Award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt—Remember Who You Are—Part 1

In the spirit of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, the neighborhood bookstore is a favorite spot for book lovers. In this age of Amazon, online shopping, Kindles, ebooks, and downloads, a real live bookstore is a sight for sore eyes. A place to browse and bask in a bounty of books.

Boswell Book Company, an independent bookstore near downtown Milwaukee, prides itself in celebrating authors through author talks, school visits, and book club gatherings throughout town. In 2018, the store sponsored 400 events, culminating in their 10th anniversary last month (April 3, 2019).

One such event occurred Saturday, Feb. 9, when Gary D. Schmidt, two-time Newbery Award finalist and author of numerous young adult books, gave a book talk. 

I had the privilege of meeting him. He happens to be an English professor at my alma mater, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And he just happens to write YA books I’ve enjoyed for over ten years. And in 2013–my only claim to fame–my book just happened to be featured with his in the Bookshelf column of The Calvin Spark alumni magazine. He had top billing, of course, with What Came From the Stars

Very personable and down to earth, he spoke to a group of about thirty kids and parents, read the first few pages of his new book, and opened up a Q & A session for over an hour.

Professor Schmidt has taught at Calvin since 1985 (five years after I graduated). He obtained his Ph.D. in Medieval Language and Literature at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science from Gordon College (1979) and an M.A. in English Language and Literature from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1981).

Professor and author Gary D. Schmidt; courtesy of Rising Bear Literary Agency

At Calvin College, he teaches courses like Medieval British Literature, Renaissance Literature, Children’s Literature, Adolescent Literature, Film, Composition, Creative Writing: Fiction, Survey of American Literature, Introduction to Fiction, and more.

His writing ventures have earned him multiple awards. Besides writing scholarly books and textbooks, he thrives in the world of children’s and young adult literature. (See partial list below.)

On top of teaching college students, he shares the wealth of his writing expertise with middle schoolers and at writers conferences throughout the year. 

Prof. Schmidt’s latest book is Pay Attention, Carter Jones, about an American boy who finds a proper English butler at his front door. 

This story grew from that single image. Prof. Schmidt had no idea where the plot was headed after that. But in the course of following his rigid schedule of writing 500 words per day, he discovered what happened next. 

During his talk, he referenced Katharine Paterson’s Jip, His Story, also inspired by a mere image: a baby alone on a dirt road.

Sometimes the best stories start that way. A picture in your head.

Katherine Paterson is one of Gary D. Schmidt’s favorite authors.

Supposedly, C.S. Lewis’s story grew from a mental image of a faun in a snowy forest next to a lamppost. 

1950 Geoffrey Bles first edition hardcover

Prof. Schmidt (henceforth referred to as Gary) doesn’t deal with outlines. In author-ese, he’s a “pantser,” referring to someone who flies by the seat of his pants rather than plotting events step by step. He doesn’t want to be constrained by a rigid plan. 

Teachers often cringe to hear this, wishing instead that he’d promote the outline concept, for the benefit of their students who are listening with rapt attention.

One of the benefits of writing as a pantser is that Gary identifies with his reader who also doesn’t know what’s ahead on the page. Neither one knows the ending when he starts out.

Also, as a pantser, the author must be prepared to live
by the whim of his muses. Characters threaten to take over. 
They insist on having their own way. 
An author can resist only so long. 

Gary tried, but succumbing to characters’ fancies and strong-willed tendencies was inevitable.

To discover the inevitable, read the book! I’m sure I enjoyed it just as much as any middle school reader, if not more.

Whether pantser or outliner,
shaping the story to the author’s satisfaction takes a hunk of revision.
Miscellaneous elements–characters, dialog snippets, and events–
must fit together into a smooth, cohesive entity.
By the story’s end, after the final draft, nothing is random.
Parts are connected, their sum greater than the whole.

The protagonist Carter Jones is named after a 5th grade student Gary met when visiting BYU eight years ago. Some inspiration hailed from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), a movie about a Latin teacher at a British boys school. 

Of course, when an English butler joins the family and runs the schedule, playing cricket becomes as routine as preparing chive cream cheese sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, and raisin scones for bag lunches. The Butler teaches Carter the game’s finer points. (The Butler has a name, but Carter mainly refers to him as “the Butler.”)

In order to write about cricket, Gary had to learn how to play, along with Carter. That challenge became a tedious “nightmare.” 

The tedium continued after Gary sent the manuscript to a British publisher. Apparently, Brits view cricket differently than we Americans do. No surprise there! The publisher told Gary to write those sections over.  

