Kevin Tumlinson is speculative fiction author writing thrillers, science fiction, and contemporary fantasy. His latest thriller, The Coelho Medallion, is available on Amazon and has already thrilled readers and reviewers. You can learn more about Kevin from his website—kevintumlinson.com.
Introduction: Tell us who you are, why you decided to be an author and where you’re at right now in your career.
Who I am is kind of straightforward—I’m a guy with a laptop. Which is quite an accomplishment by the standards of my pre-teen self, who longed for a computer more than super powers or owning his own personal monkey. Both of these things were high on his list.
I tell everyone that I wrote my first book when I was five years old, and that isn’t a lie. Maybe a slight exaggeration. I was five years old. And I did write a book. It was scrawled out in pencil on five pages of notebook paper—front and back—with a hand-drawn cover (even then I designed all my own covers) and some very nicely written copy on the back cover.
Tragically that first book was thrown away by my stepfather after an ill-fated bout of personal modesty. He had asked if I wanted him to type it up for me at work, and I had said, “Oh, it’s not that important. Do whatever you want with it.” Apparently he’d wanted to toss it in the wastebasket.
Thus began a long-standing fear of publishers, and an aversion to modesty.
I’ve written short stories and ‘first thirds’ of books my whole life, and I even managed to finish a manuscript or two early on. One of these got the attention of an agent, who turned out to be a scam, and a publisher, who turned out to be real.
The publishing deal didn’t end well, mostly because I can do basic math. Keeping the advance and the contract they gave me was going to end up costing me out of pocket, and the odds of the book selling well and earning back the advance were long.
So I paid it back—including having to dip into my savings to pay back the bit I’d already spent—and ended the contract. Ownership of the book stayed with the publisher for the next few years, and it’s never seen the light of day. I think I could publish it now, but it’s awful, and needs a lot of editing. Also, it’s a relic of a bygone way of thinking about publishing. So I think it’s good where it is for now.
At this point in my career I’ve published more than 25 books, and I have at least five more already on the board for the rest of the year. My newest book, ‘The Coelho Medallion,’ is kind of a departure for me—my first full-on thriller. I’ve written thrillers before, but they largely relied on a heavy science fiction influence. This is the first that stands all on its own merit, and judging by reader reaction it’s living up to its Dan Brown/James Rollins roots.
I’ve always been a fan of contemporary fiction, putting relatable and modern-feeling characters in extraordinary circumstances. Thrillers are a great way to explore stories of all types. So it’s my belief that ‘The Coelho Medallion’ sets a new tone for the rest of my writing career. I’ll still write scifi and fantasy and anything else that attracts me, but I’ll return to this particular well for years to come.
What was the hardest thing about balancing writing with a day job? What is the hardest thing about writing for a living now?
I worked for years as a copywriter, and as a media producer (documentary television, talk radio, etc.). Those are jobs with a very heavy writing and editing focus. So for me, the toughest part about writing fiction while keeping a day job was just getting myself to sit down again after 10-12 hours of writing and editing, and write and edit more. At least this stuff was more fun.
I taught for a few years, and I wish I could say that I spent summers writing novels and short stories. But the truth was, I spent most of my down time playing video games and going to the movies. I think I was burned out. Or bored. I was single at the time—maybe that has an effect on your ambition. But most likely, I was just being lazy.
These days, now that I’m a full-time author, my biggest challenge is keeping income steady. I still take the occasional copywriting job to fill in the gaps between book income. This is an ocean, and it has waves.
The good news is that those gaps are getting more and more narrow as the days go by, so that I expect book income will be a lot steadier and more reliable. I’m counting on that, actually, as my wife and I just purchased an RV and we intend to travel full time, living off of my book income while I do a sort of roaming and roving book tour, and while we enjoy everything this country has to offer.
Tell us about your schedule and habits back before you made the move to full-time (or what you’re doing now if it hasn’t changed).
Before going full time, my schedule was to get up around 4 AM every morning and write for about three hours before going to my day job.
When my work day was done, I generally crashed. I’m not much of an evening or night person. I get up early, and write when my energy is high, then spend the rest of the day sort of fighting the urge the fall forward and sleep on my keyboard.
