Interview Transcripts

Melissa Stewart: Writing Nonfiction for Kids 6/30/05

Event start time:

Thu Jun 30 19:03:31 2005

Event end time:

Thu Jun 30 21:04:11 2005



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all.

 

Welcome to our Professional Connection live chat interview.

 

Tonight we're chatting with Melissa Stewart

 

She's an ICL instructor and a prolific children's author.

 

After working as an editor for 9 years, Melissa Stewart became a fulltime writer in 2000. She has written more than sixty books for children and contributed articles to Click, Highlights for Children, National Geographic World, Odyssey, and Science World. Visit her at http://www.melissa-stewart.com  

 

Melissa, welcome!

 

I'm so pleased to have you here.

Melissa Stewart

Hi Everyone.

Mary Rosenblum

So let's begin from the beginning. How did you get started writing, initially?

Melissa Stewart

I started writing for my high school newspaper

 

but never considered it as a career possibility until my last semester of college.

 

I was a biology major and was looking for a career. A professor suggested writing, and I enrolled in a program at NYU.  I published my first professional piece in a local NYC newspaper in 1990. I was paid $4.00.

Mary Rosenblum

What did you focus on at NYU?  (Aren't we well paid though?)

Melissa Stewart

At NYU, I enrolled in a special science journalism program.

 

At that point, I wanted to write for science magazines

 

but eventually migrated over to children's publishing.

Mary Rosenblum

What brought you to children's publishing particularly?

Melissa Stewart

At the time I graduated, the country was in a recession.

 

Magazines were folding right and left.

 

So I took a job editing science textbooks for middle grades and high school kids

 

After 3 years, I took a job editing school and library titles for a company that is now owned by Scholastic.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, you bring quite a bit of editorial expertise to this.

Melissa Stewart

I worked there for 5 years, then became a freelancer.

 

I wanted to move back to Massachusetts because my brother had just had his first child.

Mary Rosenblum

It's true...you do need to live in NYC if you're editing for a NY publisher.

 

You've published a huge number of books...sixty, right?

Melissa Stewart

Yes, I've been fortunate. My husband would say I'm a workaholic.

Mary Rosenblum

What's the time frame for those sixty (!) books?

 

How long has it taken you?

Melissa Stewart

The first book was published in 1998. The year I turned 30.

 

I had 11 published titles by the time I left my job. That gave me the confidence to do it.

Mary Rosenblum

My dear, that is nearly ten books a year! Are they all nonfiction?

Melissa Stewart

Along the way, I've done many other types of writing gigs too.

 

They are all nonfiction. Some are every short--less than 500 words. Others are much longer.

Mary Rosenblum

What age groups do you write for?

Melissa Stewart

Recently, I've had three picture books accepted. The first will come out in the fall.

 

I write for kindergarten through adult. I have contributed to 2 adult books and written many adult magazine articles.

paulplqn

Melissa, for how many publishers do you work?

Melissa Stewart

Hi Paulplqn. I work for about 8 or 10 different publishers.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you get assignments from them, or do you have to pitch every new book?

Melissa Stewart

Some of each. Usually, I need the idea to get in the door. But then they may assign additional titles to me.

geezer

Do you feel it is essential to take a course in writing for science to be able to write science?

Melissa Stewart

Hi Geezer. No, it's not necessary.

 

What's more important is a strong science background.

 

I have a degree in biology and usually write about life sciences. My husband has an advanced degree in physics, so he sometimes helps me out.

babbles

Is all your writing science based? My granddaughter and I are raising tadpoles and butterflies right now.

Melissa Stewart

Cool.

paulplqn

Melissa, is all of your work on science topics, or do you write in other areas?

Melissa Stewart

It is mostly science based, but I also write about writing.

Mary Rosenblum

For adults? Or kids? Or both?

Melissa Stewart

For adults. I have two articles coming out in The Writer later this year. I've also written a few biographies.

speckledorf

How hard is it to break into children's writing, especially nonfiction?

Melissa Stewart

It's pretty hard. There are so many things you need to know.

 

I strongly recommend joining the Society of Children's Book Writer's and Illustrators...

 

The Institute’s classes are also a great intro.

 

You can also take classes at a local continuing ed program.

