by Mike Ciccotello

We’ve all heard that critique from an editor, “It’s too predictable.” And then, we pull out the rejection Bingo Card and fill in a spot.

Coming up with an unexpected concept is challenging. There are plenty of ways we can apply this “unexpected” element to a story. It could be the overall concept, a plot point, or even a character. For this post, let’s focus on the concept of your story. For me, it’s typically paired with a bunch of planning and work. What? But, Mike, shouldn’t these unexpected concepts just come to us when we least expect them? Well, just because we used the word “Unexpected” does not mean the idea will unexpectedly come to us. I wish it were that simple. Maybe some magical authors have unexpected ideas suddenly popping in their heads all the time. Good for them. I wish them well. I’m so very, very happy for them. Sigh. Still, the rest of us need to spend a lot of time working toward the unexpected. We need to dig deep to find that special something that makes our story sing.

A couple of years ago, my agent asked me to develop a promotional illustration for back-to-school. I immediately started working but knew I needed to get all of my expected ideas out of the way to get to the unexpected. I started drawing a typical back-to-school scene with kids in line at the bus. Which led to adding a dog in place of a child, then an anthropomorphic bus, then an anthropomorphic book with the bus. This process went on for a few days. (Sometimes, this process takes much longer.) Then, one day, I was outside with my kids in their sandbox, playing sandcastle ice cream shop, of course, and the idea appeared in front of me. Well, part of it, anyway. I was staring at a shovel, and it was staring back at me.

But, Mike, what does a shovel have to do with back-to-school? Absolutely nothing, but it has a lot to do with right before you go back-to-school. I started imagining a shovel and a ruler sizing each other up on the beach. Why not, right? So, I played around with the sketch and added a few more items.

That was the first iteration of BEACH TOYS vs. SCHOOL SUPPLIES. It was a fun concept, and I couldn’t wait to develop it. I did more work on the illustration and ended up with this.

My next author-illustrated book, BEACH TOYS vs. SCHOOL SUPPLIES (FSG/Macmillan), will be washing up on shore near you this June.

And here’s the cover. Did you expect a cover reveal in this blog post?

Now, how do you find YOUR unexpected ideas? Take your time. Work through the expected and then keep going. Turn the expected upside down and shake the change out of its pockets. You may find something unexpected there.

Once you find that surprising concept, you can sprinkle in some compelling characters, build a strong narrative, and add a bit more “unexpected” to the plot. You know, all the easy stuff. 😉

Before I go, let’s try something fun—list five random objects around you. Pick the one with the most personality. Now come up with today’s Storystorm idea based on that character.

Happy writing, and don’t forget to talk to your silverware!

Mike Ciccotello received a BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He is the author-illustrator of the picture book TWINS and the forthcoming BEACH TOYS VS. SCHOOL SUPPLIES (both from FSG/Macmillan). Mike will also illustrate Bridget Heos’s TREEMENDOUS (forthcoming from Crown/Penguin Random House) and CHEESE AND QUACKERS, a two-book early graphic chapter-book series written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (forthcoming from Aladdin/S&S). He is an active member of SCBWI, CBIG, and was a contributing member of Find him online on Twitter @ciccotello, Instagram @ciccotello and Mike is represented by Rachel Orr. Please contact Rachel at rko(a)

Mike is giving away an an original inked piece of some of the BEACH TOYS VS. SCHOOL SUPPLIES characters.

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