Facing Fears, And Writing Unique Characters With Barbara Nickless

How can we move past our fears to write the books that mean the most to us? How can we write unique and compelling characters that keep readers coming back for more in a series?

Barbara Nickless talks about mindset and writing craft in this wide-ranging interview.

In the intro, Planning for a Creative 2024 and Trends for Independent Authors [ALLi]; Reflecting on 2023 and self-publishing trends for 2024 [Draft2Digital]; Launch of GPT store [The Verge]; check out the Jo-bot for writing advice; Innovator GPT; Getty launches their own generative AI [The Verge]; Microsoft announced an AI key on their new keyboards [BBC]; Open AI responds to the NY Times lawsuit.

Plus, thoughts on shifting to mixed grip and why taking a step back is so important to moving forward; History Quill conference; sort out your DMARC records; my book trailer for Beneath the Zoo, and re-assessing my timeline for 2024, a big election year for the US and UK. Join the community at Patreon.com/thecreativepenn


Today’s show is sponsored by ProWritingAid, writing and editing software that goes way beyond just grammar and typo checking. With its detailed reports on how to improve your writing and integration with Scrivener, ProWritingAid will help you improve your book before you send it to an editor, agent or publisher. Check it out for free or get 25% off the premium edition at www.ProWritingAid.com/joanna

Barbara Nickless is the multi-award winning and international bestselling author of the Sydney Rose Parnell crime thrillers and the Dr. Evan Wilding serial killer thrillers.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Tackling fears in order to write
  • The research process for fiction writing
  • Writing for therapy vs. for an audience
  • Tips for writing original characters
  • The writing process of a discovery writer and tools for writing non-linearly
  • Book marketing as a traditionally published author

You can find Barbara at BarbaraNickless.com

Transcript of Interview with Barbara Nickless

Joanna: Barbara Nickless is the multi-award winning and international bestselling author of the Sydney Rose Parnell crime thrillers and the Dr. Evan Wilding serial killer thrillers. So welcome to the show, Barbara.

Barbara: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

Joanna: Oh, yes. I’m so excited to talk to you. But first up—

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Barbara: I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I think it gelled for me when I was three years old. I had eye surgery when I was three, and when I was in the hospital, we weren’t allowed visitors. I just, I took these get-well cards I got from my mom and I started making up stories to write on the back.

I just imitated her handwriting, because I didn’t know how to write, and then when she could visit me, I would tell the stories as if I were actually reading my writing. So even at that point, I think writing was a healing process for me, and I could escape into the stories. 

My first story, I had grand ambitions, Joanna. I intended to write a story about slavery and coming to deal with that. It was a historical novel. I started out with my heroine on a horse, she was going to go to the auction and try to rescue some people. Then I realized I had no idea what I was doing, so she fell off the horse on the second page and died. I had to change the title from “Road to Freedom” to “Trampled by a Horse.”

Joanna: That’s awesome. Wait, how old were you when you decided to tackle slavery as a topic?

Barbara: I think I was about eight.

Joanna: I love that. And actually, before we move on there, this is such a common issue, and I’ve definitely been there too, which is that I’ll care so much about this topic, I want to write this really important book that helps people with this topic. And yet, I mean… Have you yet to do your massive book on dealing with slavery?

Barbara: I have learned to not overreach, but I have a few books on the backburner I hope to get to.

Joanna: Exactly. Okay, so jumping forward from eight—

How did you get into professional writing?

Barbara: It was a long and varied path. I wrote off and on, and then it when I got my undergraduate degree in English literature, I wrote a fantasy novel as my independent project. Then I went into high tech and spent years working as a technical writer.

Oh my gosh, I did so many things. I was piano teacher, I was a cave rescuer, I did this and the other thing and kind of ignored that voice that was telling me to write.

Then in 2012, we lost our house and pretty much everything we owned in a wildfire, the Waldo Canyon wildfire.

At that point I said, either do this, Barbara, or go work for Amnesty International. I mean, do something. That’s what launched the Sydney Parnell series and turned me into a professional writer, much to my amazement.

Joanna: Then from there, so you started writing seriously then—So how did your publishing career progress?

Barbara: I was so lucky. So I agreed with my husband that I would go to ThrillerFest, which is the International Thriller Writers Conference in New York, happens annually.

