Scenes from the Launch

Enthusiastic crowd. Generous support. Laughs, chuckles, and some serious moments, too.  These are a few descriptors for the launch of Coop the Great that was held at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg on November 18, 2018.   

My daughter, Ashley, kicked things off with a lovely introduction.  From there, I read a few chapters, discussed where the seed for the book was planted, and talked about some of its writing challenges.  In the book, Coop is a rescue dog from fictional Derby Animal Shelter.  Guest D’Arcy Johnston of D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre spoke about what goes on at a real not-for-profit shelter like his.  D’Arcy’s canine ambassador, Darnold, was there too, eager for photo ops.   It was a great afternoon, thanks to all those who attended.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few wordless memories from the launch of Coop the Great.

‘Little old dachshund is an unlikely, reluctant hero’ (Prairie Books Now)

Dog's eye narration tackles tough subjects with sensitivity and humour.

Just as Coop the Great sets to launch, this article appeared in a issue of Prairie Books Now, a publication dedicated to promoting books by Prairie publishers and writers.  I am including it here for readers who would like to know more about the characters and story line of Coop the Great, and the issues and themes that run through the novel. 

For more information about Prairie Books Now and glimpses of other books in this and earlier issues, please check the Association of Manitoba Book Publishers website.

 

Tweaking & Critiquing

LUM3N / Pixabay

With Coop the Great heading to print, it’s time to take stock of a few things that steered me to a successful conclusion.  Not everything I’ve written has ended this well.  I can show you filing cabinets filled with bits and pieces that never made it to print. 

In the case of Coop the Great, I owe much to a writer’s group I belong to called The Anita Factor. All of us in this small group are  passionate about writing for children and young adults, so we are pretty focused when we meet. Meetings are held every two weeks. Whoever can make it shows up, so the arrangement is flexible and works well for those who travel or have other commitments.  Typically, anywhere from 3 to 6 people read their work at the meeting. It could be a chapter from a work-in-progress novel, the manuscript for a picture book, a short story, even occasionally a query letter to be sent to a publisher. After each reading, we take turns discussing the work.

After I’d written the first ten chapters of Coop the Great, I read the prologue and first chapter to the group. I thought it was a pretty solid stuff, but even though the others seemed to like the concept, they offered suggestions and asked probing questions that got me thinking.

ShekuSheriff / Pixabay

One of my colleagues pointed out that dogs rely on their sense of smell more than sight, and suggested I tweak a section with that in mind. Someone else wondered if the vocabulary was a bit beyond my target group of 9-12-year olds. Another pointed out that since Coop was a very small dog, he’d be viewing life from a very different perspective than a larger dog. Another asked whether Coop was a young dog, then pointed out that if he was, a few details in the story would have to change.

I realized from these comments and questions that there were gaps in my story. If I wanted readers to buy into the concept of a dog as a narrator, then I needed to enhance the doggy details. I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to Coop’s age until then either. I’d written these chapters assuming he was a mid-life dog, but realized now that if I made him an old dog, the story would have more impact.

 

geralt / Pixabay

The feedback was helpful. Although I thought I’d nailed Coop’s voice, I realized that I hadn’t developed his character as well as I should. I didn’t know him or his history. Before going on, I needed to give more thought to who Coop was, how he viewed life and how his past influenced his present situation.

As the creator of the work, I determine what suggestions to incorporate, but having alternate viewpoints from other writers can pay off big time.  In the case of Coop the Great, they certainly did.

Come for the Launch on Nov.18 …Stay for D’Arcy & Darnold

Stepping into D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre (ARC)  is like stepping into the opening scene in Coop the Great where Coop, a senior dachshund, awaits adoption at the fictional  Derby Animal Shelter.  Coop has been adopted numerous times before and, as he cynically puts it, ‘rejected’ just as often.  Derby Animal Shelter is his latest stop in a long chain of rejections. 

Here’s Coop’s colorful description of Derby:

Derby Animal Shelter was a no-kill facility. More than a dozen dogs lived there. Some had strayed from their homes and were found wandering the streets. Others, like me, had been rejected by their owners. Across the hall, behind a cinder block wall, lived a gazillion cats. I’m exaggerating of course, but judging by the volume of non-stop wailing coming from their quarters, it was an impossibly high number. Probably it was closer to thirty or forty. Too many.

