Kevin Tumlinson is the Wordslinger—Author, Blogger, and Host of the Wordslinger Podcast. He’s written more than 20 novels, all while wearing no pants whatsoever. Find more about Kevin and his work at KevinTumlinson.com and tune in to his podcast at WordslingerPodcast.com.
JS: You have a great podcast, and I love what you’re doing. What got you into podcasting, and has that continued to motivate you?
KT: The Wordslinger Podcast has been an amazing part of my life and career! I started the podcast after leaving my job as Creative Director for a software company. I was trying to do two things: Create something that could help me build an audience for my novels, and have and excuse to talk to as many brilliant and interesting people as possible so I could learn all I could from them. I think of the show as a kind of mentorship and mastermind group, and one that I can share with a growing audience of listeners and readers. I learn so much from every guest, and my career has started improving dramatically because of it. And these are definitely still motivating factors for me to come back to producing the show every week.
JS: What obstacles did you face early on, and how would you advise others to avoid these problems or overcome them quickly?
KT: The biggest obstacle was the one I face every time I start something new: Too much to focus on! There’s a ton of very useful, very good, and very solid advice out there. All of it is so good, in fact, that you feel like you have to follow all of it RIGHT NOW. But the truth is, that way lies madness. I would advise others to start with something simple and repeatable, to master that until it’s stupid easy, and then start adding complexity. For example, when I started my show I was trying to produce it at a professional level, build a whole new website for it, build a whole new mailing list for it, etc. The jobs kept piling up. I didn’t have the money to pay someone to produce the show on my behalf, so I had all of those jobs, too. Eventually I made the decision to point the domain name at a page on my existing site, rather than build a new one. I opted to use my existing mailing list instead of building a brand new one. And I focused on just finding the best guests I could and producing something of consistent quality every week. I’ve added a few touches here and there to give the show more polish, and I’ll keep doing that over time. But I don’t have to do everything perfectly from the start. It’s better to be consistent.
JS: You have had some amazing guests on your podcast. Is there one or two main ones you remember or that you feel you really learned something from?
KT: Only two? Phew! That’s a rough one. I’ve learned some profound things from most of my guests. But a couple of standouts for me are Sean Platt (from the Self Publishing Podcast) and Francesca Hogi (the Life & Love coach who was on two seasons of Survivor). Sean is out there doing exactly what I want to do with my career, so it was a pleasure to talk to him and get some insight into the business. And Francesca… she’s just wonderful. We became fast friends as of that interview, and we talk on the phone once or twice a month just to catch up and see what the other is up to. I’m hoping one day she’ll mention one of my books during one of her Today Show appearances. So far no luck, but I keep hinting!
JS: How about some more specifically related to the writing craft?
KT: So there’s Sean, and I also interviewed his co-host and writing partner, Johnny B Truant, as well as bestselling authors like Marianne Cantwell (Be a Freerange Human) and Joanna Penn (Desecration). And half a dozen indie authors whom I believe are truly amazing at the craft. I learn something new from every one of them. Each one is a fantastic author, but they’re also a fantastic marketer, which is equally important.
JS: You have been writing for a long time, and (correct me if I’m wrong), you have made your living as a writer up to now. Where did this motivation come from and what keeps you going?
KT: I’ve written professionally since I was 12 years old. Which is to say, I’ve been paid to write since I was 12. And at times, that meant making a living, and at times it didn’t. But on the whole, I’ve made my living from writing full time for the majority of my adult life. With some Ramen Noodle days scattered throughout. The motivation to write initially came from the books I was reading. At some point, it hit me that “books are written by humans.” I was human, therefore I could write books! I wrote my first “book” when I was five years old. It was written on notebook paper (front AND back), and had a hand-drawn and hand-lettered custom cover with a high-quality staple and masking tape binding. Very posh. That was the start for me, along with dictating hours of stories into a tape recorder I’d gotten for Christmas. Before that, actually, I’m told that I used to spin a lot of yarns about imaginary friends. My mom actually had to ask around to see if people knew any of the kids I was talking about. Motivation to start was one thing… motivation to keep going was another. But I think the biggest drive in my writing career has been the deep, unavoidable and undeniable drive to explore ideas, and share the insights I come up with. I want to entertain, inform, and inspire, and I can’t NOT want that. So I express it through short stories, blog posts, novels, articles and now a podcast. If someone invents a way for me to dump my thoughts onto a hard drive so people can watch them like movies, I’ll do that, too.
