In Conversation with Short Story Scribe/Novelist Melissa Clark

By Sophia Kercher

Melissa Clark
Novelist and published short story writer Melissa Clark likes to dive into the extraordinary. Her book “Swimming Upstream, Slowly”  features a character named Sasha Salter who discovers that she is pregnant, even though she hasn’t had sex in years. It turns out that Sasha’s body has been hosting a “lazy sperm,” and she must figure out which of her exes is the father of her unborn child. Melissa’s imaginative and convincing story-telling (don’t worry–she made up the science behind a lazy sperm) makes her novel a page-turner that we couldn’t put down! She advises other writers to try incorporating fantastical elements into their stories to make them more exciting.

This November, Melissa will pass on her secrets for crafting a compelling narrative in the Writing Pad class Short and Sweet: The Art of the Short Story. By the end of this class, you will have written one amazing short story, and Melissa will help you get it published.  In the meantime, we asked Melissa to share her experience and tips on writing with all of you.

How did you get started as a professional writer?
My dad is a writer so I grew up watching him and then mimicking him on my own typewriter. I used to write tons of short stories as a little kid. I majored in writing in college and then went to a writing program for graduate school. I was all about the short story. I lived, breathed, embodied it. It always felt so magical – not only reading them, but writing them. Further down the line I veered off into television writing, mostly kids’ shows. I learned quickly that a good story is a good story, no matter what the genre. . . If you’d told me in graduate school that I’d be writing television and novels in the future, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was that obsessed with the short story.

What are some tips you have for people who are sitting down to write a short story?
Before you write, read tons of short stories.  When you’re done writing for the day (whether it’s a couple of hours or 10 minutes), stop when it’s really flowing – or during a scene that you’re excited about. That way, when you pick up your writing the next day, you will tap into that excitement and your story will continue to flow.

Can you tell me what some of the key elements of structure that you utilize to write a short story?
The only three words you need when talking about short story structure are: Conflict, Crisis, Resolution.

You have a screenwriting and TV writing background, how does this shape your storytelling?
Both helped me write stronger dialogue my stories and novels. Writing for TV helped me with speed. There is a quick script turnover in television, and this helped me begin and finish other writing projects swiftly.

Where do you draw inspiration for your own stories?
My first novel, “Swimming Upstream, Slowly” – about a woman who becomes pregnant from a lazy sperm – was born because I was having lunch with a friend and I overate. When I showed him my bloated belly he said, “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?” and I said, “Yeah, right, from a lazy sperm.” I decided right then and there to write a movie based on that idea, but after a few weeks I decided to write it as a novel instead.
My second novel, “Imperfect” was born because I have a cat with asthma and her purr is so frigging loud. One night while she was on my lap doing her kneeding thing, I wondered, what if people purred? And it wasn’t a sexy thing, but more of an embarrassing thing? I started the novel the next day.

You recently finished another novel.  Tell me more about that.
My writing is usually on the lighter side, but my latest novel, “Bear Witness” explores the aftermath of a kidnapping in a small town. It is told by the victim’s best friend, and we see how she’s coping after the tragedy. Last year I traveled to Utah to observe the Elizabeth Smart case which had finally gone to trial. The experience was harrowing but important for the book.

Every artist/writer has an inner critic that lives inside them, how do you battle this inner critic?

I think the biggest issue for most people is negative self talk. If you’re hearing, “I can’t.  I’ll never. . .” chances are that you won’t be very productive. Catching this and then converting it to positive talk is an effective method. You just have to be able to do this. Rubberbands on the wrists helps!

Thanks so much for sharing these helpful tips on writing, Melissa, and we can’t wait for your class which starts next Sunday!