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Where Do Ideas Come From?
[waves indistinctly at entire universe]
First things first: It’s my book’s birthday!
[sound of horns tooting]
It’s all about that sometimes great but always overwhelming feeling when a bunch of family comes to visit. And I want to tell you where the idea came from. Where does any idea come from?
It’s the most common question writers and artists receive. So common it lures some authors into giving a flip answer: “The idea store,” maybe, or “Trenton, New Jersey.”
I don’t like giving answers like that, but I get it. Because the real answer is, “everywhere,” and that satisfies no one. Maybe people are hoping for an exercise to do or a candle to light—something too good to be true, whereas my answer is too true to be good.
I often wonder if the real difference between writers and other people is just self-absorption—we’re constantly thinking about our own thoughts. We’re getting the same ideas as anyone else, but scrutinizing them and asking ourselves, Is that something? Is that something?
Here are some books of mine. The ideas for them came in the following ways, from left to right:
—I started with a story about a robot, and kept adding animals to keep the robot company, and eventually realized the only thing not working about the story was the robot.
—I was on an elliptical at a time in my life where it was plausible that I would be on an elliptical, and the phrase “Frankenstein makes a sandwich” came randomly into my head, and I decided to see if I could write a book that would have that as its title.
—I had a dream about finding the moon in my backyard, so I tried to write a story just like my dream except without the sideways buildings and cowboy.
—I was at a party where children’s book writers were complaining about overused tropes like “a child is nervous about their first day of school,” and my brain immediately went, “a school is nervous about its first day of children,” because that’s what my brain does.
—I saw a chemical hazard sign with the letters OX on it. I don’t know, that’s it. It doesn’t make sense to me either.
—An editor asked if I could come up with a book about the solar system that we could pitch to Laurie Keller to illustrate—so I did my best to write a Laurie Keller story, and Pluto seemed to me to be the most Laurie Kellerish planet.
—My brother told me his youngest got gum stuck in her hair, and I’d always heard you’re supposed to use peanut butter to remove gum, and wondered what you used to remove peanut butter, and realized that was a book.
—I adopted my son and suddenly I was using the word “potty” all the time, and making puns like, “let’s get this potty started,” and then it was a skip and a jump before I was thinking of digestion and musical theater.
And it was actually that gum book above that led directly to OH NO, THE AUNTS ARE HERE. There’s an aunt character in GUM, and any character is going to require dozens of sketches before I think I have them right.
Look at all those aunts. Seeing what I’d drawn, I was transported back to an episode early in the courtship of my wife. I was invited to come along on a road trip with my wife, her mother, and her mother’s three energetic, charmingly opinionated sisters. These women filled up every room they were in, and kept trying to fix my hair, and compared me unfavorably to waiters they thought were cute. I loved and continue to love these women. But looking at the dozen-plus aunts I drew, I was nonetheless moved to write what you see above: “On No, the Aunts Are Here.” I wasn’t sure what it was about yet, but right away I wanted to drop the book I was working on and write this new one instead.
Buy it if you are an aunt, or have an aunt, or know any aunts. Other people shouldn’t buy it, though—it’s not for them.
And, in case you missed it, Lian Cho has a great post about designing the characters.
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