Interview: Debut Author Melissa Stoller on her new chapter book and writing process

Brooke: I’m so pleased to have member Melissa Stoller on the blog today to celebrate the release of her debut chapter book The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island, and talk about her process.

Melissa: First, thanks so much for interviewing me, Brooke! I’m so happy to be part of the Inked Voices community and I’ve really enjoyed participating in workshops with you!

B: Where did you get the idea for the book? 

M: I’ve been thinking about writing this book for years! The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island is actually based on the story of how my grandparents, Jessie and Jack, met on the Coney Island trolley. My grandmother Jessie was a natural storyteller, and I always asked her to tell me stories about when she was a little girl. This was my favorite story. I live in New York City and enjoy visiting Coney Island. In fact, in 2001, I wrote an article about planning a day at Coney Island and included my grandparents’ story. Also, I have a huge snow globe collection. This idea has been marinating and simmering for a while and it finally came together in this time-travel chapter book adventure series.

 B: When did you start working on it? How did the project evolve over time?

M: I finally started writing this story into book form about two years ago. At first, I thought it might work as a picture book. But as I wrote, and the story and characters developed, I realized it was better suited as a chapter book. I really enjoyed having more freedom of word count and more ability to draw out the story over ten chapters, which the chapter book format allowed. I also included an author’s note describing my inspiration for the book, as well as a Family Book Club Guide at the end that includes questions for discussion, and related enrichment materials: a snow globe project, apple crisp recipe, family connection projects, and links for extended research. I think parents and educators will appreciate the opportunity to continue the discussion and creativity with their young readers through this Guide.

B: What are your plans for the series?

M: I’m so excited about this book series! My next book is The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – The Liberty Bell Train Ride. Twins Emma and Simon shake another snow globe from their grandmother’s collection, and are transported to Philadelphia in 1915. They witness the Liberty Bell making its last trans-continental train ride to San Francisco. And they realize that their Great-Great-Aunt Lucy was one of the schoolchildren who signed a petition bringing the Liberty Bell to California. When trouble brews, the twins and Aunt Lucy must help the Liberty Bell get back on track! All the books will include the twins connecting with an ancestor and of course they’ll have lots of adventures together. I’m so thankful that I have several more books in the series planned with Clear Fork Publishing, with the very talented Callie Metler-Smith illustrating.

B: Tell us about your path to publication.

M: I included the world-famous Coney Island Cyclone roller coaster in Book One – Return to Coney Island (it’s also featured on the cover!). And I feel like my path to publication has been a bit of a roller coaster ride itself, with lots of ups and downs, and twists and turns. I’m a lawyer, and also worked as a legal research and writing instructor, a legal career counselor, and an early childhood educator. I tried to write pictures books around twenty years ago when my oldest daughter was born. When I received MANY rejections, I put that aside and instead I wrote parenting articles and co-authored a book called The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading.

But I had joined SCBWI years ago and always kept current with my membership and with industry news. The creative writing bug kept nagging at me and so a few years ago, I started to become very active again, attending more conferences, signing up for writing classes and writing challenges, joining critique groups, and reading and practicing everything I could about children’s book writing. I feel like I’m finally stepping off the roller coaster onto solid ground!

B: What have you learned about your writing process over the course of the project?

M: Over the course of this project, I’ve learned to keep going and keep writing! With the longer format of a chapter book, I developed an outline that I followed to make sure the story arc remained tight and flowed well. That’s not to say that I wasn’t flexible . . . I was. I added in story points and deleted ideas that weren’t working throughout the process. And I had to delete certain scenes that I liked that just didn’t fit (but maybe they will reappear in some form in a later book!). Also, I was careful about researching period and location information from the 1920s. Finally, with the longer chapter book, I tried to make sure all the characters acted consistently throughout the story and had distinct personalities that I could build up even further as the series developed. My mind is constantly buzzing with snippets of dialogue or adventures the characters may face as they move through the series. It’s been as exciting as an amusement park ride so far!

B: You’ve had a good deal of workshop experience. What advice do you have for people to get the most out of a workshop? 

M: I love workshopping ideas and drafts, especially with Inked Voices! I have participated in three Inked Voices picture book workshops, and I get so much from them each time. I’m thrilled to say that my debut picture book, Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush, will debut with Clear Fork in 2018! I’m so excited to share this story about art, magic, and creativity! And as you know, Brooke, this was a story I workshopped with Inked Voices (although it had a different title then). I’m really looking forward to joining your new workshops this fall with some brand new picture book stories.

I love having new people read and comment on my picture book drafts, and the Inked Voices community has been so supportive and generous with ideas and insights into my work. I also love providing feedback because I feel that I learn so much through reading and commenting on other people’s work. Also, the agent or editor advice in the final webinar session is so helpful in putting it all together! To get the most from the workshop, it’s so important to be open to constructive criticism and critiques and to be willing to spend time being helpful to the other participants.