While writing Coop, I spent some time at the Foothills Animal Rescue in Scottsdale, Arizona, and my fictional Derby is loosely modeled after it. But Derby is also similar in many ways to the very real D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Centre in my home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Like Derby and Foothills, D’Arcy’s ARC is a ‘no-kill facility’ dedicated to rescuing abused, abandoned, homeless and neglected animals. D’Arcy’s focuses on giving dogs and cats veterinary care and a comfortable place to live until they are adopted for life no matter how long it takes. Unlike some other rescue operations, there is no time limit involved, no X number of months before unadopted animals are put down.

D’Arcy’s is unique in another way, too. It’s a not-for-profit organization which means that it relies entirely on donations and volunteers – not grants and hired help - to cover its expenses and maintain services.

D'Arcy Johnston toured us through the facility

Recently, Jo and I toured D’Arcy’s Animal Rescue Center with founder D’Arcy Johnston. D’Arcy is a former Animal Health Technician who saw a need for a facility with care and comfort as its focus. Since its establishment in 2001, over 15,000 animals have found permanent homes through ARC and at any given time there may be 100 animals at ARC waiting for adoption.

The store portion of D'Arcy's ARC is well stocked with items new owners need

D’Arcy’s compassion was apparent at every stage of our tour. He knew each animal by name along with its backstory and medical history, and as we walked about the center, he answered our many questions and described the operation. We learned that volunteers walk animals, feed them, administer medication if necessary and tend to their needs. Veterinarians donate time and expertise.

Because adoptive guardians often ask to purchase food and other start-up supplies, D’Arcy’s maintains a well-stocked store.  In addition, D'Arcy's operates a thrift shop at 1076 Main St.  Like everything else, proceeds from both are funneled back into the shelter to cover expenses.

Meeting Darnold

Along our tour, D’Arcy introduced us to Darnold (short for Darn Arnold) a rescue dog with three legs. Darnold arrived at ARC so severely injured that amputation was necessary. He quickly adapted to his three-legged existence and as proof he walked over and greeted us with enthusiastic tail-wags. Darnold has become ARC’s canine ambassador and he often accompanies D’Arcy to events and school visits.

Darnold will be at the launch along with D'Arcy Johnston

Which brings me to an announcement. The launch for Coop the Great will be in the atrium at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Grant Avenue, Winnipeg on Sunday, November 18 at 2 p.m.  I’ve asked D’Arcy Johnston to partner with me and say a few words. Darnold will be attending too, ready for photo-ops with anyone who stops by.

D'Arcy's ARC is a not-for-profit operation and runs on donations. Everyday items like newspapers and office supplies as well as products used for the care of animals awaiting adoption are needed and appreciated

There is no obligation, but for those so inclined there will be drop-off bin for donated items that D’Arcy’s ARC needs in its day-to-day operation. Supplies like pet food, cat litter, and treats are always appreciated, but so too are other items like hand sanitizer, bleach, unscented dryer sheets and newspapers. Office supplies such as computer paper, staples, and manila file folders are needed, too. For more about donated items, you can check D'Arcy ARC 's wish list on its website. 

 

I hope to see you at the launch to help me celebrate the release of Coop the Great. I think we’ll have a doggone good time.

The Great Dogs Behind ‘Coop the Great’

Coop the Great is a fictional story and Coop, the jaded dachshund and lead character, is fictional too.  I’ve never been the guardian of a dachshund, but I’ve been surrounded by dogs much of my life.  As I wrote the book, I felt that they were watching over my shoulder and guiding my hand. In many ways, they became the voice and heart of Coop, and many of the situations he faces are ones they did, too. 

Here are the 7 special and very real dogs that influenced every facet of Coop the Great.  Hover over or tap the image for more information.

How to Write Like a Dog

How does one write like a dog? That’s the challenge I faced when I wrote Coop the Great.  In my story, Cooper is an aging, cynical dachshund who has been through rounds of adoptions and foster homes, and eventually finds a new owner – Mike – who challenges Coop in unexpected ways. I wanted to tell the story in first person, meaning that I wanted to write it from Coop’s point of view, in his distinctive voice as if he was narrating the story.

