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Taking a Cue From Scooby-Doo

Puppy Pirates #1: Stowaway!
Puppy Pirates #2: X Marks the Spot
Puppy Pirates #3: Catnapped!

I’ve always been an avid series reader. Growing up, I was obsessed with Baby-sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Ramona, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and Frog & Toad. As an adult, I’ve expanded to The Penderwicks, Junie B., Wimpy Kid…and Kristan Higgins’ adult romantic comedies. Every time I open up a book in one of my favorite series, it feels like opening the door to find a house full of friends.

There is something comforting about the predictability of series books; a sense of security knowing what you can expect before reading the first page. I love that I can always count on my favorite series to follow a certain formula and end the way they’re supposed to end—with a few twists-and-turns and surprising character evolutions along the way. So when I set out to write the first Puppy Pirates book, I knew there were some “rules” I needed to follow if I wanted to earn kids’ trust.

In my opinion, the three most important aspects of early chapter books are: humor, accessible characters, and a consistent structure. Luckily, I love writing silly scenes and have a two nine-year-olds and an eleven-year-old at home who are huge goofballs…so that part comes easily and naturally. As for characters: before I figured out what should happen in the Puppy Pirates stories, I thought about who my crew would be. As I developed each character, I created a detailed character bible that I refer to constantly when I’m writing these books. Character consistency is key and kids are very careful readers, so I keep notes of my pups’ favorite nap spots, fur color, hobbies, and favorite phrases, among other things.

For me, the hardest part of writing is plot and structure. Before I started writing the first Puppy Pirates adventure, I knew I wanted to build a series—so I had to come up with a solid structure that would hold up for many adventures.

Enter: Scooby-Doo.

Years ago, I was given the opportunity to write a series of Scooby-Doo chapter book mysteries (FYI: I write books about other people’s characters using a pseudonym!). To prepare, I binge-watched a bunch of Scooby TV episodes and paid close attention to the structure of the show. I realized that part of Scooby Doo’s appeal is the predictability…you know that in every episode, Shaggy and Scooby will eat a snack, there will always be a chase scene, and every mystery has a masked bad guy (or girl).

When I set out to write Puppy Pirates, I decided to take a cue from Scooby and develop a clear structure for the series that kids can count on from book to book. I don’t always follow it exactly, but most books go something like this:

  • Chapter 1-2: Intro with a pug prank/practical joke that becomes crucial for solving the climactic problem
  • Chapter 3: Henry/Wally (my main characters) are put in peril
  • Chapter 4: Chase scene that leads to a bigger problem
  • Chapter 5: Resolve original conflict…but now they’re in even more trouble!
  • Chapters 6-8: Main conflict—chases, battles, challenges
  • Chapter 9: Wally faces a fear and overcomes it
  • Chapter 10: Wally/Henry friendship moment/resolution

So far, I’ve written eight books in this series (with two more on the horizon), and having a road map to guide me on each adventure has been a big help. I always start with this basic structure, and then figure out what twists and turns and character developments will get kids excited about reading the next book. I love writing this series just as much as I enjoy reading series. Luckily, it’s just about time for me to start writing the next Puppy Pirates adventure—all my mates are waiting for me aboard the Salty Bone, so let the outlining begin!

Erin Soderberg

Erin Soderberg

Erin Soderberg is the author of the Puppy Pirates chapter book series. Visit her at www.erinsoderberg.com or at www.facebook.com/PuppyPiratesBooks.

A Book is a Shoal of Fish: Writing Tips

Knights of the Borrowed Dark
Dave Rudden

Dave Rudden, author of Knights of the Borrowed Dark, offers writing tips for you and your students! Whether for a creative writing piece for school, an essay for a class, or a piece of personal writing, these suggestions will help all writers find their voice.

I didn’t want to be a writer as a kid. Not because I didn’t love books, but precisely because I loved books – I thought authors were another species entirely. They had professor parents, or had been bitten by a radioactive author, or had went through some kind of [SECRET PROCESS] to become a person that could write a book, possibly involving tweed.

