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tend to shoehorn in end rhyme in syntax that doesn’t make sense, say simple things in overly complicated ways, and use outdated phrases and words to make the most elementary of points. (“To make the most elementary of points,” in fact, is a great example of saying something simple in a complicated and outdated way!)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!)