Interview with Kevin Ikenberry
From the Midnight Writers Podcast, Episode 8
Transcribed by Brittany Thurman
Jon: This is Jon.
Lena: This is Lena.
Ben: And I’m Ben.
Jon: And we have with us today, for [his] final episode, Kevin Ikenberry, thank you for joining us.
Kevin: Thank you, it’s been a lot of fun. Hope to do it again sometime.
Jon: Yeah, we’ll have you anytime!
Jon: So, when did you get started writing?
Kevin: Okay, so truth-in-lending, I was an English minor in college, and I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything with that, even though in college I had somebody tell me I was a really good writer, one of my professors. So fast forward about eight or nine years, and I was working at Space Camp. I was the manager of the space camp program for a while, but before I took over that job, I was with the “Aviation Challenge” portion. We had a group of counselors and we created a fictional fighter squad and wrote up little bios for all the fictional pilots. A couple of us actually wrote little short stories for our kids to read, to kind of get an idea of the overall scenario that we were trying to teach them. So that was fun, and I did a little with that—I think I wrote probably six or seven stories, and never never intended to do anything other than share them with our little group and have fun with them. I’ve been an Army Reservist for the last 23 years, and in like four more weeks, I will retire. I was mobilized in 2003 to Fort Bliss and I had a lot of time on my hands, so I actually took some of those stories and combined them and put them into a novel. And again (just) to share with the group, it’s gonna be in the file can forever. I will never get it out or try to do anything with it, because it’s terrible. I recently went back and reread some of it, and I was just laughing; it was just really bad. So I put that away, and I thought that was the end of the writing thing, you know, because it was a story I wanted to tell with that little group of characters, and it was fun. So, I was teaching ROTC in a college in Indiana starting in 2008, and about a year into the job I had a character start talking to me. It was interesting because I would write notes, and little things with world building, and different ideas that would come along, and I started realizing after about two weeks of this that I’d filled up about 15 pages on a notebook, and I probably had a book in my head and I had no idea what to do with it. I figured I needed to go back and kind of re-hone my skills because of how bad everything I thought was. And so I took a creative writing class on the campus, and I turned in the first assignment, and it came back with two words on it: “See me.” And you know that’s either really good or really bad. The professor looked at me point blank and said “Why aren’t you published?” I said, “I have no idea.” So my coursework then the rest of that semester, I wrote three short stories and had to submit them to three different markets apiece, so I did that. And that kind of got me started on writing short fiction, and one of the short stories sold in 2011. “Shipmind’s and Ice Cream” was my first short story to sell. And at that time, I was writing short fiction, but I still had this book in my mind, and so I started writing it without a plan, I kind of wrote everything off the seat of my pants, back then, and it took me 18 months to write, and that was Runs In The Family.
Jon: So, did you write that with Sleeper Protocol at the same time?
Kevin: No. Runs In The Family was the first book I ever wrote; I actually self-published it for a little while and had a lot of problems with file corruption and everything with Amazon. So I ended up taking it down, and I just sat on it for a while, and I decided I was going to focus on another project, and I started writing Sleeper Protocol. I wrote that book, and after it was picked up, the publisher that published Runs In The Family, Strigidae Publishing out here in Colorado Springs said, “Hey, we’d like to take a look at Runs and maybe publish that as our first science fiction book.” And I thought, Oh, all right, fine, I’ll let you take a look at it, and they took a look at it, and they decided that they wanted to buy it. So I had two books come out in January, which was pretty amazing.
Lena: Yeah, that’s impressive.
Kevin: Yeah, it sets a track record that I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep for the rest of my life, but…
Ben: Yeah, you set that bar way too high.
Kevin: And it’s a pretty high bar at this point, but I just started writing and kind of decided to get into it with both feet, per se, and just write.
Ben: so Runs In The Family is sci fi, is Sleeper Protocol also sci fi?
Kevin: They’re both science fiction; Runs In The Family is military science fiction.
Ben: Ok, that would explain the tank in the front.
