An interview with BWG’s 2024 Short Story Award judge and author Marlo Berliner . . .

Marlo Berliner

Marlo Berliner is the multi-award-winning, bestselling author of The Ghost Chronicles series. Her first book won the New Jersey Romance Writers Golden Leaf Award for Best First Book, was named Finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards for Young Adult Fiction, received the Literary Classics Seal of Approval, was awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion, and was named one of the “best indie YA books we have seen in the past year, from both self-publishers and small presses” by IPPY Magazine. Her second book in the series, The Ghost Chronicles 2, also garnered several awards and accolades. Marlo writes young adult, mystery/suspense, and short stories, is an active member of the Authors Guild and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and is also a former literary agent with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency (NY).

Interview by BWG member D.T. Krippene

Bethlehem Writers Group:  How did you get the idea for writing your series, The Ghost Chronicles? Can you share something interesting about where the story is set? 

Marlo Berliner: The best stories lie at the intersection of truth and imagination. The Ghost Chronicles series began this way, as well. I had my “eureka” moment one day while sitting on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. At the time, I was reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with my oldest son. Chapter Eight, “The Deathday Party,” deals with the ghosts at Hogwarts and what it might be like to “live” in the afterlife, so that provided the spark that ignited the fire to write The Ghost Chronicles.

As a flood of ideas filled my head, I scribbled down a rough outline and the book began to take shape. That was the imagination part, but let’s face it, we also distill our own personal experiences and our own truth into our novels. When I was seventeen, I was in a car accident that was not my fault. An accident that almost took my life. The thought of “what if I had died” has been one that has haunted me ever since. So immediately I knew I wanted The Ghost Chronicles to be not only a story of what it’s like to be stuck in the afterlife, but I also wanted it to be about a boy who dies tragically through no fault of his own. The kind of story ripped from the headlines about a promising young person who has their life taken away far too soon. I wanted it to be as realistic a story as possible of what it might be like to die tragically and be trapped in the afterlife as a ghost.

The setting for most of the story was inspired by Angel of the Sea, an award-winning bed and breakfast in Cape May, NJ, that I visited several years ago and fell in love with. This spectacular inn has been featured on several television programs and in magazines throughout the world. Most notably, it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as one of the “Best Vacations in the World” and included in her television talk show. Angel of the Sea is also one of the most recognized Victorian structures in the United States. Legend has it that in the late 1960s, a girl did fall to her death at Angel of the Sea and did at one time haunt the inn. The story of the girl has been included in several non-fiction books about ghosts in Cape May. Sarah’s character in The Ghost Chronicles was inspired by this legend. 

BWG:  What do you think are the most important elements in a short story and creating compelling, relatable characters?

MB: To me, the most important elements of a short story are theme, character, plot, conflict, and setting. It takes a very skilled writer to juggle all of those elements effectively in the short form, while also optimizing “economy of words.” Every sentence in a short story must pull double, or even triple duty. To create compelling characters, you must make them nuanced (make them multi-layered, complicated not cliched), flawed (give them quirks, faults, imperfections), and give them agency (make them active, not passive). You must also give them a clear goal, motivation, and conflict.

BWG: As an agent for Jennifer De Chiara, what are the most frequent mistakes you see?

MB: One of the more common mistakes is writing that feels too distant and doesn’t make me feel as if I am taking a journey along with the main POV character. Another common mistake is a muddled plot, i.e., a plot that is riddled with holes or logic problems, or a plot that doesn’t have a clear throughline. Also, secondary characters that are cardboard—they’re given a physical description, a minor purpose for being in the story, and little else.

Another mistake I see quite frequently, particularly in fantasy, is throwing me in a first scene with tons of action, but no depth to the characters, setting, or context. For instance, manuscripts that begin with an ongoing sword fight that could be taking place anywhere, any time period, on any planet. I need to at least know a bit about the setting to ground me, and a bit about the characters so I’ll care. Head-hopping within a scene will also make me reject quickly. Telling a story through multiple POVs is fine; head-hopping is not. And if a writer doesn’t know the difference between the two, then it makes me question how much they really know their craft.

BWG: How do you edit and revise your work?

MB: I probably shouldn’t do this, but I tend to edit as I go along, rereading prior chapters to see how the story is building and doing at least a little line editing. I tend to make many, many passes at my manuscripts before I feel they are perfect.

BWG: What tips can you offer to someone submitting to a contest or anthology?

MB: Polish your pages and make them as captivating as you can. Follow the guidelines for submission; be sure your story nails the “theme” of the anthology or the parameters of the contest.

BWG: Are you a plotter (outlining your novels before you begin the first draft) or a pantser (sitting down to write before you know where the plot will go and writing “by the seat of your pants”)? What do you see as the advantages of either approach?

MB: I am a plotter when I begin my story, and I outline, but as I write, I switch to a pantser. So I guess you could say I’m kind of a hybrid. I like to be flexible and not be bound by my outline, but I also like to keep an eye that I’m maintaining the throughline of my story. I don’t think any one method is more correct over another; a writer must find the process that works best for them.

BWG: What was your favorite book when you were a kid?

MB: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Yes, I was an odd child.

BWG: Is there a classic book you think everyone should read?

MB: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The lyrical writing and descriptive language make the setting and characters come alive.

BWG: Do you have a favorite movie or TV show?

MB: My favorite movie would probably be Titanic, though I am somewhat of a cinephile, so it’s hard to choose! My favorite TV show would probably be Friends. It still holds a special place in my heart, and I can rewatch almost any episode and still feel all the feelings and laugh all the laughs.

BWG: What advice would you give to emerging writers?

MB: Study your craft and read widely in your specific genre and even outside of it. I find that everything I read informs my writing craft in some way.

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