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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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Important note: Due to a recent family emergency, I will not be drawing April winners until later this week, and possibly next week. Once I know when winners will be drawn, I will post that information here on the blog.The monthly check-in procedure AND the deadlines (commenting by midnight ET May 1) are the same.  Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Whew what a month! I can’t say I’m sorry to see this one go.  It’s now time for 12 x 12 in 2012 participants to check in.  Did you complete a picture book draft for April?

For the first time, I must admit I did not complete a draft.  What can I say? Life happened.  However, I am participating in National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee) starting tomorrow, so I hope to make some good ground there.

Many thanks, once again, to our four featured authors for April-Palooza – Jennifer WardLinda Ravin LoddingSandy Asher, Susanna Leonard Hill!!!  If you left a comment on their April 1st post, you are automatically entered to win a critique from Jennifer, Linda or Susanna or a copy of Sandy’s book WRITING IT RIGHT: How Successful Children’s Authors Perfect and Sell Their Stories, regardless of whether you completed a PB draft this month.

If you did complete a draft in April, let us know in the comments and that will get you another entry.  YOU MUST LEAVE YOUR NAME (FIRST AND LAST) IN YOUR COMMENT IF YOU WANT IT TO BE COUNTED AS AN ENTRY.   You have until midnight EST May 1st to leave a comment on this post and/or the April 1st post to be eligible for the drawing.

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to meet our May authorl!!

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Today’s PPBF selection is from one of our April Author-Palooza authors and Perfect Picture Book Friday’s very own host – Susanna Hill!

 Not Yet Rose

Written by Susanna Leonard Hill, Illustrated by Nicole Rutton

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, September, 2009

Suitable for: Ages 3+

Themes/Topics: New Baby, Siblings, Family, Big Sister, Love

Opening/Synopsis: From School Library Journal: Every morning, a young hamster races into her parents’ bedroom and asks, “Is the baby here yet?” and each time they answer, “Not yet.” Rose can’t decide whether she wants a sister or a brother, and at one point she decides that she doesn’t want a baby at all, but her mother brings her around to the idea that she’ll probably like being a big sister. Dad describes the nurturing that babies require and reminds his daughter that she was once an infant who needed and received loving care, too… Hill presents adults who encourage their daughter to process her feelings and come to her own conclusions. The narrative’s pacing and structure are ideal, with the story and life lessons beginning on Monday and ending on Friday.

Activities: Susanna Hill has wonderful resources for Not Yet, Rose and all of her books on her website, including a teacher’s guide, coloring pages, a word search and a maze. This book is obviously also a great jumping-off point for preparing young children for a new sibling and opening discussion of their feelings. Another great way to further the discussion is showing children their own baby pictures and talking about what they were like as infants and asking questions about what kind of big sister or brother they want to be.

Why I Like This Book: I so love the ending of this book, but I don’t want to rob you of the joy of discovering it for yourself. I also love the fact that when my daughter read this book she sighed and said, “I love this book.” Then we shared lots of memories of what it was like when we brought her baby brother home. Of all the “new sibling” books I’ve read, this one is my very favorite.

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

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Today’s PPBF selection is from one of our April Author-Palooza authors – Sandy Asher.

 Too Many Frogs

Written by Sandy Asher, Illustrated by Keith Graves

Philomel, February, 2005

Suitable for: Ages 3+

Themes/Topics: Friendship, Habits, Animals, Bedtime, Reading, Books, Manners

Opening/Synopsis: From Booklist: Rabbit settles in his cozy wing chair by the fire and starts to read a book until he is interrupted by Froggie, who invites himself in and asks to hear the story. On successive nights, Froggie shows up again, makes himself snacks, and plunks down on a pile of pillows to listen to more reading aloud. Then Froggie brings his huge family to the evening storytime, and Rabbit has had enough: “Too many frogs! Too much fuss!” He tells the Frog clan to leave, but guilt catches up with him, and he invites the family back. The humorous, repetitive text is well matched by the funny, expressive illustrations.

Activities: I found this great activity sheet for the book which includes extension activities and discussion topics. Here is another website that lists more than 50 activities for frog-themed picture books, including TOO MANY FROGS! I think this could be very funny as a drama exercise, even with just two kids – one being rabbit and one the first frog. In fact, I think I might just try that with my kids this weekend…

Why I Like This Book: I am a lot like Rabbit in this story. When I cozy up with a good book, I just want to be left alone… most of the time. In fact, I can be quite a curmudgeon about it. But since my kids were born I have come to appreciate group reading time and sharing stories together. Reading them their bedtime stories is easily my favorite part of the day. My kids love the silliness of the frog and the fact that he is oblivious to Rabbit’s feelings. As a writer, I have to say I love the few rhyming parts in the story. This book is an excellent example of how to stir a little rhyme into your prose.

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

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Today’s Tuesday 12 x 12 author is Dana Carey. When I was in Bologna, I met one of her critique partners, which made me feel one step closer to knowing her in person. Dana is the Associate Regional Advisor of SCBWI France, and as such, she has kindly made me an honorary member. I hope to one day make that more than honorary and visit them all there! Please welcome Dana!

Balancing Acts

One of the things I love about the 12 x 12 challenge is getting to know people who share an interest in picture books. Something you may not know about me is I’m an American living in France with a daughter I’ve been raising as a bilingual. I wanted her to know both families, French and American, to keep things balanced. Or at least as balanced as possible.

