The Big Idea: Max Brallier
The third time’s the charm! Or the fifth. Or perhaps the twelfth? Or maybe, just maybe, the first time was the charm all along? Follow along in author Max Brallier’s Big Idea as he tells you about his journey to crafting the series he truly wanted to, and its newest installment, The Last Kids On Earth and the Forbidden Fortress.
I never planned to write for kids. I was gonna write the sorta stuff I liked: tough, gritty, apocalyptic fun. Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, The Road Warrior, John Carpenter movies, Antony Johnston and Chris Mitten’s Wasteland.
In 2010, I was working in marketing at St. Martin’s Press. Nights and weekends, I wrote – excitedly starting then frustratedly scrapping dozens of lousy novels.
I started taking editor friends out for happy hour drinks – then begging them for work-for-hire assignments. A children’s editor kindly tossed jobs my way: sticker journals and activity books.
I was shocked to discover I loved writing kids’ stuff. It felt natural. Honest.
I wondered… this tough, gritty, apocalyptic stuff I’d been failing at – could I do that… for kids? I mean, a monster-filled apocalypse was my dream playground when I was 10 years old.
My Big Idea had arrived: a FUNpocalypse! A suburban wasteland overrun with zombies and kaiju-sized monsters – but funny, not-too-heavy, and starring kids. (The quickest way to write a kids’ adventure without needing to deal with meddling, texting parents is to —y’know – kill off those meddling, texting parents.)
Like some mafioso thug, I grabbed my childhood by the pantlegs, held it up, and shook. Out tumbled daydreamed adventures and saving-my-classmates-from-doom fantasies. I milked my adolescence for all it was worth…
My rickety backyard treehouse became a Tree Fortress. My little league bat became a baseball bat blade: the Louisville Slicer. I recalled elementary school years living in George Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh – and the Dawn of the Dead, mall-madness daydreams that followed.
For the next month, I pretty much lived at my local writing spot – Think Coffee in New York’s East Village. I skipped my usual outlining, ditched character worksheets, and just wrote.
My hero and narrator was foster kid Jack Sullivan – and his voice flowed with ease. Largely because Jack was – along with some Fletch and a bit of Psych’s Shaun Spencer – me. He said the funny things I’d say if I had hours at a laptop to polish my life’s dialogue.
I wrote three chapters of my Big Idea – and it was the best thing I’d ever written. Holy hell, I thought, this was IT! I wanted to call Mastercard and tell them all those late-payment “miscommunications” were a thing of the past, ‘cause my ship was coming in!
I shared those chapters with colleagues whose opinions I valued. Then I kicked back, waiting for praise, waiting to hear, “My god! What brilliance have you created!?”
Zero brilliance, it seemed. Conversations that followed went something like this —
COLLEAGUE WHOSE OPINION I WAS VALUEING LESS AND LESS BY THE SECOND: So these kids — they eventually figure out the world didn’t actually end or something? And fix everything back to the way it was?
MAX: Nope. Think I Am Legend. Think The Road. But goofy and fun!
CWOIWVLALBTS: Okay… And the kids’ parents?
MAX: Missing and presumed undead! Or possibly for real dead. And one kid – he doesn’t care either way ‘cause his dad’s a bum.
CWOIWVLALBTS: That sounds neither goofy nor fun…
One literary agent, who I desperately wanted to represent me, put it best: “This is dystopian. The world is gone, the hero’s parents are gone, and something about the whole world feels dark and serious and, well, pretty sad. It’s not quite working.”
And he wasn’t wrong. The tone didn’t match the world.
Now, every writer I know – and I know at least four – possesses these qualities: 1) they consider themselves principled artists, and 2) they like paying their rent – on time, when possible.
I was newly married. My wife had developed a habit of pointing at random babies and noting how huggable they were. I, in turn, had developed a habit of agreeing that random babies were huggable.
Paying the rent on time suddenly seemed very principled. I had this agent’s attention – now I wanted to deliver something, anything, that he could sell.
But I would not throw the baby out with the bath water – certainly not after my recent realization that babies were huggable.
