Kevin Tumlinson is a busy book author, blogger and podcast host. In our interview he reveals some details about his process and shares his best writing advice (which he thinks you’ll hate – but see for yourself).
Please tell us something about you and what you are working on.
I’m a full-time author, currently transitioning from writing science fiction and fantasy to writing thrillers. The thriller genre just works better with my style and with the type of story I like to tell, so I’ve been keen to move into it. My most recent book, The Coelho Medallion, is my first thriller, and it has really set the stage for the rest of my writing career! It released on 31 May, and since then I’ve seen it outsell every other book in my catalog, and garner more praise than any book I’ve written to date. So I’m thinking that my new venture is already a success! This was also the first book I’ve written entirely in Ulysses. I’ve finished a couple of previous books in the software, transferring them from Scrivener or Word to Ulysses for completion. But I wanted to do something special for my first book, and the timing was perfect for ‘Coelho Medallion.’ I’m glad of it, too! This was a brilliant experience.
Which role does writing play in your life?
I’ve always been a writer — since learning to scrawl letters in a Big Chief notebook. The moment I learned how to form complete sentences on the page, I started writing stories.
Writing is cathartic. It’s therapy. Everything else in my life may go sideways, but my writing is always under my control. It’s a way for me to explore my ideas and philosophies in a safe environment, where I can go as deep and as extreme as I like. Being able to share that final product with an audience is a bonus.
The moment I learned how to form complete sentences on the page, I started writing stories.
What do you write about, and how do you find your stories?
I write about characters. I’ve always been a student of humanity, watching people to learn what makes them tick, to see how they handle their environment. When I write, I draw upon all of the people I’ve met and known in my life. All of my fiction is character driven, so the specific story is shaped by those characters. And that means that you could eliminate all the elements of the story and move those characters to a different setting, a different time, a different genre, and for the most part the story would remain the same.
Finding my stories — that’s a bit trickier to explain. Most of my stories come to me as I write, not before. I may have a slender little thread of an idea to begin, but the fabric it’s woven into evolves one keystroke at a time. I’m a ‘discovery writer,’ or in the parlance of my industry I’m a ‘pantser.’ I write by the seat of my pants, discovering the tale on the go, as the characters break it down for me. So I suppose the short answer is “I don’t find my stories, they find me.”
What made you start writing in the first place?
I learned pretty early on that writing was a shortcut to impressing people. I know how shallow that sounds, but it was the first thing that motivated me to get good at this. I figured out that the better the story I told, and the better its as written, the more praise I got from my teachers, my parents, my friends. So I got good at it.
Writers invent an entire universe just to get a nod of approval from just one reader.
I think that need for approval and praise is at the heart of every writer. Maybe we don’t stand out in any other way, so we start writing because it allows us to craft an image. We can control who we are — the voice we use, the tone and style we make part of our work — and if we do it right we get the approval we need. We’re a needy bunch, we authors. We’ll invent an entire universe just to get a nod of approval from just one reader.
You are a very productive writer, you have published dozens of books. What is your best advice to aspiring authors?
People hate my best advice for aspiring authors, because A) they’ve heard it before and B) it isn’t a magic formula. But here it goes …
Write every single day.
I have no active memory of the first time I encountered this advice, but I know what I felt at the time: Pure dread. I hated that advice. It made me sick to my stomach. It made me angry, too, because what I wanted to hear was something along the lines of ‘send the right query letter to a publisher and you’ll get a contract and a big fat check, and you can take the next two years to write the book.’ I think we all start this business a little naive.
But the purest form of being a productive writer is to simply sit down to write every day. Putting a minimum word count on the page every single day will get you to a book faster than any other technique, trick, tip, or gimmick you can try. Trust me on this, I wrote an entire book on this process (30 Day Author). There is no method for writing multiple books that will work better or faster than setting a daily word target and hitting it every day.
My best advice? Write every single day.
When I coach other authors, I give them a formula for figuring out how many words they need to write each day to produce a book in a month. And when they see the numbers, they’re either completely flummoxed and go into total denial, or they’re very excited and decide to jump in and start doing the work. It’s that moment when I’m able to tell whether they’re a real writer, or whether they still have some maturing to do.
Write every single day. Set a word target and meet it every single day. Come back to it every single day, even when things are crazy or hectic or stressful. That’s my best advice.
How easy or difficult is it to make a living from writing?
‘Making a living as a writer’ is kind of a loaded phrase, because there are some variables mixed in there. First, what does ‘make a living’ look like to you as an individual? For me, making a living means bringing in enough money each month, consistently, to pay all of our bills and provide the things we both want and need. It means supporting two fully-grown humans. To someone else, making a living might just be contributing a few hundred bucks to the household income. Or maybe it means putting food on the table, or paying for a dentist. You can see where the definition can get fuzzy. And your definition of success as an author is exactly what will determine the level of difficulty.
I should distinguish here, too, that there’s a difference between making a living as a ‘writer’ and making a living as an ‘author.’ It’s a fine distinction in some cases, but for the most part I work it out this way: A writer writes, and an author has written. I was a copywriter for years, and I made my living doing all sorts of odd writing jobs. I wrote articles, blog posts, advertisements—I even wrote the text on the palm rest labels of HP laptops for a time. Some of my work was bigger and better, some was smaller or not so much fun. That was me making a living as a writer.
When I started writing and publishing books, my income came in fits and spurts at first. I was lucky, in those first few years, to crack a hundred bucks. It took years before I was making anything close to a ‘living’ from my books. And at times, that income still might not qualify. It’s a business that grows over time.
