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by Tim McCanna

On my way to the grocery store in my neighborhood, I pass a martial arts academy. The building’s facade is all windows so you can see the students kicking and punching each other inside. Looks fun. Running across the back wall of the studio in huge capital letters reads:

Whenever I drive by that academy, I imagine the trainers pounding this mantra into their pupils’ heads. Forget size. Forget strength. Forget speed. Only focus on technique. TECHNIQUE CONQUERS ALL.

I’m a believer! Technique applies to everything. Sports, cooking, acting, illustrating, Pac-Man, and of course, writing. Even if you’re just starting out, it’s essential to approach the work with a plan. With purpose. With something that at least resembles professionalism.

Technique is all about how you execute your art. It especially applies to that crucial first stage of writing… the brainstorming! You know, coming up with all those story ideas?

  • Maybe you sit in a special chair or use a favorite pen and a notepad.
  • Maybe you stare blankly into space until something pops into your head.
  • Maybe you pick a topic—say, goldfish—and only focus on goldfish ideas that day.
  • Maybe you research ideas online, or you wander through the library, or you scan the dictionary for interesting words.
  • Maybe you concentrate on character-driven stories with interesting conflicts.
  • Maybe you take inspiration from music or colors or nature or childhood memories.
  • Maybe you challenge yourself to write down not 1, but 10 ideas each day no matter how terrible they might be.

The exciting part is, while you are focusing on your technique, the ideas you conjure up may take on a life of their own. During Storystorm 2014, I scratched down this idea…

Trickle: the story of a little stream

A month later, I wrote the tale of a water trickle that becomes a river using only 56 words, mostly onomatopoeia. I changed the title from Trickle to WATERSONG, and added art notes about little fairies shepherding the water droplets along their way. The manuscript sold quickly! Then I patiently waited for my story of water fairies to be illustrated. But the illustrator, Richard Smythe, had other ideas, and I’m so glad he did. Rich threaded the story of a fox seeking shelter in the woods through my words, and the end result is so beautiful and heartwarming. Because of his more naturalistic take, my editor asked me to add some non-fiction back matter. And thanks to the success of WATERSONG, a sequel is in the works! In fact, it has opened up a whole new avenue of rhyming creative non-fiction to my writing that I’d never anticipated. It all began with the single seed of a Storystorm idea.

I love Storystorm for the structure it provides. I love that it gives us a goal to shoot for. It makes writing fun—as it should be. So, don’t overly concern yourself with how many ideas you generate. Don’t sweat what percentage of your ideas stink or seem like winners. Whether you come up with 3, 30, or 300 ideas this month, just get ‘em down on paper. That’s the task at hand. How are you going to execute it? Your approach to Storystorming just might inform your process for transforming one of those ideas into a real live book.

JACK B. NINJA, a 2013 Storystorm idea. Coming June 26, 2018

The publishing world is tough indeed. Do not go willy-nilly into writing for kids. They’re small, but they’ll eat you up. Technique is a choice, a state of mind. It takes practice and persistence. You must train. Study. Learn. Concentrate. Wax on, wax off. In every phase of your writing career, ignore the score and focus on your technique.


Tim McCanna is the author of Bitty Bot, Barnyard Boogie, Teeny Tiny Trucks, and Watersong, which is a New York Public Library Best Book for Kids and a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Notable Poetry Book. His upcoming 2018 picture books include Jack B. Ninja, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway, So Many Sounds, and BOING! A Very Noisy ABC. Tim serves as Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI’s San Francisco/South chapter, and he holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing for Musical Theatre from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Find Tim online at and on Twitter @timmccanna.

Tim is giving away a copy of his picture book, WATERSONG.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

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