I met up with the lovely Weronika Janczuk the other day and we got to talking about data. There isn’t really a lot of data from aspiring writers on how hard they actually work toward getting published. How many manuscripts have they written? How do they receive outside critique and support for their writing?
Since I have the eyeballs of many writers here on Kidlit, I decided to create a survey for published writers of all children’s book categories. Tell me about your journey. The survey is for my personal use only and your identifying information will not be shared. I do ask for words of wisdom and may post those on the blog, but otherwise, I’m just looking for raw data. (For a cool survey that’s a few years old and centers around middle grade, click here.)
That data (numbers only) will be turned into a handy dandy infographic.
Agented and published writers are welcome to take the poll below!
Scene description tends to flummox many a novel writer. The devil is in the details, you’ve heard. Well, it’s possible to have too many details, and also too few. Then there are static details. Ack! How to walk this fine line when crafting your own scene description? Read on.
The Ideal Balance of Scene Description
Scene setting exists to not only bring your reader into your story, but give mood to each scene, and do world-building. A 1950s kitchen will be very different from an alien world. The issue is, many writers don’t know how much scene setting is too much, or how much is too little. They don’t know where to put it in their prose. They struggle with its overall arc as the novel progresses. Here are some thoughts for achieving that ideal balance.
Considerations About Reader Attention
When you write scene setting, you are directing reader attention. You are either highlighting a place, or downplaying, according to the amount of description you choose to include.
Yes, it’s possible to get bogged down with description, and, as a result, scene setting. We’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s also possible to skip scene setting altogether and end up with a strangely ungrounded project.
Remember this when you write: How much you describe something directly ties into how important a reader thinks that something is. As you decide how to describe a scene, how much, and when, keep this in the back of your mind.
You can describe a scene more liberally the first time a character visits. This is their introduction to a place, after all, and you want readers to create it in their minds. But don’t do a few big paragraphs of description at the beginning of every scene. This will be a pattern readers grow tired of. Instead, think of places to pause and insert description throughout the scene that takes place in a certain setting.
Once that groundwork is done, future visits to that place can do with less scene setting. But you don’t want to abandon it completely.
Too Few Scene Description Details
If you suffer from too little scene description, pick some evocative details of each scene. A big problem in novels without setting is that scenes often turn into talking heads. Just dialogue and human motion. These tend to read very quickly and readers won’t feel grounded. Can you pick evocative details, maybe that match the emotion of the scene? Pepper them on pages where you see a ton of dialogue and little action.
Maybe three or four details will be all you need. Maybe you’ll sit and start thinking about the room and be inspired to describe it more. As a good rule of thumb for you, try a few sentences of scene setting at the beginning of each scene that your characters enter. Then, when they go back to a location, note any changes or comment on how the setting might feel different because of all that has happened since the characters’ last visit there.
Too Much Scene Setting
Indulgent scene setting is an opposite problem. Usually, writers lavish the first page set in a specific scene on description. This can stop action cold. Redundancy also becomes an issue, especially if description is ongoing, even though a character has visited a place many times.
Think of a new scene or a new chapter as an invitation to the reader. You are asking them to join you for the next installment of story. If you immediately bombard them with colors, smells, the various textiles and appointments of a room, the vibe in the air, the music drifting in, and all of these other small details—that’s a lot to keep in mind. It makes the beginning of a scene, which is ideally a light and inviting thing, seem heavy and too complicated.
If you struggle with this issue, limit yourself to three significant details and three more specific details. And don’t introduce all of them when a character first enters the scene. Pepper them throughout.
How Scene Description Changes Throughout
Think of the scene setting in your novel as having its own arc. You will be doing more scene setting at the beginning of a novel, simply because you are introducing readers to a world and its environments. They have never been to each place before, they will want to see the big picture and a few evocative details.
