Today, I have have a real treat for you on Writing to be Read. My interview today is with a very funny guy, who is a successful independent author. He’s a family man, with a background in business, so book marketing and promotion is just another part of the job for him. He’s got two books which have both been recently released, Poggibonsi: An Italian Misadventure? and The Navigators, which we will learn more about right here.
Dan has so much to share with us that I’m going to structure this interview a bit differently than I have on interviews in the past. The first part will allow us to get to know Dan a little as a person. The second part will delve into his marketing knowledge, followed up with the last section which will probe into his writing techniques, what writing means to him and questions on craft. So, without further ado, let me introduce to you, independent author Dan Alatorre.
Kaye: You are a family man, Dan. What are your secrets for juggling writing with family?
Dan: I think if you are a writer you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable “you spend too much time on the computer” conversation/argument.
That’s just how it works.
So, my recommendation is, give work its proper due and give family its proper due and give writing its proper due. How you balance that is, you have to decide whether or not spending time with your young children is important or not. (Answer: IT IS.)
When my daughter goes to her dance class or a Girl Scout Daisies Troop meeting, that’s writing time for me. When she’s going to one of her little girlfriends’ birthday parties, that’s writing time for me. However, I make pizza from scratch every Friday afternoon for my family and that’s family time. I don’t write then. When she was younger, I would write after she went to bed at 8 PM, but often that is time that should be spent with the spouse. Adult time.
Me, I get up at 4:30 in the morning to write for a few hours. That’s how I manage it. I also watch very few TV shows, and the ones I watch are all recorded so I can skip all the commercials. In other words, I utilize a lot of time saving devices but I am also thinking about my stories pretty much all the time, so when I sit down to write I’m ready to let loose. If we are at Busch Gardens and I get a good idea, I will excuse myself for a moment and tell the idea into my phone – and then get right back to the family. So they lose me for a minute or two but I got my idea captured.
And I’m not talking about being there half-hearted – you need to be there 100% for your kids especially when they’re young. But there’s always two minutes here and there if you have a great story idea. Nobody’s going to complain about that. What they complain about is when you take all that family time for your writing and then keep doing things like excusing yourself at Busch Gardens. That’s not gonna fly.
Now, with all that said, every spouse of a writer is going to understand occasionally you are in the zone and you just have to keep going. Whether that is getting up early or working late or whatever for a few days or a week, they get it. They can see it on your face and every time you talk to them you are excited about it. I’m just saying, if you are willing to give them what they need, they will give you what you need. Be generous with them and then be very selfish when you need to be. That also works.
Kaye: A lot of your stories come from your own experience as a parent, things you learned from your daughter, Savvy, and they make us laugh. Do you have a knack for finding the humorous side of things to use in your stories, or is it something you have to work at?
Dan: Both. (I hate when you offer somebody a choice and they choose both things, but in this case it’s really true.) I’m a funny guy. I have a knack for finding the funny things in life, and that’s rampant in certain characters in my stories. Sam in Poggibonsi is a scream – she steals the show. In Savvy stories, my daughter does.
I’ve always had a good sense of humor and I have always been able to make people laugh. When I was a child – I have six brothers and sisters – so around the dinner table it was tough to compete for mom and dad’s attention. Cracking a joke or being able to slip in a funny comment was a way to bring the house down and get a little recognition. I was not a class clown in school, though! Okay, maybe a little. But I was the guy who would do a stand-up routine at the variety show or write stuff for the newspaper.
Before I started writing a blog, I was putting stories on Facebook for my wife’s friends and my friends. I would put a post up at five in the morning and by dinner time there would be 100 comments saying how I made everybody cry before they went to work! Other times they would be a bunch of comments saying how hilarious that story was and that I should write a book. Eventually I listened to them.
But the subject matter of those early stories was my daughter – and anybody who spends five minutes around little kids either decides they’re a pain in the ass or they are amazing and brilliant and hilarious. I fit into that second category. My daughter cracks me up and now that she knows she can, she has her routines that she does that bust me up every single time. So she inherited a funny bone from me and from her mother. My wife is very funny, too.
Kaye: What is the one thing you hope to teach your children?
Dan: It’s a little early to try to teach them this particular lesson, but I have been fortunate enough to come from a large family so my nieces and nephews have gone through college and are making their way in the world. The advice I give to them as young adults is: pursue your passion. Whatever gives you joy in life, do that for a living. Don’t worry about the money, because if you hate your job you will be spending your money on being happy. If you do what you love, you can get by and a lot less money.
Nobody listens, but that’s the advice I give.
At her young age, my daughter enjoys ideas of being a fashion designer and a singer and a writer. Right now she can keep all those thoughts in her head. When it gets closer to the time when she actually has to decide, I hope I am able to be behind her 100% in whatever she chooses. And I hope she chooses with her heart as much as with her head. I work with too many new authors who are 35 and 45 and 55 finally started writing, when they wanted to do it their whole lives. I think we need to follow our passions much earlier in life. I’m not sure Americans foster that in our children.
Kaye: How would you describe yourself in three words?
Dan: Hmmm… only three?
Intense. Hilarious. Smart.
But I think not in that order. I think if you asked three or four people who have read my stories, like three or four of my critique partners that I use all the time, they would say smart and then funny and then prolific or something. I don’t know if they would go with intense.
Kaye: What did your road to publication look like?
I found an agent through a friend and the agent kind of started doing things along the traditional path of publication, which is known to move at a glacially slow pace. I came from the business world of Fortune 500 companies, and business moves fast. If you say you’re going to read something in six weeks, I need to be able to call you at six weeks plus one day and get your thoughts on it.
Traditional publishing doesn’t work that way. They they say six weeks, and then you call after six weeks and they say they need another six weeks. That’s why books take two years to come out. I’m not saying my way is better, I’m just saying after being exposed to that type of a slow process, I realized it was not for me. I have no problem working on a project for two years and polishing it, I just have zero patience for giving someone your finished product, a book that is ready to go – and letting them sit on it for two years.
