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Q&A with Melinda Salisbury

We spoke to author Melinda Salisbury about the writing process behind her latest book, Hold Back The Tide, as well as her top tips on world building and writing villains.

1. Your new book Hold Back The Tide was published at the beginning of March. What’s it about? And where did the idea come from?

All of my ideas for books seem to develop in the same way, coming from a location I find beautiful; a protagonist who shares my worries/fears/hopes/goals; and some current issue or motif that’s drawing me in. This time is was Scotland; wanting to prove someone could be more than people saw or believed; and the climate disaster. Seeing the youth-led movements for action to combat the climate disaster I realised that life was imitating art – all those years reading and writing about teenagers stepping up to challenge the establishment and save the world were happening, and it was young people taking to the streets, leading the charge. I wanted to write something that reflected that – the way teens worry about the environment and how the adults around them let them down. Obviously my version is (hopefully!) the unrealistic version of any consequences, but the message is the same: a lack of action now will lead to devastation later. 

2. The first line of Hold Back The Tide is an absolute cracker. What are useful techniques to hook the reader from the first line?

I think you have to (temporarily) set aside your overall vision of the book, and write your opening line with the sole aim of grabbing attention, especially when you’re writing YA – teens are very discerning and unforgiving of flat openings, they’ll put a book down if it doesn’t grab them. In the past I’ve been tempted into (and guilty of) using the opening line to set the stage of the novel in a grand, overarching way, like a widescreen camera angle taking in the whole scene before zooming in on the action. I’ve realised now I need to begin with that close-up shot, something that makes it personal and present and now, before zooming out, and widening the world. 

The opening line of Hold Back The Tide is: Here are the rules of living with a murderer. 

Straight away, you know the stakes of living in that world are high before you’ve even met the character speaking, and the line invites questions: Why is she in this situation? Who is the murderer she lives with? What are these rules? It’s enough to make the reader go on, which is the chance you, the author, have been waiting for. It’s then you start to drip-feed in more information and details, and introduce the character fully. Start from a narrow focus and widen, as opposed to the reverse. Make the opening line specific, and compelling. 

3. Is Hold Back The Tide a standalone book? How does writing a standalone book differ from writing a series? What are the things that a writer needs to consider?

It is a standalone! It’s the first time I’ve written one, and I found it both easier and harder than writing a series. Easier in that I didn’t have to set up plotlines to be solved in other books or manage a growing cast of characters, but harder in that I knew there wouldn’t be a later, everything had to be resolved in one book. For me, it was made simpler by the fact this story didn’t need to span more than one book – it’s self-contained; everything you need to know could happen in one volume. I think that’s the main thing to consider when debating whether a story need to be a series, or a standalone – what is the minimum amount of space the plot needs for the story to unfold in a rich, satisfying way? That’s how long your book(s) should be. There is always the temptation to want to expand, and build, especially if you’re like me and love building worlds, but it wouldn’t serve the story. I’ve had to learn to know when to quit, but think the story is stronger for it, and that’s what counts. 

4. Bad guys. Villains. You know how to write the very worst of humanity. What’s your secret? Or if you can’t tell us, how about some tips for writers looking to create their own cast of cruel characters?

It sounds a little hackneyed, but I mine from real life! There’s nothing my villains have done that hasn’t happened in one form or another in our world and often worse; book villains are usually toned down to make them “beliveable”! The trick, as Tom Hiddleston said of his character Loki, is that villains see themselves as the hero of their story, fighting for something they believe in. The ends they seek justify the means of their actions, and so you write them exactly the same way as you write the heroes of your books – every single action they undertake has to serve their goal. They should only care about the protagonist when it looks like they might be useful in, or prevent them from, achieving it. 

An exercise I do when creating villians is write a brief blurb or synopsis of the book where they are the hero, and the protagonist is the villain – so for Hold Back The Tide, it was something like Giles Stewart has built his paper mill from the ground up, bringing jobs and a decent way of life to his small Scottish village. But his rival is keeping secrets that could ruin the mill and doom the whole town, and it isn’t the first time he’s fallen foul of the Douglas family... 

Doing this helps me frame their goals and ambitions, which I can channel back into the real story, and use to make sure they don’t become too pantomime-villain, or caricature. 

