Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today Serita Stevens, author of thirty-six books, stories and several screenplays. Her publishers include Pocket Books, Fawcett, Zebra, Leisure, St Martin’s Press, Writer’s Digest, Oak Tree Press, Hard Shell, and Intrigue Press among others.
Serita is a psychiatric nurse and began her writing career in nursing school. Upon receiving her Master’s in Communications and Writing (with honors) from Antioch University in London, England, she went on to become well known in the romance and mystery fields. She then relocated to Los Angeles when offered a teaching job in writing at USC.
Her first published book, This Bitter Ecstasy, a historical romance from Pocket Books, was her introduction to film when she was asked to write a treatment of that novel for possible adaptation. Subsequently, she was hired by the studio to write the prequel of the successful TV series, Cagney and Lacey.
Serita has also written non-fiction books including The Book of Poisons which is a how-to guide that teaches writers the art of killing off their victims correctly, and The Forensic Nurse shows how nurses help law enforcement solve crimes. The later book was optioned by Fox TV as a TV drama and is currently being considered by Discovery for a true crime, documentary style television series. She has also recently authored Books and Screenplays: THE ULTIMATE WRITER’S WORKBOOK.
In addition, Serita has written multiple award-winning scripts including Dragon’s Seed (a psychological horror written with director Sean McNamara), The Unborn, Promises Maid, Murder Me Twice, Lighting and Fire, etc. Her other credits include projects with Larry Levinson/Hallmark and Warner Home Video. In addition, Serita has written spec TV pilots, which are in consideration at several networks, and helped developed reality shows for rapper DMC and Christy Buss.
Serita is an active member of Women In Film (WIF), the Caucus, and Alameda Writer’s Group (AWG.) She has taught writing at USC, UCLA, Loyola Marymount, Roosevelt University, Santa Monica City College, among other places, and currently teaches and mentors at Alameda Writer’s Group. She participated in the “Inside Out Writers Program” where writers teach incarcerated gang members
She mentors and teaches writing to independent students and does adaptations, both from her own material and others. Serita has recently been chosen as a judge for the SET (Scientific, Engineering and Technology) awards – honoring films and shows with scientific correctness. In addition to books, Serita is a frequent journalist for many magazines – reviewing theatre, film, other industry events, and travel.
Norm: Good day Serita and thanks for participating in our interview.
What do you think over the years has driven you as a writer?
Serita: When I am asked that, I tell people that I used to lie to my father and decided to make a living at it, but in reality, I was a devoted reader for many years. My nickname was “Ritie” because I always had a book in my hand. After devouring books, I decided that I could write as well as that. It took me sometime to perfect my craft, and I continue to learn.
Norm: Did you read any special books on how to write?
Serita: As I said I read books constantly, especially historical novels, mysteries and biographies. Mostly I learned by osmosis. I also read The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazines. But as I continued to learn, and as I developed my script writing ability, I learned that there was a format and style for scripts that books did not have.
Save The Cat series is a great one. I also like Writing For Emotional Content by Karl Inglesis.
There are many other books that I’ve read which have given me clues for improving my scripts.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Serita: That’s an interesting question. When my parents used to argue, I would hide in the cubbyhole behind the curtains and immerse myself in my stories. When I began writing, I used it to block out the outer world including an abusive husband, who I escaped from, and other life problems.
Norm: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
Serita: In writing books, I love writing historicals, romances, young adult, and mysteries/thrillers. In scripts, I write thriller, historical – Western and Biblical (but these are harder to sell as scripts), romantic comedy, young adult, and dramady. (Almost whatever my agent gets me to write.) I do not like writing guts and gore horror.
Norm: Which of your books/stories/scripts are you most attached to and why?
Serita: I’m attached to all of my stories but I especially am passionate about The Unborn, which I wrote first as a short story, then as a short script, which was produced, and now I am doing it as a feature.
The theme is about domestic violence. I am also passionate about my Biblical story about Judge Deborah from Judges 4/5 since it’s about strong women. My book, The Forensic Nurse, recently optioned by Fox, excited me because it tells about a new area of nursing where we, as nurses, help police solve crimes and do more than just bedpans and IV’s. I also love helping new writers, which is why I taught and wrote The Ultimate Writers Workbook For Books and Scripts.
Norm: What’s your average working day like? Do you have any unusual habits/rituals?
Serita: Well, the first thing I do is to check my emails. I have to be careful not to get caught up in that since I sometimes receive as many as 500 a day. So I set a time limit on that. Then, depending on what I am working on, I divide my time between my various projects as I do now. I am currently working on four projects at different stages — editing my true crime, adaptating a book, doing an outline for a historical script that I was hired to do, and writing the book version of The Unborn.
My daughter says I am at the computer 24/7 – which isn’t exactly true – but I have learned that I have to carve out time for my family, as well, or they feel neglected. Two or three times a week, I also go to the gym as it stimulates my writing.
Norm: What’s the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Serita: Probably the most difficult thing is breaking away from the story and having to do other things. I get lost in my work once I get started. Networking is also crucial for a writer, especially in Hollywood. Its’ a relationship town. It’s becomes hard when all I really want to do is get back to my stories and my characters.