So the agent and I parted ways and I have not really considered going traditional since then, but I am not adverse to it. It is good for certain stories and it is not good for really unique or groundbreaking stories. That may change, but right now that’s the case and that’s been the case for a few years. I don’t really see it changing, but I do see the role of traditional publisher changing. In my mind, they have to get quicker. To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t come across their desk every day, but then again maybe it does. There sludge piles are so big they’d never know. They’re never getting to a lot of the good stuff, and since the majority of trad books don’t earn back their advance, I’d say their selection process sucks and their competency level is questionable at best.
Kaye: With your background in business, it seems like promotion and marketing are pretty second nature for you. In fact, we found each other because you were looking for authors to swap interviews with, because you know that interviews are good marketing tools. What was the most fun interview you’ve ever done? Why?
Dan: I did an interview with Kathleen Townsend that was just hilarious. That was probably my best written interview prior to this one, but it was done for a different reason. I was just trying to make her laugh and her readers laugh. In this interview, I’m trying to cull a little more in depth because your readership skews different from hers. I hope authors understand interviews are certainly done to sell books, but sometimes they’re done to educate and sometimes they’re done to entertain. The best ones are a combination of all those things.
Anyway, one of the best interviews I ever did was when Jenny and Allison interviewed me for the release of The Navigators. We set up a three-way video call that we recorded. That was really a lot of fun.
The interview that hands-down was the funniest interview I ever did was interviewing the author of the bestseller The Fourth Descendant for a trilogy she was releasing called Project Renovatio. We probably spent two hours doing the interview and we probably laughed hysterically for one hour and 50 minutes of it. The 10 minutes when we weren’t laughing is most of what we used for the interview. The other 90% was just a hilarious good time. We became great friends – we were good friends before that interview but we were great friends after that interview. It was just nonstop laughter. Completely unusable, and it wasn’t outtakes, it was just making jokes and laughing.
One of my great joys in life is I can go to that interview if I’m having a crappy day and I can look at the outtakes and within 10 minutes I’m laughing my butt off. There’s a snippet of it on YouTube. Most of the time she (the interviewee) is laughing and wiping her mascara out of her eyes because she’s laughing her so hard she’s crying. Great interview.
Kaye: What’s your favorite social media site for promotion?
Dan: Specifically for promotion? Probably Facebook, and in that, Facebook ads. It depends on what you’re trying to do. New authors need to build an author platform, and Facebook is really good for helping do that, but there are a million ways to waste your money when you are trying to pay for advertising.
Probably for every good add source I paid for, I have paid for 10 bad ones. My advice to people is this: track everything. Look at your reports every day and when you run an ad try to the best of your ability to only run one ad with one promoter at a time. If you run five ads on Mother’s Day and do well, how do you know which one sold all the books? You don’t. If you run your ads one at a time and track your results, you will. Then you can replicate your success, if it’s replicate-able.
That’s not always possible, but to the extent that it’s possible please try to track your results. Quit giving to the people who don’t give you results.
Kaye: What do you do for cover art? DIY, or hired out, or cookie cutter prefab?
Dan: I had the great pleasure of working with Perry Elizabeth for many of my early book covers. Perry designed a number one bestseller for me, as well as designing a number one bestseller for a friend’s debut novel. She designed maybe six of my first seven book covers. She’s brilliant. She has a gift.
Like many things (I came from a business background having gone to the president circle with two different Fortune 500 companies) and in that world the saying “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” doesn’t apply. They would say, “If it’s not broke, fix it so it’s even better.” Something like that. Maybe I should’ve paid more attention in all those meetings.
Anyway, when you have good success you have to look if you can make bigger success. Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no. In the case with Perry, she is very devout in her religion, and I knew some of the risqué subject matters in my stories would not be something she would appreciate her name being associated with. So I had to take it upon myself to find other people to work with for those. I can’t put one of my partners in that position, you know? So I had to put other titles with other artists – and I am very fortunate they’ve done a terrific job, too! Look at how eye catching The Navigators cover is. That’s all part of it, making your book stand out. I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many skilled people.
Now, I have on occasion tried to design my own book cover or to buy an image and work with that, and I have had some decent success with it. But here’s a tip for new authors: even if I know exactly what I want the cover to look like, I still roll it out on my fans.
How did I find cover designers? I joined author groups and asked everybody for referrals. I looked at books I liked and saw who did the covers. I shopped. You can spend hundreds of dollars (and occasionally under a hundred) on covers that look as good as ones that cost thousands, and usually for new authors money is in short supply.
For example, The Navigators I bid it out. I didn’t really know what the cover should look like, so I gave a brief synopsis to three or four cover artists, and then I posted their mock-up results on my Facebook page so my friends could vote. One cover jumped to the front, hands down – and that’s the one I went with. And it was very successful.
With Poggibonsi, I pretty much knew what I wanted from the get go. I wanted to portray sex and humor in a single image that could potentially be iconic. If you ever saw the poster for the movie M*A*S*H, or Jaws, or The Godfather, we know that when something is a hit it tends to own that image. And with Poggibonsi, I knew that the cover would convey very simply and easily a large portion of what the story was about. Additionally, like the name Arnold Schwarzenegger, Poggibonsi is not easy to say or read or pronounce. My thinking was what Arnold said: it’s hard to say but once people hear it they can’t forget it. And I think that’s the case with this title, too.
Kaye: Poggibonsi: An Italian Misadventure just came out last month. What can you tell us about it?
Dan: Poggi jumped into the cold cruel world on April 20, and it’s burning up the charts! I’m so happy. Poggibonsi is without a doubt my funniest book I have ever written. It’s going to do amazing because it’s just knock-down drag-out funny as hell.
In the story, I take on so many things that are just absolutely not funny! Infidelity, death, getting fired, you name it. And in the process I make you laugh at every single step. Some of the characters are the funniest people you’re ever going to meet, and one in particular absolutely steals the show. On the other side, it is in insanely romantic romance story! And it’s hard to make a romance that’s really romantic while also being funny, but I think I threaded the needle pretty well on this one.
Kaye: What is the strangest inspiration for a story you’ve ever had?
Dan: Hmm. Strangest.
