As an author, inspiration can come from all things. It could be the line in a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation on the bus, a dream at night but one of the most important sources of inspiration are other authors. Just like a budding sports star in the academy has that legend they look up to, I think it’s equally relevant to anyone who writes that they have heroes to look up to and learn from. In this segment, I am going to interview fellow authors who have inspired me, those I have learned from and those who have helped me on my writing journey so far.
Melissa Brayden received her Bachelor’s degree in Film Production and Speech Communication from Baylor University. Currently, she is at work on her MFA in Directing at Texas State University and enjoying the ride. Several years back she rediscovered her love of creative writing. Her first four novels, Waiting in the Wings, Heart Block, How Sweet It Is, and Kiss the Girl are available from Bold Strokes Books and anywhere books are sold. Her fifth novel, Just Three Words, is due out in April. She is happily at work on her sixth. Melissa is married and working really hard at remembering to do the dishes. For personal enjoyment, she spends time with her Jack Russell Terriers and checks out the NYC theatre scene several times a year. She considers herself a reluctant patron of the treadmill, but thoroughly enjoys hitting a tennis ball around in nice weather. Coffee is her very best friend.
Melissa came in to chat during a writing group and I learned a lot from her process and the way she looked at writing. Anyone who loves the theatre as much as I do always gets brownie points but when they have an affection for cookies too… well… nuff said!
Hi there, Melissa. Thank you for popping in to chat. Let’s go for the linier approach and start at the beginning. Between being European Bowling champion and dropping a full-size half pipe on your skateboard, did you ever find time to create stories? Who were your favourite authors and what drew you to them?
You did your research! 🙂 It’s interesting, when I was a kid, I was an avid reader and devoured any book I could get my hands on. Case in point, when I was nine, my mom found me reading a stack of books on the couch detailing where babies came from. I’d checked them out from the library myself because it was a topic I was curious about. I can only imagine what that librarian must have thought when I placed them on the desk for checkout. However outside of reading, I never really put pen to paper myself. Waiting in the Wings, which I wrote in 2009, was my first real attempt at writing a work of fiction. Though I got a late start, I never looked back after writing that book as the process is rather addictive and thrilling and challenging.
Specifically, as a kid I loved The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins, but had also read about fifty biographies by the time I was twelve. The fare was pretty diverse. In my pre-teen years, I discovered romance and the world was never the same. I started with Danielle Steele (borrowed secretly from my sister’s room) and moved onto Nora Roberts and Judith McNaught and the list goes on and on. It’s still my favourite genre to read.
You have a bachelor’s degree in Film Production and Speech Communication and you’re studying for your MFA in Directing, has that influenced your work at all and do you think it has helped your process?
I do think it’s influenced me a great deal. My undergraduate work was all about storytelling onscreen, and the stage is just another mechanism relying on many of those same principles. While there are lots of technical differences, both stylistically and theoretically, a good story is a good story, and there’s simply nothing better. Pacing, relationship, conflict, and specificity are all key elements. But when writing the story yourself, like I find myself doing now in the literary world, there’s a lot more power there, which can be a little scary at the same time. Essentially, there’s a lot of rope with which you can hang yourself when you’re writing – more so than with directing.
Overall, when I ask myself what it is that I do for a living, I know the answer (when you put all of it together) is that I’m a storyteller operating in a variety of mediums.
“I’d been a news reporter, an actress, a video editor, and a director – all means of passing a story on to another human being. It was certainly time for me to try creating that story for myself. In fact, I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to turn to writing.”
Do you feel that it was a natural progression for you to write due to your work in the arts? Does your training make it easier for you, during author readings for example? Do you rely on the skills you have or find yourself critiquing?
I think that’s the perfect way to put it – it was the natural next step for me. I’d been a news reporter, an actress, a video editor, and a director – all means of passing a story on to another human being. It was certainly time for me to try creating that story for myself. In fact, I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to turn to writing.
As for having a performance background, I think it’s helped significantly where author readings are concerned. You generally have five minutes to expose an audience (who might be quite unfamiliar with what you write) to your work. Quite often, you’re reading with up to nine other authors so it’s important to stand out somehow and my performance skills are helpful in that capacity.
What advice would you give to fellow writers when it comes to reading out their own work? Any tips?
Plenty! You have to think of it as an advertisement for ice cream. For example, the ice cream in a standard commercial is not real ice cream. It’s something created by an artist for the commercial. Real ice cream wouldn’t be practical. It would melt during the shoot and not only that, but the customer doesn’t have the option to taste the ice cream personally – so it has to look extra good to make up for that and entice the customer to buy in.
