Welcome to the five hundred and forty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with fantasy / paranormal romance author and cover designer Berni Stevens. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Berni. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Berni: I’m based just North of North London, and I’m a freelance book cover designer. I’ve always loved both drawing and writing. As a child I used to write and illustrate stories all the time. Art College won over going to Uni to study English, yet I still ended up in publishing, designing book covers. Once I became freelance, I started writing in the time I used to spend commuting into Central London.
Morgen: What a great idea. In my experience (I used to live at the end of the Metropolitan line), no-one speaks to each other so a perfect writing environment. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Berni: I usually write fantasy – my debut novel is an adult paranormal romance, and paranormal fiction really is my genre – I’ve always loved it. Although if an idea came to me in another genre, I’d certainly give it a shot.
Morgen: 🙂 What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Berni: I’m just starting out as a writer really. I had a short story published by The Dracula Society in 2003, and felt encouraged by that to write more. Fledgling, my debut novel was published in September 2011, and I’ve had a number of short stories published prior to that. I write using my maiden name, although if I did write something for another genre, I might use a pseudonym.
Morgen: Have you ever self-published?
Berni: I’m not self-published, but I design a lot of covers for people who are. I think it’s so difficult to get either an agent or a publishing deal in the UK, that a lot of people are going the self-publishing route. I think it’s fantastic that it’s now possible to self-publish. Having worked in-house for many years, I’ve seen first-hand how difficult it is for new authors.
Morgen: Isn’t it great. I put my debut novel online last weekend and the whole process took a few minutes. I have a few other things as well so the learning curve happened with them but it’s so easy (I have a page on how to do it here) that really anyone can do it. Covers are one of the hardest things, and I trial and errored a few different ones for the novel but again, the joy of being online is that I had an instant audience to yay or nay. 🙂 Is your book available as an eBook? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Berni: Yes, Fledgling is available as an eBook. I wasn’t involved at all after the edits were signed off, it was all handled by the publisher. One of my clients sends manuscripts directly to my Kindle, so I can read them with a view to thinking of a cover design. I still adore actual books though, our house is stacked with them – in every room – in the attic, under the bed – really I should start culling them, but I find it difficult. I also have a huge number of signed first editions, which might just be valuable one day!
Morgen: I love the fact that Kindles have their own email address – isn’t technology fantastic. My trouble with ‘real’ books is that I volunteer once a week at a Red Cross shop so have access to so many. I should buy one / donate one but as you say, it’s not that easy. Do you have a favourite of your stories or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Berni: Well I’m in love with my main character, Will. A writing friend once told me if I didn’t love my male hero, then no-one else would. But I truly have no idea who could play him. I would prefer an unknown actor I think. As long as he’s tall, dark, and devastating.
Morgen: <laughs> Did you choose the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Berni: Well there’s a question for a cover designer. 🙂 I know beyond any doubt that covers are important, really important. The cover is the first thing a potential buyer sees, whether online or in a bookshop. If the cover doesn’t attract the buyer, then it won’t sell. No, I had no say in my own cover. I was asked for my opinion before the art department got involved and I wrote copious notes and even supplied some of my own photographs. It didn’t help. The first time I saw the cover was when it was finished, and I couldn’t change anything. Needless to say I didn’t like it. But I wasn’t allowed to design my own cover. Bit of a sore point.
Morgen: Ouch, sorry about that. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Berni: The sequel to Fledgling, called Renegades, is with the publishers at the moment, and I’m waiting to hear their thoughts on it. I’m working on a third novel in the same series, called Alpha, which has a number of the same characters in it, although the hero is one of the minor characters from Fledgling.
Morgen: I love that! Sometimes when I’m writing a bit-part character I love them so much that I want to bring them into another story, and it’s great when we can do that. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Berni: Not always, no. It depends on my cover deadlines. In an ideal world I will try to stop designing at 5.30pm, and then start writing for a couple of hours, until the family come home. Hell yes – I’m sure every writer suffers from writer’s block.
Morgen: Many say they don’t, myself, included but we do get points where we do get stuck on something and take a break. I’m sure it’s just our brain’s way of saying “Bored now!”. 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Berni: I tend to write the idea down before I forget it, and work from there. Both Fledgling and Renegades have flashbacks in history, so I usually have a lot of research to do. Alpha features werewolves, so I’m doing a lot of research on real wolves in between writing the story. Sometimes the ideas run away with me.
