Melinda Snodgrass Q&A Transcript 2014

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Diego: So, Melinda, officially, thank you hugely for coming to chat to us on behalf of everyone at UFOP: Starbase Melinda!

Melinda: Happy to be here. You guys are fun.

Diego: Thanks! :) We're glad to have a chance to share in your expertise again! I'd like to get the ball rolling with a quick couple of questions that we may or may not have pre-planned... *shifty eyes*

Melinda:So how can I help? And I'm ready for Shifty.  :)

Diego: The first of those being - what approaches do you use to make your narrative and descriptive passages involving?

Melinda: Well, for starters I find description agonizing to write. It's why I much prefer writing screenplays. I have a set designer for all that. So, knowing I'm terrible at it and don't like it I try to make sure I have 3 of the five senses mentioned and acknowledged in every scene. Touch is one that people frequently overlook, and it's a useful tool. How does that paper towel feel against your fingers? On to narrative. Are we talking plot and structure? How do you define narrative?

Diego: For the purposes of our group, anything that isn't dialogue, so scene setting, description of actions, that kind of thing. :)

Melinda: Okay. Damn I wish we could talk. This may be a bit rambling. I enjoy writing action scenes and I generally approach them as if I'm writing for Jackie Chan. What can I put in the room that can be used in interesting ways for this particular action sequence.

Diego: You ramble away! It's all valuable :)

Melinda: There should have been a question mark at then end of that sentence. Doh! Anyway, the other thing I ask myself is "What does this scene actually do in the book or the movie? Does it move the plot forward? Present a new problem? Explicate character? If it doesn't do one of those things then it probably doesn't need to be there.

Melinda: One of the best lessons you can learn as a writer is how to "kill your babies". The other sad fact is that a scene you absolutely love, love, love is probably a terrible scene.

Diego: Good advice!

Melinda: Gozar the Gozarian has just landed in my lap which is going to make it super fun to type. And not actually the demon -- he's one of my cats. . Diego: If he would like to answer a question then we're up for that ^^

Melinda: Sure, ask away.

Diego: So, following on from the initial question, and as you've mentioned you like writing in the script style you're the most awesome person to ask - you just wrote a scene that's too dialog heavy. What do you do?

Diego: (To Gozar OR Melinda!)

Melinda: Gozar has left in disgust. Puny mortals. To answer. When it's a script I'm very aware that four lines/sentences is about the right length for dialog. If you find you've got more than that it really better important or an impassioned speech of some sort. When I'm writing dialog in a book I try to keep it West Wing short and snappy, a tennis match with the conversational ball bouncing back and forth between the characters.

Melinda: As for a scene being too dialog heavy. I love dialog so I don't think that's ever a problem assuming what is being discussed is interesting.

Diego: Do you represent characters' internal thoughts as you go along?

Melinda: What I really hate even more than description is internal dialog which you often have to have in a novel. I tend to keep it to a minimum. (And you are a mind reader because I was typing this while you typed the question.)

Diego: Hahaha! I am! Well known for it :)

Melinda: Sometimes I just make the internal dialog obvious and let the characters say the words unless it's going to ruin a big plot point.

Diego: So they make their internal thoughts clear through what they're saying. :) Our next question is from Kali: Do you ever feel like you can't do more with a character?

Melinda: Yes. or even better with what they _do_. That whole showing not telling thing which can also become annoying if done in excess. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with a simple declarative sentence telling people what the heck is going on.

Diego: Agreed!

Melinda: I suppose so. You write about a character because they are experiencing the most important moments in their lives. Once that is past is there really more story to tell? Maybe not. Some writers will say, "that person's story has been told." That was the case with Tachyon in the Wild Card books. His story is done. Now if conditions change or a new problem arises then that person's story can start again, but they have to be different when you come back to them. Characters do need to have "arcs" despite that becoming a silly cliche in Hollywood. Another one?

Diego: Absolutely! Got em racked and stacked here -The next question is from Amanda

Melinda: Racked and stacked, just like missiles.  :)

Diego: You mentioned Wildcard just now and she is a fan. She would like to ask: "One of my problems in my writing is I feel like I don't create very good plots. How do you keep your plots from falling flat?"

Diego: Indeed! (These hurt less than missiles though!)

Melinda: One hopes. It's the photon torpedoes that really sting. If I'm not passionate about a story/plot then it will feel flat. I've never really had that happen because I have always wanted to tell that particular story. Now there are points along the journey when things get dull. What Walter Jon Williams calls Kansas/Nebraska scenes. Dull and flat, but they have to be there or the plot won't make any sense.