They have something called PitchFest, which is like one of those dating routines where you sit down with somebody for three minutes, see if you have anything in common, and move on. So with PitchFest, you’re pitching your novel to agents and editors.

My husband and I agreed that this would be my last—almost my first, and also my last—attempt at becoming a published author. It went wonderfully and I found my agent. I literally made an elevator pitch, so it was in PitchFest that I found my first agent. The book, there were multiple bids for it, and we chose Thomas & Mercer.

Joanna: So are you still with Thomas & Mercer for everything? I’m interested because, obviously, we’ve connected now, but I know you know of the indie world. So how are you spanning both at the moment?

Barbara: I am not in the indie world. I’m still with Thomas & Mercer.

My skill set is not in everything that has to be done in indie publishing, and I so admire you for the work that you do. So many of my author friends who have chosen indie pub for a variety of reasons, I have great admiration, but it is not my skill set.

Maybe I’ll go that way, just to keep writing the kinds of books that I want to write. I would love to do a hybrid career, but at this point, it’s all I can do to get a book out a year for Thomas & Mercer.

Joanna: Fair enough. So I just want to circle back on something you said before, which is you ignored the voice that said you wanted to be a writer, and you did all these kinds of other jobs, and you got into the technical writing and all of that, which I definitely had as well.

Obviously, that wildfire was the moment where you were like, I’ve got to take a chance on something.

For people who might be ignoring that voice, I mean, it is a huge risk. I mean, you’ve gotten to this crossroads, I guess, where you’d already lost so much, so it was less of a risk. But we hope that everyone doesn’t have to have a wildfire in order to make a jump. So I mean—

Can you speak to the courage needed to step into a new life and some of the wavering that must have occurred?

Because it’s that beginning, isn’t it? That’s so hard.

Barbara: You’re absolutely right.

It’s a bit like the hero’s journey, where sometimes we can choose to cross that threshold and take a new path, and other times we get dropped kicked into our new world, and we have to figure it out.

That’s what the fire did for me, but I think without that, I ultimately would have learned to listen to that voice.

It was fear that kept me away from it. And also, it’s very hard in our world to announce, “I’m a writer. You need to respect my time. This is a thing I’m doing.”

So at that point, nobody was really paying attention to what I was doing. I was rebuilding, almost literally, our lives after the wildfire.

So I could sneak in that time to write. It did not come easily at first because I still carried that fear, and then exactly as you said, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve lost so much. I’ve survived. I’m still sitting here. I can do this. If I fail, I’d love to find out now and move on.”

I hope that people can dig deep into themselves and find that inner voice, and let that voice speak without worrying about what comes of it. What does it matter if you don’t publish?

I mean, it’s a lovely dream that most writers have, but —

The important thing is the story because that’s the only thing that we can control.

We can’t control how the world reacts to what we produce, but the act of producing itself is a balm to the soul.

Joanna: Yes, I mean, that’s what we have to keep coming back to, and that’s why I’m still doing this as well.

It’s that all the other stuff is making a living, and you can make a living in other ways, you know, but it’s the act of creation. You know, I have on my wall here, “Measure your life by what you create,” and that, to me, is the point.

It’s like, what have I created this month, this year that I feel like I’ve made some kind of—I don’t know. The work, as you say, the work is important to me, but also the work can touch other people.

Like we were talking before we hit record, both of us were kind of aware of each other and had read each other’s work without actually knowing each other. Then we connected, which is amazing.

I did want to ask you on this, because you mentioned earlier that you could have gone down the route of Amnesty International, and you talked before about caring about slavery, so you’ve obviously got this sort of social justice side of you.

One of the things that comes up a lot for fiction writers is—

Should I be doing something “better” with my time than writing fiction?

And this came up for a lot of us in the pandemic. It was like, oh, my goodness, should I just go and train as a doctor or nurse or caring or something? So how do you deal with that feeling of, you know, is this enough for the world?

Barbara: Oh, I absolutely love this question, and I grapple with it every day. Is what I’m doing useful in any way? And no matter what you’re writing, you’re offering something to someone.

Whether it’s an escape, whether it’s a new way to look at things, whether it’s an understanding of somebody and their life that you didn’t understand before.

It all adds to this great human collective, I guess the Jungian collective unconscious, that allows us to support each other.

