Saturday, November 26, 2011

Melinda Leigh: Learn To Structure A Story

Melinda Leigh
About Melinda Leigh...
More than a decade ago, Melinda Leigh left a career in banking to raise her children and never looked back. She started writing when her youngest child entered first grade as a way to preserve her sanity. Her paranormal romance and romantic suspense fiction has won writing awards across the country. Melinda is also an avid martial artist. She holds a 2nd degree belt in Kenpo Karate, studies Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and teaches women’s self-defense. She lives in a messy house in the suburbs with her husband, two teenagers, a couple of dogs and one neurotic cat with an inexplicable fear of ceiling fans. With such a pleasant life, she has no explanation for the sometimes dark and disturbing nature of her imagination.

On her Journey…
You’ve written SHE CAN RUN, which is being released this month by Montlake Romance. You’ve just received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. That’s a great accomplishment.

Thanks. And thanks for hosting a stop on my blog tour. I’m thrilled to share the excitement with all of you!

What has this journey been like for you?
 Thrilling and terrifying in turns. So much is riding on a debut novel. The pressure is intense. Writing the book was just the beginning of the publishing process.

People often think of writers as having “overnight success”. How many years have you been working toward “overnight success?"
Quite a few. I started writing in 2005. It took me 2 years to finish the first draft of SHE CAN RUN. I started submitting in 2007, after I won New Jersey Romance Writers Put Your Heart in a Book contest. The book had a decent rough story, but it still needed tons of work. For one thing, it was 120,000 words long. (Ok, you can stop laughing now) I read books on writing. I took workshops, acquired critique partners, and went to a couple of conferences, all while simultaneously rewriting the manuscript 5 times. Yes, you read that correctly. The book went through 5 complete rewrites, mostly because I was so clueless about the technical aspects of writing when I started this crazy journey. (Hint: learn plot structure before you write a book. It’ll save you tons of time.)

I signed with my agent in late 2009, and finally sold two books in 2010. She Can Run is being released this November 2011, and Amazon Heat (a novella co-written with friend and author Rayna Vause) releases in January 2012.

So, my “overnight” success took six years of hard work to accomplish.

What inspires and galvanizes you to keep writing?
I love to create characters and weave intricate plots together. The entire creation process is a thrilling challenge every single time. It still amazes me how everything melds in the end.

On her book and characters…

Could you share a bit about your latest book, and its characters?
 Beth is a young widow with two children who makes the terrible mistake of marrying a powerful politician who isn’t what he seems. She accidentally learns a secret about her new husband, a secret he tries to kill her to keep. With some luck and gumption, she escapes with her kids. Months later, with the help of a distant relative, she takes a job as caretaker on a secluded estate. Unfortunately, the elderly man who hired her dies, leaving the estate to his nephew, a former homicide detective. Jack isn’t buying Beth’s story, but he can’t send her away. Instead, he begins to investigate. Her secrets, his suspicions, and their desire clash when a killer strikes nearby.

If you had to choose, which scene in this novel is your favorite?
I wrote the book’s final climax in one day. My fingers just couldn’t keep up with the pace. There are a lot of plot threads running through SHE CAN RUN. To have them all finally come together was extremely satisfying. Plus, I do love to write the action scenes.

Which character is your favorite?
Believe it or not, I absolutely fell in love with Jack’s dog, Henry. This will not surprise anyone who knows me well. I am an avid dog lover. But Henry came to life as the book progressed. He became more than a dog, but evolved into a real character with his own character arc. Not bad, considering he doesn’t have a single line of dialogue.

What inspired you to write romantic suspense about spousal abuse? I’m involved in martial arts and teach women’s self-defense. Most people have no idea of the realities of domestic abuse. Women can’t simply walk away from an abusive relationship. One-third of female homicide victims are killed by their intimate partners and half of all protections orders issued are violated.

Some authors say their stories are ripped right from the headlines. Has an idea for one of your novels ever been sparked by real people and events?
Beth’s situation is as real as it gets. And, you can’t turn on the news without hearing about a politician who’s been bad. *grin*

On her Writing Process…

How do you give your characters the depth and detail necessary for readers to want to cheer them?
 I’m not sure. I do pay special attention to detail, but the characters seem to develop all by themselves. I think identifying and empathizing with the characters helps, as does putting them into realistic situations.

What challenge or struggle do you face when you try to build emotional bonds between the characters?
 This is the most difficult part of the entire process. In my head, the characters’ relationships are already present. This is where revisions and a great critique partner really help.

How do you, then, go about addressing the part with which you struggle? 
 I do a lot of editing and “smoothing” out of the manuscript as I go along. Also, I have a few great critique partners that will read stuff. They know my weaknesses and what to look for. There’s no substitute for fresh eyes on a book.