Mary Rosenblum

The Institute, by the way, is Long Ridge's sister school, which teaches writing for children.

Melissa Stewart

New writers are usually surprised how much work goes into marketing

 

Sometimes I spend more time pitching a piece and researching the market

 

than writing it.

paulplqn

Do you write and then pitch? Or, pitch the idea and then write?

Melissa Stewart

Good question.

 

While I'm developing an idea in my mind, I always think about publishers.

 

That helps me decide how to write it.

 

I sometimes write queries

 

but more and more, publishers want to see the final product

 

before they acquire something.

Mary Rosenblum

That's interesting, Melissa. Do you see that as a trend peculiar to the children's markets?

Melissa Stewart

I don't know much about the adult world...

 

But I do know that 5 or 10 years ago, children's writers could do less work before getting a contract.

Mary Rosenblum

In my experience the adult nonfiction markets still seem to mostly want queries, but perhaps 'voice' is important enough in children's publishing

 

that publishers want to see the whole piece, as with a fiction or personal narrative piece?

Melissa Stewart

I think it's mostly that children's pieces are shorter.

 

Also, so many people want to write for kids, that editors can be demanding.

paulplqn

Less work before a contract? How so?

Melissa Stewart

Until fairly recently, writers could get a contract with a sample chapter and an outline. That's not really true anymore.

Mary Rosenblum

What are the lengths, generally, for children's nonfiction books?

Melissa Stewart

It varies widely.

 

Anywhere from 500 words for the youngest readers to 30,000 words or more for high school.

paulplqn

What's needed now?

Melissa Stewart

Engaging stories with great beginnings and action, action, action.

 

Kids have short attention span and high expectations.

 

There are so many other things they could be doing. A book really has to grab them.

wolf122

Without any prior experience writing for children/young adults--do you have any tips for us to write stories without them sounding too 'childish'?

Melissa Stewart

The best thing to do is immerse yourself in a child's world.

 

Listen to how they talk to one another to create great, authentic dialog.

 

Think about what topics will interest them.

 

For nonfiction, that means knowing a lot about national curriculum standards.

Mary Rosenblum

Are most nonfiction books for children targeting school markets?

Melissa Stewart

Schools and libraries are still the biggest buyers of kids book.

paulplqn

As a middle school teacher, I can second the short attention span and high expectations!

Melissa Stewart

Even trade titles (those in bookstores) usually are related to curriculum.

Melissa Stewart

Teachers know!

wolf122

There are different developmental models (Erickson's, etc.) that describe an individual very generally at each step in the lifespan--how accurate would this tool be to use for writing to this population?

Melissa Stewart

I'm not familiar with these models. I think the best tool is observation.

 

If you don't have kids in your life, volunteer at a school or library or with a scout troop.

whistlin_smithy

Do you write for specific children's markets, such as homeschoolers?

Melissa Stewart

I write for many kids magazines, which are purchased by homeschoolers.

paulplqn

Curriculum standards are online from your state department of education (at least they are in Massachusetts). That can be a resource.

Melissa Stewart

Good point. The state standards can help, but the national standards are better. They too are online

Melissa Stewart

The science standards are at this site. Social studies are here.

babbles

Did you start with an agent or do have one now? Or because of your editing jobs maybe it wasn't necessary for you to seek one out?

Mary Rosenblum

You do need an agent to deal with children's book publishers, don't you?

Melissa Stewart

Good question. I don't have an agent. They aren't as necessary in kids' publishing.

 

As a former editor, I'm pretty cmfortable with contract language.

 

In addition, many agents won't take nonfiction writers because they pay is much less than for fiction.

Mary Rosenblum

That's interesting!

geezer

Do you work with an illustrator, or does the publisher supply one? How does that work?

Melissa Stewart

I've only written 3 books with illustrations.

 

Most have photos.

 

For those 3 books, I did have a say in selecting the illustrators,

 

but that is very unusual. It's because the editor wanted my input as a science expert.

 

Most of the time, a writer has no contact with the illustrator. The writer may not even see the art before the book comes out.

Mary Rosenblum

I have a graduated student who has written a whole series of illustrated books, and that was her experience...she saw the illustrations when the book was published.