I was rewarded with my Sydney Parnell series by hearing from veterans and from families of veterans, saying, “Thank you, this is exactly what it’s like to come home from war and to be around people who don’t understand what I have been through,” or “Thank you for supporting my husband, or my son, or my brother in his or her struggle to deal with this.” So even a book written primarily for entertainment can offer more.

That said, I do want to do a historical novel that grapples with the situation in Israel and Palestine, which has just exploded, obviously, recently. I managed to get in and out last May, into Israel and the West Bank when things were relatively calm, and gained new insights. Now that book feels extremely important, but it’s like the book on slavery.

Am I the person to tell the story? Do I have the skill set to tell the story?

So I grapple with that, too.

Joanna: Actually, this is a difficulty that a lot of people talk about, and as you know, it’s very hard. There’s one opinion that says you should not write anything that is not based on your lived experience.

Then there’s the other side which says, you are a fiction writer, you do research and try your best, fiction is about empathy and all this, and our books would be very boring if they were just about the people we are.

What are your feelings on this, considering some of the massive topics that you might choose?

Barbara: Yes, yes. I mean, I’m grappling with that too, as I’m sure you are. I firmly believe that we should be allowed to tell the stories that we want to tell. I also don’t want to bump other voices.

So it’s been lovely to see this push toward diversity and towards mainstreaming voices that were sidelined. I just hope that there’s room for all of us, and I hope that there’s understanding and compassion and forgiveness for all of us attempting to write stories that are not our lived experience. 

I think this struggle is going to go on for a time, and then it will settle. Hopefully, it will settle with a broader and more diverse audience than we have now. But again, I hope we can all tell the stories that matter to us, that speak to our heart.

Joanna: Yes, absolutely. I mean, again, I wouldn’t want to do this if I was only writing stories about middle-aged, middle-class, white women living in Bath. It would be quite boring. But I guess on that, even though both of us primarily write fiction, research is a huge part of the process.

Tell us a bit about your research process.

Barbara: I love research. And if somebody had told me when I was a kid that, “Oh, you can grow up to be a historian and a researcher, or you can be somebody’s research assistant,” I’m not sure I would have turned into a fiction novelist.

Writing is almost an excuse for me to explore the things that interest me.

Joanna: Me too!

Barbara: Yes, I know. It shines so beautifully in your work. And I know you travel for your stories, as do I, and that’s one of the greatest pleasures. It’s almost as if I’m giving myself permission to go on vacation, and it’s a tax write-off. So that’s wonderful.

One of the things that happened with the new series, with the Dr. Evan Wilding books—and I’m going to be just very frank here because we’ve talked about the shadow writing—as I was starting At First Light, which is the first book in that series, I lost my son to epilepsy, something called SUDEP, Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy. One day he was here, and the next day he was gone.

Again, it was writing through healing.

What I got to do in that book was do a deep dive into the things I had loved so much in college, which was Old English literature, the Viking Age people, and that helped me cope with the trauma of losing him. So that’s, again, the beauty of writing. Hopefully, it touches our audience, but it also helps us as well. 

I had been to England, I’ve been to Bath. In fact, I hitchhiked my way to Bath. It was wonderful. So I didn’t feel the need to go back for that. And it was during the pandemic, so it wasn’t possible. But some of my other books have taken me in other places, and the people you meet are the highlight.

Joanna: Obviously, I’m so sorry about your son. It’s awful that that happened to you, and I’m so glad you found solace in writing. I feel like this is another part of being a writer, is that we can put our pain onto the page. I wonder if maybe—

Could you comment on the difference between writing for therapy and writing for an audience for publication?

Because I do feel there is a bit of a line there.

Barbara: Yes, that’s a great topic.

So I teach creative writing to veterans, it’s part of a collaboration between the US Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts, because they have learned how much writing is a healing process. It’s interesting the difference between journaling and creating fiction for potential publication, and my students do both.

What I have found, personally, is I can pour my heartache into my characters and process it through them, even when I’m writing professionally. I think that’s what touches readers, the emotion is genuine and they feel it.

We’ve all gone through our traumas and our losses and our griefs, so seeing how a character copes with that can be helpful. So it’s a combination of both, I think.

Joanna: Yes, except I don’t seem to remember, you know, Dr. Evan Wilding doesn’t lose a son to epilepsy, for example.

It’s not a direct connection between the character experiencing what you experience, which I think sometimes people think fictionalizing is the best way, but you’ve almost just put it in there in different forms, I guess.

