An answer to your burning question: Where do I get my ideas?

I get this question more than any other (except ‘When is your next Spy School/FunJungle/Moon Base Alpha novel coming out?’) and it’s one of the most complicated questions to answer.  So I’m going to do my best to answer it right now.

Sort of.  It’s very hard to say where ideas come from.  They just kind of happen.  I didn’t really think, “Where would be an interesting place to set a mystery?” and eventually realize, “Aha!  A zoo!”  Instead, one day, a long time ago, the idea of doing a mystery in a zoo just popped into my head and I realized it was a good one.

So maybe the better question to answer is: What do I do to inspire myself to come up with ideas?

There are two parts to that answer.  1) I tend to write about things that interest me.  Note that this is different than saying “Write what you know.”  A lot of people tell me they’ve been told to write what they know, but if everyone did that, we’d end up with a million books about middle school, high school and college.  There are lots of things that fascinate me: animals, zoos, spies, space travel…

2) I research those things.  This is the fun part, because research isn’t necessarily just reading about something (although that certainly counts).  It’s also trying to experience those things, which I find can generate more ideas than simply hanging around, thinking about something.  For example, walking around a zoo inspires more ideas than merely thinking about a zoo.

It’s pretty amazing how effective immersing yourself in an experience can be to generate ideas.  For example, there’s this volcanic crater in Hawaii — Kilauea Iki — that my son and I love to hike in:

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Notice that this crater (which only formed in 1959, by the way) looks pretty alien.  In fact, it’s about as close as you can come to hiking on the lunar surface as possible on earth.  Every time I’m in that crater, I kind of feel like I’m on the moon — and I suddenly find myself besieged with ideas for the Moon Base Alpha series.  Ideas that I might not have come up with otherwise.

It just so happens, there’s a pretty awesome lava tube right near Kilauea Iki.  Fun fact: There are also lava tubes on the moon!  A while back, I sought out the help of some scientists who specialize in potential lunar construction, and they’d told me that if we were to build anything on the moon, we’d probably have to set up our first camps in lava tubes to protect ourselves from meteorite strikes.  (Research!)  Now, while looking at a picture of a lava tube is interesting, actually walking through one is considerably more inspiring:

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Research like this and inspiration go pretty much hand-in-hand.  If you’re learning about something, inspiration strikes all the time — often for something you weren’t even trying to learn about. For example, I was researching rhinos down at the San Diego Zoo when we dropped by the panda habitat and suddenly, it became evident that FunJungle four ought to be about — you guessed it — pandas.

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Meanwhile, somewhere else along the line, I’d had the idea that it would also be interesting to have a story involving dolphins.  So I took it upon myself to do a little research on dolphins as well.  Luckily, a place called Dolphin Quest was happy to do this for me:

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Extremely educational — and very inspirational!  (Not to mention awfully fun.  I told you research was the fun part.)  When FunJungle #4 comes out in spring 2017, expect there to be a bit of a dolphin mystery in there, along with the panda mystery.

So if you’re looking for inspiration, I highly recommend trying to experience as much as possible (as long as your parents say its ok.)  Go to zoos and museums and national parks.  Take lessons in things that interest you.  Explore the world!  And read a lot.

(And for those of you still wanting details on Spy School #4 — and what inspired that — I promise you, details will be coming in February some time.)

Boxed sets of my books are now in stores!

Troubled by which one of my book series to start first?  Well, now you don’t have to worry any more — because you can get the first edition of all three series at once!  That’s right, Belly Up, Spy School and Space Case are now all available in one handy set: Astronauts, Spies and Hippopotami, the Stuart Gibbs Starter Collection.  Plus, they come in a beautiful, hand-crafted carrying case!  (Otherwise known as a box.)  Check out how beautiful it is!  (And click here to order one.  Or two.  Or twelve.)

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Or, are you dealing with a different conundrum: You want to buy all the books in the FunJungle series, but you wish there was a beautiful, hand-crafted carrying case for them as well. (Or, at least, a box.)  Well, your problem is solved, because there is now a FunJungle Collection as well.  Click here to order yours today!

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Both sets are perfect for holiday gifts, or for simply putting on your fireplace mantle and inducing gasps of awe and jealousy from your houseguests.

