Let me say one thing straight out: My picture book, GHOST IN THE HOUSE, is very close to my heart. Of my published picture books, it’s the one that’s gotten the most visibility so far, including a fabulous review in the New York Times, several “Best of the Year” roundups, and a pickup by the Scholastic Clubs and Fairs. Needless to say, these small joys absolutely thrilled me.
But also? I have to be honest: They surprised me a little. Those of you who have heard me speak about GHOST IN THE HOUSE will have heard how it came about: Following the rejection of another Halloween manuscript, an editor asked if I “had any other spooky rhyming picture books.” At that moment, I did not. Several weeks, much brainstorming, and a torrent of writing later, I did.
Don’t get me wrong. I worked hard on GHOST IN THE HOUSE. But compared to many of my picture book texts, over which I toiled ad infinitum, this text came relatively easy. The end result also felt, well, simple. It was a sweet, zippy rhyming story. Short and to the point. Fun characters, neat twist. But when lined up against my other laboriously crafted stories—and, in particular, the one it had originally supplanted—it felt uncomfortably ordinary.
Still, someone wanted to publish my picture book! Joy!
In the months following publication, I gained more respect for my modest little manuscript. But it took one final thing to bring me fully around. And that was this: One day I received an email from my editor at Candlewick, asking what I would think about writing a companion book. It might, she suggested, be called ELF IN THE HOUSE.
Well! Ask no further—I was on it. GHOST was just a simple, puny little story, right? I could crank out another one of those in a flash. No worries!
Instead? I hit the blank page. Hard.
Frustrated at my false starts, I sat down and listed the elements that made up GHOST IN THE HOUSE, so I could attempt to replicate them (in a perfectly organic, all-new-and-fresh way, with a Christmas spin) in the sequel. Here’s what I needed:
- recognizable creatures
- a reason for the creatures to accumulate
- tension—what’s keeping the reader turning the pages?
- perfect fit to the rhyming scheme
- surprising twist
- satisfying, feel-good ending
Let’s just say (if that list wasn’t clear enough), that this exercise made me look at GHOST in a whole new light. Short? Yes. Simple-easy-basic-ordinary? Not so much.
Astute readers will likely have seen this coming, but ELF IN THE HOUSE did not come in a flash. More than once I doubted if I could pull it off at all. It took writing, and rewriting, and re-rewriting. Forget inspiration: This was deliberate, backbreaking effort: Lists and brainstorming and trial-and-error and throw-it-all-out-and-start-over. Time after time after time. I’d almost have it… but not quite. This angle might work… only not.
It did not come easy. Not even close.
But finally, in the end, it did come. And great was my delight when my editor received my final manuscript, and made a publication offer. (Woohoo!)
Once ELF IN THE HOUSE is published, I imagine most readers won’t see much difference in tone between the two stories. From the outside, it’s likely that they’ll both appear effortless and breezy. But what this experience crystalized for me was that stories can be born in all sorts of ways. Some arrive on the magical wings of inspiration, landing lightly on your shoulder and seeping onto the screen with the greatest of ease. Others bare their bloody fangs and force you to wrestle them into submission.
One method, one origin, one final story is not necessarily greater than any other. We are authors: we take what we can get, and we make it our own. It’s the making—however long or short, easy or gut-hard—that brings the magic.
Ammi-Joan Paquette is an author and a literary agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency. She’s a mother, friend, reader, traveler, food-lover, chocolate connoisseur. She is not especially tidy, a fan of mushy vegetables, or good at coming up with spur-of-the-moment self-portraits.