Kevin: Yeah, tanks, future aircraft, lots of battles and stuff like that. Sleeper Protocol is more of science fiction, but I’ve had several people call it a psychological thriller. I’ve had a lot of folks say it’s got kind of a golden age, kind of science fiction story. It has a happy, for now, ending with the character. So, yeah, I write science fiction, but they’re two very divergent books. What’s interesting is that both of them take place in the same shared universe, in my head. But they’re on two different timelines and they will never meet.
Kevin: It wasn’t intended that way, but when I started writing Sleeper Protocol, it made more and more sense to weave it into that world, and so I went back and wove the two together—but then spent a three-day period on a retreat, writing on this big whiteboard of how I wanted to do this differently, and took pictures. So I had the whole timeline diverged, and it’s hanging in the wall in my office so that I can consult if I need to, so I don’t get confused.
Ben: Was part of the reason for that because you’d already kind of built the one world, that it was easy to kind of put another story into that universe?
Kevin: Yeah, as I built the world in Runs In The Family, I realized this is huge, huge story, and as I looked at the different ways the universe could work, and how the decisions that are made in that book could affect books later on, yeah, there was easily another book in there. There could be even another trilogy, different than the two books that are there. I’ve written several short stories that are tied into the world as well, so it’s one big universe that there’s a lot of room to play in.
Lena: So this was through a small press?
Kevin: Yes, both of them are published through a small press. Red Adept Publishing is the publisher for Sleeper Protocol. I think I told a story in one of the last episodes about how I turned down a bad contract, and so when I turned down that contradict, of course the first thing you do is second guess yourself; Aw, I should have signed that contract, it’d be a published book. Then I reached out to some friends of mine and said, “You know, I want to still do a small press with this particular book, and I wanted to find a really reputable one, so I asked a couple of friends, and Red Adept was mentioned a couple of times. So I submitted to them, and let’s see, it was July or August in 2014, and they called October one day and said, “Hey, we’d like to publish your book,” and I was floored.
Lena: That was a very nice day.
Kevin: It was a very nice day indeed! Yeah I was floored. It was a great process to bring the book to life through the editing. I had a fantastic editor in Alyssa Hall, and my line editor was Sarah Carleton, and they were just fantastic. Both of them made the book so much better.
Lena: Did you have any input on anything involving the cover? Like, is the name yours? Like Sleeper Protocol? Because I know some of the big publishers, they choose for you; like, here’s your story.
Kevin: When I turned the book in, the original title was Walkabout, and the first conversation I had with the publisher on the phone, she said “Nope, that one’s gotta go, there’re too many books with that in the title that can be construed.” And I said “Okay,” so we went through the entire editing process: six content edit passes, five line edit passes, and about the time we were doing the last couple of passes for line editing, the publisher was like, “Okay, we need to start thinking about a title.” And it cramped my brain. For three weeks, I had a big easel sticky pad that was taped to a desk up in the loft in our house, and I would write words, and I went back and read the manuscript again, and would go in again and write key word. I’d try to find ways to match them together without using “Walkabout,” but having the same kind of feel to it. And I beat myself up for three weeks. So, finally, I took what I had scribbled down on that piece of paper and I wrote ten titles. And Sleeper Protocol was one of mine, but what’s more interesting is that it was one that the publisher had come up with as well.
Lena: Oh really? That’s cool!
Ben : Oh, wow.
Kevin: It was like synchronicity; that’s the title, we go forward. On the cover, Red Adept gave me a questionnaire, and said “What are things you’d like to see on the cover?” and “Provide a couple of examples hat are out there that you think might be something similar.” So I went through, I don’t know, probably 150-200 Amazon pages, just looking at thumbnails of cover pages, and came up with three or four that I liked, that had the same kind of feel, and put that together and sent the questionnaire in. I got the first cover proof the night before my birthday last year, and it was funny. It was a sad, but very honorable occasion: my grandfather-in-law passed away, as a World War 2 veteran, and I had the opportunity to be the presiding officer at his funeral, which was tremendous, but that was the next day, on my birthday, as well. So this comes in the night before my birthday, and the publisher calls me and says, “Hey are you near a computer?” And I said, “No. I can be.” So I ran and got the MacBook, flipped it open, and she said, “Okay, I just sent you an email,” and I was floored. Floored. I was so excited. They just nailed it. It was really awesome.