For those of you who are Spy School fans, there are no boxed sets for that series at the moment.  But there might be soon.  Stay tuned…

This is Nola. She’s a northern white rhino. And her species is about to go extinct.

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EXCEPTIONALLY SAD UPDATE TO THIS POST:

Shortly after I wrote this, Nola passed away.  So now,  instead of four Northern White Rhinos left on earth… there are three.

Here’s the rest of the original post, though:

Nola lives at the San Diego Safari Park.  By all accounts, she as as sweet and good-natured as any animal can be; she’s like a two ton labrador retriever.  And she is one of only four northern white rhinos left on earth.  That’s right: THERE ARE ONLY FOUR OF THESE RHINOS LEFT ON THE ENTIRE PLANET.

There are none left in the wild.  The other three are in a zoo in Europe.  And they’re all too old to breed, which means there is really nothing we can do to save them.  This beautiful creature is going to die out in your lifetime.

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you’ll know this isn’t the first time I’ve called attention to this.  However, it seems worth bringing up again.  I’ve been traveling around the USA over the past few weeks, talking about the serious problem of rhino poaching (as it’s at the heart of my newest book, Big Game).  And the school kids I’ve talked to are very, very upset to learn about Nola and the rest of her species.

They’re also very upset to learn about the fact that other rhino species are being killed off at an unsustainable rate, meaning they might go extinct in our lifetimes as well.

They’re upset to learn that on average, THREE RHINOS ARE KILLED ILLEGALLY EVERY DAY.

And they’re also upset to hear that elephants are in serious trouble as well.  Right now, on average, ONE OF THESE BEAUTIFUL CREATURES IS BEING KILLED ILLEGALLY EVERY 14 MINUTES.  THAT’S 96 ELEPHANTS A DAY.

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Tanzania estimates it has lost 60% of its elephant population over the last five years.

If you want to get involved, there are many great organizations working to help stop the slaughter.  Please check out at least one of these to find out what you (and your family, and your friends, and your school) can do:

www.rhinos.org

www.96elephants.org

www.savetherhino.org

And check out the Save The World tab at the top of this page to learn about other organizations protecting wildlife and their habitats around the world.

Let’s try to make sure that other species don’t suffer the same fate that Nola will.

Thanks,

Stuart

Spy School made the New York Times bestseller list!

When you set out to be an author, you have a few dreams.  And I’m betting that most of us dream of making the New York Times bestseller list.  It is the list in publishing.  And next Sunday, for the first time, I will be on it.  Thanks to the strong sales of Evil Spy School’s opening week — which also boosted sales of Spy School and Spy Camp, I hit #7 on the series list.  Check it out!

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A couple super-cool things about this:

#1) I am above Harry Potter!  (OK, yes, Harry Potter has been on there for several years, but still, I beat it.)

#2) I hit the series list with only three books.  This list is exceptionally hard to crack, because it takes the sales of every book in the series into account.  So a series like, say Harry Potter, with seven books — has a distinct advantage at getting on the list.  In fact, my fearless publisher had claimed that it was almost impossible to break into the series list — so he was extra-thrilled when I did it.

#3) An amusing anecdote about all this.  By a strange twist of fate, I happened to be at my publisher’s offices when the news came in.  I was changing into a tuxedo at the time.  This was the same day of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards ceremony, for which Space Case was a nominee.  Normally, I would have been changing at my hotel, but I had already checked out of my hotel, as I had to get to Connecticut that night for school visits the next day — and I had shipped my tuxedo to my editor so that I didn’t have to carry it around for two weeks of book tour before the Edgars.  So, there I am, changing into my tux (which is a very james Bond thing to do) in a spare office when there is a knock at the door and my editor and publisher inform me that I have just hit the NY Times List.  So, I came out, not quite dressed, to celebrate.  Here’s me with Kristin Ostby, my awesome editor.  (She was also dressed for the Edgars, but she had managed to get her shoes on by this time.)

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Point being, it was very nice to learn about the Times while I was at Simon & Schuster and could celebrate with everyone, rather than say merely getting a phone call.  (I did eventually get my shoes on, and get to the Edgars.  I didn’t win.  But landing on the List was an awfully nice consolation prize.)

Space Case gets an awesome review from the New York Times!

When you want to be a writer, there are some things you dream about: Seeing your book on the shelves of a bookstore, hearing from readers who’ve loved your work… And getting a review in the New York Times.  Yes, there are other places that review books, but for me, the Times has always been the gold standard.  (Maybe because I’ve been reading this book review every weekend for a very long time.)

It turns out, the only thing better than getting a review in the Times… is getting a GREAT review in the Times.  If you’d like to read it yourself, just click here.

Or, I could give you some nice excerpts.  Like: “…a delightful and brilliantly constructed ­middle-grade thriller.”  Or: “In a novel with such a highly imagined plot, a protagonist this layered is a rare treat.”  Or even: “At its heart, “Space Case” is about exploration for the sake of exploration, offering up the same wonder as a good long look at the night sky.”

I cannot possibly describe for you all how awesome this is.  It’s simply amazing.

Meanwhile, this has also coincided with my Six Minute interview popping up on LitPick today.  Click here for it.

Have a happy holiday, everyone!  See you in the new year!

Why is it so hard to find the Last Musketeer series?

A lot of readers have been very kind to write to me, letting me know that they have enjoyed my Last Musketeer series, but there are probably many of you who don’t even know that Last Musketeer series even exists — or maybe you do know about it, but you’ve had trouble finding it at your local bookstore.

If so, here’s why:

The Last Musketeer series was published by a different publisher than my other books. Belly Up, Poached, Spy School, Spy Camp and my upcoming Space Case were all published by Simon & Schuster, which has done a really wonderful job designing and marketing my books. Meanwhile, the publisher of the Last Musketeer didn’t do such a good job with designing and marketing.

(For those of you who don’t even know about this series, a quick update: The Last Musketeer is a trilogy I wrote after Belly Up but before Spy School. It’s about a 12-year-old boy, Greg Rich, who ends up traveling back in time 400 years to Paris and uniting the three musketeers — who are only teenagers as well — for their first adventure. There’s lots of excitement and adventure and swashbuckling.)

Marketing is extremely important in selling books. You may not realize it, but Simon & Schuster has done a great job of creating an author ‘brand’ for me. By which I mean that my books all have a similar ‘look,’ from the cover design to the colors to the shape and size. If you see the cover for Space Case, even though you might not know I wrote it, it kind of looks like the other books that I wrote, which might make you stop and pick it up:

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Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’? Well, that phrase is really about people, not books. Everyone judges books by their covers. If a book has a cover that’s not very eye-catching or interesting, they don’t pick up the book.

So… Here’s the cover for ‘The Last Musketeer.’

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Not exactly eye-catching, is it? I don’t mind the title font, which has an ‘Indiana Jones’ quality to it, but I find the cover dark, old-fashioned and somewhat confusing. That’s obviously Greg in the foreground, but I’m not sure if the people behind him are bad guys who are chasing him or good guys who are just running along with him — and I’m the author. There’s nothing about this cover art that tells you much of anything about the story. And though there’s a catchphrase, it’s also confusing: ‘In a dangerous time, he’ll need more than a sword.’ What does that mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

You could probably also argue that the title doesn’t even make that much sense.  If it’s the first book in a trilogy, why is it called ‘The Last Musketeer’?  Why isn’t it called ‘The First Musketeer’?

I made all these arguments years ago, because I had already seen the cover art for Belly Up — which I loved — and I thought that this cover was not only uninteresting, but also didn’t link thematically to Belly Up. By which I mean that if someone looked at the Belly Up cover and the Last Musketeer cover, they wouldn’t realize that both books were by the same author.

The company that published The Last Musketeer told me I was wrong, and since I was new to publishing, I believed them. But guess what?

I was right. I quickly found that, even at bookstores where they knew me and loved Belly Up, no one realized that The Last Musketeer series was also written by me. (Yes, they’d see that it had the same author name on it, but they often assumed there must be another Stuart Gibbs.) The publisher also didn’t promote the books very much, and so a lot of bookstores simply stopped carrying them.

Which means there’s a good chance that, if you want to get The Last Musketeer for yourself, you either have to ask your local bookstore to order it for you specially — or you have to buy it on-line.

Personally, as an author, I’d prefer that you buy it from your local bookstore, as I think bookstores are awesome. But if you don’t have a local bookstore anywhere near you (which is sadly the case many places) then you can just click here to link to where you can order from the publisher.

And while you’re at it, you can get the other two books in the series, Traitor’s Chase and Double Cross:

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Although I should point out that both these books are only available in hardback, which is another reason not so many stores carry them.

It’s possible that, as my other books start to do better, and more and more people ask for The Last Musketeer in their local bookstores, that the books will start to be sold in more places again.  Every year or so, I ask the publisher of The Last Musketeer if they wouldn’t mind redoing the covers to make them more like my other books, so that they’ll be more appealing to book buyers — and thus book sellers — but we’ll have to see how that pans out.  In the meantime, if you’ve read Belly Up and Poached and Spy School and Spy Camp and can’t wait for Space Case or Evil Spy School to come out, might I recommend The Last Musketeer?  It might be a little harder to find, but it’s still a good book!

Best research day ever

As much as I enjoy writing the Spy School series, the Belly Up series has been a lot more fun to research.  Being an author has opened some doors and allowed me some experiences lately that have been truly wonderful.  I thought that my recent experience getting to meet a rhino at the San Diego Zoo would be tough to top.  And then this happened:

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Despite the fact that I have been writing about all sorts of other fascinating animals in my books, elephants have always been the animals that I loved the most.  They are intelligent and emotional and amazing.  I had always hoped to have the chance to interact with them like this, but never got the opportunity until this week.  This is not at a zoo, but at a private facility.  Both these elephants have been rescued from other facilities where they were not being properly cared for.  In addition to having all my research questions answered, I was allowed to spend three hours with the elephants, feeding them, petting them, and occasionally just relaxing with them.

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Now if I can only talk NASA into letting me go up on a rocket as research for Space Case…

The Edgars — and other notable events

This is probably old news, as I’m sure you were riveted to the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgars Awards on May 2nd — as well as the twelve hours of red carpet coverage to see what I or Gillian Flynn or Ken Follett was wearing.  But Spy School did not win the Edgar for best juvenile mystery.  That went to Quick Fix by Jack D Ferrario.  (If you look it up on Amazon, I recommend you search the books category.  Otherwise — and I am not kidding about this — you will end up with Quick Fix brand synthetic urine.  Personally, I don’t need any synthetic urine, as I am able to produce plenty of good old fashioned urine on my own.  But I digress.)

Anyhow, I’m not lying when I say that I’m ok with not winning.  Landing in the top five juvenile mysteries of the year was a super-cool honor and getting to go to the awards ceremony and meet my fellow nominees was a lot of fun.  Here we all are together (courtesy of official MWA photographer Steve Speliotis):

From left to right, you’ve got me, Art ’13 Hangmen’ Corriveau, Sheila ‘Three Times Lucky’ Turnage, ‘Tom ‘Fake Mustache’ Angleberger and Jack D. ‘The Quick Fix’ Ferraiolo (also known as ‘The Winner’).  They were a really good group of people and there was only a minimal amount of skullduggery and backstabbing.

Beyond that, though, lots of other good stuff has been happening.  The day before the Edgars, I learned that Belly Up was chosen as the Young Readers Choice Award winner for the great state of Pennsylvania.  As this is my home state, the award is a great honor.

Then, last week, I was honored to be the guest speaker at the Texas Star Celebration for the Birdsville, Texas School District.  (Those of you who know your Texas school districts no doubt recognize that this one is in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.)  This was a really wonderful ceremony where kids were rewarded with medals for reading at least 12 books on the Lone Star Reading list — although many kids had read at least 20, if not all 26.  Having grown up in Texas, it was nice to see kids getting the same respect for reading that athletes got for sports.  And the Belly Up dead-hippo themed decor was fantastic:

Kids, I encourage everyone to go with this theme for parties from now on.  Not just events where I am speaking, but weddings, bar mitzvahs, children’s birthday parties and so on.  What says fun more than dead hippos?

A few other accolades: The awesome Total Teen Fiction website selected Spy School as their book of the month for April.  (Yes, I know that was last month, but I’ve been busy, darn it.)  And the Reading Rumpus website did a nice author spotlight of me.

Also, I have learned that not just the National Spy Museum but also a traveling spy exhibit called ‘Spy: The Secret World of Espionage’ (currently at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia) are carrying both Spy School and Spy Camp.

