Alan Sitomer is a California Teacher of the Year award winner, celebrated author, conference keynote speaker, and Chief Executive Officer of Mastery Coding, a virtual reality learning company. He’s taught English to urban high-school students, he’s taught pre-schoolers the basics of learning how to read, and he has written more than 20 trade books for children and adolescents. A former professor in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, Alan currently travels the country as a keynote speaker offering professional development that combines his passion for teaching and writing with his drive to deliver meaningful, research-based pedagogy. Above all else, however, comes fatherhood. Alan’s greatest joy comes from being a dad.
Where do you get your ideas? +
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 make up 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.
How long does it take you to write a book? +
It depends how you look at it. The reason I say this is because I am a big fan of outlining everything I do well before I actually sit down to write it. I’ve heard about some authors that simply begin with a blank page then start to type, but in my world that makes little sense. This is because I want the action to hum, the dialogue to sparkle and the characters to engage in twists and turns and roller-coaster type emotional experiences that bring their highest hopes (and deepest nightmares) all to life — with an emotional bang at the end of the work that literally rocks the reader’s sock off!
This is why I outline. If someone is going to build me a house, I’d like to have incredibly detailed architectural plans drawn up before they begin to hammer nails. If someone is going to serve me a really wonderful pasta dish, I’d like to know that their red sauce had been marinating for days and days before I even tasted one bite. This is the case with books. If I am going to invite someone to take the time out of their busy lives to read one of my works, I want them to feel fully and excellently rewarded for having granted me the benefit of their time, effort and energy. This is why I believe the huge amount of advanced preparation I do before I actually write the book gives my work crispness and an edge.
For example, if you ask me to write something in an hour, it will be fair. Ask me for to write something for tomorrow, it will be good. Ask me to write something without a deadline of time hanging over my head, and I will do everything I can to insure that whatever I show you is sparkling. For me, outlining makes all the difference in the world. It’s an important part of my process that provides clarity and focus.
Now, this is not to say that I am not spontaneous. Matter of fact, outlining allows me to be incredibly spontaneous because it allows me to grant whatever idea I have the full room to breathe since I always know that once I have given my thoughts full and complete expression, I will go back later and measure how well these new thoughts work within the scope of my story. (It’s like a zen riddle in this way.) At times I’ll write whole passages, letting the words flow and flow with no end in sight. Other times, I’ll focus on plot, plot and plot again. Writing for me is an art — not a science — and there is really no one “correct” way for anyone to do it. However, I do have a strong sense of what works best for me, so that is what I try to follow.
Also, know that I re-write heavily. All strong writers do. I am not sure who said this, but they are words to live by: “Writing is re-writing.”
The more I think about it, the more true this statement proves to be. The more I re-write, the better my work. As I said, I like my books to hum.
One more thing to note is that I have a demanding schedule. During the school year, I’m a teacher. That means I can only really write at night and on weekends. During my summer breaks, when there is no school (I love summer!) I write full time. As you might imagine, I don’t really get that much sleep during the school year as I balance a double life but I try to my outlining after I am done with my classes. When it comes time to draft, I like to “flow” meaning full-time effort spent tapping at the keyboard with my dog in the room. Flowing is important.
So, back to the question, how long does it take?
Well, after I am fully outlined, maybe 2-4 months or so to write a great draft. THE HOOPSTER was quick, about 2 ½ months. HIP-HOP HIGH SCHOOL took me about 3 months.
But remember, outlining and conceiving and dreaming and inventing all the things that went into these books — well, ideas usually gestate in my brain for quite some time (like more than a year) before I get around to fully outlining them. Once I do, it’s simply a matter of time spent in my chair.
My butt wears them out.
How did you become a writer? +
My story is unique but there is a huge lesson in it for everyone who wants to make something out of their own lives.
First of all, I always loved to write. In high school, I used to pass the time in my “boring” classes by writing short stories and poetry and things like that. In college at the University of Southern California, I continued to write and write and write. Not for money or with professional ambitions, I just did it because I found a great deal of personal fulfillment in it. I guess I simply enjoyed writing the way a musician enjoys playing the guitar or an athlete enjoys tossing the football around. Like I said, I always did it because I loved it.
Then, when I graduated from USC, I became more ambitious and decided to take a crack at writing professionally.
And then I was rejected.
And rejected and rejected and rejected.