Similarly, I’d say not to other authors not to be afraid to take your pencil and trim up the section you plan to read for the best possible out-loud transfer possible (create some good looking ice cream). Cut description that may read well on the page, but may sound less exciting when read aloud. Next, I’d advise memorizing at least 80% of the selection so that the majority of the reading is not actually “read” and that key things such as visualization and eye contact happen in large quantities and in the appropriate places. Little things like focal points for characters will make the reading spark to life and wake your audience up. Nothing makes me happier than when I’m giving a reading and holding a visualization, only to have an audience member turn around to try to see what it is I see. It means they’re there with me, that they bought in. Plus, it seems to sell a lot of books.
I was teaching high school at the time and had the summer stretched out in front of me. I felt like embarking on some sort of creative project. I’d become very familiar with the lesfic market and decided to set out to write something I’d want to read – with a backdrop of a topic that hadn’t been tackled in the market as accurately as I would have liked – with characters I would actually like to know in real life.
When I finished the Waiting in the Wings (which was ridiculously long at the time), I made a list of publishers of the genre that might be interested in this type of story and ordered them based on preference. As most publishers do not allow simultaneous submission, I was going to have to go one at a time. So I submitted to the publisher at the top of my list and waited and waited. My plan was once they rejected me, I would move onto to the next publisher on my list and so on and so forth and see if anyone out there wanted this book. Luckily, I didn’t have to do that, as the manuscript was accepted on that first submission and I’m now thrilled to be working on my sixth book with Bold Strokes.
“Jenna is a very, very special character to me and will always be one of my favorites if not the favorite. I don’t know if it has to do with that fact that I wrote that book in first person and was therefore in her head so much, but I think of all of my characters, she’s the one I’d want to be friends with most.”
Jenna even borrows a little of your own experiences, right?
Not explicitly, but somewhat. Haha. Is that vague enough? Let me try again. She and I have similar feelings about theatre and performance, but I gave her things (talents, gifts) that I simply do not have – for example, the ability to dance well. There are a few experiences in that book that were derived from my own life but at the same time, there are obviously tons of fictional plot points that have nothing to do with me. But having said that, Jenna is a very, very special character to me and will always be one of my favorites if not the favorite. I don’t know if it has to do with that fact that I wrote that book in first person and was therefore in her head so much, but I think of all of my characters, she’s the one I’d want to be friends with most. I think we’d get each other and have a lot to talk about. She is the most like me of anyone I’ve ever written.
How did it feel to win two Goldies for your first novel?
That was kind of a shocking experience, actually, in a really great way. You’ve heard the clichéd answer, “I was just thrilled to be nominated,” but that was the honest truth. I was thrilled to be shortlisted so anything else was just a fantastic bonus. Plus, I was the new kid on the block and had dues to pay still – so it was all very unexpected that the book was rewarded in the way it was. It was certainly a confidence booster that maybe I was okay at this writing thing after all. It was also quite motivational to get me back to my laptop and writing a second book.
I wish I could tell you. At the time, I was 11,000 words into writing a historical romance (I know, I know) and I was a little bored. That particular project took a lot of research and it was really getting in the way of what I love doing, writing. (Side note: I don’t do well with too much research). The premise for that book just seemed to pop out of nowhere and I started writing right away. Writing contemporary romance again felt so easy in comparison. It really is the genre I do best in. I never went back to the other piece – which is probably a good thing.
Emory wasn’t always Emory though, was she?
That’s true. For a large portion of the book, that character’s name was Rachel and it really worked for me. But then I was teaching at the time and had a ton of students named Rachel that year. In addition, I met a couple of Rachels through friends and then met Rachel Spangler that year at GCLS. So there were a lot of factors that started to influence the name and it how it sat in my head. As I continued to write, it no longer felt like the character. So it was a back to the drawing board situation until Emory was settled on and it really worked – perhaps better than Rachel originally had.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve changed a character’s name. Sienna in Waiting in the Wings was named Laura until the book was done and in editing (And Ben was named Jerry, funnily enough). More recently, Hunter in the Soho books had a totally different name for a little while as well.
“The second book (Heart Block) was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Mainly because I was not used to writing in third person. It was a new and challenging experience that I’m so glad is out of the way now. I think I also felt a lot of pressure because Waiting in the Wings had been well received and I didn’t want to disappoint.”
Did you find the second book was more difficult to write or did you enjoy the experience knowing that you’d been through it before?
