Tish Davidson interview with David Alan Binder
Post date: Oct 9, 2016 3:18:51 PM
Tish Davidson interview with David Alan Binder
Bio from her website:
In my first "real" job, I discovered that a lot of people don't like to write. But I've always loved putting ideas on paper. Every job I've ever had, became a writing job. When I worked as the quality control director at a vegetable cannery, I wrote everything from reports for the Food and Drug Administration to responses to customer complaints. When I worked as a teacher at a training school for nannies, who wrote the school newsletter? You guessed it. Me. Then I was asked to write a newspaper column about games and another one about parenting. Finally, I just gave up and became a full-time professional writer. Over the past twenty years, I have written everything from restaurant reviews to true-life stories to mysteries to textbooks.
Most of my books are nonfiction books for young people. Two of them, Prejudice and Facing Competition (both published by Scholastic) were selected as California Reader books, and I was the California featured author for September 2010. The book I most enjoyed researching was African American Scientists and Inventors. The most interesting (at least to me) newspaper story I ever wrote was about a man who founded a center to rehabilitate marine mammals against great odds.
1. Where are you currently living?
Fremont, CA (SF Bay Area). I am primarily a nonfiction and creative nonfiction writer, but my fiction is often set in central New Jersey where I lived for 15 adult years.
2. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?
You don’t get better in a vacuum. Hard as it is to accept criticism of your efforts, putting your writing out there for critiquing is the only way you will get better. So grit your teeth and join a critique group. Try to find one with people who write better and have more publishing experience than you have. And remember, just because someone points out flaws in your writing doesn’t mean they hate you personally or even hate your writing, only that they think the writing could be better and would like to help make it so.
Writing is subjective. There is room for multiple opinions, not all of them well informed or knowledgeable. You will get lots of stupid or inappropriate comments in a critique group along with helpful ones. If several people tell you that they have a problem with a specific place in your work, or if they criticize the pacing or say your characters are shallow or all sound alike, LISTEN TO THEM. They may all have different ideas about what is wrong and how to fix it, but if they point to the same place/problem, believe them. There is a problem, and your job is to fix it.
Go home, stomp around, spend 15 minutes yelling about how stupid your critique group is (allow yourself 30 minutes if you are really devastated by an agent or publisher who rejected you), and then put the work away for 2-3 days. Take it out again and look at it with fresh eyes, while thinking about what the critiquers said. Usually you will find some bit of truth in their comments. Then revise, revise, revise.
3. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing, or illustrating quirk?
I revise as I go. I know the conventional advice is to spit out a book or story and worry about editing it later, but I need to revise to the point of having a reasonable draft in order to move on. Spitting out stuff I know is terrible and messy just doesn’t work for me. I still end up doing a zillion drafts (definition of a zillion: about six more than you think you can stand doing) before I have a publishable piece, but as I go along, I have to at least revise to the point where it isn’t totally awful. This may be an artifact of writing a lot of nonfiction where facts matter, and it is easier to make sure they are correct as you go rather than going back and checking them later.
4. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?
I have never self-published, although from watching the experience of others, it seems like an extremely difficult task to bring self-published books to the attention of readers. Another drawback is that libraries rarely buy self-published books. That said, for certain niche markets and for people who really want to hold in their hands a book they have written or give it to their friends and family, self-publishing is a viable option. The people who seem to have the most success in getting readers for self-published books are romance writers.
Remember companies that self-publish books make their money by charging authors for the services they provide, while traditional publishers make money by selling books, not by charging authors. Pay attention to the fine print in self-publishing contracts and understand what your rights are and what getting the book published is going to cost you. Of course, you should read traditional publishing contracts with the same intense scrutiny.
a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they?
My books have been published by Scholastic, Mason Crest, and I am currently under contract to write 2 books for Greenwood Press for 2017 and 2018. I’ve been published in anthologies by Harlequin, Adams Media, and Scribe Press. I have contributed chapters or articles to books published by Benjamin Cummings, Delmar, McDougal Littell, and McGraw Hill, Gale Thompson, Salem Press, Cengage Learning, and Grey House Press. I have also edited books for Corwin Press and Abella Press.
5. Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?
E-books cost less to produce, but seem to be harder to bring to the attention of readers. Another problem with e-books is that there is no standard format for all e-readers, making more work for the author. Also, libraries use several different formats to make e-books available to their readers, which can make them less available as libraries have to pay for the download services. I find it much more difficult to browse the e-book section of my local library’s catalog than the print book section when I am looking for a new author to read. I prefer to go to the library or bookstore and browse the shelves, which is something I can’t do with e-books. On the other hand, it is inexpensive to give away promotional or review copies of e-books.
I hear a lot of self-published authors make the argument that you make more money per book on self-published e-books and self-published print books than you do with conventionally published e-books or print books. On the surface this is true, but if you self publish, you either have to pay someone to edit the book, design the cover, do layout, e-format, and publicity or do it all yourself, and often the results don’t look particularly professional. On the other hand, you have complete control of the finished product.