5. What are the essential elements of building a believable world?

I think the author has to know every single detail about it, but be very sparing about what they put on the page. I start from the ground up when I’m building a world – the landscape, the trees, the soil, what’s farmed – because that feeds the way the way the day-today world works: what people do for work, where they live, how they clothe and feed themselves. When I’ve got that set, I look at the bigger picture stuff; government, policing, spirituality. I need to know all of this, because my characters must know all of it – it’s the stuff that governs how they live, what risks they take, what their expectations are. The vast majority never needs to be said explicitly, but it does need to be inferred from how the characters behave – and it needs to be consistent. I think knowing when to quit is important too – fine to have magical powers, but then maybe don’t introduce elements like polar bears in jungles or anything that jars too heavily against our fixed sense of reality at the same time. You don’t want your reader’s forebrain to kick in and start trying to figure out how things work! 

6. You write about landscapes with such a vivid sense of atmosphere. Where do you draw inspiration from?

The land itself! I spend as much time as I can travelling and being outside in nature, and I take a lot of photographs, so I have a lot of visual material to work with. Nature is a sensory experience, there are always things to simulate every sense – the vivid green of a new leaf, the loamy smell of the earth, the rushing sound of something unseen darting away in the undergrowth, the taste of a blackberry plucked from a stem, the sting of the thorn you thought you’d avoided. If you pay attention, and use your eyes and hands and nose and ears to investigate the world around you, it starts to bleed into your work. I’m very hands-on with the outside, and I keep those memories to use later. 

7. What’s your relationship with the editing process like?

I love being edited, and I love editing! From a purely selfish point of view, being edited is someone telling me how to make my work better but I still get all of the credit for it. But in all seriousness, it can be so hard to know when something isn’t working, and how to fix it, when the something came from your brain. You want to believe it’s necessary, or right, or why else would you have written it in the first place? So having someone else look over your work and direct you is invaluable. Learning to self-edit is important too – knowing how to break a book down and see it for its component parts is helpful in figuring out what you need to make it work, and what you can lose. I am a very ruthless editor – once my actual editor suggested moving a scene to later in the book, and I ended up cutting it from that book completely, rationalising if it was something I could move around that easily then maybe it just wasn’t needed for that part of the story. 

8. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?

Like most people’s it was slow, and then happened all at once, though I never planned to be a writer. I grew up on a housing estate in Coventry, in a working-class family and I never saw people like me being professional authors – to be honest it’s still rare now for anyone working class to make this a career. I always loved making up stories but didn’t consider it a career option until around nine years ago, when I decided I might as well try. I spent two years writing a middle-grade fantasy, which I sent to a few agents, including Claire Wilson at RCW, who would become my agent. She didn’t love the story I submitted, but liked my writing, so she asked me to send her something else once I had it. By chance I’d started writing The Sin Eater’s Daughter while the middle-grade book was on submission, just to keep myself occupied. She liked that more, and after some R&R (Revision and Resubmission) she signed me. And a few months later, she sold my first trilogy to Scholastic. It was quite straightforward, and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and have a story that Claire, and Scholastic, felt excited and passionate about. 

9. Looking ahead, what’s next for you?

I am working on two books right now, a non-fiction and a YA, which I’m hoping will see the light of day next year, but obviously the world looks a little different now to how it did when the plans were initially made, and no one knows what the future holds – maybe they’ll be casualties, or pushed back. I hope not, because they’re both projects that are very dear to me, but it’s hard to worry about it now with everything else. What comes will come. I’ll keep working anyway, because it’s all I can do – no one told the weird, idea-spinning ‘What If’ part of my brain we were having an apocalypse, so it’s business as usual in the Making Things Up factory. 

10. If you could offer one piece of advice to writers looking for their work to be published, what would it be?

It’s very likely not going to be as easy, dazzling or as lucrative as you hope – no matter how realistic you think your expectations are – and you need to embrace that and make sure those things aren’t the reason you want to be published. It’s the best job in the world, but it’ll break your heart if you go into it starry-eyed and naive. Do your homework, have a back-up plan, and be prepared to hustle your butt off. And there is way more admin than you’d think. 

Melinda Salisbury will be leading a masterclass on Character Development on 11th August 2020, with all proceeds donated to Book Aid International. Full details and booking

Melinda Salisbury is the bestselling author of multiple YA fiction novels, including the Sin Eater's Daughter series, and her latest, Hold Back The Tide. She grew up in Coventry, and now lives on the south coast of England. She hates writing biographies as it's hard to find a happy medium between sheer arrogance and utter self-loathing, which are her two predominant states of mind.