Dan Bodenstein is a self-described nature-lover, photographer, web developer, visionary, writer, and vegan. The president of Totem Tales Publishing and co-owner of Vivid Imagination Studios, Dan has published two children’s books through Totem Tales: The Tale of Eartha the Sea Turtle (2009) and Steven the Vegan (2012). Vivid Imagination Studios launched a GoFundMe campaign last year, and aims to bring out its first book this spring. This month, Dan took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Indyfest about his books and plans for the future.
IM: How long have you been writing?
DB: I always enjoyed creative writing, but growing up, I never really pursued it. I have always had a very active imagination, which is why I enjoyed reading. I could always visualize the scenes and actions, bringing to stories to life in my mind. In 2007, I started writing down ideas for stories, and even a little fan-fiction. I was actually attempting to write a graphic novel.
IM: Tell us a bit about what it was like for you growing up.
DB: My parents always encouraged reading. I was a bit of a loner. I’d rather have spent my day reading than being outside. I’m what you would call, athletically-challenged. My parents had a small store right across from a public library, so I had access to a wide range of books. I read most of the classics and then, in high-school, started reading comic books. A bit backwards, but my creative side was fascinated by not only the written word, but the visual word.
IM: Who, or what, would you consider to be major influences on your writing?
DB: I love Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jules Verne. I was reading Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, while other kids my age were reading the Hardy Boys. In high-school, I started reading Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels. I’d easily read one a week. I loved the way he added humor to the stories without overpowering the underlying action. Stan Lee has been a great inspiration for me. Not just what he’s created, but if you listen to him talk about writing, his passion is contagious.
IM: Can you share with us what attracted you to writing for children?
DB: I never considered writing stories for children. I am married with no children. I’m a web developer by trade and an amateur nature photographer. So, children’s books seem like an odd outlet. It really started with Eartha the sea turtle… not the book, the REAL turtle. My father-in-law was ill and my wife returned to Michigan to be with him. On the first weekend she was gone, I decided to take my camera and head to a local sea turtle marinelife center. There, in one of their rehabilitation tanks, I met Eartha. Eartha was being treated for anemia and an infection. The tank she was in had a viewport, so I was able to kneel down and get some photos of her. As I began walking away, I noticed she followed me. I thought nothing of it until I saw her ignoring other visitors. I walked back over and she came right up to the viewport again. I spent quite some time there, talking with the staff and asking questions about Eartha. When my wife returned from Michigan I told her about Eartha and took her to the center. There, she met Eartha and saw how she would watch me through the viewport. We learned she was going to be released back into the sea the upcoming weekend, so we made it a point to be there. That day, I watched as she made her way down the beach, to the water’s edge, and then out to the sea. On the ride home, I told my wife that the experience would make a great children’s story. She said, “Why don’t you write one?” I struggled at first with it, as I had never written for children before. I really wanted it to have a strong conservation message, but not be preachy. After a few months, I had the story written. Anemia was not an illness or injury that could be illustrated. So I decided that, like other sea turtles at the center, she would be entangled in fishing line. I’ve seen what it can do to a turtle and it’s horrible. The tighter the line gets as they struggle to break free, the more it cuts into their skin. Sea turtles don’t tuck themselves into their shell; they are always exposed and breathe air. If they cannot swim to the surface for air, they die.
IM: Could you tell us a bit about the book? What’s the elevator pitch? What age group is it geared toward?
DB: The story follows a happy sea turtle, who becomes entangled in discarded fishing line. Her ocean friends try set her free, but they can’t help untangle her. Sad and unable to free herself, she floats to the surface, where she finds some unexpected help. Without any spoilers, let’s just say there’s a happy ending and, like the real Eartha, a return to the sea. It’s targeted at five-to-six-year-olds.
IM: What kind of research did you need to do before writing this story?
DB: I had all the research I needed at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center where Eartha was cared for. Growing up in South Florida, an ocean story comes rather natural. The center is actually part of the story. I still visit the center to see the current patients and do book signings. The center has a story time and I love watching the kids listen to my story being read to them. I was once introduced as “A real live author”.
IM: How did you go about finding an artist?
DB: Finding an artist was difficult. It was 2008 when I started the story and, although I contacted many artists online, I got very few responses. I think part of it may have been my own fault. I could “see” how I wanted the pages illustrated. I knew how I wanted each page drawn. I think that may have put off a few of the illustrators. But, after a while, I was corresponding with Brian Krümm. Brian did an amazing job on the illustrations. We never met once during the entire process. Start to finish, it was all done via email and phone calls. We still keep in touch and have collaborated on a children’s book about bullying.
IM: What prompted your decision to self-publish?
DB: I sent out letters pitching the idea to several of the mainstream publishers. I also contacted a few children’s book literary agents. They all basically said that they are publishing fewer children’s books than in previous years. One agent outright told me, if I’m not a celebrity, chances are, I won’t get published. So, I did some research, and ended up self-publishing. I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t doing this to get rich or sell thousands of copies. It was something I felt I needed to do.
IM: Were there any challenges along the way that you hadn’t expected? Conversely, were there any lucky breaks you couldn’t have predicted?
DB: The first self-publishing company I went through was a real let-down. They dragged their feet with the production of my book and, eventually, stopped even communicating. I became very frustrated with the whole process. I actually had to contact their state attorney general’s office, just to dispute the charges. It was then I found CreateSpace.com. They were extremely helpful. I cannot tell you the joy I felt holding the first proof of my book in my hands. Even though there were “issues” with my layouts, I still felt a strong sense of pride. It didn’t matter if I sold one copy or one million. I published a book. What I couldn’t have predicted was how it made me feel. I felt triumphant. I felt like I had proven to the big publishers that aspiring writers don’t need them as much as they think they do. It’s David versus Goliath.
