Writing tips

Q & A with nonfiction author Melissa Stewart

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Hello all!

Welcome to my book blog. For my first Q & A, please welcome the talented author Melissa Stewart, whose engaging nonfiction books serve as mentor texts for me (and countless others). Check out what she has to say about her new book Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs:

Can you describe the journey to publication for this book? Did you have an agent and how did that come about?
No, I didn’t have an agent when Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs was acquired in 2015. I’ve been working with Peachtree Publishing Company since 2001, and I’m grateful that my editor saw the potential in the Pipsqueaks manuscript. I’m now working with Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I was referred to EMLA by author and friend Cynthia Levinson.

Where did you first draw inspiration for the “animal underdog” theme?
I’ve been fascinated by animal superlatives for as long as I can remember. After all, who doesn’t admire the world’s biggest, fastest, strongest creatures? But in early 2013, I began thinking about anti-superlatives—the smallest, slowest, weakest animals. Maybe I could write a book about them.
One morning, I woke up with the beginning of the book in my head:
“Everyone loves elephants. They’re so big and strong.
Everyone respects cheetahs. They’re so fast and fierce.
But this book isn’t about animals we admire. It’s about the unsung underdogs of the animal world. Don’t you think it’s time someone paid attention to them?”
It was a gift—but it came with a price. I realized that this wasn’t going to be just an anti-superlative book. It was going to be an anti-bullying book, too. And to write it, I’d have to revisit the bullying that I endured as a child.
I wasn’t ready for that, so I shut the file, and I didn’t come back to it for months and months. But eventually, I felt prepared to face my past. I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so the western fence lizard in the book represents me.
In the end, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs is a book about animal adaptations and celebrating the traits that make us different and unique. I think pretty much every child has felt like an underdog at some point, so I hope the book will resonate with readers.

How do you go about researching your books?
No two books are the same, but I generally begin by drawing information from the nature journals I’ve been keeping since 1989. Additional information comes from books and articles and conversations with scientists and naturalists. I often use the internet to track down the experts I interview.

When did you first realize you were drawn to the world of nonfiction, and what is the appeal for you?
Many writers gravitate toward fiction because they love to invent characters and create made up worlds, but for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.

Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
In 2014, uber-talented illustrator Sarah S. Brannen and I published a book called Feathers: Not Just for Flying. The minute I saw the sketches for the last page of that book, I envisioned another similar book about seashells and dove into the research. We are so pleased that Seashells: More than a Home will be published on April 2.

Please share your favorite kidlit books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts.
Oh my, there are too many to name. Some of my favorite authors include Steve Jenkins, April Pulley Sayre, Jess Keating, Cynthia Jensen-Elliott, Diana Hutts Aston, Lita Judge, Nicola Davies, Owen Dewey, Joyce Sidman, Jennifer Ward, Heather Montgomery, Candace Fleming, Deborah Heiligman, Elizabeth Partridge, Gail Jarrow, Patricia Newman, Sandra Markle, Loree Griffin Burns, Sarah Albee, and Barb Rosenstock.
This is really a golden age for nonfiction. Authors are experimenting in all kinds of ways and stretching in new directions. It’s so exciting! I can’t wait to see what my colleagues come up with next.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to other writers?
It’s pretty simple: Keep on writing! Being a writer is full of challenges and frustrations and so many things we can’t control. But we can control how much time and energy we devote to honing our craft.

Bonus Q- If you could be any flavour of ice cream, which one would you be and why??
Chunky Chocolate Pudding ice cream from Bedford Farms in Bedford, MA. It’s my favorite.

BIO
Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 nonfiction books for children, including Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, Can an Aardvark Bark?, and No Monkeys, No Chocolate. She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science. Melissa’s highly-regarded website features a rich array of educational resources for teaching nonfiction reading and writing.

Website: https://www.melissa-stewart.com/
Blog: http://celebratescience.blogspot.com/
Twitter: @mstewartscience
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/melissa.stewart.33865
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/mstewartscience

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How to Find Time to Write

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I’m a writer.

You’d think I spend most of my time writing, right?

A writer is chained to her/his computer, madly tapping away at the keys, forgetting about eating and showering, right?

Uh, no.

If you’re an aspiring or professional writer, you’ll know that’s not true. First off, daily household chores take over, and some of us writers also have second jobs. This takes up a large chunk of time. But when we finally do get to work on our craft, we find ourselves having to wear so many other hats.

Read the rest of this entry »

What Does it Take to Publish a Book- Part 2

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Following my last post about what it takes to publish a book, here’s a real life example:

In 2014, I had a great idea for a book. It was about a Rabbit who is afraid of everything and then comes face to face with a gigantic bear. So I started writing it. A month in, I realized I didn’t know how to end the story. SoI decided to put the book away for a while.

I circled back to it a few months later and managed to finish it. Then I spent a few months editing it (though I don’t love the editing process!). I also sent it to a few of my critique partners to get their honest opinions. In total, I spent 11 months writing and editing the book.

When I finally had a polished version, I started to query editors. To my dismay, it was one rejection letter after the next.
After a while, I decided to give up seeking out editors and instead focus on finding an agent.

After spending months crafting the perfect query letter and researching every agent and their areas of specialty, I went to work. I queried agent after agent, with a different book. And then…again…it was a few years of more rejection letters.
But I knew it was part of the process and I never gave up.

In 2016, I finally got an agent! I was ecstatic! She started submitting my books to publishers. But my excitement was a bit deflated by the rejection letters that came in one after the other.

