Recently, I posted a Call to Writers, asking my fellow author bloggers to allow me to interview them for guest-spots on my blog. (If you are interested in participating, please contact me.) I asked everyone thirty-five questions — some were basic, and others were multi-part inquiries — and I asked them to answer only what they wanted to or what was applicable. My friend and fellow-blogger, John Berkowitz, had some very captivating responses which I’m sure will enchant you, as well. After you read his interview, please be sure to hop on over to his blog and follow him for a regular dose of his charisma and wit. And now, I turn the microphone over to John…
1. Please tell us your name (or pen name) and a little bit about yourself:
John Berkowitz is a husband and father of three who thinks he can squeeze in a writing career between family, two jobs, playing Battleship with his 5-year-old son, doing the dishes, and sleep. Follow along as he and his co-writer/daughter embark on a quest every bit as magical and fraught with peril as the one they write about in their tween novel, The Last Princess.
2. Please provide the link to your blog (and website, Facebook fan page, Twitter, etc.):
3. How many books have you written?
I finished my “epic fantasy” novel, Mentor, about 10 years ago. I started it in high school while eyeballs-deep in Dungeons and Dragons. I’m old, so this was before computers. Also, apparently before I had talent. It ended up being about 250,000 words long and I think I’m the only person who has ever finished reading it.
I spent most of last year debating with myself if I wanted to attempt to rewrite that book and make it marketable, or start a whole new project with my daughter. I finally decided to start the new novel and we haven’t looked back. It’s a great adventure, for both of us.
4. Has any of your work been published yet? If so, please share the link(s) to purchase it:
I had a short story published in a college literary publication. It was actually put in as a last-minute substitute for a piece that got pulled for some reason.
My only other writing experience of note is a spec script I wrote for Star Trek – Deep Space Nine while it was in its second season. That submission earned me a pitch meeting with the show’s producers, and a few follow-up meetings. But sadly, no sale.
5. If you have been published, did you self-publish or use traditional publishing? Why? If you have not been published yet, what are your plans for the future?
We have our sights set on traditional publishing. I certainly don’t have the time or resources to personally promote a book the way I see some authors, travelling around the country, signing books at local Barnes & Noble stores. We hope to secure an agent who knows much better than we do what sells and who’s buying, and guide us to that sale.
6. How old were you when you started writing? When did you know you wanted to be an author?
I started writing in high school. At the time I was mostly interested in film-making, and a good friend and I (a fellow D&D player) wanted to make a short film that featured a wizard’s duel. I wrote the script. But even then I felt you could not simply show two strangers walk on from opposite ends of some random field and start heaving fireballs at one another – there needed to be a backstory and two compelling characters, and probably some henchmen. The script ended up being a half an hour long, with only about 3 minutes of actual dueling at the end. We never made than movie, but that script was the basis for my first novel, Mentor.
7. What would you say motivates you to keep writing?
I’m doing this as much for my daughter as I am for myself. So I think it really stems from a deep sense of commitment. I said I was going to write a book with her, and I will finish it to the best of my ability, even if it never eventually sells. It will always be our book.
But I also am deeply motivated by the overwhelming positive response I have gotten from nearly everyone who has read it, of all ages. None of them are agents or editors (as far as I know), so I’m not fooling myself into believing I have an instant hit on my hands, but these responses have given me tremendous confidence.
8. Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you currently reading (or what is the last book you read)?
For me it’s a long list. Almost anything by Heinlein, Niven, McAffrey, Pratchett, Jim Butcher, or Dan Brown. My daughter and I both fell instantly in love with Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, and we’ve both read it all the way through several times. My daughter is fond of Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Erin Hunters’ Warriors series, and Spirit Animals books. She likes both the Kingdom Keepers and Peter and the Starcatchers series by Ridley Pearson, and of course Rowlings’ Harry Potter series. Probably a half-dozen others I don’t know about.
Right now I’m re-reading Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. I’m on book 4, A Fistful of Charms.
9. What is your preferred reading method? (i.e., Kindle, Nook, paperback, hardback, etc.) Why?
My daughter reads physical books. Really anything she can get her hands on. Mostly hardbacks, because she wants them as soon as they come out. I read almost exclusively on my iPhone using the iBooks app. I have amassed a pretty extensive ebook library. I prefer this because I always have whatever I want to read in my pocket, wherever I go.
