If you’re over a certain age, chances are, you’ve picked up a Dan Gutman book. Whether you love humor – as the devotees of My Weird School can attest – or baseball or just a great story (The Homework Machine, anyone?), Dan Gutman has book for you. And now, Mr. Gutman has a great book for kids on writing as well called My Weird Writing Tips, and who better to blend humor and writing from a kid-friendly angle? Mr. Gutman was kind enough to join us on the Files to share his inspiration for his latest book.
1. You say on your website that your impetus for writing this book was your astonishment at the grammar and spelling errors you were seeing in kids’ emails to you. Did you notice a gradual decline, or has this always been a problem? Was there one particular e-mail that made you say, “That’s it, I’m writing a book on writing for kids!”?
I think it’s always been a problem, and not just with kids. Adults are just as bad. You should see these emails and Facebook posts I get. It’s hard to believe these people ever went to school! Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think that communication is important, and people should make at least a minimal effort to write clearly, even in a text or post.
I do remember one email that was horribly written, and when I replied to the kid and told him he should proofread his words before hitting SEND, he informed me that I was an old fuddy-duddy who still cared about such silly things in the age of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. That was part of my motivation for writing “My Weird Writing Tips.” (Speaking of Twitter and Instagram, you can follow Dan on Twitter or Instagram @dangutmanbooks.) Gee, I hope I don’t make any spelling errors in this interview. That would look really bad!
2. When you were a kid, was there a particular grammar or spelling problem that vexed you? What kind of writer were you as a kid? Do you feel that you are uniquely positioned to help your audience?
No, I don’t remember a particular problem. I was not a big reader when I was a kid, but for some reason writing always came naturally to me. To me, it was just like having a conversation with somebody–and I try to do that same thing in my books. I think that because I was a reluctant reader myself, I relate well to kids like that. I know what bores them, and what makes them like a story. My ultimate goal is to create a story that’s so captivating that a kid will look up after two hours and feel like he or she wasn’t even reading. It was so effortless that it felt like watching a movie in your head.
3. Your book not only imparts basic writing advice, it does so in the form of a My Weird School story. Did you experiment with various formats before coming to this format, or was that your intention all along? Did you have a particular type of reader (a reluctant reader, a reader of certain age or mindset) in mind when you wrote this?
I never saw this project as anything but a My Weird School book. I figure it will be helpful to any kid in grades 2-5. When I was growing up, I used to read Mad Magazine. They always came out with these “special” books to supplement the magazine. This will be the first My Weird School “special.” After this will be specials about Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Back To School, Valentine’s Day, and more.
4. Is there a part of the story you’d care to share with our readers?
Yeah, my favorite part is where I show the kids how they can create a story from scratch–when they have no ideas at all. It’s very simple. You start with a setting, then you choose a main character to suit that setting. Then you give that character a goal or problem to solve. After that, you surround that character with some interesting secondary characters. Make one of them a “bad guy.” Think of a mind-blowing opening scene, and you’re off to the races. I have been doing this at writing workshops in schools for years, and the kids have a lot of fun creating the outline of a story in 30 minutes.
5. How do you hope this book will be used? Do you see this as part of a classroom lesson, or is this for kids to pick up on their own?
It’s hard to imagine kids actually picking up a non-fiction books about writing just for the fun of it. So My Weird Writing Tips will probably be used by teachers and librarians in schools. But I do know that a lot of kids are passionate My Weird School fans who want to read every book in the series. I’m hoping some of them will be curious about this book and want to see what it’s all about.
6. It hardly seems right to interview you without remarking on the fact that this year you will be publishing your 109th book. Your first book, written for adults, was published in 1985. How have you managed to be so prolific? What do you think is your most useful writing habit or routine?
All I can tell you is that I write pretty fast, and I work really hard. If I can write a chapter of a book in a day, and the book has thirty chapters or less, well, I should be able to finish a rough draft in a month. Of course, I don’t always write a chapter in a day, and the rough draft is only the beginning. But you get the idea. A My Weird School book takes me about a month to finish. My baseball card adventure books take about six months. The Genius Files series takes about a year to write each book.
Here’s a little trick I use that people might find useful: Write your first draft and read it out loud. As you read it, PRETEND YOU ARE SOMEBODY ELSE–a teacher, a librarian, a friend, a stranger. And as you read your words through somebody else’s eyes, you will see how you can improve it and you’ll spot the mistakes you’ve made. Try that. Also, go to my web site (www.dangutman.com) and click TIPS FOR YOUNG AUTHORS.
7. Since this is a blog featuring middle-grade books, we’d love to know what middle-grade means to you!
Gee, I never really thought about it. Some kids read at a certain “grade level,” and some read above or below that level. My Weird School books are written for younger kids than most of my other books, but I’m not very strategic about it. I just write them, and kids of various ages read them. When I started that series, my daughter was in second grade and figured kids that age would read the books. But after they were published, I heard that kids in third, fourth, and fifth grade were enjoying them too. So I don’t like to label my books for any one particular grade level. Even some grownups read my books.
Yes, they do, Dan, with great enthusiasm! And now, dear readers, a chance for you to receive a copy of Dan’s great new book!
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