Writing Kids' Books
with Travis Howe

Writing Kids' Books - Travis Howe
Author and animator Travis Howe joins us to talk about his debut novel Animal Control: The Hero's Apprentice.

Although this is Travis's first novel he is not new to the creative arena having spent his career in animation. Travis has contributed to projects such as Halo 5: Guardians, Spyro: The Reignited Trilogy, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time and the 2014 film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With this background we found it really interesting to learn how Travis approaches writing for children.

Travis lives in California with his wife and three children.

Watch the trailer for
Animal Control: The Hero's Apprentice below:

Writing Kids' Books: Can you tell us how old you were when you started writing?

I was about 10 or so when my mom and I wrote a children’s book called “Izzy & Muzz,” about a princess who befriends a dragon. I don’t remember much about it, except that the dragon saved the castle from burning down or something. Knowing how weird and dark I was as a kid, Muzz probably ate all the villagers by the end. 

Writing Kids' Books: You work as an animator and have three children. How do you fit writing into your schedule?

It’s a balancing act, for sure. When I was writing Animal Control, I would go into work an hour early and just sit in my car writing, then use my lunch breaks as well. Now that I work from home, I can do the same thing from the comfort of the couch. I’ve done a lot of writing on my iPhone before bed lately, too. And regarding the kids, it’s easier with three – they tend to entertain each other most of the time!

Writing Kids' Books: When did you first have the idea for Animal Control? 

Writing Kids' Books - Animal Control Book Cover

Beverly Cleary said, “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” I’m not sure if I heard this quote before writing Animal Control, but it’s certainly what I set out to do. I love 90s action cartoons. Ninja Turtles, SWAT Kats, Gargoyles, Darkwing, DuckTales, etc.

Growing up with the goal of becoming an animator, I spent a lot of time making up my own characters inspired by those shows. Initially, they were just random ideas unrelated to each other, nor did most of them have deep story lines. I pursued my animation career and kept all these characters on the back burner.

Then, much later in life than is excusable, I read the Harry Potter books. I had grown up with a strong dislike for reading – since it was homework, I saw it as a chore or burden. Harry Potter showed me how freeing a book can be. Not only did I jump straight into reading whenever I had time, I also knew, from the moment I finished reading The Sorcerer’s Stone, that I would never be content until I brought my own universe to life. I took a job that would require an hour train commute each way and devoted a year to writing the first draft of Animal Control. 

Writing Kids' Books: Animal Control is your debut novel. Had you written any other manuscripts before this?

Writing Kids' Books - Man Typing

Aside from the children’s book I mentioned, which I’m fairly certain we never even completed, I wrote a book in high school called Hunter: Profile of Prowess. It was a sort of Indiana Jones adventure (also set in an animal universe). It didn’t have much in terms of plot and was really just an excuse to practice typing after school every day, but I wish I could find a copy of it. It’d be fun to see how far I’ve come! 

Writing Kids' Books: Did your experience as an animator affect the way you wrote Animal Control?

Yes! There is a principle of animation (although I contest that it’s really two principles, but they’re always addressed together) called “Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose.” This is referring to two animation methods. Straight Ahead animation is when you start on the first frame, then draw the second, then the third, and so on, “straight ahead” from beginning to end. Stop motion animation is done this way, since the character needs to be moved one little bit at a time. Pose to Pose animation is when you “block out” the primary poses first, then do the “in-between” frames once you have those primary poses set. So for a baseball pitch, you’d have the pose where he’s eyeing down the catcher, the pose where he’s winding up, the full extension as he lobs the ball, and the “follow through” where his weight swings around. Then once you have these poses where you want them, you fill in the frames between.

In other words, Straight Ahead & Pose to Pose are the “Pansters & Planners” of the animation world. For me, I like to work my stories Pose to Pose. I’ll figure out the first and last “frames” right away. I decide where my protagonist is starting, and where he’s ending up. I decide how I want the reader to feel when they close the book. And then I outline like mad. I like to leave some looseness to the outline. “They prepare for their first mission,” which I can then treat as Straight Ahead, making up the little details when I get to the writing phase. This method allows me both control of the story and the benefits of working more loosely.

Writing Kids' Books: Who was your favourite character to write?

I like writing the mean ones. It’s fun to “let loose” with a character. There’s a boar flight director named Carrie Anne who wasn’t part of my outline. I always roll my eyes when people say their characters tell them the story, but in this small instance, it was true. Carrie Anne just sort of materialized one day as I was writing a scene. She talks tough, has a sharp wit, and doesn’t let anyone push her around. I don’t know if she’ll fit into the sequel, but it’s constantly in the back of my mind to try and find a place for her.

Writing Kids' Books: What’s the best bit of becoming a published author? What are you most looking forward to?  

Hearing from the readers. On two separate occasions, I had mothers of autistic children write to tell me how excited their child would get every night when they’d start a chapter. I can’t imagine a more rewarding feeling as a writer than that.

Regarding the future, I’m looking forward to presenting the book. I’ll be speaking at a local school soon and am hoping to set up at some conventions. More than anything, I look forward to meeting readers!

Writing Kids' Books: What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am writing Animal Control 2, while also planning out Animal Control 3. It’s been a rush jumping back into the universe – it’s like seeing old friends after a while apart. 

Writing Kids' Books: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Something I’ve learned as an animator, which I think is great advice for writers as well; entertain yourself. Don’t write a joke, make yourself laugh. Don’t write a scary scene, make yourself feel afraid to turn your back on a dark hallway. Don’t force a twist, surprise yourself. If you can entertain yourself, and if you are truly laughing, or spooked, or surprised, or awe-struck, or envious, or saddened, then chances are your audience will feel the same.

Writing Kids' Books: 10. Our website is called WritingNV.com In the spirit of this can you tell us if there are any writers who make you green with envy?

I wish I could be as brutal as George RR Martin. It's an ambition of mine to one day write something where no character is safe. There’s a moment in Animal Control 2 that, when I pitched it to my wife, she said “You can’t do that!!” which is how I knew I had a winner.

But even still, it’s not exactly The Red Wedding; as Animal Control is meant for a middle grade audience, I must pull punches, or have things happen off-screen.

I envy Martin’s ability to just wreck his characters. It ties this all together nicely, too. Where I’m a Pose to Pose guy, Martin is Straight Ahead. To paraphrase his famous quote, “I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time. […] The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. […] As the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”

It’s what I was talking about before with “surprising yourself.” I envy this a bit. I think one day, once my Animal Control trilogy is complete, I might just attempt telling a story Straight Ahead.

Thank you so much to Travis for joining us.

Animal Control is free to download on Kindle until midnight 12th April PST.

You can learn more about Travis Howe on his website and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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