But that’s the advantage and the major difference between making a living as a writer versus making a living as an author. Writing is active — you have to keep doing it to keep the income moving. Being an author is passive — you have to have done it, and have marketed the work you’ve produced, and the income starts coming in. You can write a book and leave it in your catalog, and when your efforts start to pay off it’s right there waiting for the reader. That’s why it’s important to write and publish as many books as you can, over time. Because once that first book hits, and people read it and love it, they’re going to go looking for the next book. And that’s when all the work starts to pay off.
Could you also share a few tips for self publishing successfully?
When I first started self publishing I was a bit ashamed of it. I hid it, as best I could. I tried to make it look like I had a contract with a publishing house, so that I could have some legitimacy in my work. Times have changed on that front, though. These days, self publishing is a powerhouse of its own, if you’re willing to put the work and time into it. Successful self publishing means embracing a couple of very important facts:
First, this is a business. Just like owning a coffee shop or a lawn care service or a law office, being an author means being in business. You need to study the industry, study your target demographic (your readers), and continuously develop and market your product (your books but also yourself). Most authors end up treating this as a paid hobby, and those tend to never realize their dream of actually making a living from their work. It can happen—there are unicorns in these woods. But for the most part, if you’re not treating this as a business then you probably won’t see much success beyond a small fan base of family and friends.
Second, as much as authors tend to operate in a vacuum while they write, you simply can’t afford to do that in every aspect of your career. It took me a very long time to figure this out, but the people I encounter in this business, the friendships I make and the allies I team up with, really make all the difference. Having people I can turn to for tips and advice is unbelievably beneficial. I’ve learned so much from the groups I’ve joined, the conferences I’ve attended, and all the people I’ve connected with. I’ve grown faster in the past two years, thanks to the new people in my circle, than I did in the previous six years combined. So people are important. Get a few.
Just like owning a coffee shop or a lawn care service or a law office, being an author means being in business.
Which tools and apps do you use?
Well, I use Ulysses, of course, and that has made a tremendous difference in my workflow. Having the ability to instantly export to various formats was a game changer, as was the flexibility and versatility of the writing environment.
I use Vellum to produce my ebooks now, which was also a godsend. It produces an incredibly attractive ebook, complete with specific storefront links and all the metadata in place. I’m new to Vellum, but I find it indispensable after just one book.
Evernote is my organizational tool of choice. I use it to keep and track everything from passwords to story ideas. That’s my research tool, and sometimes, if I actually bother to outline, it’s my outline tool as well.
I write a daily journal, and for that I use Day One. It’s a beautiful app, and it’s universal across all Apple platforms. So I can quickly drop in a photo, a soundbite, a quick post, or a long post if I have more time.
I write on my MacBook Air, but I also have an iPad Air 2 and an iPhone 6 Plus, and those get used alternately as needed. The iPad has a Zagg keyboard case that essentially makes it a tiny notebook, and it’s a comfortable writing experience on planes or in other tight spaces. The fact that all of my apps — especially Ulysses — are universal makes the iPad brilliant for keeping my work going even as I travel.
Could you describe the way you’re using Ulysses, your typical workflow?
Typically I create a folder named for the book I’m working on, and I give it a book icon so it’s recognizable in the library. Then I create a sheet for each chapter and scene that I write. I do this as I go, unless I already have an idea of the outline for the thing. Occasionally I will create a few chapters and title them with the idea I have for how the story will progress.
Ulysses fits perfectly with my philosophy that the sole job of a writer, during the writing process, is to write.
I use the word count tracker to keep my progress. I have a spreadsheet in Google Docs that I’ve built to track my daily word count, and I pull that directly from the tracker in Ulysses. Each day I mark my start and stop times, and the total words for the session. That helps me keep on top of my daily word targets, and that little blue circle is one of my favorite things to watch as it grows.
I have pre-built front matter and end matter for my books, so I copy that and drop it into the folder where appropriate. This usually happens once the first draft is complete and I’m ready to send it to my beta readers. I also attach the cover, the list of my other books, and a CTA to buy another book. And as a final touch, every book I write has what I call “Stuff at the end of the book,” which is really just an author’s note about the story, the process of writing it, etc. That’s probably my favorite part.
From there I export the ebook. This isn’t my final ebook, but it’s a pretty impressive ‘close enough.’ It’s good enough that I could actually upload it to Kindle or elsewhere. I send this to my street team — my group of beta readers who help me spot typos and other issues. And when I get their feedback I make the changes directly in Ulysses. And from there I can export to any format I want.
What do you like best about Ulysses, and what are you missing?
My favorite feature in Ulysses is the ability to work seamlessly between my laptop and my mobile devices. I love being able to write a draft on my laptop, pick up and complete that draft on my iPad, and then edit that draft while standing in line at the grocery store, using my iPhone. That mobile integration was the biggest draw for me, in transitioning from Scrivener to Ulysses.
Picking features I think are missing is a bit tricky, however. I don’t feel I know the software well enough to say something is truly missing. I’ve found nice workarounds for the things I initially thought were missing.
It would be good to have a bigger and more searchable database of ‘how to’ articles. The learning curve isn’t all that steep, but there are times when I need to know how to do something and it takes a bit longer to figure it out than I’d like. But as time goes by, that sort of thing is less of a problem.
On the whole, consider Ulysses to be a near-perfect writing app. I’m already working on four more original books (meaning books I started and am writing entirely in Ulysses, rather than importing from somewhere else). I’ve written blog posts, articles, short stories — I’m finding it easy to hop in and do the work, and worry about formatting later. It fits perfectly with my philosophy that the sole job of a writer, during the writing process, is to write.
Maybe later I’ll come up with things I would change. But for now, I can’t think of a thing.