Stephen Spignesi interview with David Alan Binder
Post date: Jul 2, 2016 3:02:36 PM
Stephen Spignesi interview with David Alan Binder
Bio from his website: Stephen Spignesi is a New York Times bestselling author who writes about historical biography, popular culture, television, film, American and world history, and contemporary fiction. He is also a university professor, novelist, poet, screenwriter, and musician.
Spignesi — christened “the world’s leading authority on Stephen King” byEntertainment Weekly magazine — has worked with Stephen King, Turner Entertainment, the Margaret Mitchell Estate, Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, the Smithsonian Institution, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Viacom, and other personalities and entities on a wide range of projects. Spignesi has also contributed essays, chapters, articles, and introductions to a wide range of books.
Spignesi’s more than 60 books have been translated into several languages and he has also written for Harper’s,Cinefantastique, Saturday Review, TV Guide, Mystery Scene, Gauntlet, and Midnight Graffiti magazines; as well as the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the New Haven Register, the French literary journal Tenébresand the Italian online literary journal, Horror.It. Spignesi has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, and other TV and radio outlets; and also appeared in the 1998 E! documentary, The Kennedys: Power, Seduction, and Hollywood, as a Kennedy family authority; and in the A & E Biography of Stephen King that aired in January 2000. Spignesi’s 1997 bookJFK Jr. was a New York Times bestseller. Spignesi’s Complete Stephen King Encyclopedia was a 1991 Bram Stoker Award nominee.
In addition to writing, Spignesi also lectures on a variety of popular culture and historical subjects and is a Practitioner in Residence at the University of New Haven and Adjunct Professor at Gateway Community College in Connecticut. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the small press publishing company, The Stephen John Press. Spignesi was recently praised for “reinventing the psychological thriller” upon the publication of his acclaimed debut novel, Dialogues.
1. How do you pronounce your name?
2. Where are you currently living?
New Haven, Connecticut. Born and raised here, and I still live here.
3. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?
I’ve learned a lot of things, but one of the most important is that the universe of books, readers, and writers is smaller than I imagined when I was first starting out.
The book business is at the bottom of the list of entertainment vehicles after movies, TV, and sports. I’ve been writing since 1984 and am coming up on my 70th book. It is striking, and sobering to me that I write for a very small audience, as does the vast majority of mid-list writers.
Media paints a picture of writers like Stephen King, John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, etc., and the public at large thinks that all writers have millions of readers, and make millions of dollars. This couldn’t be further from the truth. But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. I’ve never met a writer who wrote because they wanted to be a millionaire.
They write because they’re writers, and this has been the story with art and artists for eons. Stephen King (I mention him because I’m very familiar with his work—I’m writing my sixth book about him) has always said he never wrote a word thinking of how much he’d get for the book. He did it because he’s a writer.
Artists are a rare breed. Why else would someone like King or Grisham—writers who have earned so much from their writing that they never have to write another word for the rest of their lives—still write one or two books a year? It’s not for the money. And that is something that beginning writers need to understand and embrace.
4. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?
I don’t know how interesting this is, but unlike some other writers, I have to work in absolute silence. No music, no TV in the background, nothing.
Also, as soon as a book is green-lighted and I know my due date, I start a countdown clock on my desktop. In fact, I do that for all my writing assignments.
For example, I can tell you that as of right now, today, June 28, 2016, I have 3 days to finish an essay about the TV show ER for an anthology, 13 days to write a blurb for a new book about the Presidents’ parents, 94 days to finish the manuscript of a book about UFOs, 93 days to finish an in-depth editing of a manuscript for a client, and 49 days until my next library appearance and lecture (about Robin Williams).
I don’t know if I’m unique, but I know my family and colleagues get a kick out of my being able to immediately state how many days I have left for a project. But it’s just my way of staying focused and on track.
5. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?
The decision on whether or not to “use” a publisher is often a decision that is out of the hands of the writer. Ideally, all books should be published by royalty publishers who pay an advance. That’s the gold standard for writers. But as all writers today know, that is easier said than done.
All of my books have been published traditionally by trade royalty publishers. Lately, I’ve been branching out into e-books, selling the rights to some of my older out of print titles. Also, I have a small press called The Stephen John Press which publishes short run, signed limited editions which, I suppose, can be considered self-publishing.
But when I conceive a book, it’s always to place with a trade publisher and get an advance. I write a proposal and my agent starts shopping it around. So I’ve not been faced with the painful problem of “self-publish” vs. “no publish.” I know writers who only self-publish and some have done very well. But it’s a lot of work, and a lot of marketing, and I’d rather write than get into the selling side of the business.
a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they?