Morgen: I love that about writing fiction, especially when the characters take over. And I love your Renegades cover. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Berni: My male lead in Fledgling is a several-hundred-year-old vampire, so making him believable was always going to be a challenge. (Especially as the female lead doesn’t believe in vampires.) I gave him flaws, a certain amount of arrogance, and a dark sense of humour. He needed to retain certain aspects of humanity, whilst still remaining dangerous. I hope that all makes him believable. His name is William James Austen – he was a former duke in the early eighteenth century. Both William and James are fairly traditional English names, certainly amongst royalty and the aristocracy. Austen… again a traditional surname, and the female lead’s middle name is Jane, so it was my little joke for when they get married! Her full name is Elinor Jane Wakefield, I like the name Elinor (Ellie) and Wakefield is a family name in my husband’s family. But there’s not really a method. I try names out in the plot first, and sometimes they fit in straight away, and other times they don’t, so I change them.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Berni: I learned a lot from my editor when working on Fledgling. She was amazing. I like to think my writing improves the more I write – at least I hope so. But like most writers, I find it hard to stop editing, and let the book go…
Morgen: I think we could keep doing that ’til time ad infinitum. You mentioned research, do you have to do much?
Berni: My books have all been set in Highgate and other parts of North London, which I know very well. Having said that, I like to walk around the areas every now and again, to get the feel, take photographs etc. Highgate Cemetery features in the books too, and I love any excuse to go there. I had to research the flashbacks to the eighteenth century of course, and I researched the clothes for Will’s first wedding too.
My favourite research so far has to be for Will and Ellie’s wedding in Renegades, because he’s incredibly rich and no expense was spared. It’s the only way I can ever ‘own’ a pair of Christian Louboutins!
Morgen: Like Carrie in Sex in the City. 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Berni: Strangely, I’ve always favoured first person, which I know a lot of people hate.
Morgen: I’ve heard that. Most of what I write is third person because I flit around but the novel I’ve just put out is first person and I think works better because we get Izzy’s reactions to all these weird and wonderful men more personally than a detached third-person.
Berni: If the book is a romance, some publishers like to have both male and female POVs, which I did in Fledgling by means of a journal. In Alpha, I’m mixing first and third person, which is a challenge. No, I haven’t tried second person . . . yet.
Morgen: ‘Yet’. It doesn’t suit everyone but I love it for shorter pieces. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Berni: Poetry… no… not for many years. I’m not sure I could write poetry now. I’ve had a few short stories published, they’re really good discipline – and actually quite hard to get right. The only non-fiction I’ve written has been film and TV reviews, but I’m not sure they count.
Morgen: It’s still writing. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Berni: Yes loads! They’re hidden away for good reason.
Morgen: Oh dear. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Berni: As a cover designer, I’m used to rejection. 🙂 Cover design meetings make you tough. I really think you have to just ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself down’ and carry on. Just keep reminding yourself how many rejections some of the most famous authors have had. If you believe in your work, you have to keep going.
Morgen: Absolutely. Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Berni: I haven’t entered any writing competitions for years, but a lot of my friends do. I don’t know enough about them to recommend any, but I think they’re a great thing to do… if you have the time.
Morgen: I don’t enter many these days but do prefer the themed ones as invariably it gets me writing something new and if I don’t get anywhere, I still have it to do something else with. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Berni: No, I don’t have an agent. I think they’re more important in the UK than they are elsewhere. I feel sure their days are numbered to be honest. I was told by one agent (whom I have known for years) that ‘tall, dark handsome vampires don’t sell.’
Clearly he has been living in a hole for years, has never seen Buffy or True Blood, and has never heard of Twilight. But then I remembered he turned down Anne Rice for the UK. I rest my case.
Morgen: And I bet he doesn’t regret that at all. 🙂 I have heard of agents becoming publishers so it’s definitely tougher these days. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Berni: My least favourite is the solitude I think. I’ve always been used to working in the design studio of a busy publishers. I like being with people, and I miss that aspect. My favourite has been how incredibly supportive writers are to other writers, I hadn’t expected that.
Morgen: Me neither, I don’t think it’s like any other industry. It’s funny that your least favourite is my favourite. I love being alone but then with two lodgers, I get the best of both worlds. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Berni: Never give up.
Morgen: Absolutely. If you love it, you wouldn’t want to. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Berni: Keith Richards, Lord Byron, and Bram Stoker. Cook? I would probably roast a turkey, complete with all the trimmings. I imagine as long as there was plenty of good wine – and for Keith a bottle of Jack Daniels – they wouldn’t notice what they were eating.
Morgen: <laughs> Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Berni: I like words anyway, I like doing crosswords and I like word-related puzzles, but I couldn’t pick one favourite.
I love this quote from the second series of Buffy: ‘If every vampire who says he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock.’ (Spike)
Morgen: 🙂 Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Berni: I occasionally write reviews of genre-related TV / film / books for The Dracula Society, and I also write an editorial for them every now and again.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Berni: I enjoy zumba classes, jazz dance, horse-riding, and rock concerts. Every summer we go out to the Utah desert and hike canyons. I’m very interested in anything Native American, and I love old buildings and antiques. No party tricks though, sorry!
Morgen: That’s OK. A simple one is to say that your shoe size is the same length as between the back of your wrist and your elbow, not many people know that. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Berni: There are so many writing-related websites now, and on-line publishers, I wouldn’t know where to start. But The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is always good, and really useful. I also recommend reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. It’s brilliant.
