This is the remarkable true story behind Mel Torrefranca's new book, Nightshade Academy. I got to talk with the author herself about how and why she ended up moving to Thailand, training in martial arts, and living with monks in the process of writing her book. Plus, Mel shares the five key lessons she's learned from writing Nightshade Academy, and maybe a bonus one at the end.
Whether you're a writer or a reader, there's a lot here for you to learn from, or simply be mind blown by. It's rare that the real-life story behind a novel is just as much of a journey as the fictional story itself. Let's get into it.
(We also made a video on Mel's channel about our shared experience writing, publishing, and then unpublishing books as kids.)
Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Grayson: For those who aren't familiar with the book, could you just give a brief overview of what the story is about?
Mel: So, a majority of the story takes place at an elite military boarding school with 20 different exceptional students, who are all competing for five spots as Guardians. So it's a very competitive program, lots of challenges. Some people have compared it to The Hunger Games, especially the first half of the book.
Grayson: Let's just start with the origins of the book. So how did that start?
Mel: It actually started a long time ago. I published a book called The Sky Weeps With Us, which I started writing when I was just 10 years old.
It never went anywhere, and I ended up unpublishing it, which is an entirely different story. But about two years ago, I had just published my second novel, Capsule, and I had a really great launch for the book. It went really well. I got quite a lot of reviews before the actual launch date, and there was a lot of hype that I wasn't expecting.
And so, after I published Capsule, I was feeling kind of overwhelmed with the thought of writing another book. I felt like expectations were high now and I had to impress with my next one. So I was really nervous and I didn't really know what story to write next. I dabbled in quite a few different ideas.
For a while I was going to write a summer camp, thriller, horror type story. I actually wrote a couple chapters of that. But for some reason, I kept thinking back to that story that I wrote when I was younger. And I really wanted to rewrite it, but I also was very scared about messing it up again. Because I obviously failed the first time.
Even though I had published a couple books at this point, the story just felt very out of my league. It was fantasy, so it's not set in the real world like my first two books were. And it had a lot of martial arts and explored topics that I was just completely unfamiliar with. And what really pushed me to actually follow through and tackle the challenge of writing this book was when my friend Angie and I decided to go to the beach one morning.
We drank a lot of coffee, we went out, it was like 4 a.m. But that kind of got hijacked when I opened up to her about struggling with deciding which book to write next, and she said, well, tell me your ideas. I ran through all of them. And she really clicked with the idea of rewriting The Sky Weeps With Us.
And during that drive, we together plotted out the plot for the first draft of Nightshade Academy, which was the first book in a trilogy, because I decided to expand it into three books. We actually got lost on that trip, and we never made it to the beach. We were very immersed in the story, and after that happened, I came back home, and immediately started working on it. And I knew, like, it was going to be harder than some of the other ideas that I had, but ultimately, this was the story that I was most excited about writing. I think the lesson that I really learned from that experience was the importance of writing a story that you're passionate about, because I did try to write stories that were more in my comfort zone, and I ended up abandoning those in the end.
So, I think if there's a story that you really want to tell and that you're really passionate about, that's the one that you've got to, you've got to pick, that you're kind of destined to write. I'm very glad that I decided to tackle this larger project because it pushed me a lot as a writer and as a person.
I think I've grown so much from this journey in writing something that was beyond my skill level and my life experience.
Grayson: Yeah, it's often the most challenging projects that, while they are the hardest, are also the most creatively fulfilling.
So, after you had that realization of, okay, this is the book I want to write. It is intimidating, but I know I have to go after this and try to make it a reality. What came next?
Mel: I wrote the first draft for Nightshade Academy very, very quickly. I was super excited about the plot, and I kind of just pushed it out very fast. And then I sent it out to a group of beta readers that I had gathered from YouTube and Instagram.
These were readers who were willing to read through the first draft, the very, very choppy first draft, and give me constructive criticism. And the number one thing that people had a problem with with the story was that the book felt too rushed. I really enjoy the part that comes after the main character leaves the Academy, and kind of the journey from that point on.
And so I was rushing through the core of the story which is really about the Academy and the entire program that all these students go through was very rushed. I started to think about embracing not just the gritty aspects of the book and the exciting, fast-paced parts, but actually stretching out and making fun moments out of the, kind of the boring stuff or the beginning of the story that doesn't feel as exciting.
That definitely was a huge change in how I viewed the book. Rather than trying to put characters through constant drama and kind of rushing to get to the climax, just slowing down the pace and kind of having fun with the more light-hearted moments. I also realized, if you have to rush to get to the exciting moments, then maybe you just need to add more fun into the story.
