Rhyming stories have always been popular with children. From Hilare Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children to Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter’s The Dinosaur that Pooped series, rhyming stories have had a place on our bookshelves and no doubt always will. There’s something very satisfying about reading a good rhyme – it’s like putting the last puzzle piece into a jigsaw. And rhyme and rhythm are great at helping with reading skills as well as making text easier to remember and above all – fun!
But for writers rhyming stories can pose a bit of a problem. It’s widely believed that rhyming books are much harder to get published, and this is to some extent true as it’s harder for the publisher or agent to sell translation rights. The text either has to be translated word for word, losing the rhymes in the process, or almost completely rewritten. However, the popularity of rhyming texts is testament to the fact that publishers are still publishing them; you only have to look at the success of Julia Donaldson. But the text has to be good. The rhymes have to delight. There are plenty of pitfalls to stumble into when writing in rhyme, so I’ve put together a few tips that might help when you’re coming up with your own rhyming story. The tips are geared towards picture book writers but hopefully will assist with any rhyming-based writing activity.
- Put the stronger rhyme second
When you’ve got two rhyming words that end your lines, think about positioning them so the weaker rhyme goes first, followed by the stronger rhyme. This gives the impression that a great rhyme has slipped naturally into place rather than just because it fits. For example, in my book Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip, Professor McQuark is looking at the other inventions in the science fair and the couplet reads as follows:
“A yo-yo with slo-mo, a door with a zip,
But nothing as fine as the Oojamaflip.”
This is much stronger than if I had written it the other way round, where it would sounds like I have come up with the “door with a zip” invention just to fit the rhyming pattern. Of course I have, but positioning it first makes it seem like I haven’t!
- Don’t forget the rhythm
Rhyming books aren’t just about the last words, they are about rhythm too. Imagine a song where you have to fit the words to the notes. If in doubt, read it out! You’ll soon hear where the words don’t fit. You can also beat the rhythm out on the table (or get your drum kit out). Try this with master rhymers Julia Donaldson or Dr Seuss to get an idea of the ‘beats’ you might use.
- Don’t mess with sentence structure
You do need to think about positioning your words, but try not to end up with a strange sentence structure just to fit the rhythm. Chief suspects are the words ‘it’ and ‘did’ which are sometimes sneaked into rhymes in order to make up the right number of syllables, such as in this made-up example:
“The clock it struck twelve, time to leave for the show,
So off to the big circus tent we did go.”
If you don’t speak like that in real life, it won’t sound very convincing in a rhyme either. If you find yourself tempted, try to rethink the sentence so you get the right number of syllables in a more natural way.
- Alliteration is good in small doses
“She ran to her shed and she banged and she battered,
She sawed and she sanded, she clanged and she clattered.”
Yes, I love alliteration, but almost too much. I have had whole lines rejected because I have turned them into tongue twisters. So use as much alliteration as you like, but make sure you can say it without getting your tongue in a knot.
- Look for internal rhymes
An internal rhyme is a rhyme occurring in the middle of a sentence. For example, in the Professor McQuark extract above, “a yo-yo with slo-mo” rhymes with itself and adds a little extra icing to your rhyming cake. It’s amazing how often an internal rhyme can slip in, so if you see one, celebrate it.
- Don’t let the rhyme tell the story
It’s hard to let a brillant rhyme go, but sometimes you have to when it just doesn’t fit the story. The rhyming words should serve your story structure, not dictate it. Try to think of what you want to say, then say it in rhyme, rather than thinking of the rhymes and then making them into a story.
- Harness the power of repetition
Fortunately for picture book writers, children love repetition. Not only do they like to hear the same story again but they like the same phrases again. The Gruffalo is a great example of this with its repeated phrases, the repeated scene with a variation for each animal and ultimately the story itself repeated but reversed. A repeated phrase allows you to reuse rhymes, but beware of overdoing this as readers still need a surprise or two along the way.
- Make it look easy
Good rhymes look easy but may be anything but! Personally I find that sometimes the rhyme just pops into my head, but more often than not it’s a result of a long dog walk and twenty minutes of washing up before the right word or phrase is finally sifted from the detritus of my brain. I also find that most rhymes can be improved by twiddling with the sentence or swopping an odd word here and there, to make the rhyme look more natural. And don’t feel guilty for looking in a rhyming dictionary or online, but try not to let it seduce you with its long and clever words. Sometimes the best rhymes are the simplest.
