With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley-Jenkins present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Suzanne Kelman
Suzanne Kelman is an Amazon international best-selling author and a multi-award-winning screenwriter and playwright. She is the author of The Rejected Writers’ Book Club and Rejected Writers Take the Stage, published by Lake Union Publishing, as the Southlea Bay Series.
As well as being an author, Suzanne is also a film producer, director, and screenwriter. Her film accolades include The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – Nicholl Fellowship Finalist 2015, Best Comedy Feature Screenplay, L.A. International Film Festival, Gold Award, California Film Awards and the Van Gogh Award from the Amsterdam Film Festival.
Born in the United Kingdom, her comedic writing voice has been described as a perfect blend of Janet Evanovich and Debbie Macomber. Suzanne now resides on a beautiful island in Washington State which is the perfect environment for bringing great stories to life.
As an award-winning screenwriter, best-selling author, playwright, film director, and producer, you wear a lot of hats. What are some of your favorite things you do to relax?
When I first read this question, I laughed, then I had to think, what do I do to relax? That is when I realized that I am very lucky to love what I do so much that I don’t have a clean line between work and play. I love creating story and believe it or not everything I do to relax is somehow entwined with that passion. I love to read and try to read two to three books a week, normally I read audible books now. This means I can listen to stories while I complete mundane tasks like checking email or line-editing my work. I also perform in theatre, right now I’m putting the finishing touches to a comedy play I’m producing and directing, “Over My Dead Body”, which will be performed as a staged reading June 2018. I’m also working on co-producing and choreographing a musical show that will open next February. And for those snatched hours of relaxation, I love to walk on the beach or in the woods where I live.
Obviously, screenwriting and novel-writing are two very different animals. What are the challenges you face when switching back and forth between the two? How have the two skills combined for you in your writing?
Great question and it can be a challenge to many writers to understand the rules and work within the bounds of both types of storytelling. The challenge for me often happens in my novel writing. In screenwriting, I am always looking for ways I can cut lines and get the message to its purest form. In novel writing I have the luxury of spending pages creating a scene that in my scripts I have a sentence to build. So, the problem most novel writers have is where should I cut? With me it is always, where do I need to add? Also, screen and stage plays are so much more dialogue heavy, I have to inform the listener or reader by nuances detected through what my character says or does, in a book I have the ability to take my readers into my character’s thoughts. This is helpful when exploring my character’s motivations, something I have to hint at in as a screenwriter, allowing the director and actor to find ways to capture that character’s motivation with the camera.
What was your inspiration for writing your breakout novel, The Rejected Writers Book Club?
Like most stories, the book was inspired by more than one element. The first happened whilst attending a book reading for another author. He started his presentation by tipping all of his rejected letters onto the table to show us his writers journey. I remember being a little shocked but also in awe of his confidence. He went from being the “successful” one in the room to just one of us, someone who had also failed. And not only failed but he was proud of that fact. I don’t remember anything else he talked about, but that image stuck with me. Then about 8 years later I was working on a concept for a screenplay about a group of quirky women going to a pitchfest in L.A. to pitch their screenplays and the story just wasn’t working for me, so I laid it aside. I wanted to know more about these characters than I could portray in 110 pages of a screenplay. That was in 2011. That fall I decided to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month and looked at adapting that earlier screenplay. It was easier than trying to come up with something brand new. I changed the screenwriters into novel writers added a twist to the tale, that they were actually proud to be rejected, and the Rejected Writers Book Club was born.
The sequel to The Rejected Writer’s Book Club, The Rejected Writers Take the Stage, was just released in June! Congratulations! What are some of the unique challenges of writing a sequel versus writing a stand-alone novel?
I had heard that writing a second novel in a series could be challenging but I hadn’t really thought much about it until I tried to write one. The problem is if you have written something that people love, you have to at the very least recreate that feeling for the reader. I spent a lot of time while writing it asking myself, is this working? It was less about ego for me than about letting down my readers who had fallen in love with these characters. I also had some health challenges during the time I was writing this book, and it is very challenging to write humor when you are in pain. So, to put this into perspective, I have just finished the third book in the series and that re-write took me 3 months, the re-write on the second book took me 9 months.
In Rejected Writers Take the Stage, the ladies decide to write and perform a musical. How did your experiences as a screenwriter and playwright inspire some of the scenes in this book?
This was my favorite book to write because of the subject matter as my background is in theatre. I have been performing in theatre for over 40 years and I’m always drawn back to it. It was my first love, my very first experience of storytelling. So, I knew when I started writing the series that there would have to be a musical or a stage play that would somehow be incorporated into the storyline. The greatest part of writing the book was re-creating many of the mishaps that happened to me or someone I knew during all my years in live theatre. Recording art imitating life is always fun.
Can you tell us a little about your Author Street Team? What benefits does joining a Street Team provide? How important is it for authors to connect with their readers?