I’ve been published by most of the major publishers, as well as several foreign publishers. My publishers include Penguin, Random House, Plume, Bantam Dell, Andrews & McMeel, Kensington, NAL, Signet, Contemporary Books, Citadel Press, QVC Publishing, New Page Books, Hodder & Stoughton, John Wiley & Sons, Skyhorse, Black Dog & Leventhal, Macmillan, and others. My complete bibliography is on my website, www.stephenspignesi.com.
6. Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
Ebooks are still a small percentage of the industry. Traditional print publishing is still the mainstay of the business. Alternative publishing is also a small part of the business. Conventional publishing is responsible for the books on the New York Times bestseller list., but ebooks and self-publishing have become options for writers who can’t get a trade deal but really believe in their work.
Sometimes lightning can strike. It did for the Chicken Soup for the Soul guy, and it did for the aforementioned John Grisham who couldn’t get a deal for his first book A Time to Kill and paid to self-publish it and sell it out of his trunk. But these are rare results—the exceptions that prove the rule—and a big part of why they are success stories is because the books were incredible. It does happen.
Knowing the industry and knowing what’s the best way for you to proceed is the best way to succeed. Track records, platforms, word of mouth…all these things are part of breaking into a business. I’ve met many writers throughout my career who have the mistaken belief that just because they wrote a book, the world is waiting to read it. This is delusional thinking. And that’s why I tell people that writers have to be two people: the artist and the marketer.
If someone else can do the marketing (an agent, a publisher, a staff), all well and good, but it’s on the writer to make the world aware of their book and somehow build interest in it. This is not easy. When I was starting out, it was easier. But then publishing went though what housing went though in 2007-2008 and everything tightened up: rejections skyrocketed, advances shrunk, royalties plummeted. But it can still be done and it depends on how bad the writer wants it. Self-publishing, and “no advance” e-book publishing are viable options that can get a book out there.
7. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?
Believe it or not, it’s the same as it’s always been, and it’s not a secret at all: Write an awesome book.
The book The Martian (which became the movie with Matt Damon) was published on the author’s website one chapter at a time, for free, and it was so good that it made its way to agents and ultimately sold to a major publisher (and the film rights were sold to a studio.)
Good stuff is magnetic: word of mouth still works. If a book is incredible, it will become known, and publishers will fight to publish it. Mediocre work is everywhere. Thus, the good stuff rises to the top through networking, word of mouth, browsing Amazon reviews for self-published stuff, etc. It’s not easy, but achieving something great never was.
8. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?
I got my agent from a referral from an English teacher I had when I was in college. My teacher had just sold his first novel to Avon, and he gave me a referral to his agent, the agent who had sold that novel. This was in 1984 and I’ve been with him ever since. I also have a second agent for books I co-write with other authors.
My advice is to network. Get to know other writers who have agents. Also, do superb work, so when you feel your work is ready to show, hopefully one of your friends will give you a referral to his or her agent, and the quality of the work will convince the agent to take you on as a client.
Agents today are harder to get than a publisher. Why? Because most publishers will no longer consider unagented submissions. Some still do, but many editors will only look at material that comes from a literary agent. This is why networking is so important. The Internet has given writers easy access to many professional editors and this has resulted in unsolicited emails from writers pitching books. Most editors do not like this, unless they publicly state that they accept “cold call” email pitches. So do the research to determine whether or not you should email an editor.
Also, join writer’s groups on Facebook and elsewhere and participate. Post in the group; comment on other writer’s posts; get to know other writers. Then, when you’re ready, you can message them and ask if they’ll introduce you to their agent.
And fiction writers can also visit www.writersmarket.com/cms/open/agent and subscribe to their service. Getting an agent is not easy but it’s really necessary these days so it’s worth the time and effort to find one willing to represent you.
9. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?
Read every day. Write every day. Network. Consider your writing goals as steps you take to start a business, because writing is, above all, a business. Yes, it’s art, but it also exists and fully functions within the parameters of the free market.
I had an editor once who scolded me for wanting to do a book about a somewhat obscure topic that would have had a very small audience, but would have made a major contribution to the scholarship. His response was “Commerce, not culture.” If every writer kept in mind that—to the publisher—a book is merchandise, then there wouldn’t be as many rejections.
10. What was one of the most surprising things you learned about your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?
I learned that skill and creativity are cumulative. It gets easier. After years of working with words, and ideas, and characters, it’s ultimately almost like flicking a switch. If I tackle a freelance assignment, or sign to write a book, the “writer” shows up when I start work. And being able to write “on demand” is a real asset in publishing.
I had an editor who emailed me one day and said, “Want to make a couple hundred bucks?” His company needed a new Foreword for a new edition of a book they were doing and the book was about a topic of my expertise. They wanted 600 words and they needed it quickly. I agreed to do it, and turned it in a half hour later. It took way longer to get paid, but my point is that I was able to “turn on” that part of my brain and deliver what they needed quickly.
The development of this ability to summon the “creative me” was a surprise to me. I did not expect that to ever happen. In the early years, writing was harder and took longer. But this does prove that the harder and longer you work at a craft, the better you get and the easier it comes.