That hasn’t really changed much, since going full time. I still get up early. I still write all morning. And I still spend the rest of the day doing something else. I use the afternoons for marketing, or producing podcasts (I host four of them now). And I run the more mundane errands of life. If I have client work (which I’m starting to trim down) I do a lot of it during that time.
In the evenings I tend to do something that doesn’t require the same mental muscles. When I’ve finished a draft of a book, I usually sit in my recliner with the TV going and my laptop resting on a small lap desk, and I tinker with the cover. I design all my own covers—something I don’t necessarily advise others to do—because it relaxes me, and helps me feel that the book is finished. Once I see the cover, I feel like I finally have a book.
But over all, my best and most basic habit is this: Get up and write every single day.
I have a minimum daily word count. It has changed periodically since my day job days, but it’s still there. I went from a minimum of 1,500 words per day to a minimum of 5,000 words per day. That’s about two hours of writing, all told. And I divide that on most days, between work on a book and work on a short story.
I had no idea, early on, how much I could leverage short fiction in my business. But it’s been amazing, and it’s something I highly recommend. I try to write a short story every single day.
If you don’t mind, would you tell us how your sales first stared out? How many books did you have out before you started seeing traction?
I’ll be completely honest here—my sales were complete and total garbage for the first six years of my author career.
I haven’t gone back to tally it up, because I think it would break my heart, but I’d be willing to bet that out of all the sales I’ve made over the entire span of my career, 95% of them were made between 2014 and today. I started publishing in 2008, so for six years I had a pretty stagnant pool.
In 2014 I had only four books published—the first two ‘Citadel’ books, a crappy collection of short stories with no common theme, and a non-fiction book aimed at college students. Of these, the Citadel books were selling the best, but those figures were in the single digits.
That’s because I was one of those guys who thought, “If I write a book, the world will beat down my door to get it!” I had dreams of über fame, off of the first book in an unfinished trilogy, from an author no one had ever heard of. I’m sure there are readers here who can relate.
In 2014 I got serious, though. Actually, technically, I got serious in 2013, toward the end of the year. I realized that if I was going to accomplish this dream of writing books full time, I actually needed to write books. And I needed to market those books. And I basically needed to put out a book more than once every two years.
That’s when I developed my ’30-Day Author’ formula. I figured out exactly what I would need to do to write a book in 30 days, and I did it. Then, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I did it two more times, back to back. And that was that.
Eventually I actually wrote ’30 Day Author’ so I could share the stupid-simple method I use to do this, with people who may feel overwhelmed by the idea of developing a daily writing habit.
At what point in time did you make the decision to support yourself/your family as an author? What was that decision like and how did it feel afterward?
This is a tough question to answer, because the timeline on this is kind of vague. Birth, maybe?
Actually, I think that like a lot of full-time writers I never actually came to that decision, it’s more like it came to me.
I was working as a Creative Director for a $100M software company, and I actually really loved the job. I wasn’t planning to leave, if I’m being completely honest—not unless my books suddenly started selling like crazy. But the company merged with one of it’s subsidiaries, and brought in a more senior-level marketing person who took over the department I’d been running. The new VP of Marketing didn’t think there was much need for a Creative Director. Or copywriters. Or me, really. So I was let go, with a nice severance and some stock options, which paid well later on.
So that decision was kind of made for me, at the time. By that point I had already started getting serious about my writing and about the business of being an author, so getting let go from a full-time job, and having a big hunk of money to go with me, made it kind of easy to get started. I took a chance, rolled the dice, and started writing more books.
I wish I could say that from that point on I was full-time, never looking back. But I still had to take copywriting and marketing work to help pay the bills. I’ve had a very eclectic career, and most of it was spent as a freelancer and contractor, so I had those skills to fall back on when the severance and stock money started to run out. But book income has steadily increased over the past couple of years, and I’m closer than ever to the point where I can support two fully grown adults with stories about super powers and spaceships.
Joke’s on you, college career counselor who told me to go into air conditioning repair. (shakes fist in air)
Do you support yourself completely from writing books or through a variety of work? If so, what else do you do to pay the bills?
