no bearing on my success or failure – it’s merely a set of runes to be interpreted and used to my benefit.

I’ll get better at “interpreting the runes” and I’ll get better at learning how to be better. If 2017 was a year of “hard knocks learning,” 2018 will be a year of putting that learning into practice and seeing where this little career of mine will lead.

_____

Nick Thacker is the author of best-selling action-adventure thrillers, including the Harvey Bennett Thrillers series. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, two kids, and two dogs. He can be found online at www.nickthacker.com

 

Welcome to December – 2017 Year In Review

This month, the Fictorians and a few guest bloggers will share their successes, lessons learned, and their challenges as we collectively pursue our writing careers. I hope that some of their stories and posts resonate with you. We’re all at different places in our journey, but the idea that we’re all stepping forward is critical to remember.

Every year, I set Writing Goals. Those goals have become more ambitious over the last few years and I’ve been challenged to get my butt in the writing chair to achieve the things I wanted to at the beginning of the year. I opened up my schedule to attend more conventions and events, I ambitiously took on a new project that was not on my writing goals at all, and I managed to get two books published in the last half of the year. I’ll share more about those projects later this month, but there were two things that happened this year that harken back to something that Kevin J. Anderson talks about: “Popcorn Theory.” The idea is that as writers, we can’t treat our stories like a single kernel of popcorn. If we were hungry, we’d starve cooking one kernel at a time. Having more projects going breeds creativity and creates unique opportunities. This year, I’d decided to take a break from writing all short fiction to focus on writing/editing two novels. Yet, opportunities knocked and I listened.

The first was an opportunity I’ll discuss more in a couple of weeks, but I received an invitation to submit a story for an anthology in the bestselling military science fiction series of the Four Horsemen Universe. I had a blink in my schedule, so I wrote the story, turned it in, and saw my whole calendar for the year derailed when not only did editors Chris Kennedy and Mark Wandrey love my short story but they asked me to write a novel with my character Peacemaker Jessica Francis. But, more on that later.

Very soon, AVATAR Dreams – An Anthology Inspired by the ANA X-Prize, will be published that features some of the biggest names in science fiction. Edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Resnick, this collection features stories from Jody Lynn Nye, Todd McCaffrey, Martin L. Shoemaker, Tina Gower, Marina J. Lostetter, Brad R. Torgersen, Josh Vogt, Dr. Harry Kloor, Andrea Stewart, Ron Calling, Kay Kenyon, and Kevin Ikenberry. That’s right – me. Opportunity knocked and I was in the right place.

Kevin J. Anderson looked across the table at me and said, “I need another story for the AVATAR Dreams Anthology. Can you get me something in two weeks?”

Yes, I could.

From story idea to turn-in was seven days. It was a crazy, hectic time but I had a story crystallize in my head that combined the movie “The Fast and the Furious” with Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. With the help of my friend Lou J. Berger, some bacteriology tutoring from my father (putting that PhD to use), and a couple of late nights, I turned in a story faster than expected. Hearing that it was a great fit for the anthology was icing on the proverbial cake. But, my take away from the experience was that I could take a short-notice opportunity and do something good. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a short story and I’m pretty proud of “That Others May Live.”

So, as we go through the month of December and hear different stories, there’s a chance you’ll hear opportunity knocking. Don’t be afraid to answer the door. Everybody on the blog this month has been listening, I’m sure.

You Won NaNoWriMo, Now What?

I’m a big believer in the power of finishing things. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual writing adventure challenging writers of all skill levels to write 50,000 words in the space of thirty days – this is an average of 1,667 words per day. For most of us, this is a challenge. As a multiple year winner of NaNoWriMo, I can tell you that typing those last words on a manuscript is a great feeling but I can also tell you that “The End” is just the beginning. So, you’ve won – what next?

First Things First

Celebrate. Kick back on December 1st and relax a bit. You’re a NaNoWriMo winner! Be sure to upload your novel text and get your official word count verified. Be sure to look for the emails about the winner’s prizes (and there are usually some great deals). Post your success and get virtual high fives on social media. Take a little time to enjoy your success, but don’t be surprised if the urge to get back into your manuscript is there gnawing at you. What do you do?

Resist!

Do not open that NaNoWriMo manuscript for at least a month – six weeks is best. Your goal right now, Winner, is to forget that you wrote that book. Yes, there are things you need to fix. Yes, you have a passive voice problem or a comma splice problem. Yes, you have a character that explicably vanishes from the story in Chapter 3. I got it. Your mind is whirling with all of the “I should fix this immediately” things. If you’re really scared you’ll forget them, write them all down on a piece of paper but do not open that manuscript. At the end of that six weeks, sit down with a notebook and a pen/pencil alongside your manuscript. You’ll see immediately that you’re reading with fresh eyes. Again, though, resist the urge to make corrections. Read your manuscript as a reader would and see what pieces of the story develop as you go. You’ll see holes and find things that seem out of place – make a note and move on. When you’re done with the read-through, close your notes, and give it a few days to percolate. Now you’re probably thinking that this is a lot of time when you’re doing nothing on this manuscript – and you’re right. What should you be doing with your new disciplined approach to writing every day?

Write Something Else

If you want to write on December 1st or 2nd, open up a new file and start typing something else. Make it something different than your manuscript. Different characters, different settings – everything in this new piece should be different. If you wrote fantasy during NaNoWriMo, write science fiction. You get the idea. Write something that you’d never be caught dead writing. I’ve messed around with a romance novel idea, a zombie apocalypse story, and a few other things that may never see the light of day in this phase. Think of it as cleansing your writing palate. When the six weeks described is up, you’ll be ready to jump back into your NaNoWriMo winner and edit it from start to finish. But what if I want to keep writing that new project? Do it. Adjust your writing goals and expectations, though – you’re trying to get your NaNoWriMo winner in shape to send out into the world.

After Edits – The Next Step

I can’t stress hard enough that you really need to run through your manuscript at least once before you look for potential first readers. Gaining insights from others is a huge piece of this step. You cannot write in a vacuum and expect to put a rough manuscript into consideration for publication or start the mechanics for self-publication. Take the time to get it read, reviewed, and even professionally edited. Trust me, it’s worth your time to do this even before you submit it to a publisher or do it yourself.

NaNoWriMo is a race to 50,000 words. It’s a challenge that teaches you self-discipline and creates a habit of writing daily. Publishing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take time to get it right. There are times it will seem like glaciers move faster than your manuscript through the process. Keep writing other things and do not, under any circumstances, get caught up in any one novel project. Keep moving forward. That’s really what NaNoWriMo is all about. Starting a project, finishing it, and moving on to the next one. And the next one after that.

That’s how you win NaNoWriMo, folks. Keep moving forward.

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.