TweetBest-Selling author and humorist Dan Alatorre turned his sights on fatherhood in “Savvy Stories,” and the results were hilarious. Since then, Dan has racked up a string of #1 Bestsellers in family humor, novels, illustrated children’s books and cookbooks, and has been published in 12 languages throughout 14 different countries. His romantic comedy Poggibonsi: an Italian misadventure, set in Tuscany, will be released in a few weeks.
Dan’s success is widespread and varied. In addition to being a best-selling author (he claims it was a slow week at Amazon when that happened) Dan has achieved President’s Circle with two different Fortune 500 companies.
Time to chat with Dan!
What is your latest book?
Poggibnsi: an italian misadventure
It’s a romantic comedy set in Tuscany, and it involves marital infidelity, runaway capitalism, culture clashes, death, office politics – all the stuff we consider hugely funny, right? No? I may be in trouble, then.
Is your recent book part of a series?
I hope not. I mean, no. I have done several series (serieses?) and they’re fun but this is a stand alone. Astute readers will see a character from one of my other novels appear in this one, though, so you have to say awake. Actually, that’s good advice for any book of mine. Please stay awake while reading.
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
I’m a terrible typist. I type with two fingers. It’s very slow. And I hate proofreading so there are always a TON of typos. People who text with me think my phone is out of whack but really it’s just me. My new computer has a keyboard that SUCKS so a lot of letter o’s and a’s don’t get types – I’m not kidding! So things can become awkward when asking my lady writer friends about “word count” and leave out an “o.”
I’d get a new keyboard but it forces me to proofread so it’s actually a sadistic plus. You’d think with just the two fingers I’d usually hit the right targets. You’d be wrong. I’m so bad, I’m considering having myself checked for dyslexia.
What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories?
I can’t do anything short. I wrote 104,000 of paranormal for Mother’s Day (don’t ask). Short stories are just my idea of sitting down on Sunday morning and trying to type out an amusing 3-line post for Facebook, and 6000 words later I’m thinking about making it into a serial. Can you tell by the length of these answers that brevity is not my strong suit? Stop torturing me!
Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?
That would have been a smart idea. Why didn’t I think of that? I think I’m too egotistical to write under a pen name. I thought about it, though, because people who’ve come to know my stuff through my family humor stories might not want to read a bawdy romantic comedy, you know? “Oh, there’s the author who did that wonderful illustrated book about the mermaid; let’s get his new book for little Heather. What??? There are bare naked breasts in it???” Could be trouble. Or funny. Let’s go with funny. Because it’s a comedy.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
I am trying to write a book in every genre, kind of like an errant guidance counselor from high school – “Just try all of these and see if you don’t suck at one, kid.” So far we have humor, sci-fi thriller, illustrated children’s books, cook books (is that a genre?), paranormal, memoir, and now romantic comedy.
Mainly I like comedy, and that’s what I’m best known for, so of course I had to try other things to prove my worth to society. If you can make people cry in art, or a movie, or a book, you’re an amazingly talented master. If you can make them laugh, you’re a clown. I disagree. Both are difficult emotions to get from a reader, and anyone will tell you getting somebody to laugh is much harder. That said, I try to do both. I want my readers crying in some places and laughing in others – in the same book. If you can make them laugh AND cry, you own them. They’ll trust you for the rest of the roller coaster ride. Write that down, writer-types. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth the effort. Every great story contains trace elements of every genre.
I hear you have some very exciting news! Can you share it with us?
My good friend Allison’s book The Fourth Descendant has just become a bestseller. I was one of her critique partners for it, so I get to say I helped in the creation of another bestseller! We are also writing a marketing series together that will be released this fall, so now I have to change the covers to say “by bestselling author Dan Alatorre with bestselling author Allison Maruska.” (I told her I’d get her name squeezed into this interview. Hah! Okay, Allison – that’s ten bucks you owe me.)
If you were to advertise your book on a bumper sticker, what would it say?
“I will sell you my book out of my trunk at the next red light.”
That’s a good idea. I may actually try that.
What else have you written?
I’ve been very fortunate. I have 17 titles in 12 different languages. I’m really big in Portugal, I think. Or there’s a dearth of reading material there.