IM: Let’s talk a bit about Steven the Vegan. What was the inspiration for this book?
DB: I’m a vegan. No surprise there. When I changed to a vegan lifestyle, I was bombarded with questions, not to mention that I had my own questions about being vegan. Today it’s a bit more mainstream, but back then I’d get less of a reaction from people if I told them I had a prehensile tail than if I told them I didn’t eat meat. More and more I read about kids being raised in vegan households. I mentioned it to my wife, who had gone vegan before me, and she thought I should write a second book. At the time, I was not a vegan. I wasn’t eating meat, but I was still eating seafood. I realized, in order to properly write the story, I needed to go vegan. So I did it. I then started focusing on the story. It was complicated to create. I wrote several iterations, all which I deemed unusable. I wanted to write a story that empowered a child. Eventually, I came up with the idea of having the story take place at an animal sanctuary. I even visited a farm sanctuary, just to experience it myself. After that, I wrote the entire book in less than an hour. Since it was published, I’ve received emails from parents who have told me that the book had helped their child and, in once instance, acted as an anti-bully tool for their child. Something I never expected.
IM: What’s the elevator pitch?
DB: On a field trip to a local farm sanctuary, Steven’s classmates discover he doesn’t eat meat. He then uses the animals of the farm to explain where food comes from and why animals are his friends, not his food.
IM: And for this one, you hooked up with an old friend for the illustrations. How did that come about?
DB: Thank you, Facebook. My friend Ron Robrahn and I have known each other since grade school. Ron is such a talented artist. I always tell people, you can ask Ron to draw anything, and he’ll do it. Need a kangaroo wearing a sombrero, and scuba gear? No problem. Bam. There it is. But, as time goes on, life gets in the way, and we lost touch. I found Ron on Facebook one day and told him I needed an illustrator. We set up a meeting and, within minutes of our first face-to-face meeting, he had Steven designed. We were back in sync, just like in school. He totally gets me. I barely have to finish describing what I need, and he’s there. Like I said, he’s an extremely talented and imaginative, artist.
IM: Can you share your writing process with us, from inspiration to publication, as it were?
DB: Inspiration comes from everywhere. Twice a year, I go to Orlando and visit the theme parks. Ron and I both go. We wander the parks, ride the rides, and get inspired by everything around us. Sometimes Ron will doodle something and together we turn it into a story.
As for my writing process, I try to outline first, but usually a story is a jumble of notes that represent scenes. I use Evernote, and have it on my computer, my laptop, and my phone, so I can jot down notes whenever the moment strikes. Sometimes I know the ending of the story, but not how to get there. Other times, I use the snowflake method to build a story. During my commute to and from work, I often go over a scene in my head, over and over and over. I also do the same while riding my bike on weekends. I then flesh out the outline of the scene, and then go back and add little details. Once I have the outline, I use Scrivener to set up each chapter, first as a draft, then as a final. But ‘final’ is not always final. I share my writing with Ron’ so he can work on character design and sometimes, like with one of our latest stories, he will come up with something so amazing I have to change the story to fit the character design. That’s what makes our relationship great. We play off each other and fill in all the gaps. Once a story is done, I usually send it to family or friends and ask them to read it and tell me what they think. I usually end up editing it up to the last minute before I upload it for a proof.
IM: How have you handled the marketing and publicity end of things?
DB: I had no experience in marketing. I realized quickly that I had to learn whatever I could to market my books. The Tale of Eartha the Sea Turtle was marketed at marinelife centers, gift shops, and other nature-related outlets. With Steven the Vegan, I targeted health food stores, as well as a wide variety of vegan groups and forums. Steven the Vegan took off like a rocket once I focused my efforts. It’s also available in Italian now, and sells very well in Europe. Marketing should be 50 percent of what you do. I’d contact bloggers and asked if they wanted free copies for a raffle or giveaway. I also offer the books on consignment for some retail outlets. You do what you have to in order to get the word out.
IM: Is Vivid Imagination Studios also looking to publish work by other authors? If so, what sort of material would you be looking for?
DB: That is our plan for the future. Once we have ourselves better established, we want to help other people get their stories out there by giving them the benefit of our experiences. The name suits us, because we want to focus on stories that inspire imagination. Growing up, our toys didn’t fly on their own, and they couldn’t be controlled by a phone. We had to make them fly and move with our imagination. That little spark seems to be dying out and we want to focus on stories and tales that reignite the flame. Vivid Imagination Studios is a sister company of my primary publishing company, Totem Tales Publishing. With it, we plan to publish additional items such as posters, t-shirts, and of course, books.
IM: Can you give us a preview of what you have planned for 2015 and beyond?
DB: Later this spring, we are scheduled to release a children’s book titled, I Love You Puppy. It’s a traditional rhyming bedtime story about a boy and all the adventures he goes on with his plush toy dog. It’s based on Ron’s son David and his toy dog. Imagination is where it’s all at.
We are also deep into our first pre-teen novel, The Legend of Buc Buccaneer. It’s a pirate story where all the characters are different varieties of birds. Aside from being a swashbuckling adventure, it has a deep sub-plot about family and being true who you really are. Beyond that, we are working on a series of short stories that take place in a silly western town, and our first kids’ comic book titled, Fields of Dreams.
IM: Finally, where can we go to keep up with you and your work?
DB: We are going to be updating our web presence very soon. You can see our existing books on amazon.com, or at our website, totemtales.com. Soon, we’ll have vividimaginationstudios.com updated, so people can order signed copies of our work.
IM: Thanks so much!
Follow Dan at his Website: http://www.totemtales.com/
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