You’ve read my advice and are raring to go.
But if you have other tips, please let me know!
Posted in Drafting
Tagged cautionary tales for children, dougie poynter, dr seuss, hillaire belloc, julia donaldson, picture books, rhyme, the cat in the hat, the dinosaur that pooped, the gruffalo, tom fletcher
Recently I’ve been thinking about what stops us writing, and why. It’s a very odd phenomenon, but one that seems almost universal amongst writers, that we continually procrastinate when we should be writing. And yet we love it! We love that feeling of creating something from nothing, the buzz of flying through a world of our own creation. We feel miserable when we don’t write. But we still find it hard to start.
Why should that be? If you like singing, sing. If you like writing, write. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Here are some reasons why I think we put up these barriers to creativity, and some suggested solutions. If you have any more solutions, let me know!
Writing is probably the most demanding of the arts, because you are literally creating something from nothing. The whole world of Harry Potter is simply lines on some pages. The rest is JK Rowling’s imagination. You may say art is similar, but at least an artist has materials, a palette, brushes. A writer has twenty-six letters and nothing more. The act of looking at a blank notebook or screen can be so overwhelming that it can stop you writing a single word.
Try writing a train of thought, anything that comes into your head, just to get you going. Write a daily diary, just a few sentences or impressions. Jot down snippets of conversation. Write down a ‘found poem’.
Having enough confidence in your writing is a daily battle for any writer, published or unpublished. Who doesn’t hear their inner critic carping on and telling them everything they write is rubbish? My productivity increased hugely when I learned to ignore this destructive inner editor. I just tell him/her that I’ll change it later if I don’t like it, but for now it’ll do thank you very much.
Ignore the critical voice. That’s for the editing phase later on. Try entering some small competitions to increase confidence in your writing. Read writer’s success stories – they succeeded because they persevered. Be happy to make mistakes. No one has to see them if you don’t want them to so who cares?
- Too much to do
It’s easy to put writing at the end of a long list of tasks. Or not to be able to relax until your workspace is sorted. Or simply not have enough physical hours in the day to write. If you are truly a writer you need to learn to put writing at the top (or near the top) of your list. You’ll feel better for it, and if you write before you do household tasks you’ll find you’re thinking of your plot as you do other things.
It’s tough to write if your work hours don’t allow you much spare time. The solution is learning to write in short bursts. You do get used to it, and even a few sentences each day builds up quickly. I write for fifteen minutes a day while I have breakfast. I often do more, but that is my regular slot. My book is progressing slowly but surely during that time. When my children were young I wrote a complete book during their weekly swimming lesson, half an hour at a time. Sitting in that changing room surrounded by screaming children and stressed parents was completely chaotic, but funnily enough, writing took me out of it.
- Feeling disheartened
When you’ve been trying to get published for a long time, it’s only natural to feel disheartened and wonder if it’s worth slogging on. If you feel like that I recommend finding an outlet so you are producing something that the world sees. This could be a blog, a self published book, articles for local publications, competitions, twitter poetry – any opportunity that will allow you to express yourself and feel validated in your output. When I wasn’t getting published in fiction, I started writing sketches for my local am dram society. This led me on to entering play competitions, and I won Best Script at Pintsized Plays. Now I have short plays being performed all over the country. It wasn’t an avenue I had imagined myself pursuing, but now I love it, and it kept my spirits up while I was submitting to children’s publishers.
Explore other avenues. Try self publishing, for example through Amazon Kindle. Enter competitions. See if you can write for local magazines. Start a blog reviewing books. Enter poetry competitions. Make a scrapbook or family history book. See yourself as a writer of anything, not just your genre or field. You may find more opportunities that you thought.
- Writer’s block
My view on writer’s block is that it doesn’t exist. But sometimes you may find yourself going through emotional situations that are too draining to allow you to concentrate on writing. If that happens, be kind to yourself. Don’t worry about the writing, it will be there for you when you’re ready.
Take your time and do things that you can manage. Read a writing magazine or visit a library. Watch a TV adaptation of a favourite book. Write what you feel like writing, not what you feel you should be writing.
I hope some of my suggestions are helpful. How do you break down your barriers to writing? I forgot to mention, a cup of tea and a snack also help the flow!