But as the story moves forward and the settings become familiar, don’t drop your scene setting. Simply shift your focus. Is the diner dreary on this foggy day, as the character goes to sulk over a milkshake? Does the brilliant sunshine over the field cheer the whole place up? As characters go through a story, they will develop relationships to the places they have been. These relationships can change the character’s viewpoint of a place. They can add emotion to the place.
Pick three locations that your character visits a lot. Can you give them an emotional “tone” every time the character goes there? Add some specific scene setting description that teases out a sense of arc? Even more neutral settings can contribute to story with a few well-chosen descriptions.
Work with me as your developmental editor and we can address your questions about scenes, arcs, and writing description in a focused encouraging one-on-one setting.
When I first started this blog in 2009, I did a few critique contests and had a lot of fun providing feedback on small snippets of writing. I did another critique series in 2011. My wonderful social media assistant, Amy, pointed me to another blog currently doing this for thriller and mystery writers, and I thought, why the heck not do some critiques again?
I’d love to be able to feature content more regularly. My articles are usually quite long and take a while to write, and critiques will be a fun break in the routine. So here we go!
What I’m Looking For
This current opportunity is for MG and YA novel openings only. I am seeking the first 250 words of your fiction as a submission. The submission will then be critiqued on the blog as a learning exercise for the person submitting as well as the reading audience.
Not everyone who submits will be guaranteed a critique. The last time I did this I had to close submissions after 100+ people sent their projects. I’m aiming here for a series of 10 or so critiques, and I will choose samples based on their potential to teach the writer and my readers something interesting about the craft or the marketplace.
If this is fun and works out well and you learn a lot and like it, I’ll do the same thing for picture book openings in the winter.
What To Expect
I’ve done a series of “workshops” on the blog before. You are welcome to search the blog for other workshops I’ve done in the past (not all of these results will be relevant). This post is a good example, though the sample is quite a bit longer than what I’m looking for here.
I will reproduce the 250 words that you send and weave some comments in with the text, as well as giving overview feedback. Hopefully readers will flock to the series and give additional feedback in the comments.
How to Submit
Please send the first 250 words of your MG or YA novel opening (only the first words of your novel, after any quotes you’re using) copied and pasted into an email message. I will not accept attachments for this opportunity (#ripinbox).
You are welcome to give me a few lines of context for the submission, like whether it’s MG or YA and whether it’s a WIP or has already been on submission, but keep this brief.
Only the submissions selected for the workshop series will receive critique. I regretfully do not have time to explain my reasoning for selecting or not selecting a particular piece. No private critiques will be given during this opportunity. All submissions will receive a response within eight weeks with an update about their selection status.
I anticipate a lot of responses, so writers not following these directions will be disregarded. I’ll then take a few weeks to sift through submissions and start the series in September or October.
The Potential Implications
The understanding is that if you submit, I may choose your excerpt and feature it on this blog. I will provide critique on the snippet and readers may contribute their thoughts in the comments. This is a learning exercise and the purpose is to teach and to learn, for the writer submitting, and the people reading. There will be no financial gain for either of us during this exercise. I am not paid for the critique and you will receive no immediate financial benefit. No rights are exchanged, and you retain the use of your creative work once this is done, as well as the ability to use any comments you receive to improve the work. I do not own the work.
Some people may not want to submit their work for a public opportunity like this because they do not want to share their work online. Some people wonder if their odds of attracting agent or editor attention will increase or decrease as a result of this opportunity. I make no claims or guarantees in either direction. All I can say is that I fully believe your work will be stronger as a result of receiving critique. But the ultimate choice is up to you. If you are hesitant at all about participating, do not submit.
If you can’t wait for this opportunity and want to work on a private one-on-one basis, hire me as your book editor and we can dive in together.
I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)
Long Sentences Are Hard Work
There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)
I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.
Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.
(This happens to be my favorite activity…)
Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.
It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.
Reading Long Sentences Aloud
Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?
People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.
Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!
If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.