In truth, it took me 14 years to really move into the realm of becoming a professional writer. I only say this because while I have always believed in myself and feel I have talent, talent is NOT the reason why I am where I am today. Tenacity is. Fortitude is. Work ethic is. Truthfully, I busted my butt for years and years and years fighting through a lack of opportunities, a lack of professional support and a host of personal adversities. If I do enjoy any success today — and trust me, I do — it is because I refused to give up on myself.
Now, it’s one thing to say this but it’s yet another to really live it. I did. I worked in a bookstore — and I wrote. I worked as a waiter in multiple restaurants — and I wrote. I sold hand-made Persian rugs on weekends — and I wrote.
And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
And, like I said, I got rejected and rejected and rejected.
I’m sure thousands of writers across the land dedicated themselves to realizing their dreams as an author on the very same day that I set out to bring mine to fruition. But as the years went on, how many of them stuck with it the way I did? Of all the tens of thousands that set out to be successful on the same day that I set out to be, how many of them stuck with it? How many of them do you think are currently still pursuing their dreams with the same energy, enthusiasm, passion and vigor that I am?
Probably not a lot.
So how did I become a professional writer? I did so the same way all people who ultimately realize their dreams do — I refused to give up and I worked my butt off no matter how hard it got.
I became a writer by continuing to believe in myself and by continuing to write.
And hey, it only took me 14 years. I was prepared for it to take 50.
Is it true you weren’t always a person who read books? +
Yes, it’s true, I wasn’t always a “reader”. Matter of fact, when I was a teenager, I read very little. Why? Well, I didn’t really have many people steering me towards cool books, you know, things I was interested in. That played a major role.
After all, when a person is passionately interested in a subject, there is nothing more they like to do more than learn more about it. And if they happen to discover a book that speaks to their heart along the way, they will be eager to read that book — even if they don’t like reading.
But if role models (i.e. adults, friends, other people like teachers, librarians, uncles, neighbors, etc…) don’t illuminate the way, chances are most people — particularly in this day and age — won’t read.
That was me.
However, I eventually learned that books simply held too much magic to have remained shut out of my life forever. In truth, there is nothing like them. A great TV show will hold your interest for ½ an hour with a chance you’ll talk about it fondly the next day.
A great movie (and I LOVE movies) will keep you going for a full day or two with a good chance you’ll remember the film fondly for years to come.
But a great book can change your perspective on life in a way that will make you a better human being. Some books have literally altered my destiny. Others, I feel, have saved my life in their own mystical way. Some books just seem to have said something to my soul at a time where something desperately needed to be said — and they did so in a unique way that no other person, art form or media format ever could have expressed. The power of music certainly comes close in the way a song can touch your soul but a great book, well, like I said… they can be magic!
This is why I am always telling people — particularly my students — to do themselves a favor and discover a GREAT book. They are out there and its meaning to your soul will last a lifetime.
What is it like teaching in an inner-city high school and is it dangerous? +
I love teaching at an inner-city high school. Why? Because the students are great. What they may lack in financial resources they more than make for in HEART. Truly, I feel blessed to know so many of these teens the way I do. It’s my — not their — good fortune that has me teaching where I do and I can honestly say, it is undoubtedly the most personally rewarding work I have ever done.
Yes, it can be brutally hard and yes, public education in America is badly broken in many ways but once again, let me say, I LOVE IT!! Teaching where I do is the best!
But is it dangerous? No. Well, yes and no. Hmm, how can I explain it? Not any more so than the rest of America in many ways but when you look at it like that, it’s hard not to deny that there are some “issues” to deal with both on our campus and in our community.
Unfortunately, the media portrays schools like mine in a manner that is designed to highlight and sensationalize the bad stuff because there is a financial profit to be gained by most all media outlets by generating larger viewership for themselves. And as we know, bad news sells, thus the media coverage schools like mine usually get, in my opinion, exacerbates the problems.
However, I’d be lying if I did not admit that bad, virtually inexcusable things do go on at my school. Things definitely happen every year that keep me up late at night lying awake in a combination of frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness. Yet, I’m not unlike any other teacher, parent, principal or even student at the school in this regard. We all want it to be better than it is.
Essentially, when a bad apple ruins the bunch it stinks. My experience in the inner-city schools has shown me that most of the apples are good ones and deserve better than what they are getting. Hopefully, I can be an agent for some sort of positive change through the work that I do.
And if you can help in any way, you should. We need all the support we can get.