I was talking to an author friend of mine the other day and I was explaining to her that she was very creative in setting up a new world or a situation that is different from our current existence. I, on the other hand, have taken things that we are all very familiar with and looked at them from a very, very different view point. I’ve never tried to create a fantasy world like she has. So my complement to her was how creative she is at that, and she’s great storyteller in addition. My complement to myself was that I can take things that everybody knows and all of a sudden they are questioning everything about it and laughing their butts off or crying their eyes out or being scared to death of these things that they already knew.
Now, as far as the strangest places I’ve drawn inspiration, if you start with the premise that I have pretty much dealt with the world as we know it, then the inspiration has been unique insights on things that are common place.
So, my inspiration has come from everywhere, which doesn’t help anybody who’s reading this to figure out what inspires me, but I am inspired by the same things that I find humor in. The common situation or as Alfred Hitchcock used to do to Cary Grant, taking an ordinary man and putting him in extraordinary circumstances. Having an ordinary situation with ordinary people become somehow extraordinary. Taking your life as you know it and turning it on its head and giving you a roller coaster ride but doing it in such a way that you like the characters and you’re rooting for people to succeed – and at the same time, with my stories nothing is what it seems. All of a sudden you have skated out over the thin ice and there are there you are being blindsided by things you didn’t know were coming.
In Poggibonsi, you think a certain situation can’t get any worse, and it gets so, so, so much worse, and people are sending me emails saying, “I did not see that coming!” They love the roller coaster ride. I try to give them a good one every time.
Kaye: Did you always want to be a writer?
Dan: I think so, yes. My direction in life was to create a career and then do the writing in your spare time. That’s probably how most people do it and that’s what I would recommend, too. As long as you make time for everything, you’ll be okay. If you don’t make time for everything, you’ll be very frustrated that you’re not doing your writing – so make time for everything!
But like I said, I went to work in business before I started writing in earnest, and once I started writing in earnest I didn’t want to do anything else.
Kaye: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Dan: I am absolutely a plotter, but let me explain.
Before I really start writing a story, I will percolate on it for a while to get some ideas going. Before I start writing in earnest, I am throwing ideas into a folder. Once I sit down I have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The that’s my outline – sometimes nothing more than that.
But just because I have AN ending does not mean that is the way the story ends. It simply means that that’s the direction I’m heading in; that’s the way I intend to go. If I get a better ending, I am absolutely taking the story there, but if I don’t come up with something better, this is the destination I’m going to end up at.
That gives you the best of both worlds. You can be as free and crazy as you want and you still have a path to get you back on track. Or, if you really find some new destination, you go there.
But it’s been my experience that probably 75% of the books that never gets finished by the writers don’t get finished because they got excited, they started writing, they had a couple of good ideas – and then they ran out of steam. Jim Patterson – yes I call James Patterson “Jim” – said it’s better to spend an extra month on the outline then it is to start the story not know where you’re going with it.
Having a goal and having a destination, that will help you finish your story. I think 90% of writers block and unfinished stories happens because of the lack of an outline.
But again, it is not locking you in a cage, it is simply directing your creativity. Having an outline does not stifle your creativity, it directs it.
Kaye: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Dan: I wrote a blog post once where I put like 20 memes in it and then I explained what each of them had meant to me at different periods. One of them was Hemingway saying write every day. Every day, get up and bite the nail. That’s so important because the more you work at something the better you get at it, so don’t stop.
The other was something along lines of, “Every great story is this: nothing is as it seems.”
I thought the simplicity of that second one was overstated. Like almost like it’s too simple so it’s stupid. And then all the sudden I read it like a second or third time and I was like oh my God it’s brilliant.
So those two are good. The best one is: the reader is your willing accomplice. On that one, if you set a realistic world and you work hard to make a good story, the reader will go along with you. As long as you do a good job, you can do whatever you want. And once you do it well, you can play the reader like a piano. You have the power and they want to go on the ride. Willing accomplice.
Kaye: The Navigators also came out recently. Would you like to tell us a little about that one?
Dan: Gosh, I’m so proud of Navs. The Navigators is a great story involving time travel. Five graduate students in paleontology accidentally discover a strange machine, and right off the bat they have to figure out what it is they discovered. As they conclude it’s a time machine, each of them has a different idea of how they should use it – so there’s immediate conflict. There is a lot going on with the characters in the story. Pretty much nothing is what it seems, so there is intrigue at multiple levels, plus it’s a real page turner. People who start reading this book have reported back that they are just unable to put it down. I’m very proud of that. It’s a real home run.
Kaye: How do you decide the titles for your books? Where does the title come in the process for you?
Dan: Man, titles are hard! They shouldn’t be, but they are.
Originally, Poggi was going to be called something like “My Italian Assistant”, but that all had too much of a schlocky 80s sex romp feel. This is not that. This is a story that goes deep in everything it pursues. The humor is outrageously funny. The romance is deeply passionate. You will laugh and you will cry and your heart will break. As a result, it deserves its own unique word.
Now, I’m not a fool. I gave it a pretty simple subtitle to explain what was going on. But most of my critique partners said I couldn’t call it that. Well, after they got used to reading a few chapters and calling it by its name, they were cool with it – and they wanted me to keep the tile as Poggibonsi.
So you have a unique title and a unique cover for a unique story. That’s either going to be a home run or a complete strike out. Right now if I can convince people to start reading it at all, they end up loving it. There are so many toys twists in surprises and absolutely hysterical moments, really some unforgettable stuff and some unforgettable characters, it’s a rare treat that readers around the world are loving.
With Savvy stories, I kicked around a lot of ideas and I was told many times not to use that title. To me, it was a double entendre. Savvy stories are stories about Savvy, which is the nickname of my daughter Savannah. I also gush about how smart and amazing children are, so savvy stories also means stories about people who are street smart. Which is probably the wrong way to describe infants and toddlers, but you get the idea.
The Navigators really required a different formula. I was writing the story and I was calling it The Fantastic Five as its working title – which is just awful – and everybody who saw it kept saying, “You can’t call it that! Find something else.”
The reason it was the “fantastic five” was because they were five characters and each did something kinda fantastic. I knew that would never be the final title but I just couldn’t think of anything good. I was just stumped. It happens.
Anyway, I was in the middle of a scene and the characters were debating about flying the time machine somewhere, and one of the characters said they were thinking about it all wrong. He said, “We’re not really driving it, we just are setting the destinations and the times.”