Perhaps this is a contrarian approach to character development, but I don’t care what your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream is. I don’t necessarily want to know what sport they played, or what their spirit animal is (unless these factor into the plot, of course). A lot of character development that writers are coached to do doesn’t really translate into great story. So what should you focus on? Keep reading to find out.
Why Ask Character Development Questions?
A lot of writing books suggest getting to know your characters. Act like you’re interviewing them. Ask them questions. This, the logic goes, will lead to deeper and more nuanced character.
But you have to ask the right questions! I have seen spreadsheets that writers have created of a character’s hometown, favorite TV show, etc. None of these things move the needle. A key part of writing character, in my opinion, is creating vulnerability. Inner struggle is crucial to character and story. Those are the deeply human elements that are going to reel your readers into the heart of your characters and stories. If you’re not asking these types of questions, it’s never too late to start.
Things to Consider When Doing Character Development
Here is a list of character development questions I wish more writers would ask their characters or about their characters:
What is your deepest conscious desire?
What is your deepest unconscious desire?
What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
What do you want from yourself?
What do you want from other people?
What, if anything, is preventing you from achieving either of the above?
What’s your most positive and supportive relationship?
Is there any conflict to it?
What’s your most negative relationship?
Is there any positivity to it?
If there were no obstacles, what is one thing you would do in a heartbeat?
What obstacles (internal and external) are preventing you from doing that?
How do you feel about yourself on a good day?
How do you feel about yourself on a bad day?
What does an ideal life (referring to the character’s own life and situation) look like, to you?
What does an ideal world (referring to society at large for the character, his or her loved ones, and people in general) look like, to you?
What three experiences from the past defined you in the present?
Where do you see yourself in three months? One year? Three years? Ten years?
What is the inner wound or inner struggle that keeps you up at night?
What is your ugliest side? How do you manage it? Does it ever overtake you?
What is your most noble, best side? How do you encourage it? What’s keeping it from shining more often?
What does it feel like to you when you’re stressed? Bored? Angry? Proud? Happy? Excited?
Is there any friction between how you see yourself, and how others see you? If so, what is preventing you from closing that gap?
These questions aim to address a few crucial (I believe) components of character development: What are the inner struggles? How does the character deal with adversity? How do they see themselves in their mind’s eye and in relation to others? How do conflicts and tensions affect them?
The rest of the decisions you make about their favorite subject in school and what kind of cake they like … those are fun but fluffy. Here, I aim to drill down to the very real. Why? Because these are the relatable things that your readers will connect to on a deeper level.
What to Actually Use
One big mistake I see is that writers do all of this character development, and then shoehorn all of it into their manuscripts. They can’t bear to leave any behind. But some of those spreadsheet ideas need to stay in the spreadsheet. The purpose of doing any kind of “getting to know you” work with your character is that you sit down and do the work. You get to know them. You plan them out.
Invariably, some of that work will end up on the “cutting room floor.” It’s for you, it’s not for the reader. Though you’ve developed it, you don’t necessarily have to use it on the page. And you don’t want to be terribly overt with the answers to the above questions, either. Avoid putting these things on the page. Real people don’t walk around saying, in dialogue with others, “My childhood wound is that I wasn’t loved enough.” But if this is true, it drives a lot of their behavior anyway.
Think of it as homework, not necessarily something for the final product. Focus on what’s really important when it comes to character. Leave the rest for your spreadsheet.
If you struggle with character development, you might want custom, actionable advice from a novel editor. I can help take your protagonist, and therefor your story, to the next level.
Some writers don’t have to decide on their main character, the protagonist has been in their imagination forever! Others, though, struggle with the choice or protagonist. These writers having big casts of characters, multiple POVs, or small, tightly knit ensembles. If you find yourself struggling to define the main character in your story, read on.
If you have trouble selecting the best potential main character for your manuscript, you’ve come to the right place.
