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Melissa Welliver: 'Write in your most authentic voice'

BY Katie Smart
19th Aug 2021

Melissa Welliver took our online Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course in 2016. Now she has a publishing deal with Agora Books for her gripping dystopian YA trilogy. The first book in the series The Undying Tower will be published this October.

Melissa reveals the inspiration behind the totalitarian future portrayed in The Undying Tower, her path to publication and advice for crafting YA fiction...

You worked on an earlier draft of your debut The Undying Tower during our 2016 Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

When I started the course, I hadn’t ever attempted to write something as long as a novel. I did a Creative Writing masters after my undergraduate degree, but I admit that going in it was more about exploring whether writing is right for me – which it happily is! After that, I needed to learn a bit more about the mechanics of the industry, how novels worked, and how do words on a computer screen translate to books on a shelf. So I would say the biggest takeaway from the Curtis Brown course was much better understanding of the industry, and the discipline that allows you to apply to your writing. I could finally get my head around word counts and story structure and readability, as opposed to just writing without thinking about where I want things to go. Sometimes I still write just for me, of course! But the course made me think long term about my writing and how I could best express my ideas to a larger audience.

What was the best advice you received from tutor Catherine Johnson?

Catherine had so much advice, I am struggling where to even begin! All her sessions were chock full of stories about her experiences in the publishing industry, and she was able to answer all our questions with just the right balance of reality and optimism. Her one-to-one calls about my book, The Undying Tower– then called The Eternals – were invaluable. I think the best piece of advice she gave me was to start at the heart of the story, and not just from the moment my protagonist wakes up – took a few years for that one to sink in but when it did, and I rewrote the opening, I started listing for prizes and seeing some movement on the book.

Many of our students find their writing community whilst studying on our courses. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes, I am! We have a Facebook group but over time have migrated over to the Twitter #kidlit writing community, which is always a lovely place to be. A few of us have got agents now, as well as traditional and indie publication deals – it’s been so nice to keep in touch and see everyone’s journey unfold. We even met up in London once when one of us was over visiting from Australia. My CBC group was probably my first real writing group, and that’s made it all the more special.

The Undying Tower is the first novel in a YA dystopian trilogy series to be published by Agora Books. How did you celebrate when you got the news that you were going to be published?

I found out during November 2020, in the deepest part of lockdown. So apart from jumping up and down and opening a bottle of fizz, there wasn’t much more I could do to celebrate! The lovely thing about the timing though was that I signed the contract a few days before my 30th birthday, which felt like a huge milestone, so I was able to make it a double celebration despite the fact we were all stuck inside.

Can you tell us a bit more about your debut novel and the future dystopian world of the trilogy?

Absolutely! The story takes place in a near future totalitarian version of Britain. Set decades after the discovery that a small percentage of the population has stopped ageing, the Avalonia Zone is in crisis. From overpopulation to food shortages, the 'Undying' have been blamed for the state's problems, banished to the fringes of society, and punished for every minor infraction.

When sixteen-year-old Sadie takes the fall for an attack by a rebel group, The Alchemists, she suddenly finds herself wrenched away from her quiet life and from her ailing father.

Armed with little help and even less knowledge, Sadie is thrust into a cold and cryptic 'correctional facility' The Tower. Here she'll have to rethink everything she's been told about the Undying population in an attempt to save the life she knows, protect a group of unlikely friends, and give voice to the voiceless in a society on the brink of catastrophic upheaval.

The Undying Tower is all about fighting for what’s right, even when the world is against you.

What inspired you to write this trilogy? And who are some of the authors that influence your writing?

I was inspired to write the story by the woman I dedicated it to, my lovely friend Caroline. She was one of the best writers I’ve ever known, and her time was cut cruelly short by cancer in July 2015. I realised that if I wanted to make this dream work, this writing career I had always wanted, I had to be brave like her and start putting my work out there. The trilogy centres around the Undying, these people that not only never age, but never get sick either. I wanted to imagine a world where some of us were born with the so-called ‘gift’ of immortality, and how that would affect both them and the people around them, and the world grew from there.

I’m also an avid reader of YA dystopian and Sci-Fi, with Michael Grant, Veronica Roth, and Suzanne Collins’ work becoming a huge influence on the story. I also love dark futuristic books set in the UK, like Lauren James’ The Quiet at the End of the World, Naomi Gibson’s Every Line of You and Terri Terry’s Slated series. I’d love to see The Undying Tower nestled next to those books on a bookshop display one day!

What advice do you have for aspiring authors currently writing for young adults?

I think it would be to write in your most authentic voice. The Undying Towerstarted to get noticed when I really nailed down what message I wanted to convey with the book, and the voice I wanted to spread that message with. That was when the story came to life.

Finally, what are you working on next?

Well, I have books two and three of The Undying Tower trilogy to iron out, and after that I’m lucky enough to have some more bookish news that I have to keep under my hat for now. I will say that I’ve found my love of writing in YA Speculative fiction, and I won’t be venturing far from that in the near future. Watch this space!

Get your hands on a copy of The Undying Tower!