Interview: Guest Lecturer Melissa Scott

Award-winning author Melissa Scott will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. Melissa was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, and studied history at Harvard College. She earned her Ph.D. from Brandeis University in the comparative history program with a dissertation titled “The Victory of the Ancients: Tactics, Technology, and the Use of Classical Precedent.” She also sold her first novel, The Game Beyond, and quickly became a part-time graduate student and an—almost—full-time writer.

Over the next thirty years, she published more than thirty original novels and a handful of short stories, most with queer themes and characters, as well as authorized tie-in work for Star Trek: DS9, Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Star Wars Rebels, and Rooster Teeth’s anime series gen:LOCK. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1986, and won Lambda Literary Awards for Trouble and Her Friends, Shadow Man, Point of Dreams (with longtime partner and collaborator, the late Lisa A. Barnett), and Death By Silver, written with Amy Griswold. She has also been shortlisted for the Tiptree Award. She won Spectrum Awards for Death by Silver, Fairs’ Point, Shadow Man, and for the short story “The Rocky Side of the Sky.”

Lately, she has collaborated with Jo Graham on the Order of the Air, a series of occult adventure novels set in the 1930s (Lost Things, Steel Blues, Silver Bullet, Wind Raker, and Oath Bound) and with Amy Griswold on a pair of gay Victorian fantasies with murder, Death by Silver and A Death at the Dionysus Club. She has also continued the acclaimed Points series, fantasy mysteries set in the imaginary city of Astreiant, most recently with Point of Sighs. Her latest short story, “Sirens,” appeared in the collection Retellings of the Inland Seas, and her text-based game for Choice of Games, A Player’s Heart, came out in 2019. Her most recent solo novel, Finders, was published at the end of 2018, and she is currently at work on the next book in the sequence, Fallen.

Your first novel was published in 1984. What advice do you have for writers looking to achieve a long career?

I think for me the most important thing has been to stay active in and involved with the genre, as a reader and a fan as well as a writer. By staying involved as a fan, I mean making an effort to find new works that I can get fannish about, that spark of pure delight, that make you want to stay up all night reading or spend hours parsing all the details with your friends. It’s finding the next book that’s going to go on my “re-read every year” list. Without renewing that spark, there’s a danger of getting bored or falling out of step with the field. That’s not to say that you have to join every new trend—for example, I’m not very excited by YA as a writer, though I’ll happily read it; the singularity was a fascinating concept but did nothing for me as a storyteller—but it’s vital to know what’s happening and why. The genre is constantly evolving. To stay active, you have to evolve with it.

You earned a Ph.D. in comparative history from Brandeis University in 1992. How has such a detailed background in history influenced your fiction? Do you finish most of your worldbuilding before or after you write your story drafts?

My specific focus was how people in earlier periods conceptualized new technologies (my dissertation was on the way Greek and Roman precedent influenced the tactics developed for gunpowder weapons, and the interaction of the evolving technology with the classically derived models). This includes a keen interest in the history of material culture, and that strongly influences my writing. I want to know how things work, whether it’s the magic system or the FTL drive or the interlocking levels of a city transit system, and I want to know what it feels like to use them. I want to know what things mean to the characters and how they shape the society. I do a lot of this work either before I start writing, when I’m figuring out the contours of the story, or in the very early stages of the first draft. For me, the more significant details I have in hand when I start, the easier it is to build the plot—the details of the world shape what the story can be. This is particularly important in the two fantasy mystery series I’ve done, where the crucial clues not only have to be set up, but have to be made plausible in the context of the world. It’s a real balancing act to establish the eventual significance of a clue without giving anything away too soon, and the more detail I have in my head, the easier it is to do that.

You’ve written several novels set in the worlds of Star Trek and Stargate Atlantis. Did you find it easier or more difficult to write in an established fandom as opposed to worlds of your own creation? What did you learn about writing established worlds that you have applied to your own writing?

I’ve done quite a bit of tie-in fiction, as it has been a reliable source of upfront income in a world where publishers’ advances have shrunk considerably, and the process is vastly different from original work. Some things are easier, like establishing character and persuading readers to care about them—that’s already taken care of. Some things are harder, like maintaining the parameters set by the rights-holders—Star Trek, for example, requires that the situation reset to zero at the end of each tie-in. Nothing can happen in the novels that changes the characters permanently, which restricts the plotting considerably. The Stargate franchise was adamant that everything be kept at a strictly PG-13 rating, which meant that relationships that were shown on-screen had to be approached with more caution/discretion than the shows’ writers had shown. And the most recent tie-in I’ve done, for Rooster Teeth’s gen:LOCK, was a YA published by Scholastic—with a main character who canonically swore like a Scottish teenager, with full deployment of intensive “f***.” Scholastic doesn’t permit the use of swear words stronger than “hell” or “damn,” which required a certain amount of creativity. The main thing I’ve learned is that I have to truly be a fan of the show to enjoy a tie-in project: if I don’t already love the characters and setting and story, it’s not worth the constraints that are part of writing tie-ins.