Melissa Stewart

The idea is for the artist to be an equal contributor.

 

In a picture book, neither the text nor the art should be able to function alone.

 

You need both to tell the story.

 

That's the main difference between a picture book and an early reader. In an early reader, the art supports the text.

 

The idea is that the art gives struggling readers clues.

babbles

If you're writing a children's picture book and supplying your own pictures do you send them with the ms or just mention that you have them on hand?

Melissa Stewart

Hi Babbles. Are you a new writer?

babbles

Hi Melissa, I've been writing for 20 something but not published yet. I've read many of my stories in the local schools.

Melissa Stewart

For people new to the children's publishing world, it is best to pursue just writing or just illustration first.

 

The idea is that publishers pair an unknown person with a known person. This helps generate more sales.

 

Once you are established, then you can both write and illustrate.

 

I know this is frustrating, but choosing one will increase your odds of getting published.

 

Have you ever taken a writing class? It could really help.

paulplqn

Do publishers want one final product, or many different ones with the thought of future work?

Mary Rosenblum

Is it best to simply send in one item at a time?

Melissa Stewart

It's best to just pitch one piece at a time.

 

They will want to see how the first project goes before committing to a series or other types of future projects.

paulplqn

But have others in reserve?

Melissa Stewart

With so much competition, editors choose writers who are easy to work with.

Mary Rosenblum

That's good advice in the adult world, too. :-)

Melissa Stewart

It's fine to have others in reserve, but you don't have to.

paulplqn

How are you able to keep track of all your projects? On your own? An agent?

Melissa Stewart

I have a big spread sheet and a calendar to track deadlines and payments.

 

Each day, I start out by answering my email and then deciding which project to work on first.

 

Having several projects going simultaneously is the best way for me to work.

 

I never get writer's block because if I'm having trouble with one piece.

 

I just switch to another.

 

Another trick, is that I know my body.

 

I'm definitely a morning person.

 

So I do my most challenging stuff earlier in the day and easier stuff later.

Mary Rosenblum

I think that's an excellent recipe for writing as a professional, in general.

Melissa Stewart

That way I stay very productive.

pjwriter2

Hello Melissa, I don't do nonfiction at this time, but was wondering if some of this advice would also be useful for fiction?

Melissa Stewart

Definitely. Knowing how kids think is one example.

whistlin_smithy

Hi, Melissa, Do you stay actively involved in marketing your books?

Melissa Stewart

Good question. I write some books for a flat fee and others for an advance and royalties

 

so I'm more interested in promoting my advance/royalty books.

 

I give them priority on my website and use them as examples more in talks I give.

 

When a new book comes out, I show it to local librarians and bookstore owners.

 

I've built relationships with these people over the years.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you get asked to speak at, say, schools often?

Melissa Stewart

I don't market as aggressively as some writers I know.

 

But that's mostly a matter of personality. I'm not that outgoing

 

and I don't feel comfortable really pushing my books hard.

tolkienlvr

Melissa, is there a general norm for flat fee rates for various length nonfiction books in children's markets?

Melissa Stewart

There is no norm and that's frustrating sometimes. What an editor is willing to pay is based on projected sales

 

for a title. It's hard for a writer to guestimate this. My strategy is to always ask for more than their first offer.

Mary Rosenblum

What about rights? Is it similar to fiction publishing...you grant rights? Or do you also do work for hire in this field?

Melissa Stewart

The flat fee books are work for hire and the rights stay with the publisher.

 

When it's an advance/royalty contract, the author owns the copyright.

speckledorf

Do you do library book signings and readings?

Melissa Stewart

Most libraries and bookstores don't want just a signing and reading. They want a program that offers more.

 

I have developed programs for many of my books and do presentations in school and libraries as well as nature centers

 

and sometimes other venues too.

 

You can see some of my programs on my website.

Mary Rosenblum

Interesting. Do you get paid for these programs, or do you consider them to be advertising for your books?

Melissa Stewart

Most of the time I get paid, but sometimes I'll do it pro bono for an organization that I want to support.

 

Once example is a museum in my town that as been very supportive of my work.

speckledorf

How long does it take from acceptance of a manuscript until publication and what is the process?