Lena: That’s amazing.
Kevin: The cover on Runs In The Family, I had a lot of input on that one as well, which is good, and there were a lot of great artists that we had go through in that process to come up with the cover, and I am very happy with both of them. But yeah, you don’t normally get the opportunities to have that kind of influence.
Lena: Yeah. Did you get the name for Runs In The Family, is that yours?
Lena: You got to keep it?
Kevin: Yeah, that was the original name and they liked it. They’re gonna keep it.
Kevin: Yeah, it was good.
Jon: Yeah, I remember when you announced your Walkabout changing to Sleeper Protocol, and how excited you were, and I remember you saying that the publisher and you had the same idea like right at the same time.
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah, the last email that they sent, it was just synchronicity, it was like number three or number four on both of our lists, and it was like that’s it. It was the only one that matched.
Jon: When I was reading the book, that stuck out in my mind, that it was originally titled Walkabout, and I could see easily how that was a good title. And then, Where does Sleeper Protocol… and it took me, and I’m like, Oh! That’s a cool name.
Kevin: Yeah, it works out really well, and it was kind of funny because I wrote the sequel for it during NaNoWriMo last year…
Jon: So is that coming out soon?
Kevin: It’s been through my initial beta reader, so now I have to go through and polish and put things back together. Then it will go through my beta team, and we’ll get it ready to go, and hopefully get it turned into a publisher by this summer and see what happens with it. But having Sleeper Protocol as a name made naming the second one a lot easier—the second one is Vendetta Protocol.
Ben: Nice. So will this be a trilogy, or is this just going to be the two?
Kevin: No. You know, that’s kind of funny, because that book was originally just intended to be just a one-off, and what’s funny is, I went through the editing process and my editor Alyssa sends me an email and says, “What if,” and I don’t want to spoil it but, “what if Mally’s still alive?” And I was like, Oh… Oh! OH!” And immediately, I started writing notes: what would that look like, and what would this artificial intelligence program do if she had been able to actually get out of his head, and what would that look like in the next book or two or three. So, honestly, I don’t know if it’s gonna be a trilogy, or four, or five, who knows.
Kevin: I do know a lot of things, though, that will change as the series goes on. Which is a lot of fun, to have that kind of foresight now that I didn’t originally have. Runs In The Family, it’s a trilogy.
Kevin: It’ll be a trilogy.
Ben: Any other ideas you have in the coffers, coming down the pipes at some point?
Kevin: I think we talked about alternate history, I’m gonna wanna try to write. That would be probably a one off, maybe a two or three book thing, we’ll see if it would be received. Quite honestly, that’s pretty much where I’m at right now as far as the long term ideas, because between those universes in Runs In The Family and Sleeper Protocol, a big universe, if I played those timelines out, I’d probably have 12-15 books. Now I just have to have the time to write.
Jon: So what does your family think of your writing?
Kevin: You know, it’s been kind of fun, because my immediate family, my wife and kids (my kids are young, eight and three), they’re supportive. It’s been interesting to develop it from something that was “Ok it’s a little bit of a hobby,” and now it’s “Hey, I’ve sold some short stories,” to all of the sudden, “This is a very serious kind of thing.” It’s been great to have their encouragement. My sister was an English teacher for a long time, so I think she’s kind of jealous sometimes. But I also know that she wants to write children’s book and she is now actively working to do that, and she’s left her teaching job behind, so, I look for her to be able to do something as well. She and I had some fantastic English teachers in high school that, to this day, have an effect on how we write. So, the family reactions have been good.
Jon: That’s cool. Do you think this will be a full time job for you, ever?
Kevin: I would love for it to be. You know it’s something that I can easily… When I actually wrote the first draft for Sleeper Protocol, I had had foot surgery, so I was on my butt for four weeks. I literally was on crutches, I had a metal rod sticking out of my foot. So I had nothing to do and I was able to average between 5,000-6,000 words a day.
Kevin: On that book, I wrote the first draft of that book in seven weeks. Compared to when I wrote Runs In The Family the first time, it took me 18 months to write that book. So yeah, I can hit a groove and I can write pretty fast now, if I get the opportunity.
