Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reasons to Avoid Writing Rhyming Picture Books

This semester is mostly about picture books for me. Reading them, reading about them, thinking about them, writing essays about them, and attempting to write some new ones of my own. Oh, and rewriting them a million times. It's what I have chosen to focus on for this semester of my MFA. I've written two verse picture books in the past but neither use rhyme. They are both a series of poems that use sound, repetition, language and imagery. I admit it - I avoid rhyme. Why? Because I know how hard it is to do well.

I've been writing poetry for nearly 30 years, and in that time have written sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, sestinas and triolets. All of these use rhyme, except sestinas which have particular rules about how to use end words. These are forms that require a lot of patience and hard work, and they can easily go wrong. But you're dealing with poems that might only be 8 or 14 lines long. Short enough not to send you around the bend.
Unlike a rhyming picture book.

In order to use rhyme and rhythm effectively, I think firstly you need to be able to scan - to work out the stresses and/or beats in a line of poetry, and see or hear which stresses are heavy and which are light. You need to hear the rhythm and, more importantly, hear when it's wrong or clunky or missing something. It's not just about syllables, it's about which syllable in a word has the heavy stress. Important - the stress is on por. Icecream - the stress is on ice. It's easy to fool yourself if you're not practiced at it.

Some people can hear this naturally - they're able to easily and fluently use rhyme and rhythm to great effect. Most people have to work at it over a period of time before they get good at it. Secondly, you need to know lots of words. You can use a rhyming dictionary, but that can lead to some strange word choices, and it's easy to just find a word that fits the required rhyme when you should be choosing the best word you can. It's also easy to fall into the trap of inverting words to make a rhyme work. Walking across the paddock green. We don't talk like this anymore, and so it doesn't work in poetry today.

Rhyming restricts word choice. It's a huge challenge to write a good poem that rhymes and also uses great language in ways that add to the poem instead of detracting from it. Rhythm creates its own problems - again, it can be so easy to end up with a rhyming poem that has a da-da rhythm guaranteed to bore anyone to sleep. Put bad rhyme together with the da-da rhythm and you have doggerel.

When it comes to rhyming picture books, add all of those challenges on top of the crucial demands of writing a great story with engaging characters, a strong plot and less than 600 words ... it can become an impossible feat to achieve. So when I came up with an idea for a picture book story two weeks ago, and the first lines insisted on coming out on the page in rhyme, my heart sank. (See, now I'm using cliches as well!) I persevered, hoping that the rhyme would disappear and the story would emerge shining and new and without the rhythm that kept running through my head. Some hope.

I now have four messy versions of this picture book, four lots of different verses - and in every single version, the verses have a different pattern of beats/stresses. I can't even pick out the best and put them together because none of them match! The only thing that is saving me from running out into the street and screaming at the moment is that despite the rhyming curse that has struck me, I've managed to get a plot worked out - independently of the verses.

Now, this might not be you. You might either be really good at this (like Julia Donaldson of Gruffalo fame, or Lynley Dodd who writes Hairy Maclary stories), or a general rhyming whizz. You might be sitting there thinking what an idiot I am, and what is so hard about rhyme, for goodness sake. But if you, too, have tried to write a rhyming picture book and been driven around the bend, then you know exactly what I mean. Let's stop it right now, shall we? Or maybe I'll go back and have one more go at it...
(P.S. And of course now I discover Julia Donaldson has also written a picture book called The Rhyming Rabbit. But she has always been a song writer. That explains a lot.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Setting Your Own Deadlines

A writer friend and I were talking today about what we'd like to achieve with our writing this year. She has been working on a trilogy for a long time but has had to put it on the back burner for a while, so she wants to get her head back inside the story and commit to it again. I have a handy deadline of a conference this year, and a new novel - put the two together and presto! I've decided I want to achieve a decent draft of the novel by the time the conference comes around.

But in the past, this kind of incentive hasn't always been there. I've had to simply keep plugging away at whatever I was working on, whether it be the fifteenth draft of a picture book or a novel that may or may not be working. Some people use Nanowrimo to inspire them to write a whole novel, while others are good at goal setting and timelines. Where do you sit?

For many of us, work and family commitments shove their way into our spare time and energy, taking over until there is nothing left. If you work in a job that requires a fair amount of creative energy (teaching is one), you probably struggle to keep some for writing. If you have small children or a demanding home situation (I'll let you imagine what that might mean!) or your health is not good, it can be hard for you to give your writing its fair share of time in your life.

This is where deadlines can be very useful, and there is nothing to stop you setting them for yourself. They can be as simple as 10 pages per week by Sunday 9pm. If you have a big 0 birthday coming up (40 or 50, say) you might start thinking about finishing your novel by that date. You might hunt out some competition opportunities and set their closing dates as deadlines for yourself. Or even find yourself a writing buddy that you can work with to set deadlines and encourage each other to meet them.

Often a good deadline is one with a goal, like a writing competition with its closing date. You can attach a reward to your deadline - If I finish my novel by 31st July, I can book that holiday to the Byron Bay Writers' festival, for example. Sometimes I set a really short deadline and reward - finish 20 pages by the weekend and I'm off to the movies! The thing about attaching a deadline to a reward is the time limit. No putting off those pages forever and a day. You have to have them finished or no reward at all. All of this might sound like the kind of big stick you don't want behind you, but remember the real reward - the more writing you do, the better you get, and the more likely you are to finish that novel.