I’m close. Getting closer. But I bring income in the doors with a variety of services on top of the the books. I still do copywriting, for example—recently I’ve started writing cover blurbs and website copy for authors. I’ve done some ghostwriting. I’ve edited books for authors. I had a bit of income from podcasts. I get paid for speaking engagements. I do cover design and other design work.
The truth is, a lot of that will still go on even after the books can more than pay for our living. I’m too much of an entrepreneur to just ignore opportunities. What will happen, however, is that I’ll be even more picky about what tasks I take on than I already am. And I’ll be more expensive. I’m already one of the most expensive copywriters around, but I still get people who want to pay for me to do the work, because of the work I deliver. People will pay more when they know you have a proven track record for increasing revenue. Go figure.
I’d love for the books to be 100% of both my income and my retirement fund. But I’d still do a few other things not the side. We’ll call that additional income “gravy.” And I’ll do that because the explorer in me demands that I do it. Everything is a learning opportunity, and it all ends up filtered into the books.
Also, I get bored easy, so I’ll do these things because they can be fun.
Was there ever a point when you felt like quitting writing or didn’t think you’d ever become a full-time author?
Hell yes. In fact, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about that than I’ve actually spent writing for the past 30 years. But I’d never do it. I couldn’t quit if I wanted to. If someone paid me to quit, I’d end up being fired.
Because people who do this aren’t people who can do anything else.
Seriously, look at all the authors you know. Especially look at the authors who have day jobs. Why in the world would you put yourself through all of this? You go to a job every day, bust your hump, take lip from the boss, deal with the stress and anxiety and constant edge-of-disaster of it all, and then you go sit down and write?
Authors—seriously, I mean this about all authors—are the bravest and hardest working people I know. They’re obsessed. And they’re insane. Nobody spends the kind of time and energy we spend, doing work that could just be obscure and thankless at best, without that obsession and insanity.
But we also think about quitting all the time. Because this is thankless, work. It’s the kind of work you love, that you’re passionate about, but it’s so intimately tied to your feeling of self worth that if no one reads it, if no one tells you it’s good, you start to wonder if you’d be better off frying chicken nuggets for a living.
So yeah, I think about quitting. I think about it when the money gets tight (it still does, from time to time). And I think about it when I get crappy reviews (hoo boy). But I’ll never actually quit. I can’t.
I live by Jim Rohn’s philosophy of ambition: “I can do this. I will do this. Or I will die trying.”
Once you start feeling like that, you’re not quitting anything, ever.
Starting out, what were some misconceptions you had of life as a full-time author? Were there any unexpected challenges you never realized before you got to that point in your career?
I honestly thought, early on, that just writing a book would bring readers.
Even more stupid: I knew that no one buys books from authors they’ve never heard of, but I somehow believed that I would be different. I would write a book so amazing that people would just be pulled into its gravitational field, and read it because it demanded to be read.
What a dunce.
I had misconceptions about the author life in general, too. I had visions of rolling out of bed any time I felt like it each morning, flush with rest and eager to sit with the page. I imagined I’d pen a book a year, and that a publisher would give me a big, fat advance for that book, so that all my needs were met, and my only worry in life would be, “What trouble should my zany characters get into today?”
I thought I’d have enough money from advances and royalties to buy a multi-acre farm, with a giant house and a lake and an old barn. I guess I figured I could pay someone to maintain all that, too, because I’m not a farmer.
Basically, if you’ve ever seen an author in a film or on television, that’s the life I figured I’d have. That’s what I’d been trained to believe my whole life, after all.
The reality was this: No one cared. No one was going to pay me anything for my work. No one was even going to read my work.
Unless I made them.
And you make them by doing the real work of being an author. You get out there and meet people. You make connections. You build a list of loyal readers who will buy anything you sell. You connect with other authors, editors, agents, publishers, and anyone who knows anything about the industry, and you learn everything you can from them.
Being an author is about being in business. You’re building a brand, you’re creating a product, and you’re marketing both. Sometimes you get lucky and someone wants to help you—a traditional publisher fronts you some cash, takes on some of the overhead, and provides you with some resources. Even then, you’d better get it in your head early that this business is about you, not them. You will still need to think in terms of marketing and promotion, and building relationships with readers, and building relationships with people in the industry. Because if you can’t pay back the advance, and your book isn’t pulling in sales naturally, the publisher will ditch you, and they’ll keep your book, too.