I think that the two biggest things I’ve learned from tie-ins are: First, creating voice. I am an extremely visual writer; I have a Pinboard for most projects and collect random images to look at when I need inspiration. My weakness has always been creating individual voices for my characters, and I’ve had to work to make sure that people don’t sound too much alike. With a tie-in, you have to capture the actors’ ways of speaking, so I had to learn to listen and reproduce the voices on the screen. For example, David Nykl (Dr. Radek Zelenka on Stargate Atlantis) played the character with a slight but definite accent. It wasn’t possible to capture it phonetically, of course, but I realized that one thing Nykl did was eliminate most contractions. Doing that on the page made Zelenka sound like Zelenka. Second, I can be a very pulled-back writer, reluctant to make emotions explicit rather than implying them through characters’ actions. The whole point of a tie-in is to enhance the fans’ experience by putting them inside the characters’ heads, inside their feelings, in a way that the show can’t do. Learning to embrace that (and having the scaffolding of the show to support me while I learned) was really good for me.

A Player’s Heart is a 222,000-word interactive lesbian romance novel that came out recently from Choice of Games (CoG). What was it like writing a story that could go in different directions and be driven by different characters? What were some of the challenges unique to such a project?

Writing this kind of game was, for me, like writing a story with a hole in the center. I’d played a number CoG games, and so I came in knowing from experience how invested a player can get in their character. The best advice I received from the CoG editors was to never specify what the player character might be feeling. Instead, be lavish with all the other characters’ feelings, and let the player fill in the gaps. I also was very specific about the player character’s possible actions—I tried to give players multiple options, each of which could carry different emotional interpretations. It helped me tremendously that I already had the world of the game worked out in detail—it was a setting I’d developed some years ago but could never get to work as a novel. The CoG games rise or fall on the writing, and being able to work in a familiar world gave me the space to perfect the narrative paragraphs.

The biggest challenge for me was the coding. CoG authors do their own coding, and I found I couldn’t juggle the branching story unless I was working directly in the game structure. (Some CoG authors write sections and then code them; I couldn’t get my brain around that.) In the middle sections of the game, where the decision trees were still wide open, that led to things like writing 24 possible performances for the main character at a society party (the player character is a member of an all-female theater company), which in turn all have three possible outcomes. Making sure that everything fit together properly and led to the right outcome(s) was a struggle.

You have collaborated with several authors. What advice do you have for writers who are interested in collaborating on fiction? What pitfalls are there to avoid?

First, the obligatory practical advice: if you’re going to collaborate, get the terms of the collaboration down in writing. Assume that one or both of you will drop dead, and your heirs will hate each other, and put your arrangements into at least a letter of agreement that all parties involved sign. I have only had to invoke this once, and it was utterly crucial to have the signed letter. It made what could have been a protracted legal mess merely unpleasant and saved the project. Get things in writing. Always.

Beyond that, my most successful collaborations have been with people who shared the same approach toward storytelling. I focus on story and character over theme or message; I get excited about my work and can spend hours making notes on the possible plot(s) and figuring out the connections among the characters and the ways they work in their worlds. I work best with people who share that interest in story and character, and with people who are also enthusiasts. (For me, there’s nothing better than getting an email from a collaborator with six links to videos of reconstructed Renaissance transitional fencing styles to illustrate a point. Your mileage may vary.) It’s basically a matter of understanding your own working style and trying to find a collaborator whose style meshes well with yours.

What is a novel or short story you’ve read recently that really stuck with you, and what did you take away from it?

I’m going to cheat and mention two, at opposite ends of the spectrum. First, Martha Wells’ Raksura series, which consists of five novels and two short story collections. These are technically fantasy, set in an entirely alien world with entirely non-human characters. Her worldbuilding is extraordinary: she uses the technique of a main character who is ignorant of his true nature, so that the readers learn along with him, but she makes the push/pull of his fears and his desires so real that you hardly notice the technical aspects. Her world is lush, astonishing, full of amazing yet entirely plausible peoples and societies; I would live in one of her mountain-trees in a heartbeat. She is a master at keeping the story satisfying within each novel while fitting everything into the overall arc of the series.

At the other end of the scale, T. Kingfisher’s Swordheart is a short stand-alone novel. (Though it does take place in the same universe as her also-excellent Clocktaur War novels, and she has promised more related stories.) It’s also fantasy with a strong romance plot, and one of the things I love about it is the brilliant use she makes of romance tropes. This is also a story where the worldbuilding is crucial, and in this case extends through time as well as through space: one of the main characters has been imprisoned in a magic sword for an indeterminate amount of time; one of the sources of the romantic tension between the sword and the woman who now wields it is this gap of time and culture. This leads to both some marvelous flashbacks and to a small, quietly lovely scene in which the wielder figures out how the sword can find out how long it’s been—and, as a bonus, what happened to some of the people he had loved. Also, fictional religions are hard, and Kingfisher not only creates an entirely believable pantheon, but I would gladly join the Temple of the White Rat, with their lawyer-priests who specialize in contracts.


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