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Posts Tagged ‘Debbie Diesen’

I am so excited to welcome our May 12 x 12 featured author, Debbie Diesen! Two of her books, The Pout-Pout Fish and its companion, The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big Big Dark, are two of my kids’ all-time favorite picture books. My son asks me to read one or the other of them (if not both) at least once a week. Furthermore, Debbie is one of my rhyming heroes. She can wield that meter like nobody’s business. So you can imagine how excited I was when she offered to do a post on the nitty-gritty of rhyming! I’m here to tell you that this will be one of the best blog tutorials EVER on the art of writing in rhyme. And last, but not least, she hails from Michigan – my home state. What more could you want in an author? A critique from her, you say? Well, one lucky 12 x 12 participant is going to win just that! See the end of this post for instructions on entering. Now, please welcome Debbie!

The Beat Goes On — Or, How To Be A Meter Reader: Identifying Rhythm Troublespots In Your Rhyming Picture Book Story

I love to write in rhyme.  Who doesn’t?  Writing in rhyme combines the joy of story, the fun of words, and the delight of music, all in one.

But writing in rhyme can be exceedingly frustrating.  Frustration usually crops up early in the writing process, because it’s challenging to carry through a story idea in a rhyming format without resorting to sentence structure gymnastics and/or Lame Rhymes.  But often the bigger load of frustration arrives just when you think you’re done:  when you discover that, despite your countless hours of work, the word song you hear in your head hasn’t translated to the page.

Maybe your critique group tells you, “something’s wrong in the second stanza” or “that refrain doesn’t sound right to me.”  What?  I thought it was perfect!  Or maybe an editor tells you, “this doesn’t quite scan.”  Yet try as you might, you can’t pinpoint what it is they’re not getting.  To your ear, it flows effortlessly!  Why does it sound so different when someone else reads it?

If you’re in this situation (and we’ve all been there; in fact, that’s pretty much where I live…), what you will need to do is detach for a while from your storyline, and focus instead on the mechanics of your story’s rhythm.  To do this, you’ll need a baton (and, optionally, a drum corps shako), a pen, a highlighter, and a colored pencil.

Let’s get down to work, shall we?

1.  Find your inner band leader 

To get started identifying problems with your rhyming story’s meter, grab your baton, step back from your story for a moment, and think about the rhythm that defines it.  Go ahead and use the baton.  If you don’t know what to do with it, just flail it around a little.  Snap your fingers.  Tap your toes.  Sing.  Hum.  Whatever works for you.

Your story may have more than one defining rhythm (for instance, one rhythm for the verses, and one for the refrain), but generally speaking, you’ll have one main identifiable rhythm structure.  As you wield your baton, ask yourself:  How many accented beats do I have in a phrase?  How many nonstressed syllables do I have between accented beats?  Do my phrases start on an accented beat, or on an unaccented syllable?

Maybe your rhythm (numbers showing the accented beats) is…

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

Or perhaps it’s…

1 and-a 2 and-a 3 and-a 4 and-a

Or it could be…

1 ee-and-a 2 ee-and-a 3 ee-and-a 4 ee-and-a

Or maybe…

and-a-1 and-a-2 and-a-3 and-a-4

Or, instead of 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s, you might have just 1s and 2s.  Or maybe 1s and 2s and 3s.  Or maybe you have regular variation between –ands and –ee-and-as.  When you look at all the variations, the possibilities are nearly endless.  But you don’t have to contemplate every possible rhythm!  You simply need to identify your story’s rhythm, so that you can commit to it.

Another aspect of your commitment is knowing how your beat loops from line to line.  Is it steady throughout each line of the stanza?  Or do you have a rest beat at the end of your rhyming lines, and/or at the end of the stanza?

For instance, your stanza might sound like:

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

But it could well sound like:

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3. [rest]

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

1 and 2 and 3. [rest]

You may be able to analyze your defining rhythm in a snap, or you may need to invest some time, especially if it’s more complicated than just 1 and 2 and 3 and 4.  But once you’re ready (and/or if you grow tired of wearing your old band uniform) it’s time to…

  1. 2.  Put down your baton and grab a pen.

Once you’re confident of understanding your story’s intended rhythm structure, read your story aloud.  As you go, mark on the page how your ears hear the cadence of the lines you’ve written.

When I do this with my own manuscripts, I use a box around accented beats and an underline under unaccented syllables.  After marking up a line, it might look like this.

[ ]  __    __  [ ]  __    __  [ ]  __    __  [ ]  __    __

(Note:  I haven’t figured out how to make a box symbol in WordPress, so squint a little at each bracket pair to magically transform it into a box.)

