Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
If you happened to miss the most recent post about my book deal, click here to check it out!--there are still two more days to enter the giveaway for your chance to win a picture book manuscript 10 minute phone critique with Melissa Richeson!
Today we have a very special Author Spotlight with Shannon Stocker! Shannon's debut, CAN U SAVE THE DAY? was nominated more than any other book during the Picture Book Spotlight Awards. And I'm so glad it did because there's lots to love here.
If you haven't had a chance to read this book, let me assure you...it is NOT your typical alphabet book. You simply HAVE to read it out loud.
Lt's dv rght n wth Shnnn! (hmmmm...what's missing here...?)
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Oh, I like this question! OK, here goes:
1. Without a doubt, I could not do my job without my critique partners. They are my champions, my cheerleaders, my therapists, my alarm clocks, my gut checks, my caffeine shots, my daily dose of giggles…they are my constant reminder that yes, I CAN do this, and yes, I SHOULD do this. Without them, my self-esteem would’ve imploded long ago.
2. Caffeine. I could open my own tea store with the collection stocked in my pantry. If I’m feeling particularly zonked, I’ll go to Starbucks for a nonfat caramel macchiato with an extra shot of espresso, and if it’s the weekend, I’ll make a “vacation coffee” at home with a touch of Godiva White or Bailey’s in it.
3. I could not do my job without my family. My husband supported me in my decision to leave my job to pursue this crazy dream, and my kids are a constant source of material. My daughter is forever reading my work out loud back to me, which is particularly helpful when I’m looking for feedback on my stories written in verse.
I’m loving these questions! Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate squares, caramel dark chocolate, salted dark chocolate, dark chocolate truffles, dark chocolate peanut butter Kind bars…I honestly eat at least one piece of chocolate every day. It’s my kryptonite. But tea, coffee, and…ok, can we be honest here? Godiva white liquor, Bailey’s, beer, wine, and bourbon are also essential. Not necessarily when I’m trying to work, but I’d call those things must-haves!
When and where do you feel most creative?
This one is tricky. Probably my most clear thinking time is first thing in the morning, after I’ve sent the kids to school and gotten ready for the day. That’s typically when I research, polish, draft, revise, and critique best. But my subconscious mind works in strange ways in those moments right before I drift off to sleep. I’ve had more than one manuscript force its way to paper in the middle of the night because some concept screamed at me as I attempted to fall asleep (or stay asleep).
For those of us who may not know your story, tell us a little about your background and how you got into writing. Why picture books?
Oh my…how much time do you have? HA! There really is no way to tell “a little” about my background, but I’ll try. I started playing piano, singing, and writing poetry as a child. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter, but I also wanted to make my dad proud (he didn’t want me to pursue music)…so I went to medical school. An illness called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy derailed me and I spent seven years fighting for my life, eventually being told by doctors in the States that I had two years to live. My husband and I flew to Mexico to participate in an experimental treatment where I was induced into a coma to “reboot” my body (sort of like you’d reboot a computer).
Through my sickest years, music really helped keep me alive. But experimental treatments aren’t covered by insurance and amateur musicians don’t make much money, so I helped start a medical finance business. I continued working with the company for several years after the coma, but I always felt a deep creative hole in my life. Once I had kids, I fell in love with picture books and something just clicked. It was like a strong gravitational pull. I wanted to raise my kids and I wanted to feed that part of my soul that I’d been starving.
Something about the repetition and simple beauty of lyrical picture books spoke to the songwriter in me. I love all writing, truly…I’m nearly done with my memoir and I’ve been doing character sketches for a middle grade. But picture books will always be special to me. No matter what else I write, I don’t ever see myself stepping away from that world.
Your debut picture book, CAN U SAVE THE DAY? is fantastic! I would definitely not call it your typical “alphabet book.” And it was nominated more times than any other book for the 2019 Picture Book Spotlight Awards! Congratulations!
How did this book come about? Tell us the story behind the story.