If you go with a traditional publisher, you still have to do a good edit on the book, but the publisher will do a final edit/proofread, cover (often the author gets little say in what it looks like), layout, and e-formatting. Sometimes the publisher’s legal department give the book the okay (usually in nonfiction), and the publisher will send catalogs and out review copies and often can get endorsement quotes for the book from the other authors they publish. A publisher may have people who specialize in or have experience in choosing fonts and designing spines (important if the book sits spine out in a bookstore) that help sell the book. Also, traditionally published authors often get an advance, which is money they get to keep regardless of how the book sells. Traditionally published authors still have to do a lot of their own publicity, but the chance of getting into bookstores and libraries is much greater if conventionally published.
Questions authors should ask themselves are 1) How much time do I have to put into the non-writing aspects of publishing a book? 2) Do I have the art and computer skills to produce a professional looking book or am I willing to spend the money to pay someone else to do those things I can’t? 3) How many copies of this book can I realistically expect to sell? If you are traditionally published, what is the royalty rate? How many books must be sold to earn out your advance? If you are self-publishing, how many copies will you have to sell to recoup your expenses?
6. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?
No secrets, just revise, revise, and revise. Learn your craft. Recognize that editing is not correcting spelling errors, changing a comma or replacing one word with another. It is tearing apart whole paragraphs, eliminating a character, adding a chapter – in essence torturing yourself and your manuscript. Writing well is hard. And frustrating. And incredibly satisfying.
I suggest that you write 20,000 or so words of your book and then seek help from a professional editor or writing coach. Be selective. Get recommendations. Make sure the person is familiar with the conventions of your genre. You can either work with someone in person or over the web with Skype or similar. Expect to pay for this help. It will be worth it because it will keep you from making the same mistakes for 80,000 words. There is no point in writing an entire book and then discovering that you do not understand point of view and have been head-hopping or that your characters all sound alike, or that in your science fiction book you have crafted an amazing world but that your book has no plot. Get help early in the process. It is less painful to learn to do things correctly by tearing apart 20,000 words than 80,000 words of a book that you thought was finished.
7. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?
I have had two different agents. The first was about 20 years ago. She was a high-powered established New York agent who was unable to sell my first nonfiction book. She was only interested in shopping it to big publishers, and at the time I did not have the experience to push her to try smaller houses or to try them myself. My current agent is shopping a mystery to publishers.
I found both agents the old-fashioned way – developing a list of possible agents, reading their requirements for queries and writing them individual emails that fulfilled their requirements. It was a long, slow process and I got a lot of outright rejections and a lot of what I call hopeful rejections (along the lines of “This isn’t quite right for me or the market right now, but please send me anything else you have.” Grrr.)
One way to develop a list of potential agents is to go to querytracker.com and use their filters to develop a list of agents interested in your genre. I do not recommend using their paid services, and a blast of generic “Dear Agent” emails is not going to impress anyone. Try to make your queries to agents personal, professional, and BRIEF. Give them what they ask for on their websites. This varies a lot – first 5 pages, first 10 pages, first chapter, first 3 chapters. If they are interested, they will ask for the full manuscript. Just resign yourself to the fact that getting an agent takes work and A LOT of patience. I found about 50% of the agents I queried never responded at all, and the ones who were interested took a highly variable amount of time to respond (between 2 days and 9 months, although by 9 months I already had an agent). I would also suggest you send out your queries in batches several weeks apart. I found that some agents responded to me rejections but helpful information (The beginning is too slow. Too much backstory too soon). I used that information to re-write my first chapter and it worked.
8. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?
Read what you want to write. I don’t know how many people have told me they are writing a memoir, and when I ask them what the best memoir they have read is, they say, “I don’t read memoirs.” Each genre has its conventions (especially mystery, science fiction, westerns, and romance), and each has a preferred length. Internalize the convention for your genre by reading a lot of your genre books and also read about the genre on the web. Understand what makes a young adult book different from a new adult book, a thriller different from a cozy or different from a police procedural. If you write for kids, understand the difference between beginning chapter books, lower middle grade, and upper middle grade books. I judge a contest every year for self-published and small press published books, and I am always surprised at how many people enter their books in an inappropriate category. They have worked hard on the book and then wasted an opportunity by not paying attention to how books are categorized to be marketed to different audiences.
9. What was one of the most surprising things you about learned your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?
1) My first ideas usually aren’t my best ideas. In the end, most of the first ideas get discarded even though I initially thought that they were brilliant.
2) Writers block for me means that either a) I haven’t focused narrowly enough on what I want to write b) I haven’t done enough research (yes, fiction requires research) and don’t know enough to write about the topic or thing I am describing or c) I’m tired and need to take a nap.
