We are so happy to welcome children's author Shannon Stocker to the Muffin today. This is an interview you will not want to miss. Not only did Shannon receive a traditional publishing contract for her picture book, Can U Save the Day?, but she also has secured an agent, survived a life-threatening illness, and is working on a memoir. So, let's just get right to it...
WOW: Hi, Shannon, welcome to the Muffin. We are so honored to be interviewing you, when you are usually writing or interviewing someone for us! And you have such exciting news--your first picture book: Can U Save the Day? came out on August 15. Tell us about this super cute book!
Shannon: Thank you so much for having me! I’m excited about CAN U SAVE THE DAY for so many reasons. Obviously, I’m over the moon about having a debut picture book; but I’m also thrilled because when I first started writing seriously, so many people told me not to rhyme before they ever read my work. It was beaten into my head that it was too hard; nobody would buy it; nobody would rep it. I’m very proud that I stayed true to my rhyming vision, and I’m grateful to my editor, Sarah Rockett, for believing in me, too. In this story, B bullies the vowels because they’re part of a smaller group. As a result, one by one, the vowels leave the farm—and the dialogue in the story. Stammering animals and tongue-tied consonants quickly find themselves in a sticky situation that can only be saved by U.
WOW: Good for you for sticking to your vision and believing in yourself! How empowering. And the story sounds super cute. How did you get this idea? Did this book go through a lot of revision or pretty much come out with just a few tweaks here or there?
Shannon: This was only the second picture book I wrote, so it has evolved quite a bit since the first draft. The concept of a story in which vowels leave the farm (and the sounds made by farm animals in the process) came to me in those seconds before drifting off to sleep. I wrote several “stanzas” late one night in October 2015. I put “stanzas” in quotes because my meter was horrible in that first draft, and each stanza seemed to be however many lines it wanted to be. By January 2016, however, I had a draft that I liked. The problem was that I also had a story with no inciting incident and very little tension. Regardless, I got a bite from an editor who wanted me to take the animals off the farm and remove vowels from all road signs (as well as the animal sounds), but it got cut in editorial. I continued to revise the story with the help of new critique partners I’d met through SCBWI and 12x12 along the way; and in early 2017, I paid for a critique from Sarah Rockett of Sleeping Bear Press. Sarah suggested that I bring the animals back to the farm but remove the vowels from ALL dialogue in the book as each one left. She also suggested I amp up the tension. I embraced the challenge; and after revising my story a total of more than fifty times since that first draft, I’m so excited that it’s actually going to be in kids’ hands!
WOW: That story about your revision shows your perseverance, and how exciting that you are seeing all your hard work pay off! You also have a literary agent! How did you secure your agent and why did you decide to go this traditional route?
Shannon: I signed with my first agent in early 2016, but that relationship wasn’t meant to be. She’s a good person, I think, but she wasn’t an honest agent. After we split, my self-esteem really took a hit, and I was very confused about the whole industry. I managed to sell CAN U SAVE THE DAY on my own, but for the next year+ I didn’t query many agents…maybe two or three the whole year.
My confidence was boosted, though, when my first story was accepted by Chicken Soup for the Soul, and then Chicken Soup editor Amy Newman contacted me directly and asked to interview me for their Friendship Friday podcast. Shortly thereafter, she asked me to write two more stories for Chicken Soup, and then I won a nonfiction essay contest with WOW! (yay!). Those events together were so pivotal for me; I began to believe in myself again. This past January when I attended the Miami SCBWI conference to meet some of my closest critique partners in person, the importance of the #OwnVoices movement rang clear through several sessions. I asked myself, “What can you, Shannon, write about that no one else could?” I’m a coma survivor with a chronic condition called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a medical school graduate, and a musician. The answer struck like lightning, and I began researching a deaf musician for a nonfiction picture book biography.
In March, a story poured out of me that was taken to acquisitions at a publishing house the same day that I queried the editor. That afternoon, a different manuscript was sent to acquisitions at another house. By this time, I knew I wanted a fair shake with the larger houses; I knew I had limited-to-no experience with contract negotiations (and no interest in learning), and I knew it was time to try again. I queried thirteen of my top agents/agencies, and six or seven responded with interest. That whole week felt surreal to me. I signed with Allison Remcheck of Stimola because I loved her kind vibe, and her clients adored her (and raved about both her communication and her honesty). One client even told me, “Don’t be fooled by her soft-spoken demeanor. She may be gentle with us, but she’s aggressive in negotiations!” She oozed genuine enthusiasm for my writing and offered to rep everything I write—even my memoir. She is really a fantastic match for me. I’m very fortunate.
WOW: WOW! First of all, the story of your survival is amazing, and we will definitely want to be kept informed about your memoir. Your story is very inspirational, and I'm sure giving many writers reading this interview hope and inspiration. Congratulations on all your success so far. On your website, you are very open about the medical condition you mentioned above that almost killed you. We'll let readers go read your inspiring story here and look at photos of your super cute family. What I'm wondering is: how did you make that very hard decision to quit your full-time job once you were well and had children, and dedicate your career to writing full-time?