To do this, I speak to her exclusively in English and her father speaks to her in French. I swing back and forth between the two languages on a daily basis, sometimes within one conversation. It probably seems weird to others looking in but as a family, we’ve gotten used to it. I don’t live immersed in one foreign language and my French is fine but keeping both languages up to snuff is a concern.

We all strive for balance in our lives between family, job, friends and more with writing. Or illustrating. Or both. Some of you 12x12ers may be like me an author/illustrator. The dream is to have lots of great dummy books of our stories. And the hard part is doing both things at the same time and getting better at both.

What can we do to keep to everything balanced and progressing at more or less the same speed?

The 12 x 12 has been great in providing some balance for me. Instead of thinking about writing, I write. Every month! Especially when the 12X12 deadline looms: I have to get something down on paper. It swings the balance back.

A monthly critique group complements the 12 x 12. Through my SCBWI France chapter, I found a group that meets in Paris. One problem I live about 6 hours from there. But thanks to my Virtual Identity (I skype in), I’m part of the group. They put me on a sideboard while they gather round the dining room table of our host. Again, it may seem weird to others looking in but it works for us. And each month I have a rendez-vous with writing.

What about swinging back to illustration?

While I find time and distance a great help to revising texts, I find this to be less true with illustration. Breaking the chain of sketching page layouts or painting spreads slows progress. The more time I spend illustrating, the better it is. If I get sidetracked for awhile, diving back in is slower than diving back into writing. Much like if I were to stop writing a first draft of a picture book halfway in and let it go for a week or two. Doesn’t work for me but if I finish and come back to revise 2 weeks later, that’s perfect.

A skype meeting on Monday mornings with an illustration partner helps swing the balance back to illustration. To prepare, I scan in sketches or finished work from the week and email it. This makes me conscious of what I’m doing each week. Come Sunday night, I assess how I’ve spent my time. Sometimes all I have to send are rough sketches but this helps. For one thing, I realize I did do something. And I won’t forget those sketches by showing them to my partner I’ve legitimized the effort and can continue to push that work forward. All those sketches eventually add up to layouts, character studies, ideas for a portfolio piece.

We are all familiar with the “To Do” list (that daunting document that mocks us all week long). I’ve taken the Sunday night prep scanning a step further: writing the “Done” list everything I’ve actually accomplished during the week. I’m learning that a big part of balance is mental. I feel like I haven’t done enough but I did push things forward. Acknowledging my weekly accomplishments, however humble they may be, helps create
continuity and keeps me on track.

Swinging back and forth between French and English got easier over time. Happily, it has provided balance to my family my daughter loves talking to her American family and they are so happy that she can.

And I’m so happy Julie came up with this great challenge because it helps me even the scales between writing and illustrating. Imagine the “Done” list we’ll have at the end of the year! In the meantime, what do you do to maintain balance in your lives? Writing and illustrating? Or writing picture books/middle grade/young adult? Verse and prose? Any and all suggestions are welcome!

Dana Carey was a graphic designer and art director in New York and then Paris, and later taught English in Versailles (Architecture School) and Paris (Art School). Now living in Brittany, she’s a pre-pubbed author/illustrator of picture books. She reads MG/YA books in English and writes reports in French for a French publisher as well as doing some translation and painting. Find her on twitter: @danaFR; facebook and at her blog: http://danacarey.blogspot.fr/.

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Today’s PPBF selection is from another one of our April Author-Palooza authors – Jennifer Ward. If you like this book, I suggest you read others in this series. Set to the tune of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, they are great fun!

There Was an Odd Princess Who Swallowed a Pea

Written by Jennifer Ward, Illustrated by Lee Calderon

Marshall Cavendish Children, September, 2011

Suitable for: Ages 4+

Themes/Topics: Princesses, Rhyming, Silliness, Fractured Fairy Tale, Humor

Opening/Synopsis: From KirkusThe exuberant princess in this tale begins her day by swallowing the titular pea, which had been under her mattress. From there, the things she ingests get more farcical and less foodlike (as well as a lot bigger)… Observant readers will pick out items and characters that belong in other fairy tales—Cinderella’s glass slipper, the Frog Prince and a prince who could be from Rapunzel’s tale. Spot-on rhymes and rhythms keep the pages turning.

Activities: Jennifer’s website includes a Lesson plan for another book in this series – There Was an Old Monkey who Swallowed a Frog. Many of the activity ideas in that plan could also be applied to There Was an Odd Princess. For example, comparing Ward’s tale to the original. Jennifer’s website indicates that a lesson plan specifically for this title is coming soon, so check back. Another activity my daughter enjoyed was finding all the references to traditional princess tales. There is also a scroll at the bottom of each page revealing the previous items the princess has eaten, so kids can “read” along and chime in as the story unfolds.

Why I Like This Book: This book is just plain fun to read out loud. Even though it’s a spinoff of the popular song, it is unexpected and fresh in its approach. When a book spoofs two well-known stories, you don’t expect to be surprised, but I was! The illustrations go right along with the hilarity of the text. My daughter belly-laughed when I read it to her. Now we want to get the other books Jennifer has written in this series and compare them all to see which one is our favorite.

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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I know Elvis Poultry likes to make a grand entrance and all, but it’s been so hectic this week I have to keep it simple. I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

I mean… *cough*

Anyway, let’s just get right to the chicken winner shall we?

The lucky winner is…

Elizabeth Stevens Omlor!!!!!!!  Congratulations Elizabeth! With this book, you won’t be lonesome tonight.

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