Let’s Talk, Shannon Stocker!

Things might appear quiet on the blog front, but I’ve been having the best conversations over the past few weeks. I’m so glad it’s finally time so share one with you!  Today, Shannon Stocker and I talk about her debut picture book, CAN U SAVE THE DAY? I’m sure you’ve seen the hype for this precious book, and let me tell you it absolutely lives up to it! Get to know a little bit more about the girl behind the rhyme, then grab a copy for your own shelves. You’ll be so glad you did!

Shannon, it’s so great having you here! I would be remis if I didn’t let my southern hospitality shine though so, before we get started, can I get you something to drink? 

I love this question! It depends on the day. At home, I typically drink tea in the mornings. When I’m on vacation, I like coffee with a splash of Godiva White and Bailey’s. I’ll drink water throughout the day, and then I might have a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail in the evening—depends on my mood. I’ve been in Kentucky long enough now that bourbon is often my go-to!

So many good choices! Since we’re celebrating, how about a cold beer for each of us! It’s blisteringly hot down here and that’s about as refreshing as it gets at the end of the day! (But for anyone reading this before 5pm, we’re drinking lemon water 😉) You’ve had quite an interesting road to writing children’s books! Was there a moment when you thought “THIS is what I want to do?”

Oh my gosh, yes. Many moments, actually! I’ve always been drawn to children and writing, but it took me a while to land on picture books. In med school, I did most of my electives in pediatrics or some pediatric sub-specialty. I’ve always known I wanted to do something with children. But I’ve also always been creative. Throughout my adult life including during med school, I played gigs and wrote songs (though I always felt more skilled at writing lyrics than melodies). Toward the end of medical school, I became sick and battled Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy for seven years. During that time, music was my only creative outlet.

When I got better and had children, I discovered picture books for the first time in my life. With every book that I read to my children, I thought, “Man—I would LOVE to do this for a living.” That desire nagged at me for six or seven years before I finally decided to try my hand seriously at writing them. The big moment really came in the summer of 2015, I guess. For years, my husband and I both traveled for our jobs, which became harder as our children got older. I tried to work part-time, but the travel expectations were still too much for our family. Since I had this dream of becoming a writer, we both agreed that our family would be better off if I quit my job to stay home with the kids and pursue my passion.

 On your website, you describe reading picture books as Magic. I completely agree! It’s my favorite form of magic.  What were your favorite books to read aloud to your kiddos? Do they get to hear your manuscripts before the rest of the world does?

Yes, for sure! My kids love hearing my manuscripts, though I think they’re often more disappointed than I am when something doesn’t immediately sell. I have a few manuscripts that they ask about repeatedly, so I hope they’ll sell one day. My son’s favorite picture books are THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES (BJ Novak), THE INVISIBLE STRING (Patrice Karst), THE KISSING HAND (Audrey Penn), and honestly, CAN U SAVE THE DAY (my debut–I’ve caught Tye reading the pdf on my computer several times). He also loves DRAWN TOGETHER (Minh Lê/Dan Santat) and THE DOT (Peter Reynolds) he’s artistic, so he adores any picture book about drawing. My daughter loves anything by Deborah Underwood (INTERSTELLAR CINDERELLA and BRAVE are special to her). She’s also very interested in nonfiction picture books right now. She loves nature and animals, so JOAN PROCTER DRAGON DOCTOR (Patricia Valdez/Felicita Sala) was a favorite. I know that’s more than two or three—sorry!

 Many of our most-read books are on that list! One of my favorite interviews to date was with Patricia Valdez. (Read it here!) Writing picture books is a unique undertaking in that there is equal emphasis placed on quality AND quantity of manuscripts. Where did this one fall in order of manuscripts you’ve written?

Although this was only the second manuscript I’d ever written, I believed in the concept from the moment it first hit me, right as I was falling asleep. I told my husband it would be my debut the next morning when he woke up. I wrote several other manuscripts over the course of the next year, but I kept coming back to this one. I got some champagne rejections from agents, a nibble from an editor, and a great reaction from classmates in an online class, all of which encouraged me to keep revising. The word play, the rhythm, the story…I just loved everything about it, and I couldn’t find anything like it out there. I truly believed in it from Word One.

There is so much to love about it! Going back to one of your earlier answers, I think many of us have found writing picture books as a second or third career. But, I’m sure the population of physicians-turned-picture-book-writers is small, and the number of those who write in rhyme even smaller. You are definitely a rare breed! How did you discover this gift?

I’ve always thought of myself as a musician/writer more than anything. Even when I was in medical school, I often brought my guitar with me when I was on call in case, I needed a break or we had a slow night. I have dozens of journals filled with lyrics and poems, since I started writing as a teenager—the musicality and rhythm of language has always called to me. I love thinking of different ways to say the same thing with an eye on meter, alliteration, assonance, and other poetic devices. So, when I had children and fell in love with picture books, rhyming felt natural.

 At my second SCBWI conference, an editor critiqued CAN U SAVE THE DAY. She gave me tons of feedback including the suggestion that I should consider writing the story in prose, since so many people don’t accept rhyme. “Of all the things I’ve suggested, what do you think would be the most difficult change to make?” she asked. I remember feeling like she’d asked a trick question, but I decided to answer honestly. 