So the first character said, “Oh, so we are the navigators?”
Again, there is a double meaning to that.
The time machine is something they really haven’t figured out when they start testing it so they are putting in longitude and latitude and a time, and letting the device take them on an adventure. It also refers to the young lady in the story who is kind of drifting along doing the things that people probably wanted her to be doing as opposed to choosing her own life. So she too is also not a pilot yet. She’s not making the decisions yet. In the story, she ends up becoming the main character and really growing into a leadership role.
That was important because I have a young daughter, and it’s kind of a projection of her where she might be 15 years in the future.
Many of my stories are written on multiple levels. I had one beta reader asked me if a certain scene was a metaphor for the guy’s marriage. It was. Other scenes were reflections of other things, too. There’s only a little bit of that (and a little goes a long way) but when somebody discovers it, it’s like a brilliant flash of joyful light to me.
The Water Castle and An Angel On Her Shoulder came about in similar fashion. The water castle is the way a young child refers to a landmark that the story kind of takes place around. And “an angel on her shoulder” is a remark that a doctor says about the child who got diagnosed with a rare but potentially fatal heart condition in my paranormal thriller.
So, I guess when I need to come up with a title, I have my characters express it in dialogue! There you go. That’s my secret. Have a character open your mouth and hope a title pops out.
Kaye: What is the single most important quality in a novel for you?
Dan: I have to care about the characters. There are a lot of different ways to achieve that, but readers are kind of generous. They will give you a little while to make them care about a character, but you have to make them care. If you don’t, nothing else matters.
In The Navigators, I thought about starting the book at the landslide where one of the characters almost gets killed. Aside from it being some obvious action, I knew in my heart that we just wouldn’t care if somebody got killed because the readers hadn’t gotten to know anybody yet.
By contrast, in An Angel On Her Shoulder, it starts with an action scene where the wife is beginning to wonder if her husband and child have been accidentally killed, and the chapter ends with her being frantic – asking that question – but we don’t know.
Because I have the wife being concerned about her young daughter, and because I have her emotions jumping from she doesn’t know what’s going on to “Oh my god what’s going on?” – and all the people around her are saying “Oh my god look at all the blood, there’s no way somebody could survive that,” she is getting more and more frantic…
The reader cares because the character cares. She is really getting frantic and she is really nervous and we can’t help but be empathetic and then therefore we care also.
Then I’m really mean. I jump into a flashback that took place several decades before, and you have to float through that for a few chapters – so that you kind of forget about the frantic scene – and then we end up right back in that opening scene a few minutes before it happens. I know flashbacks are persona non grata, but I got to tell you, this is an amazing roller coaster ride that readers love! The way I played it, it was a stroke of genius if I do say so myself. I love that story.
Kaye: Which author, dead or alive, would you love to have lunch with?
Dan: Mark Twain, because he was very, very funny and very, very smart and apparently liked to drink. I just think sitting down and having lunch with him would involve lots of drinks and lots of laughs, and I’m not sure there’s a better lunch than that.
Hopefully one day some kid will say they want to have lunch with me, and I will fly to where they live and we will go get hammered and have the most awesome lunch ever.
Kaye: Have you ever had places that you travel to end up in your books?
Dan: Kind of. When I was going to Italy for a vacation I kept telling myself I knew I’d find a story there. And I loved Venice and I loved Rome – I loved everywhere we went in Italy. Gelato is amazing, the pizza is amazing, the women are amazing, the art and the architecture is amazing. Italy is amazing.
And I was really trying to force it. I was really saying okay, is this story? Is that a story?
It doesn’t work that way. On the plane ride home I got the idea of a man going on a business trip to Italy so I could explain a lot of the things I saw through his eyes, and then I wanted it to be a romance but I wanted it to be a comedy, too. There’s lots of things to find funny about traveling, but the romance was going to be an unconventional one, and from that little spark, I said there’s the story.
Many of the people who read it have told me I made the country of Italy into a great character in the story, and that is very high praise. I have an Italian translator who I have worked with translating my other books and she read it and she love the way I depicted her country, so I am absolutely satisfied with how that story came out. It’s an absolute home run on every level.
Kaye: What is the hardest part of being a writer?
Dan: Many people, most in fact, struggle with being able to finish their first story. They want to fine-tune it forever and they are afraid of publishing it. Whatever it is, they struggle to get the first one done. Once they get the first one born, they realize what a huge weight has been lifted off of them and they become much more at ease with writing and everything else. Unfortunately, just as many people suffer from the opposite affliction, which is thinking something is a masterpiece. What it really needs a lot of work, and they publish it too soon.
That’s not a very helpful answer, is it? But it explains this: the hardest part is knowing when the story is ready. The people who release it too soon don’t know when it’s ready, and the people who polish it forever don’t know when it’s ready.
How do you figure it out? You write what needs to be said, you give it to trusted critique partners who will tell you the things you said that did not need to be said, and then you trim out the stuff that doesn’t need to be there – and release it.
Then start writing your next one. After you do this a few times you will not be afraid to release a story and you won’t be afraid to take input from people who have your best interest at heart. You’ll have a thicker skin and a bunch of other things. That’s when you – most of you – will become really good writers. A few people do it on the first shot; most don’t.
If I could give you one thing, it would be not just confidence but enough confidence. Tell your story and don’t be afraid to be passionate and to be emotional and to really put your soul on the page. Expose yourself. Writing is the equivalent of standing naked on a stage, prepared to be laughed at and humiliated – and doing it anyway.
Write from your heart and don’t hold anything back. Not the pain, not the love, not the fear, not anything. When you put it on the page from your heart, the reader get it. They connect. The more personal you make it to yourself, the more universally understood it is. That’s where too many authors make their mistake. They don’t open up and let it pour. They write the words but they don’t write the heart. They tell a good story when they have a great one within them. They hold back because they’re afraid of what people might say or might think, or that their mom right read it or that their friend might hate it or whatever. When you can let go of that and stand naked on the stage, that is where the great stuff comes from. You may fail miserably, but you will have given it your all. That’s confidence. I wish I could give you enough of that to make you put your soul on the page. When you do, you will be greatly rewarded for it.
