Online Exclusive: Q&A with Melodie Edwards

“Heroine Addiction,” by Melodie Edwards, is the Grand Prize winning story for the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, besting over 5,500 entries across nine categories. For complete coverage of the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, please check out the November/December 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

I think I started writing nonsense poems as a kid, (one of my favorite poems was and still is Lewis Carroll’s the Jabberwocky), but I started writing seriously as a pursuit in high school. I had a lot to say as a teenager!

Why do you write?

I always feel I’m at my best when I’m playing with words.

What do you do for a day job?

I work in Toronto’s financial district, I’m a marketing strategist for an international corporate law firm. It’s a lot of research, writing, and persuading people into viewing matters a certain way.

How has your day job affected your writing?

It’s made me more efficient because I have to turn over a lot of writing in my day job quickly, and there’s a certain brevity to writing in the corporate world that’s absolutely translated into my creative writing, where I’m absolutely brutal with editing my own creative writing now whereas before I was loathe to let anything hit the editing room floor, and now I just slash left right and center knowing what’s essential and what’s not. There’s a bit of a barrier too—corporate writing is not flowery. It’s nouns and verbs and get to the point, not high with the adjectives, and there’s not a lot of playfulness to it. So once I was trained to write this way it was hard to get back to my original creative voice.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing scripts?

[The benefit is] there’s an immediacy of emotion, reaction, and conflict in a script—characters can’t mull things over for 10 pages of introspection as they might in other mediums—so it keeps things hopping.

[On the other hand,] writing a script is working a great deal with just the characters’ voices—it can be tricky to ensure they all sound unique, not just in what they say, but how they say it. They each need their own style and verbal tics.

How do you feel writing scripts differs from writing in other genres?

I grew up in a chatty family, when we get together we never stop talking, so writing dialogue (particularly banter) is a gleeful, natural process for me. I always think in terms of conversations. Although I write in other genres, nothing feels as effortless as a script.

What do you think prose-writers can learn from scripts?

When you’re doing script writing, all you’ve got is the character’s voices. So information needs to come across fairly organically. And for me that’s a good thing to take into prose—to have things happen naturally, to have that show-don’t-tell tendency. And instead of relying on pages and pages of what you can say as the author directly to your reader. You can’t speak to your audience when you’re writing a script, your characters have to do it.

What do you think script-writers can learn from prose?

When I practice prose writing, I have to think further ahead in terms of planning out my narrative, planning out the development through the characters. That background thinking is a good skill to bring to script-writing as well, because you can get caught up in the immediacy of it.

Why do you think makes reading scripts is enjoyable?

There’s a certain level of imagination to it still. When I read scripts I start casting in my head, I start building the set in my head. There’s that level of fun. When it’s done well, the immediacy of the dialogue between the characters gets you immersed in it right away. You get to know the characters so immediately. When you’re looking at a page, the line for each character is marked by the indication of which character is saying it, which is different than seeing it performed. But if it’s done well and the characters have distinct voices, you can hear them in your head, and that’s really fun too.

Describe your writing process for this script.

Back in high school (over 12 years ago now!), I wrote a 25 page one-act sketch called “Heroine Addiction” my friends performed for a high school competition. We didn’t win the competition, but I did get a commendation for my writing. I entered it again in a university drama competition. After graduation and starting a new career writing for the corporate world, I forgot about it.

About three years ago, I just had this sudden longing to get back to my creative writing. I stumbled across a few pages of that script, and the idea of a heroine arguing with her cantankerous creator still tickled me. I set to work. and now it is a full, completely different 90-page play. When I started writing the dialogue in which the characters argue with their author, what I heard in my head was my high school friends arguing with me over that sketch: lines that were too long to memorize, jokes they didn’t think were funny, and concerns I’d end up in the principal’s office over the title.

I could hear and see the characters so clearly, and it was just a matter of making the conversations hit the plot points I want them to—for me, conversations are so easy to write. I start a conversation and pages and pages come out. And I might have gotten completely off topic, but the characters still have a lot to say. So in this case there was an overabundance of lines and dialogue, and it was tailoring it all down over the past two years.

Write a short summary of your script.

Sam is a reclusive and acerbic romance novelist whose work is popular, though of dubious quality. He keeps company with his three main characters, the Heroine, the Hero, and the Villain, who can only be seen and heard by him. They play-act, cajole, and argue with Sam as he works on his next novel.

His solitude is interrupted by his manager Arthur, who brings with him a young actress cast in the film-adaptation of Sam’s latest work. She wants to discuss her upcoming role as the heroine with Sam, and they argue about women, romance, happy endings and literary whores.

Left alone with his writing again, Sam discovers his own fictional Heroine is no longer as cooperative as she once was.

The characters rebel. The heroine rebels. She decides she doesn’t like the hero, she doesn’t want to be a romance in the novel anymore, nothing’s fun, the author doesn’t let her have any fun, so she’s going to completely change it. In bringing a real, live, three-dimensional woman into the mix, all the characters suddenly get ideas, the heroine suddenly gets ideas, “I’d like to be like that, thank you very much.” The heroine’s just had enough. And in the end, the author finally gives in and says, “Ok, I’ll talk to you, I’m listening to you now.”

Have you published any stories or articles or had any plays performed? Won any other competitions?

As a student I wrote for 2 years for the University of Toronto’s paper The Strand doing movie and play reviews and other arts & culture pieces.

In high school I wrote and directed a short film with a friend that was a finalist in the TIFF for Children Sprockets film festival. The film was called Portrait, and it was completely without dialogue.