“I think changing from rhyme to prose.” I remember the sideways look on her face as she considered me. “Is that because the rhyme is important to you in this story?” “It is. I think I could change the setting, the problem, the stakes…anything else. But the rhyme…to me, it adds so much to the story. It’s not superfluous and it doesn’t take away.” She nodded. “Then ignore me,” she said. “If the rhyme is important to you, then stay true to yourself and keep it. You’re a good rhymer. It’s just not something I do.” I think that critique buoyed me. It was almost as if someone in the industry had given me permission to break this unspoken “don’t rhyme” rule. I’m very grateful to her.

As an aspiring author, one of the hardest things can be to stay true to yourself and your stories! Major kudos to you for doing this with U! Next question: Do you have an agent or did you negotiate this contract yourself?

I did sign with someone while CAN U SAVE THE DAY was in Acquisitions, but I sold it and negotiated the contract on my own. That agent and I ended up parting ways and I was solo for almost two years before signing with my current agent, Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio. Just as with any break-up, it hurts to “divorce” your agent. More than anything, I think I learned to trust my gut. Honest, open communication is so important, and I knew I needed that as a foundation for any relationship moving forward. I feel very fortunate to be with Allison—she’s a great match for me. Before I signed with her, though, I also learned the importance of querying publishing houses. A writer with an offer in hand is a writer with determination and grit. I believe those qualities really help a person stand out in an otherwise very crowded sea of hopeful writers.

letter spreadMy kids and I talk often about our favorite things, letters included. I have a soft spot for J, and my second favorite letter is P (for obvious reasons.) I was quick to find them in the illustrations and they are right next to each other! (Plus, how cute are Tom Disbury’s illustrations!) Do you have a favorite letter? I’ve never considered which letter might be my favorite! Maybe S, since I married into an amazing family with the last name Stocker? Or maybe F, since both “family” and “friend” begins with that letter? Then again, who doesn’t love the versatility of Y? Hmmmm. I love words and letters so very much and actually have another alphabet book in Acquisitions at a house right now. I’m just not sure I can choose!

 Well now I have your wheels turning! Here’s another one: Do you have a favorite rhyme from the story? Was there one that was trickier than most?

Oooooo, this is a tough one. I make a strong effort to use some unusual rhymes in my stories, but I also love other poetic devices. I love the line, “But vowel-less, words wouldn’t flow, so B’s unease began to grow.” It’s not so much that flow/grow is an unusual rhyme, but more the internal rhyme, B’s + unease, as well as the alliteration of words/wouldn’t, and the assonance of flow/so/grow. I did a little jig when I wrote that sentence. It makes me happy!

I’m not going to give any of the story away, but I can tell you that Shannon wrote a  a seamless rhyme with the word ‘consonants’. It’s so impressive!! So, with all that you’ve been through on your path to publication, I bet you have a lot you could teach aspiring authors and I’m sure you’re still learning! (Side Note: Shannon has great things to say about the importance of Critique Partners and persistence over on Vivian Kirkfield’s blog. The giveaway is over but the info is still there.) The next phase involves getting this precious book into the hands of readers. Do you have marketing plans?

I’m doing a blog tour (obviously). I’ll be featured on a couple podcasts this fall/winter, promoting on social media, and I’m looking to do school visits. I’m also going to continue attending conferences, including SCBWI Midsouth in September and AASL in November. I’ve also written a song to go with the book, and we’ll be shooting a music video in late August that will be published on YouTube by late fall! (It’s pinned to the top of her Twitter profile!!) I’m excited about that aspect. It’s a great way to combine my love of both picture books and music.

That’s an exciting and completely unique twist! I can’t wait to hear it. You mentioned Shannon Stocker headshothaving a book in acquisitions (fingers crossed), do you have anything else coming down the pipe? Where can my readers find/follow you on social media?

Yes! I don’t have a date yet, but my next picture book is an #OwnVoices story. It’s a biography about an incredibly inspirational woman named Evelyn Glennie, who was the first person to ever make a full-time career as a solo percussionist. She’s won two GRAMMY awards, been knighted by the Queen of England, and she’s deaf. Every exchange with her (interviews, emails) has been awe-inspiring. The book is called LISTEN and will be published by Dial (Penguin/Random House). I’ve also founded a blog called #InHERview, highlighting pivotal moments in the lives of female authors. I would be thrilled to have your readers follow me on social media at:

Website/blog – www.shannonstocker.com (please subscribe!)

Twitter – @iwriteforkidz

Instagram – @iwriteforkidz

Facebook – personal page https://www.facebook.com/shannon.o.stocker

Facebook – author page https://www.facebook.com/shannonstockerauthor/

Thank you so much for having me!

I’m so glad our paths crossed and it worked out for us to ‘chat’! I know we’ll be reading (and hearing) more from you for years to come! Thanks for celebrating here with us!

And thank YOU for being here, too! Come back soon. Next month I have another great conversation to share as we celebrate the release of HO’ONANI HULA WARRIOR by debut author Heather Gale, illustrations by Mika Song.

Thanks for reading, come back anytime!

-JP

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