Welcome back to Inside The Authors Studio. Today I’m talking to another writer and sharing our conversation with you! To find out who I’ve interviewed so far and what this series is all about, check out the original post by clicking here.
Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to another one of my featured writers, Marcella Haddad.
Marcella is currently a university student. Although creative writing is not her major, she continues to take courses in writing and literature to expand her talent as a fiction writer. While being a full-time student, she has worked as a writer for her campus blog as well as a content provider for the school’s newsletters and website pages. Needless to say, Marcella is establishing a solid background in writing.
In terms of her creativity, there are no bounds. Marcella has written a range of short stories that covers everything from fantasy to science fiction and several kooky areas in between. All of her writing is typically accompanied by a slew of sketches that she keeps in a journal close by for whenever inspiration strikes. In the classroom, you will often find her with two books open- one for taking lecture notes and the other for sketching out her make believe worlds.
In my conversation with Marcella, I look at the structure behind her creativity and how it has allowed her to grow as a writer. We talk about her experiences with travel and the roadblocks she has encountered along her journey. It is my hope that our conversation will help you get to know Marcella a little bit more. Enjoy-
Jamie: Marcella! I’m so happy to have you here on my blog today! Tell us a little bit about yourself. How would you describe yourself to those of my readers who don’t know you?
Marcella: Thanks Jamie! I’m from California, and I’m a sophomore at Arcadia University. Right now my major is Language Learning and Teaching, which I created by combining linguistics and education studies. I’d love to travel and teach English as a second language, and write at the same time. My favorite genres are YA, fantasy, and science fiction. I also love Nutella, dragons, and coming up with funny captions for classical paintings.
How has your experience studying both literature and creative writing at college influenced your work? Does the focus on literature sway your work down a more serious route, or do you find yourself drawn to creative levity? How do you see the two realms, genre and literary fiction, fitting together or splitting apart?
I love this question because I’m very passionate about ending the war between genre and literary fiction. I think that genre fiction, and YA especially, gets looked down on a lot, which doesn’t make sense to me–it’s currently the most commercially viable form of writing, and over half of YA books are bought by adults. Not only that, but they have such a powerful influence on young people who are just starting to develop their sense of morality, identity, and their interactions with society. To say that they’re less important, or that they’re not ‘literary’, is a disservice to their strong influence on so many readers.
To get back to the question, I definitely have to pick and choose what my influences are. All through high school and college, you are fed the canon, which are a bunch of books that people have decided are very important. And that’s fair–they are influential, and demonstrate very strong aspects of the writing craft. What’s unfair is to say that everyone should appreciate and like them equally. For example, I love Pride and Prejudice and Dracula. I love the characters, the pacing, and how you are immersed in the world. But other books from the canon, for example, Rabbit Run, don’t pull me in. I can’t relate to any of the characters, but I can still appreciate the prose. So I think you really have to find what speaks to you. If you don’t enjoy a book, don’t try to emulate that author. And just because a book hasn’t appeared on your eighth grade reading list doesn’t mean it has no literary merit. I always come back to that writing rule–write what you want to read. So along those lines, read things that you want to write!
How has your writing been affected by the books you read and the stories they contain? Which books have shaped you the most as a writer and in what ways?
I saw a quote once that said something like, you have to read 100 books for every 1 that you write. I really take that to heart. Everything we create is a synthesis of things we have already encountered, and so the more you read, the more you have to draw from to create something that’s closer to originality. Also, you’ll find a lot of the time that an idea you thought was original has already been done to death. The more you read, the less this happens, because you get a better idea of what’s already been done.
My writing has, hopefully, improved with all of the books I’ve read. I make a point to really analyze every novel I finish. What was unsatisfying about the ending? Why didn’t I believe the love story? Who was my favorite character, and why? What was strongest? Everything I read now, I see through the lens of a writer, so I can be a bit harsh on books that are perfectly fine if you read them passively. An example is Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. It’s a wonderful book if you’ve never read another YA fantasy novel in your life. It covers all the clichés, but it does them well. So if you’re not an avid reader, you probably wouldn’t catch how unoriginal it is. I try to read a lot to find a lot of these clichés, so that I can find them in my writing and kick them out.
I’ve actually started a notebook, where on the left pages I copy, by hand, entire chapters of my favorite books. It helps me to get closer to the prose and understand the author’s strategy and sentence structures. Then, on the right hand side, I annotate–what did they do in this section? How did the words convey theme, plot, or character? It’s an incredibly helpful exercise that has generated a lot of questions and new lenses through which I can view my own writing. I just recently did this with the first chapter of Cinder by Marissa Meyer, copying it by hand and then annotating it. In my opinion, that book has the best opening chapter of any YA I’ve ever read. It worldbuilds flawlessly, and I was struggling with the opening of my current novel. Copying prose that I admired and then analyzing it helped me to get out of my rut and look at my own writing in a new way.