Jon: Do you think NaNoWriMo has helped you learn how to write faster?
Kevin: Yeah, that and advice I had from Kevin J. Anderson, which was, “Write bad at first, you can always go back and fix it later, just get it out of your head.” And it’s very easy now to just sit down and not worry about the mistakes, and not worry about if, does the gun on the shelf end up in the… Just write, just get it out of your head, because you go back and you pay attention during the rewrite process, and that’s where you can catch all those things. And again with a good editor, you make the book so much better, and so having more sets of eyes to look at the book, rather than, you know, you produce as fast as you can, and then you get one of your friends to look at it and edit it, and then you post it on a self-publishing site. Take the time to really go through it, because it makes a difference.
Lena: So what about your writing process? Like when do you write? It sounds like you’re still working for the army. So, when do you find time?
Kevin: Yeah. I write after the kids go to bed. So when I’m actively involved in a project, my goal is 2,000 words a night, after the kids to go to bed. So the kids are in bed between 8 and 8:30, my wife will usually go to bed a little before me. There’s nights that I can crank out 2,000 words fairly easily, and be in bed you know by 10 o’clock, 10:30, and there’s other nights that it’s 11:30 and I’m still sitting there, but I always try to hit the goal.
Lena: Every night?
Kevin: Probably six nights out of seven. I will normally take one night off just to kind of give myself a break, but then again, there’s also times when I’ve just kept writing, and I can count a lot of times when I’ve gone on to 3,000-3,500 a night just because…I think Stephen King called it, in Misery, the hole in the paper. You fall through the hole in the paper and you just go. And yeah, it’s very easy to do.
Lena: Do you have to do any mental prep, or…?
Kevin: Yeah, you know, I used to write everything off the seat of my pants, and I don’t anymore. I plan a lot for my novels, and so I spend a lot of time outlining. The outline for Vendetta Protocol, the sequel to Sleeper, is 31 pages long because it’s not only the outline with the scenes, but also key things I want to get into, with descriptions and what’s going on around the particular scene, things I want to capture in the process. It makes it easier for me to come in and write it later, the more I detail I’ve gone into in the beginning. I’ll sit down, normally I look at my outline—I write in Scrivener, so on the right-hand side of the screen, you’ve got the Inspector portion, so I’ll usually put a snippet of what the scene that it’s supposed be, and any key data that’s down on the right side, so as I’m going through I can kind of see and just go.
Ben: So, as you’re writing, is there stuff that you mean to include, but the way the plot went, just kind of went around it?
Kevin: Yeah, I throw out outlines all the time. In the Army, we had the saying, “The plane never survives contact with the enemy.” Your outline never survives your characters, because your characters will do something at some point where you’re writing, and—what in the world—and you have to stop and kind of reevaluate. Normally when that happens, I’ve kind of stopped and learned to hit the backspace button as fast as I can, look at it, look at my outline again real quick and see: Can I live with this? And if I live with this, what are the changes that’s going to affect not just the rest of this chapter, but the rest of the book? Or it could be the rest of the timeline. Most of the time, it’s really easy to see, “Yep I’m in,” and I can go with it. And if it’s not, I will hit the delete button, but most of the time, I’ll capture that idea for something later that I can do something again. Your characters are going to change your outline, and you’ve got to be prepared for it, because otherwise you’re just gonna be stuck.
Jon: So how has your outlining process changed over the course of three books now, and the short stories you’ve done beforehand?
