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Posts Tagged ‘Rhyming’

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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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 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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At last the moment has arrived to announce the winners of Tamson’s pitch contest.  I, of course, have read through her post and I can’t believe how much information she provided on what makes a good pitch, what trips them up and why she selected the ones she did.  She even gave us a few honorable mentions.  Thanks so much Tamson!  I am very envious of the winner, because after reading this post, I know you are going to get a phenomenal critique.  And don’t forget – even if you didn’t win, Tamson is a freelance editor and you can hire her to help you with your manuscripts.  

One last thing.  In this post, Tamson talks about titles, and I feel terrible because I think the reason some of you didn’t submit with a title is because I didn’t specify that you could.  I said to submit your pitch and the first line.  Of course that didn’t mean you couldn’t submit titles, but I wasn’t clear. Mi dispiace (Italian for “my apologies”). Live and learn for the next contest!  Now, onto Tamson!

Congratulations, Pitch Winners!

It’s been a lot of fun working on this contest and seeing all the cool stuff that’s gestating in all of your fertile brains. It’s got me thinking a lot more about what makes a good pitch and what doesn’t, how important the pitch is in terms of introducing your manuscripts, and whether or not a bad pitch can be overcome by a fantastic idea. I’d like to share a few insights here as a prelude to the big announcement.

Titles: Many of you did not submit titles with your entries! Presumably, you have them, and just didn’t think they were a necessary part of the contest. And I didn’t end up holding it against you…much. Seriously though, you should be using every tool at your disposal and a title is one of those tools. You might not think you are good at coming up with titles, but you should try, even if it means soliciting help. In all honesty, you may end up having to change it before it’s published, but you should definitely try to find a title that will grab your readers’ attention.

Length:  Many of the pitches should have been shorter. Try to keep it to one sentence. If the sentences are pretty short, you may be able to get away with two. But don’t make it longer than that. Picture books are short! It drives me crazy when I see flap copy that is half the length of the accompanying book, and I feel the same way about a lengthy pitch.  Fear not! None of you were that far off the mark, but there was some excess verbiage floating around.  One way to help you keep it short is to rewrite your pitch about 20 times until it’s pared down to its essentials, while still retaining a personality.

Questions: What role should questions play in your pitch? Usually none. Here’s why: There’s a tendency that we sometimes have to make our pitch sound like aggressive marketing copy, a la infomercial: Do you like Flies? Do you like soup? Well this picture book is for you! Either that, or it sounds like you’re being coy or are playing out a joke or riddle all by yourself: What’s a fly doing in this man’s soup? Why, the backstroke, of course!  When you could just get to the point: A man is enjoying a delicious bowl of soup when he notices something in it that wasn’t on the menu.

Rhyme:  Rhyming manuscripts, much to my chagrin, are taking a bit of a hit these days. Some agents and editors won’t even look at them. For example, see this post by Mary Kole [link to: http://kidlit.com/2009/09/05/rhyming-picturebooks-a-rhyme-with-reason/] (which, admittedly, is just one agent’s perspective). You have to make sure those first lines really shine. That means, ideally, you show the agent that you are the master of your craft [link to this post: http://tamsonweston.com/blog/rhyming-picture-books-arent-so-scary/]. But at the very least, you should show her that you are a confident and capable versifier. That means that none of those four lines should feel like they’ve been put there merely to accommodate the rhyme scheme. They should flow out eloquently and organically.

Personality: The pitch is a tool to get people to want to read your manuscript and there are guidelines to help your pitch do its job. It helps, though, if there’s a little spark to it as well. Is your character’s voice really engaging? Is your manuscript funny? Is your language lyrical? Then, ideally, your pitch should reflect that. You can, then, bend the “rules” a bit to make this happen. Don’t overwork it though. If you are having trouble getting personality in there without making the pitch very long, then just get to the point. This is a picture book, after all. It’s short. Agents are just going to want to dispense with the introductions and move on to the manuscript.

