Robert Bidinotto is the author of HUNTER, a #1 Kindle bestseller in “Mysteries & Thrillers” and “Romantic Suspense.” The recent sequel in his Dylan Hunter thriller series, BAD DEEDS, is garnering scores of five-star reviews from enthusiastic Amazon readers. As a former Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, Robert earned a national reputation as an authority on criminal justice with his investigative crime articles. His nonfiction books, articles, essays, and magazine editing have won top national awards. He lives on the Chesapeake Bay with his musician wife, Cynthia, and their stridently individualistic cat, Luna—who plays a supporting role in the Dylan Hunter thrillers.
Hi, Lisette. Thanks for inviting me to chat.
You call yourself “the vigilante author.” Can you tell us why you adopted this label for yourself?
Well, all my life — since I watched The Lone Ranger and Zorro on TV, and read Batman comics as a kid during the Fifties and Sixties — justice has been a central motivating interest. In fact, that was the dominant theme of my prior career work as an investigative journalist, commentator, reviewer, blogger, editor, and nonfiction author. So I suppose it’s no surprise that it would become the central theme of my fiction-writing, too.
Like me, the hero of my Dylan Hunter thrillers is motivated by a fierce passion for justice. He can’t walk away when injustices are committed against those he cares about. And you can’t always get justice from “The System”; in fact, quite the contrary. So that’s why Dylan Hunter became a vigilante — why I refer to him as “the new face of justice” — and why I refer to myself as “The Vigilante Author.”
Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?
I have been writing since I was a little kid and first fell in love with language.
What is your latest book?
It’s titled BAD DEEDS. It’s the second in the Dylan Hunter thriller series. It picks up where the first book, HUNTER, leaves off.
In HUNTER, the two main characters, Dylan Hunter and Annie Woods, meet and fall deeply in love. However, both are hiding things from each other — and it turns out that those secrets inadvertently propel them into a wrenching personal conflict. He is a crusading newspaper reporter, but on a deadly, private mission. She is a CIA officer, on the trail of an unknown assassin. Neither knows these things about the other . . . or that a sadistic predator is hunting them both.
In BAD DEEDS, the two lovers are recovering, physically and emotionally, from their previous ordeal. Dylan now wants desperately to live a normal life with Annie. But he’s the kind of man who simply can’t walk away when his friends become victims of injustice. This puts a huge strain on their relationship — and it also puts both their lives in grave danger.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
We’ve all read series that go stale, where the author seems out of fresh ideas, starts to repeat tired old tropes, and is just “mailing it in.” The biggest challenge is to prevent that from happening.
In my case, Lisette, I hope to avoid that in three ways. First, to come up with a startlingly fresh “high concept” for each book’s plot. Second, to reveal more and more about the key characters, and to have them evolve and grow to meet the new challenges. Third, to spice things up by introducing interesting new characters.
If you were to advertise your book on a bumper sticker, what would it say?
For BAD DEEDS, I’ve actually advertised it on a business card. It says: What price would a hero pay in his quest for justice?
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
All the time. Because as they take form on the page, they reveal more and more of themselves. One of my favorite characters in the novels is a morbidly obese research genius nicknamed “Wonk.” I had only a vague impression of him when I introduced him in HUNTER. But in the debut scene, everything he said and did was so damned funny that I nearly fell off my chair laughing. He continues to surprise and amuse me—and readers—in BAD DEEDS.
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?
Much to my surprise, Lisette, I find that I really love writing dialogue. Before I began, I thought that would be my biggest challenge; but instead I find that it flows easily and authentically. Again to my surprise — because I have a very organized, logical, methodical mind — I find that plotting is a huge challenge, at times grueling. My plots are devious and complex, so I can’t write them “seat of the pants”: I have to plan them out meticulously in advance. That early planning stage is an ordeal. But once I get started actually writing, the process becomes thoroughly enjoyable.