When you’re finished marking up your whole story, go back to the beginning.  Ignore the words, and just focus on the boxes and lines.  Read those out loud (using your own choice of sound effects for the two kinds of markings.  I recommend a big booming bass drum sound for the accented beats, while sitting next to an open window; because if you haven’t scared the neighbors yet with your quirky writer habits, isn’t it about time?).

As you “read” your rhythm out loud, how does it sound without the words?  Think about the rhythm that you identified as being the defining rhythm of your story (in Step 1).  Are you actually carrying out the rhythm you had in mind?  Are there slight inconsistencies?  Big inconsistencies?  Are there places you fall into a different rhythm entirely?  As you identify spots where your story’s beat doesn’t carry through exactly as you meant it to, you may have found places in need of revision.

However, a word of caution:  Some rhythms allow for – to my mind, even demand — a bit of wiggle room in terms of unaccented syllables.  Small variations that don’t interfere with the overall rhythm but do tweak it a bit to highlight and elongate certain spots in the text can sometimes actually benefit your story.  To explain what I mean, let’s look at the first stanza of my story The Pout-Pout Fish.  It reads as follows:

Deep in the water

Where the fish hang out

Lives a glum, gloomy swimmer

With an ever-present pout.

The meter of this stanza is not flawless.   Though my defining beat structure centers around a [ ]  __    __   __  rhythm, in fact, there are  also  [ ]  __    __   beats and even a  [ ]  __   beat.  To keep to the [ ]  __    __   __    perfectly, I’d need something along the lines of:

Deep down in the water where the ocean fish hang out, there lives a glum and gloomy swimmer with an everpresent pout.

Does that revision scan better?  Arguably, Yes.  A computer voice could read it and not miss a beat.  But for a human, is it as fun to say?  For me, the answer is No.  In its unrelenting adherence to regular meter, it sounds annoyingly sing-songy.  Plus it takes away the fun of popping out and holding certain words, like “deep” and “fish.”

So, as in all things, you as the writer must be the best judge of what works for your story.

But while you’re contemplating that, it’s time to:

3.  Put down your pen and find a highlighter.

Go back to the beginning of your manuscript.  Use the same copy that you marked up with the boxes and lines, but ignore them for now.  Instead, focus on the words that are more than one syllable.  With your highlighter, highlight each multisyllabic word’s accented syllable.  (In a few cases, you may have a word with two accented syllables.)  Do not highlight any of the single syllable words.

Put your highlighter down.  (It’s OK to still be wearing your shako.)  Now go page by page, and look at each highlighted segment.

Do the highlighted spots all have boxes around them from the previous step?  That is, do the natural stresses in the multisyllabic words you’ve used in your story correspond in fact to the way your ear desires the beat of the story to fall?

If you have places in your story where you have highlighting without a box, these are areas you need to scrutinize.  They might be trouble.  You may be asking the impossible of your reader:  to ignore a word’s stressed syllable, perhaps in order to put the beat on the word’s unstressed syllable.  Definitely not recommended.

But again, this problem-identification method comes with a cautionary note:  Though these spots may well be problem spots for your story, don’t assume in all cases that you’ve got a clunker!  For instance, in my stanza above, the phrase “glum, gloomy swimmer”, which my ear hears as  [ ]  __    __   [ ]  __,   would show highlighting not only in the “swim-” box but also on the underlined, unaccented “gloo-.”  Potential problem for my rhythm, right?  I don’t want an accented beat on “gloo-.”  But in the actual context of the stanza, most readers do not give any particular stress to “gloo-” when reading aloud.  To my knowledge, it hasn’t tripped anybody up.

So you don’t necessarily need to change all, or even any, of the highlighted-but-not-boxed spots you find.  That said, you should scrutinize them very carefully.  Depending on what your basic rhythm structure is, these places have the potential to derail your cadence entirely.

Finished with that?  Now go back through again.  This time, look at all the boxed spots that don’t have highlighting.  Boxed spots without highlighting are places where you’re expecting your reader to put the beat – but the words themselves don’t demand it.  In many cases, your reader will have no trouble putting the beat in the right spot, especially if the words are in the latter half of a line or in a later part of the story, after your rhythm has been very clearly established.  But if you’ve got a long string of single syllable words at the beginning of your story or at the beginning of a line, your reader may flounder to find your drum beat.  Worse yet, left to his or her own devices, your reader might put stress in a place that you didn’t expect, which will throw off the rhythm of the entire line, perhaps even the whole stanza.   So go through all of these areas carefully.  They are potential danger zones that may need more cueing (through use of multisyllabic words that provide ready-made stress spots) for your reader.

