Best-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.
Have you done any projects that took you way out of your comfort zone?
Oh, God yes. First of all, I decided to try every genre to see if I was good at any. Then when I got to Romance, it turned out I was supposed to write sexy love scenes! I never saw that coming. Well, you can do a lot of things badly but sex can’t be one of them, especially if you are writing about it. And by that I mean, nobody wants to read a bad scene but nobody ever EVER wants to read a bad sex scene. Ever. So in my romantic comedy “Poggibonsi: an Italian misadventure” I got some help from my lady author friends who write romance and I ran some stuff by them, and they were impressed! And I was like woo hoo! The scenes were sexy and steamy! A LOT of the beta readers said so, too. In fact, one eighty-six year old beta reader in Minneapolis actually had to be rushed to the hospital, the scene was so hot (that may also have been a result of some questionable seafood she ate at lunch) but everybody else said they were great! I have one fan who sends me emails saying she thinks about my scenes in the bathtub. That’s how you know you’ve hit the big time, right there. Naked ladies in a bathtub thinking about your sex scenes. Yup. Mom would be so proud.
What’s been the most memorable piece of research that you’ve turned up?
Ha, this will kill you. I’ll try to keep it PG but play along. In Poggibonsi, the guy’s wife and him just keep missing each other sexually. They just can’t get it right; something always messes it up for them. He’s all wound up and she falls asleep, so he decides to just care of it manually – and accidentally shoots himself in the eye. Now, I had seen an HBO movie where one of the female leads was trying to be an adult film star, and she got fired from the set when she got shot in the eye working with her co-star. She mentioned that it really burned. So in my story, I had my MC start yelling because his eye burned when he shot himself, and he woke up his wife but he also woke up their kid in the next room and he had to make a run for it to the bathroom. Later he has to take a video conference and his eye is all red and he’s trying to explain it away. Now, I told you all that to tell you, it’s an actual thing. I researched it on Web MD to back up my HBO info. Then I copied the URLs and deleted my search history. Definitely the most memorable research I’ve done. I’m sorry you had to read that. It’s very funny in the story, though.
Any basic writing philosophy or tips?
Pound it out, get it done, write every day. No excuses. Kerouac said you can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club. Damn straight. You’ll sleep a lot better getting your word count in than another quick Twitter check or keeping up to date on the Kardashians.
How do you develop your characters?
I take the rawest, realest moments in anyone’s life and I open them up and lay them bare. The innocence of a five year old child, the awkwardness of a teenager’s first sexual encounter, the heartbreak of longing for a relationship you can’t have, confronting the possibility of the death of your newborn child, whatever it is, you open your soul and put it out there and dare the world to read it, ready to have them stomp on you and laugh, but ready to do it again the next day. You have to put yourself out there as a writer, you can’t play it safe. Great writing isn’t safe. That honesty makes stories real and characters memorable. From there, taking them to where they need to go will be all the development they need.
Where do you come up with ideas for new characters or stories?
Writers get ideas all day every day. The FedEx guy delivers a package from Sears and the writer is thinking how it could actually be a ticking time bomb. I think if a writer is being honest they’d admit to a file full of a dozen or more stories that are all started to varying degrees. They’re like the kid who wants to be a firefighter and a police officer and an astronaut. I went on vacation in Italy and saw a girl on a train; that became Poggibonsi. My kid went to the doctor; that became An Angel On Her Shoulder, a paranormal thriller. A friend asked where would you go and who would you want to meet if you could go back in time; that became The Navigators, a sci fi thriller. My daughter saw a picture of a mermaid and that became a children’s book Laguna The Lonely Mermaid. I don’t know where the ideas came from for my cookbooks, though. That stumps me.
How do you come up with character names?
Oh, I totally suck at names. I use the most boring names like Melissa and Barry – come on! Those are terrible! But it’s worse when I try to come up with unique names. I had to change the wife’s name in Poggibonsi three times because the first two were so bad. After I changed them, even my critique partners were like, “Oh, I’m so glad you changed that name!” My current story, a fantasy romance called The Water Castle, has a guy named Steve. Yawn. I know. But I’m like ten chapters into the story and I realize, hey, he’s of Spanish descent so his last name is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, not the first, and it’s a shortened version of Martinez, MarTIN – pronounced like marTEEN. But wait, it’s written Martin. Well, nobody in America is going to say MarTEEN when they see Martin, and guess what? I just figured out – ten chapters in – that I named my MC Steve Martin. Oh, like the famous comedian? Yeah, that ain’t gonna fly. Maybe I can call him Tom Sawyer or heck, why not Moby Dick? I really, really suck a character names. I have no idea what to change it to. Stuart? Scott? They all sound bad. Readers – feel free to make suggestions.
Have you ever done an interesting interview to get background information?