10. Do you write in first or third person, past or present tense, and why?
I wrote Mentor in third person past tense, with multiple POVs. Why? Because everyone was doing it. The Last Princess is first person. Because I only wanted one voice for this, and I wanted the reader to experience this story from inside Cat’s head. Also, most of my favorite books are written in first person.
11. Do you “always read” or do you take breaks between reading books?
I usually am always in the middle of one or two books. However, it is my weakness. I have very limited time to write and I have made a committment to not let it detract from family time and my other obligations. So I have to write late a night, or whenever I can squeeze in some time at random moments. If I am in the middle of a favorite book, I will fill those same moments reading and not writing. Until a few weeks ago I had sworn off recreational reading until I finished The Last Princess. However I finally succumbed, and I think I’m handling it pretty well.
12. How many books would you say you read in a year? How many at any one time?
When I am not writing, I probably go through a dozen or more books a year. I usually have two going at once. If I had recreational time and, say, no children, I would get a lot more reading done.
ABOUT YOUR CURRENT BOOK::
My current WIP, which I am co-writing with my 13-year-old daughter, is called The Last Princess.
14. What is your novel’s genre? Would you say there is a sub-genre? What makes yours different than other books in the same genre?
The Last Princess is a middle grade or tween urban fantasy. Ours is different because none of the others were inspired by my daughter. Actually, the premise not unlike many other popular urban fantasy novels; Cat discovers there are faeries and goblins and dwarves living among us, and only she can see them. The difference in this book is that they look just like regular people, for the most part, because those races have interbred with humans for hundreds of years, and all that’s left are these fae-born. They’re not in disguise or hiding in a secret realm, they’re us, and some of them don’t even know it. Yet.
15. What inspired the current or most recent story you’ve completed?
16. What is your target audience’s age, gender, etc.?
Our hero, Cat Brökkenwier, is 12. I understand most readers like a hero that’s a little older than themselves, so that puts in in middle grade territory. However, the language and the emotions are a little more mature than most middle grade books, and it will be longer than most, at about 65,000 words. There is no romance, so it’s not properly young adult. So I think that makes it tween.
17. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your story?
The elevator pitch is: Cat Brökkenwier has a secret — the ability to see that faeries and elves and ogres still walk among us. With the help of an ancient diary she learns she may be the last princess of all the fae. Now Cat must learn all there is to know about the secret world of the fae-born and earn the crown before another, more sinister candidate beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out. It is a quest story, but it is really about a young girl learning who she really is and what whe’s really capable of, and discovering they are not what other people think she is or wish her to be.
ABOUT HOW YOU WRITE::
18. How often do you write?
I do a lot of thinking before I actually write, because I hate rewriting. So I want to know ahead of time what needs to go on the page. I still consider my self a seat-of-the-pants writer, I just do it in my head first. So it comes out to a few sessions per week if I’m motivated, fewer if I’m thinking.
19. Approximately how many words do you write at each sitting?
Usually around 500 words in a sitting. A lot of times I’ll write on my lunch hour, and that’s about as much as I can get done in under an hour.
20. Do you do your own editing or send it to someone else?
I run everything I do through the queues on CritiqueCircle.com. So far the rewrites have been pretty modest, so I tend to edit the chapters before I move on to the next one.
21. What is your method of writing? (i.e., Do you write the entire manuscript, then go back and make changes? Do you plan chapters as you go along or write the story then go back and add chapters? Do you re-read as you go along or after you are done with the first draft?)
I started The Last Princess almost entirely by the seat of my pants. I had a vague idea of the main characters (my family), and the premise, but beyond introducing Cat and her situation and setting up the conflict, I had almost nothing planned out. After three or four chapters I started to see my way ahead, and I researched and created the story along Cat’s quest and the people she would meet along the way, and a basic outline evolved. I do a lot of thinking between writing sessions, so I reread what I’ve written pretty often. This also helps get back in the groove after a week or more not writing. I find polishing the last page or two I’ve written to be an excellent warm-up for writing the next few pages.