At this point, you’re nearly done – but you still have one more sweep to do.

4.  Last but absolutely not least…

In a rhyming story, your rhymes must pass rhythm muster!  Go back through your story one last time, this time with your colored pencil, and circle all your end rhymes.  Scrutinize each rhyming set, keeping in mind that to rhyme rhythmically, it’s not enough that the words end with the same final syllable sound.  Instead, the last stressed syllable and everything that comes after the last stressed syllable must rhyme.

For instance, though the word “bunny”  has an -ee sound at the end, it’s not enough to have a rhyme for just the –ee sound.  Bunny does not rhyme with chickadee, even though they both end with an –ee sound.  Your rhyme must include the UN- sound (which has the stress) and the –ee.  Think funny, sunny, money, etc.

A good rhyming dictionary, such as The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary by Sue Young, can guide you through finding fun and rhythmically appropriate rhymes to use in your story.

Final Thoughts

 I hope these tips may be of some help to you in pinpointing potential rhythm troublespots in your rhyming story.  But remember that they aren’t offered prescriptively.  These are not rules you must adhere to.  Instead they are simply tools to add your toolbelt and use as needed.

Further, I’m quite sure that if you look you’ll be able to find much better explanations of scansion techniques, written by folks with much more knowledge of the ins and outs of poetic meter than I have.  These you should seek out and add to your toolbelt as well.

Because the more you know, the more confidently you can hold your baton.

And the better you keep the beat, the more gloriously your story will sing!

Debbie Diesen lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. She is the author of three rhyming picture books — The Pout-Pout FishThe Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark), and The Barefooted, Bad-Tempered, Baby Brigade. You can find Debbie at her website, her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

Participants – to enter to win a critique from Debbie, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of May for one point.  On May 31st, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog.  If you completed a picture book draft in May, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point.  I will draw a winner using Random.org and announce on June 2nd.

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Since Debbie Diesen was kind enough to have me as a guest blogger this week, I figured I’d share the book of hers that my kids so adore, The Pout-Pout Fish.

Written by Debbie Diesen, Illustrated by Dan Hana
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, March, 2008
Suitable for:  Ages 2-8
Themes/Topics:  Ocean, Fish, Moods, Friendship
Opening and brief synopsis:
Deep in the water,
Mr. Fish swims about
With his fish face stuck
In a permanent pout.
Can Mr. Fish get rid of his “dreary wearies,” or is he doomed to gloom forever?
Activities:  Debbie Diesen’s website contains a list of curriculum ideas and activities, all available for free.  She also provides links to the illustrator Dan Hanna’s many add-on activities, including live Pout-Pout films!
Why I Like This Book: I love that my kids love it, and that they say the refrain with me: “I’m a Pout-Pout fish with a Pout-Pout face, so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. BLUB…. BLUUUB… BLUUUUUUUB” (they especially love the blubs!) 🙂 

For more books with resources please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog and find the tab for Perfect Picture Books!

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If you’ve been on my blog at all this week, you know I’m in the middle of an impromptu blog tour to promote my MeeGenius Author’s Challenge story, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS.  As such, I’m taking a week hiatus from posting on The Artist’s Way.  I am still doing my morning pages to keep the consistency, but I just didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to take on Chapter 5 in the midst of this contest.  So I’ll be back with that next week.

In the meantime, I’m honored to be guest posting over at Jumping The Candlestick today – blog of Michigan picture book author Debbie Diesen.  This is particularly special because my kids love her book, THE POUT-POUT FISH so much that she is a true-blue celebrity to them.  So now they think I’m really hot stuff.  I’m sure that will last for about 2 whole minutes.  Anyway, drop by and say hi if you can!

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VOTE FOR MY STORY HERE!

If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll know I’m running a contest to promote my entry for the MeeGenius Children’s Author Challenge, and that marketing guru Laura Barnes gave me some great advice.  Today I am implementing another one of her suggestions, which was to try to do a last minute mini blog tour. Please stop by and visit these wonderful bloggers who took me on at the very last minute!

A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS: Blog Tour Schedule

Monday: Laura Barnes at Laura B. Writer shares the details and rationale behind the marketing and promotion advice she gave me.  GREAT stuff there folks!

Tuesday: Posting at Spirit Lights the Way, blog of Nancy Hatch, a freelance writer and free spirit who shares insights of all kinds

Wednesday: Posting at Jumping the Candlestick, blog of PB author Debbie Diesen (The Pout-Pout Fish, The Barefooted, Bad-Tempered Baby Brigade)

Thursday: Posting at C.B. Wentworth’s blog, fellow creative seeker and writer.

Looking forward to seeing you on the tour! 🙂

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