Another difficult thing is learning to pitch properly, which every writer must do, especially if they are doing scripts. No matter how much I do it, I always get nervous when I am in meetings like that.
I find that the first ten pages are crucial – in fact some readers and producers will only read that far and toss the manuscript if you haven’t caught their attention by then – so those are important to concentrate and sometimes difficult getting not only the tone of the piece but also the important characters introduced in a way that will entice the editor or producer to continue.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer? As a follow up, do you work from an outline?
Serita: I am definitely a character writer. I believe that plot comes from who the character is, what they want and how far they are willing to go to achieve their goals. When I come to the middle slack and don’t know where I am going, I always go back to who the character is. I do detailed biographies of ALL my characters – not just the main one – before I start.
Yes, I do outlines. It’s how I am able to work on more than one project at a time. It also gives me a road map. That doesn’t mean I always have to stick to the outline. Sometimes I will take a side trip with the character, but the outline tells me what needs to be done in this chapter or scene.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Serita: Sometimes I listen to meditation music when I write, but mostly I am just focused with the character charts spread out on my desk. I do read back my work often, but I don’t always catch my mistakes – especially grammar and spelling since I write fast. I find it helpful to have others, like my writer’s group, to read my material and give me notes as they might see holes where I have not. It’s hard to catch consistency errors in your own work, as well. I usually do a “vomit” first draft and get the story out and then go back to the rewrite and revisions. It’s hard when you want to make changes on everything and, as most writers, I sometimes doubt if the story is strong enough, if the mystery is thrilling enough, or if the jokes are funny.
Norm: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Serita: I mentioned above some of the things that I am doing right now. Future contracts include another true crime that, as a forensic nurse, I helped work on. I enjoy writing stories that educate as well as entertain. I have a file cabinet full of ideas and things to write so I seldom run out of subjects.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Serita: My WEBSITE. It mentions some of my books. They can also check me out on Imdb.com. For readers of The Workbook, I am gifting them with a free critique of their first ten pages of book or script.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Serita: Persistence and dedication is the key. If you read some of my first attempts, you would think it was crap. Seriously. My first husband, in an effort to discourage me, gave one of my manuscripts to a published writer. (I later found out that she only did textbooks, but –).
The woman said to me “Go home and do your housework. You have nothing here.” I cried a bit on the train home, but then I clenched my fists and said I was still going to be a writer and persisted on, despite what she said. That book was Lightning and Fire – my Biblical historical – that has gone on to win awards (after several rewrites.)
Taking a class from Harry Mark Petrukus, the Chicago writer in residence, one student asked him “When do I quit?” Harry’s response was “Honey, if you can quit, God bless you. If writing is in your blood, than you have to continue, no matter what obstacles are in your path.” I realized that writing was in my blood — and I had to make choices about my life because of it – going through two husbands and several boyfriends who would not support my writing.
I get angry at my students who call themselves aspiring writers. If your tush is on the computer chair, if you have pen in your hand, than you are a writer – even if you haven’t yet published or produced. Brain surgeons don’t come out of medical school performing surgery immediately. Like other crafts, writing takes time to learn. Keep creating, reading, going to conferences, taking notes and learning. Join a writer’s group. Don’t give your work to your parents or your friends. They will either tell you it’s great because they want to please you or that it’s crap because they are jealous that you have a passion.
When I was working full time as a nurse, I read and took notes on the bus to work, brown bagged and ate my lunch quickly using the rest of the hour to write, and didn’t go for drinks with the other workers after work. I also made a choice to write rather than veg out in front of the TV. Don’t make excuses that you have no time because time can always be found even if you only take 15 minutes a day to write. (That’s where outlining comes in handy.) Set yourself a goal of one page a day. In a year, you will have a book or script done.
Read and study bestsellers and good scripts. (You can get those online or if you live in LA, you can read them at the Writer’s Guild Library.)
The more you write, the better you become and the clearer your voice and style is. You develop this over time.
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?.
Serita: So much has become digital these days, but there are still people like myself who like the physical feel of the book. One library in Newport Beach, California, reportedly only has ebooks now in the stacks.
I think that’s wrong, but it seems to be the way of the future. Many of the bigger companies are merging and so it is harder to get published by the traditional publishers, but there are many independent companies – some who just do eBooks– who are taking up the slack. There is always self-publishing, too, but it is harder than it looks because not only do you have to write the book, but you have to make sure it is edited properly and then you have to do all the business aspects of distribution, publicity, etc.
Norm: After your phenomenal success as an author and writer what, if anything, remains “undone” for you? What is the one thing you haven’t done, that you are still “itching” to accomplish?”
Serita: I always itch to tell good stories and to educate while I am entertaining. Of course, I wouldn’t mind the bestseller list, or the Academy Award for Best Screenplay or Adapted Screenplay. Despite my success, making a living as a writer is still hard. You have to have many irons in the fire and be continually working toward new projects.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Serita: How do I balance my time between “normal” life and my writing life? It’s difficult and many times I feel guilt over not spending enough time with my daughter and husband. But there are choices you have to make.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors