Today at MUF we’re talking with Chris & J.J. Grabenstein, co-authors of the middle-grade novel, SHINE! (Random House Children’s Books), which James Patterson says is, “Inspirational, commonsensical, and a whole lot of fun.” We got the writing partners — and life partners! — to tell us about their new book, how they work together, and what’s next for them.
Mixed-Up Files: J.J., we understand the idea behind SHINE! was yours. Can you talk about what sparked the idea? What made this the story you decided had to get written?
J.J.: I guess living in New York City has made me hyper aware of how hard everybody here strives to get ahead. What pre-K your child gets into, theoretically, will help determine whether they get into Harvard. Growing up in an environment where accomplishments and awards were highly prized, I wish I had read a book that said who you are as a person is even more important than landing on the honor roll or winning the lead role in the school musical.
We know that J.J. has helped behind the scenes on many of Chris’ other books, but how was the process here different than in the past?
CHRIS: In the past, J.J. has been my first editor. She reads everything before anyone else and encourages me to cut out the boring parts. She also lets me know if anything takes her out of the story. An odd word or phrase. An illogical leap. Confusion of any kind. But, in the end, those books are my books and I get the final say (even though I typically take all J.J.’s notes and make all her suggested changes).
On SHINE! we were equals. Both our names would be going on the cover. We both had to be happy with every word.
MUF: What did your collaboration look like?
CHRIS: Well, first we spent months blocking out a very detailed outline. VERY detailed.
That’s a technique I learned from James Patterson. When I work on a project with him, he creates an extremely detailed outline with all the twists and turns plotted out. I execute a first draft from that outline and check in with him every month with new pages.
With J.J., we checked in every day.
We also discovered that we have extremely different writing techniques.
In college, I majored in Communications at the University of Tennessee. J.J. studied music and theater at Northwestern (yep, that’s why the hero of our book’s father is a music teacher). At the end of my freshman year at UT, I took a typing test. We needed to do 30 words a minute before we could take any sophomore level courses. From then on, every assignment we turned in had to be type written.
When I graduated, I could type over one hundred words a minute. In fact, working as a temporary typist was how I supported myself when I first moved to New York City to pursue a writing and comedy career.
So now, when I write, I think through my fingertips.
J.J., on the other hand, has a theatrical background. For years, she toured the country doing musicals. She also appeared Off Broadway in the long-running hit NUNSENSE. Today, she works as a voice actor, creating lots of different characters. (She narrated my HAUNTED MYSTERY series from Random House.)
When J.J. writes, she wants to act out all the scenes. And play all the characters. Something I was doing in my head and sending down to my keyboard (and she thought I was just typing). This led to some very interesting scenes in the writing room.
MUF: Did you ever disagree at points on what direction the book should go? If so, how did you resolve that?
J.J.: Not on the overall direction. On individual scenes? Yes. If neither one of us could convince the other to see it our way, then we realized there was something fundamentally wrong with both approaches. So, we’d chuck whatever we were championing and work out a solution that made both of us happy.
MUF: Do you find collaborating on a book with someone else harder or easier than doing it solo?
CHRIS: In a lot of ways, it’s much easier. Someone else is helping you map out the journey and make decisions along the way. Then, if you take a wrong turn, it’s not entirely your fault!
MUF: What’s it like when you get editorial notes back? How did you decide to tackle those edits? What was the division of labor there?
J.J.: We were very fortunate to have Chris’s longtime Random House editor Shana Corey working with us on SHINE! In fact, we often say, her name should be on the cover, too. She was a true third partner throughout the whole two-years and six drafts it took to get the book right.
Like I’ve seen Chris do (from time to time), I’d whine a little about the editorial letters and all the notes. After all, what we had turned in was perfect, right? But then, the next day, I’d also do what I’ve seen Chris do countless times: Realize Shana was right. And the book would be better if we made her suggested changes, cuts, or additions.
MUF: What projects are next for you both?
CHRIS: Well, let’s see…my first picture book, NO MORE NAPS, from Random House will be coming out in February. There will be a fifth Lemoncello book, MR. LEMONCELLO AND THE TITANIUM TICKET, coming in late summer, 2020 to be followed by the first book in what we hope is a new Middle Grades series. I also edited and contributed to a collection of short stories for the Mystery Writers of America that will be out in June. James Patterson and I will have, I think, three books coming out in 2020, including the 7th in the popular TREASURE HUNTERS series. And, I am doing a new Audible Original entitled STUCK, where I get to make a cameo appearance.
J.J.: Well, after reading Chris’s list, it looks like I have a lot of first editing to do! I’ll also be heading back to the sound booth to record books and voice overs for all sorts of clients. I’m also happy to report that I will be appearing in the Audible Original STUCK. Chris and I play goofy cartoon characters at a game-arcade/restaurant called Chuck and Ernie’s.
MUF: Do you both read quite a bit of middle grade? What are some of your favorite recent MG titles? Any recs for us?
CHRIS: I do read (and listen) to a lot of Middle Grade stories. My recent faves include Steve Sheinken’s BORN TO FLY, R.J. Palacio’s WHITE BIRD, Stuart Gibbs’ CHARLIE THORNE, and Jerry Craft’s NEW KID.
J.J.: I read a ton of Middle Grade books. Because Chris writes a ton of ’em every year.
MUF: Tell us a little bit about SHINE! for our readers.
CHRIS: Well, the gang at Random House always knows how to summarize a book better than me! Here’s what they say:
“Who do you want to be?” asks Mr. Van Deusen. “And not when you grow up. Right here, right now.”
Shine on! might be the catchphrase of twelve-year-old Piper’s hero–astronaut, astronomer, and television host Nellie Dumont Frisse–but Piper knows the truth: some people are born to shine, and she’s just not one of them. That fact has never been clearer than now, since her dad’s new job has landed them both at Chumley Prep, a posh private school where everyone seems to be the best at something and where Piper definitely doesn’t fit in.
Bursting with humor, heart, science, possibilities, and big questions, Shine! is a story about finding your place in the universe–a story about figuring out who you are and who you want to be.
MUF: If you have anything else to add, please feel free!
We’re excited to see the numerous ways teachers and librarians have already brought SHINE! to life in their schools. We’re also thrilled that the folks at Random House put together such a fantastic Educators’ Guide for the book. (Click here for the Educators’ Guide to SHINE!)