Author Interview ~ Cheryl McKay

Cheryl McKay is the screenwriter for the award-winning film The Ultimate Gift. She also wrote an episode of Gigi: God’s Little Princess, based on the book by Sheila Walsh, and Taylor’s Wall, a drama about high-school violence. She co-authored The Wild and Wacky Totally True Bible Stories with Frank Peretti. Cheryl is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, and currently lives in Los Angeles. You can visit her website at:
Hi, Cheryl. Welcome to Novel Journey. Why don’t you start by telling us what made you start writing?

I’ve been writing since I was five. Plays, stories, books. When I was a teenager, I was rather shy when it came to talking about problems. So instead of talking about what I was going through, I used to write about it. I’d give my challenges to teenagers in plays. (They were actually more like screenplays, but I didn’t know it at the time.) Writing became a way to process life’s issues. I used to write skits I wanted to act in because my original career goal was to be an actress. That changed near the end of getting my undergraduate degree in theater. God redirected me to writing as a profession. I went to graduate school to study film and writing at Regent University.

How neat! I thought I wanted to be an actress, too, and I also turned to writing, though some parts of the transition were more difficult than others. What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your writing journey)?

I write because I love to write. It hasn’t always mattered to me that sometimes it’s very difficult to sell what you write. I hit a point about six years ago when I realized I had written over forty screenplays (a mix of half-hour shows, hour long dramas and full length screenplays). A lot of people were impressed by that; I was not. I hadn’t seen many of them get produced (just a handful of half-hour dramas). I had to stop and evaluate what was wrong. If I’m called to do this, why isn’t anything selling?

As much as I love writing for myself, I didn’t feel like I was supposed to pour myself out on the page just for an audience of one. Me. (Well, and my parents, who faithfully read and love everything I write.)

That year held a wake-up call for me. I realized I had made writing an idol before God; it was too important to me. I needed to be willing to give it up. So, I did. The next year my life totally changed into something I didn’t recognize. I was volunteering at a group home for abused kids and started working at a high school for at-risk teens. I was taking Christian Counseling classes. God did a mighty work in me that year. And after that season where I “laid down the pen” God did return writing to me in the form of The Ultimate Gift. I was given the extraordinary blessing of adapting Jim Stovall’s novel into a movie. But God couldn’t bless me with that until He could trust me to not make it too important.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters/screenplays?
Absolutely. I don’t think I ever write a story where I am not in there somewhere. Like, in one called Night Prophecies I’ve shared some of my experiences with receiving prophetic dreams from God. In one called Three Faces of Angst, I’ve explored some of the issues I used to have battling a panic disorder. It’s fun to see how many ways you can rewrite your life and still come up with completely different stories. Never the Bride, my latest release, is the most autobiographical story to date. I am very much like “Jessie.” Her relationship with God is based on my fun, communicative relationship with God.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I’ve been told to quit writing before, that I would never be good enough. I’ve been told to not write particular stories that I knew I was born to tell. When God tells you He’s called you to do something or called you to write a particular story, you can overcome those criticisms with His help. But it’s not easy. And sometimes, the rejection and pain knocks the wind out of you for a time.

But God has been abundantly clear with me that I’m doing what He wants me to do and writing what He wants me to write. That helps me overcome the battles when others tell me not to. However, I’m still very much open to critiques and suggestions. I had to trust I was on the right track to write Never the Bride, even though quite a few people told me not to bother. However, even when you write what God inspires you to write, that doesn’t mean you will write a perfect story.

Sometimes, I joke with God that if He’s truly my co-writer, then I shouldn’t have to rewrite. We should get it right the first time. But that’s usually when He reminds me we aren’t writing the Bible and He hones my character through the rewrite process. It takes humbleness to receive another person’s suggestions. I enjoy this and have no trouble telling my note givers when the have ideas that are genuinely better than what I wrote. If others want to weigh in on my work and they come up with outstanding ideas, I’m more than happy to use them! They make me look good. If I get a note I really don’t agree with, I try to address what the real problem is behind the note. Obviously, something may need to be fixed to address their concerns. But it doesn’t mean their proposed solution is the only way to go.

Tell us a little about your latest release:

As I mentioned, it’s called Never the Bride. It’s a lot fun, about a girl, Jessie Stone, who accuses God of being asleep on the job of setting up her love story. God shows up to face the charges. He tells Jessie that He can’t write her story until she surrenders the pen. The purple pen she’s clutched for many years, penning her own ideas for how her love life should go in her 109 journals.

The story is a tug-of-war between God and Jessie and who is really writing this story. Is she too afraid to trust God because He may not write what she truly wants? Or can she surrender that pen to God and let Him write the best love story for her?