Melinda: Ugh. Why you're tell this story. Why does it matter to you?.

Diego:So if you're not feeling it, it's maybe not worth writing?

Melinda: And always remember. The events you are writing about are the most important events in your character's life. How will it affect them? Readers and viewers know when you are phoning it in, when you aren't sincere in what you are saying

Melinda: I never try to jump on a bandwagon or write what's popular. I write the stories I want to tell.

Diego:On a related theme - Reinard asks, do you have any advice for people who find it difficult to write dialogue?

Melinda: Say it out loud as you write it. I look like a crazy person in my office. I speak all my dialog aloud. Another good trick is to have friends read it aloud and you listen. Now that doesn't mean you want ti to sound just like real conversations with the ums and uhs thrown in, but you want it to flow and to be succinct, but still sound natural. Remember every word you write needs to have a reason to be there. Even dialog. If the person is hedging and talking to cover for something else you need to craft it so that's clear to the reader/viewer.

Diego: Awesome :) Leo HP asks (while we're on dialogue) - is it difficult to get your characters to sound different when they speak? Melinda: Yes, that is hard. Especially in scripts because a first reader at a studio reads hundreds of scripts and they read very quickly so they may not notice the change in name. In novels there's nothing wrong with Jane said, John said. It helps anchor your readers, but it's nice when readers can tell the difference without the cue. Now, that doesn't mean you want to write in dialect. Never, ever do that.

Diego: Do you find that makes it difficult to read?

Melinda: The other trick I use is that I listen to people talking in cafes and restaurants and malls. I try to imitate the cadence of their speech patters.

LeoHP_> Thanks for advice. :)

Melinda: I do, and I think you run the risk of throwing someone out of the story if they are looking at all your fake accents. They're not being swept into the narrative. You also run the risk of looking racist or insensitive.

Diego: I have both hands on the dumb stick as I say I never thought of listening to people!! Very good points

Melinda: Proudly hold that dumb stick high! Writer's are terrible eavesdroppers.  :)

Diego: I have a new mission for Saturday mornings >:) Ready for the next question?

Melinda: I have lifted entire dialog from some person seated at a table next to me. And yes, go with the next question.

Diego: Haha! Best kind of thievery! And just let us know when you need to go - can't remember how to do the maths between my timezone and yours!

Melinda: No problem. I will let you know. And let's try to work out this tech glitch. I'd love to just talk to all of you.

Diego: Velana would like to know your opinion on whether or not it's better to go with self publishing or traditional publishing when your novel is complete!

Melinda: I am not a fan of self-publishing, particularly for new writers. The number of books a new writer sells is generally 0, zero, null, none. I also don't want to have try and pick my cover art -- I'm not an artist, I'm a writer. I also hate self-promotion. Publishers have marketing people to handle that.

Diego: So traditional all the way!

Melinda: I also think not having an editor is dangerous. Your mom or boyfriend or girlfriend may think your book is awesome, but it might actually need work, and the eyes of a professional are very helpful. My books get better because of my editor.

Diego: Fantastic :) Thanks!

Velana: Yes, thank you:)

Melinda: And with a published book you know there are gate keepers, that the money you are spending will garner you a competent piece of work. Ready for the next one.

Diego: After this question, we're going to be announcing the lucky winner of our competition - one of you lucky people will be receiving a copy of "This Case Is Gonna Kill Me", by Melinda. Shameless link!

Diego: Phillipa Bornikova is a pen name

Melinda: Well, by Melinda's alter ego -- Phillipa Bornikova.  :)

Diego: Hehe :) So we will now ramp up the tension by having another question first - please do check out that link, though!

Melinda: This is one place where I was crassly commercial. Bornikova put me close to Jim Butcher on the stands.  :) And Phillipa means lover of horses.

Diego: This brings up an interesting question - why did you choose a pen name? Is it to distinguish from a different genre, or another reason?

Melinda: It was mostly reader identification. The readers who enjoy Melinda's novels probably wouldn't be huge fans of Urban Fantasy. I didn't want reader confusion. That's the real reason the B was the commercial thing. Media has developed so you can tailor your reading/viewing an listening pleasure and I want to give my readers what they want and expect.

Diego: Thanks!So... everyone brace themselves...The winner of our competition and the proud owner of a copy of This Case Is Gonna Kill Me Is…

Melinda: Yeah, why don't they put seat belts on the bridge? But everybody hang on.

Diego: Hahahaha *screen shake* *torpedo impact* *inordinately long pause...* Eileen McCleran!

Melinda: The tension is killing me.

Diego: Hehehe

Amanda: *prays*

Reinard: Congrats!

