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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