What do you think some of the greatest misconceptions about indie authors are?
- That we don’t shower. I shower every day.
- That there’s a stigma to being indie – tell that to High Howie and a lot of other big names that are turning away from traditional publishing in droves.
- That indie is easy. It isn’t. It’s harder than trad publishing because you have to do so much yourself, and if you suck at any one aspect, that may ruin your chances. (I’m terrible at cover designs, for example, so I have artists do mine and fans get to vote on the best one.)
- That you’ll have lots of people helping you if you trad publish. You won’t. They’ll be telling you, and you’ll still do your own marketing. There are tons of examples – and I’m not trashing trad publishing; I still query – but it’s not what it was 10 years ago and 10 years from now it may not exist at all. Buggy whips, anyone?
- Did I mention showering?
- Indies are a clean, hygenic people, as noted. And helpful. I was given SO much support when I stared out, and I try to repay it each week on my blog. There are lots of things you can do wrong and you’ll fall into an abyss of despair. Yes you will. My blog is abyss avoidance.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
My characters are like me, so all the time. It’s more fun that way. ”Put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them,” right? At each decisive spot in the story, I try to have something go wrong to make the path more difficult for Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road. Or for Elton John. Somebody.
Often I’ll do unexpected things in dialogs. Two people are talking back and forth and one says something completely inappropriate or off topic, which is what people do in real life, but if it’s outrageous, it can be memorable. My characters tease each other. They know each other’s inside stories and they act like it. Here’s an example of a niece talking with her aunt.
“You’re stalling. Tell me something real. Something mom would never tell me. Just say the first normal father-husband thing that comes to your mind about my dad.”
“He was a good lover.”
Gina’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“With a big penis.”
“Oh, my god.”
“Huge.” Sam shook her head. “Your brother will probably be pretty popular after he hits puberty. Now slow down, you’re speeding.”
Didn’t expect that, did you? People love my characters.
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most?
Pounding it out. I wake up and it’s Christmas morning every day because I get to write. I get great ideas at 3am for a conversation or story and I’ll hide in the pantry and tell them to myself in a talk-to-text on my phone just so I don’t forget them. Although that method has resulted in such great story ideas as “the cat mango garden in the butler,” but still.
Proofreding. (Yes I misspelled that on purpose as far as you know. Frigging keyboard.)
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I go with the hot hand. If an idea is percolating in my head, I will write it regardless of where it comes in the story. I mostly write in order, though, because I usually come up with an outline before I start writing the story – and that’s a complete outline. I’m not a pantser. But as I’m mowing the lawn and I keep thinking about how funny that dinner scene is going to be where the wife confronts the best friend about who the mistress is – yeah, I know; not an obvious humor topic, but it’s a VERY funny scene – well, then I just go start writing it, even though it’s 15 chapters into the future from where I am. The danger in doing that is, it might not actually fit when you get there. Things change as we write.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
Not the title, but the ending. Okay, that’s not true. I usually know the title and the ending before I start writing. I don’t know why I lied about that. Let me go into some detail here for new writers, because this is typically a difficult thing for them.
I’ll be thinking of a story and I’ll start sketching out an outline, and as I do I will throw the ideas in a folder in my computer – so the folder has to have a name. I’ll call it whatever the story is mainly about, and that usually ends up being the name unless I come up with something better as I’m writing it. For example, I have a semi-dystopian story that has elements of Fight Club, Hunger Games, and the recent racial-cop disharmony from Ferguson and Baltimore. It’s called The Kill Club, and the premise is that rival gang leaders have created these riots on purpose but the media has mid-identified it. The main character is a psychopath who evolves from gang lord to mass murderer to media sensation – to attempting to put Thunder Dome-style death matches on live TV broadcasts. And the politicians and media heads go along, thinking it would solve random gang violence around the country if gang members compete to kill each other on TV. (Um, this one’s not a comedy.)
Anyway, that’s the basic story and the title, and I’ve written maybe 1000 additional words than what you just read. If a character says or does something that would be a better title, Kill Club goes away and the new idea takes its place.