Melissa Stewart

That's not an easy question to answer.

 

It can take anywhere for 6 months to several years.

 

My first PB was accepted in 2001 and it'll come out this fall.

 

I'd say the normal time period is 1.5-2 years.

 

After a manuscript is accepted, there may be one or more rounds of revisions.

 

I've had some pieces where only a couple words were changed. In other cases, I've

 

revised a half dozen times.

 

After that, the publisher has to get photos or illustrations,

 

lay out the book,

 

and send it to the printer, where it may sit for 6 months or more.

 

In there somewhere are copy editors, sometimes fact checkers, etc.

babbles

Are Picture Books hard to sell? It seems to be a tough market.

Melissa Stewart

It is the hardest market.

 

About 85 percent of publishers' slush piles are picture books.

 

Many publishers get 10,000 unsolicited submissions each year. Only 1 or 2 are published.

 

Also, it's getting harder. As the babyboomer's kids grow, the PB market is shrinking.

 

On the other hand, right now, the young adult market is growing by leaps and bounds.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, those populations curves, matter. :-)

Melissa Stewart

Yes, they do. Surveys have shown that teens have money to spend and are willing to buy books. That made booksellers salivate.

speckledorf

Are there any topics that are "'taboo" in the youth market?

Melissa Stewart

By "youth" do you mean young adult?

 

There really are no topics off limits for them

 

but younger readers have gentler themes and conflicts in their books.

 

Also, the resolutions are more complete and happy for younger readers.

 

For YA, some of the sub-conflicts may not be resolved and the main character's future can be more vague.

 

Even so, the YA reader must be left with some hope.

 

The only exception I've ever seen to this rule is Feed by M.T. Anderson.

Mary Rosenblum

I don't know that book, is it quite bleak?

Melissa Stewart

At the end, we don't really have any idea what's going to happen to the MC, and his girlfriend dies.

Mary Rosenblum

That's definitely a bleak ending. :-)

writeaway

With the length of time it takes to publish, it seems what was pertinent when written may not be at time of publishing.

Melissa Stewart

That can be true, especially for science topics.

 

Authors need to keep that in mind as they are writing.

 

Very time sensitive material is more appropriate for magazines.

 

The good news for writers is that books need updating from time to time, which can lead to more work.

paulplqn

Is the SCBWI really helpful in opening doors of opportunity? Or is it more moral and writing support?

Melissa Stewart

The support definitely is important, but so are the contacts you can make at conferences.

 

Also, they have great resources, such as lists of who is at what house. This is updated annually.

 

Also, they maintain a list of qualified "manuscript doctors." They can be a huge help.

 

Critique groups located all over the place can help you improve your writing skills and get feedback from

 

knowledgeable people.

Mary Rosenblum

I'll speak up for this issue...networking is the way a lot of business gets done in the publishing world, and an organization like SCBWI can be an entry into that network for you.

Melissa Stewart

I really can't say enough good things about this organization.

Mary Rosenblum

Are there publishing requirements for membership here, Melissa, or is it open to everyone?

Melissa Stewart

Right. If you know writers, you can get to know their editors. Maybe they'll recommend you.

 

That can get you out of the slush pile, which is critically important.

 

Who wants to compete with 10,000 other submissions?

 

It's open. There are two levels of membership.

 

One for published, one for unpublished. It's the largest writer's organization in the country.

 

Larger than the National Writer's Union.

 

They also have resources for people with legal questions or questions about contracts.

 

I've taken advantage of those services from time to time.

Mary Rosenblum

It sounds well worth the membership fee for anyone intending to write for children!

paulplqn

I guess I'll send in that application after all.

Melissa Stewart

Definitely. The conferences are fantastic.

geezer

Is Feed fiction?

Melissa Stewart

Feed is fiction, science fiction.

writeaway

Do you find it difficult to write something for the YA market that will still be of interest to them by the time it is published?

Melissa Stewart

No, YA books tend to me more general overviews. I just finished one on the history of Cell Biology for a

 

series about the history of science. Nothing there will go out of date.

 

Other YA topics I've written on are biographies.

 

My first book, Life Without Life, is out of date and I expect if will go out of print soon...