The Unexpected: Finally, I have to say that sometimes I was almost won over, in spite of myself, by pitches that weren’t ideally executed, but had a great concept behind them. For example, one of the winning pitches contains a question which I thought helped capture the personality of the character. I considered a couple of others that had questions too. Sometimes the idea just wins out, even when the writer doesn’t follow the guidelines to the letter. The best route to a good pitch is to follow the guidelines as closely as possible while capturing the essence of your manuscript.

Here are a few honorable mentions and a little critique of their execution.

TITLE: MARCUS AND THE FUNTASTIC BROBOT — by Angela Padron

PITCH: Marcus wants a brother. So he builds his own “brobot”, only to find that having a little brother – especially a robotic one – isn’t easy.

FIRST LINE: Marcus wanted a brother to play with, but his mom wouldn’t give him one, and he didn’t have enough money to buy one.

This is just a great idea for a book. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but it’s a good concept. The pitch, however, is unnecessarily wordy. This is pretty easily fixed: “Marcus wants a brother—so he builds one!” I wouldn’t use “Funtastic,” either. It’s feels like too much of a marketing buzz word at this point, much like Spooktacular. Marcus and the Brobot is solid on its own. Brobot is a good, evocative invented noun.

PITCH: Are you ready for a French nickname? To get fluffy? To save a flower? A charming dandelion enlists the your help in NAPOLEON BLOWN APART.  — by Julie Falatko

FIRST LINE: Bonjour. I am Napoleon. Yes, yes, I know, I am very beautiful. My lovely yellow petals shine like the golden sun.

This one cracked me up. Unfortunately, it’s not a great use of questions—this falls into the category of infomercial-type language.  Just the last sentence of the pitch would have been fine, but it probably be shouldn’t be in second person. This can put off some agents. I would also recommend cutting the third sentence in the opening of the manuscript.

TITLE: SECRETS OF THE NOT SO DEEP — by Sue Heavenrich

PITCH: After a week Maya’s mud puddle is teeming with life. What are those fast swimmy things, and how did they get there? Nonfiction/ecology.

FIRST LINE: After yesterday’s rain I am ready for puddle stomping.

Great title. I like playful approaches on nonfiction, so this appealed to me. However, this is a case where the question is not helping the copy. Just the first sentence in the pitch is enough. The  “nonfiction” tag is also not necessary.   The first line of the manuscript is good. Quite solid.

AND THE WINNERS ARE…

Second place, winner of the book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is…

ABIGAIL RAYNOR!!!

PITCH: Arabella is desperate to keep Penweezle, an ex-witch’s cat, but convincing her family is not easy, especially when the cat tries to help.

FIRST LINE: It was just before teatime when the doorbell rang and Arabella found a cat on the doorstep.

This pitch has a funny deadpan quality to it. It sounds like a conventional pitch, but that clause on the end really gives a little punch. I immediately was imagining the kind of havoc this cat could wreak. The repetition of “door” (in doorbell and doorstep) in the first line is a little unfortunate and easily fixed. It needs a title, of course.

First place, winner of the book, Writing with Pictures, by Uri Schulevitz is…

HEATHER NEWMAN!!! 

PITCH: Esther is a fashionista sheep trying to bring a little style to her flock, but finding the perfect accessories on a ranch isn’t easy at all.

FIRST LINE: Nothing made Esther happier than trying on different outfits.

A really concise, well-worded pitch with a little personality. I would change “fashionista” to “fashionable” however. “Fashionista” is too new a phenomenon. This may be just me. I would also delete “at all” but that’s a pretty minor quibble.

Grand Prize, winner of the manuscript critique is…

MELISSA KELLEY!!! ***confetti toss***

PITCH: Elly is wild to save her favorite endangered zoo animal – but big brother claims there’s no such thing as Unicorns! Then what are those?

FIRST LINE: I am the luckiest girl in the world.

This is a case where the question really worked for me, and it adds a little element of surprise to the pitch, which is nice. I wonder why there’s not a “her” before “big brother,” though, since, presumably, it’s not his name.  The first line of the story is great. Gives us a sense of this exuberant girl right away and you don’t even resort to using an exclamation mark. Amazing. But, no title! (Save the Unicorns! Unicorns at the Zoo!  The Finest Unicorn at the Zoo). Well done. I look forward to reading the rest.

