An Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author, Dan Gutman
Dan Gutman is a New York Times bestselling author who started a videogame magazine in 1981 and – to his surprise – suddenly became an expert in video games. He soon realized neither computers nor grownups were his thing and began writing stories for young people. He’s written over forty five books in the ‘My Weird School’ series, and is probably best known for his ‘Baseball Card Adventure’ series about a boy who, on touching old photos or baseball cards, can travel back in time to when the card was made.
Book Walrus wanted to talk to Dan about his recent book, My Weird Writing Tips, in which he gives young people advice on how to write their own stories, and reinforces the writing lessons that teachers try to give their students every day, in a way that’s not simply educational–it’s silly and fun too.
Hello Dan. What inspired you to write My Weird Writing Tips?
I love hearing from readers but I was astonished at the horrible grammar and spelling I was seeing in some of the emails I received from kids. So I decided to do something about it.
What are the most common writing mistakes you see?
Spelling mistakes. No punctuation. Writing in all caps, or all lower case letters. No paragraphs. Everything, really. Sadly, some emails just make no sense at all and I don’t know what the writer is talking about.
You must feel passionately about this – you wrote a whole book about it! Why do you care so much?
I guess I simply think communication is pretty important. I’m very careful to communicate as clearly as possible not only in my books, but also in emails and texts. I don’t think we should have to decipher what people are trying to tell us. It seems lazy, or maybe selfish, to dash something off with mistakes all over the place.
Some writers happily confess their dreadful spelling and grammar, and claim you don’t need to be skilled in these areas to be a great storyteller. What would you say to them?
Well, to be perfectly honest, we have editors, proofreaders, and fact-checkers to fix the mistakes we invariably make. But I think part of our job is to turn in copy that is as clean as possible. I’m glad those people are there to catch my mistakes, but the mistakes should be rare.
What do you think lies at the root of poor spelling and grammar?
A lot of things. I’m afraid that email and texting have contributed quite a bit. If something is going to vanish off a screen in a few seconds, there’s little incentive to make everything perfect. But the problem is that kids carry that attitude over to their other writing too.
How do you convince them that accuracy is important?
I tell them that if they spell half the words wrong and their grammar is all messed up, they look dumb. Nobody wants to look dumb.
You say your book is ‘not simply educational – it’s silly and fun too’. Do you think that’s important when you’re trying to help young people grasp these concepts?
It certainly helps. If a kid is not interested and engaged with the reading material, he or she isn’t going to learn much, no matter how educational it is.
Were you a good student?
Yes! I was not a big reader as a kid, but I liked school and I liked learning new things. I still do.
Your book also gives advice on writing stories. What is your top tip for creating a great story?
Here’s one — make awful things happen to your main character. When they get in trouble, and you get them out of trouble, it makes a compelling story.
Some of your books are very funny. Do you have any top tips for making kids laugh?
Have the brain of a ten year old. Like me.
If you had a time machine, would you still want to write or would you go back and choose another career?
Well, I would be a rock star if I had any musical ability. Or I would be a professional baseball player if I had athletic ability. But since I don’t have any musical or athletic ability, it’s probably good that I became a writer.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I like the freedom. I don’t have a boss. I can work when I want, where I want, and on whatever projects I want. I don’t have to drive to an office, because I work at home. I don’t have to wear a jacket or tie.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
The waiting. Waiting for publishers to accept or reject a manuscript. Waiting for my books to come out. Waiting for the reviews to come in. Waiting to see how a book sells. Waiting to get paid.
You can find out more about Dan Gutman at www.dangutman.com and www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Gutman/60020139122 ). He is also on Instagram and Twitter as @DadGutmanBooks