 

But that's okay, because there are so many interesting topics to write about going forward. Most scienc ebooks have a shelf life of 5 to 7 years.

babbles

Could I get an article published in a magazine like Ranger Rick with an article on how we're raising Tadpoles?

Melissa Stewart

Ranger Rick has writers on staff. They rarely accept articles from freelancers.

 

Many magazines have themes.

 

If you have a topic in mind, look for a magazine with a related theme

 

such as frogs or amphibians or animal reproduction or animal eggs, etc.

Mary Rosenblum

I want to hear about what you have coming up, Melissa...but first...what is your overall recommendation

 

to aspiring writers for kids out there?

Melissa Stewart

I will give advice I got from two other writers.

 

Jane Yolen says her secret is BIC. Butt in chair. Don't just talk about writing. Sit down and do it.

 

Linda Sue Park says before you write a book, read 100 titles in the genre that interests you.

 

The good news is, most kids' books are short. ;-)

Mary Rosenblum

And that advice cuts right across genre and age lines, believe me! Works for everything!

Melissa Stewart

You really need to know what's out there and know what editors want.

Mary Rosenblum

So what multiple projects are you working on currently? What will be out soon?

Melissa Stewart

Right now, I have a half dozen proposals out to publishers, and I'm working on a second title in that history of science series.

 

It's about the classification of life. I'm also working on a series of books that will be published by the Museum of Science in Boston,

 

and as always, I'm teaching. I also have a manuscript critique services, which is growing. So I keep busy.

 

You can find out more on my website.

Mary Rosenblum

Melissa’s Website.

Melissa Stewart

My most recent title is about sloths, which I saw in Costa Rica while writing the book.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, how cool!

 

How often do you travel in order to cover a topic?

paulplqn

I love the MOS in Boston! Took a bus load of kids there last year.

Melissa Stewart

As often as I can. I wrote 6 books about African animals after going there. And one on baboons and New World Moneys.

 

I wrote books on the Everglades and Lake Superior too.

Mary Rosenblum

Now there's a good reason to write nature books right there. :-)

Melissa Stewart

The museum is great.

 

Definitely, I love to travel.

babbles

Did you get grants for traveling?

Melissa Stewart

No, but I could write off the costs on my income taxes. The trip to Costa Rica was with my husband's family. My

 

very generous mother in law paid for the whole thing.

Mary Rosenblum

What can we find on the shelves now?

Melissa Stewart

The sloth book should be there. Also, some novelty books I wrote about robots and dinosaurs.

 

They come with models you can assemble.

 

The dino bones even glow in the dark.

Mary Rosenblum

I will definitely make a trip to the children's section next time I'm in the bookstore. The model/book combinations sound like great gifts!

Melissa Stewart

My 7-year-old nephew asked me if dino bones really glowed in the dark. J

Mary Rosenblum

I'm chuckling!

paulplqn

You must have an accountant to figure out your tax returns?

Mary Rosenblum

I think most writers do, Paul. :-)

babbles

Sold!! My granddaughter is into Dinos as well :-)

Melissa Stewart

Yes, but I keep very careful records throughout the year. It's amazing how much you can legitimately write off.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, yes!

 

Melissa, you have been a delightful guest!

Melissa Stewart

I have a manuscript about dinosaurs circulating. I hope it sells.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you for joining us!

Melissa Stewart

Thanks for having me.

Mary Rosenblum

I'll post the transcript in the usual place: Surviving and Thriving: Interview transcripts.

 

I'd love to have you join us again some time, Melissa.

Melissa Stewart

That would be great.

Mary Rosenblum

You shared some excellent advice and information.

Melissa Stewart

Thanks for all the great questions.

tolkienlvr

Thanks Melissa. Helpful info!

speckledorf

Thanks for the great info!

babbles

Thanks Mary and Melissa great as usual

writeaway

Thank you Melissa for the great info.

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, thank you again, Melissa. We'll let you go rest your weary fingers.

 

And we'll look forward to talking with you again.

Melissa Stewart

I'm on the East Coast, so it's getting close to my bedtime.

Mary Rosenblum

Good night, Melissa!

 

Have a great Fourth.

 

And thank you all for coming!

Melissa Stewart

Good night, everyone.

 

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