It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to post this on November 30th, which has been a significant day for our family. (It was on November 30th, three years ago, that our daughter, Nora Pepper, was born, only to pass away sixteen days later from a very rare disorder.)
This year, we have something—or someone—new to celebrate: Eleanor “Ella” Davis was born on Halloween, 2020! Happily, she is thriving, and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome her to the world.
“Eleanor” is a subtle nod to Nora, and “Davis” honors my stepfather, who suffered a debilitating stroke on November 1st, 2019. Even though she’s her own wonderful little lady, Ella has some fantastic guardian angels watching over her.
Ella joins older brothers Theo (4.5) and Finn (21 months). They are tolerating her so far. Ha!
My husband, Todd, and I, are so happy to be done building our family. Ella is the perfect ending to a long and somewhat tumultuous story. Or, rather, the beginning to our journey as a family of five.
2020 has been an incredibly long haul for so many people, and for so many reasons. But our 2020 has ended on a high note, and we find ourselves incredibly grateful for the support of our friends, family, my amazing team at Good Story Company, and all of you Kidlit readers out there who have followed my personal story over the last few years.
How to hit the right emotional note to attract a reader—or melodramatic vs dramatic—is a key consideration of writing relatable fiction. It’s a juicy question! We want our readers to know that something BIG is happening, but we don’t want to lose them with violet prose. How can we pull this off? Read on!
Melodramatic vs Dramatic, A Definition
It’s important to think about toning down the high emotional description, especially during really emotional events. That’s when you want to rein it in, which seems counterintuitive, I know, but when the situation is screaming and the character is screaming, and the tone of the writing is screaming, that’s overwhelming and can stop feeling authentic.
In the fight of melodramatic vs dramatic writing, I define them this way:
Melodramatic: Inauthentic high emotion that has the potential to distance the reader, including use of histrionics, violet prose, and ?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!? Facebook punctuation.
Dramatic: Appropriate language and character expression that capture the tension and emotion of a high-impact moment which let readers know that emotion is called for, without going over the top.
Obviously, the melodramatic vs dramatic definitions above are heavily biased, but when we write for kids, I really want to stand up for authenticity first. That’s what will come across as true and vulnerable to your readers. Let’s see it in action. For example, imagine that a kid learns that their parents are getting new jobs and moving across the country.
However, if your character is always acting like someone died, you are at risk of violet prose. You are also blunting readers to what’s important and potentially abusing the Law of Diminishing Returns.
Here’s an example of melodramatic writing:
Katie fumed at the top of the stairs, having overheard the monstrous, devilish, life-shattering news. They were moving?!??!?!?! How could her parents do this? It felt like her soul had been rent from her body and dashed against the cliffs of despair. She could die. Maybe she had? Maybe this was hell itself? One thing was clear: life as she knew it was utterly and completely over.
Now, let’s consider how to take this dramatic situation and give it a bit more finesse. After all, we want to make sure it lands as serious in Katie’s world, but maybe without quite so much flailing and rending and dashing. For example:
Katie froze at the top of the stairs, her hand gripping the banister. But Rochester was hundreds of miles away—from her school, her friends, the only house she’d ever know. If she left behind all of the things she considered hers, that had gone into the last thirteen years of her life, who would she be, even? Would she still be Katie Higgins in Rochester? Or someone else, new and strange? The familiar design of the wallpaper swam in front of her eyes. Soon this would be someone else’s house. And soon she’d have to answer all of these strange new questions for herself.
What’s interesting is that I took a very subdued approach here. Yes, there are BIG questions and ideas, but the thoughtfulness helps to bring a lot of the main issues to light. She stops to consider the ramifications of this—or the stakes. That, to me, establishes the impact more than violet prose ever could (more advice on writing drama). It gives me a portrait of a character thrown into a real identity crisis. It wins the melodramatic vs dramatic face-off because it considers the practical effects of this news. That carries a lot of weight that, to me, is truly heavy and dramatic, rather than being excessively bloated and melodramatic. It captures the stakes, not the freak-out.
Struggling with tone and description? Hire me as your novel editor and we will find your unique writing voice together.
Let’s reenter our workshop series, here with a submission from writer C.C. I hope you all had some amazing holiday times with loved ones. Now it’s time to buckle in and head into 2020 writing. And if you want to, you can shout to the world that you’re Too Kidlit To Quit in 2020. 😉
The Workshop Submission
No one remembers a beginning. Even though a beginning is one of the most important times in an existence. Not the existence, but a specific one.
I worry that this opening is too vague-sounding to really hook readers. I’m not interested in “an existence” in general, or philosophizing about beginnings. I’m interested in getting an actual beginning on the page. This sounds like a bit of throat clearing, with the writer not knowing where to start, I’m afraid.
It was an ocean. Then it was a river. It was whales and sharks. Nautiloids, ammonites, horseshoe crabs—forever it was assumed.
What is the first “it” referenced? What is the last “it” referenced? Specifics are key when starting a story, and here, you refer to two different “it” subjects, but I’m not clear on either. Consider that confusion is not the same as mystery.
But then something shifted. A shrinking. It got colder, then warm again. The salt drained out, replaced with fresh water from mountains far north and from all the rain. The porous limestone banks hold testament to their existence. A scrapbook, a social media before there was a way to capture images for the future to see.
What is the “it” that gets colder? Is this the same “it” or a different it? I feel like the writer is using “it” to stand in for general “things” or “the atmosphere,” but since “it” is used so often, IT is hard to keep IT straight. Also, what is “their” in the limestone sentence? The banks “hold testament to their [own] existence”? I see the grandiose scale that this writer is trying to evoke, but it’s too slippery, I’m afraid, for me to latch onto. I’d much rather start in specific action, in a specific setting, with a specific character. I do see some very lyrical writing here—the writer clearly has a strong sense of the writing itself! But sometimes, by leaning on this strength, they could have a blind spot elsewhere. In this example, a sense of action and character is lacking.
Sturgeon still swim to the salty water to spawn. The armored fish were once as plentiful as the frills on her gills, but thanks to their delicious eggs and their sportsmanship when it came to dying, they’d been hunted to almost extinction. Humanity will be the cause of the sixth major extinction, no doubt.
I really like “their sportsmanship when it came to dying,” this is a really interesting turn of phrase. But who is “her” (the one with the gills)? Is it the sturgeon’s gills? The gills of a main character not yet named? The pronoun really throws me here.
But she’s digressing, trying to get to the topic of humanity. Humans who have changed her river with their farming and industry. Such diligent creatures like the ants who pontoon on the rivers’ surface to float from one side to the other.
It’s amazing how often writers include “notes to self” in their own prose. Here, this writer says that the narrator (I’m guessing this is the “she” here, but whether that’s the same “she” as the one with gills is still unclear) is “digressing,” but I think the writer is aware on some subconscious level that they’re the ones digressing. Always listen to your gut! The inclusion of ants here only muddies things for me. I’m waiting for the focal point, and I’m not seeing one yet, I’m afraid.
It’s not just the topic of humans though that she’s trying to get to. Her mind is like the river. It is always flowing in one direction, yes, but there are cypress knees to get around. Topics come up like bubbling underground springs.
Some truly lovely writing, don’t get me wrong. But, like the river, this opening meanders. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to latch onto, as the reader. My hunch is that this writer hasn’t found their true opening page yet, and that’s totally okay. This provides some nice imagery, and some potential places to start.
That’s all they wrote! Tune in next week for more workshop.
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.
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:
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.
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 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 literary themes correctly, they can actually become a strong writing tool.
What Are Literary Themes?
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 book themes is that they 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 (more on revision techniques). 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.