Syntax in Poetry and Poetic Voice in Rhyming Picture Books

Rhyming picture books are tough to write and sell. And it’s not the rhyme that’s the issue! Syntax in poetry is just as important as end rhyme. Sometimes more important. As is poetic voice. These are two things a lot of aspiring picture book writers forget.

syntax in poetry, poetic voice, rhyming picture book, verse picture book
Writers will twist themselves into sentence pretzels to hit end rhyme, but what about syntax in poetry? Don’t sacrifice poetic voice on the altar of rhyme.

What Is Syntax in Poetry?

There are many poetic elements to consider. Stressed syllables, unstressed syllables, trochees, dactyls, anapests, iambic pentameters … describing all of these various things is beyond the scope of this post. (A great companion to your poetic endeavors is Rules of the Dance by Mary Oliver.)

So let’s walk it back. What’s probably the most common error I see in rhyming picture book texts, and the number one issue with poetic voice? Inverted pretzel syntax!

Basically, if you don’t speak a certain way, don’t write a certain way just because you’re trying to hit your end rhyme. Here’s an example:

As if I’m on an island deserted,
Is my feeling when the verse becomes inverted.

Now, the prevailing attitude with first-time rhyming picture book writers seems to be, “What’s the problem? I hit my end rhyme! I jammed it in there and you can’t take it away from me! Besides, poetry’s supposed to be kinda goofy-sounding…”

WRONG. I cannot tell you how many times I read an aspiring picture book manuscript and have century confusion. Why are people suddenly using “thus” and “hitherto”? Did I stumble into an illuminated manuscript? What’s with the Victorian-sounding sentence structure?

Here’s an idea. If you wouldn’t speak a certain way today, in your normal life, do not write that way when you try to write poetry. It really couldn’t be simpler. There is no difference between poetry syntax and normal syntax. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be. The best poetry employs all of those fancy-sounding tools, above, it scans well, but it also sounds quite natural.

Which Brings Me to Poetic Voice

The famous Anna Karenina quote goes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Hear me out. I’d like to extend this idea to picture book manuscripts. Along this same line, in my experience … bad poems are all alike. They tend to shoehorn in end rhyme in syntax that doesn’t make sense, say simple things in overly complicated ways, and use outdated phrases and words to make the most elementary of points. (“To make the most elementary of points,” in fact, is a great example of saying something simple in a complicated and outdated way!)

I’ve given all of the above notes thousands of times in helping writers find their own picture book writing style. That’s why I always recommend two solutions:

  1. Rewrite the story in prose. A lot of writers get so caught up in rhyming that they lose focus on the story. Take away the verse and see if there’s still something there worth telling. If there is, decide whether it makes the most sense–to serve the story–to put it back in verse.
  2. Take away all of the contrivances. All of the mistakes I mention in the above paragraph, find them and strip them out. You’re going to wreck your poem, I know. But if your poem relies on some bad technique, it’s not a great poem to begin with. Then rephrase the problem areas in your own voice. Not the voice of what you think a poem should be. Not an 18th century voice. Your voice.

Writers often struggle with finding their own style. Fantasy writers usually start out writing in Fantasy Voice, with elaborate syntax and a very specific descriptive style. The problem is, this isn’t their voice. The same thing happens with poetic voice. Aspiring poets write how they think they should.

But Dr. Seuss wouldn’t be Dr. Seuss if he hadn’t invented his own style. My advice would be to learn what makes prosody tick, then write your own path through your rhyming picture book text. Read everything aloud. Make sure it sounds natural. Avoid wonky syntax. Doing that, you will be well on your way to your own unique poetic voice–and not someone else’s.

I work with tons of verse manuscripts as a picture book editor. If you want more advice, check my website so nice. (Get it? I’m disregarding my own advice about awkward syntax? Ha!)

 

Literary Themes in Your Writing

Literary themes flummox a lot of writers, but theme in fiction doesn’t have to be the enemy. In fact, if you haven’t yet chosen the central theme of your book, you need to stop and do some serious thinking. When you select a literary theme correctly, it can actually become a strong writing tool.

literary themes, theme in fiction
Imagine your literary themes as a strong story core, the rope that pulls everything together.

What Is Theme in Fiction?

When I’ve written about novel theme before, I’ve defined the topic as the central idea of your book. (I’ve also written about what not to do with your writing theme…) Good themes for middle grade, for example, can be grappling with independence or identity, or wanting to grow up while also feeling the pull of staying a kid. Great picture book literary themes include friendship, embracing differences, or overcoming fears and finding one’s courage.

The problem with heavy-handed theme is that some writers are too overt. “I love trying new things!” their picture book characters shout.

Their middle grade protagonists muse, “I just want to stay a kid sometimes, and not have to deal with all of these big decisions.”

This hits the theme too squarely on the head, and readers don’t usually appreciate being handed information on a platter. They want to dig a little bit.

So your job is to decide what your core theme is. For example, I was chatting with a client the other day who didn’t think he had a theme. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I exclaimed, “Of course you do! It’s how secrets affect the people trying to live with them!” It was so obvious throughout the work.

Luckily, this client had imbued his work with a theme without even trying. If, on the other hand, you’re struggling, think about something that all of your characters (or most of them) are dealing with. In this case, it was “secrets.” In your case, it might be “forgiveness” or “identity” (though I’d argue that’s a theme in most kidlit) or “accepting what you can’t change.”

Good. Now put it on a Post It or keep it front of mind.

Making Literary Themes Work For You

The key to theme in fiction is that it define your work without popping up all over the place. The best themes are buried. So what do you do once you’ve decided on your theme?

Make sure it affects character and plot. For character, work in some kind of conflict for your protagonist where they struggle with your theme. If possible, let other characters struggle with the theme, too, but in different ways. If you were using literary themes of “identity” and “acceptance,” have one character be able to easily accept who they are, and another character struggle with it, for example. This won’t be the main plot for each character–struggling with identity is an internal conflict, not usually an external one–but it should factor into the story in some way that demonstrates multiple shades of the topic.

Next, write a few scenes throughout that force the character to confront the theme. In my client’s theme of “secrets,” there are several scenes where the past either comes back to haunt the characters or they’re forced to confirm or deny devastating information. So let theme surface in an actionable way–this is the external conflict piece.

Now, you can also use theme to help you revise. This is my favorite part. Consider your story core. Think of it as a rope. The rope runs through the entire story, and all of the elements of story hang on the rope.

Literary Themes in Character and Plot

Go through your story character by character. Does each character connect to the rope in some way? If not, can they? Obviously, the main characters should touch the theme in bigger ways than the barista who appears in one scene. But still. Can each major character hang from the rope of your theme?

Now, plot. This is where revision miracles happen. Go through your manuscript scene by scene. Does each scene have a connection to the rope, even if it’s a very, very slight connection? For the scenes that do, perfect! For those that don’t, are you sure you need them? Are you sure they fit into your story?

The writers who are bold enough to cut material that doesn’t fit their story core or connect to the rope of their theme are the ones who pull off strong revisions. A lot of the time, writers are afraid to cut material, and end up with a lot of “darlings” that they can’t kill. Considering each scene’s thematic impact is a powerful way to make sure your manuscript is as cohesive as possible.

All of this work is subtle, with most of your thematic work happening behind the scenes. But when done well, it can be extremely effective.

Struggling with the bigger picture of your story? Hire me for editing services and we can dig into your creation together.