Diego: Eileen, I'll be in touch to arrange delivery!

Lt_James: Woo!

Amanda: Congratulations!

McCleran: Hee! Many thanks.

FltCapt_ToniTurner: Congratulations

LeoHP_> Congrats! :)

Melinda: Congratulations. If you're going to be at LonCon in August I'll happily sign it.

Vie: Well done

Diego: Make a note in your diaries, guys! :) While we get that set up, Amanda has another question: How do you write with other people to make the result seamless rather than it LOOK like two people have written it?

Melinda: I've only really done that on screenplays, and in that case the other writer and I sit in the room together and take turns typing and bouncing dialog off each other. for novels there are various techniques, and now that I think about it I did write The Runespear with Vic Milan. We divided up characters, and wrote the chapters for those people. Then we exchanged pages and we did a rewrite on each other's pages.

Diego: So dual editing rights?

Melinda: Yes. You have to work closely with that other person. You should also have plotted it out in advance so each person knows exactly what they are doing. That's how James S.A. Corey works.

Diego: Have you ever written anything with George R. R.? You guys are friends right?

Melinda: Oh, and you better clear any changes with the other person.

Diego: No stealth editing! Melinda: Yes, George and I did a draft of A PRINCESS OF MARS together. Ours would have been better than that mess that ended up on movie screens under the title JOHN CARTER.

Diego: We would love to see it! I saw that movie and it wasn't my favourite

Melinda: GRRM does love description though. I spent a lot of time cutting that way down when I'd get his pages. Too much description makes a script read slow and that's death in Hollywood.

Diego: He approached it from the novel standpoint?

Melinda:'John Carter was a mess. And yes, George is by nature a prose writer and I'm by nature a screenwriter.

Diego: Ideal combination! Another general question on that theme..

Melinda: More about Princess when we can actually talk. And sure, ask away.

Diego: How do you go about writing for characters that have already been established? Such as ones that belong to a franchise like Star Trek?

Melinda: Oh that is so much easier than creating interesting characters from scratch. You do have to be a good mimic, however so they sound right. When I got so mad over the end of Mass Effect 3 I wrote my own Shepard story, and it was a cakewalk. All the work had been done for me. I just had to create the shrink and a sleazy journalist.  :)

Diego: I still love that you did that - for those of you that missed last year and our podcast, Melinda had Mass Effect rage just like we all did!

Melinda: I didn't have to describe how an Asari looks. I just sent out my space opera proposal to my agents and having to describe all the alien races, the political set up etc. was a lot of work. It was fun, but work.

Diego: A question from Zerxes on this topic: When you have a central character like Data in "Measure of a Man," do you spend much time with that particular actor to get any input?

Melinda: I'm much calmer now that I wrote that story to end it properly for my Shepard :) Actually no, frankly it's not the actors job to tell us what to write. It's our job to tell them what to say. Trek was weird because we were blocked from having much contact with the actors. On Reasonable Doubts the actors knew they could come in and tell us if a particular line was hard to say and we'd fix it, but the shape of the story and how it develops is our task.

Melinda: Guys, I think I can take one more question and then I need to grab a bit of lunch and pull on my riding boots. Diego: No problem! If writing for an inhuman character such as an alien or monster, how would you go about communicating that inhuman quality in writing?

Melinda: I think you do it by showing their reactions to things. Not have them react in what would seem like a normal way. I also think it's hard to write from the POV of an inhuman. Humans are interested in other humans. Data tried to understand and become more human because that made him interesting. If he just acted like a computer he would have been dull. When I wrote Ensigns of Command I had the aliens be so legalistic. Jack Williamson once said a human can't actually craft a truly alien character because if it were that alien it wouldn't be interesting. I think he was right.

Diego: I actually loved the Sheliak. Cheeky followup question - did you have total leeway with them?

Melinda: Go to my website under WRITING and read the original script before they messed with it. And I did have total leeway. You are cheeky.

Diego: (So I'm told! ^^) Ah - will do! Well, Melinda, on behalf of UFOP: Starbase 118, I have to say it's been fantastic chatting to you

Melinda: Thank you. It was great and I'm so sorry the camera/mic/talk thing didn't work. Let's work it out and try again. I'd love to do this when it's more free form.

Diego: We're going to let you get sorted and get ready for riding and we hope you have a great time! I'll be in touch. :)

Melinda: Thanks again. Bye all. Thank you so much! :)

Vie: Thanks for coming

Lt_James: Bye, thank you!

Reinard: Thanks very much for your time and insight it's be absolutely great to chat with you

Velana: thank you!!

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