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

Oh, boy was there. This is both funny and not. I had a year that felt like the year of rejections. I was tired of liking guys who didn’t like me back. I ached over being constantly overlooked for other girls. I couldn’t figure out what was so wrong with me that guys were never interested. (Sorry, but it’s how I felt at the time.) I was having a self-pity party for one.

One day, I went out for a prayer walk. I looked up at God angrily and said, “Why don’t you just put a sign on my head that says ‘Never the Choice’?” I meant it; I was mad. But then I started cracking up. My next comment to God was, “That’s going in a script, isn’t it?”

I was both angry and humored by the realization that one day, this was going to be a story. Maybe a book. Maybe a movie. I knew I needed to really explore what it’s like to be my age, still single, still waiting for love, battling feelings of inferiority and yet finding true worth in God and the way He sees us, and then trusting Him to pen that love story. How do you do that, make it entertaining and funny and yet still real? I chose to make fun of myself, my experience with God as a single. I knew I wanted to personify Him so others could hear Him and see some of our conversations, and see the way in which I believe God has an amazing sense of humor.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

As mentioned, Jessie is very much based on me. However, she starts off as a skeptical, non-believer and that’s not me. I’ve been a follower of Christ since before I can remember. But she and I share a lot of the same ideals, especially wanting to be married to the right person. I share her impatience for waiting on God to set up that right situation. I used my conversations (read: fights) with God over this issue. While writing the screenplay version, anytime I would go through something new or dramatic that applied to the single life, I would put it in the script. It only took me twenty days to pen a readable draft of the script. That’s how inspired I was by it.

You co-authored this book. How did that come about?

Rene and I met when she novelized my script for The Ultimate Gift for Westbow/Thomas Nelson Publishers. She has an amazing ability to take a script and turn it into a novel. The rules of writing novels are totally different than the rules of writing scripts.

With Never the Bride, I wrote the screenplay first. Then I worked with Rene Gutteridge on what we could submit to publishers. I wrote the proposal, and she wrote the sample chapter based on the beginning script pages. Random House/Waterbrook picked up the project. Then Rene took my script and novelized it. She was extraordinarily faithful to my script, using a lot of the same dialogue and scenes and the same characters. But she got to dig deeper into the inner life and thoughts of my character in a way you just can’t do in a screenplay. (It’s told in first person present tense from Jessie’s POV.) In a screenplay, you are not allowed to write internal thoughts. You have to hope your dialogue carries a lot of subtext the actor can play.

It was such a delight to watch the entire process. I thought it would be scary to watch someone take “me” as a character and mess with it. But it was amazing! Rene gets me, completely! And Waterbrook was great with the material and seemed to respect what we wanted to do. This book is exactly what we want it to be! We didn’t have to change one thing that we didn’t want to change. (I understand this is very unusual, and I could get spoiled from this experience.)

When we make the movie version, it’s likely to be so similar that no one will accuse us of saying that the movie was nothing like the book. Especially since it was already a script first.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

I want people to know that God can be trusted with the pen of their love stories. That it’s worth waiting for God’s best. I want people to have hope in their present circumstances even if life hasn’t exactly gone according to their plan on or their timetable. I hope people will hunger to have a close relationship with God when they see how Jessie and God interact. I hope people will see that God really is enough and is all we need. I also hope people will get a clear picture of what true surrender to God looks like. And also, to see how just when we think God isn’t doing anything for us, He’s working behind-the-scenes.

What does your writing space look like?

I live by myself (since my husband is M.I.A.) I actually love living alone. I have a one-bedroom bungalow. Instead of having an actual bedroom, I made that an office so I have a nice, spacious area to work.

What kind of activities do you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit?

I enjoy Bible studies, hanging out with friends, journaling, and prayer walks. The entire time I wrote The Ultimate Gift, I took a 90-minute prayer walks during my lunch breaks. It was such a peaceful, heavenly experience.

I love listening to music on my MP3 player. I just got a Sony E-Reader and am really getting into reading e-books. I love rollerblading, walking on the strand in Santa Monica, being at the beach and taking trips to visit my family. Playing with my nephews is such a kick! I love getting them on the webcam to chat. They’re so silly. My mom, sister and I love scrapbooking together. And I love working on projects with my dad. He loves to help me with my projects, like driving me to sets or to go location scouting for a film.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a story—from conception to revision.

I love to brainstorm. When I start a new project, it gets a three ring binder. I use very colorful dividers for various sections like Synopsis, Broad Story Ideas, Main Character Notes, Supporting Characters, Scene Ideas, Location/Setting, Meeting Notes etc.

