When I attended best-selling author Gary D. Schmidt’s book talk at Boswell Book Company in February, he was sitting with a girl (age 10 or 11?) at a corner table before the presentation began.
As I stood nearby browsing bookshelves, I caught wisps of their conversation about stories, characters, and plotting. I imagine that girl walked away quite inspired after hearing his thoughts and being prodded by his questions.
For Gary D. Schmidt not only writes YA novels, he regularly finds the time to inspire student writers in college, writers conferences, middle school assemblies, and prison.
Besides weaving the theme of “Remember who you are” into his stories, he helps foster the identity of writers in progress.
A couple more titles not pictured earlier . . . My sons and I loved reading this wonderful retelling of The Pilgrim’s Progress classic when they were in upper elementary grades. It was a good way of reminding them who they were: children of the King.
Based on Rumplestiltskin, this book is great example of “spinning” a familiar folktale into a full-fledged novel.
Join me for more Q & A about how Gary D. Schmidt encourages other writers.
How often do you speak at schools and what advice do you give the students?
Gary: I speak to about fifty schools each year (mostly middle schools), depending upon my own teaching schedule at Calvin College.
I think the most important thing any young writer can be doing
is to read widely—not only the genres with which they are most connected,
but also other genres by which they can learn other skills:
poetry for word choice, plays for dialogue, novels for structure,
essays for wrangling with ideas—and so on.
As a teacher of writing, I can always tell immediately whether a student has been a reader. It shows in the ability to order a sentence and a paragraph well.
I also speak at writers conferences for adults. You wouldn’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over.
Is your advice for adults similar to your advice for kids? What other writing tips do you offer?
Gary: The advice for adult writers is close to that for young writers. First, read in all areas, even those that you don’t normally read in. Reading is going to teach you the craft. Then, write consistently. I work at a pace of 500 words a day. Whatever you think you can succeed at, that’s your goal. Just be consistent.
How do you work with and encourage prisoners to write?
Gary: The men I work with at Handlon Prison (Ionia County, Michigan) are hoping to test into the B.A. program that my college offers there.
Many of these men have not had a successful experience in any school,
so we focus on reading and interpretation,
then on accompanying writing.
That writing may be a close analysis of the text,
or it may be personal memoir that responds to something in the story,
or it may be a creative response.
For example, we asked the men to add two concluding poems to Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down”—an assignment they loved to do, and also wanted to read aloud in class. The idea here is to improve reading skills and particularly writing skills of all sorts so that they have a good chance of success in a college classroom.
How long have you been volunteering at Handlon Prison? How often do you go there?
Gary: I’ve been working at Handlon Prison for four years. I teach there with a colleague, Nancy Hull (a YA writer) on Tuesday nights during the fall semester, and sometimes filling in during the spring.
What led you to begin working at the prison?
Gary: I began working at the prison after Calvin College began to offer a program there. I was also deeply moved by the desire of the guys I work with to get into that program. And certainly, my need to fill a space after the death of my wife was influential.
At the book talk, you mentioned that editors are looking for the next J.K. Rowling. How does this impact authors trying to break into the field?
Gary: After the Harry Potter books did so phenomenally well, it is pretty clear that publishing houses were very focused on finding similar phenomena. This was mostly because of the huge profits that the books generated.
That really is a huge change from years ago,
when publishers were more willing to take on books
that they knew would not generate that kind of revenue,
but they knew to be good books.
I suppose this trend has been a long time coming and the Harry Potter books sharpened it. Maurice Sendak, in his Weston Woods film, talked about being taken on by Ursula Nordstrom, his editor, for an apprenticeship, where books were being made to learn the craft.
Today, you can’t even imagine such a thing, especially when marketers have such a huge voice in whether to acquire a book or not. I think that’s a loss.
Do you teach your Calvin College students how to write fiction? How do you encourage them in writing?
Gary: I have the best teaching schedule on the planet. I teach Chaucer and medieval surveys for the hardcore literature majors. You have to be sort of hardcore to brave the language of these pieces. I also teach children’s literature, mostly for education students.
I teach the upper level courses in the writing of fiction for the writing majors. And in our January term, I go out to Concord, Massachusetts, and teach the work of the great Concord writers (Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, as well as Whittier and Longfellow, on site).
Encouraging writing students to write
is partly about making them hungry.
By the end of course, I want them to be eager to publish,
to get their words and their ideas out into the world.
So we set this as a goal: every student submits a piece for publication on the day of the final exam.
Other than that, I work hard at teaching process and development over time, focusing first on a story that privileges plot, then one that privileges character, then one that privileges setting.
Students write three different stories, each time privileging one of the three elements. Of course, all those elements must be in each story, but I want them to think very, very closely about each element at least once.
Have many of your college students published fiction as a result of taking your writing classes?
Gary: About ten percent of the pieces my students send in to literary magazines and journals get accepted. That is a pretty high percentage these days.
A huge thank you to Gary D. Schmidt for answering my questions (beyond the book talk) and sharing more about his work and inspirations.
If you haven’t read any of his YA novels, head to the library and pick some up for your summer reading. I recommend starting with Pay Attention, Carter Jones or The Wednesday Wars. You won’t be disappointed.
Resources & Gary D. Schmidt’s YA Books
- Visit the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books site to hear Gary D. Schmidt discuss his books.
- The complete list of Gary D. Schmidt’s books, awards, and accomplishments.
- More information here in the Calvin College directory.
- A modified version of an article by Myrna Anderson appeared in the spring 2006 edition of The Calvin Spark.
- John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1994), illustrated by Barry Moser—a retelling; my sons and I loved this
- Straw Into Gold (2001)—novel based on Rumplestiltskin
- Lizzie Bright & the Buckminster Boy (2004)—Newbery Honor 2005 & Printz Honor
- The Wednesday Wars (2007)—Newbery honor 2007; a painless way to gain Shakespeare appreciation!
- Trouble (2008)—a Romeo and Juliet theme in 1976 USA
- Okay for Now (2011)—National Book Award finalist
- What Came From the Stars (2012)—his first fantasy novel
- Orbiting Jupiter (2015)—on Publishers Weekly best books list
- Pay Attention, Carter Jones (February 2019)
How have you shared your own particular gifts and talents with others?
OR . . . tell me about a time someone shared his time and talents with you?
I’d love to hear from you!
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