Saturday, February 27, 2010

7 Questions For: Author Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass is the author of The Edge of Reason, Circuit, Circuit Breaker, Final Circuit, High Stakes, Star Trek: The Tears of the Singers, and the upcoming The Edge of Ruin. She has also written for film and television, including the shows SeaQuest DSV, Reasonable Doubts, The Profiler, The Antagonists, Sliders (one of my favorites), Strange Luck, Odyssey 5, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, among many others. She was nominated for the Writer’s Guild Award for Outstanding Writing in a Series for “Measure of a Man,” which was voted as one of the ten best Star Trek episodes from all series. To call her prolific would be an understatement, as would to call her accomplished. 

And now Melinda Snodgrass faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Wow, this is so hard because there are so many books that I love so much. Since Tolkien intended them to be one book I'm going to call The Lord of the Rings as one choice. HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL by Robert Heinlein. THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB by Dorothy Sayers. But then I have to leave out the first Jungle Book by Kipling, and The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, and the Nicolo series by Dorothy Dunnett, and THE WITCHES of KARRES by Schmitz. Aaargh, I could go on and on, but I'll stop with this.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

I write at least five hours a day. I've found that longer than that and my brain turns into oatmeal. I read less now that I have become a writer. Partly I think I get worn out staring at words, and sometimes a book can interfere with my creative process. I used to read three or four books a week. Now I read one a week.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

My best friend was a writer, and I was a miserable lawyer. He said "I bet you could write if you tried." So I did. He helped me, and we brainstormed story ideas together. He then generously introduced me to his agent. She wasn't a very good agent, but she helped me get my first couple of sales, and then both of us moved on to a much better agent. Writing of all kinds does tend to be incestuous. It's how I got into Hollywood. George R.R. Martin is one of my best friends, and he said, "I bet you'd be good at screenplays, and if write a spec script I'll show it to my Hollywood agent." So I did, and it became the Measure of a Man, and it landed me my first job in Hollywood.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

Both. I think writing is a lot like singing. You are born with an instrument, and you can hone that basic ability by working in a critique group, reading with a critical eye, etc. You can also take someone with no voice at all, and teach them breath control, and how to resonate the notes in their sinuses, etc. but they are never going to be a good singer because the basic instrument just isn't there. You can teach someone how to write a competent sentence, but that spark that makes a story come to life will always elude them. As for myself. I think I have a natural talent, but being brutally honest. I think I'm good novelist, but I'm terrific screenwriter. Screenwriting works to all my strengths -- plotting, structure, strong characters, good dialogue.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing about writing is plotting out the book or screenplay, and then laying out the structure in some detail. I tend to work with 3X5 cards that I pin up on a cork board, or I use a white board to lay out the scenes. I assign a different colored pen to each character so I can see if they are getting enough screen time. I look for the high points that are going to kick the book or script into high gear. I find twists and reversals in the plot. Once it's all laid out I set to work writing. And after that it's fairly easy.

My least favorite thing is writing description. It bores me. I tend to skip it when I reach a page in a book I'm reading where the author starts waxing rhapsodic about a banquet, or a beautifully appointed room, or amber waves of grain. It's the biggest note I consistently receive in my writing group. "Great dialogue, Melinda, wonderful tension. Where the fuck are these people? They seem to be in a white room." That's another reason I like screenplays. All I have to say is INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT, and somebody else worries about the furniture. I have found that starting to write in first person has helped with this. I film the scenes in my books in my head, so now I just have my character describe it because they are actually experiencing it when I'm in first person.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

The only way to become a writer is to write. Give yourself permission to suck. Just get the words down. You can always fix it in the rewrite. Or fix it in post as we say in Critical Mass.

Find a writer's group or form one. They are very useful, but always include somebody better than you. If you have a whole bunch of beginners together there is no one to challenge you to get better.

Write the kind of stories that you enjoy reading.

Don't let people tell you that you can't write about something if you haven't experienced it. If that were true there would be no science fiction or fantasy novels.

There are some very good writer's workshops that can be helpful. Clarion and Clarion West, Taos Toolbox, Odyssey.

Understand what your story is about on it's most fundamental level. Boil it down to the Hollywood pitch. For example the Edge books are about a young man learning to trust himself and become a leader. That's what the books are about at their most basic level. The issues about the struggle between science and rationality and religion and superstition is a step up from the basic story.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Dorothy Dunnett. I want to know how she kept control over eight volumes and completely paid off the story she presented to me in the first fifty pages of book one that is totally resolved in the final ten pages of book eight. That kind of control of craft and story is awe inspiring.

Actual Interview Date: 8/20/2009

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