So how does one write from a dog’s point of view? Here are a few of the approaches I used: 

The infamous Bernie, innocent-looking but ready for action

Dogs have been a big part of my life, and each one had a unique personality. For example, Bernie, a poodle-terrier mix, was full of energy and mischief. As a pup, he ran rampant about the house, chewing everything within reach – potted plants, covers off books, kitchen cabinet doors, and his very favourite delight – underwear stolen out of the laundry basket. He was an eager crotch sniffer, too. Anyone venturing into the house, was greeted with a muzzle in the crotch, not something everyone was comfortable with.  

Coop bears some of those same qualities and habits as Bernie, and I am pretty sure I was inspired by his antics.  But there have been other dogs, too,  Freckles, Roxy, Benji, Molly, Lilah, and Haley to mention a few. Coop is a blend of them all.


What goes on in a dog’s head? What do dogs think and feel? Why do they behave the way they do? To write authentically as Coop, I needed to find out how dogs sense things and why they react as they do. I read several books non-fiction books. Two of the most useful were The Secret Lives of Dogs: The Real Reasons Behind 52 Mysterious Canine Behaviors by Jana Murphy  and Power of the Dog: Things Your Dog Can Do That You Can’t by Les Krantz.

 

 


AT the Joyce Gauthier Centre in the Winnipeg Humane Society, shelter animals work on socialization and behaviour skills.

To find out more about shelters and adoption agencies, I volunteered for a time at Foothills Animal Rescue in Scottsdale, Arizona.  I also toured the Winnipeg Humane Society. Both gave me a better understanding of what these agencies do and how they operate.

 


Jo snaps a photo of a not-so-happy dachshund in Turin, Italy

I wanted Coop to be a dachshund with its characteristic long body and short legs, and I needed him to face obstacles unique to his stature.  On the advice of Suzanne Goulden, a friend and fellow writer, I experimented with Coop’s views. I wanted to see and feel what a small dog might so I crawled on hands and knees. Believe me, that was a revelation. Try it yourself, it you will. You’ll see knees, chair legs, the bases of cabinets, and the floor in new and interesting ways.

 


On the run at the Wiener Dog Races

As I wrote Coop the Great and even afterwards, I saw dachshunds I’d never noticed before. I saw them in parks, in playgrounds, along the streets and in corridors, in my own city and those abroad. Every encounter offered grist for the writing mill.  Inevitably their devoted owners were more than willing to divulge the details of their pet’s habits. One unique opportunity came while I was in Phoenix and heard about the annual Wiener Dog Races held there. Jo and I spent an enjoyable few hours cheering on the runners and mixing with their enthusiastic owners.

 


Coop has a distinctive voice and personality, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to implement it.  For inspiration, I re-read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. It’s a fictional story told from the point of view of Enzo, a philosophical, sarcastic dog who lives with Denny Swift, a wanna-be race car driver. I’d read the book years ago and found it memorable not just for the story line, but also for Enzo’s unique voice and sense of humour. How did Stein accomplish this feat?  Although my story and characters were very different, re-reading The Art of Racing in the Rain set the tone for the book I wanted to write. It helped me discover Coop’s unique voice and purpose, too.

 

 


Here’s a taste of Coop’s voice from Chapter 1:


My last night at Derby Animal Shelter, I couldn’t sleep. Not just because the room reeked of urine, thanks to Buck, my roommate. And not only because the fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered, casting creepy shadows across the cold concrete floor.  

                      Of all the reasons I couldn’t sleep, the thought of morning topped the list. Another open house. Another round of visitors sweeping through the building eager to adopt a dog to suit their needs. Not too old. Not too short. Definitely not fat. Gotta be smart and oozing with personality. The list was endless.

                      Derby Animal Shelter was a no-kill facility. More than a dozen dogs lived there. Some had strayed from their homes and were found wandering. Others, like me, had been rejected by their owners. Across the hall, behind a cinder block wall, lived a gazillion cats. I’m exaggerating of course but judging by the non-stop wailing coming from their quarters, it sounded like an impossibly high number. Probably it was closer to thirty or forty. Too many.

 

Writing ‘Coop the Great’

With each new piece of writing, a writer learns more about the craft and something about him/herself. Having just wrapped up my middle grade novel, Coop the Great – a story told from the viewpoint of an aging dachshund – it’s time to take stock of the lessons learned along the way.