Choosing Your Main Character
One question I’m asked a lot is: Does a character have to change from beginning to end? This is otherwise known as a character arc. My answer has always been a resounding yes. Unless you’re writing an antihero (a tough proposition, especially for younger readers), a character’s change arc is going to be one of the more interesting parts of your story. Whether your character learns something by solving a problem (common in picture book) or undergoes a fundamental identity shift (as seen in MG and YA), their potential for change is a big determining factor in who you should select for a main character.
Remember what readers want. They read to care and feel. That’s it. Change is messy, it’s emotional, it’s usually very gratifying. The character who changes the most is also the character who has the potential to connect most with your reader. If this isn’t currently your main character, you might have a decision to make.
Main Character and Emotion
One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy about writing is interiority, or access to a character’s thoughts, emotions, reactions, and inner struggle. The character with the biggest change arc usually also has the most potential for emotional scenes. The character is going through a lot, they feel deeply, they aim to learn or grow … readers will want to see this on the page. By choosing this dynamic character, with deep, nuanced feelings, for your main character, you will be putting more emotion into your story. The scenes of your plot will have more feeling to them. What you write about will seem to matter more to readers. If your character floats along, not changing, not really feeling that much, do they have enough potential to be a true protagonist?
The other thought here is about novel theme. Every book has something that it’s about, in a big picture sense. Character will often be tied into your theme, meaning that if you want to write about loss, then maybe a good protagonist in that type of book is grieving. So when you choose your protagonist, and you think about their journey, and their potential for emotion, you’ll also want to think about how all of these things align with your bigger picture. If your book is about self-acceptance and your main character spends most of the story in denial, while their friend plays a supportive and emotionally vulnerable role, maybe you’ve chosen the wrong point of view. Let the lens of the character match the thing you want to do or say with your project.
Special Consideration for Picture Book Main Characters
I was speaking to a client this weekend who has this problem with a picture book. He has three potential candidates for the protagonist. In addition to all of the thoughts, above, I gave him the following advice:
Since it’s generally a bad idea to use adult or teacher characters to dispense picture book lessons, the main character in a picture book should be the character who realizes the moral of the story themselves. Which character here can realize the strongest solution to the problem, and present it to readers in a kid-friendly and realistic way? That should be your main character.
This client had one character who would’ve been a good mouthpiece of the message, which was about dealing with change (a perennial picture book theme). But there was another character who was actively going through a change. I counseled this client to pick the character who was experiencing change, because readers would be much more receptive to hear from that particular character about how to deal with it. That character would be speaking firsthand about the topic, rather than giving a more passive lecture.
In summary, follow the change, follow the development, follow the emotion. Connect these back to your theme. The person who hits as many of those points as possible is your book’s main character, and if they’re not, they should be.
Struggling with creating a relatable protagonist? I can be your developmental editor to help you create the necessary depth and nuance.
Less than a year after hiring several editorial assistants and a social media and marketing manager, I’m growing and hiring for Mary Kole Editorial again! Now I’m looking for a dedicated administrative assistant to help me with the day-to-day logistics of my business. This will be a part time position (20 hours or so per week, unless need increases).
I’m also looking for editors, ghostwriters, and proofreaders for referrals of overflow work. I find myself turning work down if a project isn’t a perfect fit for my team, and would love some qualified editors and proofreaders to recommend. Sometimes my clients also look for ghostwriters. This is an opportunity to receive referrals. I’m especially looking for excellent proofreaders, ghostwriters, and editors who specialize in non-children’s fiction.
This remote position is perfect for someone who has experience as a support person and administrative assistant, either in the corporate or start-up space. Maybe you want extra income as you work on your own writing, or need to work from home.
