Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Secrets of the Rhyming Stars - Happy Independence Day!

I realize not all of you hail from the USA, but today it's all about stars and stripes here.  And we've got a guest post whose a star in her own right – of All-American rhyming picture books, that is!

But before we get to her post, I must remind you that you have a very limited time to perform your civic duty and VOTE for your favorite new Rate Your Story logo at last week's post.  (Ironically, one of the choices has stars.)

Without further ado, I "shine" the Writer Wednesday spotlight on...

Jill Esbaum!

by Jill Esbaum

    If you’ve ever watched wannabe stars try out for American Idol, you know that the majority enter the audition room with high hopes – only to exit tearfully a few minutes later. When it comes to exceptional singing voices, you’re either born with one or you’re not.

    Similarly, some writers are blessed with an inborn sense of rhythm and rhyme, while others aren’t so fortunate. The good news is that writing skills, unlike dreadful singing voices, can be improved.

    The best rhyming picture books have certain things in common:  perfect rhythm, flawless rhyme, and an irresistible story. If your heart is set on writing in rhyme, the secret to wowing the editorial “judges” is mastering all three of these components.

    * The story’s rhythm pattern (meter) must be consistent – even if read by a hundred different people. It’s fine to use an alternating pattern if there is a reason for doing so – as a refrain, perhaps, or as a purposeful thud for comical effect – and if it doesn’t trip up the reader. Print a hard copy of your story, then mark stressed and unstressed beats to ensure consistency of meter. Have a friend read your manuscript aloud. If she stumbles or has to put an unnatural stress on a word (or syllable) in order to make the rhythm pattern work, you have revising to do. You can find an excellent rhythm primer, Writing Stories in Rhythm and Rhyme, on the website of author Dori Chaconas (

    * Match the meter to the story’s subject to help establish mood. If you’re writing a bedtime story, for example, you wouldn’t use the same exuberant, galloping meter you’d use for a story about a horse race. Read Lisa Wheeler’s rollicking western, Sixteen Cows.

    * Avoid near rhyme, and take into account regional pronunciation differences. In most of America, rain and again do not rhyme.

    * Use unexpected rhymes, rather than easy ones like made, sad, and glad. And always use proper syntax, rather than twisting lines for the sake of rhyme. Lines should read the way a person normally speaks.

    * Talk “up” to your readers, never down. It’s fine to introduce a complicated word now and then, especially if it’s fun to say. In my Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’!, I used true-to-the-time words like geezers, galoots, rubberneckers, whippersnappers, spittoon.

    * So your rhythm is perfect. Your rhyme is flawless. That’s terrific, but if you’re writing a character-driven story (as opposed to a concept book), the same rules apply to rhyming stories as to those written in prose. Remember:

    * Know your plot. Before you begin, write a one-sentence synopsis of your story to help you stay focused. If you have trouble condensing your story to one sentence, look at the title pages of published picture books for examples.

    * Introduce conflict as soon as possible. Give your main character (MC) a goal to reach
or a problem to solve, then let him solve it himself.

    * Dive right into the action. The reader doesn’t need to know anything about the MC that doesn’t directly relate to his problem/goal.

    * Action should escalate, the MC’s problem should get worse, his goal more difficult to reach.      

    * Give your readers a satisfying conclusion. Better yet, leave them with an unexpected twist. By the end of a story, your MC should have grown or changed somehow.

    *Show; don’t tell. Reveal your story in a series of scenes.
    *Include dialogue. Hearing a character’s voice brings him (and the story) to life.

    * Weed out words/lines that don’t add anything new to the story. Every word of every line must move the story forward and convey a precise meaning.

    * Use specific verbs, vivid language, fresh similes and metaphors, alliteration, onomatopoeia.

    * Shoot for a low word count.

     * Avoid intrusive illustration notes in your manuscript. If an occasional illustration note is needed in order for the text to make sense, keep it brief.

    * Stay in the MC’s point of view. Whether you’re writing in first person point of view or third, your reader should experience the action through the MC’s senses.

    Have fun, and your reader will, too. Rhyming and Wacky go together like the Three Stooges and Cream Pies. Read Lori Degman’s 1 Zany Zoo.

    When it comes to crafting rhyming stories, practice really does make perfect. Besides tinkering with your own stories, examine a variety of published rhyming picture books. To get a feel for meter, read them aloud. Study their plot structure. Learn to recognize problem areas in
your own work. Embrace revision.

    And before you know it, you’ll be on the fast track to stardom.

Jill Esbaum is the author of eleven picture books with major publishers, including the award-winning Ste-e-e-e-amboat A-Comin'!, Estelle Takes a Bath, Stanza, and her latest, Tom's Tweet (illus. by Dan Santat). She is a former instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature, and, in addition to critiquing picture book manuscripts privately, she is a longtime workshop facilitator at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and co-hosts the annual Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop. Jill and her husband live on a family farm in eastern Iowa.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!  Comments are open!  And don't forget to VOTE


  1. EXCELLENT post! Always love more instruction on rhyme. Thanks!

    1. You're welcome, Julie! Thanks for reading. :)


  2. Thanks for the excellent post! I love rhyming pb's and struggle so much with writing them, but I wont give up! Thanks for the tips! :)

  3. Oh, oh..I need to revise the poem I am about to submit to a periodical. Thanks for the tips, Jill!

  4. Great post with excellent tips! Thanks, Jill!


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