Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Book

 Author Bill Kirk is here today to discuss his latest book "A Brainy Refrain," and teach us a thing or two about writing in rhyme. Thanks Bill!

"A Brainy Refrain," is the fourth book in The Sum of Our Parts series. Can you tell us a little bit about the series?
Thanks for hosting me today, Rena.  THE SUM OF OUR PARTS series, which my publisher has abbreviated TSOOP, actually began as a single book, “No Bones About It” (2009) which covers the human skeleton from toe to head. 

So far, four books, all illustrated by Eugene Ruble, are out including books on the skeleton, circulation, muscles and now the nervous system.  Other TSOOP books are in the pipeline for publication over the next couple years.  I’m very much looking forward to having a full menu of anatomical books for readers to choose from depending on which system(s) they wish to learn about.

What inspired you to write The Sum of Our Parts series?
In 2007, I wrote the bones manuscript on a lark because our grandson was having a little trouble in 7th grade science.  When the class got to the skeleton, I figured there had to be a fun way to play around with the bones in the skeleton to make them easier to learn. 

The idea for the series actually came later after I began shopping the Bones manuscript around.  I finally got a nibble from a science editor who asked if I had more.  So, I just started writing, one anatomical system at a time.   Although the series didn’t work out with that first publisher, fortunately, TSOOP has been a great fit at Guardian Angel Publishing.

What’s it like writing a factual book in rhyme?
Great question, Rena.  I suppose the most challenging part is finding ways to use technical terminology  (like the name of a muscle) in a rhyming verse while retaining a fairly solid semblance of the rhythm.  When writing pretty much anything in rhyme, the ear generally expects to hear a consistency in the cadence.  I suppose you could call it the “Law of Preservation of Rhythm”—you heard it here first. 

Some verses come relatively easily, especially ones which are not built around a technical term.  For example, the Muscle book opens with:

Without any muscles
You’d be in a fix—
With just skin and bones,
You couldn’t do tricks,

Like jumping high hurdles
Or swimming a race;
Or squinting both eyes
Or running in place.

Other times smoothing out the sound of a verse can be a bit of a stretch, pardon the pun, especially when the verse calls for a very specific technical term.   Fitting it in can be both frustrating and fun.  For example, here’s a verse where the muscle name at first glance might seem impossible to work around:

Turn your head to the left,
Check your neck on the right.
Is there in plain sight.   

For this series, I had the advantage of the fundamental organization of the various systems.  For example, the skeleton has 206 bones, give or take, and you can start pretty much anywhere.  Likewise, there are over 630 muscles waiting to be rhymed.  Just imagine the number of verses I could have written but didn’t.  Of the books in the series so far, the brain book has been the most challenging.  There is amazing functional redundancy across sections of the brain.  Also there’s so much we don’t yet know about how it works. 

Why did you choose to write this series in rhyme?
That decision was easy because rhyme is the primary form I use for all my children’s poetry and even much of my other poetry.  For me, rhyme is fun.  When our children were young and later when our grandchildren came along, reading Dr. Seuss was a staple at bedtime.  So, when I finally started writing stuff for kids in the late ‘90s, rhyme seemed the natural way to go.  I followed suit when TSOOP came along.
How long did it take you to write your latest book "A Brainy Refrain?"
I suppose it took a couple months of writing and rewriting before I had a product that was ready to tweak and fine tune.  In a way writing a rhyme is like working on a wood carving (which I have dabbled in) or a sculpture (which I wouldn’t know where to start).  With wood, the final carving doesn’t just appear fully formed.  It takes rough cuts to find the basic shape and then the refining (shaving, sanding, smoothing) begins until the form can truly be seen.

Did you have to do a lot of research?
Yes, for almost any non-fiction or technical writing, research is essential.  It’s also important to fact check using at least three different sources.  Sometimes more sources are needed, especially where there are differences in numbers, spelling and even functional descriptions.  In some cases, settling on a generally agreed upon range may be the best course when trying to decide what to include and what to omit. 

What was the hardest part (research, rhyming etc.)?
That’s a very thought provoking question.  Each part of the writing has its challenges.  The research part can often take a lot of time to get the facts right using credible and respected sources.  Considering the factual nature of the content, if it’s not right, then it might as well be fiction.  So, you have to put in the time. 

As for writing in rhyme, it can be either very easy or excruciating.  Personally, I prefer to find my rhymes the old fashioned way—running down the alphabet instead of using a rhyming dictionary.  It may take me longer but for me, I gain the most satisfaction from the discovery of rhyming sets on my own.  The results can be quirky or ribald but that’s where the fun comes in.  

And then there’s the rhythmic aspect of rhyming verse.  Sometimes the best fitting words just appear and other times it’s like pulling teeth.  When rhyme (including its cadence and sound) is good, it’s very, very good.  And when it’s bad, well, you know the rest….     