Sorry—I kind of went on a tirade there. But the point is, when I started out I didn’t think of being an author as being in business. And now I do. And coming to that realization is what allowed me to transition to full time.
What’s one thing about your author career that not many people know?
Most of my books started as fantasies I crafted in my head while going about life as a kid, a college student, and eventually as an adult. There are characters, events, and abilities in my books that were born as fantasies I envisioned at night to put myself to sleep when my mind was racing.
Basically, most of my books are bedtime stories I’ve told myself for years.
It’s kind of like cheating.
What’s the single best piece of advice you have for authors who can’t support themselves with their writing yet? What should they be focusing on?
The best possible advice is the same advice I was given, though not in so many words: Write anyway, and write every day.
Write anyway, because sometimes things suck. Sometimes you’re tired, and sometimes you have no idea what to put on the page. It sounds trite, but the truth is if you just force yourself to start writing anyway, you’ll break through ‘writer’s block.’ And you can always go back and edit what you wrote to make it better.
Write every day, because that’s how you produce a book in a timely way. Rather than spend two years sipping cognac and sucking on a pipe while wearing a smoker’s jacket contemplating the complexities of life so that you can boil them down into their purest, most concentrated essence, just friggin’ write.
Most of the books on the market right now could have been written in 30 days or less, and I’m not even exaggerating. If you write every single day, you will produce more books, faster. Period.
Also there’s this advice I paraphrase from Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’—Don’t put pressure on your art to make your living.
That one’s tough, because that’s exactly what authors hope to do.
But the gist is that you should think of the art first, not the income. Find a way to balance a day job with doing your art, and if you hate the day job find another source of income you like better. Your art—these stories you’re compelled to tell—is a gift to you and to your readers. If it comes down to it, choose the art over the income. Go make a living making coffee for people and write on your lunch breaks. Go take a job arranging flowers or folding clothes or making sandwiches—as long as you can keep writing.
If your day job is keeping you from writing, don’t wait for the writing to take you away from your day job. Go get a better day job that makes it possible for you to spend more time on writing, and then write every chance you get.
If writing is really going to be your full-time career some day, then it doesn’t matter what jobs you take in the meantime, right?
People hate when I give them this advice, and I totally understand why. I would have hated me for it too, honestly. But it’s the truth.
Look at your reasons for doing this, and ask yourself if you really want to write books because you love telling stories, or do you want it because you think it’s an ‘easy and fun way to make a living?’ Because if it’s the former you’ll write even if you work for someone else, and if it’s the latter you’ll quit the second the work gets too hard. And it will get too hard.
But really, the best advice is to write a book, and then write another, and then repeat until you’re incapable of writing any more.
Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to touch on?
You never asked me where my ideas come from. Or how I craft characters. Or whether I prefer to plot my books or just pants the writing.
I get those questions all the time, and they’re the toughest to answer, because there’s nothing clever about them.
I get my ideas where everyone gets their ideas—I steal them. And I craft characters exactly the same way. And I prefer to pants a book, because plotting seems sinister.
But I think there’s a general question at the heart of this interview, and it’s one that everyone reading this is really asking every single day: How do I do this?
And the answer to that meta-question is so simple it’s disgusting: You just do.
Write every single day. Commit to a word count and hit it, every day. Meet as many authors and editors and publishers and agents as you can, take them to coffee if you can, and ask them every question that you can (do not ask them to read your book, help you get a contract, or help you sell it—just ask them to share what they know, and thank them with coffee and a nice hand-written note).
Read a lot. Write a lot. Learn a lot. And grow.
Share all of what you learn with everyone you meet, and hold nothing at all back.
And don’t wait for anyone else to tell you it’s ok to publish, or it’s ok to pursue your dream.
Just do it. Warts and all. Typos and all. Publish, fix the gaffs when you find them, and republish. And do that over and over again until you have so many books that if a handful of readers discover one, they have a vast forest to explore afterward.
Just be sure you’re writing for the love of it, and the full-time income of this business will be a lot easier to reach.