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 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 a screenwriter and author of The Rejected Writers Book Club. Her writing voice has been described as a perfect blend of Janet Evanovich and Debbie Macomber. Some of her accolades include best comedy feature screenplay at the 2011 LA International Film Festival, a Gold Award at the 2012 CA Film Awards and a Van Gogh Award at the 2012 Amsterdam Film Festival. She can also sing Puff the Magic Dragon backwards! To learn more about Suzanne, visit her website at www.suzannekelmanauthor.com.
How did you first get into writing? What does your process look like when you’re working on a project?
Firstly, thank you for your interest in my work. I have been writing on and off most of my adult life; my background is in theatre and there was often a need to write short plays or edit a script, but I feel I really became serious about it as a craft in my 40’s. That is when I wrote my first full-length screenplay “Maggie the Brave.”
As far as my process goes, I always work on more than one project at a time. This keeps me from getting writer’s block and also keeps everything I’m doing fresh. If I am struggling on a project the very act of letting it go and thinking about another one is often the key I need to find the answers. I’m also pretty disciplined about my schedule and try to spend at least 4 hours a day actually “writing” and even more when I have deadlines. I tend to write first draft work in the morning when I’m at my most creative.
If I’m having a particularly hard day getting going, I will cut and paste my work into a text to speech app and have the computer read it back to me as I do housework. As I fold laundry I listen for the fluidity of the words and the clarity of story, and also I’m listening for its rhythm. Writing should have a rhythm not unlike music, and each character sings their own part in their own way. I find disconnecting from the “writing” of the work and actually “listening” to the work helps me appreciate the storytelling from a whole different viewpoint. It’s amazing how quickly I will leave whatever I’m doing, move to my computer and start editing. Before I know it I’m back knee-deep in that story again, it works for me every time.
You were born in Scotland and lived for many years in Birmingham, England before moving to Seattle in 1995. What brought you to the Pacific Northwest? How does that heritage, and the landscape/culture of the UK, inform your work?
I came to the Pacific Northwest because my husband started working for the Boeing Company, here in Washington State. We have lived here for 20 years, but it still amazes me how English I am. So often, I have people who don’t know anything about my British upbringing comment about my work along those lines. I think my cultural heritage plays a big part in my work as I often write comedy and being British my humor has a bias in that direction. The Brits have a very interesting way of viewing their world through the eyes of humor, and I think that definitely translates into my writing.
Your book The Rejected Writers Book Club has been praised for including “vivid, realistic characters.” Can you share some of your strategies for creating such relatable characters in your stories?
This is a great question, and I have thought about this a lot as I have tried to teach on this subject. For me, dialogue is one of the most effective ways to create vivid characters, and my background in theatre helped me realize this. When an actor receives a script, they become a detective, reading each line and trying to interpret the clues from the playwright to help them create their character. When I’m writing, I just do that process in reverse. I imagine myself as that character then I try to find the most interesting and entertaining way I can communicate information.
I also remind myself, especially in screenwriting, that dialogue is never about telling the story; the dialogue is always about informing the reader about character. So to help that process I also always try to do this exercise once I have finished a scene. I list out all the things I know about one of the characters, then I go back and read ONLY that characters dialogue, then I make sure that something from my characters list of attributes shows up in the dialogue. Then I go back and do the same thing with the next character’s dialogue and so on. By the end, you have a lot of characters that stand-alone and are true to the individual person you envisioned them to be.
The Rejected Writers Book Club is also being promoted as Volume One of the Southlea Bay Series. What can readers expect for the future of the series?
I am so excited to be working on this series. When I started it I wanted to write a book about people I would love to spend time with and create entertaining, comical and even bizarre circumstances for them to overcome. I wanted the reader to go on a journey of laughter with me, and fall in love with all the craziness that is small-town life. At the moment, there are four books outlined, and I’m working on the second one right now. In this book, I am drawing on all my hilarious experiences I have had in the years in theater. All of the books are stand alone, but there is also an over-arcing storyline that weaves its way through the whole series.
In addition to writing novels, you also write screenplays and have directing experience. Why were you first drawn to visual storytelling? How do you react to seeing your work on the big screen?
Another great question, I love visual storytelling, as I think in pictures, so it is an easy transition for me from what is in my brain to the page. I actually had no idea that screenwriting would be such a passion for me and fell into it by accident when I was writing a stage play that I kept seeing on a movie screen.
I don’t think anyone can prepare you for the joy of seeing your work come to life through the work of actors and a creative team. I write in black and white, and it transforms before my eyes into a vivid Technicolor masterpiece. This can be an exhilarating experience as long as I, as a screenwriter, can let go of control of the outcome. My craft is so much bigger than I am, and once I have executed my part, I have to surrender it to its own creative journey. If you are the kind of writer who likes to see your exact words spoken in the exact emphatic way that you wrote them, then screenwriting is not for you. Filmmaking is a totally collaborative art form.
You were recently at the 68th Cannes Film Festival supporting the film “Our Father” for which you served as associate producer. Can you tell us a little about your experience in that Mecca of film festivals?