With ‘Coop’,  I knew some of the plot before I started writing.  By some, I mean I knew how the story would begin, and I knew how it would end. The middle was fuzzy, but I figured it would reveal itself once I started writing.

Wrong! I plowed ahead and wrote the first third of the book, then stalled completely.  I didn’t really know how to get my characters to the end. Finally, after floundering for many days, I put the draft away. I realized that I had homework to do if I was ever to finish the book.

Although the problem seemed to be a plot one, I thought it might have more to do with my characters. I didn’t know them as well as I should.  I consulted two books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. In the front matter to their books, Ackerman and Puglisi detail the importance of building characters from the ground up and equipping them with unique personalities based not only on strengths, but also flaws.

Armed with suggestions from the two books, I developed a 4-page character sketch of my protagonist, Cooper. On the plus side, I wanted Cooper to be resilient, curious, and resourceful among other things.  On the flawed side, I needed him to be cynical, anxious, emotionally distant and resigned to his lowly position in life.  Ackerman and Puglisi write about the importance of “emotional wounds”.  These are emotional scars from incidents in the past that influence the present. I dug deep into Cooper’s past to isolate one.

I snapped this photo while hiking in Arizona. Somehow the dog seemed determined to get somewhere despite his short legs, just like I imagined Cooper, my fictional character, would.

Once I had character sketches for Cooper and others in the story, I spent a week plotting a detailed outline that would carry me to the end. I knew the characters intimately by then. I knew how they would react to each other and to obstacles I put in their way. I plotted each chapter in detail, outlining not only what happened, but how it influenced each character.  My outline was 20 pages.

Guided by the outline, I wrote the rest of the story.  It got me through the difficult middle stretch and to the end.  But – and this an important but – I didn’t entirely follow the outline.  As I came to know my characters better, fresh ideas surfaced that altered the story-line. If I thought they strengthened the story, I integrated them into the fabric I was weaving.

The Take-Away:

Some writers – the pantsers – think that character sketches and outlines limit their creativity. They prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and write without planning much or at all.  For me having a map at the start of the journey saw me to the end.  Sure, there were detours, but at least I knew where they were taking me.

Revisiting ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’

Some books are worth a second read.  Such was the case with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

I’d read the book years ago and remember the impact it had on me. Then, a week ago, I spotted it on my ‘special’ bookshelf, wedged between other books that I deem worthy of further reads. I’d been looking for an example of a story told in third person as this one is, and that gave me an excuse to dip into the book a second time.

Boyne’s story tells the tale of two nine-year-old boys – Bruno and Shmuel – who live on opposite sides of the concentration camp fence at Auschwitz during the second world war. Bruno is the son of the German commandant in charge of the camp.  Shmuel is a Jewish prisoner. As the story evolves, the two become friends and meet at the fence almost daily. The conclusion – which I won’t spoil for you – is deeply affecting and memorable.

Although I had viewed the movie version after my first read, I found myself more engaged in the text the second time around than in any scene in the film.  A number of things about Boyne’s writing struck me as I read the book again.  One was its simplicity. Boyne’s writing is sparse and unadorned. Not a word is wasted. The sparseness of the story matches the sparseness of the setting, and it echoes the loneliness and horror facing those on both sides of the fence at Auschwitz.

Another striking feature is the way Boyne immerses us in the thoughts and feelings of his main characters. We see and feel almost everything from Bruno’s perspective. He’s a nine-year-old who is trying to make sense of what is happening around him.  He is curious, asks questions, and when answers aren’t forthcoming, he formulates conclusions that – to him, at least – match circumstances that he doesn’t quite understand. All this deepened my reading experience and had me asking some of the same questions as Bruno.

Some of the best examples of this nine-year-old sense-making come from the names that Bruno assigns to people and places. To Bruno, the Fuher sounds like the Fury and so that is the name he assigns Adolph Hitler. Auschwitz is Out-With. He calls his sister, Gretel, a Hopeless Case and Trouble From Day One. His father’s office is Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, John Boyne writes:  “Fences such as the one at the heart of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still exist; it is unlikely that they will ever fully disappear.”

With border walls cropping up between countries, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seemed even more relevant and striking to me on my second read. It is a thought-provoking story, not suitable for nine-year-olds, but excellent for more mature readers.

Save the Cat! Save Your Story?

