Interview: Melissa Scott

Melissa ScottMelissa Scott will be a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer. She is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and studied history at Harvard College and Brandeis University, where she earned her Ph.D. in the comparative history program with a dissertation titled “The Victory of the Ancients: Tactics, Technology, and the Use of Classical Precedent.” In 1986, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2001 she and her late partner and long-time collaborator Lisa A. Barnett won the Lambda Literary Award in SF/Fantasy/Horror for Point of Dreams. Scott has also won Lammies in 1996 for Shadow Man and 1995 for Trouble and Her Friends, having previously been a three-time finalist (for Mighty Good Road, Dreamships, and Burning Bright). Trouble and Her Friends was also shortlisted for the Tiptree. Her most recent solo novel, The Jazz, was named to Locus’s Recommended Reading List for 2000. Her first work of nonfiction, Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel, was published by Heinemann in 1997, and her monologue, “At RaeDean’s Funeral,” has been included in an off-off-Broadway production, Elvis Dreams, as well as several other evenings of Elvis-mania. A second monologue, “Job Hunting,” has been performed in competition and as a part of an evening of Monologues from the Road. Her most recent publications are the short stories “One Horse Town” (in Haunted Hearths, Lethe Press) and “Mister Seeley” (in So Fey, Haworth Press).

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I began my first serious novel the summer after I graduated from college, and sold it about two years later. I had finished one other novel before that, and a handful of short stories, but none of them sold, and, to be honest, I hadn’t tried very hard to sell them. The two biggest weaknesses in my early writing were dialogue–it has taken me a long time to learn to make each character distinctive in speech and at the same time not lose control of what needed to be said–and structure, particularly in handling multiple points of view.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

Honestly, I’m not sure. Certainly SF was expanding at the time, which helped, but I also think that I had some stories and a voice that no one else had.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

I start by writing what I think of as an ur-draft–a series of sketches and partial scenes that help me develop the story’s voice, flesh out the characters, build the world, etc. This is usually quite lengthy, two hundred pages or more, but it’s not really a connected draft. What I’m looking for at this point is the emotional impact of the story, the things that matter to me and that will be the key points of the finished book. These are the scenes that excited me most when I was developing the idea, the things that made me want to tell this story in the first place, and I work hard to keep that excitement going. I give myself permission to stop when I run out of inspiration, to try anything that seems interesting–“you can cut it later” becomes my mantra–to skip exposition, and generally not worry about the final version just yet. I work on this version until I feel as though I understand the shape of the story, and have worked out the technical questions like POV, tone, voice, and so on, and then I sit down with those sketches and start a real first draft. That generally means drastically revising the sketches and writing the fill-in scenes that are needed to turn those fragments into a coherent narrative. Most of the time I get about 130-150 pages into this first draft, realize that there’s something in the overall structure that needs to be tweaked, and have to start over with draft 1A. In an ideal world, when I finish the first full draft, I’ll put it away for a month, and then go back, reread the whole thing, and begin making revisions. At this point, the revisions are fairly small and–I hope!–non-structural: tightening dialogue, cutting extraneous material, tidying up the narrative. After that’s done, I go through the ms. one more time to catch any awkward phrases or repeated words, and then, with luck, it’s ready to go to the publisher.

So that’s either five drafts or three drafts, depending on how you count the early stages. For me, those first 3 versions–the ur-draft, the first draft, and draft 1A–really blend into each other; they’re stages in the same process.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

My biggest challenge right now is making my writing more emotionally open. My last few books were very pulled-back, and I think made the readers work too hard to figure out what was going on in the characters’ hearts. That’s meant making a conscious effort in every scene to make explicit what the characters are feeling, rather than hinting at it as I had been doing. It’s possible to be too subtle, to tell too little, and it’s just as bad as telling too much!

You write in a variety of forms: novels, short stories, nonfiction, and even monologues. Does your writing process change at all depending on what type of form you’re writing in? Do you find a particular form more difficult to write in than any of the others?

The process I described before is pretty much the way I work on a novel. With nonfiction, I start from an outline; the monologues tend to develop through repeated complete drafts, and the short stories . . . . Short stories are very difficult, and I haven’t yet figured out a process that works for me. I think the problem is that the canvas is so small. In my novels, I can create a world that has enough depth that I can use it to tell readers things about the characters–I can create situations where a character’s actions have multiple meanings, or where a character’s choice has radiating consequences, and I don’t have to say all of that because readers are already familiar enough with the world to know what these things mean. My most successful short stories have been set in worlds that are already somewhat familiar to readers, and so carry some of that resonance already.

World-building and setting are two strong suits of yours. How do you go about developing realistic, believable worlds that still inspire awe in the reader? What kind of research goes into your world-building and your settings? What kind of advice would you give to developing writers based on any weaknesses you see in the world-building of other writers, or perhaps based on mistakes you’ve made in your own?

I realized a long time ago that my favorite books are ones that take me somewhere that I’ve never been before, so I guess it’s not a surprise that I enjoy creating the settings of my books. Setting is almost always one of the first things I have in mind when I start a story; it’s usually part of the same inspiration that brings me a character. Once I have that original vision, it’s a matter of fleshing it out: I draw maps–I love maps!–I write long descriptive paragraphs that never make it into the book, if there are analogous periods or places I research them extensively, I work out what food and drink is like, how the calendar works, and anything else that seems like fun. For some of my books, I set up a looseleaf notebook to hold all the material I’ve come up with. Usually, though, there’s one thing–almost always related to the story’s “what if”–that gets the most emphasis, and I always have that worked out in detail so that I can keep that file open on my desktop while I’m writing. (When I was working on Shadow Man, I had the glossary file open all the time, so that I could always see how I’d used a word before, and could make sure any new words fit the “language” I’d already established. In my current project, where distances between places have to stay consistent, I have my map right were I can see it at all times . . . .)

The main piece of advice I’d give is to be sure to make your worlds big enough for your story. I get so frustrated when I read about a world that seems not to exist beyond the confines of the story–where there’s no sense of past or future, or of space beyond the immediate locale, or of the characters’ lives before we met them . . . . It seems to me that one way to avoid that is to be sure you as the writer know more about the world than you’re ever going to tell–but then, I like the process. A more reasonable suggestion, I think, is to be sure that you know more than your characters do about their world.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

The best advice I ever received was that editors and critics are extremely good at seeing the flaws in a work; they are less good at telling you how to fix them. So it’s important to listen closely to the problems that critics find–because they probably are there!–but it’s equally important to find your own way of fixing them. For example, when I was working on The Kindly Ones, Jim Baen said that the novel felt too low-tech for the kind of SF I was writing, and asked if I couldn’t set it on 3 different planets instead of on a single world. He was right about the first version being too low-tech, but his suggestion of 3 planets would have made the story too big, too attenuated. I moved the story to moons around a gas giant, and that not only made the story feel like SF, but gave me a host of physical phenomena (the long day/night cycle, the “midday” eclipse, the earthquakes) that made the story even richer.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I’ve got a couple of projects going at the moment. Furthest along is a non-SF project, The Duesy, which is set in Arkansas in 1930. It’s about a bootlegger’s driver whose 1925 Duesenberg race car is his one chance of escaping the Depression–if he’s willing to sacrifice everyone else he has ever loved. I’m also working on a fantasy project with the working title of Albertville, about a Victorian Empire that has colonized the lands of the dead. And I’m working on Fairs’ Point, the next novel in the fantasy/mystery series that I began with my late partner, Lisa Barnett.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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