What is the shelf life of an idea? How long can it survive outside its final form before it loses its spark and fades away?
For the best ideas, the ones that really clickthe answer might be longer than you think—if you write it down.
The Idea Journal
I always dreamed of telling stories. At first, I assumed I’d be an illustrator like my dad. Then I read my first Redwall book and figured I’d wind up an author like my first literary hero, the late Brian Jacques. In my teens, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt I’d direct movies destined for the Criterion Collection.
I’m not sure when I started keeping an idea journal. It was a hardcover notebook with faux leather binding and simple, lined pages. I used it to collect potential characters or plot elements, snippets of conversations, and interesting conflicts I witness at school or in my own relationships. Some entries were as simple as the image of a friend walking ahead of me in the forest preserved behind our houses as the sun set over the trees. Others were outlines for books or screenplays.
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I gave up the practice in middle school, where I played in punk and indie rock bands and devoted my creative energy to songwriting. But I never threw the journal away. So, when I joined the film program at my local college and found myself with a short film screenplay due at the end of the semester, the idea journal was there waiting for me.
Reading through my old entries four years, a driver’s license, and a host of questionable adolescent life experiences later was a bit of a letdown. So many of the insightful, or poetic, or impactful things I had written now seemed painfully mundane. Things that blew my mind at nine years old I now considered overdone, cliché, childish.
Except for one notable exception.
A Grim Little Story
When I was ten or eleven years old, I watched Disney’s Fantasia. Something about the Magician’s Apprentice must have stuck with me because I had started scribbling notes about a similar story, one that took the best bits from Mickey’s battle with his out-of-control army of sentient brooms and mixed in a healthy dose of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
It was only a partial idea. A cocktail of inspirations and a few key scenes amounting to more vibe than a story. But reading it again as a college student, it was like no time had passed at all. The idea still clicked.
The title of the entry? Francis and the Monster.
I started fleshing the idea out with characters, setting, and all the other elements that make a story. Francis was a little boy who resented his parents—both scientists of some renown—for leaving him home while they went galivanting across the world giving talks and presenting papers on their latest inventions.
In those initial outlines, Francis was selfish, cruel, and privileged, his parents’ negligence providing him the perfect excuse to lean into his worst impulses. I envisioned the story as a stop-motion short film, initially. It would be a tragic, cautionary tale.
I was all in. I wrote an outline and a few sample pages and found a small studio outside Chicago interested in producing the animation.
Once again, life got in the way. Only this time, it wasn’t electric guitars and gigs in grungy church basements. I got a job. I got married. We had kids. We adopted a dog and named him Boris (as in Karloff, of course.) The journal went back into the sock drawer and my grim little Frankenstein story with it.
For most ideas, the story would probably have ended there.
Blowing on the Embers
Ideas are like sparks. They light up for long enough to catch your eye before fading back into your subconscious. Without fuel, it’ll remain dormant there until its forgotten entirely, or another spark lights up in its place. Give the spark some air, let it breathe for a bit, and maybe it will grow long enough to burn on its own.
Sometimes, you won’t know which ideas are which until one happens to flare up again and you realize you’ve been blowing on that ember deep in the back of your mind without even realizing it.
Fast forward to Fall 2015, when my wife Susan and I looked around and realized we had become children’s book authors. How we got there involves another idea—a brilliant one that could only have come from the unpredictable and enigmatic mind of Susan Tuma—but that’s another story. Suddenly, an entire world of possibilities was opened in front of me. We had agents, a publisher. Children and their parents were reading our books. Creating picture books is a blast, but my kids were growing into chapter books and novels. My love for stories like Redwall and A Wrinkle in Time and other great books written for young readers were rekindled.
I didn’t remember that ‘Frankenstein meets The Magician’s Apprentice‘ idea right away. More recent ideas had crowded it out. It wasn’t until I had spent some time trying and failing to get them to catch fire that I picked up my old journal and realized I already had the story I wanted to write.
Details changed in the telling—Francis with an ‘i’ became Frances with an ‘e,’ the horrible little boy became a strong-willed little girl, and the mechanical butler took on a more central role—but the core idea remained as a through-line until the final draft. A young aspiring scientist who resents being left at home while her parents live a life of adventure and renown takes her fate into her own hands and creates a monster in the process—one that might just be the key to what she’s really been missing out on all along.
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Frances and the Monster comes crashing into bookstores all over the country in a few days, and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. All because I had an idea twenty years ago and took a few minutes to write it down.
Would I have remembered the idea anyway? Would it still have just clicked? Maybe, but that’s not a chance I ever plan to take again.
Meet the author
Refe Tuma is the co-creator of Dinoember and theWhat the Dinosaurs Didpicture book series, including What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night, named a Best Children’s Book of the Year with Honors by Bank Street College. Frances and the Monster is his debut novel for Middle Grade readers. Refe lives with his family and his dog Boris in Kansas City where he once experienced all four seasons in a single day. Oh, and it’s pronounced ‘reef.’ Learn more at refetuma.com.
About Frances and the Monster
What would you do if you accidentally brought a monster to life and set him loose on your town?
Adventurous and charming, this middle grade twist on Frankenstein features a precocious main character who does just that. Perfect for fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak and the Greenglass House series.
Frances Stenzel was just trying to prove her scientific worth to her parents so they would take her with them to their scientific symposiums for once—instead, she reawakened her great-grandfather’s secret and most terrible invention.
Before it can destroy the town, she sets off after it, with her pet chimp and sarcastic robot tutor by her side. But monster-hunting isn’t easy, and she’ll have to face a persistent constable, angry locals, and an unexpected friendship ahead—all while the trail for the monster goes cold and time is running out before her science career, and the city itself, are doomed forever.
Full of thrills and heart alike, Frances and the Monster takes readers through winding streets and over perilous rooftops, with wily monsters, unpredictable twists, and powerful friendships waiting along the way.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/23/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post