Ideally, your skills and attributes include:
Clean written communication–you will be writing on my behalf sometimes, and that means clear, error-free, delightful copy
Time management and dedication to deadlines
Ability to set, then meet or exceed expectations
Clear communication with me about timing and progress
The ability to follow instructions but largely work independently and take initiative
Reliability and trustworthiness, you will be privy to sensitive business information
Proactivity and love of learning–if you don’t know how to do something, you will seek out additional resources, learn what you need, and enjoy the process
Familiarity with the Google suite of productivity tools, especially spreadsheets, Dropbox, DocuSign, and Slack
Some basic graphic design skills using Canva and templates
Commitment–I put a lot of energy and passion into my working relationships, and I’m only looking for people who could see being available for a minimum of two years, ideally more
Projects will include:
Tracking and following up with potential client inquiries
Bookkeeping, issuing client agreements, generating invoices, and tracking payments
Reaching out on my behalf to marketing opportunities
Responding to inquiries on my behalf
Helping set up and update various marketing elements like email newsletters and webinars
This is not an editorial position, unfortunately, but I welcome applicants who are interested in the publishing business, as we will invariably end up discussing the industry and various client and project needs.
Starting pay is $15/hour with the opportunity to grow, and my needs will start at 20 hours a week (as a minimum, never less) though they might increase to up to 29 hours a week. You will be a 1099 contractor for tax purposes (responsible for withholding your own income taxes and reporting them), rather than a W2 employee. Please understand that I am not in the position to offer employee benefits, like health insurance. This is an opportunity for US-based candidates only for legal reasons. (I sadly had to turn down many qualified editorial applicants from abroad during my last hiring event.)
I’m looking for cover letters and resumes sent in the body of an email or as an attachment. Please use the subject line “Assistant Application” and send to email@example.com. The deadline for applications is Friday, June 7th, 2019 at midnight, Central. The next step is a phone interview for qualified candidates. Since we will be working very closely together, the personality fit factor is important here. I welcome all applicants! The position would most likely start at the end of June or beginning of July.
If you’re interested in being an editorial, ghostwriting, or proofreading referral, please use the subject line “Editorial Referral” and send to firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no deadline on this request.
Too often, one dimensional character translates to predictable fiction. Flat character descriptions have the potential to sink your novel before it really gets off the ground, especially in children’s fiction. Picture books suffer from caricature as well. Here’s why one dimensional character is harmful, and how to avoid it.
The Danger of Flat Character
One dimensional character is, basically, quite boring to read. A lot of manuscripts I’ve seen over the years pick an attribute for a character (“the brave one” or “the shy one”) and then … that’s it. The Brave One can always be found doing something brave, the Shy One is always hanging in the shadows without speaking, and the whole manuscript proceeds along these lines.
It’s as if the writer has boxes they feel they need to check, and various attributes they want to include, and that’s it. But these caricatures aren’t true characters, and they’re no fun to read. They’ve also been done thousands of times before … the definition of flat character. This goes for protagonists, secondary characters, antagonists, even the helpful librarian (I’m talking to all of you middle grade mystery writers!). The kid who loves adventure (shout out to my picture book people).
Every type of characters deserves nuance. Something to make them surprising, something to make them relatable, something to make them complicated. So take your thumbnail sketch of the character you’re writing and thrown in a few wildcards. The thing is, nobody makes sense all the time, or plays to “type” consistently. And if they do, there’s something wrong.
How to Fix One Dimensional Character
Throw a surprise into the works. Does the Shy One come up with a bold idea? Add struggle. Maybe the Bold One hates being the daredevil, but they’re overlooked in their large family if they don’t stick out–sometimes with disastrous results. What’s something the reader can’t tell about your character at first blush? What’s a secret your character is keeping? An unexpected desire? A rebellion against their identity, or what others think of them?
Imagine a scene in your manuscript that will make readers change their opinions of your character. Maybe it’s after your character says or does something controversial, dangerous, tame, or “out of character.” Write this scene. Aim to change not only the reader’s mind, but the minds of other characters who think they know the person in question. You’ll have a flat character no more!