I was in no way prepared for what an incredible experience or opportunity that attending the Cannes Film Festival would be. Having been to many film festivals, I have noted each one has its own vibe, but Cannes is in a class of its own. Firstly, it is hard to describe the kind of artistic energy that is created from the sheer volume of filmmakers congregating in one small Riviera town. Add to that the incredibly diverse and unusual films showing 24 hours a day, it was like Disneyland for storytellers. In one day, I went from seeing a dramatic black and white short set in Kashmir to walking the red carpet at a star-studded premiere of Emily Blunts movie Sicario. Also, it was a joy to hear other filmmaker’s journeys to the screen. Hearing a young indie filmmaker talk about his dreams to share his passion with the world and an hour later listening to the whole Pixar team, talk about how they made their newest movie Inside Out; it was just a surreal experience.
You also recently joined on as executive producer on a project titled “Half & Half” for Soldier Monkey Productions. Please tell us about this project, and when audiences might be able to see it?
“Half & Half” is a story about a couple who find out a shocking revelation about themselves when the family gathers together to celebrate their upcoming wedding. It is the latest movie to be produced by the hard-working, creative team that makes up Soldier Monkey Productions, which is based in Ireland. I had the good fortune to connect with this production company a couple of years ago when I was invited to become an associate producer on their feature “The Girl at the End of the World.” They shot that film in Ireland and the US, and it was the Official Selection at the Urban Cinema Festival in Oklahoma. So, when an opportunity arose to work with them again on their latest movie “Half & Half”, I was excited to jump on board as an Executive Producer. As a bonus, I was presented with the unique opportunity to write an alternative ending to the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with their writing team and can’t wait to see the finished film.
As far as it being released, they only just finished shooting this week, so it could be a while before it is seen in festivals, etc. but if you are interested in following the films progress you can catch up with at www.soldiemonkeyproductions.com
Your screenplays cover a variety of genres from comedy to drama to action/adventure. Is there a certain genre you feel most comfortable writing in? How does writing a screenplay compare with writing a novel?
Screenwriting is very different than novel writing as far as the word count goes; you only have 110 script pages to tell a whole story. The challenge is to have the most impact with the fewest amount of words.
I have been fortunate to work on a variety of different screenwriting projects and enjoy the thrill of learning the structure and pacing of a different genre. However, humor is where I feel most comfortable, I always seem to come back to it. It is like a comfort blanket for me. I love the rhythm and pacing of good humor; I love creating interesting and incredible characters and more than anything I love to go on a comedic journey.
I used to think of humor writing as the ugly stepchild of writing as if the more eloquent and moving pieces of literacy where somehow more valuable. Then I had an experience in a bathroom that changed my life, which is so fitting for a comedy writer.
I had just finished a one-woman comedy show that I adapted to support the work of my first book Big Purple Undies, and I was waiting in line for the bathroom. As I chatted with members of the audience, one lady approached me and said, ”My husband died two years ago and I just wanted you to know that is the first time I have really laughed since then. Thank you so much for your gift, you have no idea how important that was for me.”
And it was there in that bathroom somewhere in the South I had my “aha” moment. I realized what an incredible tool humor is. It is a way to lift spirits, a way to bring healing, and a way to lose weight. So, now I take my humor very seriously.
You have maintained an active Facebook, Twitter, and blog/vlog. How beneficial has it been for you to have a consistent social media presence? Is that your primary method for marketing, and do you have any advice for new authors looking to get their names out there?
I think the most important thing a new author needs to do is create an online presence. I talk to writers all the time who say, “oh, I don’t do social media” and I think it’s a big mistake. Do you remember ten years ago the people who “didn’t do email”?
I am very active on social media, and here is why. I work in a craft that has no outward shop or showcase; my work is all contained on a computer in my home. So unless the perfect audience for my book just happens to breakdown on a bus outside my house and need something to read while they wait for AAA, I’m not sure how else I would connect with them. Yes, there are online bookstores and physical bookstores but you really want to cast your nets wide. You should see your little social media avatar as a non-stop P.R. agent working 24-7 for you, going out to every part of the world telling everyone how fabulous you and your work is. Once you get over the “but I have never sold a book on Twitter” mentality and realize what an unprecedented an amazing opportunity it is for free advertising you will really start to see the benefits.
What people miss is social media is all about the connection that will hopefully eventually lead to a sale, not some sort of free for all online marketplace. I have made some of my most important contacts through social media.
Here is a prime example of what I’m talking about. Yesterday, I was invited out of the blue to attend a speaking event, a creative think tank for a high-flying P.R. company based in New York. How did they know I would be a good fit? They have been following my career through social media.
So, in theory, that isn’t a book sale but the opportunities that could come from that connection is great. And those sorts of things happen all the time when you have a vibrant social media presence. My advice for new authors starting out in social media is start where you feel most comfortable and be consistent.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other upcoming projects that readers should be aware of?
Creatively, as well as a number of film projects I am working on I am writing a second book in the Southlea Bay series in the process and hope to publish that by the end of the year. I am also in the process of starting a podcast for writers, which I am developing with another author KJ Water author of the thriller “Stealing time.” The podcast is called “Writing, Publishing and Beyond.” We are featuring a new author every week and have some amazing guests booked from New York Times bestsellers to the first time author who doesn’t have a clue about social media. Our goal is to use the podcast to help and inform writers on their journey from writing to publishing to marketing. The podcasts will post every Thursday on I-tunes starting September 10th there will be more information on our website www.blondieandbrit.com
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 is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at the University of Idaho, where she teaches 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 an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.