Friday, March 8, 2013

A Likely Story

Back in October, I posted about the three elements – rhythm, rhyme, and story – that have to work together in character-driven rhyming picture books. In that post, I addressed getting a story's rhythm exactly right.

That leaves rhyme and story, so I thought I'd get back to those today. You all know how to rhyme, so I won't waste an entire post on the topic. Two things to keep in mind, though:

      - Use proper syntax. If you have to twist a line for the sake of the end rhyme, find another way to get the thought across. Lines should read the way a person normally speaks.

      - Talk "up" to your readers. Don't shy away from complicated words now and then if they fit the story, if kids will be able to glean meaning from context (and, most likely, an illustration), and especially if they're fun to say. In my Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin'!, which takes place in the 1800s, I rhymed songs and shouts with roustabouts; silk cravats with cowboy hats; and coffee, spoons with brass spittoons.

Rhyming stories have been my favorites since I was 5 or 6 years old (and was introduced to Horton).

Of the 16 books I've sold so far, 6 are rhyming picture books. So these days, I critique a lot of rhyming manuscripts – as a volunteer judge at Rate Your Story, in private and conference crits, and in summer workshops (note: my pb workshop is Aug. 2-4 this year). The number one problem with the stories I see is . . . well, the stories. It's pefectly natural. We get so caught up in perfecting rhythm and rhyme that story takes a backseat. Because boy, once we get those rhyming lines working together, most of us would rather undergo a root canal than make changes.

But the same rules apply to a rhyming story to one written in prose. So, a checklist:

     - Does my main character have a goal to reach or some kind of problem? Did I get to it right away? Does he solve it himself?

     - Do things go WRONG?

     - Did I include believable/necessary dialogue? (Yes, this is tougher to do in rhyming stories. You thought this would be easy?)

     - Does every word of every line move the story forward and convey a precise meaning? This is a biggie. Go through your story line by line. Are any lines/stanzas merely restating in a different way information already given? Condense or cut.

     - Have I used specific verbs, vivid language, fresh similes and metaphors, alliteration, onomatopoeia? (If you have fun, your reader will, too.)

     - Is my word count as low as possible? (Little pitchers have big ears, yes, but they also have short attention spans.)

     - Is my POV consistent? (Try to avoid 1st person in rhyming stories. It can be done, but it's extremely tough to do without sounding overly-contrived.)

     - Has my MC shown growth or changed somehow by the end of the story? (And am I not hitting the reader over the head with it?)

When it comes to crafting rhyming stories, practice really does make perfect. Examine a variety of published rhyming picture books. To get a feel for meter, read them aloud. Type them out. Study their plot structure. Learn to recognize and correct problem areas in your own work.

One final tip that gets its own line and bold print:

     - Embrace revision. (Because, truly, there's NEVER only one way to say something.)

And before you know it, you'll be on the track to publication. Note that I didn't call it a "fast track." This IS publishing.

Jill Esbaum

P.S.  Remember to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win Tamera Wissinger's delightful Gone Fishing!


Margaret Simon said...

I tell my students that I am bad at rhyming. I am secretly trying to work on that by challenging myself and them to write triolet poems and rondelet poems. I would love to be good enough to create a whole book and while your list here is daunting, I am determined to give it a shot.

Jill said...

That's GREAT, Margaret! Hang in there. :)