The second book (Heart Block) was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Mainly because I was not used to writing in third person. It was a new and challenging experience that I’m so glad is out of the way now. I think I also felt a lot of pressure because Waiting in the Wings had been well received and I didn’t want to disappoint. The Sophomore Slump was a phrase that I’d heard batted around a lot in my head.
While there was some grief for both Molly and Jordan that had to be dealt with in How Sweet, I’ve never really thought of grief as the overriding theme of that book. I felt it was more about Molly redefining who she was in a romantic context without the only person she’d really ever been with. And layer in the guilt that it’s Jordan she’s falling for and it’s a perfect storm for internal conflict to wade through.
But you’re right; there were very important (and sometimes very serious) aspects to telling that story. My number one goal, and I hope I achieved it, was never to let the book get too heavy for too long. If there was an emotional scene, I tried to juxtapose it with something upbeat, funny, or exciting. It’s a romance after all and I wanted to still live in the land of love and rainbows and sexy kissing. Because sexy kissing is the greatest.
Jordan’s explanation why she loves VW Beetles is another slice of you too. Do you enjoy painting in details from your own life into your characters and books? And do you still drive a beetle?
I do enjoy planting details like that and I do it a lot. That one was a bit obvious and anyone who knows me would pick it out, but there are lots of more subtle occurrences as well. Mostly reminders to myself about what was going on in my life at the time I wrote a particular book. For example, I was directing a play entitled Up while I was writing Heart Block. When Emory and Sarah watch a movie with Grace in the book, I had them put in the DVD, Up (even though it’s not related to the play) as a kind of shout out.
I do still drive a Beetle. A yellow convertible – at least until next year, when I will trade it in for the new model. I’m thinking maybe sky blue for the next one….
” I felt like I didn’t have to invent ways for those two to lust after each other – it was sort of built in – which made writing them easy.”
Kiss The Girl is the first of your Soho Loft Romances (It also gets me singing Disney,) and features two competitors. Did that make the interaction and chemistry more fun to play with? What did you learn from your previous novels that helped or hindered you writing this novel?
YES! The chemistry between those two was so much fun to play with because they could easily snap into argument at any point because of their rivalry and there was just something palpably, I don’t know…hot about that. I felt like I didn’t have to invent ways for those two to lust after each other – it was sort of built in – which made writing them easy.
There were more secondary characters in this book than I’m used to dealing with. However, I think the earlier books did prepare me for that as I had the chance to learn how to balance those side stories and keep them from taking over the main arc.
Just Three Words is the second Soho Loft Romance and I love the premise of two best friends. How tricky was that to navigate as a romance? Did you find it harder to bring two characters together who were friends or did it make your job as an author easier?
It WAS a trickier book to write, for sure! Especially because Samantha and Hunter are best friends and have been for a very long time. There wasn’t an initial meeting to write where I could plant all sorts of seeds of attraction and conflict. That part was done, over and the reader didn’t get to experience it. So it was important to place them in situations where they could learn new things about the other one, and really highlights how the new information affected each of them or made them feel about the other. On a more helpful note, these two characters could not be more different and that gave me a lot of room to play.
Can you tell us a little about Just Three Words?
I’d be happy to tell you about it! Essentially, Samantha Ennis is a girl who values order and routine and structure. She was never very popular in high school but is a hard-core romantic, a sweetheart. One of her best friends, Hunter Blair, is a laid-back, go with the flow knockout who everyone and their dog falls in love with. A heartbreaker. When the two find themselves living together due to some unforeseen circumstances, they’re challenged in more ways than one.
“I think my books would make excellent romantic comedies for the large or small screen… It’s something I might look at one day when I discover how to manufacture more time.”
Would you ever look at adapting one of your novels for stage? Do you think that there could be a niche for romance in the theatre?
I think my books would make excellent romantic comedies for the large or small screen. I do think the characters and their conflicts are transferrable in that medium, but I’m not sure stage is the place for them. They’re a little too charactery for stage.
It’s something I might look at one day when I discover how to manufacture more time. 🙂
What future projects can we look forward to from you?
I have a couple projects ahead of me. I’m currently working on the final Soho Loft Romance, Ready or Not, which should be out probably at the end of the year. As you can imagine, it’s Mallory’s story, and she is such an entertaining character to write for.
I’m also working on a novella for Bold Strokes, which brings back a secondary character from a past book and gives them their own romance. I’m excited for that one! It should be packaged with similar novellas (using past characters) from two other BSB romance writers. So three stories for the price of one! How can you beat it?
(Melissa on the Cocktail Hour)
What advice would you give to a new or rookie writer?
- Read as much in your genre as you possibly can. The best way to learn is from watching others, and I feel like I can never learn enough.