Barbara: I think it’s almost an archetypal thing. And in different forms, you’re exactly right.

So Evan Wilding is four feet five inches, and he has to walk through the world that way. He cannot pretend to be anything other than what he is on the outside. That’s its own form of learning to adjust to the world when the world won’t adjust to us.

So I could sort of displace my traumas and look at him. He’s actually way mentally healthier than I am. He doesn’t have too many issues. It still allowed me to push through that and then to create what made my killer who he is, the traumas that our villains go through.

Joanna: Yes, and I love the books of Dr. Evan Wilding, particularly. I just love them. I think they’re fantastic. They’re so good. For those people who like the sort of brainy thrillers, I would say, your research process is awesome. I love it. 

Tell us more about Dr. Evan Wilding, because the research stuff is really interesting, but he is a great character. So tell us a bit more. I mean, you said, obviously, he’s short, very short. Tell us more about him. Also—

What are your tips for writing original characters?

Barbara: Sure. He is a semiotician, which people are rarely familiar with that term. So a semiotician is somebody who studies science and symbols across cultures. He’s a forensic semiotician, particularly. So he focuses on those aspects that sometimes show up at crime scenes, and that’s a lot of fun.

That was a love of mine. I love symbolism, as I know you do. He was actually a character I created about 20 years ago and finally found a place for him. He came sort of like Athena from Zeus’s head, he was just there. 

Some of my other characters, it’s more work, but in a good way. So it’s a combination of observation and research. For example, with Sydney Parnell in my first series, she’s a former Marine and she served in mortuary affairs. So she has a very unique perspective on the war, and she came home hunted, in a way.

So that was the research part, and then just letting the elements of those characters kind of just compost. Let them stick around until a character starts to form.

Sometimes there’ll be a lightning bolt. I’m sure you have felt this where suddenly there’s the character after all that time. Imbuing them with interests that you share lets you revel in that.

So Sydney drinks a lot of whiskey, I won’t say I drink a lot, but I enjoy a good single malt. And of course, Evan with this falconry and other aspects of his job, it just let me indulge my own interests. So I would advise writers to let that go, enjoy that.

Joanna: It’s interesting. You mentioned the falconry there, you’ve got some secondary characters, including his ax-throwing sidekick, research assistant lady who’s amazing, and his brother, who is more like a sort of Indiana Jones character who we’ll come back to.

But it’s almost like you’ve given yourself permission to include some quite extreme hobbies and just not a usual group of things.

Sometimes people are like, oh, this just isn’t lifelike enough for a crime novel or a thriller, but that’s actually what makes them interesting. So did you think about that at all? Or were you like, “I really like axe throwing, I’m just going to put it in.”

Barbara: I didn’t give it too much thought. It was not a plot development. It’s like, this is so fun and it just seemed like something Diana would do. So yes, just throwing all of those things in for fun.

They’re real things, there are lots of axe throwers there.

I used to be in a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism, and that’s where I learned to sword fight.

These people are walking among us. It’s not as far-fetched as some people might think.

Joanna: I mean, academia is an interesting place!

Barbara: Very.

Joanna: For sure. Just coming back to Dr. Evan Wilding, I mean, when I’m reading it, I am seeing Peter Dinklage.

Barbara: Oh, yes.

Joanna: As Evan Wilding. For people who don’t know, he’s Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. I think he would be marvelous. I mean, have you had any interest, because I think he would be amazing.

Barbara: I’ve heard that from so many people, and, oh my gosh, wouldn’t that just be fantastic?

Joanna: You should send it to him. Have you sent it to him?

Barbara: I don’t think he’d pay any attention to something from me.

Joanna: You should totally do it, though, because he’s a brainy guy. It would be awesome.

But yes, it was funny because often we do have actors in mind, I guess. I do in my mind when I write characters, so I think that’s really interesting. So, I guess you’ve said a bit there about throwing things in that you’re interested in, but—

How do you make sure that the whole cast of characters gives you enough across a series?

Barbara: Oh, that’s a great question, and I wish I had a brilliant answer. I’m not sure I think that far ahead.

I create characters that I want to spend time with, or the kinds of characters who give me nightmares, who also intrigue me and I want to spend time with.