Kevin: Sure. That’s a great question. So, I wrote Runs In The Family with no structure at all. It was just, I was gonna write a novel; I know how to know how to write novels because I’ve read novels for a while, and I surely think it should be easy. And so when I wrote it, I had thought I had a pretty good beginning point, thought I had a pretty good midpoint, a pretty endpoint. I thought, I can get the three-act structure, no problem. When I went through the editing process, the first four original chapters are now gone. So it completely started in the wrong place. There were a couple other chapters that were morphed, and changed, and combined. I learned a lot from the writing of that book. When I wrote Sleeper Protocol, I had had the opportunity to meet Lou Anders and talked about Hollywood Formula. Hollywood Formula is basically taking the seven-point story structure, and instead of working with pacing, it works more on emotions from the characters, and the emotional connection of the reader. So when I wrote Sleeper, I ran it through the Hollywood Formula, and there’s a program you can get for Mac, and Windows, now, called Contour by Mariner Software, and it is a screenwriting tool. It goes through and it asks you questions, and it helps you plot out the beats or whatever, and it helps you go through, and it builds an outline for you at the end. You print that off, and that’s your outline. Like I talked about, I wrote that book in seven weeks. I knew at the end of the book that it had a strong emotional hit. In Hollywood Formula, there’s three tenets of it that have to happen in the book, and the closer they happen to the end, and to each other, the more powerful the emotional resonance is. The protagonist gets what they want, they defeat the antagonist, and they reconcile with the stakes character. If you have those three things as close together as possible at the end, you will hit the audience in the feels every time. And I did. I felt like I did. I told a funny story not that long ago, when my wife and I saw interstellar. Interstellar has its flaws, but it’s a very powerful emotional story at the end. And you know we came out of the theater, and I’m bawling.
Ben: Just once? I was like five times.
Kevin: Yeah, I mean tears are rolling down my face, and I’m bawling, and I’m like… “What’s wrong?” she said, “I liked the movie, but I didn’t get that feeling.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” And she looks at me, and I said, “I know that Sleeper Protocol is a good book because of that emotional resonance. It was so powerful, watching that film, that I thought…Man, I really did it. And it was great. The last week, the book was reviewed by Publishers Weekly, which was really crazy and surreal, but one of the keys things that they said was that it was an emotionally powerful debut, and that was exactly what I wanted it to be.
Lena: It pays to do your homework.
Kevin: Yeah. It does.
Ben: Well, I’ve got some work to do.
Lena: I know!
Jon: Congratulations on all of that.
Kevin: Thank you. It’s like I said before, it has been surreal for the last month or so. I have a pretty good idea for where the sales for Sleeper are because it keeps going along, and you know, it goes through the ups and downs of the rating process. I won’t actually see the numbers for a while, but Runs In The Family is going crazy. It’s the only way I can say it. It’s on track to sell 500 copies this month, which is amazing. It is very amazing. I don’t know what do.
Lena: Write more!
Kevin: And that’s kind of been… Yeah, I’m in the process of retiring from the Army, and so I’ve had a lot of running around, errands, kind of things to do, and I’m hopeful to get back to really seriously writing in the next week or two, trying to bang out the rest of the alternate history, and move on and get the sequel ready for Sleeper Protocol. I got a plot. Runs In The Family, I had a little bit more. The originally trilogy that I had planned, I decided to throw out the window. I didn’t want to be the author that brought back a dead character, so…
Ben: Unless you go back in time and and reintroduce…
Lena: It’s just not so good.
Kevin: And you know, it would be real easy to do with the scenes that we talk about, and the two books, it would be real easy, but I decided the main character in Runs In The Family doesn’t need that to happen. There’s other things that she needs to go and do.
Ben: So the sequel will be All in the Family, then?
Kevin: No. You know, actually, I had played around with titles with family. I don’t know that it will. We’ll see. I played with like Family Matters, Family Affair, that sort of thing. But we’re talking about genetically passing down memory, so being able to take memory from someone from our time and basically imprint it into someone’s brain 300 years in the future, that was kind of the idea, so having the tie to the genetic pieces, maybe Runs in the Family…Yeah, it kind of works together, but now I’m not sure of what I want to name the next book. Like I said, I threw out about half of that planned sequel, and re-outlined it, because I decided I wanted to do some different things.
Ben: Well I think Die Hard is already taken, so…
Kevin: Yeah. Die Harder. Die Hardest.
Lena: Die Softer?
Kevin: Yeah. Yeah, something like that. We’ll see what happens with it, though. It’s exciting to be at that place where I really can kind of retool and figure out what I want to do, because those ideas for that particular trilogy are probably five years old, and I’ve grown a lot as a writer in that time. So, there’s some of the stuff I wrote in the last five or six years, where I go back and look at the very beginning like, trope, trope, trope, trope… And you throw those out, and sometimes you just have to kind of keep going. I was afraid of tropism with Sleeper Protocol, because one of the worst tropes you always hear is, don’t have a character with amnesia. My character starts off the book…he wakes up in Australia with no memory.