11. How many books have you written?
Close to 70 right now. And about a half-dozen or so in the works that will be published over the next couple of years. Plus a bunch still in the “idea” stage. Plus a screenplay I’m writing about Grover Cleveland.
12. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?
Rewrite after letting stuff sit for at least a day. This is critically important. I tell my students that nobody’s first draft—not Stephen King’s, not William Shakespeare’s, not theirs—is ready to publish.
And it does have to sit for a bit. We get “manuscript blind” after working on something for a long time. We can’t see changes that will improve the text. Later, they become obvious. “How could I have been happy with that sentence?” you ask yourself, and then rewrite it to something much better. There’s an old saying: “Writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting.” This is very true.
13. Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?
One tip is to figure out and make a list of all possible, expected resolutions of the story…and then find a denouement that is not on that list.
Twists are essentially plot points that are totally unexpected. People who read regularly these days are savvy and can often see where a story is going even when the writer thinks the resolution has been adequately masked. (This is particularly common on TV. I’ve been able to recite the next line in a TV episode before it’s spoken because I know exactly where the story is going. This should be avoided in fiction.)
In my novel Dialogues, the twist at the end is completely unexpected (so readers tell me) and it took me three tries before I found that right ending. My editor rejected the first two endings of the novel as “far-fetched” and “forced.” (This is why a good editor is worth their weight in gold, frankly.)
14. What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?
This is almost impossible to answer since I’ve done so many books, but if you’re asking about my nonfiction work (I’m an expert on Stephen King, the Beatles, the Titanic, the Presidents, Robin Williams, Woody Allen, the Founding Fathers), then I’d have to say comprehensiveness. I really work hard to make sure my books are thorough, entertaining, and rich with accurate detail and insights. There are many others who do that as well, but speaking of my books, that’s one thing that makes them stand out.
15. What are some ways in which you promote your work?
I usually just mention a new book on my Facebook page and website. Since I’m with trade publishers, they always have a marketing department that designs ads, runs ads, sets up signings and interviews for me, and does emailings about the book. I’m fortunate because I don’t like doing the marketing part of selling books, so their help is invaluable.
One thing I always do on my own, however, is give lectures at local libraries. I have about ten illustrated lectures that I do and the majority of them are based on one of my books. Oftentimes that results in book sales, either after the talk, or later when someone buys a book online or in a store.
16. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?
I probably would have taken a typing class in high school. I type with much less than ten fingers and cannot type without looking at the keys. Even now, I think I should learn touch typing, but finding the time could be a problem these days.
Also, considering what I do for a living, I probably should have gotten my degree in Literature instead of Finance.
17. What saying or mantra do you live by?
Carpe diem. That’s Latin for seize the day. I also teach that to my students (I teach Composition & Literature at the University of New Haven). Every day is precious, so we need to carpe diem, every day.
18. Anything else you would like to say?
Writing is an odd endeavor. It’s actually storytelling for fiction writers; teaching for nonfiction writers; persuading for essay writers; and a form of therapy for poets and songwriters. Yet the commonality to all these pursuits is that writers use words.
As I said earlier, writing is an art and a craft. Writers should have an impressive vocabulary; writers should be articulate in their speech; writers should be able to understand every word in a daily newspaper without having to look something up. This is all part of the craft.
You wouldn’t decide to build a house by going to Home Depot and buying a ton of stuff, and then dumping it on the lawn. You’d need to know what you’re doing first. Yet many people will decide to write a novel—a 50,000-400,000+ word effort—yet still have a limited vocabulary, an inability to spell, and a lack of basic understanding of syntax, diction, punctuation, and the other fundamentals of writing. (I’m not joking about this. A woman who had been referred to me by a friend once showed me her novel and the first thing I noticed was that she had completely eschewed punctuation—as well as the use of paragraphs. She handed me 200 pages of one giant block of single-spaced text. And when you don’t use quotation marks, it’s kind of difficult to figure out who’s speaking. I politely passed on that particular editing job.)
So have respect for the craft. Have readers be awed by the beauty of your writing; the structure of your sentences; your word choice. This is how Stephen King concludes the opening paragraph of his novel The Regulators:
…and surrounding everything like an auditory edging of lace, the soothing, silky hiss of lawn sprinklers.
That is a beautiful phrase. And I’m certain it didn’t come easy. Just the “auditory edging of lace…” construction had to have taken some time to “find” in that perfect incarnation. And the alliteration—surrounding, soothing, silky, hiss, sprinklers—is just perfect. This took time and skill to write. And that’s the lesson, isn’t it?
Being proficient with the craft will allow you to capture perfectly the art. And since art is an elusive creature that looks for any opportunity to escape, knowing your stuff should be a committed goal for every writer, throughout their life.
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