Today I’m happy to welcome author Melissa Abramovitz to my blog and to answer “10 Questions.” Melissa is a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She’s also published a “How To” book for writers.
Linda Covella: Hello, Melissa. So glad you could join us today.
When and why did you decide to become a writer?
Melissa Abramovitz: I decided to start writing professionally in 1985, when my children were little and I was a stay-at-home mom and homemaker. Much as I loved being a full-time mom, I wanted to do something just for me, and I had always loved to write. I even had some poetry published when I was in high school, and I liked to write so much that I loved writing term papers in high school and college! Weird, and so nerdy, huh! And maybe a foreshadowing of my later enjoyment of professionally writing nonfiction.
Back to 1985… I had never thought about making a career as a writer – my college degree is in psychology, and I thought I would do something related to that – but when I saw an advertisement for a correspondence course offered by the Institute of Children’s Literature on how to write for children, I decided to sign up. I loved the class, and it was perfect for me because I could fit working on my classwork around my other responsibilities. My instructor recommended that I submit a nonfiction article I wrote as a course assignment to a children’s magazine, and I did and was amazed when the magazine accepted it for publication. I had heard that many aspiring authors spent years piling up rejections before selling anything, and I thought – wow! This won’t be as difficult as I thought. Well, I was so wrong. After that initial success, I accumulated (and still do receive) more rejections than I thought possible. But I persisted, and gradually started selling more and more nonfiction articles and short stories to magazines for children, teenagers, and adults. Then I got into writing educational books, and to this day, that is still the type of work I do most often. My writing was very part-time until my kids grew up, but it is now my full-time job. And I still love it as much as ever.
What is your writing process: where do you write, how often do you write, are you a full-time or part-time writer, do you outline or do you plot as you go, etc.?
MA: I write almost every day, usually in my home office, and as I previously mentioned, writing is my full-time job. Some days I work for 6 to 8 hours; other days 10 to 14 hours, depending on how many projects and deadlines I’ve got going. I mostly write nonfiction books on assignment for educational publishers and nonfiction magazine articles (for all age groups) on assignment or independently to submit to specific magazines, with occasional fiction thrown into the mix. In addition, when I have time I write children’s picture books (fiction and nonfiction) and market them to trade publishers. Unfortunately, I have not sold three of these manuscripts, and with so many publishers no longer accepting unagented submissions, I have been trying to find an agent to represent me. But so far, this has not happened. I also recently completed my first novel (after working on it off and on for more than 20 years), and hopefully an agent will be able to help me market it as well.
I usually make a detailed outline before I start writing a manuscript; the only exception is when I write very short stories for young children. In fact, an outline is even more important for nonfiction than for fiction, and I find that having an outline helps me stay on track as far as where and when to introduce certain concepts and facts in my manuscripts. I know that some writers shudder when they hear the word outline, and some do excellent work writing “by the seat of the pants.” But I benefit from outlines, so I use them.
Where do you find your inspiration for your stories? Do you draw from your own experiences?
MA: Most of the educational publishers with whom I work regularly develop their series and individual title ideas in-house and then ask me which titles I would like to write. So in those cases, I am not responsible for generating ideas. For other types of stories, books etc. I find inspiration everywhere, by simply keeping what I call my writers’ antennae alert. In fact, when writers tell me they have trouble coming up with story ideas, I tell them that story ideas are all around them, and they just need to train themselves to notice and build on those ideas. For example, I’ve gotten many ideas and have been inspired to write many stories/articles based on something my children or grandchildren said. One such question that spurred me to write a fun poem came from my then-three-year-old son, who asked, “Mommy, where does the sun go at night?” I also derive inspiration for stories from news reports, from watching TV, from reading books and magazines, and from noticing interesting things when I travel. But I don’t have to be doing something different or exciting to find story ideas, since I’ve trained myself to be on the lookout for these ideas wherever I am, whether it’s taking a walk in my neighborhood, shopping for groceries, or spending time with family and friends. For instance, one day while I was walking my Labrador retriever, his ears perked up and his body snapped to attention as he stared at something that turned out to be a squirrel crossing the street a couple of blocks away. That got me thinking about what I had learned about animal vision in my neuroscience classes in college, and I realized that writing a children’s nonfiction article about how different animals see the same thing would be fun and interesting (for me and for readers). The article was published in Sierra Magazine (this was years ago when the magazine contained a monthly section for children). Another time, I was doing something really mundane – I was looking through my desk calendar. I noticed that it contained no pre-printed mention of holidays in August. Every other month had at least one listed holiday, and I wondered if other calendars listed any August holidays. I began my “research” by hurrying to a store and perusing a variety of desk, wall, and other types of calendars. None mentioned any holidays in August. By that time, my writer’s antennae were on full alert, and I decided to do other types of research, such as consulting books about celebrations in various cultures, so I could write a children’s article on the topic. It turns out that even though there are no major American holidays in August, there are plenty of August holidays in other countries, and there are even some “commemorative” or “honorary” days like National Ice Cream Day and Women’s Equality Day in the US. In my article, which I titled “Are There Any Holidays In August?”, I took readers on my journey to answer the question raised in the title and shared information about some of the international August holidays and commemorative days. It sold to the first magazine to which I submitted it; most probably, I believe, because most writers do not turn mundane pastimes like looking at a desk calendar into fun and interesting articles.
Who is one of your favorite characters from your story(ies), one that you enjoyed creating and writing about, and why?