When school reading programs kick into full gear during the winter months, I like to participate in my own way by reading books that I’ve been eyeing for some time.  Usually, there is a middle grade novel in the pile (Wonder, this year), but I also like to dip into at least one book that explores the writing craft. This year that book was Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Why the odd title for this book? you might wonder. Why Save the Cat?  In the introduction, Snyder clears up one mystery. “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.”  To show us what he means, Snyder references a film or two, films that introduce the hero and have him/her do something worthy within a few minutes of the film’s beginning. “That’s why the name of this book is Save the Cat!  It’s emblematic of the kind of common sense basics I want to get across to you….”

Snyder lives up to the promise. The book is filled with sensible ideas that can be applied not just to screenwriting, but to other writing forms, too.  He packs the book with film examples like Miss Congeniality  to show how, when and where they’ve been used in popular movies, and he explores the reasons why they work or don’t work. He also writes about his own personal experiences in the film industry, offers marketing tips, and takes readers behind the scenes of the film-making/screen writing business.

One of the most useful features in the book lies in Chapter 4: Let’s Beat It Out!.  Snyder introduces the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet”, a set of 15 points or beats that every well-structured screenplay contains.  The beat sheet is essentially a one-page outline that moves the story along, hitting the essential highs and lows from the Opening Image (1) to the Midpoint (9) and All is Lost (11) to the Finale (14) and Final Image (15).  

The fifteen beats

In Chapter 5 – Building the Perfect Beast – Snyder introduces ‘The Board’.  it’s a planning strategy “for you to ‘see’ your movie before you start writing.”  Although it has many forms, ‘The Board’ boils down to a set of 40 index cards or post-its that chart the major plot points of the story, and the pages in a screenplay where they should appear. 

A sample card

Each card contains a line that describes the action occurring in the scene. A line at the top tells where and when the scene is happening. Symbols, notations and color-codes add other information. The +/- sign, for example, is used to represent the emotional change that should be executed in each scene.  

One version of the board.
Another variation

Not everyone is a fan of Snyder’s method.  Some detractors claim that he’s boiled screenwriting down to a template, a one-size-fits-all formula.  One critic on the Internet even suggested that Snyder has ruined Hollywood by stripping film-making of much of its creativity. [On Story Structure (and how Save the Cat ruined Hollywood)]. 

I chose the book mainly to learn more about plot and character development. These were topics I felt I could apply in my own fiction-writing endeavors.  To those ends, the book – and especially Chapters 4 and 5 – served me well.  ,

Recommended resources:

Tim Stout – Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – 

Tim Stout – Story Structure in Graphic Novels

 

 

Off to the Weiner Dog Races

In my middle grade novel, Coop the Great, my protagonist is an elderly, cynical dachshund named Cooper. Coop’s a down-and-out dog, adopted and rejected many times. When he meets Mike, a different kind of owner, Coop’s life takes an unexpected turn.

This dachshund, spotted along a trail in Phoenix, was the role model for Cooper and the inspiration for the story that followed.  He seems to be saying: “So I’m different. So what?”

Ever since I started writing the novel, I’ve been eyeing dachshunds. I’d never paid much attention to them before, but suddenly I saw them everywhere, trotting on tiny legs, resiliently plodding after their owners.  When I heard about the 22nd annual Wiener Dog Races while I was in Phoenix, I was intrigued.  The tag line on the Wiener Mania page of the Arizona Adopt A Greyhound website made it sound like fun: Come join us for this great family event where over 200 Wiener Dogs will complete over a 50 yard race track for bragging rights and terrific prizes!” 

Of course, I just had to go.  Lucky for me, my wife, Jo, wanted to go, too.

Crowds swarm Turf Paradise field in Phoenix.  Dachshund owners are an enthusiastic bunch.

Only pure-bred dachshunds can compete in the Wiener Races. Variety is the name of the game here. There were dachshunds of every size, stripe, colour, and attire.

Participants pay a $25 fee to enter, then rally others to support the cause.  The money raised goes to Arizona Adopt A Greyhound in their ongoing effort to find homes for retired racing greyhounds.  

Everyone gets into the act!

With 5 categories ranging from Juvenile Racing Wiener to Senior Racing Wiener, there are races to suit every dachshund.

Setting up
And they’re off – sort of

We had a great time at the Wiener Dog Races, but it seemed to me that the contestants had the most fun of all.

 

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