Laini Taylor, Lev Grossman, and Leigh Bardugo have all been incredibly important influences on my writing. I love Taylor’s prose style, Grossman’s worldbuilding, and Bardugo’s plots and pacing. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet all three of them, and they are wonderful people. You can tell they’ve really worked on their craft and put a lot into their stories. I try to recapture the aspects of their stories that speak to me, without copying them. I love Taylor’s prose, and how it’s basically poetry. When I write, I try to find those magic lines like she has, that really capture an idea in a new way for the reader. Grossman has really inspired me with how diverse and complex his world is, while still having it be accessible. His imagination is inspiring, just like the way he takes the reader through it. I love creating new worlds and systems of magic, and I love how he thinks about all aspects of his worlds, down to the little everyday things that can affect the hero. Bardugo is just perfection. Her characters, plot, and pacing all run like a well oiled, beautiful machine. She captures fantasy cultures, magic systems, and sincere human emotion so beautifully. But the real powerhouse of her stories are her characters, and their interactions are really what makes you want to read more. I reread her books all the time, just to get sucked in and remember what it’s like to fall in love with characters.
It’s always worthwhile to reread your favorite books. I recently got the Writer’s Digest annotated version of Dracula. It’s like reading two books at once with all of the annotations, but they are all focused on craft and how Stoker creates suspense and complex characters. I’m seeing my favorite novel in a new way and really getting to the bottom of what made me fall in love with it, and what gives it its literary merit.
Apart from books, I know you also have an interest in different archetypes and models. Talk to me about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and the ways it has affected your own creative process.
I think the moral of the hero’s journey is that something changes by the end of your story. Your main character changes, and the world around them changes. It’s amazing how many books forget that this is the point of stories. Showing someone’s growth and formation of their true identity is the most compelling way to get someone interested in your book, I think. That’s what the hero’s journey is about. Aside from Campbell, there are many versions of the hero’s and heroine’s journeys that are all helpful in different ways. They inspired me to write about my own theory of a “YA Heroine’s Journey”, based on the themes I saw in a lot of the books I read.
The most important part of the hero’s journey, to me, is that internal struggle is represented symbolically. Maybe this is why a lot of realistic fiction doesn’t speak to me–I feel like all of the conflict is explicit and happening on the surface. But with fantasy you have the option to create layers, so that your main character is battling their inner demons while slaying their outer ones. The important thing is that they’re connected-slaying a dragon is a lot more meaningful if it corresponds with overcoming your inner fears.
I also love the hero’s journey because it’s like, here’s a roadmap, here’s what stories look like–now as a writer, how are you going to go off the path? It’s almost a challenge to find what points in the story you want to remove, and see how everyone reacts. Lev Grossman said that when he was writing ‘The Magicians’ he took out the wise mentor archetype. There’s no Dumbledore or Gandalf, no elderly, wise, all-knowing mentor for the main characters. They have to figure it out on their own, and this changes the tone of the series drastically. So by playing around with structure and archetypes, you can take things out and move them around in order to create an original story that is still recognizable and speaks to people on a symbolic level.
Is there anything else that inspires you to write?
Definitely music, and drawing. I always put on a specific playlist and draw characters before I write a single word about them. I find their voice by listening to certain vocalists, and I find their emotions by drawing their facial expressions, especially the way they look at other characters. Also, how do they dress? How would they pose for a picture? Little things like that help me get a clear image going forward, and by having a playlist for the story, I have a well of inspiration I can draw from whenever I want. And I make a Pinterest board, of course!
To answer this in a different way, how I get ideas for a lot of stories is by ‘zooming in’ on background characters in books or movies. There are a lot of minor characters that only show up in stories once or twice, and I like focusing on them and wondering about their stories. For example, the guard who has been protecting an ancient monster or thingamajig for a hundred years. Usually the hero just shows up and kills him immediately, but what’s his story? How did he get that job? Another minor character I’ve been looking at recently is that hot girl who has cool knives or something and is low-key an assassin for the villain, even though, once again, the hero takes her out in about 5 seconds. But I think that’s an interesting story. So I like looking at forgotten characters, and seeing the world as they do. Do our typical heroes appear naive and overdramatic to them? Do the villains become more understandable?
One of the stories I’m working on right now is a collection of these ideas. It’s about a group of people who got screwed over by fairy tales–one is the boss of an underground gang of smugglers who are selling spinning wheels after sleeping beauty’s father made them illegal. This idea came from what I thought was an obvious question–how can you take away people’s spinning wheels and not expect economic consequences? Another character in the same story has a shard of mirror in her heart, from the original “Snow Queen”. In the original, a shard of this evil mirror fell into the main character’s eye and made him see the world as ugly and terrible. But millions of other shards fell at the same time, and one got into my character’s heart. So how does that change her? In fairy tales, there’s a lot of princes and kings and dragons and witches, very big, magical, important people–but all their craziness affects others, so I wanted to show a group of people who were fed up with it.
