On Becoming A Writer
By Alan Winter
I have written five novels including my newest book WOLF which I wrote with Herbert Stern. It’s been an interesting journey getting to the point where someone like Herb, who is also a published writer, requested that I co-write a book with him. We worked incredibly well together doing deep research and meeting once a week to keep the momentum going. But the truth is that I came to writing by accident.
Many years ago, I had a “what if” situation in my personal life that was theoretical, as far as I knew, yet I was plagued by it. The only way I could purge the notion from my head was to write about it. The issue was simple: I have three sons who do not look like brothers. When people saw them together, they would comment that they can’t be brothers and that I must have taken the wrong one home from the hospital. I knew that is not the case. Even so, I began to wonder: what if someone knocked on my door one day, with a boy in tow, and said that my wife and I took the wrong child home from the hospital. Here’s yours; I want mine back.” What would I do? I challenged myself to write a story about babies switched at birth. I loved the process – but getting from writing to publication was neither simple nor easy.
After a literary agent rejected my manuscript, I realized that in order to really learn how to write I needed to take a course. That is when I discovered John Bowers who taught creative writing at Columbia. John was an editor of a magazine and had published seven highly acclaimed books. I hired him to be my private tutor.
John and I met every Monday at a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. I had to be there promptly at 5:00 because the diner closed at six. John would teach me a lesson, I would go home to apply it, and then messenger the week’s production to John who would read it and teach a new lesson based on what I submitted that week. We did this for all twenty chapters. When we got to the end, John said we had to start all over because the first chapter had one lesson and the last chapter had twenty lessons. After one year, I had a manuscript worthy of submission. I was fortunate that a small publishing house picked it up and published Someone Else’s Son.
What I’ve learned is that the hardest part of the writing process is getting the first draft of the story written, even if chunks are discarded in the end. I liken it to a sculptor chipping away at a stone, not being certain of the shape that will emerge, even though he/she has a preconceived notion or maquette of how it should look. Many people think that once they have completed a draft, they have written a book. That is not the case. The draft makes them a writer, but the real writing comes from the editing. In my case, I love to edit and re-edit my stories until I am satisfied that they are the best they can be in story, suspense, language, grammar, and cadence.
It’s also critical to read as much as possible in the genre you’re writing in. Given that WOLF is an historical novel, it should not be a surprise that I read mostly suspense thrillers and historical novels. I study how the authors ply their craft of writing, how they set up their stories, and how the good ones teach their readers something new in the process. Then, every so often, I read non-fiction to see how the author handles the challenge of presenting a story that is both factual yet compelling.
I’ve also learned that there’s no “right” time to start writing. Don’t over research your topic. Get a feel for it and start writing. Don’t worry about getting stuck, move past it when you do. Always start a story in the middle or at the end, never in the beginning . . . this gives you leeway to tell the backstory or have flashbacks. Know that finishing a manuscript for the first time is little more than completing a draft. Albeit, it is a great accomplishment, but it is still a draft. The real writing comes in when you rewrite and then rewrite your story again and again until you are satisfied with the finished piece.
These insights have served me well in my writing career, and I suspect that they will continue to do so on my next project — another collaboration with Herb Stern. Herb and I are in the process of writing the sequel to Wolf. It will take place from 1934-39. A third book is planned after that.
Perhaps no man on earth is more controversial, more hated, or more studied than Adolf Hitler. Yet many questions remain about his personal life and how he gained power. Based on extensive research, the extraordinary novel WOLF, by Herbert J. Stern and Alan A. Winter (Skyhorse Publishing; February 11, 2020), lifts the curtain so that the reader can observe through the eyes of a fictional character, how a seemingly unremarkable corporal who was denied a promotion for lack of “leadership ability” became dictator of Germany. The result is a gripping page-turner, a masterful historical novel.
The story begins in the mental ward of Pasewalk Hospital as World War I ends. A gravely ill soldier, who has lost his memory and is given the name Friedrich Richard, encounters a fellow patient: Adolf Hitler. Suffering from hysterical blindness, Hitler, also known as Wolf, becomes dependent on Friedrich for help with the simplest, day-to-day tasks. By the time Hitler’s sight returns, the two have forged an unbreakable bond.
Upon release from the hospital, Friedrich heads to Berlin to work as a nightclub bouncer, while Wolf moves to Munich where he focuses on turning a fledgling political club into what will soon become the Nazi party. After accidentally killing a man, Friedrich flees to Munich and reunites with his close friend.
Persuaded by Hitler’s convictions about how to rebuild Germany in the wake of its defeat, Friedrich joins the Nazi’s inner circle. Hitler, who in real life often played one advisor against the other – and was not one to rely on any of them – trusts the fictional Friedrich so much so, that he calls upon him to help resolve both personal and national crises that are historically accurate. Throughout the sixteen years covered in WOLF, Friedrich interacts with dozens of people who largely lived the lives the authors depict – from Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels to Berlin brothel-owner Kitty Schmidt and film star Lilian Harvey.
While history has painted Hitler as a man unable to forge lasting relationships, the authors’ research has uncovered that, in fact, he built many lifelong friendships. Hitler was attractive to women and had multiple affairs with young women as well as with the wealthy society matrons who backed the party. These relationships, which are portrayed in WOLF, “have been documented in numerous interviews over the course of seventy years, yet they have rarely, if ever, been reported by historians,” Stern and Winter explain.
During the course of the novel, Friedrich struggles to reconcile his loyalty to Hitler with his own rejection of the party’s anti-Semitism. He never wavers in his friendships with Jews, such as nightclub owner Max Klinghofer and police chief Bernhard Weiss. It is Friedrich who saves Weiss, the highest-ranking Jew in the German police when Goebbels orders him arrested. After this incident, Friedrich promises Weiss to remain by Hitler’s side in the hope that he can help lessen the severity of increasingly harsher laws meant to drive Jews from Germany.
WOLF is a historical novel that will satisfy history buffs and fiction fans alike. For those who want more, the authors’ meticulous research can be accessed at http://www.NotesOnWolf.com. In combination, the novel and the notes deftly answer the question: how did a nondescript man become the world’s greatest monster? This is truly a lesson that no one can afford to ignore.