Thank you so much! I’m incredibly honored and thankful to everyone who voted. I wish I had a better story behind the story for this, but it was truly one of those ideas that came to me as I was falling asleep…and it came to me in verse. I remember being particularly tired that night, but lines kept rolling…so eventually I got out of bed and started typing. I was up until 3:00 am, tapping away. My brain had pooped out around 2:00 and I was trying to force something that didn’t want to be forced, so I finally made myself go back to bed. I finished the first draft before I picked the kids up from school the next day. One version went up the chain at a publishing house before getting cut, so I kept revising until, eventually, it got picked up by Sleeping Bear. Fifty-seven revisions later, it hit the shelves! Those poor letters have been on a farm, in the road, in a grocery store (not even kidding), almost run over by a truck, saved by a U with a tree branch…there have been so many iterations of this book. I’m just so thankful it’s finally in the world!
You have some sweet poetic skills! The language you use to make the rhythm and rhyme are what makes this book so unique. It’s quite musical! (really love your music video by the way!). For our friends who are less inclined to write in this way, what are some practical tips for dipping our toes into rhyming and more metered writing?
Just as with any other artform, education and practice are key. If you don’t know the meaning of terms like anapestic, iambic, pentameter, scansion, stressed beats, etc, then you should probably study before writing in verse. It’s so much more difficult, if not impossible, to write if you don’t know the language. It’s like trying to fix something when you don’t understand how it works. I studied songwriting in Nashville for three years and still feel like such a novice in that particular artform. Writing lyrically is just like learning to speak another language. The more you study it, the more tools you’ll have to be successful. And the more you practice, the more accomplished you’ll become.
There’s a strong emotional spine that gives structure to the narrative of CAN U SAVE THE DAY? In the beginning, we see the tension between vowels and consonants play out between A and B. As the story unfolds and the vowels are continuously underappreciated, they vanish, leaving us with a mess of broken words in their wake--which is where the fun really lives! At the heart of the book, there’s a deep-seated message of appreciating one another, and that one group isn’t better than another. We need ALL letters to make the words come outright. How relevant is that theme today!? I’ve done it again...I know there’s a question somewhere here...OH! Talk to us about the dynamic between orchestrating a lighthearted story about missing letters and still telling a heartfelt story about acceptance and kindness. Balancing humor and heart is a tricky business. I find it immensely challenging to not lean too much into one side or the other, so I’m very drawn to books that can live in that balance.
Your questions are so thoughtful! You know, my early versions of this story had no tension. The vowels just left, one by one, with funny sounding animals brkng and crkng in their wake. An agent critiqued my story and said, “But WHY? WHY do the vowels leave? There has to be a reason.” When I finally admitted to myself that she was right, I realized what a great opportunity I had to write a book about something that had depth and meaning while still being humorous. That balance is not usually my strength, though. I love to laugh and I think I have a pretty good sense of humor, but I am never the funny one in the room. I’m a horrible joke teller! Occasionally I’ll stumble onto a funny idea (and I LOVE when that happens), but heart is more my thing. I’ve been through so much in my life. I’ve learned the value of vulnerability and I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I hope I spill that onto to the page effectively. Readers know when you’re being genuine. That’s always my writing goal, no matter the subject—honesty.
Probably the amount of time that it takes to market yourself. I think I started with some pretty reasonable expectations. I didn’t expect to be published quickly, or to sign with an agent right away. I didn’t expect to be a NY Times Bestseller out of the gate. I didn’t expect to make a ton of money. But I’m a planner out of necessity; it’s not in my DNA. I’ve found it very unnatural to maneuver between my creative job and the more menial tasks (website maintenance, expense reporting, social media, etc). I think I’m most surprised at how much time I spend doing everything BUT writing.
You have another book coming out in the spring of 2022--AWESOME! What can you tell us about LISTEN: HOW ONE DEAF GIRL CHANGED PERCUSSION?
Thank you so much! I’m unbelievably excited about this for so many reasons. LISTEN is a nonfiction picture book biography about Evelyn Glennie, the first person to ever have a successful a career as solo percussionist. She’s won two GRAMMY Awards, been knighted by the Queen of England, and she’s deaf. Evelyn is, without a doubt, one of the kindest, most inspirational people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I’m so honored to have had her blessing on this book, coming from Dial in 2022.
