Today’s Aspiring Voices guest is the whip-smart Melanie Drake. I talked to her about her complicated writing process, scrutinizing readers for their reactions, and why she may someday be the rare writer/paleoanthropologist.
Paul: What was the catalyst that made you want to start writing seriously? Have you always considered yourself a writer or is it a relatively new thing in your life?
Melanie: I’ve considered myself a writer for a while, but it was only within the last two years that I began wanting to start writing seriously. I was in an accident on my way to work one Saturday, and it made me realize how short life really is. I want to spend the rest of my life doing something I love instead of being miserable doing something I hate just for money.
Paul: Wow, yeah. Sorry about the accident! So what do you do for a day job? Is it like writing is the one thing you can imagine being happy doing for a living or is it just one of the possibilities that you’ve decided to pursue for the time being?
Melanie: I currently work nights as a Customer Service rep answering phone calls, emails, and web chats and spend my days going to college full time. There are only two jobs I can imagine being happy doing for the rest of my life. First is my writing, of course, as it is my first love. The second would be a paleoanthropologist, which is the study of humans using fossils.
Paul: What attracts you to paleoanthropology?
Melanie: I will confess to being a bit of a science geek. I’ve been interested in archaeology and anthropology since I first saw an excavation on TV. Paleoanthropologists get to work with these very old fossils and artifacts to discover our origins. I find it fascinating that we are able to trace back the human species and track how we have evolved through the centuries.
Paul: There’s kind of a very simplified notion I think some people have that science is this kind of analytical, logical pursuit while writing is creative, intuitive, expressive. People are sometimes even classified as “right brained” if they’re prone to artistic pursuits or “left brain dominant” if they tend to be more critical or rational. Do you identify with either of these or do you think there is a way you can apply principles of one set of skills to activities maybe more commonly associated with the others?
Melanie: If the right/left brain theory is true, I would believe I am more right brained than left. Most of my life has had some form of art, whether it be from playing the piano to drawing to writing. If I remember my psychology class correctly, the left brain – right brain theory is actually a myth and researchers are currently working to prove that any skill using both sides of the brain achieve better results. While most science is very analytical and logical, someone had to be creative or intuitive enough to form a hypothesis on anything to test, thus using both sides of the brain. While writers may be considered right brained for their use of creativeness or expressiveness, not all writers write fiction. Some may write technical books or science books. So, yes, I definitely believe that both sides of the brain can be used for any activity. Of course, I also love writing science fiction, so it could just be me.
Paul: Describe your process a little. Do you plan and outline extensively, or do you discovery-write?
Melanie: It’s a bit of both. I’ll have an idea and have to get it down on paper before I forget it, which usually leads to about ten to twenty pages of nonsense. Once I get the original idea down, I’ll go through and outline the book with how I think it should be. After I get a few chapters in, the characters will start arguing with me on how they think it should go through, so I end up ignoring the outline and “pantsing” it until I get stuck. I’ll re-write the remaining outline, and it goes from there.
Paul: [laughs] That’s quite the process. Tell me a little more about this notion of the characters arguing with you. Because I’ve heard a lot of writers describe the process of having their characters guiding the book or of books writing themselves. Does writing ever feel like you’re not entirely in charge?
Melanie: I feel in charge of my writing, at least for the first few minutes of writing. By the time my imagination gets warmed up and the characters have woken up, they’re ready to put on their own act for me. As for the characters arguing with me, I will want them to do one thing in the book, but they’ll want to go an entirely different path. When I try to go ahead and write what I want them to do, they’ll start screaming in my head or refuse to do anything. I once saw a key chain that explains this perfectly: “Writer’s Block is when your imaginary friends stop talking to you.” At first I thought I was just crazy, but I’ve learned to accept it.
Paul: [laughs] Give me a bit of a sense of what this resistance from your characters looks like. I mean, from a mechanical standpoint if you’re trying to shoehorn your creations into a situation they don’t want to go, is it a matter of the words just not coming because you know they wouldn’t act that way, or is it more that your prose suddenly sounds terrible to you because you’re clashing with your internal muse, or is it something else entirely?