Do you pay attention to meter when writing in rhyme?
Absolutely.  Meter—the repetitive beat and cadence expressed in accented and unaccented syllables in a poem (usually a rhyming poem)—is one of the first things an editor listens for.  If there is a discernible beat that carries the reader through the verse, the odds of getting a second reading are in your favor.  “Dis” the beat and the rhyme will likely end up in the round file. 

Consistency also counts from one stanza to the next.  Does the rhythm in the verse alternate in the first-third/second-fourth lines?  Or do all the lines follow the same cadence?  Here’s a stanza from one of my early rhymes in which all four lines start with an unaccented syllable but the first and third lines end on a soft beat and the second and fourth lines end on a hard beat.

What happened to my hotdog?
Dad cooked it just for me.
And while it popped and sizzled,
I waited patiently.

Here are a couple verses from a Thanksgiving rhyme with a slightly different cadence:

Good Morning, daughter!  Is everyone up?
Have you had any coffee—at least your first cup?
Is all the stuff ready, to cook the big meal?
Is the turkey thawed out?  Have you broken the seal?

Remember to take out the small bag of parts;
One neck and a gizzard—I once found two hearts!
You did all your shopping?  Bought all on your list?
You've checked everything so nothing was missed?

…and a third example of a math rhyme with a staccato, drum-like beat:

Numbers, Numbers, all around us.
Numbers, numbers, they astound us!

Integers can be quite mental;
Fractions, never transcendental.

Counting numbers may well taunt you.
But ignore them and they'll haunt you!

Have you ever taken a poetry class? How did you learn to rhyme?
No, I haven’t had any formal training in writing poetry or rhyme, although some might say I should have.  Maybe one day I will take a class just for fun.  I’d have to say I have learned by doing—and by “listening” to how good rhyme sounds.  For me words play has endless possibilities.  There are many rhyming verse formats I haven’t yet tried, such as writing a sonnet or writing rap.  Maybe one day.
What do you hope your readers will take away from your book(s)? 
Mainly, I’d like children to be hooked by the sound when my books are read aloud so they will want to read it again and again.  Maybe they will write rhymes themselves one day.  As for the content, I hope some of the interesting facts in my books might intrigue a child to learn more.  I can only hope the anatomical TSOOP series will inspire some child to go to medical school and be around to take care of me in my old age.   

Any advice you wish to share with writers wishing to write a book in rhyme?
In my early rhyming days, I wrote a rhyming story titled “Has Anyone Seen My Lost Dinopotamus?”  It was long, rambling, unstructured and nonsensical—and those were its good points.  I was certain it was Dr. Seuss meets e.e. cummings.  Thankfully, it never saw the published light of day.  That was 15 years ago.

My advice would be to read lots of rhyme to get a feel for how it sounds and how the words and the rhythm and the same sounding line endings carry the rhyme along.  Find a critique group, whether online or in situ, and try your rhymes on the group.  And then, write and re-write and re-write. 

As a form, rhyme has developed somewhat of a bad reputation—too often well deserved.  But I wouldn’t let that stop you from trying it.  Who knows?  There may be another Dr. Seuss out there among you.  As for me, I guess I’ll just keep doing it until I get it right.  Maybe I’ll even dust off the old Dinopotamus for another look.  

Bill Kirk is author of several books including “There’s A Spider In My Sink!,” "My Grandma’ Kitchen Rules!,” “There’s A Beetle In My Bed!,” “A Mid-Summer’s Dance” and “The Sum Of Our Parts” series. To learn more about him check out his blog by clicking here or his website by clicking here.

Bill is a grandparent, a runner, an Eagle Scout and a Boy Scout leader and active in his church. So why does he write? Because he'd rather be doing that than just about anything else. 

To learn more about Bill check out his blog or his website

--Using the cover from Bill Kirk's book as a prompt write a poem about the brain. Or
--Try writing a rhyming poem. Or
--Try writing a rhyming poem about the body.
Feel free to share your poem in the comments below, on your blog (leave a link in the comments), or on the poetry Facebook page.

-- Bill Kirk’s blog is full of wonderful information on writing in rhyme among other things.  Check out his post on Rhyme: The Good, The Bad And The Doggerel
--Write Rhymes click here.
--Click here for a rhyming dictionary. 

If you liked this post please let others know. Tomorrow Lissa Clouser will be joining us to talk about poetry contests. I hope you come back for that. 


  1. Great post and I totally agree that I don't like using a rhyming dictionary either. Maybe you caught my Suess-like poem about writing on one my old posts. I love the rhythm of poetry even if it doesn't rhyme perfectly.

    1. Rhythm is important in poetry and in prose. I usually don't write in rhyme unless I do it by accident.

    2. Thanks to all who have stopped by for a look and to comment. Your response to the interview has been very humbling. I'm on the road the next couple weeks but will reply to each comment as I buzz between wi-fi zones.

  2. I am absolutely amazed at how talented one must be to rhyme with technical words. I do think rhyme is a great idea though, since the rhymes suggest the pronunciation of some words that would normally stump me.

