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Author to Author: A Conversation with Paula Berinstein and J.B. Manas

Author Interview, a Conversation with Paula Berinstein and J.B. Manas

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing author and writing coach Paula Berinstein. Not only is Paula a prolific and wonderful author, she was also my editor back in 2012 on my debut novel with Ed Miller, The Kronos Interference. As always, she's a wealth of information, so I'm hoping this will be especially fun for all you writers and writer hopefuls out there. YA readers and Outlander fans may also find your next read!

JBM: Paula, welcome! For the sake of our readers, I first met you when you hosted The Writing Show podcast, and you provided editing services. Fortunately, you agreed to edit my debut novel with Ed Miller, The Kronos Interference. What were some of your favorite memories from hosting the podcast? Didn't you have Blake Snyder on the show?

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat book

(Note: Blake was a legendary screenwriting guru—he passed away in 2009---and the author of the Save the Cat! screenwriting books.)


PB: I remember working on that novel with you and Ed. We had a blast!


Yes, I did have Blake on the show, not just for one interview but also for an ongoing series of short tips. He’s my favorite writing guru, which is funny because when his publicist, Carol Eisner (who is a wonderful lady!) approached me, I didn’t know who he was and I procrastinated. Was I ever sorry I’d delayed when I discovered how effective his approach to writing is! Fortunately, I was able to make up for my mistake and things have never been the same for me. I use his story beats in all my novels. And of course, interviewing Blake is one of my favorite memories from the podcast.


JBM: You were the first one who turned me on to Blake’s Save the Cat model and his story beats and now it’s etched into my brain.  Any other fond memories from the show?


PB: It’s hard to pick just a few moments. Every show was important to me, and I learned something from every guest. But if I do have to highlight a few, I would say that the Halloween festivals with the Australian horror writers were way up there. We had so much fun recording their stories, and I loved adding sound effects and music. Those writers are unbelievably creative, and they never ceased to astonish me.

Then there was Mark Leslie’s reality series in which he worked on his novel A Canadian Werewolf in New York. Mark is such a personable guy. Everyone loved him. That was great fun too.

I also loved doing the first chapter analyses, i.e., the slush pile workshops. That was a feature in which people sent in their first chapters and I would critique them. You wouldn’t believe the variety of ideas people come up with. I saw that kind of creativity in our short story contests too. There’s a lot of talent out there, Jerry. I hope all those people have made progress with their writing careers. I know of quite a few who have, and I’m so thrilled for them.


JBM: I’m sure you’ve helped quite a few people! Your book series on dialogue was the first I read on the subject and got me started on the right foot. I remember when I first started, I would pay attention to dialogue in books and film, and it was remarkable how brief and snappy the back and forth was. People don't often speak in full-paragraph exchanges.

You have quite a few books for writers. Were they developed from your podcast?


PB: I’m glad the dialogue books were helpful! The answer is, yes, partly. Some of my ideas came from the show but I also relied on books about writing as well as my own experience. My book about the common mistakes writers make was one of the latter, while the dialog books, of which there are five, are based mostly on the advice of experts. Actually, I say books but most of them are so short that they’re really articles. I also cover things like how to write a nonfiction book proposal, how to write a hook, point of view, and quite a few other topics.


JBM: Point of View is always a challenge for new writers, especially writing from inside the head of their characters---one of the many editing points I’m sure you ran into in your critiques. What do you wish authors knew about the multiple rounds of editing that have to be done? I know you used to do quite a few rounds.


PB: Oh yes, editing is almost endless. It’s quite surprising when you realize how many times you’ve been through a book and are still finding things you want or need to change. I tend to use each pass for a specific purpose. In fact, my advice is, don’t try to find everything at once. You’ll split your focus and go crazy. Instead, do a pass for each character to make sure he or she is coming across in a consistent manner and is serving the story. Do a pass for your settings, one for your story beats, one to make sure your chapters begin and end in the right places, one for chapter titles, one for your timeline, and several for grammar, spelling, and formatting as well as word choice, tightening, and general flow. Then do all of that again! Not necessarily in this order, of course, but my point is that you have to make sure each aspect is working, and you can’t do that all at once.


JBM: I’m glad you added to do it all again. I also like to do a pass reading the book out loud, and then, when I feel the book is finally done, I let it sit for a few weeks. That’s when I go back for a final read-though with fresh eyes, and I inevitably find yet more things I missed!


