I was browsing a local bookstore, looking for some fun books for my middle-grader to read over the summer and saw the SPY SCHOOL series by Stuart Gibbs. I read a bit and was hooked. That is when I knew I had to reach out to him. Luck for us all, he said yes. Without further ado, the incredibly talented Stuart Gibbs.
Middle Grade Mafia: What was your path to becoming a published author?
Stuart Gibbs: My whole life, I had always wanted to be an author, and I wrote books all through high school and college, but none of them ever got published. So, after college, I decided to give writing movies a try. That worked out quite well. I moved out to Hollywood with some friends and started writing spec scripts. I ended up getting my first screenwriting assignment within a few months. I had a temporary job reading scripts at a small production company and convinced them that they should just hire me to write any movies they wanted.
That eventually led to my getting a manager, which led to me getting representation at an agency, which led to bigger jobs in movies and TV. However, after many years of this, I decided the time had come to try writing books again. My agency had a book department, so I asked if I could talk to someone there. A literary agent named Jennifer Joel looked over my TV & film work and called to ask if I had ever considered writing middle grade. Up until that moment, I hadn’t (I thought I’d write for adults) but I realized Jenn was right: that was exactly what I ought to be writing. In fact, I even had an idea for an adult novel — a mystery about a dead hippo — that would be far better for middle grade.
This was only about seven years ago, but even then, there weren’t that many people writing middle grade novels for boys, so it was easier to get my foot in the door. I didn’t have to write the whole book. Jenn was able to sell it to Simon & Schuster based upon my pitch, an outline and a few sample chapters.
MGM: Every author develops their stories a little differently. How do you approach a new project?
SG: I walk. A lot. Sometimes for miles (which, I suppose, would technically be hiking, rather than walking). And I come up with ideas while I walk. I start with the world where I want to set the story (a zoo, a spy school, a moon base) and try to think of the most interesting mystery that could take place there. Then I try to figure out how someone would pull off that crime and work backwards to figure out how someone would solve it.
I do a lot of research for my stories, going to museums and zoos, reading magazines and books — and sometimes watching movies for inspiration, too. What I learn doing this often starts to inform the story I want to tell.
Eventually, when I think I have the story somewhat figured out, I outline the first half of the story and start writing. I don’t outline the second half at first because the story tends to change as I write it.
MGM: Your SPY SCHOOL books are so much fun. Did you have an idea of the direction you wanted to take the story from the beginning? Could you give us a sneak peek into Ben’s next mission?
SG: I had the idea for Spy School long before it ever became a book. I first envisioned it as a movie, and then developed it for TV. But the book turned out to be a bit different than I’d originally expected. It still has the same basic story I’d thought of, but it went in different ways than I had imagined it would.
I can’t give much of a sneak peek into Ben’s next mission yet, except to say that it’s going to involve more of his friends from spy school this time.
MGM: Some of our readers may not know that before you became a published author, you wrote movies. How similar/different do you find writing books compared to scripts?
SG: In some ways, books are much easier to write. Movies have lots of limitations: They can only be a certain number of pages, and each scene of dialogue can only be so long, etc. Books have far fewer rules, and that’s very freeing. However, there is one big challenge to writing books, which is that every single word you write matters. You have to edit again and again to make sure every sentence is just right. That’s not quite the case in a screenplay, which is really more of a framework.
The one thing I really learned from writing screenplays was how to structure a story. A lot of people think my books read very cinematically, and that’s because I structure them very much the way I would structure a movie.
MGM: On your website, you mention you have been writing stories since you were in kindergarten. Are there any of those early stories that stick out in your memory?
SG: I wrote a book called “Furry Friends” in first grade. It was about a dog and a cat that become friends. My first grade teacher tried to help me get it published.
And when I was in elementary school, I wrote a story about Jimmy Bond, James Bond’s son. It was called “The Kid With the Golden Water Pistol” (as an homage to Fleming’s “The Man With the Golden Gun”). That story has the very first reference to spy school in it.
MGM: Heading into summer, parents are looking for book recommendations for their MG kids. What has been some of your favorite recent reads?
SG: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a wonderful story about space travel, fathers & sons.
The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm is an excellent book about science and family.
I recently reread The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin with my kids and it remains one of the best mysteries I have ever read.
Sarah Mlynowski’s Whatever After Series is wonderful fun for readers at the younger end of the MG spectrum; it seems very targeted at girls but I think boys would like it too (if they could get past the girly covers).
For slightly more ambitious readers: Congo and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton aren’t officially MG, but I read them at that age and loved the awesome combo of science and adventure.
And I know the book is doing just fine without me plugging it, but man, Wonder by RJ Palacio is great!
I wanted to thank Stuart for taking the time to answer our questions and share some of his thoughts about writing as well as a few great book recommendations. To keep up with Stuart and learn more about his wonderful books, visit his website and follow him on Twitter.