Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Trouble with Writing a Picture Book Manuscript in Verse

Yesterday I presented at a writer’s conference with Rick Walton in Salt Lake City. Rick and I discussed topics such as what makes a good picture book, picture book structure, how to market your manuscript, etc. Participants got to pass out a manuscript to the group and get a thorough critique.


I remember one particular manuscript vividly, because the writing style was somewhat similar to my own. There was rhythm, rhyme, and word play. Every line of text was filled with internal rhymes that made the reader do a vocal fox trot. Fun. The trouble was that the story itself had some problems. It was a bit too complex for a picture book and needed editing. Maybe a whole lot of editing. But if she whittled away the complex stuff and stuck with her silly, core story, she might just have a fabulous chance with it.

Yet I heaved a sigh for this writer.

A heavy sigh.

That’s because verse can be so terribly tricky to write in the first place. In order to make the sweeping changes we were suggesting, I knew she was not only going to have to edit and refocus her story, but she would have to start all over again picking apart the rhyming words and finding new ones to fit the revised plot. It was like we’d just taken her finished jigsaw puzzle and dumped it all over the floor. I know how that feels.

If you write in rhyme and enjoy playing with words like I do, you know what I mean. I’ve often spent hours on a single word in a rhyming manuscript. Each one has to fit into the meter you’ve set up, which means the word must have the right cadence and the right stressed syllable. It really is like working on a jigsaw puzzle of letters and sounds.

Writing in verse creates layers of additional work when you revise the manuscript. And using internal rhyme creates more layers. For example, COOL DADDY RAT was particularly challenging because when an editor suggested the rat “needed a girlfriend,” (and there wasn’t one already in the text), adding her upset all my word dominoes. Now I’d have to say different things in the story, which would call for new rhyming words, which would call for new internal rhymes to match them. Later, when I was told the girlfriend didn’t work and I decided to add Ace, the dominoes were upset again: new things to say, new rhyming words, new internal rhymes to match.

So if you’ve decided to write a children’s book manuscript in verse, think first about the reasons why. Rhyme should feel integral to the story so that it somehow compliments or facilitates the action. For example, in COOL DADDY RAT, I used scat verse to liven up the text and put the reader into the jazzy music scene. When you read the manuscript, you are right there, performing with the characters. In BEDTIME AT THE SWAMP, the repeated refrain is a scary sound heard by the characters in the story. If you’re writing in rhyme for no particular reason, I’d suggest you rethink. It’s just too tedious to revise. Besides, you’ll have to make sure of the following:

1. You haven’t become a slave to the verse, choosing words you wouldn’t otherwise consider, just because you’ve gotta rhyme the thing.

2. You haven’t made it so predictable and cheesy it sounds like a television jingle.


3. It’s not monotonous like a music box that repeats the same goofy tune.

4. That the words flow easily, even for your most rhythmically-challenged readers. Nobody should “trip” their tongue on the text.

5. That it wouldn’t just--darn it—be better in prose.

6. That the editor wants to see rhyme. Many say they don't.


If you do decide to take on the challenge of writing in verse, create a good skeletal outline of your story BEFORE working through the tricky mechanics of the rhyme. If your basic story premise doesn’t work, you’ll eventually end up with your puzzle pieces on the floor.

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