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Writers on Writing: Melissa Walker

Melissa Walker and I have been connected via email for years. A former senior features editor at ELLEgirl and Seventeen Prom editor, Walker freelances for many magazines including Glamour, Teen Vogue, Fitness, Redbook, Marie Claire and More. In fact, she’s quoted me a number of times in articles she’s written for Fitness, Self, and You Beauty to name a few.

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Before last summer, I admit I knew but didn’t think much about the didn’t give much  thought about the fact that, besides being an accomplished magazine writer, editor and freelancer, Walker was an accomplished young adult book author. Upon close inspection, I see she has penned eight young adult novels. EIGHT! These include her latest book, Dust to Dust, published this month by HarperCollins. Very impressive.

But why would I, a grown woman who has spent her entire professional life reading and writing about health, food and nutrition, have any real interest in young adult literature? Although I used to read a ton with my sons when they were little, they’re older now and mostly read books for school rather than for their independent interest. But after a series of events including my mother’s unexpected illness (she’s doing great now, knock wood), my personal and professional passions took a turn toward writing young adult fiction. So naturally, my eyes lit up when I checked out the enormous body of work Walker has successfully created. Did I mention she has written EIGHT young adult books?!

In awe of her talent and accomplishments, I decided to turn the tables on Walker and interview her via email about her career. Here are some highlights.

EZ: Did you always want to be a writer? What was the first thing you wrote and got paid for?

MW: I always loved writing and I dreamed of working at SASSY when I was a teenager in the 90s because it was such a cool magazine. My first published article that paid a significant amount was for BRIDE’s magazine—it was about how to be a good bridesmaid, and I remember thinking it was a BOONDOGGLE to get $1/word. I was so excited.

EZ: What’s the most gratifying part about writing for teens?

MW: Things matter to teenage readers in a way that they don’t to most adults. They are invested in the characters, and they don’t have as much of a filter about telling you what they LOVE and what they HATE. I enjoy that raw reaction so much more than the polite stuff.

EZ: I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed one of your books, Unbreak My Heart. For those who haven’t read it, it’s a very sweet story about a girl named Clem who’s trying to overcome a broken heart and starts to do just that over the summer on her family’s sailboat. Where did you get the idea for the book, and are most of your ideas for your books drawn more from your past experiences or your imagination or some combination of both?

MW: My parents always had a sailboat when I was growing up, and when I was a teenager I wanted to be ANYWHERE but on the boat with them. I knew it would be a good setting. As for the broken heart stuff, details are always changed, of course. Emotions, though? Straight outta real life.

EZ: You are a prolific writer and have churned out an impressive number of books as well as articles and blogs for magazines and websites. Is there a medium/form of writing that you find the most challenging/grueling, and do you find it difficult to switch gears while working on multiple projects?

MW: I like both fiction and nonfiction for different reasons, and being able to do both is a real pleasure. Right now I have two small children, so I don’t always feel like I have time to do both, and I have to pause on one in order to focus on another. But in a past life I used to write fiction in the mornings and magazine stories in the afternoon, and I hope to get back to that schedule once my girls are a little older. There’s definitely a separation that I need to do each type of writing well, and breaking the time up that way helped my brain switch gears.

EZ: Do you have any set writing schedule? And how do you keep yourself organized?

MW: Oh, I used to! And I aspire to again one day. But in the meantime, I like reading other people’s answers to this question because I’m a big ball of “each day is different and none feel that productive” at the moment!

EZ: What advice would you give someone who wants to write books for teens (especially for someone like me who’s already a writer but wants to try something new, or someone who’s brand new to book writing but wants to write for the young adult market)?

MW: I would say not to try to write for teenagers, just write for people and if the story you’re telling has teenagers at its core, so be it. Also, look back, remember the FEELINGS you had when you were 15/16/17. If you get the emotions right, the rest of the details will fall into place.

EZ: Can you share a few of your favorite writing resources?

MW: My favorite “craft” book is BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott, and I also like Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Lately I’ve been really into podcasts. Sara Zarr’s THIS CREATIVE LIFE is fantastic, and Barry Lyga and Morgan Baden’s WRITING IN REAL LIFE (this one’s new) talks a lot about balancing writing and parenting, which is of particular interest to me at this moment in time. I can listen to these when I take my new baby on long walks, and it helps to think about writing, even if I’m having trouble finding the time to actually DO it these days.

EZ: What’s your favorite color?

MW: Carolina Blue (Go Heels!).

EZ: What’s your favorite book(s) and/or authors?

MW: I read and re-read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy because something in it really struck me as true, but my favorite book as a teenager was probably Gone With the Wind. I am also no stranger to Judy Blume, of course (who made me feel normal whenever I feared I wasn’t).

EZ: What would you do for a living if you didn’t write?

MW: Edit. (Is that cheating?)

EZ: Where do you think you’ll be professionally and personally in 5 years (still writing? More YA books in your future?)

MW: I hope to keep writing books—really my goal is to be in this for the long haul and keep telling stories for as long as I can!

EZ: What’s your favorite place/way to write?

MW: Cafes with no Wi-Fi and great foamy coffees.

EZ: What’s the hardest part about writing for you?

MW: The first draft. It always feels so hopeless and messy. Revising is easier once it’s all spilled on the page.

EZ: Anything else you want to share about yourself with readers?

MW:  I really really love talking on twitter. It feels like I have co-workers there in the writing community, and I highly recommend it.

EZ: Anything else you want to share about yourself with aspiring writers?

MW: Make time to read. This is more a “note to self” than anything else, because I don’t give myself enough reading time. But I should. And I plan to. It’ll make me a better writer.

Image of Melissa Walker via Marcie Hume.

To learn more about Melissa and her terrific work, check out her website. You can also follow her on Twitter (@melissawalker) and on Instagram (MelissaWalkerAuthor).

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About The Author

Elisa Zied is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist, author, speaker, and spokesperson. A trusted source of food, nutrition, and health information, Elisa has garnered millions of media impressions, lending her expertise and real-world perspective to dozens of TV shows, web sites, news organizations and magazines. She’s the author of four nutrition books and is currently working on her first novel. You can find her previous Food, Fitness & Fiction posts here and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

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