And I rarely give rules when I teach because every person is different, but I have learned this – writing is less about innate talent and more about hard work and dedication. Here are some things I learned while writing my first novel, KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK, and, while your path to writing a novel might be different than mine, I hope these can be of help.

A BOOK IS A SHOAL OF FISH

I get asked a lot about where I get my ideas, and I find it a fascinating question because people assume ideas are external, that you have to go somewhere to get them. Ideas are responses. They’re solutions. And they come from you.

I wrote KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK because I wanted to read a book about a kid who wasn’t automatically brave. I don’t know if I’m brave. I’d like to think I am, but I don’t think you can know until it’s tested, and as much as Teenage Dave wanted magic and a hero’s destiny, part of him also had a sneaking suspicion he’d be terrible at it.

That was my starting point. But that isn’t a book. So I had to ask myself –

Who is this kid? Why do they doubt themselves? Where do they live? How can I test them? What’s their shoe size?

These questions gave me direction. I wasn’t trying to come up with amorphous ideas, I was filling the space in an equation. And the answers didn’t come from outside. Instead, I went inwards – giving my protagonist magic because I love stories about magic, but giving the magic a Cost because I wanted my characters under pressure with no easy answers. My villains were bullies because I had been bullied as a kid, and bullies frighten me.

(The Man in the Waistcoat is playground mockery incarnate, the Woman in White brute force, and the Opening Boy a hurt child, because it’s important I remind myself, even now, that that’s what bullies are)

A book is not a single idea. It’s a shoal of fish – lots of tiny creatures moving together so perfectly they look like one single beast. And ideas are everywhere, but so are writers, so remember –

EVERY WORD IS A WEAPON

‘The word rolled from his tongue like a cockroach.’

I was very proud of this line. It tells you everything you need to know about the Man in the Waistcoat’s voice in just nine words, and when I excitedly shared it with an author friend he nodded, smiled, and pointed out… that cockroaches don’t roll.

Ah. Okay.

‘The word skittered from his tongue like a cockroach.’

Better.

This might sound utterly pedantic, but there is a lot of competition out there, especially in children’s fiction. The way you stand out is by striving to be original, from your biggest concept to your smallest word. Read voraciously what’s out there. Take sharp left turns from overdone concepts, or turn them on their head.

Every person in the world is an intricate and unique machine. Different things inspire and scare and delight you. Make the book as you as you possibly can, because nobody else can write that book. And, most importantly –

YOU DON’T HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT FIRST TRY

KOTBD went through six drafts.

1st Draft – Me telling the story to myself

2nd Draft – Polishing and cutting and plugging every plot hole I could see.

3rd Draft – Polishing and cutting and plugging every plot hole my friends could see

4th, 5th, 6th – Going over every line, word and comma to make sure they belonged.

No book starts off perfect. They’re huge projects with a lot of moving parts, and it takes multiple drafts to make sure it all hangs together. Sometimes you have to put the wrong word down to find the right one.

You never, ever stop learning as a writer. Read interviews. Read books and watch videos on writing. Read writing tips, try them all, and only keep the ones that work (even these ones!) Share your work with friends and listen to what they have to say. Remember that every one of your favourite writers was in the exact same position you are now.

Best of luck. I look forward to seeing your book on the shelf.

Five Ways to Write Like an Author

Hear from award-winning author Caroline Starr Rose about her inspiration and writing process!

Over in the Wetlands

Over in the Wetlands By Caroline Starr Rose; illustrated by Rob Dunlavey

When my school teachers talked about writing, the focus was on product. But how to create a solid final draft was a bit of a mystery. So when my education professor first introduced me to the Writing Process, I was all in. Here was a system every author followed from idea to publication, one I could teach my future students that would lead them to their best writing and would mimic the work of true artists.

What I didn’t know at the time is that writing isn’t as clear cut as that.