JS: For those of my readers who aren’t familiar with your work, what is your elevator pitch about who you are as a writer?
KT: I write hopeful, character-driven fiction. And I explore ideas from a what-if-wow perspective. Also, reading my books gives you super powers.
JS: For those out there looking to get started on your list of books, which would be a good book to start with?
KT: Depending on tastes and preference for length, I’d recommend “Citadel: Omnibus” for people who want a long but fast-paced and fun read. For people who prefer one-off contemporary scifi, I’d recommend “Evergreen”. And for people who just want something fast and fun to read, I’d recommend my newest short, “Edge.” The three of these represent a nice spectrum of intelligent, hopeful and well-paced science fiction, from tome length to short story.
JS: Do you have a favorite book of you own? Perhaps one that really hit you emotionally when you were writing it, or comes from a deep place for you?
KT: It’s funny … every new book is my new favorite book. Go figure. But I think the book I feel most proud of at the moment is “Evergreen.” It’s a one-off, contemporary scifi story told in first person, and it explores some ideas I’ve had rolling around in my head since I was a kid. Basically, I wanted to ask and answer the question, “If you could know everything about someone by touching them, how could you use that ability?” I think the book answers that question very well, and in a fun an unique way.
JS: What are you working on now? What can your fans look forward to?
KT: I just released “Edge,” which is short science fiction. I have a few more stories like that on the board. But I’m also starting work on the third book in my “Sawyer Jackson” series, and I have a third episode in my “Think Tank” serial nearly completed. My wife and I are about to sell our home and travel full time, which will lead to an insane number of books and stories over the next few years, so there’s that to look forward to!
JS: Do you have a system for writing great stories? Do you outline, listen to certain types of music, or have a favorite chocolate, or have some other secret that gets your muse moving?
KT: My system is pretty simple, really. It starts with PBIC (Put Butt in Chair), and I have a daily word target I aim for. The target changes depending on the type of book or story I’m writing, but in general I aim for a minimum of 1,500 words per day.
I’m a panster—a discovery writer rather than a plotter. Though that’s shifted and changed somewhat over the past year, as I’vecollaborated with my writing partner, Nick Thacker, on a few things. And also, frankly, I’ve learned more about the craft of writing as I’ve studied it. Books like yours (Creative Writing Career) have forced me to rethink strict pantsing, and consider the virtues and the value of plotting. At leas in part. I listen to music if I’m working from my home office—mostly Celtic music. Weird, huh? But it does the trick for me. And when I’m out and about, at a Starbucks or other coffee shop or cafe or book store, I like that I can hear life sounds around me. It takes something really loud and annoying to pull my focus from the work, so I’m cool with almost any environment. And finally, I have a sort of rhythm to my workflow. I write for about half an hour, get up and move (use the restroom, get more coffee, or just stretch), and then get back to it for another half hour. Repeat. It keeps the brain stuff doing brain stuff.
JS: Did you study writing, and what resources do you recommend for aspiring writers?
KT: Before college I took the Writer’s Digest School correspondence course, which paired me with an author mentor who really taught me a lot, though I didn’t listen for nearly ten years. After that, I majored in English Literature and Communications in college, both of which taught me a great deal. But my real education came through the work itself. Editors are you best teachers, sometimes. Especially the mean ones.