I organize my projects using a novel-writing software program called “Write It Now.” (www.ravensheadservices.com)
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
As I just indicated, I’m completely methodical — almost OCD about it. I plan and write linearly and sequentially, chapter by chapter.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
Yes. Both. I know at least in general terms what the ending will be; I work out the details of actions and dialogue on the fly. And for me, the title either symbolizes or is somehow integral to the theme or plot of the book, so I like to choose it ahead of time.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
There’s no “one right way” to write a book. But again, because I’m an obsessive planner, I edit a lot as I go. That means I write only a single draft, and I have only polishing and proofreading to do when it’s done.
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
I had no expectations with HUNTER, since it was my first novel. It felt good, but I wasn’t totally certain. The reader response and reviews were sensational, though, to my surprise and delight.
But that put enormous pressure on me as I wrote BAD DEEDS. At first, I wondered if I had only one story in me. I had great trouble being objective about the book as I wrote; I was second-guessing many of my choices.
Finally, I had to order myself to forget all expectations, my own or my fans’, and just finish the thing. I did, not knowing whether it was any damned good. Well, to my huge relief, reader response to BAD DEEDS has been even better than it was to HUNTER. It’s sustaining a cumulative Amazon customer rating of 4.9 out of a possible 5.0. At the moment, 96 out of 101 reader reviews are “5-star” raves. Which still stuns me.
How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?
Very important. Somehow, names evoke certain images and emotions. Sometimes a character’s name can subtly suggest things about his or her personality and nature. You also want them to be distinctive and memorable. That’s why I had the hardest time naming my hero character. I knew that I had to get that right, above all. I went through scores of possible name combinations before I settled on Dylan Lee Hunter.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
Write for yourself: Don’t compare yourself to, or try to imitate, anyone else.
Follow your passions: Write the story you have to tell.
And, finally, honor your craft: Don’t settle for the second-rate in anything connected with your book’s content or its production values.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
Tons of research, for both novels. For HUNTER, I had to learn a lot about the spy business, tactics, and gadgets. I already knew a lot about the news business and the legal system, but not everything I needed to know. I had to learn about sniper weapons, handguns, ammunition, and “silencers” (suppressors); about a variety of vehicles and their capabilities; about a host of locations in and around Washington, D.C.
For BAD DEEDS, I had to add to all the preceding store of knowledge, but add arcane research about explosives, all kinds of aircraft and flight procedures, electronic surveillance and jamming devices, computer hacking techniques, cold-water snorkel diving, landmark buildings and sites in Washington, locales around the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, and a lot more.
For all of this, I read a lot of books and articles; I did detailed online research; and I vetted specific scenes past various experts. I also used Google Maps and its “street view” to “visit” many locations that I couldn’t visit in person.
The real art of fiction writing is to drop this accumulated knowledge into a story judiciously, without getting pedantic and overly detailed, just to show off. The goal is only to add authenticity to the story, making it credible for readers.
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I keep it entirely to myself. Finishing a book is very difficult. I think an author can fritter away his motivation to continue if he prematurely shares with others the tale as it emerges.
You’re a big advocate of self-publishing over traditional publishing. This is a topic of endless fascination for many people. Can you elaborate?
Up until the past few years, if a writer wanted to find and reach readers, there was only one route: traditional publishing. And traditional publishing, built on paper-and-ink books, existed in a world of limits. Limited shelf space in bookstores meant only a limited number of authors and print titles could be accommodated. So publishers and agents came to function as “gatekeepers,” vetting what could and couldn’t be published and sold. And success was fleeting: The minute a book’s sales began to decline, it would be remaindered, pulped, and usually placed “out of print,” to be replaced on those jammed shelves by something new. Traditional publishing was and remains a zero-sum world, where the success of one book or author comes at the expense of others.
This arrangement left countless writers out in the cold. Regardless of their talent or their works’ merits, they were at the mercy of publishing’s gatekeepers, who stood between them and their readers. It was a buyer’s market, where contracts were skewed heavily in the publishers’ favor, and most writers could only earn a pittance.