Let’s all give a big thanks to Tamson for hosting this contest for 12 x 12 participants.  Congratulations to all the winners and to everyone who participated.  I learned loads in the process of running the contest, and I hope you all did too.  

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Today is March 2nd and the good Dr.’s birthday, so of course I had to make a Dr. Seuss selection.  Today is also Read Across America Day, and Teaching Authors has a fantastic post about Dr. Seuss and how to celebrate.  Fox in Socks doesn’t seem to get the same kind of love as Seuss’ other books, but it is definitely one of my favorites just because it is SO FUN to read aloud.

Fox in Socks
Written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
Random House, 1965
Suitable for:  Ages 3 and up
Themes/Topics:  Tongue twisters, Rhyme, Humor, Silliness
Opening and brief synopsis: “This Fox is a tricky fox. He’ll try to get your tongue in trouble.” Dr. Seuss gives fair warning to anyone brave enough to read along with the Fox in Socks, who likes to play tongue-twisting games with his friend Mr. Knox.
Activities: Just trying to read it out loud without making any mistakes is a great activity! It would pair well with other tongue twister books.  Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eric Van Raepenbusch’s fantastic post on his blog, Happy Birthday Author, with amazing ideas for celebrating Seuss in general.
Why I Like This Book: Talk about a book that’s fun to read over and over!  That’s because you can seldom read it perfectly, so it becomes a challenge.  And the rhyme is mesmerizing for kids.
Finally, check out this video of a woman speed reading Fox in Socks.  It is unbelievable!

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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Here is my contribution to author Susanna Hill’s Holiday Contest.  The rules were simple.  Write our own version of Clement C. Moore’s classic, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  Go here to read all the other entries.  They are great!  Thanks to Susanna for hosting another fun challenge!

 

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the night,

We parents were wrapping with all of our might.

The stockings were stuffed but the presents were bare.

“I’ll be more organized next year… I swear!”

 

We prayed that the children would stay in their beds,

Snuggled in tight with the spreads on their heads.

While Daddy with his screwdriver and I with my tape,

Settled in to the task to make Christmas take shape.

 

When all of a sudden the dog began barking.

The reflection of bows on the ceiling were sparkling!

I sprang from the couch and led him away —

Into his crate to await Christmas Day.

 

At last we were ready to load up the tree.

Poor Daddy endured sharp instructions from me.

First this one!  Now that one! Put this one on top.

Be CAREFUL! It’s fragile!  Be sure it won’t drop.

 

And then we collapsed, exhausted and frayed.

“Oh please let the kids sleep ‘til eight,” we both prayed.

One blink of an eye and we heard the kids cheer,

“Come look at the tree, ‘cause Santa’s been here!”

 

We groaned in our beds, our eyes red and puffy.

The kids both looked glowing, while we looked quite scruffy.

I brewed us some coffee and scorching hot tea,

Then readied myself for the festivity.

 

One blink of an eye and the presents were done.

The kids were quite eager to play and have fun.

But as they were cleaning up ribbon and wrapping,

I lay my head down and soon began napping.

 

As I slipped into dreams, I heard a soft voice

Remind me to savor the day and rejoice.

 

And here I exclaim as I blog through the night, Happy Holidays to all and to all a Good Night

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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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A Troop of Monkeys

ETA: Although the contest is now over, I’ve kept this post as I originally wrote it with one exception: MeeGenius took down the link to my story on their website, so I have removed the links that were in the original post. 3/3/12

Many of you know by now that I recently submitted one of my stories to a contest with MeeGenius – an e-publisher.  For the past week, I’ve been emailing contacts and posting it on Twitter and Facebook – getting my first real taste of promoting a book.  Hands off to published authors – it’s very time-consuming, difficult, and if you are like me and not used to self-promotion, pretty uncomfortable.  It just feels strange to contact people and say, “Hey, look at me! Vote for me! Please!”

I decided I’d feel better about it if I shared a little background behind the story.  Because every story has a story!

This book, A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, was one of the first I wrote once I decided to try my hand at children’s picture books.  My husband came up with the original idea after he found a website with a list of some of the collective nouns for animals.  He thought I should write a simple book with just the group name.  A group of monkeys is called a TROOP.  And so on.

