Melissa Stewart

Your website has an incredible timeline that describes the 10 year journey to create your book No Monkeys, No Chocolate.  You talk about how your observation of nature around you captivated you. “It seemed like a story waiting to be told.”  How can our young writers use their own observations and begin to tell a story?

Not all science has to be a story. Some of my books do have a sequence structure and a narrative style, but I also enjoy writing books with compare and contrast, cause and effect, problem and solution, question and answer, and descriptive structures. Initially I did think of No Monkeys, No Chocolate as a story with a chronological sequence structure and a narrative style, but in the end, it turned out to have an expository writing style with a cumulative sequence structure.

A narrative style and sequence structure works well for biographies and historical events because the chronology is built in. When it comes to science, it’s a bit more tricky.

One case where a narrative style and sequence structure can work well is when focusing on a natural cycle. It could be the daily activities of an animal, as in Red-Eyed Tree Frog by Joy Cowley or Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre or the chain of interactions among creatures in a given ecosystem, such as Frog in a Bog by John Himmelman. It could be a seasonal cycle, as in my book Under the Snow or the cycle of storm, as in A Drop of Water by Gordon Morrison.

This kind of writing can begin with and be fueled by a writer’s personal observations. To fill in details, the writer will need to do library research or speak with naturalists or other people who have observed what the writer could not. 

You talk about having a critique group that helps you revise, based on their comments. What are some comments that our writers could ask of each other or of themselves that could help with the revision process?

I think buddy editing is critical because it’s much easier for other people to spot the problems with a manuscript. I recommend that people use what some people the “oreo method,” which means critiquers start with some positive comments, then ask questions about things they didn’t understand or wonder about, and finally finish up with a few more positive comments. It’s important for writers to know what is working as well as what isn’t.

Why frame “critical” comments as questions? Because they’re less painful for the writer to hear and because they convey a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect. Everyone is working together to make the manuscript the best it possibly can be.

Every author I’ve talked to has been able to identify a weakness, an area of his/her writing that he/she struggles with. For some people, it’s beginnings. For others, it’s endings or dialog or developing rich subplots or impatience with the revision process. Can you identify an aspect of writing that you are constantly struggling with? Have you developed any tips or tricks for overcoming it?

I always struggle with endings. I think this is because after earning a biology degree, I went to science journalism master’s level program to learn how to write for a general audience. Newspaper journalists worry much more about beginnings than endings because (a) many people read just the first few paragraphs of an article and (b) article endings often get cut during layout due to space constraints.

My solution to this problem is to do the best I can and then listen very carefully to advice from critiquers. If they don’t criticize my ending, I ask about it specifically? Many of my books end with ideas or even exact wording suggested by other people.

I also struggle with structure when writing picture books. Structure is the most critical element of nonfiction, and getting it right can take years. It’s just a matter of trial and error. In some ways, Common Core has made this easier by focusing on six nonfiction structures. Now that I recognize these structures, I can go through them and ask myself: Is this structure right? No. How about this one? Well, not quite, but if I took it in this other direction, it might work. It’s still a process of trial and error, but at least I’m no longer re-inventing the wheel every single time. It’s important for writers to build a toolbox that they can turn to when they are stuck.

Many of your nonfiction books read like poetry.  While you convey the information, your writing certainly isn’t “dry”.  It is clear that there is a rhythm, flow and voice (Tone and voice aren’t the same. Voice is carefully crafted. Tone is automatic based on emotions, such as writing a letter with a frustrated tone to a toy company when you get a broken toy for Christmas.) to your work that makes your books so enjoyable. When you go back and reread your work, what are you looking for or listening for? (Can you describe that process a bit)

In recent years, author voice has become increasingly important in nonfiction writing. Some of my books have a more lively voice (Animal Grossapedia), while others have a more lyrical voice (Under the Snow, Feathers: Not Just for Flying). I know what the voice is going to be before I write my very first word, and before I begin, I read books with a similar voice to put me in the right mindset.

While I was writing Feathers: Not Just for Flying, I was struggling to find just the right voice. I can remember asking myself, “How did April Pulley Sayre craft the light, lovely voice of Vulture View?” To understand her process, I knew I had to put myself in her shoes, so I typed out the text of the entire book. Seeing the words, phrases, and sentences in manuscript form gave me enormous insight into how language devices can play off one another in books with a strong lyrical voice.

When I re-read a manuscript, I’m not adding the voice. I’m just making sure it’s there and looking for ways I can bring it out more strongly if necessary.

What authors would you consider to be your Mentor Authors?  How have they inspired or helped you with your writing?

April Pulley Sayre is a master at voice. Steve Jenkins and Robin Page are masters at structure. I turn to their works again and again.

I also have specific mentor texts for each book project. When I realized that No Monkeys, No Chocolate would have a structure in which one piece of information builds upon another, I looked closely at the cumulative structures of various versions of The House That Jack Built and The Gingerbread Man. Even though these classic stories are fiction, they helped me see possibilities for my own manuscript.

I also looked at an assortment of books with layered text, including Beaks by Sneed Collard, When the Wolves Returned by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, my own book A Place for Butterflies, and (not surprisingly) several books by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. In each case, the layers were executed differently and served a different purpose. Understanding the range helped me see how I could use layers to the best effect in my own manuscript.

Do mentor texts have to come in book form? No way! The bookworms in No Monkeys, No Chocolate were inspired by Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys in The Muppet Show balcony. While discussing the show with my nieces, I thought about the purpose of those two old men—they comment on the action on the main Muppet Show stage and add humor. It was a lightbulb moment. I realized that my book needed a similar element, so I created characters and wrote dialog as a third layer of text. It solved a major problem with the book by allowing me to reinforce complex science concepts in a fun way.

No matter how much experience we have as writers, mentor texts can guide us as we strive to stretch in new and exciting directions.