Simon Thorn and the Benefits of Trying Something New by Aimée Carter
For the past sixteen years, I’ve written novels for teens. Most of those went unpublished – a good two dozen, in fact – but every manuscript I wrote, whether it went into the trash or into bookstores, was always about a teenager. A few years ago, however, I got an idea about a boy named Simon who could talk to animals. And no matter how hard I tried to make Simon a teenager, he stubbornly remained twelve in my head.
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s easiest not to fight a character (or another person) when they try to tell you who and what they are, and Simon was most definitely a bullied twelve-year-old whose biggest secret was that he could talk to animals. So, after writing young adult novels for most of my life, I now had two choices: ignore Simon and let him languish as an idea in the back of my mind, or learn how to write books for younger readers. Because I had a good thing going with young adult, I tried the former at first. It lasted all of two weeks before I pulled out a notebook late one night and plotted the entire first draft of Simon’s story.
As it happens, learning how to write middle grade was one of the easiest parts. I’m a huge fan of middle grade fiction in general – Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, The 39 Clues, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Roald Dahl’s collection are some of my go-to reads, and I quickly found a voice for Simon. Before long, he was a fully-fleshed out character in my head – a lonely kid who only has animals and his crazy uncle for company. Simon was never the difficult part. But the rest of the Animalgam world was.
Normally I’m the kind of writer who comes up with plots first, then creates characters to fit. Simon, however, went the other way – I had a character I wanted to write about, but I wasn’t entirely sure what his story was yet. I went through countless opening chapters where Simon and his uncle lived in a secluded cabin, and drafts where Simon lived in a small town with his shotgun-toting, bird-hating mother – even one where he was bullied by a bulldog with bad breath. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what his story really was.
The plot built over the course of a year. I knew Simon could talk to animals, and I knew there was this unseen world living within ours, one where people were born with the ability to shift into a specific animal. Over time, I realized there would be five Animalgam kingdoms: mammals, birds, reptiles, underwater creatures, and insects (including arthropods), and they would all be at war with one another. I knew there would be an Animalgam academy, and that Simon would attend; and I also came up with the concept of the villainous and power-hungry Beast King, along with the weapon he used to lord over the entire Animalgam world. Though I’m proud of the term ‘Animalgam’ (ani-MAL-gam), figuring it out was a feat. Wordplay is not my strong suit, and I desperately wanted to use a word that conveyed a cross between animals and humans. Amalgam, with is overlapping letters, was too good to pass up, but to this day I worry that Animalgam will be pronounced wrong by readers everywhere.
Slowly – very slowly – the pieces fell into place. But it was only when my agent’s assistant, Allison, suggested that the story be moved to a city that everything clicked. Of course Simon and his uncle would hide in a place where dangerous Animalgams couldn’t stumble across them and their scents couldn’t easily be traced. And so, with great enthusiasm, I changed the setting of the story from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere to New York City, and with it, the school – now called the L.A.I.R., the Leading Animalgam Institute for the Remarkable – was moved beneath the Central Park Zoo, thanks in part to the wars between the five kingdoms that forced the academy underground. At first it seemed counterintuitive to have all of these Animalgams gathering beneath one of the busiest cities in the world, but it made sense to the plot, and I could no longer ignore that.
So, after years of working on Simon’s story, it turns out that jumping from older to younger readers wasn’t the most difficult aspect; it was listening to my instincts, the characters, and the very smart people around me. Once I did that, everything fell into place. In order to write Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den, I had to get out of my own way and stop trying to force something that wasn’t working – a lesson that has since served me well both in writing and in life.
Aimée Carter is the author of The Goddess Test series and The Blackcoat Rebellion series, both out now from Harlequin Teen. Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den, the first book in a new middle grade series, will be published by Bloomsbury in February 2016. You can find her online at http://www.aimeecarter.com/ and on Twitter @.