All the time. When you have writer friends, you have to ask each other awkward questions all the time. “My characters are having a fight. Would a guy say this?” Or you have to tell somebody a guy wouldn’t do something. That’s my lady author friends when they are writing a male character. You may have to say, a guy won’t cry in front of other guys unless he just found out his dad was killed in Iraq, not because the other kids don’t like the color he painted his car. He may cry at home, but he won’t do it in front of the other guys. But as a result, you develop honesty and you can then ask the really embarrassing questions. I have learned so many things I didn’t want to know, and they were all a result of interesting
interviews for background information. How much weight can a woman gain and still be considered thin if she’s been married ten years and has two kids – but she’d still think she was fat? My female author friends have had to inform me that many ladies have special underwear they wear while on their periods – and that ladies call underwear panties. It gets interesting. And it’s not all sex stuff. You may have to ask a cop about the kickback from a shotgun, or how sweaty they get in summer wearing body armor. Or what color blood is in the moonlight, or the vibrations through a serrated knife’s handle you feel in your fingers when you are hacking through somebody’s neck and hit cartilage. It gets interesting! You get some strange looks! Oddly, you can ask somebody just about anything if you say you’re a writer first.
How much do you structure your stories before you write them?
I come up with an idea and I’ll start throwing little suggestions for possible scenes into a folder, but before I seriously sit down to write Word One, they whole outline is finished. I know how it starts and ends and I know most of what happens in the middle. I may change it, and I have, but it is all mapped out ahead of time. I know where I’m going and how to build layers and back stories. I am not against getting a cool idea at the end that needed to be painted into scenes in the beginning, so I’ll go back and add it all in, but otherwise I have AN ending. If I come up with a better one, or several, I’ll use it or use the best one. For example, right now I have an amazing ending for The Water Castle. It’s awesome. Then tonight on the treadmill I came up with an even better, more mind blowing ending. Now I have two really good choices. That’s so much better than wondering how I’m going to end it, like “pantsers” do – and that not knowing stuff is the seed of a lot of writer’s block, I think. But I still have the freedom to end it any way I want if the mood strikes me. So it’s the best of both worlds.
Do you have any revision tips to share?
Let it rest. The more time you can put between you and your manuscript, the more fresh your eyes become and the more mistakes you’ll catch. Let a chapter rest for a day, you’ll see ways to improve it. Let your completed book rest a month or more and you’ll see stuff that’s long or that you want to skip. Read it out loud to get rid of awkward phrases and listen to your critique partners if they are good.
What has been the hardest thing about publishing for you?
Writers need to get over that fear. I was lucky, I started by writing family humor essays and my stuff was out there for a years on Facebook where friends read it and enjoyed it and shared it with strangers and encouraged me, so I knew what was funny and how to hook readers and how to get an audience to cry before I ever sat down to create a book. Still, pushing that PUBLISH button is a big moment, and your life is different – for better or worse – from that moment on. I know each new story is better than the last one and believe it will be well received, but getting past that initial fear, worrying that I was about to humiliate myself, was hard for me and is hard for most writers. What I can tell you is DO IT. Publish book one and get book two out as soon as possible. There are very few Harper Lee’s. Most of us are going to have to write a few books to get good at it. Don’t polish it forever, put it out there. At some point the changes aren’t improvements, they’re just changes. Believe in yourself and start achieving your dream. It waits for you on the other side of the publish button. Mobs do not show up with pitchforks and torches if it’s bad, and odds are you didn’t write something bad.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t listen to any advice from anybody who has fewer published bestsellers than you, or anybody with more bestsellers than you. Or anybody with the exact same number of bestsellers as you. Don’t listen to any advice at all, even this advice I’m telling you right now. Seriously, though, here’s my advice: you hold in your heart everything you need to know to write anything your story needs written. Dig deep and go where the pain and fear and joy are, and put it out there. The minute you shy away from pure honesty in your writing, you become a liar and people will smell it. People are suckers for the truth and they know it when they see it. Open your soul and they will stop and watch.
What’s the best part about being a writer?
You get to tell people you’re a writer. That’s still considered cool.
Do you have a writing routine?
I write in complete silence using only two fingers so I can’t type faster than I edit at the same time, saving me from having to go back. Although it does create a lot of capitalization issues. And punctuation problems. I didn’t say it was a good routine.
What do you do when you get stuck writing your story?
I don’t get stuck. If I come to a problem, I go work out. It’s amazing how my mind opens up right when I have to run on the treadmill. I’ve finished three chapters rather than run a mile.
If you could instantaneously master one writing skill, what would you choose and why?
What is the most memorable writing comment you’ve ever gotten? It can be the best, or worst; you decide.
“Your writing has improved so much.” It was the best and worst comment I ever got. When people started chapter one of Poggibonsi – which came out after The Navigators and a few bestsellers – I wasn’t sure if they were saying the prior stuff sucked!
What is the next big thing you want to write about?
How insanely rich I became as an author. I hope to write that before Christmas.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Everybody hates this one. I get up at 4am or 5am and write for a few hours before the rest of the world wakes up. And I don’t drink caffeine. That combination is basically a deal breaker for every other author I know. I don’t usual check email, Facebook or Twitter until at least 6:30am, either, another killer for most authors.
What is the single most important quality in a novel; what must an author do to win you over?
You need an interesting voice. A grabber opening is great, compelling characters are awesome, but the voice – your unique voice – is what carries your story. Find your voice. Own your voice. Learn to tell interesting stories using your unique voice. That is the key.
If your writing suddenly made you rich and famous, what would you do with your success?
We’re all going to Tuscany for gelato! You, me, everybody who reads this and comments! And who reviews my book with 5 stars.
Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share?
“If it’s funny enough, you can pretty much do anything.” – me.
You can find out more about Dan Alatorre at www.DanAlatorre.com.