But with the emergence of online retailing, suddenly we had unlimited “virtual” shelf space to display and sell books. Next, the emergence of inexpensive ebooks provided another way of transcending the inherent limitations of the paper-and-ink book world. Online retailing, ebooks, and “print on demand” technology have, in turn, sparked the Self-Publishing Revolution. Now any writer can reach his readers directly, with no gatekeepers standing in the way. And she can keep all her rights and the lion’s share of royalties, too. Self-publishing is rocking the foundations of the print-book publishing model, to the long-term benefit of both authors and readers.
Do you have any advice to a new author if they asked you whether to pursue the traditional route to publishing or to start out as an independent writer?
For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, you lose nothing if you choose the self-publishing route, at least first. If you later want to pursue a publisher, you’ll have an easier time of it if you can show some self-publishing success.
Your website is a fantastic resource for authors planning to self-publish. What are some of the most common mistakes that self-published authors (especially new ones) make?
Thanks. Many of the fatal mistakes that indie authors make arise from impatience. Because it’s so quick and easy to publish now, too many rush their work into the world without proper preparation. They don’t take enough time to first learn the ropes of self-publishing. They release books with amateurish covers, or without getting adequate editorial or “beta-reader” feedback and proofreading. They don’t take time to carefully craft the “product description” for their book’s online sales pages, to make it a sizzling sales pitch. All these things blare “AMATEUR!” to prospective online buyers. Then these writers wonder why their books don’t sell.
Above all, many don’t take time to learn their craft. Writing a book, especially fiction, is challenging. If a writer wishes to succeed, he or she must devote the time to study the art of storytelling and to practice. Many now-bestselling authors who wrote a lot of manuscripts before they ever sought to publish anything.
What advice can you give to the author who has self-published and made these dreaded mistakes and wants to start anew?
Great question! One cool thing about self-publishing is that no mistake is ever permanent. In traditional publishing, if you somehow blew it or your books stopped selling, you might never again get a publishing contract. But as an indie author, you can “unpublish” a flawed novel, totally rework it, give it a new cover and title, then reissue it to give it a second chance. Or a third. You can change your product description, experiment with pricing, try new marketing concepts — even publish new work under a pen name. My advice is to treat mistakes as a learning experience rather than a disaster, and just move on.
It must be very gratifying to help set so many authors on the right road. What motivated you to become such an advocate for your fellow authors? How has doing so impacted your life?
Lisette, before I ever wrote or published my first novel, HUNTER, I sought out advice from highly successful self-published authors. The indie community is extraordinarily generous in sharing information. Among those who were hugely, personally helpful to me were bestselling fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan and his wife Robin, who gave local seminars on self-publishing to writers, and who spent time with me answering questions and giving advice. I also voraciously read the blogs of indie superstars like Joe Konrath, Bob Mayer, and Dean Wesley Smith.
As I compiled for myself all the wisdom and tips they shared, it felt only right to “pay it forward” to other struggling and aspiring authors. I put together an informal 20-page document I call “New Paths to Publishing,” which I send as an email attachment to any writer who asks for my help. I have also posted a great deal of self-publishing and marketing information on my blog, “The Vigilante Author.”
The rewards? Writing is a very tough gig. Success is rare and the path to it can be heartbreaking. Though I’ve been lucky enough to win a measure of success, I’ve struggled for years and been exactly where most writers are. So, I empathize with them, and I take great personal satisfaction whenever they tell me that something I’ve shared has really helped them.
Authors, especially Indies, are constantly trying to understand why some authors sell very well while their talented fellow authors have a hard time of it. It’s an ongoing conundrum. What do you make of it all?
Even though some hot-selling authors may not be as talented, or as careful craftsmen, they almost always share one quality: They are great storytellers. Readers will forgive a lot of flaws and deficiencies if an author can keep them spellbound and turning pages.
Promotion is a thorn in the side of most authors. How does an author figure out how to promote and where to promote—especially authors with limited budgets?
Promotion is important. Books don’t just sell themselves. But authors who think that a publisher will take all the marketing off their shoulders are in for a rude awakening. If you want your books to sell, you will have to devote some time to marketing.