I’ve never been good about planning characters across series, so it’s a very organic process for me. I hope that if I find these characters, and especially the secondary characters, interesting, that the reader will as well, and that they’ll see themselves in one or another character.

River Wilding, Evan’s brother, was one of the toughest because, like you said, he’s a sort of Indiana Jones character, and I didn’t want to do an Indiana Jones knockoff.

So I struggled with that, because of course, I love Indiana Jones, but I wanted River to be his own man. And my editor has expressed interest in doing a spin-off series with River and Diana, which would just be a hoot.

Joanna: That would be awesome. You should do that.

Barbara: I very well may.

Joanna: Well, I think that’s interesting. But just coming back to, I guess, you said you’re organic there. So what is your writing process in terms of—

Are you coming up with plot first or starting with the characters? What’s your process?

Barbara: I’m still trying to figure that out.

So the fact that my publisher wants a book every nine to twelve months, and I am glacially slow, not because I want to be. It’s just damn, I have so many stories, I wish I were a faster writer.

That is something I’m trying to work out, and in that process, I’m starting to plot more in advance. I’ve learned that not only do I need to know what my hero is up to, I need to know what my bad guy is up to so that there’s an appropriate action and reaction going on.

I’ll never be able to do the Jeffery Deaver process, which is he spends the bulk of his time thinking through the entire plot. He’s like a chess master. He’s thought the entire game through and planned his twist, and so that when he sits down to write the process is really quick. I will never be able to do that.

I get frustrated with the process of plotting, I just want to start getting words on page. I never know where the story is going to go until I’m actually in that process. I think it was Joan Didion who said, “I write to know what I’m thinking,” and that’s that story process for me. It is not efficient. So if you have some tips, tell me.

Joanna: Well, funnily enough, I’m also a discovery writer. So I’m pretty similar to you. Maybe that’s why I like your books, as well.

I generally start with a place and then there’ll be some kind of story kernel, I guess, and then go from there. To me, it’s like wrangling chaos.

Barbara: Yes, yes. Oh, that’s beautiful. I love that.

Joanna: Whereas, like you said, Jeffery Deaver is like known for writing a 200-page outline, and then literally just goes back and makes 200 pages into like 500 pages.

Barbara: Yes, exactly. I admire him for that. Like I said, I could not do it. I could write a 200-page outline, and on page two, I would have headed off in a different direction. Just not helpful.

Joanna: I don’t know if I’d want to do an outline like that because I guess once I know what’s going to happen, I don’t think I would write the book.

Barbara: Exactly, exactly. It is a discovery process, as you said. Once I know what’s happened, what’s the point?

Joanna: Yes, that’s interesting. Okay. So you also mentioned there that you are glacially slow as a writer.

So what does that mean? Does that mean that you might only write a couple of hundred words a day? Or do you think about things for ages and then just kind of binge right towards the end of the deadline?

How do you actually get words on the page?

Barbara: So I’m binge-writing because I have a deadline at the end of this month.

I’ll start out with research just to sort of figure out what the bones of the story might be. I force myself to not give too much time over to that, but I really couldn’t tell you in terms of weeks or months, how long that process lasts, and it goes on throughout the book.

I will move in and out of, “oh, I’m going to do a thousand words today.” That doesn’t work for me, because I’ll use a lot of adverbs and adjectives just to bump up my word count. “Yay, it’s 10 AM, and I am and I’m done for the day!”  So it’s more of a time thing. Okay, I’m going to write for two hours or three hours, and that’s what I do in the morning, and then I go back in the afternoon to edit.

I do get derailed, and I do spend a lot of time going back over stuff. That’s probably where I lose more time than I should. I’m very linear when I’m writing, it’s hard for me to jump around. So that’s a process I’m working on.

I’ve lately come to think of writing a novel as being a maestro, being in front of an orchestra, and bringing in the horns, or bringing in the strings, or turning to the soloist.

It’s a more organic and jumping around process than I’ve let myself enjoy before. So it’ll be interesting to see how this current book comes out as I’ve done that process.

Joanna: This is interesting because this is where we differ, in that I write out of order. I never write in a linear fashion. Then I, kind of at the end—because I use Scrivener—I don’t know if you use Scrivener?

Barbara: No, I’ve been wanting to. So you like it?

Joanna: Oh, I love it, and the main reason is because you can just drag and drop scenes. So I write in scenes. So I’ll write a scene, you know, Diana and River doing axe throwing in the garden, I remember that from the latest book.