Jon: That’s kind of the purpose of the whole book.
Kevin: Yeah, and it’s him, recovering his memory of the time, and so what we did through the editing process was cut out about four pages at the beginning of the book, and really pull up where he starts having his first memories, so that he wakes up, there’s that moment of “where am I,” and then the first memory hits, and you’re able to build the book from there, so he’s not amnesiac for long. He starts off in a wheelchair. I wanted to get him out of the wheelchair as soon as I could, too, because talking about his recovery process physically would be very difficult, but I didn’t want to get into that. I wanted to have him get up and ready to go, and show off what the technology had been, so that he would be capable of waking up 40 days after they had gotten his body to where it had needed to be so he’d be able to get up and walk and do those type of things. But not do it well.
Jon: And if he spends all that time in the beginning in a wheelchair, it’s hard when it’s time to say, ok now go walk across America.
Kevin: Yeah, and you gotta get him out, you know, and starting him and getting him… somebody made the comment on one of the initial drafts, “You’re getting him out of the hospital in like two days.” Yep!
Lena: Welcome to the future!
Kevin: Yeah, he’s out! He’s out, he’s moving, he’s doing the things he needs to do, he’s getting the experiences to help him recover his memory. Can I have him sit in the hospital for, you know, eight or ten days? Yeah, I can tell you, I’ve been in a hospital for eight or ten days, and you get bored pretty quick. So why would I want talk about the boring parts?
Lena: Yeah, it’s not where the story is.
Kevin: Yeah, the story is getting him out into the world and letting him explore. Then you can kind of play with how the future has changed and still remained the same in a lot of ways, which was fun.
Ben: Yeah, he’s the Australian Jason Bourne. He doesn’t need hospitals, come one! He gets up and goes, and he’s gone! He’s ready.
Jon: That’s cool. Well, last question: What piece of advice would you give to new authors that are striving for getting where you’ve gotten so far?’
Kevin: Right. Right. Most of the time, you hear people that say, “Oh, I could write a book, if I just had the time.”
Lena: Everybody’s got the time.
Kevin: Everybody’s got the time. It’s your discipline to put your butt in the chair and write. And the more you write, the more things will happen to you. The more you’ll learn, the more you’ll improve and the more successful I think you will ultimately be. It’s all about your self-discipline to sit down and do it. That can be difficult, because we all know as writers, you get that time when you feel like your work is flat, or it’s just crap, and you can’t…you just feel like you just can’t do this anymore. People call it writer’s block, but it’s not—there’s no blockage. Your words are there. It’s just you having to work through them and figure out, “Okay, this project isn’t working. Go write something different.” And I have a friend that will get blocked, and she doesn’t normally write this, but she will go write really steamy erotica, just to jumpstart her brain, and then come back to whatever she was writing and be able to start writing again. Because sometimes you just have to start your brain on something different. And even if it’s sitting down, when you first sit down at a computer and [you’re like,] “Ah, I don’t know what I’m gonna write.” Pull up a document, and write about the sunset you saw on the way home, or something, because every little thing that you can do will help jumpstart your brain, and get you into that mode. Then just sit down and write.
Jon: Or maybe just jump between projects.
Kevin: There are a lot of people that do that. You know, I can’t keep them all straight if I did that. It’s very difficult, so I kind of have to hyper focus on a project to get into it. But then again, yeah, there’s been times when I’ve been stuck on something, so I’ve stopped, rebooted on a short story or done something totally different for a while, and then been able to come back to the book and finish it pretty easily.
Jon: Well, thank you.
Kevin: No worries.
Jon: it’s been awesome having you, and I look forward the next time we can have you on.
Kevin: Absolutely, thank you. I enjoyed it too.
Lena: Yeah, thanks for coming.
Kevin: No worries.
Jon: See you next week.
Jon: Thank you for listening to the Midnight Writers podcast. If you’ve enjoyed this content, sign up for the newsletter on our website, midnightwriterssociety.com, where you’ll get a lot more great information. See you next Wednesday!