And perhaps best of all, Spy School and Spy Camp are selling very well.  So well that Spy School landed on its first bestseller list last week.  Not the vaunted New York Times, but the Indy Bookstore tallies, which I’m still extremely pleased with (especially since not every indy bookstore carries my books.)

So, all in all, a pretty good couple weeks!

Spy School is an Edgar Award finalist!!!!!

Yes, the above heading deserves the extra exclamation points.  While my books have been nominated for awards before, the Edgar Award is the big one.  It’s kind of the Oscar of mystery writing.  (Or, as many of my friends have pointed out, the Oscar is like the Edgar of movies.)

Here’s the list of nominees, just so you know I’m not snowing you.

I have to say, I’m terribly excited about this.  When you write a mystery, you hope it might get nominated for an Edgar.  (Which, so you know, is named after Edgar Allen Poe, who among other things, wrote what is generally regarded as the first modern mystery story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’)  I really worked hard to make the mystery in Spy School a good one — one that adults would appreciate as much as kids.  (I also did the same on Belly Up, and I think I’ve come up with a really good mystery for Belly Up’s sequel, Poached.)  So to be recognized is really, truly awesome.  Plus, there’s an actual awards ceremony, just like there is for the Oscars, only the Edgar awards ceremony isn’t televised because mystery writers are so good-looking, we’d make all the Oscar-nominated actors and actresses look pathetic and destroy the film industry.

By the way, trivia fans, here’s something I’ll bet even the Edgar folks don’t know: Also among the nominees (for TV mystery) is Meredith Stiehm, who I shared a house with in college, along with a few other people.  I’m betting that Meredith and I are probably the only ex-college housemates ever nominated for an Edgar in the same year.

How to write an on line review

Many people out there have reviewed my books on line by now, and I thank all of you for doing this.  Well, I thank all of you who have given my books good ratings (which is most of you).  If you’ve given my books a bad rating… well, the less said, the better.

However, you might still be thinking about reviewing one of my books on line. If so, I heartily encourage you to do it.  It’s very easy to do and takes very little time.  (Unless, of course, you’re planning to give one of my books a bad review, in which case it’s very difficult to do and takes hours.)  If you do plan on doing this, I have a few helpful hints:

1) There are several sites to review books, but the most popular are Amazon and Goodreads.  Since Belly Up was published, Goodreads appears to have usurped Amazon as the go-to place for book reviewing.  I think there are two reasons for this.  On Goodreads, you can link to all your friends to find out what they’ve reviewed, so you no longer have to go through the trouble of calling them to find out what books they’d recommend — and Goodreads lets you get away with only giving a rating without having to write a whole review.  (Actually, you can do this on Amazon too, but there seems to be some sort of stigma against it.)  Only about 1/5th of people on Goodreads actually write reviews.  The rest just take a few seconds to search for the book, assign it stars and move on.  Now that I think of it, you might have to be an Amazon member to review books there, but who isn’t an Amazon member these days?

2) If you’re not exactly sure what rating to give, be generous, rather than stingy.

Given, merely giving a book 1,2,3,4 or 5 stars lacks nuance.  However, these reviews matter.  Not just for me, but for all authors.  So if you’re saying to yourself, “I liked this book more than four stars worth, but not quite five,” just give it five.  I mean, it’s not like that extra star costs you anything.  And no one’s going to judge you on it either.  Trust me, if anyone is going through your Goodreads reviews to see if you’ve been a little too generous with handing out five stars, they’re the one with the problem, not you.

This may seem like a silly little quibble, but there are actually several four-star Goodreads reviews of my books where, in the text, the author says something like ‘I actually wanted to give the book four and a half stars, but I couldn’t.’  If that’s the case, people, then stop being so chintzy with your stars and round up!  Most people don’t actually read all the reviews of a book.  (In fact, I believe only the authors do.)  They don’t look at the fine print to see that your review is actually four and a half stars.  All they see is a four star review.

I’m not just speaking for myself here, by the way.  I’m doing it for all authors everywhere.

3) Other than that, honestly, just say whatever you want.  (As long as it’s good.)  In this day and age, on-line reviews are probably the best way to spread word about a book.  If you’ve given me one, thank you.  I really, truly appreciate it.

If you haven’t, here’s the links to my Goodreads page and my Amazon page.  Click on the book you want and review!