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Inside the writer's mind

An author delivers nuggets of wisdom to middle-schoolers: Do the research first. Don't expect good writing at first. Don't ever give up.

Published March 22, 2007

[Times photo: Paulette Lash Ritchie]
Roland Smith, a former research biologist, tells Inverness Middle School students what it takes to be a writer. His book Jaguar was the 1998 Sunshine State Young Reader's selection. This year, his story Cryptid Hunters is a Sunshine State nominee.

INVERNESS - Fifty years ago, Roland Smith wanted something almost any 5-year-old would want: a bicycle.

But he got a typewriter.

He wasn't particularly proficient at writing. He was 5, after all. He had barely begun reading, but, he said, "I fell in love with it."

Twenty-five books later, Smith travels around the country encouraging children to write and read. He came to Inverness Middle School recently.

By the time he was 8, Smith told the students, he was convinced he was going to be a writer. He took a roundabout road to that end beginning in a zoo, where he worked for 10 years until he was 28. He then became a research biologist. His experiences with the Exxon oil spill led to his first book, Sea Otter Rescue.

His quick talking and a slide show kept hundreds of young teens focused. He told them about saving 300 sea otters hurt in the disastrous 11-million-gallon spill.

"When I write a book, I write about what's important to me," he said.

During his time as a biologist, Smith helped to save the red wolf population. That led to his story Journey of the Red Wolf.

When he mentioned his book Thunder Cave, he indicated his great regard for elephants. He directed the students to "never buy anything made of ivory."

He wrote about jaguars and Mount St. Helen's, the first because of his concern about rainforests and the second because "I live 15 miles form Mount St. Helens."

Smith explained the process he goes through for each book. "It took me 20 years to learn how to write a book," he told the students. "I'm going to teach you in four minutes."

The research takes twice as long as the actual writing. "I never start writing until I finish the research," he said. "I read books. I look at maps and I look at photographs. Everything I hear or see I put on a card." These little bits of information help him avoid getting stuck.

After the research, he puts up a story board to organize his ideas. Then he is ready to write. First he writes what he calls his "sloppy copy."

"Every book starts out bad," he said.

The secret to writing is revision. Smith advised the students to give their finished manuscripts to "six evil friends" with red pens.

"I love it when they mark my stuff up," he said. "Share your work with the most nitpicking people you know."

The students wanted to know how to get books published. Smith advised them to start with a yearly book that can be found at the library, Writer's Market, and he warned them many books are rejected at first. He also encouraged them: "Don't ever give up."

Smith's visit was arranged by media specialist Nancy Turner. He was invited for a couple of reasons. He was at the school three years earlier and was well-received. And this year one of his stories, Cryptid Hunters, is a nominee in the Sunshine State Young Reader's Award Program.

The program is a list of books by authors who cater to young people. Florida students who have read at least three of the 15 books are allowed to vote for their favorites. Each year the eligible students select one winning book. Smith's Jaguar was the 1998 Sunshine State Young Reader's selection.

Smith said he speaks to middle school students 100 times a year to encourage them to read.

"In middle school they drop off on their reading and lose those skills," he said.

Beside, he likes middle school students. "All the kids are the same no matter where you are," he said. "They're wonderful. They're great."

Later in the day, students selected by their teachers were invited to a dessert party in the media center to meet and talk with the author.

Eighth-grader Scott Standard, 14, was one of them. He has read four of Smith's books and is reading his fifth.

After listening to Smith's presentation, he decided what he liked best about him: "the fact that he likes animals so much."

Other students picked up on other things. Eighth-grader Lloyd Brown, 14, said he learned how Smith writes about his experiences. He thought the funniest thing about the talk was "when he said how when he wanted a bicycle, he got a typewriter."

Eighth-grader Donnetta Delguidice, 14, appreciated how Smith presented his information.

"He put everything out the way kids in eighth grade could understand it and not in a sophisticated way," she said.

Eighth-grader Megan Sloan, 14, agreed.

"He's kind of like an entertainer. He makes jokes out of the things he says, and his books seem really interesting."

[Last modified March 22, 2007, 06:34:27]

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