PB: Multiple passes are extremely time-consuming but they’re absolutely worth it. And do make a timeline. You’ll be very glad you did. I’ve discovered numerous plot problems that way. Once I had a person staying in the hospital for a month for something that should have lasted a day!


JBM: That reminds me of when Maggie Smith once told the Downton Abbey producers they better kill her off soon because her character would have had to be about 110 years old by then! Let’s shift gears a bit. You decided to move on from editing and podcasting and focus on your writing career. Your first series was a fabulous YA detective series, Amanda Lester, spun off from Sherlock Holmes. Could you share a little about that series? It reminded me of Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter.

Paula Berinstein - Amanda Lester series - for fans of Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter

PB: Thank you for the compliment, Jerry. I’m glad you like it! My Amanda Lester series is Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter because my main character is “descended from” a Sherlock Holmes character, Inspector Lestrade, and the stories take place at a secret boarding school in England similar to Hogwarts.

Amanda is a twelve-year-old girl whose parents are always harping on her “great” ancestor, the Scotland Yard inspector G. Lestrade. They want and expect her to follow in his footsteps but she’s having none of it. She thinks Lestrade is lame. She wants to be a filmmaker. But unbeknownst to her, her mom and dad enroll her in this crazy school, the Legatum Continuatum Enduring School for Detectives, which is a secret boarding school all the way across the world in the English Lake District. Suffice it to say that this changes her life. She gets involved with descendants of other Sherlock Holmes characters, including Holmes himself and Professor Moriarty, and ends up becoming a detective after all, while still keeping a foot in the world of film.

JBM: How many books do you have in the series? I remember you were producing them at a steady pace.


PB: There are currently ten books about her journey, beginning with Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy. I’ve got some ideas about the next one but haven’t started it formally yet.


JBM: You’ve since come out with a fascinating series for adults called Indigo that seems inspired by Outlander. Was it? Can you share a little about how you came up with the premise and did the research?

Paula Berinstein - Indigo, for fans of Outander

PB: Indigo is indeed inspired by Outlander, and as a matter of fact, one of the key issues in the later Outlander books served as the premise. The idea has to do with a twentieth (or in the case of my books, twenty-first) century woman being transported back to the eighteenth century and encountering slavery in the American colonies. Obviously a modern person would have attitudes about slavery that are very different from those of the colonists, and I wondered what she’d do if she were trapped there.

In my series, Esther Rubens ends up making a gigantic compromise in order to survive, becoming the mistress of an indigo and rice plantation in South Carolina. Needless to say she’s aghast at what she has to do and is constantly fighting against it. She wants to free the slaves but that’s not so easy. That’s the kernel of the series but there are all kinds of other aspects, including romance, war, intrigue, and a whole lot of secrets. I love secrets. All my books include lots and lots of them.


JBM: It must’ve required quite a bit of research.


PB: I conducted a huge amount of research for the books because they take place not only in South Carolina in the eighteenth century but in a variety of other places and times, including the Caribbean, Nazi Germany, and the UK. Mostly I’ve read books, dissertations, and articles, but I’ve also looked at a lot of pictures. Visuals are so important, both for the writer and the reader. You want to have a clear picture of your story so you can convey it in a cinematic manner.

JBM: Were there any areas of your research you found especially challenging? I know I tend to write books that require a lot of research as well, and sometimes it leads me down the rabbit hole.


PB: One area I spent a lot of time on was the Carolina backcountry. This is a place I knew nothing about and had to start from scratch. Were there roads? What indigenous people lived there and what were their relationships with the colonists? What sorts of plants and trees grew there? How long did it take to get from one place to another? What animal predators were there? What were the settlements like?


One of my most challenging areas of research was the Maroons in Jamaica, which I introduced in the second Indigo book, Windward. Maroons were escaped slaves who set up their own societies in remote areas. There were different branches and each had its own customs. Some made treaties with the English who lived there, and how those affected life on the island was complicated and important.


I also made timelines and studied maps. I can’t tell you how much distances and the weather governed what I could and couldn’t do in my stories.


JBM: Maps are always fun. I’ve done virtual tours as well, when I couldn’t get somewhere in person, or watched YouTube videos. Even layouts and schematics of buildings can be critical.