That was the last thing Gary wanted to hear about his “finished” manuscript. It led to record-breaking revision–more rewriting occurred in this story than any of his other books.

Now, instead of emphasizing the competitive aspect between cricket opponents, he focused on the complementary relationship between teammates.

Thus, the change served the story well. And this anecdote serves us all. Particularly authors. When you think you can’t add or change or cut one more word, listening to others’ insights challenges you in a positive way. 

What is good becomes stronger. What is strong, becomes excellent. What is excellent, becomes superb.

The Butler doesn’t merely offer comic relief, make lunches,
or enlighten Carter in cricket strategies.
His presence is vital to helping the family through a difficult time.
He calls Carter to higher ground with his encouragement,
“Remember who you are”
–a theme relevant to middle schoolers’ wrestling
with identity and self-esteem.
It’s a theme pervading Gary’s other YA books, too.

In preparation for writing this book, Gary experienced Australia by climbing, hiking, and living through a tropical thunderstorm–things he enjoyed more than learning cricket. Though colorblind, he still observed the unique blue of the sky conjured from oil on eucalyptus leaves. It became a metaphor in the story.

Australia’s Blue Mountains

Gary definitely succeeded injecting humor into this book. His previous one, Orbiting Jupiter, dealt with heavy themes of juvenile delinquency, foster care, and illegitimate babies. Gary considers this new novel the most comic of his books, though it, too, addresses serious family issues.

Gary generally spends 2-1/2 to 3 years on each project, tackling several books at a time. He currently has four in the works. Though admittedly he isn’t as prolific as some authors, such as Jane Yolen with 350+ books to her credit, he’s content with his output and daily efforts.

While British fantasy writer E. Nesbit (one of the Butler’s favorites) was known to sometimes write 10,000+ words daily (equivalent to 40+ double spaced pages), Gary is committed to the more realistic goal of writing 500 words per day, which he recommends. This might amount to 1-1/2 pages average, taking one to eight hours, depending on the scene (and other factors). 

He’s rigorous about stopping at 500 words, thus hovering in the ranks of Jack London, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. This sounds like “The Tortoise and the Hare” approach to me. Slow and steady wins the race. 

The “slow and steady” motto has definitely worked for Gary. His books are winners.

Join me next time for a Q & A session with Gary D. Schmidt.

A sampling of Gary D. Schmidt’s YA fiction (I’ve read all but one of these):

Does the mantra “slow and steady wins the race” keep you diligent?
OR . . . How have you applied constructive criticism to improve your skills? 

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,

Laura

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17 thoughts on “Award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt—Remember Who You Are—Part 1

  1. So interesting! I read “Wednesday Wars” and now I want to read more Gary Schmidt books.
    I wish I had a mantra like slow and steady!
    But I do appreciate constructive criticism of my work. Sometimes it really hurts,
    but I am thankful for the critiques that open my eyes to my flaws and make me want to correct them.

    1. I loved The Wednesday Wars. I hope you get a chance to read more of his books soon.

      It’s a blessing to able to receive and apply constructive criticism! Not everyone can.

  2. Gary Schmidt is one of my all time favorite authors!! His writing is absolutely beautiful, and I always fall in love with his characters. I was first introduced to him through The Wednesday Wars, and it has been a deep love affair ever since. My favorite of his novels is Okay For Now. You must try reading him. Now. Like today.

  3. You mentioned he’s colorblind. I can’t help wondering if he ever tried those colorblind glasses–the youtube videos intrigue me–and, yes, they make me cry.
    I love that he finds a story in the picture. I wrote a novel from a single sentence and a picture that I saw within five minutes of each other. That one I wrote as a “pantser”–but I think I do better as a “plantser”–getting a relative plotline and then seeing where the characters take it.
    I think the hardest part about “constructive criticism” is when you receive it from multiple angles and they all disagree. Then it’s a matter of weighing it all out and deciding what makes sense for YOUR story. I personally prefer having facts straight before hand so I don’t have to rewrite huge amounts after. (I don’t do so well with killing of my darlings.) Of course, needing to have all the info first can make getting started kind of scary.

    1. I love the term “plantser”–a perfect combination of planning (but not too much) and spontaneity (within reason). I think that’s what I am!

      Did you like the novel you wrote as a pantser, based on the single sentence and one picture?

      I agree about the constructive criticism. It’s tough when people can’t agree. Then who do you listen to?

      1. Yes, I liked the novel, but the characters kept jumping into situations that I had to figure out how to rescue them from–which meant I had all kinds of loose ends to pull together at the end. But sometimes those ends were perfect in a way that I couldn’t have planned!

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