When I looked over the list, I was surprised to see how few of the group names I actually knew.  I’d heard of a pack of wolves, a herd of buffalo and a pride of lions.  But a float of crocodiles? An ostentation of peacocks?  Those were entirely new and fun to discover.  I also enjoyed the fact that the group names tended to describe either the animal’s appearance or behavior.  So I decided to write the story as a concept book (rather than one with a plot), and use rhyming couplets to teach both the collective nouns and one fact about each of the animals.

A couple of years ago, after putting TROOP through a few rounds of critiques, I submitted it to a few editors.  I got a couple of “helpful” rejections with the message that the story wasn’t “big” enough to be a trade picture book and that there were other, similar books on the market.  In my own research, I had found a board book with a few collective nouns and a book of the type my husband had suggested I write, but none just like mine.  Nevertheless, I moved on and kept TROOP in a virtual drawer.

I never stopped loving it though, and two years later, with the world of publishing turned upside down as a result of e-books, e-readers, and apps, I started

An "ostentatious" peacock

thinking about bringing TROOP back from the dead.  I think the book would translate very well to the enhanced e-book format.  I envision kids pressing on the owls and hearing them hoot, or tapping the peacocks and seeing them shake their tail feathers.  And although it’s a dirty word when submitting, I gathered so many of these collective nouns in my research, I have enough for a series based on different types of animals – birds (a convocation of eagles), aquatic (a smack of jellyfish), insects/reptiles (a rhumba of rattlesnakes).

Finally, there are many ways to use a book like this in the classroom, the least of which being the difference between collective and singular nouns.  It’s an opportunity to teach interesting vocabulary and tie it back to the animals.  What does ostentatious or shrewd mean, and why do we use those words to describe peacocks and apes, respectively?  There’s a “green” element to the book with its final plea to take care of the earth and share it with animals.  There’s also a science and geography component – where do these animals live?  What do they eat?  How do they behave?  I look forward to doing these presentations in classrooms myself!  In fact, if I win, my kids’ school library gets a complete library of MeeGenius books for free!

While I don’t love the promotion aspect of this contest, I do believe in this story and want to see it published.  Furthermore, I am set on publishing it in an e-book format.  The MeeGenius contest is a good opportunity to try to make that happen.  I wish the winner was chosen entirely on editorial judgement so I could hide behind my laptop, but I have to admit I’ve learned a lot from putting a tiny toe into the waters of promotion.  So here it is once again.  If you haven’t already, please take a look at A TROOP IS A GROUP OF MONKEYS, and if you have a Facebook account, vote for it if it speaks to you.

I know there are other picture book writers who follow my blog who have also entered this contest.  I invite you to include links to your stories in the comments.  I know I’ve “liked” several from the PiBoIdMo group, but there may be more.  Feel free to share the “story” behind your stories if you are so inclined.  🙂

Thanks for reading! I feel better having provided some background on this story, how it came to life, and what it means to me.

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Watch the little video for a laugh

Susanna Hill is sponsoring a fun blog challenge with Thanksgiving theme.  Write a story (or poem) in 250 words or less, beginning with the words, “”They were supposed to go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving, but the blizzard came in fast…”  She allowed those writing in poetry to tweak the beginning a bit to make the meter more consistent.  I did take her up on that, BUT I will have you know my entry is EXACTLY 250 words!!  (However, please don’t check the meter with a fine-tooth comb, as I wrote this very quickly for fun). 🙂

They were set to go to Grandma’s
For their big Thanksgiving feast,
But the blizzard came in fast
Growling, howling like a beast —

Hurled itself around the house
Rattling windows, banging doors.
They laid a fire in the hearth
Against the blizzard’s wicked roars.

They couldn’t roast a turkey.
Electricity went out.
They ate tuna for their meat,
For their veggie – sauerkraut.

They wrapped themselves in blankets
Lit some candles, played some gin.
Dessert was pumpkin out of cans
With some cinnamon stirred in.

They started telling stories
Scary, funny, tried and true
Til the fire turned to embers
And the clock struck half past two.