So, I came up with a fix – my Big Fix. I turned the story into a portal fantasy. The tree house now contained a magic door leading to an alternate dimension, identical, except that the apocalypse had apocalpysed. (I was watching a lot of Fringe back then.)
Jack and his friends would visit this apocalyptic world, battle evil and eat stale junk food, then hurry back through that magic doorway in time for dinner. There were middle school hijinks and embarrassing parents and jokes about cafeteria lunches.
The agent liked my new approach! Penguin Young Readers acquired my proposal!
And… the next 18 months were a joyless slog, full of hair-pulling and eyebrow-plucking — but zero hair-standing-on-end creative fun.
I hated my Big Fix.
I had sold a novel… and I was miserable! I felt like an astronaut finally picked for a space mission – only to blastoff and discover they’re allergic to zero-gravity. Or something else. I’m not great with metaphors.
Worse: The only person I had to blame for this mess was myself – and that’s the person I least like blaming for things.
Everything I write, ever, is saved on my laptop, out of fear that one dumb idea was actually a smart idea and might need to be summoned up a decade later. (Has never happened.) But it has turned my computer into a time-capsule, documenting my manuscript’s timeline…
February 2013: 1st draft
June 2013: 5th draft
January 2014: 12th draft
Things only deteriorate from there. Draft names full of forced optimism and you-can-do-it reassurance: “Manuscript – Now You’re on the Right Track Max!” and “Manuscript – THIS WILL BE THE ONE THAT WORKS.”
Finally, I delivered the book – completed through sheer force of “will today be the day Random House lawyers knock on my door and demand I pay back my advance?”
That night, I didn’t sleep. I was sweaty and nauseous and panicky – even moreso than usual. My wife, Alyse, is a book editor. I gave her a little nudge.
MAX: Wake up. Are you awake? Wake up.
ALYSE: Is it a burglar?
ALYSE: So it’s your book?
I explained – through real tears – how this pickle I’d gotten myself into, much like a real pickle, was not sitting well with me. I had this shot – maybe this one shot – and I blew it. I wanted to write the story that got me excited at the start: a true end of the world adventure — my FUNpocalypse. But I just delivered a book with magic doorways and parents and teachers and a rhyming gnome and holy geez the whole thing had gone off the rails.
Alyse, to paraphrase: “Max, you twit. Call your editor. Be honest. Tell her you want to take a stab at writing the book you really want to write.”
I spewed forth all the reasons I couldn’t do that: “She’ll be mad! She’ll know I’m a fraud! She’ll tell the publisher they never should have bought my book! The publisher will tell my agent he never should have brought me on as a client! Everyone will hate me! I’ll never write anything again!”
“Max… Just call your editor! And after that – maybe call a therapist.”
So I called my editor. And she did understand. Completely.
I promised her a new manuscript – my original Big Idea – in a month.
An enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders – much like someone wearing a concrete scarf might feel when they finally remove it and…. something. Again, not a metaphor guy.
I wrote happy. Those failed drafts were not wasted – they’d allowed me to find the right tone. My trusted colleagues hadn’t been wrong; it was my Big Fix that was wrong.
In May of 2014, my completed Big Idea – now titled The Last Kids on Earth – was sent to illustrator Doug Holgate. He made magic. And then it went out into the world as a book I felt okay about.
I’m tempted, now, to draw parallels between the journey I set my characters on and my writing journey. But that’d all be too neat and buttoned up and not quite honest.
And really, that time spent hopelessly wandering through a wilderness I’ll call “I’m Lucky Enough to Have Sold a Book But Now It Isn’t the Book I Want to Write!” is a miniscule amount of hopeless wandering compared to most author’s paths to publication.
The weird thing? I still get lost. Every book, every time. And it doesn’t require some fear-driven force like paying rent or an editorial note that sends me spiraling. It just happens. I have a Big Idea – and I’m instantly amped up; I see all the bits that will be fun and so good. But then I start writing and everything just gets confused and messy and lost. But I find my way back (usually…), by returning to what first excited me – that Big Idea.