An Interview with Robert Bidinotto


Robert Bidinotto is a widely published, award-winning investigative journalist, magazine editor, and non fiction author. He recently started the 'Hunter' series of novels and judging by the Amazon response this is going to be very successful.

He runs a blog which concentrates on writing thrilllers here. A typical article is My Moral Teachers Were Fictional Lawbreakers

Ravenshead (RH) interviewed Robert Bidinotto (RB) and the interview is reproduced here:

RH Please tell us a bit about your background.

I was raised in a dying mill town in western Pennsylvania during the 1950s. It was a blue-collar home. My parents worked like mules, with little time or money for much else. So, there was no “culture�� to speak of in our house: no books, no stereo system, no trips to plays or concerts.

Our big old black-and-white Philco television wasmy cultural salvation. As a toddler, I became a huge fan of the early TV Western and action heroes: the Lone Ranger, Superman, Robin Hood, the Range Rider, Wyatt Earp, Tarzan, among others. Later, I graduated to comic-book superheroes. Then to science fiction. Then, during college, to thrillers - where I found my psychological home. Later,  authors like Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Donald Hamilton, and Mickey Spillane left an indelible imprint upon me. 

I’ve blogged about this - about how those characters and adventure stories opened for me a window onto a world of wider, more exciting possibilities. And about how they also planted within me the seeds of the kind of character I’m now writing about: the vigilante hero. 

RH When did you start writing?

As far back as I can recall. I learned to read very early and did so voraciously. When I learned how to write, I scribbled constantly. I used school essay assignments such as "How did you spend your summer vacation?" as jumping off points to write science-fiction stories. I definitely knew that I was going to be a writer when I was still very young. Fortunately, I had a few wonderful teachers along the way who encouraged me to pursue that dream.

Later, in my teens, I became passionately interested in current events and politics. I started writing letters to newspapers and magazines, then entered and won essay contests. That led to my long post-college career writing nonfiction. For decades, I freelanced for magazines such as Reader's Digest and also worked for nonprofit advocacy groups. I wrote book and movie reviews, essays, op-eds, political and cultural commentary, investigative journalism - even a couple of nonfiction books on crime.

But only after hitting age 60, and seeing "Write a novel!" still at the top of my Bucket List, did I set a deadline to achieve the dream of my youth. By the way - and let me be clear to readers: this is an unsolicited endorsement-achieving the dream of becoming a novelist would have been much harder without your WriteItNow software. The daunting complexity of organizing all the research and plotting for HUNTER had deterred me from starting it for several years. 

RH I'm glad you like the software and that it has been useful to you. Where do you write? 

On a PC, in a cluttered, second-floor office at my home. Surrounded by books, of course. 

RH What makes you write? 

I'd have to say: dissatisfactions about the world around me. I'm not the first writer who likes to "play God" - to reshape, at least on paper, the world and the people in it in accord with his fantasies. I've always been an idealist and something of a crusader. 

In the specific case of HUNTER, I was motivated by my past experiences with crime victims. Not only have they been terribly hurt by horrible criminals; they also have been terribly served by a legal system that is supposed to be their route to securing justice. In fact, I dedicated this novel to crime victims. It speaks to their concerns and, in fiction, it gives them a heroic champion and a glimpse of the kind of justice that is their due.  

RH What's the easiest thing about writing? What's the hardest? 

Contrary to my initial expectations, I've found it easiest to write dialog. Before I began, I worried that my characters would not speak realistically, that they would converse in a stilted way. Yet readers tell me they love the verbal banter in the book. My favourite scenes in this regard are between hero Dylan Hunter and two of his associates - a researcher nicknamed "Wonk", and his newspaper editor, Bronowski. I had a ball writing those scenes.

Also contrary to my initial expectations, the hardest thing for me has been plotting. You see, I have an extremely methodical mind, so I thought this would be my strong suit. And I think the plot is very good. But it took me a long time to work out. Though easy enough to follow, it is deviously complicated. HUNTER weaves together several seemingly unrelated threads, plus a rich backstory, into an integrated whole, with mystery, romance, action, and plenty of surprises. Working out an internally consistent timeline for all the events was a killer. So was figuring out how to present it all in a way that was clear and didn't lose the reader. That's where WriteItNow proved to be indispensable.

RH I particularly like the dialog in Hunter. It moves the action along and never seems stilted or false. How do you achieve this?