But, I kept believing.

Unfortunately, things were not going that well with that agent. I began to have my doubts. But I was too afraid to make a big move, for fear of once again being agentless and feeling “lost at sea.”

In 2017, I decided to take the plunge. I let the agent go. I was upset for a few weeks and felt lost, but then I picked myself up and went back to the drawing board. Read the rest of this entry »

So What Does it Take to Publish a Book?

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First, let me say:

There is no simple ‘recipe’ for success.

Many people ask me, what does it take to publish a book? While I certainly don’t know all the answers, I’ve been at this for many years. And what I’ve learned can be summed up in 5 major points:

  1. You Need a Fantastic Idea!

If you want attention from not only your readers but also the literary community, the first thing you need is a tremendous idea. But BEFORE you actually write the book, you need to research other books out there that may be similar. I’ve had several ideas I was convinced were potential best-sellers, but then, oh no, I found an almost identical book already on the market. Ideas are funny that way. Sometimes they float in the air and are public property.

  1. Be Ruthless With your Edits

Ok, so you’ve got this amazingly awesome idea. And, nobody has written anything similar. You’re off to a promising start! But a great idea is just that: a great idea. To make it come alive in a book in just the right way takes talent and a lot of practice. Your idea needs engaging characters. It needs a setting, and an ending but most of all, it needs conflict, plot and the right pacing. Once you hammer out the first draft, get back to the drawing board as many times as it takes to edit it thoroughly. Get critique partners. Be ruthless.

  1. Do Your Research!

It’s hard enough to achieve numbers 1 and 2 successfully. But if you do, the nest step is to do the proper research. Don’t just send it off to a batch of 50 random publishers. Many might not even accept that specific genre, or may not match with your writing style. It’s critical that you research the publishers that interest you to find the right matches. So when you do send your queries, it’s to editors who might actually have an interest in your work. Be smart about this step. And yes, this takes A LOT of time. There are no short-cuts. Don’t forget to keep immaculate records for future use. Read the rest of this entry »

How I Got an Agent, Lost that Agent, and Found a New One (Without Losing my Mind)

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(This post originally appeared on the WriteForKids Blog)
https://writeforkids.org/blog/2018/06/got-agent-lost-agent-found-new-one-without-losing-mind/

Like many of you, I’ve been knee deep in the querying trenches, desperately trying to make my submission stand out in the staggering slush pile. And as we all know, this process is time consuming. It goes on and on, peppered with rejection letters, until we finally get a bite.

I signed with my first agent a few weeks after I got my first bite. In my mind, my problems were now over. Yahoo! No more submissions! No more Twitter pitch parties! No more querying! I was already visualizing a book contract with the Big Five.

But that’s not how the cookie crumbled.

Here are 3 truths nobody tells you about landing an agent:

  1. It can be anti-climactic: Don’t expect a book deal the next day, week or month.
  2. You will still need patience: The submission process is laborious, no matter who’s doing the submitting.
  3. You will still get rejected: The difference is that now, the rejections get sent to your agent.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Anti-Conformist Picture Book

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Mark Loewen is the author of an amazing new picture book, What Does a Princess Really Look Like?  In the book, he breaks gender stereotypes and features a family with two fathers. Please enjoy my Q & A with him:

-You hit a lot of powerful topics in this book. One take-away lesson is that princesses don’t simply “look pretty.” Being a princess also involves using your brain, as well as being courageous and strong. Do you think there is too much emphasis on appearance and playing up to feminine stereotypes in society?

Definitely. And it was always obvious to me. I think this was one of the male privilege aspects that I always saw, especially growing up in South America. But I really noticed how powerful this was when I observed how people related to my daughter. Strangers everywhere tell her how pretty she is – all the time. And I agree with them! But it makes me nervous that most people who talk to her when we are out say something about her looks. As she grows up, I want her to know that her looks are not the best or most important thing about her. It’s just one part of her.

I remember one time we went to the grocery store and she was wearing a superhero mask. A lady smiled at her and said, “I can see your beautiful eyes through that mask!” And I thought… even specifically dressing as someone strong and brave, people are commenting on her eyes. And this is all well-intentioned. But I don’t think boys get this message.

-What about in literature? 

Children’s literature plays into it because it sells. Even books or movies with strong females sometimes show that girls are “ditzy” or “clumsy.” I’m reminded of how Disney princesses like Anna and Moana both trip right at the end of a really big song. But I can’t think of male heroes portrayed in this way.

I’ve noticed that it’s becoming easier to find children’s books with strong female characters. Girl empowerment is big with publishers now, which is one reason why I found interest in my book so quick. What I do still notice is that books with strong female characters are still considered only for girls. But girls read books with strong male characters all the time. This needs to change.  Read the rest of this entry »

#PBPitch: An Awesome Twitter Pitch Contest for Kidlit Writers!!

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Twitter pitch parties have been gaining in popularity in the last few years.

What is a Twitter pitch party, you may ask?

Well, if you’re a writer and are seeking a literary agent or a publisher, they are amazing opportunities. If you have finished and polished manuscripts, just make an engaging (and short) pitch via Twitter. Add the hashtag #PBPitch, and presto, your pitch will be seen by a select group of literary agents and editors! If the agent or editor in question likes your pitch, then you can send it to them and cross your fingers.

The guidelines can be found in the official website, posted below.

I recently sat down with author and #PBPitch co-founder Pj Mcllvaine for a chat. Hope you enjoy our Q & A: Read the rest of this entry »