I want to thank Dan for joining us today and sharing his knowledge and experience with us. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I went over your answers. It’s been a lot of fun. To learn more about Dan and his books, drop by his blog.
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Being a newly published author is a big deal. At least it is to me. Now that I have a book to promote, that’s where I’ve been spending a lot of my time. After all, I want to send my book off right. So, for the past few weeks, that’s all you’ve heard from me, talk about Delilah.
I’ve learned that promoting my book is even more work than I had anticipated, which is not to say that I’m not relishing every bit of it, even though I moan and groan about most marketing activities. I’ve promoted my heart out, appealed to readers for reviews, applied for a Goodreads author page, (next, I have to figure out how to do the same on Amazon), contacted people about release parties, and I’m doing an author interview with Dan Alatorre.
You can read my author profile, which includes that interview on Dan’s blog today, so I hope you all will check it out. You can read my author profile here. And don’t forget stop in here and read my interview with Dan, which will be posted here on Writing to be Read next Monday.
This week, I’m interviewing Colorado freelance writer, editor, author and book designer, DeAnna Knippling. I first met DeAnna through the Pike’s Peak Writers when I was still serving as the Southern Colorado Literature Examiner. What struck me about her was her enthusiasm and willingness to help where ever she can. She treats her writing as a business and goes at it with a high degree of professionalism, yet she is personable and willing to share what she’s learned from her own writing experiences.
DeAnna Knippling writes science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, and mystery for adults under her own name; adventurous and weird fiction for middle-grade (8-12 year old) kids under the pseudonym De Kenyon; and various thriller and suspense fiction for her ghostwriting clients under various and non-disclosable names. Her latest book, Alice’s Adventures in Underland: The Queen of Stilled Hearts, combines two of her favorite topics–zombies and Lewis Carroll. It’s the story of a tame zombie who told a little girl named Alice a story that got them both in more trouble than they could handle. Her short fiction has appeared in Black Static, Penumbra, Crossed Genres, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and more.
Kaye: You created Wonderland Press to get your books out there. What all is involved in creating a press for your work and what are the advantages of doing so? I mean, why would an author do this rather than just throwing their book out on Amazon or Smashwords?
DeAnna: This isn’t one of the fun answers. It’s stupid easy to make a “press.” It involves no special equipment. You look online, make sure nobody else has one of that name in your state, register a business name with your state or county (look up, “How to register a business name in [name of state]”), and Bob’s your uncle. You might want to get more complex with an LLC or something–but I recommend leaving that for later, unless you already have experience doing that. I am, of course not a lawyer and can’t give legal advice. When you want to start looking at an LLC or corporation, I believe, is when you start having to worry about taxes and tax brackets.
DeAnna: Just keep working. Everybody’s in a hurry to succeed. Success! Millions! Riches! Fame! But, in the end, it comes back to the basics. Did you read? Did you write? Did you learn something? Did you talk to other people in the writing community?
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Kaye: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Jeff: I’ve kind of only ever had two passions in my life, music and writing. I wrote my first story when I was about ten years old, which also happens to be the age I wrote my first song. When I got older and met my wife, I realized being a musician wouldn’t be conducive to family life, what with touring and recording and the general pressures of the business. So at that time I decided to settle on my writing, and I haven’t looked back since. Good choice. You can write a song any old time you want. Short story tales are forever.
Kaye: What is the one thing in your writing career that is the most unusual or unique thing you’ve done so far?
Jeff: Let’s see … Probably the couple of comic scripts I sold to English comic book press FutureQuake. I’ve written everything from short stories, novelettes and novellas, to full-length novels, screenplays, newspaper articles, nonfiction, a bit of ghost writing, you name it. I found being diverse and far-reaching was way better than narrowing in on one small niche. At this point I could take a stab at anything, any time. Very helpful if you actually want to make a little money, and who doesn’t?
Kaye: You seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with God, which has certainly shown up in a lot of your writing. Can you tell us what that is all about?
Jeff: Ha ha, well I think I just found it to be the largest, most expansive concept in existence, right? I mean, I try to tackle topics and themes that are gargantuan in relation to small, fragile beings like you and I. That sort of thing has always appealed to me, so God was a natural extension, one most people have a strong gut reaction to in one way or another. My newer work–including my latest short story collection, dropping on March 28–has very little to do with God or gods or anything of that nature. I was also on a personal quest for God for many years, I suppose. I was raised agnostic, so my whole life I was searching for a reason to believe and worship, and corny as that might sound. Writing about Him always seemed like a good outlet for my spiritual curiosity.
Kaye: How many of your stories have been based on God to some extent, or featured God?
Jeff: Quite a few, actually. If not the Almighty Himself, I’ve tinkered with super beings, celestials, demigods, and everything in between. Most writers are timid about concepts. I go for the biggest, largest, hugest.
Kaye: Your thesis novel involves God, and Satan, too. Would you like to tell us a little about your novel?
Jeff: Sure. Body of Heaven, Body of Darkness is a contemporary horror fantasy. Harold Math watches in terror as God and Satan, each ten miles tall, beat each other to death in the rural desert of Nevada. Booze and anxiety become his life, until a strange, supernatural boy in a red cape causes a terrible car wreck that kills his fiancé and unborn son. The world slips into chaos as the deaths of the two immense beings herald national disasters and the destruction of the city of Los Angeles. A horrifying hell-beast emerges in the chaos and begins terrorizing the country, even as Harold reunites with an old flame and tries to put back together the shattered pieces of his life. At last, the boy in the cape reveals himself to Harold as the all-knowing Will of the Universe. He’s chosen him and three others to destroy this contamination before it spreads.
Kaye: In addition to being a very talented writer, you are an artist, as well? You did the cover for Godling, right?
Kaye: You’ve had quite a few things published, including a comic book. How did that come about? Did you do the artwork for that? Or was it collaboration? Tell us about the process in either case?
Jeff: No, I didn’t do the artwork. I wrote the script and submitted it to the publisher just like you’d do with any short story. They accepted it and paired me with an artist. I got to see his work evolve over the course of several months, and it was always rewarding to check out what true artistic talent could do with my material. I couldn’t draw like that if you paid me. Writing a comic book script, though, it’s something I urge a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors to try out. Very cool, very challenging medium to work in.