PB: Yes, for both of those series I created floorplans for the buildings, and in the case of Indigo I also made a map of the plantation. I didn’t realize this until I started writing novels but an author is a lot like a film crew. You have to do all the jobs, from screenwriter to director to prop master to costume designer to set designer. That’s a lot to know! So I spent a lot of time learning about plantations as well as how people dressed, how the cities and towns were laid out, how long it took to cross the ocean, what ships and their crews were like, whether ice cream existed in the eighteenth century and how it was made (the answer is “sort of”), and how Cuba was governed in 1750. I also looked into weather, religion, how indigo dye is made, medicine, the legal system—well, you can imagine. There’s a lot to know and it takes quite a while to develop the merest acquaintance with the facts.


JBM: It’s hard to know when to stop the research and start writing, but even then we never really stop the research, do we?


PB: Exactly, you could go on indefinitely but at some point you have to say, “I know enough to write this,” and so I did. But of course even as I write I’m still looking things up.


JBM: I can relate to that! For The Kronos Interference, Ed and I had scenes in 1924 in Karlsruhe, Germany, as well as Frankfurt and Philadelphia. I’ve been to all three places, but of course not in 1924! I like what you said about a writer being like a film crew. I even “cast” my characters with actors. It helps me better envision the characters’ mannerisms. I think you even suggested that in one of your podcast episodes. By the way, do you ever think about bringing back The Writing Show podcast?


PB: All the time. At this point I’m certain I won’t bring back a podcast, but I am considering something else. For quite a while I’ve thought about doing a novel-writing workshop on Substack. What do you think of that idea, Jerry? Is there enough interest in something like that? I’m thinking of helping people both to get started and to develop their work.


JBM: Ha! (<Quickly looks up Substack>) I’m finally used to Instagram, blogging, and Reddit and now you want me to learn about Substack? Actually, I think it’s a great idea. Any popular platform where writers look for information is an excellent resource to contribute to, and you have so much wisdom to contribute. I haven’t gotten into Substack yet, but it sounds like I should. Regarding your wisdom, you've released a staggering number of books in a relatively short time. And they're all creative, well researched, and detailed. Any tips for being so productive?

PB: Thank you. That’s a lovely thing to say. I guess my first thought is that you have to be a bit obsessive. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. I tend to be obsessive but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be. I think you need to be excited about what you’re doing though. And here’s something I’ve learned: if the story you’re trying to write doesn’t excite you, drop it and find one that does. Because the story won’t come out very well if you’re not excited about it.


JBM: That’s great advice. I recently wrote in a blog post that dedication is a key factor in author success, so it’s sort of related to that. And like you’re saying, it’s hard to be dedicated to something you aren’t totally captivated by. Because if you as the writer aren’t captivated by your story, then neither will the reader. I find sometimes I need to start fresh with something new and sometimes it’s just a matter of changing something about the story, the character, or the location.


PB: Exactly. Here’s a perfect example of that. When I first started writing about Amanda Lester, I made her a young woman who lived in Los Angeles. She came from a family of academics but she rejected their values. She thought they were full of hot air. Instead she was going to do something completely different. So I had her become an apprentice plumber and discover a body under a house on her first day of work, which would lead to her becoming a detective.

I thought it was a pretty good idea except for one thing: it was boring. No matter what I did I couldn’t generate any enthusiasm for my character, my story, or my setting, even though I placed her in a location I know very well. I was ready to give up until I decided to change her to a tween and send her to an English boarding school. Once I did that my imagination took off and everything fell into place. So my advice is, don’t give up if your story isn’t working. If one thing doesn’t thrill you, try another until you find something you love. Then your productivity will soar.

JBM: More great advice. It helps to have somewhat of an outline so you can make tweaks at that level before seriously getting into writing the book. My former agent, Al Zuckerman, who has since retired, encouraged me toward heavy outlining for that very reason. Would you say you’re a plotter or more of a pantser?


PB: A plotter for sure. Not that there aren’t sections of stories that I “pants,” if that’s a word. You pretty much have to improvise some things as you go because you can’t predict how everything will work out. But I outline extensively and check my story beats over and over. I ask myself a lot of questions before I get started to make sure everything is logical—even if it’s fantasy—and ensure that I don’t write myself into corners. The absolute worst thing would be to start writing, spend weeks or months on a story, and get stuck with no way out.