A little background: I attended an SCBWI conference last January (2019), where Cheryl Klein spoke. I’d heard her lecture before at the Midsouth conference, but for some reason her message really hit home the second time around. She believes that authors should not write characters that they have not lived. So if you’re not African American, don’t create a main character who’s African American. If you’re not Jewish, don’t write a main character who’s Jewish. As a musician who had been wanting to write Aretha Franklin’s biography since her death, this message really bummed me out. But I then I started thinking about it…what was it that I know? Whose story could I tell? Well, I spent two years in a wheelchair and my arm is still riddled with tumors. I know what it’s like to have a chronic disease and to fight for my life. And I’m a musician. I’m an instrumentalist, a vocalist, and a songwriter. So when I got home from the conference, I began researching musicians with disabilities, and Evelyn’s story was the first to pop up on Google. I continued researching others, but Evelyn drew me back time and again. Everything I read really resonated with me. I felt like I could tell her story from an honest place, because in many ways, it is my own. So I reached out to her and within just a couple of days we’d scheduled a Skype. After we spoke, the first draft came out almost in its final form. It was magical how it all unfolded.
I noticed on your website you offer critiques. I like how you break down each service you offer--there’s really a little bit for everyone. How do you find time to do this with everything else you have going on!? How long have you been offering critiques in this capacity, and how has this practice impacted your own writing?
I’ve been doing critiques with my critique groups for about five years now, but I haven’t felt confident enough to offer paid services until the last year or so. My rhyming critiques are a little more expensive than prose, but I offer a full scansion plus detailed commentary on meter (and suggestions for how to fix many lines), in addition to offering comments on plot and emotional arcs. I also offer critiques for MG/YA, but I have word count limits for everything – so please do check my website for details (www.shannonstocker.com). I’m actually in the process of switching from Wordpress to Wix right now (Feb, 2020), so please forgive any glitches you might find on the current site. I also offer pitch, query, and general overview critiques. As for how this business impacts my writing…I’m not sure anyone “has” the time for critiques. We all make time for them. So many people have helped me along the way. It’s rewarding to be at a point where I feel I can give back.
Something I’ve been reflecting on lately is the concept of learning by “unlearning”--letting go of ideas we previously held as true. What is something you are “unlearning” about life or about writing?
I read this question a couple of days ago and have been mulling it over a lot. Honestly, I think I’m unlearning the old mantra that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. I’ve met so many people in this industry who are in their 50’s, 60’s, even 70’s, just starting out (I was in my mid-forties). Maybe it’s been something they’ve always dreamed of doing, maybe it’s something that caught their eye after they retired…whatever the case, I believe if you’re driven to learn this artform, you’re never too old to do so.
Stories overflowing with heart inspire me most. THE ROUGH PATCH and THE RABBIT LISTENED are two of my recent favorites. That said, I’m also a sucker for everything written by the people I love. I don’t want to name books or authors because my memory stinks and I’d surely leave someone out, but they know who they are. My critique partners inspire me daily.
Who would you like to give a shout out to?
My agent, Allison Remcheck (Stimola Literary Studio), deserves a major shout-out. Before signing with Allison I’d heard people talk about these agent-writer relationships that seemed almost unachievable. Too good to be true. When my first agent relationship fell apart, I really withdrew for about a year. I didn’t query…I didn’t even write very often. The experience deflated me in so many ways. I heard writers say, “You’ll know when it’s the right person for you. They’ll be your biggest fan and you’ll be theirs.” I thought people were blowing smoke. But truly, they weren’t. I think that writers are generally pretty insecure people. This snail-like pace of this business can make anyone crazy. But Allison always knows how to rein in my insecurities and say the right thing. She really believes in my writing, she gives incredible feedback, and her communication style is perfect for me. Likewise, I have tremendous respect for her expertise and her opinions. I’m so, so grateful to be partnered with her.
But I also need to give a shout-out to my husband Greg, my children Cassidy and Tye, my sisters Dominique and Courtney, my brother Shawn, and all my in-laws…I have the most amazing support system. I feel very blessed.