Melanie: Tough question! While I try to plan my characters as much as possible, as I write I tend to find out more and more about them. People act differently when put into different situations, and my characters are people, so I don’t really “know” that they wouldn’t act a certain way until it happens. The story doesn’t suddenly sound terrible, as much as it just stops. I can write a paragraph, or sometimes even a single sentence, and it will just stop. And usually that is followed by the character laughing in my head at my dilemma.
Paul: You’ve written about your experiences with writer’s block and how it manifests for you as a disconnect between the words you feel you need to get onto the page and the ability to make them materialize. Is trying to force a character to act a way they aren’t inclined to a sort of localized version of that or are they separate afflictions?
Melanie: It would be a localized version of writer’s block, but thankfully, I can move to a different chapter or area when I try to force my character into a scenario and they won’t budge. So, it doesn’t normally stop my entire book, just the parts I really wanted to work on.
Paul: What was the first story you remember writing where you finished and thought, “Yeah, there’s something here”? Who was the first person to praise you in a way that made you feel like your writing was worth pursuing?
Melanie: The first story was named Crystal Flow and was the first major book I started planning. I was sitting at work one day, revising the first part during our downtime when my coworker Shana asked what I was doing. I let her read the first few chapters, hoping to get some honest feedback on how bad it really was. Seeing the emotions on her face and visibly seeing her fist clenched up when the villain was introduced had me a little worried, especially when she asked me if I had wrote it. She then asked me where was the rest of the book because she really wanted to finish reading. I had received praise for it from my mother and a friend, but it never really struck me that an outsider might actually enjoy it.
Paul: Have you experienced that moment of watching a reader for reaction as they read your work before or since? I almost feel like it’s such a fruitless thing to do because it’s so hard to read someone’s reaction from an expression—plus I’m sure it’s super annoying to someone who’s just trying to read something—but I can’t help it. It feels like the moment a reader gets to a part you’re emotionally invested in, their response is kind of the essence of writing to me. Does that sound at all familiar to your experience?
Melanie: I have, actually. It was a very short story about clowns and banana peels, completely unpolished and written in the span of about ten minutes. Another coworker of mine was reading it and laughing through the whole story. It was written to be comical, so I felt I had achieved something. And yes, I believe that the reader’s response is what makes the writing. As writers, we are entertainers, and it is our job to keep our audience entertained. If my readers are not entertained, then I lose my feeling of accomplishment.
Paul: How do you think that sense of accomplishment, that feedback of having entertained, changes as you begin to expand your reading audience outside your immediate, in-person social circle? Obviously if you publish a book you’re not going to get to watch every reader’s reaction directly (unless you work for the NSA or something), do you think the occasional shout-out on social media becomes a stand-in for that interaction, or do you think it disappears as a consequence of entertaining more people or does it becomes something else entirely?
Melanie: That feeling of accomplishment grows, especially when people outside of your social circle start sending messages that they have enjoyed what you have written. These are people that don’t have any reason to pretend to like it, telling you that you made their day or they enjoyed your work. While I have not managed to publish a book yet, I once wrote a satirical gossip column for a game. It was somewhat popular inside of the game, and I would frequently get messages from people I didn’t know, asking when I was going to write the next column. While nothing can really replace watching the reader’s face, a simple message from someone that enjoyed your work can go a long way.
Paul: Tell me about the best book you’ve read recently.
Melanie: The best book I’ve read recently was Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews. It is the sixth book in the Kate Daniel’s series and is a must read for anyone that loves urban fantasy. In the book, Kate and her shapeshifter mate, Curran, are trying to get their hands on medicine that would stop the younger shapeshifters from going loup. In order to get this medicine, they have to play referee between two rival European packs and keep a pregnant shapeshifter safe until she gives birth. Of course, nothing ever goes as expected, all hell breaks loose, and they have to fight to keep themselves alive.
Melanie Drake works full time in the technical support and customer care field for a Healthcare agency. She is also a full time college student, working on her last year. Melanie is currently editing her first novel and is hoping to use NaNoWriMo 2013 to start on her second. She can normally be found rambling about life and writing on her blog, when she’s not busy arguing with her characters.