- Write for yourself and don’t worry if it’s ever going to be published. That part will come later.
- Don’t seek too much advice on your work from peers, and if you do, make sure the source is credible. Sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen is not a great thing. Trust yourself and your future editor. I’m not sure you need the other guys.
Quick fire round
- What is your strength as a writer? Dialogue. It’s the part that comes easiest to me.
- What is your ‘typical’ writing day? I don’t have one. Everyday is different. But I notice that I’m technically a better writer in the morning, but I have better story ideas when I write at night. So I try to work in both.
- When readers pick up your books, what would you most like to hear them say? That they didn’t want the story to end.
- What would you least like them to do/say? I hate it when they say it was good “for a romance.” I don’t understand why the romance genre is looked down upon.
- Who is your literary idol? why? Judith McNaught. She can write romance in any sub- genre and it’s awesome (historical, contemporary, intrigue).
- If you could have written any book, which one would it have been? Such a broad question! But since we’re talking romance, I’ll keep it in the romance genre. Paradise by Judith McNaught.
- What is your ‘tic’ word when writing? I tend to have people “tossing looks” and “raising eyebrows” too much.
- Favourite word? It must be adorable. I use it A LOT.
- Least favourite word? Nonplussed – because no one uses it correctly.
- What would you most like to develop in your writing? The ability to plan the book in advance. I usually know a very general plot/conflict but if I could get more specific, my life would be a lot easier.
Thank you very much for joining me to chat, Melissa! You can find more about her and her books below!
Waiting In The Wings
If you don’t get lost, there’s a chance you may never be found.Jenna McGovern has spent her whole life training for the stage. She’s taken dance classes, voice lessons,and even earned her performance degree from one of the most prestigious musical theater programs in the nation. After graduation, she’s stunned when a chance audition lands her a prime supporting role in the hottest Broadway touring productions in the country. In more exciting news, Jenna discovers acclaimed televisionstar Adrienne Kenyon is headlining the production.Jenna settles easily into life on tour and has a promising career laid out in front of her, if only she plays hercards right. She’s waited for this opportunity her entire life and will let nothing stand in her way. the one thingshe didn’t prepare for, however, was Adrienne. Her new costar is talented, beautiful, generous, and the utmostprofessional. As the two women grow closer onstage and off, they must learn how to fit each other into a demanding lifestyle full of unexpected twists and difficult decisions. But is Jenna ready to sacrifice what she’sworked so hard for in exchange for a shot at something much deeper?
Happily ever after is easier said than done.Sarah Matamoros can’t complain. After immigrating from Mexico when she was nine years old, she’s content with the life she’s made for herself in sunny San Diego. She works hard at her mother’s housecleaning service by dayand spends the evenings with her quirky eight-year-old daughter, Grace.From a very young age, Emory Owen had several concepts drilled into her head. Success is everything. Be the best.Fight your way to the top. Expectations were high in the Owen household and the world was watching. Born into a high society family, Emory never wanted for anything…at least anything money could buy. When she meets Sarah, hired to sort her mother’s home, her sterile life suddenly sparks into color.But when the emotional logistics of combining two very different worlds proves to be too much, a terrifying turn ofevents spurs the question: If love exists, can it really find a way?
How Sweet it is
Some things are better than chocolate…
Molly O’Brien is a sweetheart. Her friends and neighbors all think so. While she enjoys her quiet life runningthe town bakeshop in Applewood, Illinois, she wonders if there could be more. After losing the love of her life four years prior in a plane crash, Molly thinks she’s ready to navigate the dicey dating waters once again. However, you can’t always pick who your heart latches onto. When Jordan Tuscana, the beautiful younger sister of her lost love, returns to town, Molly finds her interest piqued in a manner she wasn’t prepared for.As secrets are uncovered, Molly and Jordan must figure out how to navigate the difficult terrain of their multi-facetedrelationship. Especially when something much deeper seems to be bubbling between them
Kiss The Girl
Sleeping with the enemy has never been so complicated…Twenty-eight-year-old Brooklyn Campbell is having a bad day. A speeding ticket, a towed car, and a broken heel are all working against her laid-back vibe. To top it all off, her birth mother, whom she’s never met, has requestedcontact. The only bright spot is an impromptu date with a beautiful and mysterious brunette.Jessica Lennox is what you would call a high-powered executive. She’s the head of a multi-million dollaradvertisting firm in New York City, and it didn’t happen by accident. But when the blonde head turner from the wine bistro turns out to be her number one competitor, her life gets infinitely more complex.Is New York big enough for both Brooklyn and Jessica? Maybe it’s just time they experienced it together…