Kaye: What are your favorite genres to read? To write?
Jeff: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror are my bread and butter. I like to read and write nonfiction and more literary work as well, but my home and my love will always be speculative stuff. It’s what I was raised on, so it’s the most natural thing in the world for me. Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel and DC, all these mega-nerd story types and franchises, I probably dream the stuff at this point.
Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction? Or when tackling a novel-length work? How about when writing comic books?
Jeff: For short fiction there’s always a push and pull between expressing myself fully, telling an engrossing story, and making something concise and fully realized with a limited word count. Novels are tricky because they’re a marathon, a long-haul project, though I find the actual writing to be easier than short form on a day-to-day basis. Comic book scripts are another beast altogether. Kind of the ultimate test of a writer’s mettle when it comes to precision and execution. Highly recommend writers try it out at some point. Probably learn a thing or two in the process. Sometimes it pays to be a mad scientist with your writing. Take no prisoners! Hold nothing back!
Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction? Novels? Comic Books?
Kaye: Any advice for aspiring writers?
Jeff: Absolutely. NEVER GIVE UP!
You’ll probably find people in your life will try to dissuade you, or in the very least, that they’ll lack enthusiasm for your work, your calling, until you’ve been at it long enough you finally start to see results. You can’t let that get to you. Apply ass to seat and type until something’s done. Writers are a funny breed few people understand, and sometimes we become crotchety and bitter. But the truth is if you’re going to do this thing, you’ve got to stay focused and disciplined. Much like writing a novel, this job is a marathon. Many very famous authors had to work their butts off for years, if not decades, before people finally took them seriously. I will say it again. NEVER GIVE UP! PROMISE!
So, now you know a little about Jeff Bowles, which is good, because you should know who is giving you a writing Pep Talk. I hope you’ll join us every first Wednesday to read what morsels of writing wisdom Jeff has to offer. And I hope that now you’re as excited as I am to have him join the Writing to be Read team.
Interested in Jeff’s writing? Check out his latest short story collection, Godling and Other Paint Stories: https://www.amazon.com/Godling-Other-Paint-Stories-Bowles-ebook/dp/B01LDUJYHU
YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6uMxedp3VxxUCS4zn3ulgQ
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It’s 2017! Where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday that I was venturing forth to start Writing to be Read on Today.com. Most of you won’t remember. It was supposed to be a site that would monetize my blog, so without a clue as to what I should write about, I jumped right in. I wrote about all kinds of things and at the end of every post I published one of my poems, in order to cover the full scope of the literary world, or something like that. That was in 2010, seven years ago. Wow! Unfortunately, several months later Today.com folded and the sight just disappeared, along with all the writing I had done there. In a panic, I found WordPress and re-created my blog here.
Since then it has be remodeled several times until it is what you see here today. As I said in my Looking Back on 2016 post last week, this past year has been a good one for Writing to be Read as it has grown in popularity. So to start the new year out, I’d like to take a closer look at what I hope to accomplish with the blog this year. In last weeks post I mentioned a few ideas I wanted to see come to fruition: author and screenwriter profiles, more screenwriting content, coverage of more writing events, and guest posts by authors, screenwriters and other industry professionals. That is the shape I foresee for Writing to be Read.
But, you know, this blog wouldn’t be anywhere without you, the reader. Watching my statistics, it’s you that determines what content I create. It’s you that make the number of followers climb, you who increase my page views. With this in mind, I know I can’t move forward without asking you what content you would like to see here in the coming year. Are there topics of interest you’d like to learn more about? Do you have questions you’d like to have answered through one of my posts? And while we’re at it, who would you like to see profiled or interviewed? What books or movies would you like to see reviewed? What topics would you like to see investigated? What events would you like to see covered? What kinds of things will keep you coming back for more?
Another goal I hope to accomplish is to continue to increase my following and have more reader interaction through comments. I appreciate every reader I have gained over the years. Some of you, I have come to think of as friends as well as readers. I also welcome new readers. If you are here for the first time, or maybe you’ve been here before but you haven’t subscribed to email or followed on WordPress yet, please do so before you click on the next website. I make no money off Writing to be Read. My only reward is to watch my followers grow and know I am being read. Subscribe, follow, leave a comment to let me know you were here, or do all three. With your help, we can make 2017 the best year ever for Writing to be Read.
It occurred to me that although I introduced Robin Conley as my cohort in the M.F.A. program when she first began doing guest posts for Writing to be Read, I really didn’t give a lot of information about my friend and former cohort, who happens to be a very talented writer with a sharp eye for what does, or doesn’t, make a story work.
When she was introduced in my M.F.A. cohort at Western State of Colorado University, there was one amazing thing about her which stuck in my mind. She had challenged herself and her writing abilities by writing a short story a day for a year, and called it Project 365. Not only did she challenge herself, but she took it public. She got the idea as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in 2010. Robin explains how Project 365 came about,
“ …we were reading a book of plays called 365 Plays/365 Days by Suzan-Lori Parks… her work inspired me to try something like it for myself to help me push myself to write every day, and to try new styles of writing. There weren’t any rules except that I had to write a complete story every day… as long or as short as necessary to tell the story, but the purpose… was trying something new. I played with genres, new characters, new styles (minimalism, surrealism, literary vs. genre, etc.) In order to keep myself on track, I started a twitter account (@Jminspirations) at the same time and a blog, and forced myself to post every story on the blog and then put a link on my twitter account.”
I found this to be amazing. Talk about inspirational. Wow!
At the time, that’s how I thought of her, the amazing girl who did the short story challenge. But over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know her better and she’s become a good friend to me, and in a way, she’s become my writing partner. We are working together in some of our writing endeavors, including her guest posts here. Through our Etsy store, Writing the World, we offer critiquing and proofreading services. Robin does guest posts for us, besides writing for her own blog. In addition to her own writing, she currently does writing for hire, volunteers as a script reader, and is teaching a couple of classes in screenwriting. (I think she may do some babysitting, too.) Besides being skilled at the craft, she’s smart and witty, and a she has a wonderful sense of humor.
