As of late I have found myself co-writing rhyming books for children and along the way I’ve worked out a handful of dos and don’ts.
Before I get into that though, I should make it clear that this post is only about functional narrative verse, that’s to say telling a basic story in rhyme. It’s not about poetry with literary depth.
First, the Dos:
- Do use a good thesaurus. For successful writing in rhyme, synonyms are king. When you can’t find a rhyme to go with that perfect sentiment, change the word which describes it. For example, if you can’t find a rhyme for “gentle”, consider a simpler, one syllable word with a similar meaning such as “soft”. If you’re online, open up a synonym-searching site and keep it open; thesaurus.com is a good one or, if you’re specifically looking for shorter words, try ironicsans.com/thsrs. I use both all the time.
- Do make use of rhyming dictionaries. Obvious perhaps, but worth mentioning nonetheless. There are loads available online but here are a few of the best: rhymezone.com, wikirhymer.com, rhymer.com, rhymes.net. If you get stuck, it’s a good idea to check for rhymes on more than one of these, as they sometimes offer slightly different results. This is especially true if you are prepared to consider using colloquial words (slang) in your work.
- Do get the beats right. It is absolutely amazing how many people don’t pay attention to this one. By “beats” I am, of course, referring to the “meter”, the rhythm – the “dah-dee-dah-dee-dah” of each line. They can be different for different lines, of course, but they do have to form a pattern. That’s what makes narrative verse fun to read. If you don’t know how to get this right, make it your business to learn. Don’t know where to start? Well, how about reading this page on poetry4kids.com? Ok, it’s aimed at children, but don’t let that put you off. It’s great if you’re rusty on the basics and will give you the springboard you need.
- Do read your finished book aloud. At least once anyway. Yes, you may feel like a fool if you don’t have anyone to read it aloud to, but bite the bullet. There is nothing like reading narrative verse aloud to help you discover whether there are any stumbling points in the rhythm.
- Do consider whether using rhyme is the best way to tell your story. Honestly, you’d be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who are so taken with the idea of writing a rhyming children’s book that they haven’t considered the alternative. Ask yourself, do you have a good reason for wanting to write your story in rhyme? For example, my co-writer and I have recently chosen to write in rhyme because we felt it added comic value. We were writing a funny story about a funny cat and we thought the rhymes were in keeping with that. However, it pays to remember that writing good rhyme isn’t easy. You may be making more work for yourself. Also, there are an awful lot of agents and publishers out there who are less than crazy about reading yet another rhyming book. You might get further if you write in prose. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying have reasons. I’m saying be sure.
Now, the Don’ts:
- Don’t let a good rhyme lead you astray. This is one of the biggest dangers when writing the first draft. You have a good beginning, middle and end in your head. You know where the story needs to go. You’ve got a handle on the emotion of the thing and you’re driving the character(s) in the right direction… and then you fall in love with a great rhyme. It takes you off story, but who cares? You can get back to it, can’t you? You can wander off down the path of a rhyming word that has nothing whatever to do with your yarn and it will merely be a delightful little detour, right? Wrong. Do not let a good rhyme fool you. If it doesn’t take your story exactly where you want it to go, lose it. No matter how it flutters its eyelashes at you. It will loosen your plot and lead your reader into the land of boredom. It will also waste your valuable time.
- Don’t be afraid to cut lines you like in favour of the overall story. This point is really for those of you who are at the redrafting stage. It’s similar to the one above but it’s worth mentioning again, in case you fell foul of it the first time. I’ve been there and I bet you have too. There’s a great feat of rhyming in the middle of your book, it’s funny, it’s clever, it uses at least one word you never thought anyone would find a rhyme for, but the trouble is, it just doesn’t add anything to the story. Get rid of it and its corresponding line(s). I should add that by “get rid” I don’t necessarily mean “cut”; changing it to something which actually helps tell your tale is just as good as deleting it.
- Don’t force the rhyme. This one’s pretty self-explanatory, a forced rhyme is fairly obvious when you see one, it doesn’t really work and it’s jarring to read. It usually involves messing the sentence structure around to the extent that it sounds completely unnatural. For example: “I was hungry, couldn’t wait, / So the food I quickly ate.” You would never normally hear someone say “the food I quickly ate” instead of “I quickly ate the food”. Avoid at all costs. I ought to mention that forced rhymes can also come from the deliberate misspelling of words, though it’s a bit more complicated than the point about sentence structure. There are rare occasions where spelling words incorrectly works, especially when using slang or when it is done for comic effect. All I can say is be careful if you try it – and always look at the end product with a critical eye.
- Don’t use rhyme as an excuse for lack of story. OK, you’re writing a story in rhyme. But the key word here is still “story”. You still need a clear structure, (a beginning, middle and end), one of more great characters and a tale which would be worth telling even if it wasn’t in rhyme.
- Don’t use the same rhyme over and over again. I know there are published examples of this (Dr Seuss springs to mind) but seriously, it hardly ever works. It can also be boring. My advice would be to stay away from it, unless you have some exceptional reason not to… and I certainly can’t think of one.
- Don’t write stories, rhyming or otherwise, where the protagonist is an inanimate object. Yes, I know it worked for Edward Lear. And I know all about the success of Thomas the Tank Engine. But these are exceptions, I promise, because generally speaking children (and adults) find it difficult to relate to a thing. They simply don’t care how a spoon feels when it is stirring tea or how a coat feels when it is left behind at school. If you are a master of personification, you might be able to write about a toy or a teddy bear, or something so emotionally familiar to children that they have a vague chance of connecting to it, but personally, I’d stick to characters who are either children themselves or animals. They tend to work best.
Well, that’s about all I’ve got. I’m sure there are other dos and don’ts on this score and I may add to this post in the future. For now though, all that remains is for me to wish you lots of luck in your rhyming book endeavours. I love narrative verse, so I genuinely hope more of the good stuff comes into the world.
Oh, and if you are wondering whether I have succeeded in practising what I’ve preached, you can find four of the rhyming children’s stories I’ve worked on in Amazon’s kindle store: