Rhyme and/or prose?
First off, let me say, if you don’t feel you have to tell your story in rhyme—DON’T! It’s hard to do right—and prose may be the better choice. Besides, some editors are prejudiced against rhyming books, not because kids don’t love rhyme, but because they see so much bad rhyme. Unfortunately, bad rhyme is much easier to write!
Even if you feel your story must be in rhyme, consider writing it in prose first. That way, you can concentrate on how the story should go. You’ll also find out what words you choose to use to best tell your story.
This will help you eliminate some of the pitfalls of rhyming texts. It’s all too tempting to let what rhymes dictate what happens next in the story. And instead of choosing the best word, you may go with the rhyming word.
But once you have the story down in prose, look at the words you may want to emphasize by putting them at the end of a line. Words that have lots of possible rhymes—or even one rhyme that is relevant to you story—can go at the end of rhyming lines. Using one of the many online rhyming dictionaries will give you the full range of possibilities.
Do everything you can to use only perfect rhymes. Drawing examples from my latest rhyming (non-fiction!) picture book, Way Down Below Deep, eyes and size and herd and blurred are perfect rhymes, as are assistand resist and seeing and fleeing. Anyone can rhyme moon and June—strive for an unexpected rhyme to surprise and delight your readers.
Realistically, though, when you’re trying to get across information or telling a story, you may need to use an imperfect or slant rhyme once in a while. Worms and turns furnish one example of slant rhymes; multitudes and food furnish another. You can maybe get away with one or two slant rhymes in the course of a picture book manuscript, but the rest should be perfect to get an editor’s attention.
When you’re putting a text in rhyme from prose, try to keep mentally flexible. You’ll get better at getting in this zone the more you do it. There are many ways to say whatever you want to say. Some of them are natural-sounding and kid-like, and some aren’t. (Inverting subject-verb order or adjective-noun order is almost never a good idea, for example.)
Have you got rhythm?
Many authors focus on making a text rhyme and forget that a regular rhythm is equally important. Poetry without rhythm is like music without a beat.
Rhythm comes from the accented and unaccented (or stressed and unstressed) syllables of the words. They may come in pairs of STRESSED/unstressed as they do in these lines from my On a Windy Night:
THROUGH dark WOODS and DOWN a HILL,
The BOY walks FAST—and FASTer STILL.
Each of the lines typically has four such pairs, or feet.
That works well as the story picks up speed as the boy’s panic sets in. When his fears prove to be unfounded at the end, I switched to a more leisurely rhythm of unstressed/unstressed/stressed for the first and third “feet” of the first line:
When the CLOUDS roll BY, a full MOON shines BRIGHT.
Whatever rhythm you choose, it’s important to set up a pattern—and stick to it. When I’m writing rhyme, or critiquing someone else’s, I put a short vowel mark over unstressed syllables and a long vowel mark over stressed syllables as I read it out loud. Then I mark off the feet and see what the pattern is and how well each stanza adheres. A few exceptions are allowed, and may even help make it less sing-songy, but only a few.
Sometimes an author “fudges” when reading his or her own work to make it fit the intended pattern. It helps to have someone else read your work. Listen for places your designated reader trips or tries to accent the wrong syl-LAB-le. A critique group is invaluable for catching these places!
Coming up with a text that tells your story with the right pacing, the perfect words, AND has regular rhyme and rhythm is like completing a really tough jigsaw puzzle. It took me 8 years to get On a Windy Night to its published state. But, oh, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally feel like you’ve nailed it makes it all worthwhile!
Writing in rhyme can be freeing too. Pick a favorite story written in prose, now give it a twist and make it rhyme. Or do the opposite.
Nancy Raines Day’s What in the World? Numbers in Nature, to be published by Beach Lane Books this fall, will be her fifth (out of nine) rhyming picture book. She is also a freelance editor specializing in critiquing picture books for SCBWI members.
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2015 Summer Sparks post:
- Family Celebration by Tracey M. Cox
- Back Where I Come From by Tracey M. Cox
- The Benefits of Playdough: Molding your PB Idea Into A Story by Donna L. Martin
- Go Jump In a Lake by Tracey M. Cox
- Take a Vacay! by Tracey M. Cox
- How to Rhyme Right in a Picture Book Manuscript by Nancy Raines Day
- Don’t You Know that You Are a Shooting Star? by Tracey M. Cox
- Sun Burst by Tracey M. Cox
- Writing Tips from the Big Bad Writer by Pat Miller
- Get Out! by Tracey M. Cox
- Pieces by Tracey M. Cox
- Make Your Non-Fiction Leap Off the Page! by Jennifer Swanson
- Do the Twist by Tracey M. Cox
- Celebrate! by Tracey M. Cox