Thank you. Three things about that. 

First, I try hard to get into the heads and skin of my characters as I write about them. It's like method acting, I suppose. If you can do that as a writer, then what your characters say just seems to flow naturally and persuasively.

But, second, writing "realistic" dialog is deceptive, because if you analyse it closely, it is actually not exactly the way people talk. If you listen to conversations, you'll find a lot of stammering, repetition, interruptions, and topical side tracks. On paper (or on a Kindle), a transcript would be deadly dull, even unreadable. Good dialog is highly stylised to give the reader the illusion of realistic conversation. It's natural speech, but with all the boring stuff left out. 

Third, I think having  "a sense of drama" helps hugely. That's one key aspect of stylisation. You want scenes with people talking to be little mini-stories, with their own beginnings, middles, and ends. The ends represent sub-climaxes within the wider drama of the story. As a reader, I've probably internalised the stylistic conventions of the fine writers whom I admire; and most of them choreograph conversations to serve as mini-dramas.

RH Have other people's comments affected your writing?

In one sense, no - because I never shared the manuscript with a single soul, not even my wife, while I was writing it. But in another important sense, yes - after I had finished it and showed it to my early "beta" readers. 

RH Stephen king in "On Writing" sayssomething similar. He never shows anything to anyone until he has at least finished the first draft.

The only chapter that I let anyone see before completing the manuscript was a flashback scene. Initially, I had meant it to open the book, as a prologue. It was supposed to tantalize the reader with hints about the backstory of the hero. But my gut told me something was wrong about its placement there. Because one of a thriller reader's basic expectations is to be propelled into an exciting action sequence right at the opening of the story. And this prologue was quiet and mysterious, not an action scene.

Well, I showed it to several people, and their subdued reaction told me that this was the wrong place for that chapter. I still thought it was good writing and that it could work, but somewhere else. So I moved it to a point much later in the story - and it proved to be perfect positioning. That scene now, as a flashback, has an emotional power and poignancy that it could never have had as a prologue.

Also, once I had finished and circulated the manuscript, comments from my initial "beta readers" really saved my butt. For example, they thought the opening chapters were a bit slow. So I trimmed several pages of extraneous material, cutting things down to the bone and greatly accelerating the pace. Readers now say they were seized at the outset and never stopped turning pages. Also, as closely as I edited and proofread my manuscript, they found a host of errors that my tired eyes overlooked. The result is a much better novel than I presented to them in manuscript. I'm grateful to them all.

RH Which writers have influenced you?

A facile answer would be: "All of them." Because you learn from everything you read, even from bad writers, who teach you what not to do. But let me answer your question as you intended it.

I love the works of thriller masters Lee Child, Brad Thor, Stephen Hunter, Vince Flynn, and Daniel Silva - among many others. I also thoroughly enjoy detective mystery writers Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, and Sean Chercover. Each has particular strengths; a few have almost no perceptible weaknesses. But I have learned from them all and admire them greatly. It's been one of the biggest thrills of my life to see HUNTER occasionally appear on some Amazon category bestseller list amid famous works by these, my fiction - writing heroes.

But though it's a thriller, HUNTER also takes a controversial view of the nature of justice. So I also owe a lot to great classic writers who dramatized big themes and philosophical ideas, such as Shakespeare,Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Ayn Rand, Edmond Rostand, and George Orwell. It is terribly difficult to write about abstract ideas entertainingly and without being preachy. If HUNTER is any good in this regard, well, I stood on the shoulders of giants.

RH Did you find it easy to get a publisher?

Yes, because I never tried to: I self-published. 

I'm not a young man. At  62, and with agents and publishers taking on fewer and fewer new authors, and with advances shrinking, I wasn't about to gamble for years going through what has been derisively called "the query-go-round," just in order to get a book contract-then wait an additional two years before seeing it in print. The ebook self-publishing revolution, pioneered especially by Amazon, has allowed authors to reach their readers much faster, while cutting out almost all middle-men and intermediaries. 

Take my case. I completed my manuscript on June 4, 2011. After rounds of beta-reading feedback, corrections, and formatting, I published the ebook editions on June 21. 

RH Less than 3 weeks! That's impressively fast. 

The print edition, produced by Amazon's CreateSpace division, was released on July 11. That is a speed that no traditional publisher can possibly match. Also, by cutting out all the middle-men, I get to keep all the subsidiary rights and the lion's share of the royalties. Self-publishing, for me, was simply a no-brainer.