In my sci-fi thriller The Navigators, a time travel story, it was nicknamed “the fantastic five” (horrible, I know) until halfway through when a character realized they wouldn’t be piloting the time machine they’d discovered, and that at best they’d be navigating it. One of the other characters said, “So, we’re the navigators, huh?” That became the title because it was also the background theme about how these young adults had yet to take charge of their own lives.
The new one is a YA fantasy nicknamed The Water Castle, but that sounds a little too much like “water closet,” so we’ll see.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
I don’t edit much as I write and I sure don’t edit afterwards. I have a pretty clear idea of what’s going to happen in a story and even though I’m verbose, I’m usually pretty engaging. My critique partners tell me when I’m being long winded (they didn’t get chance to see this piece obviously or it’d be pithier) and I’ll trim and cut based on their suggestions, so that’s probably editing as I go.
Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?
Sure! A good bad guy is a great thing! I had a real rat bastard (are we allowed to cuss here?) and wow did I despise him. Findlay, in The Navigators. I hated that little weasel! I still hate him. I need to go drink some milk now because just thinking of him upsets my stomach.
Authors, especially Indies, are constantly trying to understand why some authors sell very while their talented fellow authors have a hard time of it. It’s an ongoing conundrum. What do you make of it all?
You have to be good but you need to catch a break, too. First, write a good story with interesting characters and a compelling plot. Make the reader hooked to know what happens next and so they HAVE to turn the page. Very few writers do that. Next, you need a professional-looking cover (and that doesn’t have to cost $1500) and a blurb that makes shoppers become buyers. That’s HARD. Next, the opening chapter has to hook readers from the start, from the opening words. That’s hard, too. So there are a lot of things you have to get right, and if you screw one step up, your great story will go unread.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
“If I could give you one thing, it wouldn’t be confidence, it would be ENOUGH confidence.” – me.
Writing is both very easy and very hard, and the hard stuff for most authors is not always the writing, it’s the marketing and promotions.
The other advice is, don’t polish that book forever. Publish it and get on to the next one. Waaaaaay too many writers attempt perfection. Don’t. At some point, your re-polishing doesn’t make the story better, it just makes it different. And you have more than one great story in you. Don’t deny your readers that.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
This is another long answer that will be good for new authors. Bear with me.
I talked with an agent who wanted to rep me. After several meetings it became obvious that the pace of trad publishing was glacially slow. We were looking at 18-24 months to release a manuscript that was ready to go. I parted ways with him because I’d been successful in business and I knew whatever I learned myself via indie publishing would give me knowledge and skills and leverage for the future.
I put my book out and fell into the abyss, selling almost NO copies for a loooooong time. Oprah never called. I couldn’t give the book way. (You think you can, but lots of people are giving way books and you can’t even do that.)
That’s the abyss. Slowly, I learned the steps necessary to climb out of that hole – professional looking covers, good ad copy-like blurbs, etc – and now I help others not fall into such holes. I put out a lot of books because I get up early and write before anyone else is awake, then I work very efficiently to get a story completed. Putting out lots of titles means there’s always something for a new fan to read while I’m working on my next book.
I blog and I’m on social media, but only the ones I like. As I learned to market, things took off and I was fortunate enough to get a few bestsellers. But it was a long slog I’d like to help others avoid, just out of sheer humanity. Life’s hard enough. If a more successful author wants to help you, let them. And there are plenty that will! I was eventually smart enough to find people to help me, and now I help others. The indie community is great that way, unlike any other business I’ve been involved in – and it IS a business, so waiting 24 months to release a product that was ready seemed like a bad business decision and it still does, but I have never shut the door on trad publishing and I still query my latest books.
There are so many conflicting opinions out there about everything related to publishing: e-book pricing, book promotion, social media usage etc. How do you sort through it all to figure out what works best for you?
When you are as famous as Stephen King, you can charge Stephen King prices. Until then, you can’t. But most people who follow my advice can sell a book for $2.99 or more and not have to give it away – or fall into the abyss.
All book promotions are hard for writers because it’s not writing, and because many writers are shy. Learning to do it well is hard work.
Publishing is a changing world. Read about it, but not to excess and make sure the source documents in any articles you read aren’t more than two years old. If they are, see if there’s been an update by the original author; usually there is.
