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Writing in Rhyme

by Laura Backes

Dr. Seuss did it, and in the process changed the face of the
publishing industry and became a beloved household name to
children for several generations. So why do so many editors say
they don't want stories written in rhyme?

Writing in Rhyme

 

Many beginning writers ask about this well-known submission
"Don't". The truth is, some publishers do have a strict policy
against rhyming stories--they simply don't publish them. But most
would snap up a good rhyming story in seconds. The problem is
that reading bad rhyme is like listening to nails on a
blackboard, and it's so easy to write bad rhyme. So if editors
say they don't like stories in verse it's probably a way of
discouraging the people who don't know what they're doing.

The mistake many writers make is that they make the rhyme more
important than the story. All picture books, regardless of the
format, consist of characters and a plot. The plot ideally starts
at the moment where everyday life for the main character changes
from ordinary to extraordinary. The story proceeds through the
extraordinary events the character faces, and his or her efforts
to return life back to normal. Once this happens, the story ends
immediately.

Like prose, rhyme must contain only those words necessary to tell
the story, and nothing more. And like prose, rhyme shouldn't get
bogged down on description--it's the illustrator's job to show
how characters and places look. Nor should the verse get stuck on
the feelings, thoughts or dialogue of one character. The story
must always keep moving. Action, and concrete--rather than
abstract--events, make up the plot.

When the rhyme becomes more important than the story, it has a
whirlpool effect. The author starts describing a character or
writing dialogue, and in order to keep the rhyme pattern going,
the description or dialogue goes on and on, circling over the
same ground without any hope of moving on. Or, the author inserts
cliches, nonsense words, or simply lines that make no sense, just
because they rhyme. None of these mistakes--which would obviously
be unacceptable in prose--can be disguised by a sprightly meter.

Take a look at the following verses from Mary Ann Hoberman's "And
to Think That We Thought That We'd Never Be Friends" (Crown), and
see how she combines character and plot development with concrete
action from the first lines:

   One day we were playing outside in our yard
   When my brother got mad and he pushed me so hard
   That I pushed him right back--with all of my might--
   And quick as a wink we were having a fight!

   We thwacked and we whacked and we walloped away,
   And we still might be fighting to this very day,
   Pinching and punching, my brother and I,
   If only our sister had not happened by.

Stories in verse, like their prose counterparts, also must have a
distinct voice. The rhythm of the verse, which combines elements
like word choice and length of the lines, goes a long way toward
creating a tone for each story. In the above example, from the
first line the reader knows this will be a fast-paced yarn,
probably exaggerated by the teller. The longer lines and internal
rhyme give the impression of a tall tale.

Verla Kay writes what she calls "cryptic rhyme", in which each
verse paints a vivid picture for the reader. The words themselves
carry the reader from image to image, building a story with
almost no full sentences. She uses this technique to write
historical fiction picture books. And while at first glance her
text appears to be virtually all description, it's necessary
description because her goal is to bring the past alive for the
reader in a very sensory way. The short lines convey emotion, as
in this excerpt from "Gold Fever" (Putnam), in which Kay uses a
miner's clothes to convey his despair when he fails to strike it
rich:

   Crusty long johns,
   Smelly shirt,
   Sweat-stained britches,
   Caked with dirt.


If you love writing in verse, don't be intimidated by the
nay-sayers. But realize that you have your work cut out for you.
Not only do you have to master all the techniques of writing good
books, you also have to learn to be a poet. Take the time to do
it right, and you'll get past the slush pile.


Laura Backes is the author of the just-released "Best Books for
Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read" from Prima Publishing.  She's
also the publisher of Children's Book  Insider, the Newsletter for
Children's Writers.  For more information about writing
children's books, including  free articles, market tips, insider
secrets and much more, visit  Children's Book Insider's home on
the web at http://write4kids.com

Copyright 2001, Children's Book Insider, LLC

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