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Monday, April 22, 2013

The Art of Writing Rhyming Picturebooks


Welcome to our guest blogger, Laura Purdie Salas!

Laura Purdie Salas with BookSpeak!
Laura Purdie Salas is the author of more than 100 books for kids and
teens. Her award-winning books include A LEAF CAN BE..., BOOKSPEAK!
POEMS ABOUT BOOKS, and STAMPEDE! POEMS TO CELEBRATE
THE WILD SIDE OFSCHOOL. 
You can learn more at www.laurasalas.com. She is a visiting
author at schools and also coaches writers through www.MentorsForRent.com. 



THE BEATING HEART OF YOUR RHYMING PICTURE BOOK

I love rhyming picture books! The really good ones read effortlessly, as if they tumbled off the writer’s tongue directly into the book. They’re a blast to read and a blast to write. They’re not, however, quite as popular with editors wading through the slush pile (the pile of manuscripts submitted to publishers).

I’m half of Mentors for Rent, a writers’ coaching/critiquing service with Lisa Bullard, and we read lots of picture books for people. Many of them rhyme. And most of those—about 95%, by my guess—just don’t work yet. There are lots of reasons for this, but I’m going to focus on a very mechanical one here: meter.

Meter is the rhythm of the lines of your verse. It’s the heart of your book and will make or break it. Let’s look at the opening to my rhyming picture book, A LEAF CAN BE… (http://tinyurl.com/co8ygdt)  (Millbrook, 2012). Read these lines out loud:

A leaf is a leaf.
It bursts out each spring,
when sunny days linger
and orioles sing.

Can you hear the beat? The flow?

The pattern of stressed (said with more emphasis) and unstressed (said with less or no emphasis) words and syllables is what creates the meter of your picture book. Here is that opening again, this time with the stressed syllables in bold:

A leaf is a leaf.
It bursts out each spring,
when sunny days linger
and orioles sing.

Look at a few things here. First, there are two stressed syllables in every line. Next, the second syllable of each line is also the first stressed syllable of that line. Third, there are two unstressed syllables between the first and second stressed syllables of each line. That consistency from line to line is what gives verse a pleasing, easy-to-read meter.

The problems begin, though, when different people read the same lines differently. When we are working on a rhyming manuscript with a specific meter, we can read almost any line with that meter—even if it doesn’t naturally come out that way. For instance, read this:

A leaf is a leaf.
It bursts out each spring,
when sunny days linger
and orioles sing.
One day in a bird’s nest,
I found a gold ring.

Those are NOT the next two lines in the book, thank goodness! But I bet you made them fit the meter of the first four lines. Did you read them like this?

A leaf is a leaf.
It bursts out each spring,
when sunny days linger
and orioles sing.
One day in a bird’s nest,
I found a gold ring.

If you did, good for you! You probably read really well out loud and are a great storytime performer! However, that can hamper your own writing. Because you can make text fit an established meter, you aren’t really creating lines that naturally fit the meter. If you just read those last two lines as a normal sentence, without the first four lines, where would the stresses lie?

One day in a bird’s nest, I found a gold ring.

Actually, that’s not 100% true, because people can’t all agree. Different people will read these lines with different emphases. And the same people might even read them differently on different days! But we can probably all agree that if you came across this sentence randomly, you wouldn’t read it like this:

One day in a bird’s nest, I found a gold ring.

And that’s the struggle of rhyming picture books. So, what can you do?

First, scan your rhyming picture book manuscript. Scanning is when you study verse to find the meter in it—the meter that actually, naturally exists, not the meter the poet wants you to put into the words. My favorite directions for scanning are here: http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/markport/best/study/poetry.htm

Look at #7 and follow its orders, step by step. It’s not as hard as it looks, and it will soon become second nature if you’re a frequent rhymer. I would add to these directions: Start at the end of your manuscript, and scan your way through it backward. In other words, start with your last line and follow the directions above, one line at a time, working your way back to your beginning. Doing that helps keep you from imposing your desired meter on your piece.

Here are some other great resources for meter perfection:

Lane Fredrickson’s Rhyme Weaver website: http://rhymeweaver.com/

Interactive scanning tool at For Better or Verse, from the University of Virginia: http://prosody.lib.virginia.edu/

“Have You Got Rhythm?” by Jan Fields at the ICL site: http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/ws06/rhythm.shtml

“Rhymer’s Workshop” (a chat transcript) with Shelly Becker at the ICL site: http://www.institutechildrenslit.com/rx/tr01/sbecker.shtml

“The Wretched Curse of Rhyming Verse” blog post by Marlo Garnsworthy: http://cleverbirdy.blogspot.com/2011/07/wretched-curse-of-rhyming-verse.html

Examples of excellent rhyming books on two of my Pinterest Boards:
* Fun Rhyming Nonfiction:
http://pinterest.com/salaslp/fun-rhyming-nonfiction/
* Favorite Rhyming Picture Books: http://pinterest.com/salaslp/favorite-rhyming-picture-books/


For two months, immerse yourself in learning about meter and reading rhyming picture books with excellent meter. Then return to your manuscript. Re-read, re-feel, re-write!

Then find a new reader. Even with all your work, you’re still too close to your words and rhythm to really evaluate whether you’ve got the beat. Whenever I take a rhyming manuscript to my critique group for the first time, I have someone else read it aloud. Hearing where they pause, stumble, or have to make changes on the fly to accommodate my meter points out all the faults to me. Even more useful is finding people who aren’t writers or teachers to read your work aloud. And best of all is asking kids to read it. If five 10-year-old kids who are decent readers can read your rhyming picture book aloud without tripping over your words, you’ve done it! You’ve written a picture book with great meter.

Using spotless meter in your rhyming manuscript gives it a much better chance of being published! Have fun and good luck!


(This essay is part of a forthcoming ebook called How To Avoid Ten Common Picture Book Pitfalls. This Children’s Writer Insider Guide will be available in Kindle form from Mentors for Rent: www.MentorsForRent.com.)


7 comments:

  1. Laura - that's a very good point about the rhymer making text fit the established meter. I know I am guilty of that sometimes. Good advice about reading it backwards!

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    1. Oh, me, too, BJ. Me, too! Hope you find the backward-reading helps:>)

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  2. Laura, what a delightful information-packed post. I had no idea there are so many resources to perfect meter. I am a moon, spoon, June poet and love to scribble out rhyming poems. I am not a picture book writer, but you made good points for those of us who write poems for fun and read poems to listeners. Best wishes with your new release!!

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    1. Thanks, J Q Rose. And you're right--the same applies to all rhyming, metered verse. I love your description of yourself as "a moon, spoon, June poet." That should be your slogan!

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  3. Laura,
    wow, what a great post. I now have a term for the poetic condition I knew I've had all along: "desired meter imposition"
    It's why I always read critiques of my rhyme and mumble to myself, "Hmmmph. You're supposed to read it like THIS. Hmmpph."
    Thanks...what a valuable link to the scanning exercise. Thanks so much.

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    1. Thanks so much! Luckily, the condition (which I suffer from regularly) is curable. The treatment is just kind of a pain:>) So glad you found some of this helpful!

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  4. Great tips. I am beginning to see and hear the stresses. It will take lots of practice for me because it does not come naturally. I also appreciate the links. Will be visiting this page often for a reference point.

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