Monday, April 27, 2015

Editing your rhyming picture book manuscript (a head start)

I love editing, but I will confess that I sometimes have mixed feelings about editing a picture book manuscript when it shows up in rhyming text.

It's not that I don't like rhyming text. I know much of the advice from editors and agents suggests that rhyming texts are a hard sell (and they can be) but when they're done well, they can be brilliant. So why the hesitation?

Because they are hard to write well. And that means that as an editor, I know it's going to take 2-3 times longer to get that piece polished into shape. That represents a bigger investment on the part of the writer (although kudos to those that recognize when they need that level of help), and a harder road if they want to take it to publication with a traditional publisher.

So here's my compromise. I'm going to give away the top 3 things that I find most rhyming picture book manuscripts need to work on. That's right, for free. Because then you can use your editing budget to really polish that piece and not use it laying the groundwork for your rhyming text.

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1. Rhythm

The challenge with any rhyming text is not just a matter of finding the right rhyming word, it's also in mastering rhythm, or the places key words are stressed in the lines. When writing for children, rhythm is just as important as rhyme. Did you get that?

Rhythm is just as important as rhyme.

Yes, it may come intuitively for some people, but just in case that's not you, I recommend you establish a math-based pattern for your text so that readers don't find themselves tripping over where the sentence should rise and fall. (You know when you've had to do this and so have I when reading rhyme.)

What I will do on a rhyming manuscript that I'm editing is put a syllable count and stress pattern at the end of each line. It might look something like this:

Christopher Robin (5/1,4 = 5 syllables, with the emphasis on syllables 1 and 4))
Had wheezles and sneezles, (6/2,5)
They bundled him into his bed. (8/2,5,8)
They gave him what goes (5/2,5)
With a cold in the nose, (6/3,6)
And some more for a cold in the head. (9/3,6,9)

(from Sneezles by A.A.Milne)

This may not look like an easy pattern to identify, but there are several consistencies about it that make it very easy to read. (And I've cheated a little by giving only one section of the poem.) The first is that the strong syllables (those with the emphasis) are always 3 syllables apart (1/4; 2/5; 3/6, etc.); the second is that the last syllable always has a strong beat (in a sense you count the pattern backwards from that final beat in every line); and the third (this is the cheating bit) is that this pattern of 5/6/8/5/6/9 continues throughout the entire poem. 

If you find there is no discernable pattern throughout your rhyming text, my recommendation is that you choose the stanza pattern that you feel is the strongest of the entire manuscript, and then use that as your blueprint for the rest of the stanzas so that they are consistent. It might mean backing up and taking a new run at a few of them, but it will make the overall rhythm much stronger.

Note, too, that rhythm doesn't just have to do with the pattern of emphasis, it also has to do with a multitude of word play options: alliteration, onomatopoeia, internal rhymes, assonance, ... all can help move the story along to a rollicking, frollicking finish.

A great idea to double-check your rhythm is to ask someone else - that hasn't read it before - to read it out loud and see if there's anywhere they falter. You might have put the stress (or emphasis) in places that you didn't mean it to fall and hearing another person read it is the best possible gauge of how well you succeeded in establishing the rhythm of your text. Remember that your test reader will probably be typical of any cold reader for your text, so if they can't figure it out, the next editor/parent/child/teacher that picks it up probably won't either.

2. Rhyme

Of course rhyme matters! That's why it's a rhyming text, right? Rhyme is fun and teaches language skills and so much more. So here's what I'd be checking if I was editing the manuscript for you:

a. Near rhymes are a no-no.
     Children's editors, especially, are aware of any deviation to the pattern you first establish, and near-rhymes (words that almost, but not exactly, rhyme) can disrupt the pattern of the text. (It's much easier to get away with in song lyrics because enunciation is less distinct. But don't get sidetracked ...)

Don't use them! The role of a rhyming text (among others) is to teach reading skills and a near rhyme does nothing to help a young reader predict the word that they will be seeing next.

b. Natural language is a yes yes!
     Okay, yes-yes isn't really the way we say it in English, but you'd be surprised what people will try for the sake of shoehorning that rhyming word in.

It never fails - I'll be sailing through a story, and suddenly Yoda pops up in the middle of a stanza - "I heard the buzz/Rhyme matters it does." Really?

In English, the typical word order is Subject Verb Object (SVO). It's possible to change sentence order to SOV or OVS but, especially for children's literature, that's not your best choice. First, it changes the sentence word order to a pattern less familiar to a young reader, and second, the end result usually just makes the sentence feel awkward. Rule of thumb: "Don't do it!" Especially not for the sake of making a rhyme work!

What's the solution to these problems?

It might be to start again.

Seriously, it might mean finding a better word for one line, or it might mean backing up that entire segment of the story and starting with fresh words, fresh ideas, and a fresh twist in the story. It might mean scrapping the entire story (or converting it to prose - see below) if you can't make this version sing.

c. Made up words can be fine fine.
     Yep, stretched the point again, but guess what? By doing that I created a pattern and it starts to look less odd in the overall text, doesn't it? If I wrote "The End End" at the end of this post, it wouldn't be too surprising anymore.

The same is true of made up words. Sometimes the temptation is to add a syllable to make the word you want fit. And that's okay, as long as you use the same kind of wordplay GENEROUSLY sprinkled throughout. Jabberwocky would be a very different poem if "brillig" was the only nonsense word that made it in, wouldn't it? A.A. Milne uses eight made-up rhyming variations of "-eezles" scattered throughout the poem Sneezles. Go find a Suess and see how he does it.

The point is, use them with intention, not just for convenience.

3. The Story

Above everything else, a rhyming text still needs to have a story. Or at least a flow that builds and falls throughout the manuscript. (It might be a lilting, lulling, let's-leave-the-day-behind story but it still needs to have some shape.) All the elements of a good story are just as important as when you're writing prose so don't think you can skip over them just because you're rhyming.

So that's my top three. But there's one more.


If you're really struggling with a rhyming text for a picture book, the really big question to ask yourself is

"Why does this story have to rhyme?"

It's a perfectly valid question. And it might mean the difference between tearing your hair out over a routinely rejected manuscript or publishing a truly fun piece of prose. So ask yourself honestly, "What is it about this story that will be stronger if the text rhymes?" If you're only using rhyme as a technique to camouflage a half-hearted storyline, or to prop up a premature idea, then you might need to reconsider. But if you're convinced that rhyming is the way to go, then make it shine.

And there you have it. My top three pieces of advice, with some sub points and the Big Question thrown in for good measure. Once you've worked through these, an editor will be happy to help with the final tweaks. Make the most of that investment by being sure you've tackled what you can first.

It takes some intentional work, but your ultimate goal is to get them to the point where they will delight every reader by tripping off the tongue.

The End End

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