Writers’ Program welcomes Melanie Thorne as a creative writing instructor! Melanie will be teaching Introduction to Fiction Writing in the winter quarter and Writers’ Program recently chatted with her about her recent(ish) move to L.A., how she goes about shaping a story, and the importance of reading A LOT.
WP: If memory serves me, you are a fairly recent L.A. transplant, right? How’s the change of scenery treating you?
MT: Yes, I moved here from northern California over the summer and so far, I love it! I’m a huge wimp about the cold and while my fiancé is whining about eighty degrees in November, I’m so excited to not need a jacket outside, to be able to have the windows open all the time. I love that I can smell the ocean on misty mornings and in the evening when the breeze picks up; that I can be walking on the beach in less than twenty minutes from the time I decide to go. There are a ton of good restaurants, museums, neighborhoods, there is always something to do…I could go on, but I’ll spare you more gushing. I love so much about this city already and I’ve only explored a small slice. I’m really happy to be here.
WP: As an award-winning novelist who has also published short fiction and non-fiction, how do you decide what you’ll be writing next and in what format?
MT: This is such a good question, and a tough one to answer. I don’t always know at first which format to use. Non-fiction ideas are easier to manage. When I want to tell a short anecdote about an experience or event, write about something specific that I’ve noticed or about the process of writing, I often choose non-fiction. These pieces are usually short essays or blog posts, so they feel like a nice break from fiction.
Fiction is more difficult. When I was in grad school, I thought in stories because that was what I was used to writing. After it turned out most of my stories were really part of one big story and I wrote my novel, I started thinking more in terms of my ongoing projects: How could this scene idea fit into a novel? Often I’ll keep those ideas for later, or write the scene and let it sit until it’s needed. An idea that doesn’t seem to have any part in one of my longer projects might be a story.
WP: You’ll be teaching Introduction to Fiction Writing this upcoming winter quarter for Writers’ Program. What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out?
MT: Three things: tell the story only you can tell, find your voice, and read a lot.
Telling your story is the most important, I think. I don’t mean the story must be based on you, though it could be, but it must be unique to you. If someone else could tell the same story the same way, why bother? Figure out what you have to offer the world and if you believe in that story, don’t give up on it. Take criticism, make it better, let it grow and evolve, but your story is the one thing you have that no other writer has.
Finding your voice is part of telling your story. It can take some time and patience, but once you discover the right way to tell your story, it will come to life. And finally, read a lot. A LOT. Read masters of craft and masters of plot, read outside your usual genre, read writers you’ve never heard of and award winners and bestsellers. Read anything and everything that sounds interesting to you. Pay attention to structure, pacing, characterization, plot, clichés; study what moves you, what surprises you, what bores you, and what keeps you reading. Almost everything you read can teach you something if you’re receptive.
WP: It’s clear from your instructor statement that you host a supportive environment and focus on students reading published works. What do you like best about teaching?
Yes, I do try to create a supportive space, and as I said above, I think we learn so much from reading other writers. We can talk about ideas all day, but if students see how those ideas are actually applied and how they work, they learn them better.
There are lots of joys in teaching, but I think there are two things I love most. First, I love to watch something click for a student. I can see it in their eyes—the struggle to grasp a concept or figure out a solution to a particular scene disappears and in its place, confidence and excitement. I know how gratifying that kind of understanding is when it comes and to see it in my students’ faces—and then beautifully reflected in their work—is wonderful.
Second, I love how much I am inspired by my students, how much my students inspire each other. Even the most beginner students always have a gem of a sentence or a brilliant idea or a unique character that gets the other students’ minds whirring and sets off sparks in my own brain, too. This is why community and workshop and classes like these are so important—creativity feeds off creativity, and all of us together working on telling good stories fuels the writing fires of all of us.
Melanie’s class, Introduction to Fiction Writing, begins January 22. Click here if you would like to enroll or call Registration at 310-825-9971.
Carla Janas is the Assistant to the Director. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.