Once I figure out what a story is about, I use colored Post-It notes to write scene ideas. I make a list of all the main plots and subplots and assign each one a different color. Then as I write a bazillion scene ideas out, each one gets its own Post-It. I don’t try to put them in order yet. I just get them all out. Then, I try to divide them by Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. I put them in story order. And what’s great about the various colors is that I can look at them all and see if I go a long time neglecting a particular storyline if that color doesn’t show up for quite a few scenes in a row.

From there, if I need to submit the idea to a publisher or a producer, I type those notes in scene order in what I’d call a treatment for a film or a proposal for a novel. That’s actually where the bulk of the work takes place. My treatment for The Ultimate Gift was 33 pages long! It took me three weeks to write that treatment but only one week to write the first draft of the script. So much legwork goes into those treatments (or scene-by-scene outlines).

I haven’t written a full-length novel myself (that’s Rene’s job!) I’m perfectly content for now to let her do all of my novelizations. But my job with her is to give her a completed, cleaned up script worthy of adapting. (Which usually means it’s in the shape where it’s ready to be shopped to producers.) Sometimes, my first drafts can be pretty messy. I just try to get that first draft on the page, then do deepen the characters in the revisions. I try not to critique myself too much during a first draft.

What are a few of your favorite books (not written by you) and why are they favorites?

One favorite is Kristin Billerbeck’s What a Girl Wants. She cracks me up with her humor in the Ashley Stockingdale Series. Another favorite (though it’s not published because it’s not finished yet) is one by a friend, Caroline Way, who is penning an updated exploration of the Book of Job from the wife’s point-of-view. It’s awesome and I relate to the story of Job so much, about how to deal with suffering and what God allows. I like books that make me ask hard questions like this one does.

Because of that, I actually enjoy reading non-fiction a lot more than fiction. I like books that challenge me to grow deeper in my relationship with God. Any books about hearing God’s voice (like Dialogue with God by Mark & Patti Virkler) will spark my interest, or about God speaking through dreams.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

I definitely believe reading others work is so valuable. I wish I had more time to do it. I am pretty bad about it. But that’s why I just bought the Sony E-reader. I’m hoping I can spend more time in the classics that you can download free off Google Books. I recently have switched my habit from watching TV as I go to bed to reading a book. So far it’s helping.
What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing?

As mentioned, I wished I hadn’t made writing so important to me that it became an idol before God. I wasted a lot of time that way. Also, some of my earliest scripts didn’t have enough of “me” in them to be worth writing. I wasn’t passionate about them and will probably never look at them again. I didn’t pay enough attention in the beginning to really finding a story with a heart worth sharing with the world. That’s why it took a while before I wrote scripts that caught the attention of producers.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

During the film release of The Ultimate Gift, I did a lot of interviews for newspapers, magazines, television or videos/websites.

For this book, we’re scheduled for radio shows, conferences, speaking engagements or talking to churches. Rene’s been doing a lot of schools. I did a press conference at a college. The publishers have assigned us a great publicist that has been lining stuff up for us. Even though we’ve done a lot of legwork on our own, like running our official websites, contests and starting a new Facebook page, Waterbrook has given us some great tools to help spread the word. (They made these awesome bookmarks to pass out. I think Facebook is one of the best ways to spread the word quickly and enlist the help of your contacts to advertise for you.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

Obviously I’m excited about working on the film version of Never the Bride. The development process on that is keeping me very busy, thinking through actors, key crew positions, locations etc.

After that, I really hope to make my family’s mining movie, Song of Springhill. My grandfather survived one of the biggest disasters in coal mining history in Springhill, Nova Scotia. I’m in the midst of becoming a dual citizen with Canada so it might help me get the movie made up there. Rene and I hope to start another novelization soon. We’ve already completed the proposal based on another script of mine.

And I’m just about finished with Finally the Bride, which is best described as the non-fiction companion book to Never the Bride. In that book, I can get even more honest about the journey of singlehood for Christian women waiting on God to write their love stories. I’ve spent the last year while Rene was novelizing my script penning this non-fiction work as sort of a Bridge Jones Diary memoir style of a book that’s very honest and yet hopefully humorous about how hard this journey can be. Through this book as well, I want to give hope to women in their present circumstances and give them some very constructive things to do while waiting for the love of their lives to show up. At some point, I need to develop the story for the sequel to Never the Bride. It’s going to be called Finally the One.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Don’t make this writing journey so important to you that you lose sight of what truly matters in life. Use God as a co-writer. After all, He is the greatest creative mind in the universe. Trust your instincts. If you feel strongly you are meant to write something and others tell you not to, overcome it with God. Write it anyway. Even if it’s just for you, do it! Also, don’t be afraid to use your life in your stories because that’s what’s going to hit home with your readers, that’s when you’ll be most passionate and do your best writing.

Photo Credit for the 2 headshots:
David Edmonson