Thursday, June 1, 2017

Writing that Sings

by Sue Heavenrich

Last month I reviewed Watersong over at Archimedes Notebook. It's got spot-on rhyme. A narrative arc. An environmental STEM connection.

And it does all that in 56 words. Fifty-six! 

So I had to ask author Tim McCanna how he managed to fit so much story into so few words. 

"It started as an experiment," he said. California was caught in severe drought. "Reservoirs were alarmingly low, and all the beautiful creeks and ponds had completely dried up." Tim missed the lush green walks he took with his family - missed them so much he started thinking about the sounds that water makes. Then he started jotting down words. He searched the internet for lists of any words related to water.

"I noticed that certain words rhymed and played around with them, dividing them into stanzas of words with similar meter and pattern." 

Tim at one of his favorite waterfalls
drip drop
    plip plop
        pitter patter pat.

twinkle sprinkle
    splitter splatter
        spitter spatter splat.

You can hear the music of rain beginning - almost smell that earthy wetness.

"What it had going for it," Tim said of his final manuscript, "was that it left so much open to the illustrator to explore." He credits Richard Smythe with bringing another dimension to the book. There was no fox in Tim's story. Not even in the art notes he included. The fox - its journey through the storm, following the water - pure illustrator brilliance.

"Picture books are a collaboration, and the end result was stronger and more heartfelt than I ever imagined on my own." Tim, who began writing picture books about nine years ago said that at first he thought it would be hard to cut words. But with practice - and reading enough picture books - it got easier to get into the minimalist mindset.

"You can tell a lot in few words, but you have to trust the reader," he said. "You have to trust the illustrator." The thing about Watersong, Tim said is that he wasn't trying to write a story -  he was just playing around. "It was liberating to try something and not have any expectations."

The cool thing: even the back matter is lyrical. 

"Ah, well..." Tim said, "about that back matter." He hadn't included any notes in the original manuscript, so when the editor asked for a page of back matter (a few weeks before the book went to print) Tim had to take a deep dive into watersheds, water cycles, rainbows, and foxes. His take-away: we all live in a watershed. 

"Water will pass through your home (landscape) so we have to be conscious about how our acts - pollution, erosion - affect it."

Since Tim has written a few books in rhyme, I asked him what advice he'd give to writers who want to write their own rhyming books.

"Rhyming books definitely have a place in literature," Tim said. "They are as valuable as any other book. Trust your instincts. Experiment with your words. And take the time to shape and practice your writing, to develop your ear so that you know when it's working." Writing a good rhyming book is about simplicity and meter - but mostly about the story.

You can find out more about Tim and his books at his website. His new book, Barnyard Boogie, was just released a few weeks ago. Check out the trailer!


  1. This is a very interesting interview, Sue! I love that playing around w/word lists led to the writing of this book. I enjoy creating word lists when I write, too. Another book for my TBR shelf. TY for the spotlight on this entertaining science book!

  2. Thank you, Sue and Tim, for this interview. I enjoyed reading how Tim used word lists to trigger his imagination. I must read Watersong!

  3. Great review Sue. Fun to know how he started it. I am in awe of this book.

  4. I have his book, and it is pure genius! I write in rhyme, too, and this book could be a great mentor text. I like the way you brought in direct quotes. It made it personal. Good job, Sue. And great book, Tim!

  5. Such a fun book and I loved the trailers over on his website. I love writing in rhyme, too.

  6. I love learning about how people come to write their books!

  7. I am amazed at the power of a word list! I totally heard the music of beginning rain! Who knew a few words could do that! I can't wait to read this book. I have not worked with rhyme, but this interview is piquing my interest. I'm checking out your trailer! I love writers/authors sharing how they write! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Delightful book! How fun for kids and adults!!!!

  9. 56 words! Wow! I love this book! Great post, too. Congratulations all the way around!