Friday, October 5, 2012

I Got Rhythm

I'm all over the place when it comes to my writing. However, my first love is and always will be rhyming picture books. Four of mine have been published; more are in the pipeline. If you, too, have been bitten by the rhyming bug, this post is for you.

The trouble with rhyming picture book stories is that, when done well, they look easy – like anybody could dash one off in an afternoon. But when you actually try writing one ... whoa, baby. As much as I enjoy writing rhyming stories, once I finish one I am absolutely drained, creatively. I need a break, need to work on something completely different. Else a certain person's writing desk would be in splinters from all the head-banging.

In today's tough picture book climate, selling a rhyming picture book story is more challenging than ever before. What are editors looking for? Near perfection. Even then, there are no guarantees. So what makes a stellar rhymer?

The rhythm is perfect.
The story is original and appealing.
The rhyme is spot on – and doesn't get in the way of the story.

Since I don't have enough space to write about all of those things in one post, I'll tackle them individually. Up today? Well, you saw the title of this post. So, when it comes to the rhythm in your rhymer:

1. Keep the pattern (meter) consistent.

Establish a pattern, and then stick with it. When somebody begins reading your story, they'll quickly settle into whatever pattern you've provided. Here's the opening line of one of my rhyming stories, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, due out from Dial in 2014:

Nadine was a truly remarkable cow.

There's really no wrong way to read that. I mean, English speakers would all pronounce those words in the same way. Read this line, and, even if you aren't aware of it, your mind is already anticipating the rhythm of the next. Here it is:

There was nothing she feared–
so she claimed, anyhow.

That said, I have to add that it's fine to use an alternating pattern if there is a reason for doing so – as a refrain, perhaps, or as a purposeful thud for comedic effect – and if it doesn't trip up the reader. It's also perfectly okay to use a more complicated rhyme scheme than the one above, of course. The goal? Any Joe Schmo off the street should be able to open your book and read it without stumbling.

2.  Take advantage of a word's natural stresses.

Have you ever read a rhyming line which, in order for the rhythm to work with prior lines, required that you mispronounce a word, stress a syllable you ordinarily wouldn't? Ugh. Pay attention to each word's natural stresses, both light and heavy, so that doesn't happen in your story.

I've seen writers bent over manuscripts, doggedly counting syllables to be sure each line matched up. (Okay, I've been that writer.) If you do that, you'll see that my first line in the example above has 11 syllables and the second has 12. Horrors! But try not to think in terms of syllables. Instead, look at the stressed beats. Most of the population would read those lines above as:

NaDINE was a TRUly reMARKable COW.
There was NOTHing she FEARED–so she CLAIMED, anyHOW.

Yes, some of those stressed beats are subtle, but they're there. Four beats per line, so it works. Once you think your story's rhythm is perfect, have a friend read it aloud, cold. If she stumbles and has to back up and reread a line to make it work, you have revising to do.

3.  Match the story's rhythm to its subject to help create a mood.

This one's fun. Let's say you're writing a bedtime story. In that case, you'd want a soft, sleepy, swaying rhythm, right? You wouldn't use the same exuberant, galloping meter you'd use for a story about a horse race. Unless, you know, your objective is to get kids revved up at bedtime. Go for it. Parents would love you. *cough, cough*

Work on these three steps to refine your rhythm, and you could be one step closer to doing the I-got-a-contract happy dance. I'll talk soon about story. In the meantime, happy rhyming!

Jill Esbaum

And remember to enter our Guest Teaching Author book giveaway to win an autographed copy of Forget Me Not by the lovely and talented Carolee Dean! [Note from Carmela: there was a typo in April's original giveaway post, so you have until NEXT Thursday, 10/11, to enter the drawing. Good luck!]

And speaking of rhythm and rhyme, happy Poetry Friday! Today's round-up is at Laura Salas's blog, Writing the World for Kids.


Linda at teacherdance said...

I just read a rhyming book at bedtime to my granddaughter & it worked well, but for a younger child, sometimes words will work well for rhythm & rhyme, but they are too sophisticated. I would imagine that is a tough choice with the poetry too. Thanks for the good explanation.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Wonderful post, Jill. You're a very clear teacher.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Excellent advice, Jill--I'm passing this on!

laurasalas said...

First, congrats on your forthcoming book! Rhyming picture books are one of my favorite things to write, too. Have another one almost ready to send off to my agent!

Great post--I'll be bookmarking it to send critique clients to:>)

Jill said...

Linda, I agree, to a degree. But my favorite book from childhood was Horton Hatches the Egg. It contains words like "immense" and "absurd" and "dawdling." That book also taught me the meaning of the word "faithful" and even a little bit about math (one hundred percent). :) So I do think it's okay to introduce more sophisticated words occasionally.

We have to be careful not to get carried away, though, it's true - and use those words in a way that kids can (hopefully) glean their meanings.

Jill said...

Thanks, April, JoAnn, and Laura!

And Linda, I should concede that one of my picture books, Stanza, is too sophisticated for most younger listeners. That's how I learned to curb myself!

On the other hand, 4th and 5th grade teachers have told me they're using it to launch poetry units. Music to my ears!