Children’s author Roland Smith has a magical way of dispelling students’ fear of writing. With wit and honesty, Smith shared his secrets to writing books with more than 200 children and adults attending his presentation Jan. 29 at Robert Frost Elementary School.
“When I write a book, I write about what’s interesting to me,” said Smith, who lives near Portland. Four of his books are featured in this year’s Battle of the Books, which focuses on Oregon authors in celebration of the state’s 150 birthday.
He said his journey as a writer began at age 5 when his parents gave him an old manual typewriter that “weighed more than I did.” Hours were spent with his new favorite toy clacking away on the keyboards. At age 5, he didn’t know how to spell and barely knew how to read, but he loved the sound and look of the letters on the “crisp, white paper.”
While attending Portland State University, he took a part-time job at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, which led to him to work with animals for more than 20 years and took him all over the world.
Smith invites his readers to share in his adventures in his 25 books. They take readers from Kenya to New Mexico and explore topics including elephants, jaguars, the witness protection program and espionage.
Smith is the author of many award-winning books including Jack’s Run, I.Q., B is for Beaver, The Captain’s Dog: My Journey with Lewis and Clark and Thunder Cave.
Children and adults burst into laughter several times as he shared the story-behind-the-story of what it took to write each book. He’s traversed the jungle on a zipline to be greeted by a spider “as big as my face.”
“All the parents I talked to thought he was fabulous and the kids were really over the moon,” said Pratum head teacher Lisa Freauff. “As I sat listening to him, I could just feel kids becoming authors.
Smith said a great deal of his time is dedicated to research before he can begin writing. He writes his notes on index cards and then arranges the progression of the plot on a storyboard.
“I write my books like a screenwriter for a movie would,” he said. “I write scene by scene – what happens first, then the second thing that happens and work to the end.”
What too many people do when writing is try to make the first copy perfect, he said. Smith advised students to simply write. He calls the first draft of his book “sloppy copy.” “I love that term,” he said. “I write the most horrible, stinky copy. If you were to look at the first draft of my book, you would think it’s terrible.”
After completing a sloppy copy, he gives copies to six people who he trusts will honestly mark it in red pen. “They are the most nit-picky people I know,” he said. “They say terrible things like they hate the story or what’s wrong with it. I don’t mind because their input makes me look better.”
An important secret to writing, he said is “writing is revision.” He made 12 drafts of Thunder Cave and 15 drafts of The Captain’s Dog. He doesn’t mind rewriting his story because each time he does, the story improves.
He told the audience, if he’s an author who travels around the country making presentations and his work edited, then they shouldn’t feel bad if they’re told to make revisions to their work.
Teachers and parents in the audience applauded and laughed when Smith told the students that they are no longer allowed to “whine when parents or teachers edit your work.”
Robert Frost Elementary School Media Specialist Jackie Renoud said having Smith as a guest speaker was a chance for students to celebrate reading. The event was open to all the students in the Silver Falls School District and was a collaborative effort of all the principals and Superintendent Craig Roessler.
“I think this was a great community event that brought all the elementary schools together and something we should do again,” Renoud said, adding she’s heard many positive comments from parents and students. She said it’s was wonderful for the students to meet an author. “I think he taught the students it does not take a brilliant person to be a writer,” she said. “It just takes lots of practice and the acceptance of editing.”
Freauff appreciated that Smith spoke of his experiences as a biologist, his point of view on issues, as well as the writing process.
“At the very least, I think his visit has pushed some kids into the avid reader category,” she said. “I loved that he said to go read some other books and authors.”