I received several commendations for writing in high school on my short plays, and was nominated for the Dean’s Essay Prize in university.

Since graduation most of my writing is for my day job—I worked for several years in corporate communications before recently moving into strategy.

Who and what has inspired you as a writer?

When I was a teenager my older sister was studying politics, and one day she brought home the West Wing box set. We binge-watched it over Christmas break, and when she told me she wanted to be like Josh Lyman or CJ Cregg, I realized what I actually wanted was to be like Aaron Sorkin.

I always loved Charles Dickens. He’s probably my favorite writer. When I read him—he’s wildly entertaining, but also terribly realistic. Even though I know it’s going back a century, there are so many different characters, and they’re so realistically drawn that even when they’re emphasized for comedic effect I look around in my life and I think I see these characters. For Aaron Sorkin…I love the walk and talks. How does he get the pacing of the walks with the pacing of the line itself. And the way he would break up very serious moments with incredible humor. So a character’s having a real showdown in her office with a political event and then on her way out trips on a box and falls over and she says “ow.” It’s that punctuating of the seriousness that’s so charming. And Dickens does that too.

What else do you like to read?

I like to read TV scripts sometimes. When you watch the episode, you’re watching the actors and sharing in their line readings, but sometimes I like to go back and actually look at the transcript itself because there’s a difference in how it comes across.

Also what inspires me to watch scripts is movie trailers. I love movie trailers. I could just sit and watch movie trailers nonstop. Sometimes they’re better than the film. They give you the energy of the film—they’ve got the sweeping music, and the best scenes, and the best one-liners, and you know, you get ramped up to see that film. I don’t know why that translates into “I want to write a script,” and it might not even be close to what the movie’s about, but sense of having the microcosm of the whole film there—like I’ve got the beginning and the ending and probably what happens in between in two minutes, I’ve got the spirit of the thing.

Which genres do you write in?

I still write silly poetry for fun, just like when I was a kid—I write love ballads between things like a coffee cup and tea cup, or a stapler and the paper. I do this on the backs of envelopes and post-it notes at work sometimes.

Most recently I finished a TV sitcom pilot script. I’m now working on my next play, and a novel.

How does your script-writing play into your novel?

There’s a lot of dialogue going into my novel. I find myself shooting out the lines, and the introspection of the character is thinking about what they said or what someone else said to them, or the description is how someone reacted to someone else’s line, so my through line is still the conversations characters are having and then the things that have to be added in—the descriptions of people, the thoughts—are all sort of based on reflection on those conversations and who said what and when and what happened in the café then and things like that. So for me, conversations are still always the centerpiece.

What role does humor play in your writing?

For me language is always a playful thing—I love puns and witticisms and jokes—so humor is essential. I spent time at the Second City in Toronto doing improv classes and writing classes.

If it’s not joyful, there’s no point to it for me. What got me into being a reader majorly when I was eight or nine was my mom giving me a book of nonsense poems for kids. And they had the Jabberwocky, and they had The Owl and the Pussycat, and they were just such nonsense poems but I liked the language play. And because I read so much of that—for most people I think when they first start writing they’re imitating what they read growing up, and that was definitely the case for me. Even though I’ve developed my own style now, wanting to imitate that playfulness, that rhyming language, and silly characters has always carried through. It’s fun—I love taking inanimate objects and personifying them, and giving them language. There’s no rules on it.

[To integrate more humor into your writing], concentrate less on what you think people will find funny and write what you find funny. If you write with a sense of joy, it comes across. It might sound vain to laugh at your own jokes—it’s not something you want to do at a dinner party—but when you’re writing, I think it’s the best sign that you’ve got a hit.

The Second City training I did really helped with writing humor because the parameters were so strict. When you write a sketch for practice, they might put out a mandate like “you have to have a 5 minute sketch, and you have to have a joke every other line.” And when you’re having to produce at that level a lot of the jokes fall flat, but the exercise of creating that many jokes gives you great practice.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

A good train ride—I’ve written my best stuff while on the train between Toronto and Ottawa to visit my sister.

Where do you get ideas for your writing?

Usually from one-off random thoughts that make me laugh. I wrote a play in high school about people queuing up to find out where they were being sent in the afterlife. I had the idea while standing in a queue outside the guidance counselor’s office.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

I love to write banter; anywhere I can create chemistry between characters and work in some banter is (I think) writing to my strength.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

I struggle to plan ahead. I often start with a concept, or a character, or just a bit of dialogue and I write myself into a corner or off a cliff. Now I work on mapping out the plot points ahead of time, and diagramming my narrative.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Even when it feels like you’re producing rubbish, just keep writing.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

Winning this contest!

What are your goals as a writer?

To see a professional production of my play and to finish the script I’m working on now.

Any final thoughts or advice?

When you’re testing up your writing, change up your audience. When I did the first rough sketch of “Heroine Addiction” way back in high school, I loved the title. And at the time I had to fight to keep that title. People didn’t like the pun, they thought it misrepresented what the play was about, they thought it was inappropriate for a teenage girl to have a play about drug addiction—and I fought back, and my title is still my favorite thing. It’s a completely different play now, but I still just love the title—because I love wordplay, I love puns—and when I’ve shown this to some of my friends now, the title was their favorite thing, and I just thought, “I had the wrong audience before.” And some people wanted it to be literal—they wanted an answer. Can he actually see the characters? Are the characters real? Is it a drug trip? It’s magical realism, I don’t have an answer for you. He talks to the characters, and that’s that. But different people like different things, so if someone doesn’t like your writing, they might just be the wrong audience.

 

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