JBM: I agree, I think it’s a happy medium between having a general story structure and allowing the flexibility to take new directions as the story and characters progress. But I keep meticulous notes so any improvisation won’t unravel a whole thread of prior details. I’m trying to fit a little more “pantsing” into my process. I keep hearing more and more examples of writers who seem to thrive on that freedom in the creative process. From what I’ve heard, Stephen King makes it all up as he goes, once he has his premise and beginning. He doesn’t even know how his stories will end. He’s said that he figures if he’s surprised, the reader will be surprised.

Harlan Coben, whose twists I love, says he typically knows the beginning and the end, and improvises everything in between. I remember reading that Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman, when writing the script to North by Northwest, got three quarters through and then got stuck. It took them three weeks to figure out a way out, until Lehman came up with a brilliant way out (I won’t spoil it for readers who haven’t seen it).


PB: I just rewatched that recently. A brilliant film for sure.


JBM: Let’s talk about the publishing process a little. You chose to publish your own books. Was that to gain greater control?


PB: Yes. I want to be able to write what thrills me, not what some marketing person at a publishing house thinks will sell. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but my imagination doesn’t tend to fall into neat categories. I have worked with publishers and that was fine, but that was for nonfiction, which is a different animal. For fiction I do want to make all my own decisions, for better or worse.


JBM: That’s a fair assessment. I can relate to the challenge of trying to squeeze within genre tropes. They say writing is an art, but publishing is a business. When the two can converge, great, but it’s not always the case. Blended-genre books are a good example. They work great for film and TV, but the publishing business seems more focused on where the book will neatly fit in a bookstore. The old adage, “Give me the same, but different,” seems to be in full force. Of course, there are exceptions, and if your name is Stephen King, you can write whatever you want.

I’d venture to say publishing the books yourself also enabled you to produce a lot more books a lot faster, as traditional publishing is a slow process. Yet you’ve maintained traditional quality. What platforms do you use for publishing?

PB: At the moment I’m using Amazon Kindle and sometimes IngramSpark. I have tried Smashwords and their wide distribution as well. That was okay but not great. The problem as you know is that if you want your books in Kindle Unlimited you have to give Amazon an exclusive. Writers hate that, but if you want Kindle Unlimited distribution you have to make a decision.


JBM: Ah, the old KU versus wide distribution dilemma. It’s tough because so many Kindle readers are members and want to borrow books. And most of the ebook sales come from Amazon anyway. But it’s also nice to have the book available on these other platforms, especially overseas. Not to mention, you’re not eligible for any national bestseller lists without wide distribution.


PB:  I tried taking my books out of KU and going wider but unfortunately my sales flattened. I wasn’t and am still not happy about being put in a bind like that but that’s the situation these days. I do have some free books on Prolific Works (formerly Instafreebie), which Amazon allows you to do as long as you limit what you put there. Of course that’s just for publicity. You don’t make any money that way. It’s really just a way for readers to sample books without having to make a financial commitment.


JBM: Interesting. I’ve had Advanced Reading Copies on Booksirens for the same reason, to get early exposure and reviews and to expose more readers to the books. I know a lot of the big publisher use NetGalley as well. I think which is better depends on the genre. Do you have any final comments for fellow writers?


PB: Yes, a couple of things.

First, I want to mention something I learned from J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski, the creator of the Babylon 5 science fiction TV series. I heard him talk about this at a convention. He said that writers should put their heroes up a tree and throw rocks at them. Obviously this isn’t a very nice thing to do, but what he meant is that readers and viewers want to see a protagonist navigate a lot of obstacles. The more obstacles, the greater the reader or viewer engagement. So that’s a tip for writers of all kinds.


JBM: An excellent tip, and I remember you hounding me from the beginning about adding more and more obstacles, and you were right! What was the other item?


PB: The other thing is that I’d really like to know if there’s any demand for a Substack novel-writing workshop. This is something I would do on a freemium basis. Some features would be free; some would require a paid subscription. And of course I would be available for in-depth story consulting offline if anyone was interested. I’m still not sure if I want to do this but if there’s no demand the question is moot. So if your readers would let me know, I’d very much appreciate it.

At any rate, I want to thank you mucho for the opportunity to speak to writers, Jerry. I very much appreciate your support. And I’m looking forward to reading your next thriller!!!


JBM: Thanks so much, Paula! And thanks for being so generous with your time. This has been extremely insightful, and as always, a joy. And so, I’ll put it out to readers of this interview: Feel free to leave a comment if a Substack novel writing workshop would be of interest!

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