MA: That would be Herbie Hedgehog, the clueless anthropomorphized hedgehog who stars in my interactive picture book, Helping Herbie Hedgehog (Guardian Angel Publishing, 2015). I love using humor to help kids learn about various concepts, and I created Herbie to be a lovable but clueless guy who needs the reader’s help making everyday decisions. Such as, should he ride a bicycle or embark on a boat when he decides to visit his cousin who lives across an ocean? Should he visit a policeman or a doctor when he feels sick? Kids love it because they’re laughing while yelling out the correct answers and learning at the same time.
MA: In the novel I recently finished, I noticed that the main character had some of my personality traits and even spoke the way I speak in several instances, even though she is a “Southern belle” and I am not. I changed these aspects of the story, mostly because I don’t want people who know me to think that the (fictional) story is in any way autobiographical. That’s because the main character is a psychopath who is obsessed with achieving revenge by harming a particular individual. I did not consciously intend for this character to be anything like me, but somehow the similar traits/dialogue snuck into her personality and behavior. I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a field day analyzing how and why I subconsciously allowed this to happen, but I think the important thing is that I found and changed these things.
Another character I created, in this case for a short story I wrote titled “A Hannukah Miracle,” (published in Girls’ World magazine, 2018) has a couple of my traits because the story is based on a question about miracles I asked many years ago when I was a child. The main character, Jenny, asks a similar question about what miracles are and who creates them. However, even though Jenny’s question and concerns were similar to mine, I never came up with a plan to nudge a miracle to transpire like she did, nor did I answer the question by putting this plan into action like she did. Jenny therefore became a unique character who was loosely based on my personal concerns and experience at one point in time. Indeed, this is how many fictional stories and characters are inspired by true events, but are then given a life of their own that builds on this spark.
LC: Do you find your stories are more plot driven or character driven? Please explain.
MA: I’d say more plot-driven, mostly because I tend to think of a plot first and then create characters to fit into the plot. Even though I do not write a lot of fiction, I would like to make the stories I do write more character driven because I find that I usually enjoy reading these types of stories more than those which are plot driven. As with any other aspect of writing, this takes lots of practice, so I continue to work on it.
LC: Did you read much as a child?
MA: Yes! My favorite book was Heidi. I read it hundreds of times. I also loved reading Dr. Seuss and mysteries. Until I read a couple of the really scary Sherlock Holmes mysteries (like The Hound of the Baskervilles). After that, I was too petrified to read another mystery written for adults for many years, and I stuck to reading children’s mystery series like the Nancy Drew books (fun and well-written, but not scary)!
LC: I loved Heidi and Nancy Drew. But Edgar Allan Poe was also one of my favorites. 🙂
How important do you think reading is for writers?
MA: I think it’s essential. It’s important to read books by other authors because it really helps writers analyze what these authors do, and don’t do, to make these books interesting, readable, and desirable (or not). This helps writers pinpoint what they want and do not want in their own books. Plus, it’s important for writers who want to publish their stories to know what else is available in different genres and for different age groups. So people who want to write and publish picture books should read dozens, if not hundreds, of picture books.
LC: Good advice for aspiring writers.
Who are some of your favorite authors and/or books? What draws you to them?
MA: I’ve always loved Dr. Seuss because of his fun characters and because of the fact that his books carry important messages as well as being fun. As far as novels I read, I love books by Mary Higgins Clark, Belva Plain, Robin Cook, Nicolas Sparks, and sometimes David Baldacci. Many people who know me notice that I stay away from trendy stuff like 50 Shades of Gray because I despise pornography and books that contain a lot of profanity. One thing I admire about Mary Higgins Clark, Nicolas Sparks, and Belva Plain, in particular, is that their books are exciting, interesting, emotionally compelling, and very well-written, without profanity or explicit, gratuitous sexual content that many authors include, presumably because they are either obsessed with these matters or simply think including them is necessary to sell books. I am certainly not averse to story characters (in adult material) using somewhat profane language and/or thinking/acting in ways that are sexually provocative, but these behaviors should arise from situations and personality traits that are integral to the plot, rather than being there because the author likes using bad language and sharing sexual fantasies with the public.
LC: Anything new in the works?
MA: I am always working on assignments for educational books for children/teenagers, and after I finish writing the books I’ve committed to writing this year, I plan to work on a fun picture book I started a few months ago. I also have several magazine article ideas about which I want to query some editors. And I keep promising myself I will work harder to find an agent to market my novel and the picture books I mentioned earlier, but this gets pushed to the side when I must meet deadlines on other material. Adding about ten more hours to each day would be helpful…
LC: Bonus question! Do you have anything you’d like to add?
MA: I just want to thank you for featuring me in this interview and for doing author interviews on your blog. I love reading about other authors, so I look forward to seeing the other interviews you post.
LC: Thanks so much for sharing your writing life with us, Melissa!
Melissa Abramovitz is an award-winning author/freelance writer who specializes in writing educational nonfiction books and magazine articles for all age groups, from preschoolers through adults. She has published hundreds of magazine articles and more than 50 educational books for children and teenagers. She also writes short stories, poems, and picture books, is the author of the acclaimed book for writers, A Treasure Trove of Opportunity: How to Write and Sell Articles for Children’s Magazines, and does freelance editing and critiquing. Melissa graduated summa cum laude from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in psychology and is also a graduate of The Institute of Children’s Literature. She is a member of SCBWI and The Wealthy Writer’s Club.
Connect with Melissa:
Visit her website at www.melissaabramovitz.com.