This same idea can apply to real life, too–who are the people with stories who exist on the outskirts of your awareness, who you never thought to look into?
You’ve certainly travelled. You were brought up in California, you went to school in Pennsylvania, and you’ve traveled abroad to Italy. How do your travel experiences influence your writing?
It’s funny because I actually feel like it’s the other way around. Writing has changed the way I travel. I’m almost able to endure difficult aspects of travel easier because I’m seeing them through the eyes of a writer, gathering information to use for later, instead of being in the moment and experiencing it. Travel has definitely inspired me, it’s impossible not to be inspired by diverse places and people. I’ve gotten story ideas from cathedrals in Berlin, old men in the south of France, hidden statues on an island off the coast of Italy. One of my stories is based off of the Croatian language. I’m inspired by strange street signs, slightly drunk people that I meet in hostels, and trouble with buses.
Little things can spark an idea, you just have to be paying attention. And, of course, always carry around a notebook and pen!
In some of your work the themes of religion and spirituality come up quite often. How has faith influenced you and your work? Do you consciously incorporate a certain set of beliefs in your characters, or do you let them figure out their own paths?
My personal goal in my writing is to never let the reader guess what religion I am. If they’re getting a strong religious message one way or another, then I haven’t made them question enough, and I haven’t accurately represented all aspects of a belief system. I do everything I can to tell both sides of every story, following that mantra that a good story asks more questions than it answers. I believe that stories should make the reader question themselves and their faith, instead of telling or enforcing a certain message. I like to explore all aspects of living with a strong faith, and living without one. One theme that I do notice in my writing is that if I do construct a new religion, it’s almost always polytheistic, for the simple reason that that’s just more interesting to me. It’s easier to show more about characters based on which gods they prefer over the others, and I love writing gods as characters–everything is fair game.
As far as my characters and their belief systems, I definitely start them out with strong values, almost like a parent teaching their children basic morals. But then I do everything I can to break them down and force them to go against what they believe in. That’s when true character comes out–when you have to choose between what is right, or easy, and what you’ve always known.
How much do you draw from your own personal experiences when writing and how much of what you create is imagined? What is your view on telling, say, a fantasy story authentically when you haven’t actually hung from a castle rampart or leapt into the belly of a dragon?
It’s almost like my writing affects my personal experiences, like I was talking about earlier with travel. Every terrible, awesome, difficult, or inspiring thing that happens to me I view through the lens of writing about it. I remember really clearly when I was wild camping in Isle of Skye, and it was just so many hours of hiking and not knowing if we were on a path or in a river, everything was so wet and grey and long and terrible. I remember being able to get through it because I was like, how would I write about this? How can I capture this struggle? How would this character feel in this situation? I feel like I take the things that happen to me, the emotions, and then just change the aesthetic. I do have a bit of a thing with heights, so when I go up large buildings or climb crazy mountains in Scotland, I take stock of how I feel physically and emotionally. That translates into characters hanging off the edge of castles or leaping into a monster’s mouth – I take something that I’ve been through that I think holds the same physical duress, and apply more emotional importance to it for the character.
When a story first comes to you, what does your early writing process look like? How do things develop and change over time as you write and revise? Are you a calculated planner who has it all figured out from the start, or do you let the story guide you?
So many people have said this, but I’ll say it again – a character’s motivation drives the story. As soon as you step in as the writer and try to guide the story to reach a certain goal or teach a certain lesson, you’ve lost it. With that in mind, I always start with characters. I get inspiration from everywhere, a setting, an object, or a magic system, so once I have something to start with, I go immediately to the characters. I almost always begin the same way – by making a playlist for the story, and then listening to it while I draw my characters. Visualizing how they look physically, and how they interact with each other, gives me a place to start finding their voice.
Sometimes I do just jump in with writing in order to find that voice. I love beginnings. I love that first introduction to a character, what they’re doing, what they’re struggling with, what they’re worrying about. Writing their opening scenes helps me figure out who they are. I might write a few pages and then put the story aside for a time while I outline the rest, but sometimes I do find it helpful to jump right in. After I feel like I know my main characters, I start to think about their hero’s journeys, their alchemical processes, and any other symbolic journeys that they’re going on. Especially with fantasy, I have to brainstorm their greatest fears and self doubts–because these get turned into monsters, and external conflict.
What would you say your biggest struggle is as a writer?