22. Do you have a muse? If so, please elaborate. If not, what inspires you?
My daughter inspires me every day, there’s so much of her in Cat. But I meet people every day who add a little piece to one character or another. I’m re-reading Kim Harrison right now especially because she is so good at letting you inside the head of a young woman with chutzpah and plenty of problems. I’ve also borrowed some notions from TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time.
23. How long does it take you to write a full manuscript?
It took me most of 20 years off and on to finish Mentor. We’ve been actively writing The Last Princess for less than a year and we’re halfway finished. We’re hoping to have a complete draft ready for beta readers before the end of this year.
24. Do you give yourself a word limit for each day or a time limit to finish your novel? If so, please elaborate.
I try to keep on pace to write a chapter a month.
25. How do you come up with your character names and geographic location / business names?
I want this book to be timeless and not dated. Plus even those businesses and institutions I use I want to have the flexibility of changing certain details to suit the story. Plus, since this is for kids I think a certain amount of whimsy is called for. So I try to make the names as close as possible. Mary Kay Cosmetics became Carrie Mae. Girl Scouts became Squirrel Scouts. We live near a town called Rocklin, so I changed it slightly and put Cat and her family in the city of Rockford.
26. How long (or how detailed) are the notes you take before you start writing?
That depends on what the notes are about. I had pretty extensive notes about each of the fae races Cat will encounter, and developed quite a cast of characters to represent them. But my chapter outlines are fairly general. I have my key plot points and major action bullet-pointed, but betond that I’m still “pantsing” my way through the chapters.
27. Do you have any “must haves” to help you write? (i.e., a full cup of coffee, a view of the ocean, etc.)
Not really. My busy lifestyle means I’ve had to learn to write in much the same way a soldier learns to power-nap. You prepare yourself to do it whenever the opportunity arises. I keep my novel on Dropbox and have an app on my iPhone for working on standard Word documents, and I carry a bluetooth keyboard around with me. Or access the current chapter on my office computer on my lunch hour.
28. Do you only write during a certain time of day or in a certain location? If so, do you make yourself stop after a certain time?
No and no. I can’t afford to.
29. Does your real life ever neglected because of your writing? If so, how do you feel about that?
Absolutely not. This is the Prime Directive. If this book sells and I’m asked to write another, then I will feel justified in devoting a certain number of hours per week to writing, but until I’m actually contributing to the family income, I will not take away time I spend with my wife and children or helping around the house. With two jobs, I’m home rarely enough as it is.
30.What is the quirkiest thing you do or have ever done when writing?
I’m sure I couldn’t say. But many people have certainly found it odd to see me attempting (and succeeding) to write a novel on my smart phone, propped up against my lunch box, with a half-eaten sandwich at my elbow in the company break room.
ABOUT YOUR WORK::
31. If you have written more than one novel, which is your favorite and why?
Mentor was a huge part of my life, but it is not very good except to me. But The Last Princess is a labor of love and a collaboration with my amazing daughter, so it will always be incredibly special to both of us.
32. If you could be one of your own characters for a day, who would it be and why?
Are you kidding? I am Richard Brökkenwier, Cat’s rather troll-like dad.
33. If one of your books became a movie, who would you choose for the “perfect cast” of main characters?
Honestly, I haven’t thought that much about it, because the story and the characters aren’t fully cooked, yet. But if I had to cast it today, I think I would probably have to cast Bailee Madison as Cat. And maybe Gerard Depardieu as Dad.
34. What is the oddest thing you have ever researched for one of your books?
I recently needed to learn about the Sami, the indigenous peoples of Scandavia who hunted reindeer with bows and arrows and wore shoes with pointed, curled up toes, as a basis for the elf-born archery instructor Cat meets at camp.
35. What is the most difficult thing you have ever researched for one your books and why?
I probably spent the most time researching how a girl’s soccer practice might look, as neither my daughter nor I have ever seen a soccer game, let alone played. I needed terminology, drills, the name of the equipment, etc., and then I had to write it so it sounded authentic without injecting in too much useless information just for the sake of showing I knew what I was talking about.
Thank you, John, for allowing me to interview you. I hope everyone else has enjoyed learning about you and your work as much as I have.