Some of the go-to books I’d recommend for aspiring and will-be writers include (of course) Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which I consider one of the best pieces of author motivation I’ve ever read. I also recommend “No Plot? No Problem!” by Chris Baty, who founded National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). That book taught me to stop editing while I write, and just get the story on the page. But the best tools and resources I can recommend are podcasts and writing groups. The Self Publishing Podcast has been great for both teaching me about the business of indie publishing and giving me a group of like-minded individuals I could connect with. Likewise, the Writing Excuses podcast is a treasure trove. Actually, I listen to hundreds of podcasts throughout a month, and there are too many to name. But start searching and you’ll find something that hits all the right notes for you. And I recommend you find something that has a healthy community associated with it, and join that community. It’s unbelievable how helpful that is. And, obviously, you should contact me for author coaching, and tune in to the Wordslinger Podcast, because narcissistic reasons. But also because I genuinely want to help people do this stuff. It’s fun and it can be pretty profitable. And the world deserves to hear what’s in your head. /endselfservingplug
JS: What have you seen from indie authors who have gone from writing on the side to writing full time? Any trends or lessons learned we can leverage for our own success?
KT: The most successful indie authors I know learned early on to do two things: Build their mailing list and write more books. A lot of successful indies get that way by transferring their marketing
and related skills from their day jobs, and that’s fantastic. But for those who may not work in a field where marketing plays a role, the biggest and best advice is to start collecting email addresses. I had a rough time with this when I started, because I felt like I was cheating if I didn’t get an email address via a landing page with a pop-up opt-in. I was overcomplicating it. Basically, if you have no list to start, then start with the people you know. Send them regular updates about what you’re doing. Get them excited about your work. Get them to be your first readers, and get them to review your books. And then ask them to join your mailing list, once you’ve formalized how that works. Use Mailchimp—it’s free if your list is small—and set up a basic site in WordPress, and then ask everyone you’ve ever met to sign up to your list. It’s a start, and it can make a huge difference. And write more books. Dear God, I can’t stress this enough. If you do NOTHING else, write more books. Commit to writing every single day, even if it’s just a few sentences. Commit to a deadline and stick to it. Decide that writing books is your job, and everything else you do is side business. But write more books, because while you may be a complete unknown right now, if someone stumbles across you wrote and loves it, they’ll be thrilled to discover a whole library crammed full of more work they can explore. it only takes a few people doing that before you’ve got an audience, and that means you can make enough to support this writing habit you’ve developed.
JS: You also have a film background, correct? How does that help your writing, if at all?
KT: The work I did in film and documentary television gave me a foundation for creating a story from disparate pieces. A sound bite here, a quote there, a bit of narrative over here—when you have to edit something together from hundreds of hours of footage, you get pretty good at spotting the really moving stuff, the truly organic story under everything. It also helped with the collaborative writing I’ve done, because I approach collaborations like I would a film project. I’m not the only creative person to consider on these projects. There are other ideas, and other sensibilities. You’re a team of minds working on one story, so you have to know how to work with each other and how to let ideas go when they aren’t working. Documentaries may be the reason why I’m such a pantser in fiction. I had to be hyper organized when I wrote scripts based on various sound bites, but in the end I was making the whole story up as I went, fitting things together like a puzzle. I knew the ending—or the story I wanted told by the time the dust settled. But getting there was where I got to be creative. When I write fiction, I’m more or less stitching together bits and pieces I’ve had in my head for years (or sometimes just days, if I just thought of something cool). My novels and short stories have all evolved out of these bits and pieces. So it’s a lot like pulling together sound bites for a documentary. It’s equal parts discovery and organization.
JS: Thank you again, Kevin. Before we sign off, can you leave us with a final word of advice? This can be specific to writing, or related to the broader topic of pursuing your passions.
KT: It’s been an absolute pleasure, Justin, and an honor to chat with you. And honestly, the best advice I can offer anyone, whether they’re pursuing writing as a career or some other passion or goal, is a quote from my grandfather:
“I never got a thing I didn’t ask for, even if it was a punch in the mouth.” If you want something, ask for it. Sometimes that’s literal—just open an email and ask someone you know to help you get to where you want to be. Sometimes asking for it means taking an action rather than sitting around hoping something will happen. But remember that everything that comes to you in life comes because you are, in some way, asking for it. So ask for the good stuff, and the stuff you want, and stop asking for all the grief and anxiety and heartache. I’m still learning that lesson every day of my life, but that’s part of my ask. Good luck in your own, and I hope you get everything you want out of life.
For other interviews like this, see my book Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)