RH Again, I can see that traditional publishing would be much slower. How long did it take to write Hunter?

That's difficult to be precise about. I began toying with the idea for the Dylan Hunter character way back in 2004. But over the next several years, while I had other jobs, a completely different story was emerging in my mind, a political tale rooted in the topic of terrorism. However, around 2008, I decided that this wouldn't introduce my hero in a way that would set him apart as unique. 

So, I turned to my roots in journalism and "true crime" writing. And Dylan Hunter re-emerged in my mind as someone unique: as a philosophical avenger, an intellectual vigilante. One reviewer described the resulting book as "a thinking man's 'Death Wish.'" 

RH I guess your background in journalism makes you good at meeting deadlines. You've coined the term 'Vigilante Author'. Can you explain this?

I mean it in several senses. Most obviously, it's a kind of "brand" for me, as an author writing about a vigilante hero. The "lone-wolf hero," who takes on a corrupt Establishment and operates outside the law in order to right injustices, is an archetype in fiction that goes back hundreds of years. Dylan Hunter is just the latest incarnation of this maverick, iconic character.

More broadly, though, I intend the term to represent the rising trend in the world of books: of "indie" or self-publishing. With the emergence of online book selling and of ebooks, the big, traditional publishing houses and chain bookstores are being challenged by a host of upstart indie authors, who operate like the defiant "vigilantes" of the publishing world. Indies are out there breaking all "the rules," and many are succeeding. So, when I coined the term "vigilante author" not long ago, a number of self-publishing writers wrote to express their delight.

RH The reviews for Hunter are extraordinary.

In the States, HUNTER has been customer ranked #1 in the Kindle categories of "Romantic Suspense" and "Spy Stories/Intrigue." Readers rated it #2 among "Thrillers" and #3 in the broader category of "Mysteries and Thrillers." As much as I am gratified by early sales, this amazing response from readers is every writer's dream.

RH Where do you get your ideas? Do your own experiences appear in Hunter?

The novel is a synthesis of ideas drawn from many sources. E pluribus unum, as the slogan on our U.S. coins says.

Some characters are composites or highly stylised adaptations of people I have encountered; others are based on the physical appearances of certain movie stars, but infused with personalities that I invented. I knew first-hand about the field of journalism; I had investigated the criminal justice system; and I researched a great deal about spycraft. All three of those separate worlds intersect in HUNTER. My background in journalism and in "true crime" writing contributed a few personal experiences, even snippets of dialog. And I live near Washington, D.C., so many of the locales are familiar to me. 

I would love to tell you that the exotic action and romantic scenes are drawn from my personal experiences. In truth,  they're the product of an overly active fantasy life. Alas.   

RH How do you promote Hunter?

So far, by the usual means open to an indie author: writing my blog; doing online interviews (such as this one); soliciting book reviews; social networking via Facebook, Twitter, Kindle Boards, and other sites; arranging newspaper features; in local retail stores; and face-to-face as I meet new people. I aim to do more targeted marketing, focusing more on thriller fans and other special interest groups which are likely to enjoy it.

RH The pricing strategy is obviously working well. 

I priced at $3.99 U.S., to avoid the stigma and to stand out a bit. Also, Amazon let's authors keep 70% of royalties at that price level, so I earn much more per sale than at 99 cents, where I'd keep only 35%. I'd have to sell about seven times as many books at 99 cents to equal what I'd make selling a single book at $3.99.

RH Besides writing, what do you enjoy doing?

My wife and I love to travel, especially by taking an annual cruise in January, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We also enjoy restaurants, wine, music, and books - all good reasons to try to make my writing as remunerative as possible!

RH Finally, do you have any advice for anyone who has just started writing or is thinking of becoming a writer?

My chief words of advice are: Honor your craft.

With their sudden ease of publication, too many self-published ebooks are slapdash affairs. Their authors show little interest in the basic principles of good storytelling - or, for that matter, even the basic rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting. Then they wonder why their books don't sell, no matter what marketing gimmicks they employ.

You can't successfully market a product that acquires a lousy reputation. Craftsmanship matters. It's a matter of practical necessity, if you wish to succeed as a writer. But it's also a matter of simple self-respect. Honor your craft.

RH Excellent. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, and good luck with all future Hunter books.

Thank you.