I think the number one thing an author should be doing is connecting with their readership, and a street team is a great way to do that. I have amazing readers, friends and other authors that are part of my “team.” They are the people I go to for support as I make big decisions. Book titles, book covers, book blurbs. They are the people who are there for me through a launch and encourage me when I’m feeling tired or worn out. They are also invaluable for getting those important first reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. In return I send them offers and giveaways and “first look” at chapters etc. I like to think it is a win-win situation.
Your website recently featured a Cookbook Recipe Competition, where readers submitted their favorite recipes to be chosen for the Southlea Bay Cookbook. What kind of delectable dishes can we expect and when will it be coming out?
I have lots of wonderful food inspired by my characters and the town of Southlea Bay. In my books, there are many recipes mentioned in the storyline and now that my second book is launched I will be turning my full attention to wonderful food delights such as “Doris’s Celebrating Rejection Lemon Cake, and “Gracie’s Tell it like it is Carrot Cake.” I am hoping that the cookbook will be ready at the same time as the third book, The Rejected Writers Christmas Wedding which releases in October this year.
In addition to writing, you also do a weekly Blondie and the Brit Podcast with K.J. Waters called Writing, Publishing and Beyond. Can you tell us a bit about Writing, Publishing and Beyond? How did it get started?
Yes, I love working with best-selling author, KJ Waters, who is just releasing her latest book, Shattering Time. We met on Twitter about five years ago, and then we started the podcast a couple of years ago to encourage and inform authors. We have conducted 82 interviews, so far, and have asked them everything from their writing process to what promotions they are have done to sell more books. We thought it might be fun way to connected both with authors and readers. And it has been. We just recorded a podcast last week that will be aired in the next month, with an author roundtable. We actually managed to connect seven authors together on Skype who were all launching books this summer for a conversation about that experience.
You have a very large Twitter following, and you often post insightful media to bring traffic to your website and social media platforms. How important is knowing and building your online audience when it comes to obtaining a rise in followers and, eventually, book sales?
I think having a thriving social media presence is very important, first, to connect with past and potential readers. Also, it was through social media that I connected with my current publishers. I always ask people who don’t see the merits of social media, what if there was a way to advertise your book 24 hours a day, to millions of people in every country in the world for free, would you take it? That is what social media is. But it is not only just online shop window for your work, but it is also the hub which has the most potential for you to meet and connect with other authors or readers that could become some of your biggest supporters.
The best part of being a writer (aside from doing what you love) is being able to work from home, choosing your own schedule, and deciding whether your desk or bed is a suitable workspace for that day. The flip side is it can sometimes be tough to stay on track while fighting off distractions. What are some daily rituals you perform in order to ensure you have a productive day?
I do love that I work from home. The down side as you pointed out is distraction and also isolation. I actually have all sorts of rituals to keep me on track. I always set myself my most important goal for the day, normally that is writing. I try to write 1500-2000 words a day, five days a week. So, once that first important goal is achieved normally in the first few hours of my day, then everything I do after that is icing. I try to write early, before the rest of the world gets up and needs me for other things. I sometimes start at 4am and will take a nap later that morning to compensate. That is the great thing about setting your own schedule.
I also have rituals as I start to write. I have a cassette of classical music that I always play as soon as I walk into my studio, the cassette is about 30 minutes on each side. My creative brain knows that as soon as the music stops playing I have to start writing. That gives me 30 minutes to check emails and social media, tidy the studio etc, but once the cassette switches itself off, I have to get to work. Then I normally start by listening to what I wrote the day before by having my computer read it back to me. I find just passively listening without being right on top of the work, pulls me into the story quicker and also gives me some places to start. I also walk the studio for extra exercise while I’m listening. Once I have finished writing I take a walk in my woods, which allows me time to decide on what I need to get done the rest of the day.
Do you plan on writing any more books in the Southlea Bay series? What current project are you working on now?
The third book in the series, The Rejected Writers Christmas Wedding is due out this fall and that last book ends the arc of the story that started with the first book. However, I am still planning to write Southlea Bay books from time to time, and I already have an idea for a prequel that I have slated to start writing next year. Though, right now I am about 60,000 words into a Historical Fiction that I am thoroughly enjoying. It is based on a screenplay I wrote in 2010 that did really well on the Film Festival circuit. The novel entwines three people’s stories that happen during the occupation of Holland during World War Two. They are three very different types of love stories. A reclusive professor that risks his life to save a Jewish student. A Nazi sympathizer who reaps the consequence of falling in love with the enemy. And a resistance fighter that goes from being from being a secretary to finding her calling facing danger with the Dutch underground. All of their stories eventually connect in ways they could never imagined before the war. I hope to have it finished and with my development editor this summer.
Thanks for interviewing with us, Suzanne!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley-Jenkins has an M.A. in English from the University of Idaho, where she taught composition courses. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is a high school English teacher, an editor, and a writer, who loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.