Happy December, Everyone!
I hope you all had wonderful Thanksgivings and beginnings of Hanukkah and weekends with your families!
I must say, the morning run the last couple days has been more of a morning roll… I blame the pie 🙂
Today’s post is a long one, but I think you’ll find it very educational and worthwhile! The incomparable Linda Ashman kindly offered to do a Rhyme Clinic, since rhyme can be very tricky indeed! I think we’ll all be able to learn a thing or two. And it’s kind of appropriate to be doing such a special post today because it is my 3rd Blogiversary! (Well, technically that was yesterday – but we were all sleeping off pie, so let’s celebrate today… with some cake!… which I shall make coffee cake in deference to the hour and the fact that we should go light after the Thanksgiving weekend feasting :))
And while we’re at it, I think some confetti would be appropriate, don’t you? It’s not every day you celebrate a blogiversary with someone as famous as Linda to guest post 🙂
Alrighty then! Now that we are fortified with snack and covered in confetti, take it away, Linda!
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I’ll begin with a confession: Although I’ve critiqued many rhyming manuscripts over the years, I’ve never done a Rhyme Clinic via blog post. So, a huge thank you to the intrepid Susanna for being game to try this.
And thank you to everyone who submitted manuscripts. I really enjoyed reading them, and am sorry I couldn’t use them all. I chose manuscripts which would allow me to answer frequently asked questions and address common issues that bedevil writers of rhyme. I’ll be sharing parts of them in just a minute—but, first, a quick intro.
In The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, I go into some detail about meter, feet, and how to avoid “Crimes of Rhyme.” Given our limited space here, let me just mention three of the most commonly committed crimes:
1. Letting rhyme trump story. Sometimes we focus so much on making rhymes that we lose sight of the story. The result? Confusing plot lines, poetic detours, and “random” rhymes that don’t move your story forward.
2. Unnatural phrasing. It’s tempting to use rarely-heard words or twist sentences into awkward contortions in order to make a rhyme. If it’s not a phrase you’d actually say, it probably shouldn’t go in your story.
3. “Off” Meter. Writing rhythmic verse involves more than counting the syllables in each line. You need to pay attention to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. There are different names for these patterns—which I won’t go into here—but the main point is to be aware of the pattern and be (mostly) consistent in using it. You also want to pay attention to “feet” – the number of times the pattern is repeated in a line. Tracking this pattern line by line is called “scanning” your verse—something writers of rhyme should know how to do.
In discussing the meter of rhyming manuscripts, I’ll use ALL CAPS for stressed syllables, and lower case for unstressed. For example:
twas the NIGHT / before CHRIST / mas and ALL / through the HOUSE
has a “da da DUM da da DUM” (anapestic) pattern. This pattern is repeated four times in one line, for four feet. (By the way, putting stressed syllables in all caps doesn’t mean we shout those syllables when we read them—the emphasis should be discernible, but subtle.)
Okay, that’s it for the quick intro. Let’s read some rhyme, shall we?
Our first example is from Winnie Brews a Witchy Stew by Rosi Hollinbeck. Winnie’s mom isn’t feeling well, so Winnie decides to make stew—but a crucial ingredient is harder to come by than she realized.
Winnie’s mom is sick in bed.
With an awfully achy head
Caused by her pointy hat.
Supper is near, it’s time to cook.
So Winnie scans her big cook book
For things to fill her vat.
She finds a recipe for cake
That calls for boiled rattlesnake
It doesn’t sound quite right.
Cold spider soup with extra mud
Needs a cup of green toad blood
But has to cook all night.
So Winnie wracks her witchy brain.
She pages through the book again
And finds the perfect thing.
She checks to see what is at hand.
Sure her stew will be quite grand.
She just needs one bat wing.
She fills her vat with lizards’ feet
Adds chopped jumping spider meat
Spiced up with dried swamp scum.
Nettles, stinkweed, fried toad warts,
Black squid ink – six or seven quarts,
And pickled fish eyes –Yum!
Yum, indeed! Anyone hungry? Rosi does something interesting with her rhyme pattern: the first two lines rhyme with each other, then the third rhymes with the third line in the next stanza, and so on. Because she’s consistent about it, it works. Still, I can’t help thinking that third line lands rather heavily and interrupts the flow of the story. What do others think?
Rosi also does a nice job of keeping her meter (mostly) consistent, alternating one stressed and one unstressed syllable (DUM da / DUM da / DUM da / DUM)—or vice-verse—throughout. I stumbled—slightly—in just a couple of places. For example, in the second stanza, she breaks the prevailing pattern with “SUP per is NEAR” (DUM da da DUM). This is easily fixed by using a contraction: SUPper’s NEAR.
I stumbled slightly over the next line as well. Because of the rhyme pattern, I want to say: “so WINnie SCANS her BIG cook BOOK.” But that sounds unnatural because, in speaking, we say “COOK book”, not “cook BOOK.” I’d suggest changing it to something like “WINnie SCANS her GIant BOOK” (the context and illustrations will show that it’s a cook book).
I also tripped over the sixth stanza. The first line sounds unnatural (in speaking, we’d say “She checks to see what’s at hand” (which, unfortunately, doesn’t work with the rhyme pattern), not “She checks to see what is at hand). And the third line has the same problem as the cook book example. Because of the meter, I want to say “bat WING” but, in speech, we’d say “BAT wing.”
A few other lines were troublesome: “Adds chopped jumping spider meat” is a mouthful, and the rhythm is off for “BLACK squid INK – SIX or SEVen QUARTS”. The latter is an easy fix with something like “BLACK squid INK—a DOZen QUARTS.”
Overall, though, Rosi’s rhyme and rhythm are good. My bigger concern is with the story’s pacing. Although a witch’s house is a great setting, Winnie spends the first nine stanzas (of a 24-stanza story) in her kitchen trying to decide what to make, then mixing up various ingredients. When Winnie goes off to a cave in search of a bat wing (in the 10thstanza), things start to get more interesting. Rosi might consider condensing these early stanzas and making them more active and visual. Instead of staying in the kitchen, for example, Winnie might actively collect her ingredients—dig up snail shells, climb a tree for an owl feather, hunt through her dusty attic, etc.
1. Try writing it in 4-line stanzas to see how it changes the rhythm and story.
2. Scan the rhyme to make sure it’s consistent.
3. Strive for natural phrasing.
4. Condense the beginning stanzas, vary the scenery, and get to Winnie’s problem sooner.
Now let’s look at a different sort of manuscript. Anteater Saves Gas, Zebra Recycles Trash: A Green Alphabet is a concept book—an alphabestiary with an environmental twist (the author, Nancy, requested I use only her first name):
Anteater saves gas
riding her bike to class.
Bear buys his trash pail
at a garage sale.
Cheetah checks her meter,
then turns down the heater.
Donkey collects rain
pouring down his drain.
Elephant swings higher
in her recycled tire.
Fox lends to friends
his odds and ends.
Giraffe has great advice:
Use sheets of paper twice.
Hyena donates toys
to other girls and boys.
I like the active language (all those great verbs!), illustration potential, and the short, catchy rhymes. The main issue, rhyme-wise, is the meter. Many of the stanzas don’t have a discernible rhyme pattern, and there’s no predominant meter for the manuscript overall. Because this is a concept book—and we’re focused on each page as opposed to an ongoing story—Nancy may not need to use the same meter for all the stanzas. However, each stanza should be rhythmic and follow some sort of pattern.
Let’s start with what works. In the last two stanzas of our sample, Nancy uses a consistent iambic trimeter (three feet of “da DUM”):
gi RAFFE / has GREAT / ad VICE:
use SHEETS / of PA / per TWICE.
hy E / na DO / nates TOYS
to OTH / er GIRLS / and BOYS.
Excellent! Now let’s look at the first stanza:
ANT eat er saves GAS
RI ding her / BIKE to / CLASS.
The three unstressed syllables in the first line make it hard to know how to divide the line into feet. Part of the problem comes from using anteater (DUM da da) to lead things off. It might be easier to use a different animal—like aardvark, for example. If Nancy wanted to keep the three feet pattern of the giraffe and hyena stanzas, she might try something like this:
AARDvark / RIDES to / CLASS
(and) SAVES a / LOT of / GAS.
The illustrations could show aardvark on a bike, so it wouldn’t need to be spelled out in the text.
I like Nancy’s “B” stanza:
BEAR buys his / TRASH pail
AT a gar / AGE sale.
Because Nancy uses the same pattern in each line (DUM da da / DUM da ), it has a nice rhythm to it. It’s a different pattern than the others we’ve looked at, which—as I mentioned—may not matter so much in a concept book. But if Nancy wants to maintain a pattern of three feet per line, she might try something like this:
BADGer / BUYS his / TRASH pail
SHOPping / AT a / YARD sale.
I also tripped over the rhythm of the elephant (a rhythmically troublesome word like anteater) and fox stanzas. Here’s the latter:
FOX lends to / FRIENDS
his ODDS / and ENDS.
This feels abrupt to me (I keep wanting to say “his odds and his ends,” which sounds more rhythmic but doesn’t make sense). Again, if Nancy wants to aim for three feet per line, she could try something like:
FOX lends / TO his / FRIENDS
(a)SSORT ed / ODDS and / ENDS.
1. Try to find a rhyme pattern that you like and stick with it. Because it’s a concept book, it’s probably okay to have some variation in the rhyme pattern among the stanzas (what do others think about this?)—but each stanza should have a pattern.
2. The best stanzas (like giraffe) are natural-sounding. Most of your stanzas sound natural, but a few are awkward (for example, later in the text: Kangaroo’s magnet can feel / if a car is made of steel.)
3. In my book M is for Mischief: An A to Z of Naughty Children, I wrote an introductory stanza and a wrap-up stanza to make the collection feel more cohesive. You might consider doing something similar.
Since I’ve already used a lot of space here, I’m going to speed through a couple of examples from two other manuscripts. For each manuscript, I’ll pick out two stanzas—a strong one and a weaker one.
Verse that works/Verse that needs work.
Our first example comes from Sylvester Johnson Ate a Slug by Pat Haapaniemi. I’ll start with the stanza that needs work because it’s the first one of the story:
Sylvester Johnson ate a slug,
all squiggly and alive.
He’s never done a thing like that
although he’s only five.
I like this stanza—the rhythm, the language, the evocative imagery (yuck!)—but was thrown by the last line. The “although” is confusing. Should he have eaten a slug by age five? This feels like a “random rhyme”—the sort we use when we can’t find a better one. Sometimes you can get away with it, but I’d recommend changing this one—you don’t want your reader to be confused, especially so early in the story.
This stanza from Pat is much better:
His mother brushed and scrubbed his teeth
And made him gargle twice,
Then took him to professionals
To ask for their advice.
Here the rhyme sounds natural (I love when a multi-syllabic word like “professionals” works with your rhyme scheme), there’s good action, and it leads nicely into the next part of the story—the various experts’ theories on why Sylvester would do such a nasty thing.
For our second speedy example, I’ve pulled two stanzas from Midsummer Mischief by Joanna Marple. This time I’ll start with the stanza that (mostly) works:
On tippy toe paws, like cats on the prowl
crept Bear and his friends – Mouse, Squirrel and Owl.
I really like the language in the first line of this stanza—it’s rhythmic, evocative, and I love the sound of “tippy toe paws.” I love it so much that it pained me to realize there’s a slight problem with it: owls don’t have paws. Perhaps Joanne can keep the “tippy toe” but get rid of the “paws.”
Here’s the one that needs work:
Fox sank in tears, “I’m a right soggy mess!”
Prankish adventures were his to confess.
The second line is one of those awkward contortions we sometimes do to make a rhyme. In speaking, we wouldn’t use such a phrase. We’d say “Fox confessed to his pranks” or the like. Again, if you wouldn’t say it, you probably shouldn’t include it in your story.
So does all this seem a bit obsessive—and perhaps a mite tedious? Well, yes, it can be. But trying to find the perfect word—one that works rhythmically, sounds natural, AND moves your story forward—is what makes writing in rhyme so much fun (or not, depending on your perspective).
By the way, if my brief explanation of meter and feet left you more confused than enlightened, I highly recommend the following:
I fear I’ve made this post WAY too long, so I’ll wrap this up with a mantra for rhyme-writers: Be clear, be concise, be rhythmic, be natural.
Again, thanks for your submissions (and sorry I couldn’t include them all), and thank you, Susanna, for having me!
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Thank YOU so much for joining us today, Linda, and for kindly offering your expertise! I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say it’s been a great learning experience. And I know I’ve mentioned this before, but Linda’s Nuts & Bolts Guide is terrific! I’ve read it and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to
buy themselves ask for a holiday gift 🙂
See you here on Wednesday for Would You Read It. And for anyone who might have missed them in the craziness of the past week, the Holiday Gift Guide for Writers is HERE
and the guidelines for the Holiday Writing Contest (with great prizes including 2 of Linda’s picture books!) are HERE
Have a marvelous Monday, everyone!
Linda Ashman’s more than two dozen picture books have earned numerous honors and starred reviews, and have been included on the “Best of the Year” lists of The New York Times, Parenting, Child, and Cookie magazines, Bank Street College of Education, the New York Public Library, and more. As a children’s poet, she’s been compared to Ogden Nash, Mary Ann Hoberman, Douglas Florian, and Jack Prelutsky. She’s taught a variety of workshops on writing for children, and is the author of The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a “how to” handbook for picture book writers.