Shannon: Awww…thanks for the comments about my super cute family! I think they’re pretty awesome. Quitting my full-time job really was a tough decision in many ways. I was raised to believe I should support myself. I got a B.S. in learning disabilities from Northwestern, then got a M.S. in anatomical sciences and neurobiology, and then went to medical school. I did not, however, pursue medicine as some childhood dream (you’ll have to read my memoir to learn more about that). In any event, seven years of sickness and a coma left my husband and I in a tremendous amount of debt, alleviated only by having a two-income household. I was fortunate to be hired by a company that did financing for physician-owned facilities, where I worked for about twelve years. I was very torn between wanting to stay and help continue to grow this company that I’d sunk so much of myself into and wanting to stop the chaos in my life. For years, both my husband and I traveled weekly with our jobs. But the toll was far greater once we had two toddlers and were forced to constantly juggle nannies. We were both exhausted. So when our oldest was ready to enter kindergarten, we moved back to Kentucky in 2013 to be closer to family. We needed help.
For years, I’d been a poet and a songwriter, but I fell in love with picture books when I became a mother. Around 2010, I started daydreaming about one day writing a picture book. I kept some crazy hours, though, so my time for creative outlets was minimal. After we moved to Kentucky, someone once told me, “You’d never be happy if you weren’t working. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.” I lacked confidence and feared he was right, so I stuck with the job longer than I probably should have. But I couldn’t shake the desire to stay home with my kids. And I couldn’t shake the pull to write.
In the fall of 2015, my husband and I had a heart-to-heart. Both of us continuing to travel was no longer an option. The traveling, the chaos, the long hours—they took a toll on both our family and my health. His job had more security, and I had other dreams. So we agreed, and I quit. I almost suffocated in self-doubt that first week, but slowly, I organized a plan of attack. I joined SCBWI. I made a last-minute decision to attend Midsouth. I started working on a website. I found critique partners. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. So I guess I did know what to do with myself after all.
WOW: Yes, I would say you did know. Thank you for sharing all those details with us about how you made the decision to quit your full-time job and why. So how is that going? Do you freelance a lot? What is your daily schedule like?
Shannon: I freelance a bit, here and there. I still submit to Chicken Soup. I do some occasional work for a real estate buddy of mine. I write guest blogs (or freelance blogs), and I have a critique business (see my website!). But motherhood, my memoir, my picture books, marketing, and now (hopefully) school visits keep me pretty busy. I also have a middle grade churning in my mind, which I hope to start the minute I finish my memoir (hopefully this year). I started my own blog series called #InHERview, highlighting three pivotal moments in the lives of female authors; and I’m also a judge for Rate Your Story, an administrator for the debut picture book group #PictureBookBuzz, co-chair for Louisville’s SCBWI group, a member of 12x12, a founder of #ReVISIONweek, and very active in four different critique groups. My daily schedule turns to whatever is nipping at my heels that day.
WOW: Holy cow. I would say you have a full plate and might even be working more than you were when you had a traditional job. All of that sounds very exciting! What's next for you in the picture book world? Are you working on something now? Have anything with your agent?
Shannon: Yes, yes, yes! I was finally able to do a “soft” announcement last week (the full announcement will come once we have an illustrator on board, which I hope will be soon!). The nonfiction picture book biography that I wrote in March sold to Dial (Penguin/Random House). It’s called LISTEN, about Evelyn Glennie. She’s the first person to ever make a full-time career as a solo percussionist; she’s won two grammy awards; she’s been knighted by the Queen, and she’s deaf. Truly one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met—I just adore her. Allison is submitting two more manuscripts to my editor at Dial now, and I have another book in acquisitions that I hope to hear about next month! And, of course, I’m constantly writing new material. I’m also looking forward to revising existing stories during #ReVISIONweek in September.
WOW: Awesome. I love the idea for Listen, and Evelyn sounds like another inspiring woman wyo overcame obstacles, just like you. Thank you so much for your time, Shannon. One last question: what is one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring children's writers?
Shannon: If I could only give one piece of advice, it would be this: do the work you need to get involved in a good critique group. I found mine through SCBWI, 12x12, and some online classes. I would not be the writer I am today without my CPs. They tell me (gently) when I’ve written something that doesn’t work; they lavish praise when I’ve written something that does; they pout/cry/scream with me when I get rejections; they celebrate with me when I succeed and so much more. I am a better writer because I critique their work, but I’m also a better writer because they push me to be the best version of me.
This industry is so tough, so filled with rejection and, worse yet, silence. We all question ourselves. I love that old Japanese proverb, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” It’s so simple, but so hard…and so true. It’s not easy to dust yourself off after that hundredth fall. But critique partners help SO MUCH. Sometimes the dust can be pretty heavy. No need to brush it all off alone.
WOW: I totally, totally agree, and that is great advice. I am also lucky to have a great critique group, and they are so inspiring! Readers, make sure you go check out Shannon's first picture book, published by Sleeping Bear Press, here, and then hop over to her website and check out how to stay in touch with her here.