Actually writing! I admire people who are able to just sit down and write. I have way too many stories, some fully completed, just sitting in my head. I need to put them onto paper. I have my ideas, my outlines, my characters, everything all sorted out–but actually writing it down? It’s like little fat goblins are sitting on my fingers, laughing as I try to lift them in order to type.
What would you say to other writers facing the same or similar problems?
Cry. No, actually, let it out. And then after a good crying session, find a friend, preferably several, who will hold you to a deadline. Have them read the beginning of a story. Hopefully they ask the magic question – “What happens next?” If the story is good enough, they will not stop asking this until you write more!
At the end of the day, what are you most proud of about your writing?
It changes with every story. I think what I’m most proud of in myself is that I am always trying to improve as a writer. I think it shows, if you always work hard to improve your craft, whatever it is. I have a fully formed idea and I take it a step further to make it more original, or I completely rewrite an older piece to improve the prose. I study my favorite authors. So what I’m most proud of, whenever I finish a piece, is how hard I worked on it, and how much it grew from where it started.
How would you like to introduce or prep the audience for the piece you’ve brought with you today? Is there any background or context you’d like to give?
This is an excerpt from a short story. There’s a city guard in disguise, and a stranger who’s been trying to throw a long blue cord over the castle wall.
Here is an excerpt from Marcella’s work:
“What are you doing?”
Kastra had hoped to surprise him, but the man didn’t jump. He just continued to study the strange marks on the cord, sometimes glancing at the stone wall as he responded.
“Measuring the castle.”
Kastra frowned. “For what?”
Finally, the stranger–the troublemaker–looked up. Brown eyes. The left one had hints of green. He was smiling.
“For the catapults.”
He went back to his business and only when he began attempting to throw the blue cord up and over the castle wall, did his words register with Kastra.
“Catapults?” she repeated.
The stranger didn’t answer.
Kastra put her hand on his shoulder, and he turned to her. He looked like he was trying to keep himself from grinning.
“Do you work for the king?” she said, urgently.
The stranger only smiled, and then gave a small nod.
Kastra stared at him for a moment.
“Oh,” the stranger said, finally setting his smile free. “Yes. Sorry. Not your king.”
Kastra paused for just a second, before she moved.
She swung her legs out and toppled him, and in the next moment she had him pinned. She caught her breath and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes, only to finally see the stranger’s face.
He was laughing.
Kastra gripped his wrists tighter. “Why are you measuring the castle for catapults?” She said.
The stranger tried to speak amid his breathless giggles. “Someone has to.”
Kastra frowned deeper. She wasn’t sure whose rapid pulse she was feeling beneath her hands, but she was pretending it wasn’t her own.
“Haven’t you ever noticed,” The stranger continued. “How in battles, when the armies march on the city, their catapults are mysteriously already set to the exact right height to go directly over the castle walls?” He let out a sudden pained breath as Kastra dug her knee further into his chest. “Saves…a lot of time,” he wheezed.
“When are these catapults coming?” Kastra hissed.
The stranger’s eyes roved over her. “Ah, you’re the city guard then, finally. In disguise? What did they think, that they’d put you in a peasant’s dress, maybe toss a sunflower in your hair and have you wait on this fence, and no one would look twice at a pretty thing like you?”
Kastra pressed her knee more forcefully against his lungs. “Distractions are not helping your case.”
“I rather thought,” The stranger said, with difficulty. “That that was flattery. And if it helps my case–” His grin crinkled the corners of his dark eyes. “It was sincere.”
Kastra could no longer ignore how wild her heartbeat was. She tried to focus on her training, but she had been expecting to fight grisled, dirty, evil men. Not smiling strangers who were–measuring.
What inspired you to write this piece? Where did it come from? What does it mean to you today?
I’ve had this interaction in my mind for a long time. The catapults question always bothered me, and I wanted to see what would happen between someone who had to do the measuring, and someone who was supposed to protect the castle. It’s kind of an example of that looking at the forgotten characters trick I was mentioning earlier. Who is in charge of catapult settings, seriously? I was assigned to write a short story for a class, and I finally wrote it. It’s really just one scene. Kastra, the disenchanted guard, and the stranger, who isn’t a big fan of his job either. It ends with them both realizing they’ve drawn the short straw in their careers.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell my readers? Do you have any general thoughts or comments to leave them with?
Write! Write, and share your work. Have a good group of friends who will read what you write and give you honest feedback. Learn how to take criticism, because it’s the only way to improve. Grow some thick skin, because it’s much more important than talent. Always work on improving your craft and learning from others.
I want to take a moment to thank Marcella for sharing her views on writing and for showing off some of her work here today. If you enjoyed getting to know Marcella and want to hear more from her, make sure to check out the information below.
Where you can find Marcella:
To check out my last Inside The Authors Studio, click here. And remember to stay tuned for my next featured writer post! Have a great day!