Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When people ask me, “Did you always want to be a writer?” my answer is, “I think I did.” I mean in middle school I would pass the time in my “boring” classes by writing short stories or poems. Throughout high school, writing is the only thing that kept me sane. Literally. Writing was my life raft in the sea of a very turbulent adolescence. By college I was an English major and then after I graduated from college I set out to actually become a professional writer.
And I halfway got there. I did become a professional… just not a writer. I became a professional waiter. I became a professional bookstore clerk. I became a professional “Going Out Of Business, This Weekend ONLY!” rug salesman. Yet, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Eventually, doggedness won out and here I am today working on my sixteenth published project. There’s a great lesson in that, to my way of thinking. Not just for all aspiring writers, of course, but for all people. Tenacity, fortitude and gumption open more doors than talent, brains or skill. I learned to become thick-skinned, resolute and to never give up. Eventually, the publishing universe yielded.
Nowadays, I spend a lot of time encouraging kids to boldly go for their dreams but not in some pie-in-the-sky way. There’s a bit of an unrecognized science to achievement and it begins with dedication, work ethic and building skills through the school of hard knocks. Media often portrays people who have attained success in a manner that misrepresents the blood, sweat and tears that almost always occur behind the scenes. Once people see a bit of the process, it not only becomes more real to them; it become more conceptually achievable.
You gotta think you can before you ever will.
Why do you write for young people?
I have always had a great affinity for young people. Perhaps it’s because as we get older, there is an assault by society on youngsters to relinquish the kid that still lives inside each of us. Me, I like the kid that lives inside most people. I often find it’s the best part of many folks I encounter, too. In my opinion, people ought to do more to hold onto their inner youngster. This certainly is part of the reason why I write for young people.
Also, it allows me to cultivate silliness. Immaturity is important to my craft. Of course, as a professional, this is a drawback when it comes to doing this like keeping track of receipts for my taxes but it’s wonderful for helping me make sure that young readers respond to the books that I write.
Where do the ideas come from?
My ideas come from the same place your ideas come from. It’s a mixture of imagination and life experience sprinkled with a drop of insanity, an oodle of inventiveness and a love of adventure. Essentially, I try to write the stories that I want to most read myself.
My ideas come from funny things that happen to me—I love to laugh—and they come from the painful parts of life, which, being human, none of us can avoid. Some of my ideas are based on all-too-real experiences and some of them are, on the other hand, completely made-up. (Even when I tell stories to my friends and family, I love to exaggerate.)
Sometimes I use real people as the basis for characters and sometimes I invent characters and try to fashion them into real people. (Which is which, however, is my own little secret and I’ll never tell. Author’s privilege.)
Most importantly, however, my ideas come from a deep part of me that wants to inspire other people to be the best they can be, no matter the adversity they face nor the hurdles they are forced to climb. Life can be lonely and we all face incredible challenges.
One of the biggest hopes for my books is that they leave people with the sense of a voice inside their head that encourages them to find the strength to battle on when times get tough. In my books, the good guys win.
I show all of my books to real kids first. My students, former students, friends of students who used to be in my class, and fans I have gotten to know from around the country—they all get to check out my books hot off the press before anyone else gets a chance to see them. That very often means before my literary agent, before my editor, and pretty much before anyone in the “adult” world who works in the publishing industry. Real kids are my readers and if they don’t like something—if they don’t laugh, if they don’t cry, if they don’t smile or approve—then it doesn’t really matter what the adults think.
Kids are my best and toughest audience. If my books flies with them, then I know I am good and I’ll go ahead and take it to the next level and begin to show it to the people in the publishing industry. But if I do not get their seal of approval, I stop, listen to their feedback, and go back into the piece in order to make it work. It’s probably why my fans are so loyal; they know that I respect them and that I listen to them and that I like them. I really think that is an important element to my work.
How has your writing evolved since you first started?
I’d say I place a higher value on the reader experiencing joy as a core element to all of the work I currently produce more so than I have ever done before. Being that I speak around the country quite frequently about “puttin’ the fun” in reading, writing and school, I guess it all it all stems from that.
But why? Well, let’s be honest: sometimes school can get SO BORING! And there’s no reason for it. But still, grumpy adults all too often send the message to kids that life is to be serious, serious, serious and humorless, humorless, humorless.
To them I say BLAAAAHHH!
Students are at their best when they are enjoying what they are doing. (Heck, the same is true of full-grown people.) Students will read more books when they like what they are reading. Students will learn more about a subject when they like what they are learning. Students will try harder to do a good job on the work they are being asked to do if they like the work that they are doing.
There is an assault on literacy from so many angles in today’s world and yet all the data still shows that literate people have both a head start and the inside track on success in life (as opposed to people who can’t—or don’t—read and write well.) The value of smiles to American education is woefully undervalued.
That’s my belief and I am sticking to it. (NOTE: I was named California Teacher of the Year, 2007 so I do know just a wee bit about some of this stuff.) Fun is my secret sauce. It works!
Do you work on more than one story at once?
I always have four or five things noodling around but the difference between a professional writer and an aspiring writer is, in my opinion, execution. Ideas are easy. Getting started on a new project is also fairly simple. But finishing an entire work is very much like running a marathon. Without a doubt, you are going to travel some grueling miles that require you to work hard, reach down and gut it out.
Sure, I may have a few things cooking at the same time but once I am committed to writing a book, I know that my most important job is to see that commitment through and finish the work. It’s too easy to get sidetracked by the allure of moving on to something new and fresh but the thing I’ve learned about those “new and fresh” projects is that at some point, they require a marathoner’s discipline to complete as well.
It’s all too tempting to flitter like a moth from project to project without actually ever finishing anything. All the pros I know treat the work like a job, grabbing their lunch bucket and heading off to the salt mines until the entirety of a piece is complete.
And then it begins anew. 🙂
Where specifically did the idea for “Daddies do it Different” come from?
I guess I use a sense of humor to deal with life’s challenges. DADDIES DO IT DIFFERENT is most certainly a title that falls under this heading.
For those couples who have kids, I probably don’t need to go into too much detail describing the inevitable disagreements which frequently sprout up as your little baby moves to solid foods, out of diapers, and on to preschool. Mommy will occasionally do things one way (or should I say, “the right way”?) and daddies will often end up on the wrong end of a laser beam-like stare.
One day, while trying to defend my rationale for doing something like using a cashmere sweater as a burp cloth (hey, it made sense at the time) I simply turned to my wife and came up with the line, “Honey, daddies do it different.”
From there it took on a life of its own, a tag line to defend myself against all sorts of maternal onslaughts. Now my brother uses the line, the grandmas pipe in with the line, and my deepest hope is that somewhere, some poor new dad who is on the doorstep of being eviscerated by his wife for using a dish towel as a nap pillow will say “Honey, you just gotta realize that daddies do it different.”
And it will save him in a way that is gonna inspire him to send me a holiday card.