They stoked the fire to blazing,
Snuggled close and rested heads.
That fire was so darned cozy
That they did not miss their beds.

They formed a sleeping circle
With the dog curled up inside.
Slept so soundly through the night,
They did not hear the storm subside.

They woke up the next morning
To a dazzling, blinding light.
Snow had piled up to the rafters,
And the world was frosted white.

They threw on coats and snowsuits
Raced out straight into the snow.
Threw some snowballs, built a snowman
Came back in with cheeks aglow.

They sat sipping some hot chocolate
When they heard the doorbell ring.
Behind the door was Grandma
With a giant turkey wing!

That Thanksgiving sure was different.
Many folks would call it lame.
But they made the most of family
And were thankful just the same.

The challenge is open through tomorrow (Thanksgiving Day), so join in and add your own entry at http://susannahill.blogspot.com/2011/11/oh-excitement-thanksgiving-contest.html.

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Today, please welcome Jean Reidy, another terrific Colorado author, to the How I Got My Agent series.  This is an especially exciting week for Jean because her book, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT released on Tuesday.  I’m honored to be part of her blog tour celebrating the book.  I met Jean at last year’s Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference, where she discussed the craft of writing picture books.  I bought her second book, TOO PICKLEY, for my son whose eating habits seem to get pickier and pickier even as he gets older.  I laughed when shortly after I brought the book home and read it to him, he said he didn’t want his bread one night at dinner because it was “too crusty.”  TOO PICKLEY is a companion in style to TOO PURPLEY, and the third in the series, TOO PRINCESSY, comes out in 2012.  If you’ve ever wondered how to write a compelling story in less than 100 words (TOO PURPLEY is a whopping 40 words long), GET THESE BOOKS!

LIGHT UP THE NIGHT has been released to rave reviews and is a story every child can relate to.  Jean is a master at taking everyday activities for kids (eating, getting dressed, going to bed) and turning them into adventures.  Without further adieu, please welcome Jean.

Jean, how long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one? What kind of research did you do before submitting?

I’m afraid my answer isn’t very direct. Are you ready for a long-winded and winding story?

Of COURSE we are!!

Okay, here goes.

I’d been writing articles for magazines and newspapers for quite a while. But it was on a family road trip about ten years ago – after listening to a Sharon Creech recorded book – that I decided to write for children. On that trip, I actually brainstormed my first middle grade novel; however, I soon realized I didn’t know what I was doing. So when I got home I began to explore the craft of writing children’s books in earnest.

As part of that exploration, I attended a workshop in which I wrote my first picture book manuscript. It was both challenging and fun. That first manuscript actually won an award at a writer’s conference and I made the mistake of thinking it would be snapped up quickly by an editor or agent. Silly me. I queried it widely, yet that manuscript still sits in a file waiting to be reworked.

While I was querying agents and editors with that first book, I focused on finishing my middle grade novel.  I only dabbled in picture books whenever an idea struck me. Knowing that fewer and fewer agents were taking on picture books, I approached agents with my middle grade novel instead. One of those agents – my dream agent – was Erin Murphy.

How did I know it was time to get an agent? First of all, I’d been getting positive feedback from a variety of readers in the profession including editors. I had a hunch that I had a few “very close” manuscripts. Secondly, after studying the ins and outs of publishers and editors and imprints, I could see that marketing my manuscripts was taking precious time away from writing them. I’m a ferocious follower of editor and agent websites and blogs as well as the publishing trade bulletins. But there was no way I could keep up with all the nuances, preferences and movements in the industry. Erin does that masterfully.

Why was Erin my dream agent? I’d been reading message boards and interviews and chatting it up with a few of her clients and they all just gushed about her. Plus, she represented children’s literature exclusively, including picture books. Finally, Erin is an editorial agent, she works with her clients to put the best story out there. Her feedback on my drafts is amazing.

But Erin only considers potential clients from referrals or from writers she meets at conferences and she happened to be attending our Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference that fall – YIPPEE! -on the same day as my niece’s wedding – SHEESH! Anyway, I wrote to her and explained the situation and she very kindly agreed to read my novel. So I sent it off to her – with fingers and toes crossed – pronto.