Do you have specific techniques you utilize for getting into the heads of your villains? Would you care to share them?
 I love to write the villain point-of-view. Probably more than I should. I make sure my villain has a backstory to give him or her dimension. Everyone has a story, even the bad guy. What made him the way he is? For those who like the Deb Dixon character structure, what are the villain’s goals, motivations, and conflicts?

What are the challenges in developing a layered, plot-driven story of suspense that rivals others in the market? Honestly, I try not to think about this. I prefer a complex story with multiple threads. Consistency is important, so I try to keep true to my own particular style.

In some of the reviews, readers mentioned how effectively you plot your story. Do you have any particular plot techniques you’d care to share?
I’ve blogged on this before. I buy more index cards than anyone I know. I use them to keep track of plot points on a scene by scene basis on a giant magnetic storyboard. With so many plot threats running simultaneously, I’ve found the visualization very helpful.

What do you find most rewarding about your writing career? Most disappointing?
 How about I answer this question next year? My career is just starting. At this point I’m still holding my breath.

If you could give writers one small piece of advice, what would it be?
 Join a writers’ group and make the time to meet with your writing peeps. I doubt I would have a book coming out without the help and friends I’ve made through Liberty States Fiction Writers and Romance Writers of America.

What is something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong? I can only tell you what were the most problematic areas in earlier versions of SHE CAN RUN: pacing and structure. Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting was a BIG help learning to structure a story. Pacing, on the other hand, took more practice than education.

On her personal life…

What is a little known fact about yourself?
 I am addicted to CHOPPED on food network. I’ve no idea why. I’m a terrible cook. The process bores me. If food doesn’t have “helper” written on the side of the box, the chances it’ll be edible are fifty-fifty.

What book are you reading right now?
I’m not reading anything because I’m in the middle of a new book, and I can’t deal with anyone else’s voice in my head. BUT, I’ve promised myself The Night Eternal (book 3 in The Strain horror trilogy) the very second I finish the first draft. I’ve been waiting over a year for the resolution to this nail biter. Also on my TBR list is Lover Unleashed by JR Ward. The last book I finished was Jim Butcher’s Death Masks, which I loved.

What’s next for you? I’m currently working on a book loosely connected to SHE CAN RUN. It’s set in the same small town. A few characters are making reappearances. Police Chief Mike O’Connell is deep trouble with a crime spree, a feisty horse trainer, and a relentless stalker.

Finally, where can we buy your books and find you on the web?


Facebook (

Twitter (

Goodreads (

 How much stock do you put in reviews? Which ones do you value the most, professional editorial reviews or customer reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads?

Come back tomorrow for an excerpt of Melinda's book SHE CAN RUN.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Melinda, I'm so glad to "meet" you here. Your book sounds too tempting to resist. Best wishes for many sales and many more contracts.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Melinda, I forgot to answer your question. I don't give much credence to reviews of any kind. I know my personal favorites of my own books had mixed customer reviews, so they aren't reliable. But I know a lot of people buy books by the reviews in places like RT Magazine and from PW. I go more by things like this blog. I know it's weird, but I have to like the author before I can enjoy the book.There are so many good authors who are nice people, that I don't have time to support the stinkers. LOL

Melinda Leigh said...

It's nice to "meet" you, too.

I also think taste in books is highly personal.

Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

I shows that hard work and determination pay off. Thanks so much for sharing your journey. About reviewers. I've read the reviews in RT and then found the book to be mediocre. I admit I look at the ratings first on amazon. If a book has a huge number of high ratings, it does carry weight with me, however if the ratings are all over the place, I may wait and get it from the library. I don't go to Goodreads all that much, even though it seems to be well-regarded.

Ruby Johnson said...

I know one person who will be giving a good review to your book, although, I know lots of other people have already done so. Your excerpt will be here tomorrow and I am so happy you shared it with us.

Melinda Leigh said...


I love the Kindle feature that allows me to download the first chapter of most books. I like to make up my own mind about books as well.

Thanks for joining me today!

Melinda Leigh said...


Thanks so much for having me on your blog this busy weekend. I love sharing my journey with other writers and readers.

Brinda said...

Great interview! Anyone who can give a dog a character arc has to be a terrific writer. *grin* Your book sounds like a page-turner and I look forward to reading it. Congrats on your "overnight" success.

Melinda Leigh said...

Thanks, Brinda.

I think it's too early to call me a success. The book isn't even out yet, and I'm soooo nervous.

It's nice to see you here!

Robin Perini said...

Hi Melinda--loved learning about your writing process, since I was so impressed with the intricacies of plotting in She Can Run. (I was lucky enough to get a preview :-)).

I LOVED Henry, btw :-). Good luck on the release. I know it'll be a success.

Melinda Leigh said...

Thanks, Robin.

It's sure to be an exciting week.

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