I wanted my readers to know a little bit about Robin, so you’ll have a better idea of who you’re getting your weekly writing tips from. There’s no better way to tell you about her than to let her say it in her own words. The post runs a bit long, but Robin’s answers were so good, I couldn’t bring myself to cut much of them. I’m hoping after reading the following interview, you’ll be able to see a little bit of what I see in Robin, who I’ve come to know and consider a friend.
Kaye: We’ve already talked some about Project 365. How has that writing experience helped shape your writing career?
Robin: Project 365 was a strange part of my life that really pushed me to be a better writer. Every time I thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with a story idea, I somehow found one. It was stressful, and there were a lot of days where I wanted to do anything but write. Sticking with it taught me more about my writing than anything else I’ve done. By the final few months, I’d learned a lot about my process and my writing and I learned how to write no matter what else was going on.
So far, at least 2 of the stories have sprung into novels, and there are at least a dozen others that I also plan to turn into novels when I have the time. Many others I’ve revised and am working on sending out to publishers in hopes of finding a home for them. Of course, there are several that are just pretty crappy and probably won’t be used for anything other than as a “learn from my mistake” sort of thing, but that’s to be expected when doing so much in such a short time.
Kaye: What works have come out of the 365 stories?
Robin: One of my favorite stories that sprung from the 365 challenge is my Tour Guide that was part of my thesis novel, Labyrinth of the Dead, which I wrote for the MFA program. The world she is a part of was a pre-existing place I’d written about before, but the Tour Guide was a new character that I decided to play with while doing the challenge. She works in the underworld as a guide for the newly dead and leads them through the orientation process, so to speak.
Another story that came from the challenge has become a mystery novel, Indecision Killed the Cat. It’s about an anxiety-riddle woman who believes her troubled brother is missing, but no one believes her because of his past history of running off, and her irrational and unreliable way of thinking.
Kaye: In what way, if any has the challenge helped bring you to the point you’re at now?
Robin: Doing the challenge helped me grow more confident in my own writing. It let me explore genres and stories that I had been thinking about, but hadn’t tried writing in.
One of my main goals with the challenge was to help me focus. Before the challenge, I often found it hard to work on longer projects because I had so many ideas in my head and I felt overwhelmed by them or distracted… Now when I go to write I know exactly what I need to do in order to get started, where before I’d waste a lot of time. It really helped me be the writer I am today.
Kaye: What kinds of things influence your writing?
Robin: I’m influenced by everything. I love learning how things in the world work: people, jobs, cultures, nature… I love learning and I love watching how things are interconnected. When I write, it’s all about taking little details and connecting them in such a way that they tell a story. Every part of my life, every little thing I’ve interacted with every day, helps me tell stories.
Sometimes the smallest thing can inspire a story for me because it’s all about perspective. The way someone holds a beer bottle can be significant and inspiring. I know, it sounds silly and dramatic, but it’s true. It may inspire me because of the attitude, or the way the person is interacting with the bottle. Are they gesturing with it like it’s an extension of themselves? Or do they carry it like it’s nothing more than object? These kind of small details can make me start to wonder about a person, and before I know it, I’m no longer thinking about that person, I’m thinking about a character. Every character has a story, and I love finding out what it is. So once I have a glimmer, I have to delve deeper. Essentially, the answer to where stories come from for me, is simple: they come from curiosity. I want to know more, so I write until I find my answers.
Kaye: What’s your favorite genre to read? To write?
Robin: About 60% are books recommended to me by friends or family. I have several people who pretty much give me everything they read because they know I like to check out all types of stories as research for writing. If someone I know wanted to read it, I’m curious to see it for myself. My preferred genres are the classics, urban fantasy, horror, and anything involving zombies. In general, though, I’ll pick up any book that either has a character or plot that catches my attention, and I usually read several books at once. Right now I’m currently reading:
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
- 21st Century Dead Edited by Christopher Golden
- House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
- The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley
In writing, I seem to lean toward telling stories that involve some form of fantasy, or something involving horror or supernatural elements. While these types of stories are my favorite, I end up writing in a wide variety of genres because what usually draws me to wanting to write a story is the character or a particular conflict. I like to follow the story and take it wherever it leads me instead of trying to focus too much on one genre or style.
Kaye: Like me, you hold a duel M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting. What prompted you to spend the extra year to add that additional screenwriting emphasis?
Robin: I love telling stories, and I love absorbing stories in any form (movies, music, oral storytelling, plays, books, etc.) When I took my out of concentration course for the fiction program I decided to take Screenwriting because it would help me expand my ability to tell stories. The more mediums I am familiar with, the more options I have when I choose to tell a story. Plus, when I took the Screenwriting class I just really fell in love with the visual format and wanted to know more, so I decided to add the extra year in order to learn as much as I possibly could about screenwriting before I graduated.
Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction? Or when tackling a novel length work? • What is your biggest challenge when writing a screenplay? • Have you ever played with poetry?
Robin: Short Fiction – condensing the story. I love getting lost in characters and worlds, and finding a short story is often hard for me. I really have to force myself to focus on one small part of the story and make it matter, without getting lost in the bigger story.
Novels – I think I most struggle with the outlining and preparing to write stage. I hate the pre-writing stuff and always want to just get started, but I find that the pre-writing really helps me write faster and clearer so I force myself to do it.
Screenwriting – During my first drafts I really focus on the plot and getting that to work on the page first, which means my protagonist’s personality often gets lost even though I know it well. Future drafts are often all about bringing that personality out and fixing character stuff, which is a slow and tedious process for me.
Poetry – It was my first foray into writing. It was awful stuff that will hopefully never see the light of day again. These days I simply appreciate poetry and admire those who have the skill. It’s not my strong suit.
Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction, genre fiction, or screenwriting?
Robin: I’m kind of torn on this these days, because I love the visual format of screenwriting, but I also adore getting lost in the world of a novel. I think for me, which is my favorite really depends on what story I’m working on at the given moment and which medium it seems to fit best.
Kaye: Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?