As to “how”: The book marketplace is evolving so quickly that anything I say here is going to be dated in six months. I offer a lot of advice on “The Vigilante Author,” and as I learn new things, I try to share them there.
One of the key things I believe an author should focus on is to develop her own unique “brand,” something that distinguishes them and attracts their target readers. Their brand ought to be based on their personal “why” — their motive for writing. Your why will determine your how, the means you employ to implement it — and also your what: the specific works that embody your how.
For example, my “why” is justice. My “how” is writing. My “what” is the Dylan Hunter vigilante thriller series. It sounds simple, almost banal. But understanding this has allowed me to focus my marketing and develop a clear brand. I know that all my marketing has to center on the “justice” theme. And when I do that, it attracts readers who share that interest.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
I use Facebook a lot. I make friends there, writing about a variety things that interest me. People who share my interests and views show up and comment, and we all seem to enjoy it. On my blog, I try to be helpful to fellow writers, with a lot of specific topical advice posts, and to thriller readers, with items of topical interest.
Generally, if people like you and appreciate your assistance, they’ll become invested emotionally in your own work and success, as well. To me, it’s all about making friends and being a good friend.
I do think you have to be selective. Don’t try to promote on a lot of platforms; it’ll drive you crazy and rob you of writing time. Focus on just a few — maybe a blog, plus one social media site (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.), plus one genre discussion board. Try to put something new up regularly, so people keep coming back to visit.
Having our work out there to be judged by strangers is often daunting for writers. Do you have any tips on handling a negative review?
No book can or will appeal to everyone. Think of your favorite three books. Now, go on Amazon and look at the reviews. I guarantee that they will have at least some very negative reviews. If the great books you love get negative reviews, you’ll realize just how silly and unimportant they are. Ignore them.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
It is hugely important. The cover signals to your prospective reader the genre and style of the book. A bad cover can deter that reader from exploring any further. A good one can attract thousands of the right kind of readers.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That I should have started writing fiction thirty years ago, instead of five years ago.
Care to brag about your family?
Absolutely! I have some adorable ladies in my life. First, my dear, patient wife, Cynthia. She is an extraordinarily talented musician with a heart bigger than the planet. I don’t know how she puts up with me, but she does, and she makes me a better human being. Without her, I’d become a misanthropic recluse. Second, my daughter, Katrina — a dazzling young woman of remarkable beauty, intelligence, sensitivity, and grace. Third and fourth, her daughters: my teenaged granddaughter Doria, and little two-plus-year-old Enid. Both are brilliant, talented, spirited, and clever. I am a lucky, lucky man.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
I love singing, and my voice isn’t half-bad. I sang Sinatra to my wife at our wedding reception, with a jazz quintet backup, and I’ve done that on other public occasions since. If I weren’t a writer, who knows? I might be a club singer in the Poconos.
What was the most valuable class you ever took in school? Why?
A junior high history class — and not for its content, but because it was taught by a teacher whose gentle encouragement and direction changed my life. His name, for the record, was Bob Gardner. He died years ago, but I’ll never forget him.
If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?
I love “Person of Interest” and “The Americans,” as you might expect of a thriller writer. I also love the inspiration of young talent, so I really enjoy “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent.” I enjoy other shows, but those are my top tier.
What’s your favorite film of all times?
A Man for All Seasons. A flawless film with consummate production values. The writing, direction, and acting by an incredible cast simply couldn’t be improved upon. It’s deeply inspiring, with a profound and timeless message about personal integrity.
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The inspiring, iconic novel of individualism and integrity, filled with penetrating psychological insight. You never look at the world quite the same way after reading that book.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Shhhhh! Anyone listening? Okay . . . the movie Twister. Lisette, I’ve seen the stupid thing many times, but still can’t stop tuning in whenever I spot it on TV — even though it is filled with every lame cliché imaginable. It’s just an addictive roller coaster ride, ingeniously paced. No redeeming social value whatsoever.
Just don’t you dare tell anyone I said so.
Your secret is safe with me, Robert. Thanks for a wonderful and informative interview.
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