For the next entry in this Authors Helping Authors series, I’d like to introduce my friend and colleague Peter Bernhardt, whose work I discovered through the Internet Writing Workshop. A Quarter Finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Award, Peter is a talented author and one you need to know. His stories are a delight for the senses.
Unlike the snake oil salesmen residing in the corners of this business (a reference I made in Part 1 of this series, regarding the plethora of available bad advice), Peter Bernhardt is a professional who knows his way around this business and never hesitates in lending a hand to other writers. Not a member of the ‘Let’s kick out a story this weekend and publish it on Monday’ group, Peter is the real deal — willing to put in the hours it takes to give the reader a hell of a good story.
I sat down with Peter and asked him about his experiences.
Peter, how many books have you written?
I have written two books that are published, and I am halfway through writing my third one. My first novel, The Stasi File – Opera and Espionage: A Deadly Combination , an espionage thriller in which, following the age-old advice to “write what you know,” I wove together the unlikely combination of a German upbringing, a lifelong love of opera and my experiences as an attorney.
When I finished Stasi, I had a deep sense of loss. Sylvia and Rolf (the characters in the story) had been with me for several years and there was hardly a morning when I didn’t think about them during my jog through Sedona. I had already planned to write another spy novel involving the Stasi Romeos—the novel I am currently working on—but several readers encouraged me to write a sequel. The Stasi ending contained a subtle hint of a sequel to take place in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What better place to send Sylvia to perform than at the Santa Fe Opera, which is where my wife and I attend performances every summer? A magical setting, which I hope I managed to convey in Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter [Kiss].
The sequel turned out to be more of a mystery than a thriller and did not involve espionage. Surprisingly, this German male author penned chapters of an imaginary young Pueblo Indian girl who lived over three hundred years earlier in a voice that made me feel as if I had been there.
Spoiler alert: if you plan on reading both novels, please start with Stasi, as it contains a plot twist that will be spoiled for you if you read Kiss first.
Where do you get your story ideas?
I start out by asking myself what I want to write about. Then I open my mind for ideas to come. Most of them come while I’m running (the trick is to write them down as soon as I return home before they vanish). I find that it takes weeks of mulling over various ideas, considering them, thinking them over, casting them aside. One day an idea gels that my gut tells me is the one. Then it’s a matter of sketching it out. Of course, it often evolves into something different than what I envisioned at the start.
Let me illustrate with the example on how I arrived at the story for my second novel, Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter. Once I settled on the story location of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I let my imagination go to work, considering several scenarios that would create danger for Rolf and Sylvia, the Stasi protagonists. News accounts of traffickers in Native American artifacts in Utah gave me the idea of including archaeology and the illicit trade in the plot. Not knowing anything about the subject, I spent weeks researching on the Internet and reading numerous books. I had never heard of the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 and most readers I have asked haven’t either. The subject fascinated me and somehow this German without one drop of Indian blood came up with the idea of creating a young daughter of a Pueblo shaman and giving her a crucial role in the revolt. Add to that a news account in an Albuquerque paper of the lore of lost treasure of Indian artifacts and Spanish gold, and voilà.
But how do you combine two story lines over three hundred years apart?
I wanted to experiment with a novel approach that might stretch the imagination. I chewed on that for a long time until I came up with a technique I was happy with. So I wrote the contemporary chapters in past tense and the Pueblo Revolt chapters in present tense. I think it worked rather well.
How did you go about getting your first book published?
After collecting close to a hundred rejection slips, I took advantage of an offer of the YouWriteOn site sponsored by the British Arts Council of free paperback publication. Based on peer reviews, Stasi made the site’s monthly top-ten list and stayed there long enough to be included in its permanent bestseller list. After some time, I published a second edition on Create Space and Amazon Kindle.
How has your method of publication and/or writing changed over the years?
After wasting precious time in querying agents with my first novel, I will no longer pursue that avenue. The traditional publication model is flawed in my opinion. The business is populated by agents who are interested in serving existing clients with name recognition. Publishers no longer promote or develop new authors and the royalties are paltry. I want to make my books available to readers who have an interest in what I’m writing about. Feedback from readers as to how much they enjoyed my book is enough payoff for me. Don’t get me wrong, I would not scoff at sales in the thousands.
My writing has changed in that I have learned to express more with fewer words. And while it took two and a half years to write Stasi, I put Kiss to bed after a year and a half. In other words, I have learned how to get to the point faster, to economize, to be more efficient without sacrificing effectiveness.
Do you have a favorite among your titles?
I have favorite parts but not an overall favorite as between my novels. My favorite scenes include those integrating opera seamlessly into tense action, showing a reader an aspect that he may not have known before, be it about opera, culture, or history. The most fun I’ve had was to write in the point of view of a thirteen-year old Pueblo Indian girl, who in this author’s imagination played a crucial role in the Pueblo Indian Revolt that drove the Spanish invaders from New Mexico in 1680.
What do you find to be your greatest struggle as a writer?
