If you ask nearly any children’s/YA author the most common question they hear, 8 out of 10 will say it’s, “Where do you get your inspiration/where do you get your ideas?” (2 out of 10 get asked for their autograph a lot. All that fame is exhausting. Or so I imagine).
No one knows how to answer the Idea/Inspiration question. Rather, no one wants to answer this. And the reason for a lot of authors is the same: We don’t know.
We get our ideas from everywhere or from observation or living life. Each book comes about a different way, and we get so swept up in the dreaming and thinking and creating, we never paying much attention to how the thing came to be. It just is. Let’s not jinx the whole thing and talk about it too much, K?
For some odd reason, this answer isn’t satisfying for most folk. And so I make up an answer. I tell students that authors meet in a secret cave high up in the mountains. We’re often wearing battered bathrobes and faded yoga pants. We swap handshakes and chant until the Idea Spirit appears with Hollywood-worthy pitches.
Then we toast marshmallows.
I like this process much more than the truth: I stare at the computer screen. I write words. I erase some words. I write some more. I check in with my writing friends/agent/editor to make sure these words aren’t hogwash. Often they are. So then… wait for it… I write more.
But finally, finally, I have an easy answer for how I got the idea for the COMMANDER IN CHEESE series (Book #1 THE BIG MOVE and Book #2 OVAL OFFICE ESCAPE are both out today).
The idea was given to me.
I’ve worked with some really wonderful people in publishing. This isn’t always the case for authors, just like it isn’t always the case for teachers/librarians/plumbers/nurses/*insert any industry here*. I’ve sold books to 4 different publishing houses, and was blessed with stellar editors at all of these houses. One editor, Caroline Abbey, has been my editor for 7 books now. Caroline and I worked on my 3 teen books together at the wonderful publishing house, Bloomsbury. When she moved to another publishing house, I was, of course, sad for me but happy for her. I was sure we’d work on something together again, but had no idea what/where/when/why.
One day, I got an email from Caroline with the following :
If I had an idea (and I’m not 100% sure I do yet) would you be open to it? Or is now a bad time? If it’s not a good time, just ignore me. No need to send any kind of formal answer. I just thought I’d put it out there (because I miss working with you!!)
I replied very professionally:
WHY AREN’T YOU ON THE PHONE WITH ME PITCHING THIS RIGHT NOW?
Followed an impatient hour later with…
LIKE RIGHT NOW
And so we chatted. Caroline had the idea of mice living in the White House. She didn’t know yet who the mice were or what their story would be. As soon as she suggested this, my brain went berserk. I started asking all sorts of questions–How many mice? Were they a family? Did the humans know? What time period? What was the goal of the mice? Could I write about a brother and sister? Is this be an adventure story? Can i include some non-fiction? How many words? How long? When can I start? I remember Caroline laughing and saying, “It sounds like this is already your idea.”
And it was. And it wasn’t. Commander in Cheese quickly became a beautiful collaboration. I wrote the first chapter that very night. I had never written in the chapter book genre before. I wrote Caroline emails with subjects like AM I ALLOWED TO BE FUNNY? and HOW DO YOU FIGURE OUT READING LEVEL? and on and on. Caroline and I met up in Washington D.C for a research trip. I ran around memorials and museums like a 10-year-old on a field trip, pointing and exclaiming, “Oh, I have to write about this! Did you know about this? Take a picture of me here!”
(I take horrible selfies, which is not very millennial of me. It says COMMANDER IN CHIEF behind us)
(I’m eating the White House. Maybe it’s made out of cheese? See? Need to step up my selfie game)
(While I’m sharing DC pics, here I am with friends Israel and Tamara in front of Lincoln Memorial. I went to D.C. when I was 16 and wore a camo shirt, so I made sure I represented the camo again this go around)
I got to work on COMMANDER IN CHEESE. I read hundreds of chapter books, analyzing the timing, structure, vocabulary and pacing of other stories. The first book, THE BIG MOVE, took me 5 or 6 months to write and was one of the most humbling and enthralling writing experiences of my professional life. The second book took me 3 or 4. The third and fourth were closer to 1-2 months. The series became my baby, one that I rocked and fed and watched sleep in its little computer crib.
And then I lucked into another collaboration that I’d never experienced before…
I got illustrated.
(Photo from A.G Ford’s instagram. Go follow. He’s rad)
Before I got into publishing, I assumed that the author and illustrator knew each other and worked together from the beginning of a book’s creation. This is occasionally true, but more often than not the author writes a book, the publisher buys the book and then seeks out an illustrator that would be a good fit. The author and Illustrator don’t know each other. In fact, they probably won’t ever meet in person or even talk on the phone. As the author, you cross your fingers that you agree with the “good fit” decided upon by your publisher.
Well, clearly, I crossed my fingers hard. I also wished on stars and held my breath under bridges. And all that luck brought me A.G. Ford, the insanely talented illustrator for this series. A.G. brought so much humor and heart to the Squeakerton family. He would send sketches to my editor, I would send a few tweaks, and what resulted was a wonderful collaboration of picture and prose. My very favorite part of writing this whole series is the day A.G.’s sketches arrive.
So… there’s my sort of answer. I get my ideas from EVERYONE and EVERYWHERE and EVERYTHING. Caroline’s ideas are in this series. A.G.’s ideas are in there too. So are mine. It’s not quite a secret meeting in a mountain cave, but it’s pretty dang close. I hope you’ll share this book with your favorite 6-10 year-old reader. I would love to spend forever writing about this special family with this special team of collaborators.
And now, naturally, I’m off to celebrate with a cheese platter.