During that same fall, I wrote TOO PURPLEY!  I read in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin that a veteran editor was moving to Bloomsbury and that her specialty was books for very young children. Bloomsbury was open to unagented submissions, so I sent the editor my manuscript, which her intern pulled from the slush pile. Within a few weeks of submission, the editor asked for companion manuscripts to go with TOO PURPLEY!  So I wrote three additional books, one of which was TOO PICKLEY! and another was TOO PRINCESSY! which comes out in 2012. We were going to acquisitions and I was TOO excited!

Meanwhile, back at Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Erin was in the process of reading my middle grade novel when TOO PURPLEY! was on its way to acquisitions. With that contract in sight, I signed on with Erin and she has negotiated and sold all of my picture books.

The dreaded questions: How many queries?  How many rejections?

I had great luck landing a home for TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and signing with Erin all within a matter of months. Now if you want to talk about my picture book manuscript that won that contest – hah! – I’ve tried to block out those rejections. Too many to count.

Some may think that since landing an agent my life is rejection-free. Hardly. I have one picture book manuscript that both Erin and I love, but it’s had trouble finding a home. I’ve even revised it for an editor to no avail. I’ve also had manuscripts that have been rejected by my own agent. But I know Erin is always looking out for my career and I trust her completely.

That is such a great point.  I think those of us on the “other side” of the agent equation imagine that life is all tap dancing in the tulips after you get an agent.  Writing and publishing is a tough business for everyone.  We have to be in it for the love.

Your first two books, TOO PURPLEY and TOO PICKLEY are rhyming, and we always hear that agents and editors don’t want rhyming manuscripts.  How did you break that particular barrier?

As a matter of fact LIGHT UP THE NIGHT (Disney Hyperion), is a cumulative verse which also uses rhyme. TOO PRINCESSY! (Bloomsbury 2012) follows the same rhyme scheme as TOO PURPLEY! and TOO PICKLEY! and ALL THROUGH MY TOWN (Bloomsbury TBD) is a rhyming story about community. TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! (Disney Hyperion 2012) is my only picture book that doesn’t rhyme, so far. So I guess you can say I sort of love rhyme. I feel that when rhyme is done well, it can facilitate a child’s own ability to read and enjoy a book. And editors know that.

Before I use rhyme, I ask, “Why does this story need to rhyme?” I often read manuscripts that have fantastic premises but are restricted by the rhyme. Or they grow to be hundreds of words too long for the sake of the rhyme. I think rhyming writers need to honestly assess if the story is better because of the rhyme.

Once I’ve decided to rhyme, I line up loads of fresh readers for my story. And I ask them to read the text out loud, noting where the rhythm or rhyme trips them up. So often rhythm artificially perfects itself via repetitive reading. And as writers we can trick our own ears quite easily. But with fresh readers, I only get one chance.

Stories need to rhyme perfectly on the first read. Natural accents and beats need to roll off the reader’s tongue. The rhyme must essentially disappear and not call attention to itself. It’s a bit like background music in that regard. Bad rhyme jolts readers and listeners out of a story ─ which more or less ties in to my best advice for picture book writers. Remember, the best picture book experience is the magical interaction of the reader, the book and the child. Make sure your writing doesn’t stand in the way of the magic.

I am totally guilty of tricking my ears with rhyme and reading it with the rhythm I intended.  I love the suggestion to line up lots of fresh readers!

In addition to the “rhyme” factor, lately it seems like many agents who do represent picture books are looking for author/illustrators. Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author-only focusing solely on picture books? How did you know your agent was “the one?”

There are fewer and fewer agents that seem to be interested in picture book authors. And I completely understand the economics of why agents may prefer author/illustrators. But thankfully, Erin does take on picture book authors. She believes in representing a writer’s career, not just a book, and when she sees your potential as a children’s author, she works right alongside you to build your career – whether it be in picture books, middle grade, young adult or a combination of multiple children’s genres like mine.

Has your writing process changed since signing with an agent?