And I started to think from a mindset of how can I make every chapter as fun as it can possibly be and as exciting as it can be for that moment in the story. I think that definitely took the story to a new level.
Grayson: So, while you were writing the first draft, was that still when you were in the U.S.?
Mel: That was, yes.
Grayson: You've since then moved to Thailand, so could you tell us a little bit about that experience and how that informed the process of writing this book?
Mel: My time here in Thailand has really been me editing the book. I wrote the first draft while I was still in the U.S., while I still didn't have all of the experiences that I have now.
I moved fairly soon after I finished the first draft. And when I got here, I started to edit the book. I realized, looking at beta reader feedback, and the parts of the story that I liked and didn't like, I realized that there was just a lot that I didn't know about martial arts that I kind of skimmed over.
There was just a lot of life experience that I could get in the real world that would be really helpful to weave into my story. So, once I got to Thailand and I started to hear about Muay Thai a lot—I've seen people train quite a bit, it's quite popular here—I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to try it out.
So I actually made a video where I trained in Muay Thai for a month. I did that mainly to get experience to write better fight scenes, but I also got to meet some really cool people, and it was amazing. And I actually found out that I love Muay Thai, and I'm still doing it now. So I'm very glad that I did that, and that's one way that this book has changed my lifestyle for sure. In addition to Muay Thai, I also tried Kung Fu, I went to a Kung Fu camp a couple hours from here. I also tried dual sword fighting, which was by far one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Meeting Pedro Solana and training with him, like all day, every day for a week, was insane.
It put me through so much physical stress, but it was a great journey emotionally and it was surprising to myself like how much I could push myself if I really tried. And all of these experiences really helped me refine what it feels like to train with tools and train in a kind of structured class environment.
So at this point I went back and I revised every single fight scene. It took quite a while. I sent out a new draft to my beta readers and got another round of feedback from them. Actually, I would say that training, in some ways, made my fight scenes worse. Because it was too detailed, it was too focused on every punch, every move, what are the techniques they use.
It was very technical, and so my real-life experience did not apply as well as I thought it would. One beta reader in particular told me, like, I don't really care if he's throwing a punch or if he's kicking someone, like, I want to know how he feels. So as I've continued to train in Muay Thai, I started focusing more on the sensations, like the breathlessness, the rage towards myself, dizziness, and an element of pride as well when you actually pull something off.
And I went back, rewrote the fight scenes again, and tried to apply these things. The fight scenes were probably the stuff that I edited the most. They went through a lot of drafts. But this lesson was actually very applicable, not just to the fight scenes, but other things as well. It got me thinking about how with stories, often it's not really even important what happens, but just how it makes people feel when they're experiencing that story. I was thinking a lot about movies where nothing really happens. There's not really much conflict, but for some reason it's so gripping. And so I started to go back through my scenes and ask myself, "How do I describe less about what's happening and more about how the characters are feeling in this moment?" I feel like if you can master describing emotions and really bringing readers into the moment, then you can make any story or any plot really interesting.
Grayson: Ultimately, stories are about creating empathy, and characters and the journeys they go on, far more than any sort of plot details. That may be what gets readers into the story, but what keeps them there is the characters, and the emotional journey they're on, and how they're transformed by what happens in the plot or what happens between characters.
Mel: That's one of the reasons why I don't like the question, "Is this story idea a good one?" Because I've been asked that a lot. People will pitch a book idea and say, like, "Is this good enough?" Because I feel like with any idea that you have, you can make it a good book with the right execution.
Grayson: Speaking of characters, were there any lessons you learned about writing characters in particular?
Mel: One interesting experience that I had that I think really leveled up my characters, especially my main character, Yahshi, was a meditation course that I went on here in Thailand. There is a temple about 30 minutes out from where I live.
It's quite famous here in Chiang Mai. I heard that there was a meditation course where you could go there and stay for a certain amount of days, and actually live on the temple and study, or I guess attend, lessons where a monk is teaching about life and dealing with conflict and just the everyday world, how to be mindful and stuff like that.
I was very intimidated, because on the website, there is not much information at all about what the experience is going to be like. It's a very strange experience signing up for this thing online. I had no clue what to expect. I didn't know anyone personally who had taken this course. But I think for several months, I was considering it; not heavily, but it would pop into my mind from time to time. One of my beta readers—not one of them, several of them—complained that they couldn't really relate to Yahshi and some of the other characters. They mentioned that they wanted to understand more about what they were thinking, and that it felt really detached.
And I'm not sure what it was exactly, but I just had a feeling that going on this course would somehow help me. And I thought it would be nice to also take a break from the story and just kind of detach from it a bit. I wasn't allowed to write during this course. I wasn't allowed to listen to music or dance or do anything, really.