    1. I was thinking the same thing!

    2. Hi, Kirsten. Sometimes I think it may be more persistence than talent. Maybe listening for a certain rhythm helps. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. Your post really shows the craft and skill it takes to work with rhyme. I would like to understand more about incorporating rhythm. I would like to know how to consciously craft cadence in my writing.

    1. I'm thrilled that Bill was able to this interview. Studying authors who write the way you would like to write is good place to start. Reading your work out loud is another way to check for rhythm. If something doesn't flow you will pick up on it if you read it aloud. Practice. Practice. Practice.

    2. Yes, I agree with Rena's comments. And it may seem a little odd but listening to country music or some of the early rock n roll or folk songs seems to help tune the ear into cadence and rhythm.

  4. “Law of Preservation of Rhythm”--YES!!! There is finally a term for it!!! :)

    1. ... and sometimes I find myself living on the edge of the law....

  5. Great post and really cool books!

    1. Thanks. Bill certainly is talented.

    2. Thanks, Lori. With any luck I'll be famous after I'm dead. Until then, I'll have fun playing with rhyme.

  6. Those books sound great and that rhyming is brilliant, Bill! What a fun way to learn.

    Here goes:

    If you train your brain just right,
    you'll flex its muscles day and night,
    and if you study really well
    your brain will process villanelle.
    But don't go nuts or overboard
    with too much info filed and stored
    you're sure to shake and feel a rumble
    brain explodes and head goes tumble.

    1. Very cool rhyme, Catherine. Totally gnarly. I think you are on your way. May the rhyming force be with you.

  7. Bill's nonfiction rhyming books are very inspiring. I'll have to refer some on my nonfiction writing friends that love rhyme to this link. Thanks for sharing him with us Rena.

    I wrote a rhyme about the body.

    The Birthday Suit

    His suit was worn without a tie
    And it was soft and far from dry.
    His mom counted his mouth and nose.
    His dad had found his tiny toes.
    His suit was washed and weighed.
    His parents loved what they made.

    1. Oh that was good Jennifer. Cute too!

    2. Cute! I'm amazed that someone could write a rhyming non-fiction book. Very cool.

    3. Hi, Jennifer. Nice little verse. With a couple minor tweaks , this one is about ready to sub out. It could fit with a parenting or grandparenting magazine or if there is a local newspaper that has a family life section, they might go for it.

  8. This was really good information and a GREAT interview. How amazing is it when artists open up in such a genuine way? Love this! Good job, Rena. Thank you Bill!

    1. I love the writing community! I'm glad that Bill was able to share his knowledge.

    2. You're welcome, Pam. Rhyme is a bit of an aquired taste, especially the quirky or humorous rhymes, which are fun to write. Feel free to browse around my website if you wish.

  9. I definitely need to find some of Bill's books as I am attempting to write nonfiction poetry about endangered animals and I learnt a lot today about the rhyming craft. I have been working a lot on meter of late, trying to tap out the rhythm to keep it consistent! Thank you both for such an informative post.

    1. Hope over to his website to find his books or look him up on Amazon. Good luck with your writing project.

    2. Thanks so much, Joanna. There are many terrific rhymers out there. One you may wish to track down online is Margot Finke, who writes most of her picture books in rhyme as well. She's from downunder but currently lives in Oregon I believe. And by all means drop by my website or blogs any time.

  10. Bill is just a font of knowledge! Loved this post, and glad to see it's not just me who still likes to run down the alphabet to find rhymes. :) Thanks to you both for an excellent and useful post. Off to write my poem (always a bit behind...blame it on the time difference).

    1. No worries. I'm glad that Bill could join us.

    2. Thanks, Renee. I think searching for rhyming words in my head is at least half the fun. Besides, I figure it will help stave off dementia and other such things....

  11. Remembering a sweet refrain

    DeFunked poet of long ago
    A sweet, quiet refrain
    Philosopher of yesteryear
    Accounting state of brain

    "Insane in the membrane"
    "Insane in da brain."
    "Insane in the membrane."
    A sweet, quiet refrain.

    1. Now we're talking. Nice one, Pam. Actually, repetition is a very effective tool to use in verse. If my memory is working, I believe it is known as anaphora. Poe used it very well in many of his rhyming poems. Good work.

    2. Learning so much. I am grateful for this challenge and the opportunity to learn from the pros as I begin this journey! Keep sharing! We love and appreciate It!

  12. OK, here's my draft - better late than never!

    What I've Got
    I've got eyes
    and I've got knees
    and I've got tonsils,
    if you please.

    I've got hands,
    a mouth, a nose,
    and reddish hair that
    grows and grows.

    I've got legs,
    and arms and hips,
    and I've got shoulders,
    and two lips.

    I've got ears
    and I've got feet
    and I've got fingers --
    I'm complete!

    1. I'd get this one in the mail today, Renee. This captures all the pieces and parts simply and in just right way.


Thanks for your comments. Remember to keep them kid friendly.