3) Thinking time is important. I need silent space or time alone not in front of a screen or listening to music to identify the problems in my books and ideally come up with solutions. Best place to find solutions: the shower – warm, white noise, no distractions.
10. How many books have you written?
Eleven traditionally published, 2 more under contract to be traditionally published. All of these are nonfiction. One fiction book (a cozy mystery) is in the process of being shopped around to publishers by my agent. I’ve published lots of articles, short stories in various magazines, creative nonfiction in anthologies, and flash fiction. I find short stories the hardest to write.
11. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?
In every place where you have written backstory for your character, cut it in half. Too much backstory is deadly. Make the distinction between what you, the author, needs to know about your characters and what the reader needs to know, and then give the reader as little as possible while still conveying the necessary information. Readers prefer to apply a little imagination to the story rather than having everything spelled out for them in deadly detail.
The same thing goes for flashbacks. Enter into them as late as possible and get out of them as soon as possible. Only use them if there is a genuine trigger for them, not because you need to tell the reader something you think is important. If it is important, you can always find another way to tell the reader.
A challenge: Experiment with cutting down your first chapter to half the original number of words. What, you say? You can’t do that? Sure you can. At least half of every first chapter is going to be throat clearing – stuff you are writing just to get yourself going. It’s fine for you to do this, but throat-clearing writing should never make it beyond the second or third draft. I dare you. Re-write the first chapter of your novel using 50% fewer words. You’ll find it captures the reader’s interest much faster and reads much better.
A second challenge: After you have halved the first chapter, try re-writing the slimmed-down version into something that can be read aloud in 5 minutes. Maybe you can’t get it down that low, but trying to will cut out any remaining nonessential information. Remember, it’s the first 5 pages that sell the book – or at least get you a full manuscript read.
I like the book Digital Ink: Writing Killer Fiction in the E-Book Age by Bonnie Hearn Hill and Christopher Allan Poe as a good but brief and succinct introduction to the craft of writing. It is available as an e-book or print book on Amazon and similar sites. I haven’t been given any incentives or kickbacks to recommend this book. I just happen to think it is a good place for novice writers to start improving their craft. Pay special attention to the section on developing deep point of view. Mastering it is hard (I’m still working on it), but it makes a big difference in your ability to pull the reader into your story.
12. Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?
I write mystery, and in mystery, twists have to be organic. They can’t come out of nowhere but should be set up so that when they happen the reader goes back and says, “Yes. I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.” I suspect that most good story twists work that same way. Sometimes an unreliable narrator can provide a good twist, but I have found writing unreliable narrators hard to master. Your experience may differ.
13. What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?
The ability to pull the reader into the story and identify with the characters and care what happens to them is what makes a book stand out. Reading requires a suspension of disbelief, and yet the story must be realistic enough (yes, even science fiction) to be believable. Pacing is also important – not to fast, not to slow, but not boringly even. It is something I work on all the time with variable success.
14. What are some ways in which you promote your work?
Many of the nonfiction books I have written are aimed at school and public libraries, and I did not need to do much promotion (Thank you Scholastic for your excellent promotion efforts). If my mystery sells, I plan to have a pet blog (the main character/detective is a pet sitter) with health tips, ways to have fun with your pet, and crazy pet stories. I also plan to sponsor a contest where people post pictures of their pets and vote on which one(s) should be included in my next book.
I belong to several professional organizations – American Society of Journalists and Authors, American Medical Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, and several California-centric groups all of which provide promotional opportunities and community and library speaking opportunities. Although I think writers need an internet presence, I am not sure it is very effective or worth putting too much time into. Spend your time writing the best book you can instead. Sometimes internet contact is overdone to the point of annoyance. I somehow got on a list of romance e-book writers and some of the writers on that list started sending me newsletters and book excerpts as often as 3 or 4 times a week – way too often. They were soon consigned to spam. Weekly contact is plenty, or maybe even too much. I like the type of newsletter Robert Crais sends out. It comes no more often than quarterly and has information about Crais, excerpts from an upcoming book and information about where he will be reading. It feels professional rather than desperate.
15. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?
I would have started writing fiction sooner and spent less time trying to be the next John McPhee (because I am never going to write nonfiction like he does. Not in this life, anyway.)
I would have asked my current agent how much experience he had selling a book like mine because it seems most of his experience is in selling nonfiction and I didn’t realize that when I signed with him.
16. What saying or mantra do you live by?
In writing: A quote by Tom Durkin, a race horse caller who once explained how calling a horse race and writing a book were the same. “The key is to see the conflict, build the tension, and then knock 'em dead with the release.”
In living: If you’re thinking mean thoughts, keep your mouth shut.
17. Final thoughts
You don’t have to have an English degree to write a publishable book. I have a master’s degree in biology. The only English class I ever took the one required freshman English class in college.
Try to be kind to other writers, even when you are insanely jealous of their success. You don’t know how many books they wrote before they got published, how many agents rejected them, and how often they thought about giving up—in other words, they were once where you are now.