Robin: The main thing I can think of is that in my first draft I really focus on getting my plot down first and writing the motions of the story, while drawing character out comes second. I know my characters in advance before writing, but they don’t always come out on the page well in the first draft since I’m focused on plot. Doing it this way helps me write faster, and gets the plot all out on the page so I can look at it and see what is and isn’t working, because sometimes you can’t tell until it’s written.
I look at it as being similar to drawing. First you do a rough sketch to plan the drawing (outline), then maybe you do the structure of the drawing in black and white (plot), and then you go through and add color (character and finer details). Writing this way lets me really focus on my plots and make sure they are logically sound before I really delve into bringing out the character elements and some of the smaller details that help bring a story to life. The key, though, is knowing your characters really well first so they fit the plot.
Kaye: We’re offering some proofreading and critiquing through the Etsy store. What’s your worst pet peeve when reading or critiquing a book or story?
Robin: 1. When the author writes a character doing something for the sake of getting the plot to go where the author needs it to go, rather than staying true to the characters.
2. When critiquing and someone sends me something that is clearly a first draft and I can tell they haven’t read it over. It’s one thing if we’ve talked about sending the first draft for some specific reason, but it’s another to send something to someone asking for a critique when you haven’t even done a basic revision pass. You may only get one critique, so don’t waste it by sending something that is filled with mistakes you could catch on your own!
Kaye: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Robin: I have a lot of random hobbies and like learning new things, so what I’m up to is constantly changing. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to knit, and relearning some Spanish. In general, I love reading, movies, anything involving animals or nature, traveling, and photography.
That’s it, folks. I hope this interview has given you a better idea of who Robin Conley is, and instilled confidence when she offers writing advice. If you have questions for Robin, leave a comment to this post.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
There’s more to writing than just putting a pen to paper or typing out words on the keyboard, and no one knows this better than author Cynthia Vespia. She writes short stories and novels, does the artwork for her book covers and successfully promotes her work with video trailers that she creates. Her most recent accomplishment has made an award-winning video editor of her, when she received a New Covey Most Artistic book trailer award for the creation of her video trailer for her Demon Hunter Saga. In addition, she shares her knowledge with others through her fledgling advertising company, with ambitions to teach online workshops in book advertising.
For Cynthia Vespia, it is all about writing. Since she was a child of eight, she has wanted to be a writer, “It’s the only thing I’ve known I’m good at. If I was going to do anything else it would have to remain on the creative side.” Although she has been successful in many things in her life, writing has remained her first love; her passion, if you will. Today she is currently watching that dream come to fruition before her eyes. To date, she has worked as a journalist and promotional writer, and produced several short stories, in addition to her books. She has published three novels; Demon Hunter:Saga, Life, Death and Back, and Theater of Pain.
One of her greatest inspirations has been author Dean Koontz, who she refers to as her “literary hero”,
“It was Dean who pushed me from just writing short stories to saying ‘I want to write novels.’
I read his novel INTENSITY in highschool and from there I was hooked. Dean writes in a way
that keeps the pace moving from cover to cover. I’d like my writing to flow in such a way.
And he also writes his characters with flaws that make them real but makes them loveable.
Dean’s a master at drawing out emotion. When I finished Odd Thomas I actually cried…”
Her writing does emulate the work of Dean Koontz in many ways. Costa, her protagonist in her book, Demon Hunter: Saga, is an example of a strong young character searching for his own identity; a character that sticks in your mind and stays with you long after you have finished the book. She sees a little of herself in all of her characters, as she believes every author does. With Costa, she says that she drew from her martial arts training to write his training sessions to learn the skills needed to become a demon hunter. Her storylines intrigue and capture the imagination, hooking readers and reeling them in.
Like Koontz, much of her works carry dark themes, as well. Cynthia was even fortunate enough to have an opportunity to meet her “literary hero” in person, reinforcing her enthusiasm for writing,
“When I met Dean he spoke about how he never uses an outline, he doesn’t even do a
character breakdown. I tried his method on my next book and it brought me back to
the fun of writing. Everything seemed to just flow with much more creative freedom…
I was very fortunate to have met him…”
In fact, it sounds as if Cynthia’s method of developing a story may not have been far off from that of Koontz, even before she met him,
“I never sit down and actively look for a story idea. Some sort of topic will appeal to me
in a way that will spark a story idea; I’ll flush it out a bit, and then start the story. Right
now I’ve got a folder full of ideas that I need to get to and the “sparks” just keep coming.
I can’t keep up with my own imagination!”
Her character driven stories are well written and quite entertaining. When asked what she develops first, character or plot, Vespia said,
“More often than not I get the overall idea for the story and then develop the characters
around that. There have been some instances where a character comes to me first. For
instance, I’m about to start work on a series where it was the character…actually just the
character name…who started me off on the journey.”
Her characters are indeed memorable. Her character driven stories are well written and quite entertaining, with memorable characters that make readers believe. Savvy Authors: Writers Helping Writers says, “Today Cynthia writes suspense fiction with savagely powerful characters and strong storylines designed to stir the adrenaline.” In her Demon Hunter: Saga, Costa is a young man searching for his true identity and learning what his own strengths and weaknesses are. His two friends and his father are strong characters that are developed well, with strengths and weaknesses of their own. Death is a character that won’t soon be forgotten in Death’s Grand Design, a lighthearted short story presented from the point of view of a reluctant Grim Reaper that is sure to stir a chuckle.
Earlier this year she began her own advertising business, The Original Cyn Advertising, that places emphasizes on promotional materials for writers including book cover design, banners, logos and book trailers. She also plans to offer an online book marketing workshop through her The Original Cyn website, to share her expertise with fellow authors. Vespia offers advice to new writers that she once received herself,
“…’write for the wastebasket.’…What this advice tells me is to relax when writing. It is
called a first draft for a reason. It doesn’t have to be perfect, you’re going to throw out
or rework, most of it anyway, so just relax and let it flow naturally. I would also say learn
everything you can about the business, the ins and outs of not just writing but how the
publishing scene works…You are your own best sales force…”
It seems that Cynthia will be successful in whatever way she chooses to express her creativity. Whether developing characters and story lines, creating book covers and video trailers, or marketing books, writing will always be at the heart of what Cynthia Vespia does. The fact that she does all these things so well makes her a perfect fit for her life’s dream; the role of author.