So I’ll write that scene and then that will be in the Scrivener folder, and then I’ll write another scene, the murderer guy having a fight or whatever, and then I don’t know how they all hang together until quite late in the process.

Then I’ll just kind of move them around, and then I’ll have to print it all out and read it, and then figure out where it goes from there. But no, Scrivener is amazing because you can just drag and drop scenes, and then just re-compile into a finished manuscript.

Barbara: Oh my gosh, I love that because I tend to see stories like movie trailers. So I would picture the scene with River and Diana and their axe throwing competition or the fight by the river, which was tough to write, River by the river. River by the Chicago River, that was tough.

I’d never thought of actually writing that way, even though that’s how it unfurls in my mind. So you’ve inspired me, I’m going to give this a try.

Joanna: Oh, good. Well, I will send you my little video tutorial on how to use Scrivener, and I’ll put it in the show notes for anyone else.

It made a real difference for me because I was like, I just don’t want to write that, I don’t know what happens next, or I’m going to write some big scene, or I just want to write this fight scene. I know something’s going to happen there so I’m going to write that, and I’ll figure out what happens later.

Barbara: How do I get there from here? Yes.

Joanna: Yes, exactly. Oh, it might work for you. You never know. That’s very cool.

Earlier you said that your editor was interested in a spin off, but also that you have all these stories that you want to write. So I wondered, how do you decide on what to write next?

How do you balance your creative muse with the practical side of having an editor at a publisher and an agent to keep happy?

Barbara: Yes, that is a balancing act, for sure. The way the process works for me is I will submit several ideas, and my agent, she said, you’re very prolific. I said, what do you mean, I can hardly crank out a book in a year. And she said, no, you’re idea-prolific.

This last time, we whittled my already whittled list of ten ideas down to, I think, eight, submitted those to my editor, who said, wow, this is an embarrassment of riches, which one of these do you want to write? So that was a lot of fun. 

I would love to continue my series, and I don’t see that happening unless I indie pub. So that’s, again, where the publishing side of it and all the aspects of that can run up against what I want to do. People are astonished when I say, well, my publisher doesn’t want any more Evan Wilding books.

They say, well, can’t you write what you want to write? Well, no, it’s a business, and there’s a lot that goes into making those decisions. So yes, it’s a balancing act, and maybe I can get that hybrid career going at some point.

Joanna: I mean, personally, I’d like some more of those, and Evan as a character. It is interesting, especially when you’re with a publishing house that has a particular niche and a particular vibe going on.

I think the Evan Wilding books are a longer burn, you know, you’re going to acquire readers over time. Those readers really love the character and the series and want more of them, but it’s not like, oh, out the gate, 100 million people buy the books.

Barbara: Right, and it’s interesting to see whatever kind of audience that that a book picks up. With the Evan books, it’s been wonderful to hear from college English professors, or human rights activists, or attorneys.

It’s interesting, and I hope that you’re right, that it’s a slow burn. I think the books are selling well by what would be many publisher standards. My publisher has a pretty high bar. So we’ll just see how things go.

Joanna: Yes, indeed. Well, I mean, it’s interesting, though, because you’ve now got the two series.

So do you think you want to carry both series on? Are you going to be starting another one? I know the more series you have, the more difficult it is to kind of satisfy the readers of all of them.

Barbara: Oh, my goodness, how do you do that? And you do it so well. I’m actually writing my first standalone now.

I’m breaking into espionage, which is something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. So that will be interesting too. Will my readers stay with me for this kind of book? I hope they come for their faith in my ability to create good characters and then stay for the story. We’ll see.

Joanna: Well, that brings up an interesting point about book marketing, because even traditionally published authors have to do some book marketing.

What do you focus on for book marketing?

Barbara: This is really embarrassing for me — I don’t.

My publisher is very good at marketing. I know that I need to do more, and I want to do more, I want to figure this out, but it seems to be all I could do, like I said, to get the book out, that glacially slow thing. So to add marketing… I think it was you who said that you devote a day of the week to that?

Joanna: No, no. I tend to do creative stuff in the morning, and then in the afternoon, I’ll do business stuff and marketing stuff.

Barbara: Oh, that makes sense. That’s really good. Someone who’s very successful writes Monday through Thursday, and then devotes Friday to marketing. I keep thinking I’m going to get to that point, but I haven’t yet.