If I could chat with my younger teaching self, I’d emphasize these five aspects of writing instead:

Creativity is not linear

The magic recipe I thought I’d discovered in the writing process? It doesn’t exist. Writing is not a simple, linear method. The stages of the writing process aren’t forward-moving set-in-stone steps to check off a list, but general guidelines meant to draw the author ever closer to the story she’s trying to tell. Every piece of writing calls for a different journey, requiring a different number of drafts, dead ends, and breakthroughs. The focus, then, shouldn’t be on the process but what each individual piece (and child) needs.

Listen to the world

It’s not easy to jump into a writing session without some preparation. We encourage children to brainstorm before drafting, but for many writers the true work begins before ideas are put to paper. Creatives listen to and observe the world around them, whether that be the slant of sunlight on a quiet afternoon, a conversation taking place in the backseat during carpool, or a paragraph from the newspaper. In listening, we catch details we might otherwise miss, bits and pieces that enrich our lives and work.

I have to confess that sometimes I’d be anxious about students who couldn’t get their ideas flowing in my carefully prescribed brainstorming sessions. But if we invite children to look and listen to the world as writers, they can come to their work with artistic pumps already primed. One simple way to do this is to regularly model the things that make us stop and wonder. Another is to ask kids to keep notebooks where they write, paste, color, and collect ideas or questions that might lead to future projects.

Tinker, explore, create, play!

I love writing, but it’s not easy. Even the word “write” can feel like a heavy burden. So I play games with myself to keep moving and focus only on the next scene or paragraph rather than the entire book. I tell myself I’m not writing, but simply exploring an idea or playing with language that might someday become a story.

Students can feel tremendous pressure when asked to write. Maybe it’s not their strong suit. Maybe they don’t know how to tackle what’s been asked of them. Or maybe they’re fresh out of ideas. If young writers can be taught to approach their work playfully, not only will the process become less weighty, it will free them to not be so concerned about getting it “right.”

Frustration is part of the process

We can’t talk about writing without bringing up frustration. All authors hit a rough patch now and then. If kids know ahead of time this a natural part of the process, the experience can be less intimidating, and those moments of frustration might be short lived. Instead of fearing them, tough moments can be seen for what they are: opportunities to go deeper and wider, obstacles that if faced will eventually lead to breakthroughs.

Real writing happens in revision

Writing is a mysterious experiment that often cycles back on itself, a journey of trial, error, and serendipity. When an author sells a book, it isn’t finished yet. It must go through multiple rounds of deep revision (big picture changes) with an editor. Up to the very end, the author/ editor team makes small and not so small tweaks to get the story as near perfect as they can get it.

It’s in revision that the real writing happens. Revision means exactly as it sounds — a chance to see the work again. As a young teacher, I didn’t understand how crucial revision was. Cosmetic changes — those small-scale edits that are easy to spot and correct — somehow felt more urgent. I wish I’d known to ask my students the questions I now ask myself after I finish a draft: What is it you’re trying to say? What was your original idea? How has it changed, for better or worse, along the way? What changes need to be made to bring this piece of writing in line with your vision for it?

Sometimes I wish there were a secret formula to follow that would guarantee artistic success. But I’m finding there isn’t just uncertainty in murky creative moments. New ideas and satisfaction can also be discovered there. Let’s not teach our students that writing can be summed up in six simple steps. Let’s instead be courageous enough to allow them to make wrong turns and face frustration as they unearth the heart of their writing, just as a true artist would.

Caroline Starr Rose

Caroline Starr Rose

Caroline Starr Rose spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping at the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. As a girl she danced ballet, raced through books, composed poetry on an ancient typewriter, and put on magic shows in a homemade cape. She's taught both social studies and English in New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana. In her classroom, she worked to instill in her students a passion for books, an enthusiasm to experiment with words, and a curiosity about the past. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novels in verse May B. and Blue Birds. Caroline lives in New Mexico with her husband and two sons.

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