Since signing with Erin, I’ve not only acquired a kind and inspiring mentor in the business but a “family” of Erin’s clients. Her agency is rather unique in this regard. We have an agency listserve on which we bounce ideas off of each other, celebrate good news and offer one another support. Participation is completely voluntary.

Oh, but you asked about process. My process hasn’t changed much. I sometimes run ideas by Erin before I dive into them and other times I’ll send along a polished final manuscript that I haven’t shared before. I find having an agent has allowed me mental freedom to delve more deeply into my writing and take more risks. Knowing that I have someone who will be receptive to my work allows me to stretch myself without fear. Granted, Erin may not always love what I give her, but she’ll always read it with interest.

Great answer!  Being able to stretch your writing knowing you have a receptive audience with a professional perspective is a unique benefit agents provide.

What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?

Elevate your understanding of the craft and industry first. Attend conferences. Connect with picture book writers and industry professionals online and in person. The picture book writing resources available online are endless. If you have a computer and a library, you have no excuse to be uneducated about the market. Worry less about your pitch and more about your product until you’ve grown the support of several tough and trusted readers all saying, “You have GOT to send this to an agent.” If you need a fresh read of your picture book manuscript, check out my Picture Book Peek Weeks on my blog at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/.

Hmm… I may be sending one over to you soon! 🙂

If you could go on a writer’s retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

My agent has an annual retreat with all her clients. I have yet to be able to attend. They recently held their 2011 retreat in Austin to coordinate with the Texas Library Association conference. I wish I could travel back in time to attend that one with them. It sounded like a perfect combination of business, inspiration, friendship and fun – hanging out with kindred spirits in children’s literature. Hopefully next year.

Wow – I was totally expecting Hawaii or someplace else completely exotic.  Just goes to show you how community is as important, if not more important, than location.

What’s up next/what are you working on now?

I have five picture book manuscripts in the works and I have a middle grade novel I’m revising that I’m really excited about. I just got the F&Gs for TOO PRINCESSY! and TIME (OUT) FOR MONSTERS! and they are so fun. Genevieve LeLoup and Robert Neubecker, the respective illustrators, connected perfectly with these texts.

For any of our friends in Colorado, Julie, I’ll be reading and signing LIGHT UP THE NIGHT on November 12th at the Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch at 10:30 A.M. Be sure to bring your kids and grandkids along with their favorite blankets and stuffed animals. We’re gonna have some fun!

I SO wish I could go with my family, but my daughter is performing in a musical that day.  However, Coloradans – make time to attend this event if you can!!

I’m always blogging, tweeting and updating my website and I love visitors. So please visit me at http://jeanreidy.blogspot.com/ or my website at www.jeanreidy.com or follow me on Twitter at @jeanreidy for all the latest.

Finally, I’m working on a very special launch for LIGHT UP THE NIGHT. I’m holding an online auction November 7-18 called LIGHT UP THE LIBRARY which benefits the library at Musana Children’s Home in Iganga, Uganda where I worked last summer. I’ll be auctioning loads of fabulous items for writers at all stages of their careers and other gifts and services just in time for the holiday. You can find the all details at the auction website at http://lightupthelibrary.blogspot.com/. I hope everyone has a chance to stop by.

I can’t wait for your auction! I’m so inspired by what you are doing.  Note to readers: I’m donating a special item for the auction, so I’ll announce it once the event goes live.

Thanks so much, Julie! Happy writing!

Thanks to YOU Jean, for such thoughtful and comprehensive answers and congratulations on the release of LIGHT UP THE NIGHT.  You’ve given us lots to think about.  You can check out the rest of Jean’s blog tour at the links listed below:

October 10 – 14 (THE WHOLE WEEK) – Picture This! http://robsanderswrites.blogspot.com/

October 11 – Sharing Our Notebooks http://www.sharingournotebooks.amylv.com/

October 13 – Literary Friendships http://literaryfriendships.wordpress.com/

October 14 – Write Up My Life http://writeupmylife.com/ – That’s Me!!

November 4 – Writing for Kids While Raising Them http://taralazar.wordpress.com/

Are you a picture book author with an agent?  Want to share your story?  Contact me so we can include you in this series!

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