Joanna: Well, you at least have a website, right? And you have an email list?

Barbara: I do, I do. I need to create a reader magnet. Is that the right term? Something to entice people to sign up for my newsletter.

Joanna: Well, short stories are good. I’m pretty sure I’m on your email list. Is it just a sign up right now?

Barbara: It’s just a passive sign up, yes. So thank you for being on my list. One of these days I’ll get a newsletter out.

Joanna: Well, there is that. Even just the passive idea, I think, is important. I guess we should also point out, and this is kind of why it’s interesting to talk to you, we should point out, you know, I’m a fan of your books, and yet you said you don’t do any marketing.

Now obviously, Thomas & Mercer is Amazon, so they have a lot of marketing built in. But you can do all the marketing in the world, and then your books don’t resonate with people. They publish a hell of a lot of other books per year, like they publish a lot of books.

Barbara: And they are acquiring so many new authors. Yes.

Joanna: I mean, they are pumping them out. They must be putting out several hundred just under Thomas & Mercer alone.

Barbara: Absolutely.

Joanna: Yes.

As readers, we find the authors that we enjoy. Somehow we find them even without hardcore marketing.

Barbara: I don’t even remember. Something about your books flashed in front of me, and I went, “Oh, that’s what I want to read,” but I don’t even remember how it happened.

Joanna: Yes, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I was reflecting on this the other week on the beginning of this podcast. It was The Year of the Locust. Have you seen that? Terry Hayes’s latest book?

Barbara: No.

Joanna: You might like that as an espionage thing. But his last book came out over a decade ago, and this is only his second book. He doesn’t have an email list, he’s not done anything, his preorder had been canceled like four times, and yet, the day it comes out, I’m reading it.

Barbara: Oh, my gosh, wow. Yes, I will check this out. But how does he do that? Wow.

Joanna: Yes, I mean, it’s a lot to do with the original book was so very good. It was like, okay, well, I really want to read this again, and the second book was also good.

It is interesting, I think —

We obsess about the need for marketing, and yet, the most important thing is to write the books that we want to write, and something about that will connect with someone else at some point.

Barbara: Yes. I really do believe that.

It’s that juggling balance of how much do we want to produce and what can we reasonably do in a reasonable time. I mean, I look at you, and I’m just astonished at your level of productivity, and yet producing high quality work.

I’m afraid if I tried your process, if I tried to be as productive as you are, I would not produce high quality work. Do you have thoughts on that? Is it discipline? Is it drive?

Joanna: I think it’s also that I write shorter books than you!

Barbara: Well, I should try that too. I don’t mean to write long books, they just swell. They’re like those little sponges when you drop them in the water and they just grow.

Joanna: Exactly. So probably for your three Evan Wildings, that’s probably six of my ARKANE thrillers.

So I think that there are different things, but again, it’s looking at our body of work and saying, are we happy with our body of work? So I guess moving into espionage is really interesting.

What else do you see for the years ahead?

You’ve mentioned maybe there might be some part of you that wants to be hybrid. Have you got any other things sort of burning away?

Barbara: I will definitely die before I get all the ideas written that I want to write.

That historical fiction that I mentioned involving Israel and Palestine, other historical novels, other ideas for series. It’s frustrating for me that I don’t write faster so that I can get to those.

I hope that the espionage thing, when we throw that at the wall, that it sticks, because I find that world absolutely fascinating. Especially the world we live in now, and all the things that are happening beneath the surface or are happening on the other side of the world that are affecting people in America and Europe, I think it’s important for people to understand those things. So we’ll see where that goes.

So I guess, bottom line, my answer is we’ll see what happens with this book. Meanwhile, I’m going to jump into the historical novel, and also the River and Diana. So many things are calling. Maybe Scrivener will help.

Joanna: Yes, maybe it will. You never know. So—

Where can people find you and your books online?

Barbara: The easiest place to find my books is on Amazon. You can look up Barbara Nickless. If you want to follow me, then that would be great. You’ll get notifications on my upcoming books. My website is www.BarbaraNickless.com. Come and poke around, that would be great.

Joanna: Well, thanks so much for your time, Barbara. That was great.

Barbara: It was a lot of fun. Thank you.

The post Facing Fears, And Writing Unique Characters With Barbara Nickless first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • January 18, 2024