Are you a hard teacher? +
Actually, I think I have a rep as a cool teacher because I laugh and fool around a lot with my class and can be somewhat non-traditional in my approach to education. However, the truth is I would not be doing anybody a favor if all I did was have a good time with my classes and befriend all of my students. Matter of fact, I’d be short-changing them for their future. (And what sort of friend does that?)
This is why I make sure to bust their butt.
You see, my job, the thing my school district pays me to do, is to educate my students to the best of my ability in a manner that advances their individual, academic capacities in a way that calls for each of them to reach for their innermost best. I do this through hard work, perpetual reading, lots and lots of critical thinking, heated classroom discussions, demanding classroom projects and a whole lot of writing.
Essentially, when it comes time for class and learning, I demand excellence.
And a strong work-ethic.
And an attempt to strive for personal greatness.
For students who want to be the best that they can be, I consider myself their greatest champion. For students who want to slack off and just get by with minimal effort and half-hearted attempts at their work, I can be a nightmare.
I like to think my class is an easy A – if you work your tail off. Enter through my doors and I’ll work hard to make sure you learn something.
What is it like working for Disney? +
Totally awesome. In my opinion, there isn’t a better place on the planet. The people are smart, kind, caring, supportive and intelligent. Truly, I consider myself lucky.
What are some of your favorite books? +
First of all, I simply LOVE stories. In my opinion, there’s nothing better. As a result, I sort of have a wide range of things I like.
For example, Dr. Seuss is, in my opinion, one of the best there ever was. I mean, come on, GREEN EGGS AND HAM is brilliant. (And did you know that he wrote that book after a bet with an editor that he couldn’t write an entire book using less than 50 different words? Thus, all the repetition. “I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam I am. I do not like them in a car, I do not like them on a bar.” Genius, huh?)
And growing up, I’ll never forget how mesmerized I was by WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — now that’s a spectacular book.
To this day, I still love children’s books. So much so, that I am writing a few of them myself. Wow, are they fun!
I also love fairy tales. From THE THREE LITTLE PIGS to ROBIN HOOD to EXCALIBUR, SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA and ALLADIN, I just love to drink these up. GOLDILOCKS, BRAYER RABBIT, PINNOCHIO, PETER PAN, the list goes on and on and on.
Moving onto novels (i.e. “real” books) I have to admit there are a few titles which have done nothing less than change my life. This is why I love books — they have the power to do this.
Here are a few that I feel ALL people MUST read at some point in their life (but know that I say this simply because these books meant so much to me).
THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coehlo. Wow, is this a great book. Do yourself a favor and read it if you have not.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X. Forget what you think you know about the man’s life and read his book. It altered my perspective on things tremendously.
LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo. This happens to be the longest book I have ever read — over 1200 pages — but when I was done I literally felt sad that there wasn’t more. It was almost tragic that these characters had to leave my life after I traveled such an amazing journey with them.
THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE TEENS by Sean Covey. I teach this book to my high school students and have seen it literally alter the course of many, many teenage lives for the better. And every time I read it again myself, I am a better human being for having done so.
JOSHUA by Joseph Girzone. I don’t know what it is about this book, but my soul felt more at peace for having read it.
TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE by Mitch Albom. One day I hope to be like Morrie — just a stellar book!
Those are just some on the top of my list but there are so many others worth mentioning. Really, it is so worth it to become a reader – books are GREAT for your soul.
By the way, I could list more. This is just a sample.
And one day I hope my own books make it onto someone else’s list. How cool would that be!
My horoscope sign is Aquarius. (And in the Chinese Zodiac, I am the Year of the Fire Goat!)
Doing yoga has changed my life. (And if you are reading this right now, I think you should bring yoga into your life as well… yoga is amazing for the mind, body and spirit).
I am allergic to mango.
I am not allergic to sitting on the beach, splashing in the water and vacationing – and feel it’d be great if I could find the time to do more of it.
I have a dog named Yo-Yo. Her nickname is "The White Wolf."
I was born in New York City but went to college in Southern California (USC Trojans, bay-beee!)
I’d be writing books even if I wasn’t being paid to do it – sssshh, don’t tell – because when I don’t write, I go loopy (Or rather, writing keeps me less loopy).
I like animals, I like stories, I like stories about animals, but most of all I like animals who tell stories.
I think all people are weird. I am cool with that. I also find that the people who don’t think themselves to be weird are the strangest of them all.