We weren't even supposed to think in our free time. I was just attending classes and meditating. I think we had food early in the morning and then again at 11, and then you couldn't eat for the rest of the day. So it was a very strict environment. I actually originally was planning to stay for this course for 14 days. They have a variety of different selections you can make for how long you'd like to stay.
And I signed up for 14, but the schedule was so intense that I actually only ended up staying for 7. So I kind of chickened out a little bit. I still somewhat committed. But I did back out a bit because it was so intense. It pushed me a lot. And I realized that it was really the strict schedule that got to me. Having to wake up at like 4 or 5 in the morning, taking cold showers, and eating at certain times when they ring the bell.
And I felt... very, very stressed, I guess, being in this environment where not much was in my control. And I realized that that was very applicable to the characters in the story who are going from a normal lifestyle into this very strict military program. I didn't really show how that made them feel being in this strict schedule.
They kind of just transitioned fairly seamlessly in the earlier drafts. So now I really wanted to show the effect that something like that would really have on a person. And that was one very unexpected way that this course helped shape the story, was I actually added moments where... I actually have a character who now backs out of the program pretty early on in the story because he can't take the pressure, and that was kind of based on my personal experience when I told the monk, hey, I think I need to leave early, and kind of the shame that I felt with that as well.
So that was an interesting thing to tie in. And then also showing some of that in my main character, Yahshi, and how he's struggling with the transition. But the biggest shock from that experience was realizing how noisy my book was. I was so focused, I think, potentially due to writing advice for how to keep a story interesting and keep readers engaged.
I held myself to a very strict standard about not having any fluff and making everything really important and action-packed, and the plot is always moving. But I realized that there was no breathing room in my story. And I had characters doing things and talking all the time, and I actually never had moments where the main character was just alone.
I was going through all these scenes and Yahshi was always with someone, talking to someone, doing something. I remember there was this moment when I was at this meditation course, and I was drinking coffee on this balcony and just staring out at the view. And I actually incorporated that into the story, these small moments of reflection where Yahshi is just... I actually have him drinking juice on a balcony and staring at the view. And I have another moment where he's, like, watching the sunrise and kind of just... more of these quieter, more contemplative moments. I think that really helped readers connect with him more, it helped me connect with him more as well, and made the story feel more real. Because in the real world, we're not always fast-paced, like, everything's happening all the time.
There are those moments where, you know, people kind of file out of the room and it's just you for a moment. And I think adding that really added quite a bit more depth to the story.
Grayson: Yeah, I've had that problem with some of my earlier stories as well, where it's just like wall-to-wall action. But over time you realize that every story has to have this balance between action and reaction.
You've got to have those quiet moments to, if anything, accentuate the higher-octane moments. It gives your story more dynamic range, sort of like in a song. You wouldn't have it all at the same level of volume or intensity the entire time, because that would be boring, even if it is "exciting."
Mel: Yeah, that's an awesome way to put it.
Grayson: So what led you from there, when you're in the process of writing the book, to transforming it into an audio drama?
Mel: Oh man, I don't really know what happened, to be honest. I had been thinking about audio dramas for a while because I listened to one that I really liked called "Mother Hacker." The thought came to mind about turning Nightshade Academy into something like that.
And once I started thinking about that, I kind of couldn't get it out of my mind, and one thing turned into another. And then I had a theme song, and a soundtrack and then... I had to move forward with it at that point. So I decided to create this audio drama of Nightshade Academy before the book was even done.
I was only working on the first half of the story. So there's 40 chapters, and I wanted to produce the first 20, plus the prologue. So I spent a lot of time hyper-focusing on the first half of the book at this point. And I was only editing the first half and really trying to perfect it as much as possible. It's funny because before I went into the audio drama, I really thought that the writing process was done.
I thought that, you know, I was reaching the final stretch. It's kind of like, okay, everything's here. I can make it into an audio drama, and it will be identical to the published book. I thought the narration would be identical. It's definitely not at this point. The audio drama was a much larger project than I thought it would be.
I ended up rewriting the book into a BBC radio drama script format. So I had to completely reformat everything, and I was also changing things here and there, so that was a huge process. What I wasn't really expecting was, I started to notice things about my writing style that I had never noticed before.
I started to take more notice of the balance between narration and dialogue. And I started to play around with the idea of leaving some things up to interpretation. Especially since I had voice actors involved with this process, and I realized, like, if they're saying a line in an excited tone, that I don't need the narration about this character being excited.