Make author friends online and other places, and listen to the friends who have your best interest at heart when it comes to new articles and industry trends, etc.
Promote others more than yourself, but don’t stay friends too long with others who don’t reciprocate (to the extent that they can).
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
I come to the table with a bunch of seemingly useless facts that have been stuck in my head for decades. I absorb stuff. If I watched a documentary about elephants 10 years ago, I probably remember most of it. So I don’t have to research much, and I’m pretty bright. I have a genius level IQ and was in Mensa. I went through graduate school and never opened a book. I came up with a new time travel theory all by myself for The Navigators.
But I don’t recommend that for other people. The internet is a great tool, but watching a shotgun go off on your computer is different from hearing the blast, feeling the kickback into your shoulder, having your ears ring, smelling the burnt gunpowder (it smells like fireworks), and seeing the bruise the next day. That’s a big difference. Get out and experience life. I’ve been shot at and I’ve swam with sharks, dived a sunken boat, walked on a glacier – and I can bring those experiences to my writing better than somebody who watched it on YouTube. Experience real life and work it into your stories. It’ll be much more compelling.
Do you have any secrets for effective time management?
Tons. We all have 24 hours a day but some people get a lot more done. Here are some tips; do the ones that work for you.
Do the most important stuff first. If you do all your email and Facebook and don’t write a chapter, how bad do you feel? Get the chapter done and don’t do Facebook? You’ll sleep just fine and your book will get done in three months not three years.
Record/DVR everything. The Kardashians can wait. Write your word count, and when you need a break, watch your recorded TV shows and skip the commercials. A 1-hour Tv show has 20 minutes of commercials. That’s more than 2 hours saved if you watch just 1 hour a night. And that’s 2+ more hours of writing time each week. Check your personal email on your lunch break at work if you can. Do your non-essential Facebook stuff (playing, and we all need to play) while waiting in line at the store or the bank.
The biggest two are these: make your writing time sacred, and when you do sit down to write, actually write in that time (do Twitter later!)
Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?
It always amuses me how people react to things. In comedy, you understand that some people won’t get a joke here and there. But in some dramatic scenes, like in Poggibonsi, one reader will say the description of the old barn getting repaired is a totally long and boring passage that should be deleted, while another reader will write me gushing about how it was such a beautiful metaphor about the MC’s marriage! That kind of range in feedback always surprises me.
Are you a fast typist? Does your typing speed (or lack of it) affect your writing?
I type fast at times, but overall I’m slow because I only use two fingers. That allows me to really think about what I’m putting down, editing the sentences in my head first because I’m typing so slowly! I should really learn how to type. You’d run out of the room if you ever saw me doing it. It’s awful to watch.
Do you dread writing a synopsis for your novel as much as most writers do? Do you think writing a synopsis is inherently evil? Why?
I like writing a synopsis, but I suck at it! I keep trying, though. Luckily, I have friends who are good at it. Let’s face it, writing an 80,000 word story is a different skill set than a 500 word piece of ad copy – and that’s almost what a synopsis is.
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?
A LOT. Books on Amazon are impulse buys. If you don’t have good cover, you won’t sell, period.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Least favorite food?
Fave: Pizza!!! I would eat that every day, even for breakfast.
Least favorite food? Oh, lots of stuff. I’m a picky eater. Let’s go with mushy vegetables. Yuck. And plantains SUCK. Ask my wife – she will give you a list.
If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?
I have to admit, I’d sneak into the women’s locker room wherever the Buccaneers cheerleaders work out. Sorry.
What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?
Money. I can be friends with anyone rich. I am very open minded that way.
Care to brag about your family?
I have the best family in the whole wide world. I wrote a bestseller about how fun it was to have my baby daughter around. One day she’s going to realize other daddies don’t all write books about their kids. My wife gave me the coolest idea for a YA fantasy that is probably the best idea I’ve ever worked on. It gives me chills, some of the plot twists!
What was your favorite year of school? Why?
I met my wife in my first year of graduate school and thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, and I was amazed that she would even talk to me. I fell in love on our first date and immediately knew I’d marry her, which I did.
What might we be surprised to know about you?
That whole typing with two fingers thing is true.
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