Morgen: It is, they are, and the most recommended here. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Berni: I’m on Goodreads, Linkedin, and Twitter, plus I was on Authonomy for quite a while too. Authonomy was wonderful in the early days, the feedback I got for Fledgling helped so much. I gained a lot of confidence in my writing from the other writers, and made some wonderful friends along the way too.
Morgen: I was on there too but didn’t have the time to do it justice. It’s a great idea though. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Berni: I think with the growing popularity of self-publishing, there are so many more opportunities for new writers. Success doesn’t depend on getting an agent or a great publishing contract any more. The future looks good.
Morgen: Doesn’t it just. I do think it’s the best time to be an author. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Berni: Like everyone else, I have blogs, plus I contribute to my publisher’s blog every month too.
- also on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/berni.stevens.5)
Morgen: This blog has been going since March 2011 and I’d previously had a blogspot blog but then created one just for these interviews. I like to think it’ll help having two platforms. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Berni: Just to say – please check out my book trailer on YouTube 🙂
And to all aspiring authors, hang on in there and good luck!
Morgen: Thank you, Berni. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Berni: These interviews must take up a lot of your time, what do you get out of it?
Does it interfere with your day job? What is your day job?
Morgen: It was being a secretary to a chartered surveyor. I left last March (hence the two lodgers) and don’t regret it for a second. Thank you again, Berni, lovely to have you join me.
I then invited Berni to include an extract of her writing and this is from Fledgling:
‘I sank to the floor and rested my head on my knees and as I did so, I had a sudden feeling of déjà vu. I had done this before … felt like this before.
I cried quietly, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing me fall apart.
“Elinor,” he said softly, and I looked up in surprise.
I was terrified to find that he was squatting down in front of me – very close to me and once again, I hadn’t even heard him move. How did he do that? I swallowed the hard lump of fear in my throat, nearly choking at the effort.
I brushed the tears away with the backs of my hands and his eyes softened. Hugging my arms around my cold body, I rocked backward and forward again on the floor. He put his hands on my shoulders to stop me, and the strength of his touch made me shiver.
His face was very close to mine now and against my better judgement I found I was looking straight into those vivid eyes.
“Elinor,” he said my name again, so softly but seeming so loud at the same time. I wanted to cover my ears. “You have to help yourself a little here, you know.”
I shook my head slightly, still mesmerised by his eyes.
“I’m cold.” Even to my own ears, I sounded pathetic.
He stood then, drawing me to my feet at the same time. “That feeling will soon pass once you have fed,” he assured me. “But I will get you something else to wear for now.”
Then he was gone again, and I was left standing alone in the middle of the dank, dark room.’
© BERNI STEVENS 2009
a synopsis of one of her books and this is of Renegade (Renegades is the sequel to Fledgling, although both books can stand alone)
A teenage boy is brought to Will’s Highgate house. Normally an unexpected arrival would not present any kind of problem – not for long anyway – but this uninvited guest is a newly-turned vampire.
As the Elder of London, it is Will’s job to ensure the Vampire Government rules are adhered to. Turning a child or young adult is strictly forbidden but the young vampire’s appearance is clearly the least of Will’s problems.
It means there are new players in town; uninvited renegade vampires – including at least one who has no qualms about turning under-age humans.
Somewhat unenthusiastically, Will takes the boy in, realising he will be safer if kept under his watchful eye. Elinor, the love of his ‘life’, finds herself in the unexpected role of both surrogate mother and older sister, whilst trying to keep the peace between a sullen, mutinous teenager, and her angry, occasionally jealous, man.
Will instigates a search for the vampire who turned the boy, and London’s vampire community is put on red alert. Whoever he or she is, they are extremely clever at covering their tracks – at least at first –then they begin to get careless. Or are their actions really a macabre message for Will?
Bodies drained of blood are discovered on Hampstead Heath, and the human residents of North London are panicking. Exclusive shops are looted and cash point machines are being trashed and emptied at night.
Police and journalists are everywhere, and Will’s closely-guarded secret community is under threat.
Vigilantes begin patrolling the streets of London after sunset, curtailing Will’s hunting expeditions and threatening the survival of all his London vampires.
When Will’s own people are targeted, all hell breaks loose, and now there can be no doubt, that some kind of vampiric Bonnie and Clyde are on the loose. It is Will’s responsibility to see them destroyed, and fast, before they cause the discovery and ultimate destruction of every vampire in London.
Then Elinor makes a discovery in an upstairs room of Will’s house, and it’s a discovery that makes her doubt the man she loves.
© BERNI STEVENS 2012
Berni Stevens lives in a 400-year-old cottage in Hertfordshire, England, with her husband, son, and black cat. She trained in graphic design and has worked as a book cover designer for over twenty years.
Her love of paranormal fiction was first awakened when she read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, at the age of fourteen. She is on both the committee and the book panel of the Dracula Society, a literary society for fans of all things gothic.
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