Then I started to think, like, okay, if I don't need to have that narration in the audio drama, what if I technically don't need it in the book? What if the dialogue speaks for itself about the excitement? And this was something I had never really thought of before, because I kind of thought the more body language, the better, the more visuals, the better, they can see what's going on.
But I started to get intrigued by this concept of minimalism in writing, I suppose. I started revisiting a lot of my favorite books and noticing that I really appreciated the simplicity of the writing. I reread Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. And that really kind of blew my mind, just the way that he was able to describe what was going on without too much world building descriptions, or describing what characters look like, and it was just very bare bones, and I kind of liked that.
And so, I think working on the audio drama started to show me how much I appreciated simplicity. I started to think about ways to cut down on unnecessary details and leave some things up to interpretation, just for the fun of it, too. And I think sometimes there is something really powerful about not telling the reader what they should see or what they should feel, and letting them fill in the gaps. I was able to trim the book down from 150, 000 words to 115, 000 now, in the final draft.
So I trimmed out a lot of writing, and I didn't change anything about the content. All of the parts are still there, it's just a much faster pace in terms of the writing. When I started writing my second book Capsule, I felt this pressure to be more descriptive. My first book that I wrote was actually quite minimalistic in terms of the style.
With Capsule, I kind of tried to go heavier on the details and the descriptions. I think Nightshade Academy is actually a lot more like the writing style of my earlier work when I was younger. It's much more simple. I've started to use the motto: when in doubt, cut it out. So, if I'm thinking, do I really need this?—I just delete.
There were moments where I was a little bit nervous about going this route with the story, but I also realized that, at the end of the day, it's your writing style, and it's what you want to read and what you like. Sometimes it's better to just write in a way that pleases you, rather than writing what is stereotypically considered good and following all these rules.
I think it's kind of freeing to just say, okay, forget what people think is good writing and just write what sounds good to you. And so I think my writing style, as a result of the audio drama, unexpectedly changed a crazy amount.
Grayson: Finding your own personal style and voice in writing is challenging, but once you do, it's sort of freeing. It's like, okay, I know the kind of books I want to read, and thus, in a sense, the kind of books I want to write, and my style. Even if it technically doesn't abide perfectly by all the traditional rules.
If there's one overriding lesson or thing you've learned from the process of writing Nightshade Academy, what would it be?
Mel: I would say not to write in a vacuum. I think a lot of people think of writing as a solitary experience, kind of locking yourself up in a dark room, and just writing by yourself all the time. And I think there's so much power in putting your work out there and getting feedback from people. I absolutely love the beta reading process and hearing what people have to say about my work. I think I said in my acknowledgements, without my beta readers, this book would be a dumpster fire. And that is so true.
And then also just going out and getting life experience. If there's a topic that you don't really know much about, you don't have to just research it on your computer. I think there's a lot of benefits to actually, for certain things, going out and trying it and getting real life experience. There's certain sensations, I guess, that you can get from actually doing those things rather than just researching them.
I didn't want to actually try poison, consuming poison to write this story. So that was purely research based, but for the martial arts and stuff, I think that it's so valuable to go out there and try that to write about it well. And it also just makes the process more fun.
And so, meeting all of these people along the way... It's just crazy to me how many people have been involved in writing this book, really. All of my beta readers, all the people that I've trained with, they have all influenced this story and have helped me grow as a person and make this book feel more real.
I think it's fun to be a writer, but also, you know, live a little. And I think it'll make your book even better.
Grayson: Absolutely. Now that the audio drama is concluded, do you have any plans for that going forward, or else, what's next with Nightshade Academy, the book?
Mel: The book is coming out this November, on the 11th. I'm very excited about that.
As for the audio drama, I'm not sure if I'm going to produce the second half yet. If I do, it might be a while until then. For now, the first half, I'm very happy with how that turned out. I am already working on the second book, and I'm going to do my best to get that out in a year. No promises, but that is my goal.
Grayson: And with that, where can people find you online?
Mel: You can find me on my YouTube channel. I'm on Instagram sometimes. Just search up the name Mel Torrefranca. And I have a newsletter that I occasionally send emails on when I have really, really big news. I don't spam, so check it out on my website, meltorrefranca.com.
We also filmed a video for my channel as well, talking about our unpublished books. So check it out.
Grayson: Go watch that video, I think you'll really enjoy it, and subscribe to Mel. She's made a whole series of videos documenting the process of writing Nightshade Academy, which I highly recommend if you haven't watched them yet.
If you want more videos on writing and publishing, subscribe to my YouTube channel. I've got some videos coming very soon about my upcoming books, plus the next episode of my series about starting my independent publishing company, and I can't wait to share them with you.