The deal for my debut middle grade novel THE MIDNIGHT WAR was just announced in Publishers Weekly. And even though some people might call a book about talking skunks raiding Santa Barbara neighborhoods on an old red trike a fantasy, the deal announcement is making the book seem pretty real to me.
People (my editor, my agent, my friends) always ask: where did the idea come from? Where did the story start?
Well… if you saw the inside of my head, my notebook, or maybe even my car, you would know that I HAVE NO IDEA.
My brain is this little universe of flickering neurons, swirling synapses, and the odd electrochemical storm. Stuff just happens in there. What do you think I am, a scientist?
Since I’ve answered that question (where did you’re your story start) a few times I have some passable answers (hypotheses) for you:
1. I took this picture of two little spotted skunks at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on one of MANY afternoons there with my kid. Cute, right? The date stamp on this one is July 18, 2009.
2. To calm the same sleepless kid I scattered a bunch of dog food on our back porch, so we could watch the neighborhood creatures battle it out. There were stray cats, raccoons, and two of the cutest skunks you ever saw. We called it Skunk Watching Night (don’t judge–we didn’t have a TV). That was the summer of 2011.
3. I heard Matt de la Peña speak at the SCBWI summer conference in 2013, and man, he made me feel stuff. Up until then I had only ever succeeded in writing diverse sidekicks, a trope I despise. I’d been writing this thing, which I KNEW was inspired by the kids I taught in Santa Barbara and hearing Matt speak made me realize that maybe they were in my manuscript, but only halfway. I’d put in their humor, all their bananas shenanigans, and their amazing little hearts, but not their race, not their culture, and not their families.
4. The very next day I just happened to be signed up for Donna Bray’s SCBWI intensive on “Character Building.” It took about fifteen minutes to realize that Donna’s not just an amazing editor/publisher–she’s a natural and generous teacher. That day I heard the voice of my character for the first time. His name was Mateo Martinez.
5. That fall I saw a tweet from Andre Karre, who I’d been following on twitter since meeting him at another SCBWI event in 2011, about an open call for middle grade submissions at Carolrhoda. They would all be going to Associate Editor Greg Hunter. That blog post went up on October 30th and even though I had until the end of November to send in a submission, I sent mine in on November first. Patience is something I only used to think I had, before kids and before becoming a writer.
6. I waited a whole month (and a HALF) before querying an agent I’d had on my list for a long time, the illustrious Erica Rand Silverman. Why did it take so long for me to send her a query?
She only accepts snail mail.
So even though I liked what she had to say in published interviews, even though I had scoped her out on twitter, and even though I thought her list of books and clients was super cool and weird, I kept putting off sending out my query. Turns out Erica and I both share a love of weird and wacky humor, a strong belief in the need for diverse books, and an equal disdain for paperwork. But like me, Erica always gets around to it. So by the time she got around to loving my paper query, Greg Hunter at Carolrhoda had gotten around to asking me for an R&R, and I just so happened to have the perfect person to help me with a revision… or three.
7. Now lets go back. Because this is MY brain. At the summer SCBWI conference in 2010 I fell in love with a book illustrated by John Parra, Gracias Thanks. I couldn’t stay for the autograph party at the end, so I went to one of John’s illustrator workshops. He talked about his inspiration, his process, and his childhood growing up in Santa Barbara. Talking to him was one of those little moments in your life where you are not sure if it is magic, coincidence, or one of those electrochemical storms in your brain.
John was gracious, encouraging, and sweet to me.
So in 2014 when I came up against something most writers do, especially when writing across race and culture, I asked John for help. And he gave it. I was filled with panic and doubt, and I was wondering: could I really do it, write this little Latino kid, did I get it right?
No big surprise, John was gracious, encouraging, and sweet to me.
He liked Mateo Martinez and reading about a bunch of kids from Santa Barbara. He thought my story was cool and weird. So, filled with relief and renewed faith in my manuscript, Erica and I sent it to Greg and this time he loved it too.
8. We are stopping with number eight, because that’s my second favorite number and if you turn it on its side it would look like infinity, which is how long this could really go on.
Anyway, the only thing I’m sure of is that THE MIDNIGHT WAR starts in the right place. It starts the night Mateo Martinez sees two skunks steal his sister’s trike, and even though he can’t believe his eyes they are totally real… and now, thanks to the SB Museum of Natural History, the SCBWI, twitter, a bunch of totally bananas kids from Santa Barbara, Matt de la Peña, Donna Bray, my new editor, Greg Hunter, and my illustrious but goofy agent, Erica Rand Silverman, so is my book deal!