You may find that you like playing with impressions and expectations. You may uncover a character attribute that you will then incorporate into your manuscript. How does what you learn change your character’s arc? Objectives? Motivations? You may be inspired to do this “second impression” scene with your other important characters.
Surprise yourself. Surprise your characters. Make sure you never suffer from the one dimensional character pitfall again.
Character is the window to story for your readers. If you’re struggling creating a compelling, multi-layered protagonist, I can offer customized advice and feedback as your developmental editor.
As spring comes to my corner of the world (finally!), I am thinking about writing motivation. This is a conversation I have endlessly with my editorial clients. How does one stay motivated? How does one stay motivated despite dealing with rejection, which is, unfortunately, part of the writing life? How does one maintain writing motivation when life threatens to get in the way? Here are three common scenarios where writers find themselves needing motivation. See if any of this resonates.
Writing Motivation When You’re Not Writing
All you want to do is write, dang it, but life keeps getting in the way. You made a goal to write fifteen minutes a day at one point, but paying bills and cooking food and showering seem to steal that time.
This may sound like strange advice, but don’t focus on finding time to write right now. That will only make you feel worse about not writing. Instead, fill your creative well with indirect writer motivation. Take a walk. Binge Shark Tank (or is it just me?!). Sketch something funny in the margins.
The harder you push yourself to write, the more stressed you’ll become. And sometimes, it pays dividends to be nice to yourself. Maybe this isn’t your time to write right now. Maybe this is your time to recharge. After all, burnout is a very real thing. Do something else creative and see if it inspires you to go back to the page.
I had this conversation a few days ago with a client who hadn’t done their scheduled revision because life got in the way. I told her what my midwife said to me a few weeks ago at an appointment: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” So before you try to pour, refill your cup in other ways, if possible. And if it doesn’t happen every day, or on any kind of schedule, that’s fine, too.
You’re not doing your best work when you’re stressed or forcing yourself.
Writing Motivation When You’re Stuck
When you’re stuck on one thing, the best writing motivation is to start flowing elsewhere. Either skip over the section where you can’t seem to catch a break, or work on an entirely different project. You can always go back and splice sections of writing together, or switch documents when inspiration for the current dilemma strikes again.
But too many writers, in my experience, buy into the idea of writer’s block and let their momentum slow in front of it. If you’re otherwise on a roll (and not taking some downtime, as advised above), don’t let a problematic section slow you down.
I firmly believe that writer’s block is just fear talking. You might be trying to avoid writing bravely about something vulnerable or true. Ditch it for now and work up to it. If you’re finding it difficult to generate writer motivation, you may want to fly in the face of common sense and start with a totally blank page. Face the enemy head on! Freeing yourself from what you’ve already written can be a good way to generate new ideas.
Writing Motivation When You’re Discouraged
Nothing stops writer motivation cold faster than rejection. Whether that’s rejection received from others or, even more dangerous, rejection received from yourself. Writing can be a lonely, long road and it’s hard to paste on that smile and get to it when you feel low.
Good writing motivation in this case is doing something else proactive, where you can see results more easily. For example, posting to your social media and getting a tangible response from your audience. You got two new followers? Great! Instant gratification is a cheap thrill but it can feel good when you need a win. You can also do something proactive for someone else. Have you been putting off working on a critique group submission? Is there a beginning writer you could mentor? Can you attend a friend’s reading to show your support?
Reminding yourself that there are successes out there, and celebrating them, even if they aren’t yours, can be a good way to reinforce that there’s room on shelves. And one day, your book might fit there. This may be easier said than done but it’s worth a try.
Finally, reading is always inspirational. Read a writer you admire, or a new book you’ve heard a lot about. Read an old favorite. Read something that has nothing to do with what you’re personally writing.
Or, you know, eating an entire pizza works, too. You do you.
If you’re hitting a wall with your writing, let personal, actionable feedback energize you. Work with me as your book editor.
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!)