When I give critiques, I use the “sandwich” method – I first share several positive comments about the draft, then I include several specific areas that I feel could use improvement, and then I end with more positive overall comments. I learned this as a legal research and writing fellow in law school and used it as a legal writing instructor in two law schools. I think it’s really an effective critique method. 

M: What is your revision process? 

Usually, I get an idea about a title or a story line pops into my head. I jot it down right away so it I don’t forget it! Then I think about it for some time. After that brainstorming period, I write a first draft and then put it away for a little while. I do edit that first draft as I go along, but I mostly try to just get my ideas down on paper. Then, I go back and really start the revision process. I don’t number my drafts because there would be too many! I first revise big picture issues like story logic, character and plot, the story arc, making sure the story has enough emotional resonance and layers, showing not telling, leaving room for the illustrator, and more. I’m also wordsmithing as I go along. But I do also revise separately for small picture issues like word choice, grammar, and syntax. After all that, I send my draft to my critique group and to any workshops or critique professionals. Whew…that all takes so much time and effort, but I think it’s in the revision process that the magic of writing occurs.

B: Thanks for being here, Melissa! I loved hearing about the inspiration for the book. And I’m looking forward to buying a copy from you! 🙂 Congratulations! Check out Return to Coney Island here.

M: Thanks so much, Brooke! See you in our workshop group this fall!

 

About Melissa Stoller

Melissa Stoller is the author of the debut chapter book The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island(Clear Fork Publishing, July 2017); the debut picture book Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush (Clear Fork, March, 2018); and The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork, April 2018).

Melissa is a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, an Admin for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, an Assistant for Mira Reisberg’s Children’s Book Academy, and a volunteer with SCBWI-MetroNY. Melissa writes parenting articles, and has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, and early childhood educator. She lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. Find Melissa online at www.MelissaStoller.com, MelissaBergerStoller (Facebook), @MelissaStoller (Twitter), and Melissa_Stoller (Instagram).

Brooke McIntyre
Brooke McIntyre is the founder of Inked Voices, helping writers write more and write better through its platform for online writing groups and its app Ink On. She’s passionate about using technology to facilitate peer learning, about connecting with people on a human-level on the web, and, of course, about writing. Brooke received her undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and her MBA from the University of Michigan. She lives with her husband, two kiddos and their muppet of a dog in Brooklyn.

High Flying Writing (Without a Net)

I enjoy when pithy sayings impart big knowledge. I like when they get me to think. Most quotes and aphorisms meander in and out of my consciousness. But one quote sticks with me:

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

It’s generally attributed to John Burroughs, but I’ve seen it referenced as a Zen proverb and cited by many writing and spirituality authors. In my moments of writing (and living) clarity, I readily embrace it. Take risks. Breathe through your comfort zone. Try the new. Don’t be afraid of failure. What a lovely, creativity-percolating state of mind!

Unfortunately, I tend to forget it at times of stress or self-doubt. I lose my faith in the universe. I roll up into a tight ball of safety and “the known.” Not only do I not leap, I back away from the edge altogether. When I do this, my writing suffers. I would also assert my living suffers.

If we stay cloistered in a narrow comfort zone constructed of limiting beliefs about our talent and creativity, we never give ourselves the opportunity to grow. We do not explore the invigorating, fertile garden of creativity. We stagnate.

By its nature, creativity is about taking risks. It’s about exploring new ideas, new connections, new perspectives. If we hide in our shell of familiarity, we cannot be creative. And if we aren’t creative, we aren’t writing. We write to express truths. We write to explore the world around us. We write to discover. The way to write with “genuine-ness” is to be a part of the world, not to wall ourselves up from it.

Like most nuggets of profound advice, “leap, and the net will appear” is simple but not easy. Our vestigial lizard brain continually warns us about dangers. It keeps us from putting our hands in the fire or eating that odd-looking berry. It serves us well, thank you very much, by keeping us alive. But writing and creativity–even living a full, rewarding life–is much more than simply staying alive. If that were the case, we’d all be automatons or ants. We are not. We are creative, imaginative, vital beings capable of recognizing fire not only as something to be feared but also as a means to warmth, bread, and shadow puppets. We eat and enjoy blackberries, strawberries, and gooseberries because someone leaped.

“Leap, and the net will appear” means it’s OK to take risks. It’s OK to explore. It’s OK to leave our comfort zone behind because the universe is a supportive, encouraging entity. If we know risk is eliminated from the equation, taking a risk becomes easier. And when we take risks, we grow, explore, and, most importantly, create.

It’s easy to stay locked in our thought shell, writing variations on the same themes and characters we’ve written dozens of times. I know because I do it. I lose sight of leaping–or, more accurately, I lose faith the net will appear. But in my moments of clarity when I run up to the edge and refuse to hesitate, I find my fingers flying over the keyboard or my pen across the paper. I feel light. I feel unstoppable. I feel like I’m writing.

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."