My greatest struggle as a writer comes whenever I start a new chapter. Fingers poised over the keyboard, I sit there while a multitude of openings flood my mind. More times than not, I change the opening paragraph half a dozen times before I’m satisfied. Once I’m beyond that, the prose usually flows. A close second as far as writing struggles concerns discipline, which tells me I should write every day, but another voice counsels that unless I experience life, I can’t possibly write about matters that will interest others. So I give myself permission to spend my mornings running, playing tennis, or to pursue other interests. I often recharge my batteries by following my passion for opera—watching one of my videos, listening to the Metropolitan Opera Radio, attending a performance. And then there are, of course, the daily tasks demanding my attention.
Thus, I usually don’t settle down to writing until afternoons and often stay with it into the evening. The way I overcome procrastination is by setting deadlines. For example, as the facilitator of the Sedona Writers’ Group, which meets twice a month at our local library, I do not permit myself to attend a meeting without submitting at least one chapter for critique. I suppose this harkens back to my attorney days when federal judges demanded pleadings on a certain date and if you wanted an extension you had better have a darn good reason.
When did you first feel you could call yourself a writer?
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have considered myself a writer from as early as I can remember. I grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, during the post-WWII years where the occupying American forces set up a library. You could only check out three books at a time—not nearly enough to satisfy my voracious appetite for reading. When my mother turned out the light in the bedroom I shared with an older sister and brother, I read under the covers by flashlight.
German schools had composition classes, and my essays often received the top grades there as well as at an American university I later attended as a foreign exchange student. As a judicial clerk and later, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I made it a point to hone my skills in creative writing and to steer clear of legalese.
So I’ve been a writer all my life, albeit in fields different from fiction (no wisecracks please, about legal writing being fiction). But it was not until after I began receiving positive feedback from Stasi readers that I considered myself “an author.”
If you could, what would you tell your ‘younger writing self’?
Where to start? I have learned so much over the years. Here’s my attempt at a list of dos and don’ts:
1. Find a good writer’s critique group and participate. Avoid puff groups (members showering your work with praise at the expense of thoughtful feedback).
2. Be open to well-founded criticism, but don’t let others write your novel for you. Always remain the final arbiter what works for the novel you want to write.
3. Learn about filters, echoes, was, as . . . dependent clauses, overexplaining, adverbs (especially those explaining dialogue), dangling modifiers, passive voice, mundane dialogue, POV, tenses . . . and the list goes on.
4. Purchase a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers—the only how-to book a writer needs.
5. Use The Chicago Manual of Style, a good dictionary and thesaurus.
6. Write for yourself. Write what interests you. Write what you’re passionate about.
7. Pay no heed to naysayers spouting artificial criteria (e.g., word count limits, no prologues).
What do you feel is the biggest mistake made by upcoming authors today?
1. Inability and unwillingness to accept and benefit from legitimate critique.
2. Becoming defensive when others point out shortcomings.
3. Taking others’ opinions as gospel. Develop an inner gauge what’s right for your novel and after giving reviews full consideration, stick with what feels right to you.
4. Failure to proofread and edit your work. If you don’t care about your work, why should the reader?
5. Writing for a perceived market instead of yourself.
6. Blindly adhering to cookie-cutter criteria advocated by unimaginative gatekeepers.
7. Failure to learn about the craft of writing, including proper use of point of view and dialogue mechanics.
8. Failure to perform adequate research. On the flipside: including too much research information instead of only so much as is necessary for plot progression, character development, or atmosphere. One must find the right balance.
What do you think is the best way to reach readers?
I believe word of mouth is the best way to reach readers. Someone active in social media probably has a leg up, but so far I have not been willing to invest the considerable time necessary to blog, tweet and Facebook. Traditional advertising is probably the least effective and a waste of resources in my opinion.
What are you working on now?
An espionage thriller involving a female West German intelligence officer on the trail of a Stasi Romeo who is seducing a secretary in the West German Chancellery in an effort to get her to spy for communist East Germany. Over forty West German secretaries were convicted in real life of spying for the East for love. While I use episodes based on true events, I, of course, infuse them with fictional characters of this authors’ imagination.
Considering the amount of books published every year, why should readers buy your book?
I write for readers who are looking for something other than the same old formula: the world will come to an end if the bad guys aren’t stopped; gore and violence; sex; the f-word used prominently; plots that choose shock value over logic and credibility. I cater to readers who value a tightly woven plot that makes sense, holds together, gives insights into an unfamiliar world. I do not insult the reader’s intelligence, be it by repeating things, by talking down or condescending, or by overexplaining, which deprive readers of the opportunity to use their imagination— the greatest pleasure fiction has to offer. If you fit this reader profile, my books are for you.
Not the same old formulas? Tightly woven plots? Insights into unfamiliar worlds? Peter, I couldn’t have described your stories any better.
Readers, writers, do yourself a favor and pick up one of Peter’s books. And for the Germans in the audience, The Stasi File is also available in German for the Kindle Die Stasi-Akte – Oper und Spionage: Eine tödliche Kombination