I was honored to be asked to be a #PBChat mentor, and I knew immediately that I would be open exclusively to applicants who write in rhyme. Many promising writers applied to be my mentee for the program, and it was a challenge to choose from among them! I ended up choosing one mentee and offering full critiques to two other writers.
For the rest, I promised to write something up on my blog about some common trouble spots I saw in applicants' manuscripts. Here are the biggest ones, and some tips on how to fix them in your writing.
1. Not enough story
Writing a story in rhyme is a challenging process. If you're not careful, you can easily end up with a manuscript that lacks the proper balance between story and rhyme. Be intentional about it from the start. If you want to write a rhyming picture book, it is best to know the story you want to tell before you begin writing so that the rhyme doesn't take over. This doesn't mean you have to have it completely figured out. A basic idea of the story's arc may suffice. If you are struggling with this issue, try writing your story in prose, and then convert it to rhyme.
2. Unsatisfying story resolutions
This is related to the first issue, but it's more specific. A story's resolution--how the conflict gets resolved (or not)--can make or break your text. If it's too easy, it's unsatisfying. On the other hand, if you get too carried away or complicated, it's not believable. And for rhymers, it can be especially hard because we are often too focused on making sure our writing flows nicely and rhymes perfectly.
Let's face it. Endings are hard. When considering your story's resolution, focus on what will make it the most satisfying for your reader. Here are a few ideas on what to avoid in your manuscript endings:
- the problem goes away without any obvious reason or effort from the main character
- the main character has an "aha!" moment that seems to come out of nowhere
- the resolution comes too abruptly
- logistical inconsistencies
3. Lack of character growth
Your main character needs to take a journey, even if the entire story takes place on his or her bedroom floor. Character growth can be shown in a variety of ways. It can be as simple as persevering when learning something new, like how to tie one's shoes, or as complicated as overcoming a fear. Look at your manuscript and consider if and how your character changes by the end of the story. Remember: character growth doesn't have to be the point of your story, but it should always be a part of your story.
4. Forced rhymes
A forced rhyme happens when a rhyming word seems out of place in the context, or feels like it forces the story in an unnatural direction. Remember: a unique or unexpected word isn't necessarily always the best choice. When in doubt, consider whether you would choose a word if you were writing in prose. If it doesn't seem natural to you (or to your critique partners), find another option.
5. Meter troubles
Meter can be a tricky thing to get right. Two of the most common mistakes I see in rhyming manuscripts are 1) missing or added beats that cause the reader to stumble and 2) a rhythm that feels unnatural or forced, such as when a stressed beat falls on a word (or a syllable in a word) that is not normally emphasized.
Though few, if any, rhyming texts are going to flow smoothly for every reader thanks to the differing ways we speak, there are steps you can take to make it as polished as possible. Read a lot of rhyming manuscripts aloud and note when something makes you stumble. Do the work it takes to find the words and phrases that fit naturally into your story's meter. And have a lot of different people read it for you (and to you).
Writing in rhyme is a challenging but worthy endeavor, as long as you are willing to do the work to make your text as polished as possible. For more writing tips, visit my Writing for Kids page on my website, where you will find posts and resources for writers of rhyme and prose. Also, consider joining me for my SCBWI webinar on October 19, Don't Tip the Scale: Balancing Story and Rhyme in Picture Book Texts.