Thank you to everyone who entered the Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip publication day giveaway. It’s been inspiring to hear your writing resolutions for 2016. I hope everyone has a fruitful year!
The winner (drawn out of a tissue box – appropriately as I have the mother of all colds) is… duitwit! Sorry not to use your real name duitwit as I’m sure you have one. If you email me at lou dot treleaven at sky dot com with your name and address and who you’d like the book dedicated to, I will pop it in the post to you.
I had a lovely tea party yesterday with some friends to celebrate. We ate gingerbread Professor McQuarks, oojamaflapjacks and square balloon peanut blondies (brownies without the cocoa). I signed lots of books and felt like a real author!
The sign for the toilet!
We also made Professor McQuark fortune tellers / cootie catchers / chatterboxes – there are lots of names for these little gizmos but basically you fold the paper and work through the three options until you have an idea for an invention. Then you can draw it, act it out or simply muse on the possibility of actually having a portable cloud straightener or whatever your result is! If you’d like one of these, simply click here to download a pdf which you can then print and follow the instructions to fold. The artwork, as always, is by the incredibly talented Julia Patton.
You can also find Professor McQuark’s Curiously Creative Cootie Catcher at downloadablecootiecatchers.com
It’s nearly publication day! Fifteen years ago I started submitting children’s book manuscripts to publishers. Five years ago I decided to share my list of publishers I was submitting to by putting it on my blog. I never dreamed it would be such a popular post, with nearly 800 comments, queries and even success stories. It’s been great sharing the ups and downs of publication with so many people. Finally, on 28 January this month, my own dream will come true and my rhyming picture book, Professor McQuark and the Oojamaflip, illustrated by Julia Patton, will be published by Maverick Books.
To say thank you for everyone’s support, I would love to give away a signed copy. If you would like one, please share your new year’s writing resolution below! On publication day I’ll print out the comments and pick one at random. I’ll then be in contact to ask you for your address and dedication.
If you are still submitting, don’t give up! I made this promise to myself and I’m so glad I did. I will keep updating the publishers and agents lists and keep encouraging you all. Maybe your success story will be the next one on here? I hope so! Have a brilliant 2016 and keep writing.
One day, a creature called a Hugh came across a list of publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts, selected one called Strident and sent off his book, The Almost Animals. The Hugh was a remarkable creature, half writer, half actor and half zoologist… no, that won’t work. Tell you what, I’ll let the Hugh tell you his own story…
Firstly, congratulations on your book deal! Can you tell us more about your publication journey?
Thank you! Well, the process was a lot quicker than I had anticipated. Although I’ve always enjoyed writing, this was the first book that I tried to get published. I came across your wonderful blog post, ‘Children’s publishers accepting unsolicited manuscripts’. Strident were the first ones I approached, and they got back to me very quickly. In fact, I think it was the same day. I was expecting to have to wait three months for a response, so when Strident’s MD, Keith Charters, got in touch asking to read sample chapters, I was very pleasantly surprised. An hour later, he asked for the rest of the manuscript. He then told me that it wasn’t quite publishable as it was, so to go away and sort out a few bits, before coming back to him. The alterations were mainly aspects that weren’t quite suitable for the young age of my intended audience. My mum and sister had given me similar advice (they were the only others to have read it at this stage), but it took a literary professional to sway me. Maybe I’ll listen to them next time. Maybe.
I made the changes and polished the manuscript further, then submitted it to Keith again. I remember, very clearly, the moment I was offered the publishing deal, as I’m sure every author does. I was spending a long weekend in Bucharest with my girlfriend. I missed Keith’s call, but he left a voicemail, saying he’d read through the manuscript and could I call him back. My girlfriend – she does have a name, by the way – decided to go and have a shower so I could be on my own to call him back. We had a long chat about the book, and then he said those magical words. ‘We would like to offer you a deal.’
Hollie. Her name is Hollie. Anyway, I had heard the shower go off ages and ages ago, halfway through the phone call. She had dressed, got ready (we were going out), and then just sat quietly waiting to come out, not wanting to disturb me. It was only when she came out and hugged me that I realised I’d been naked the whole time. Sorry Keith! Good job we hadn’t Skyped.
At the same time I approached Strident, I also emailed the Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency
. I was just finding out to whom I should address my submission. By the time Clare – now my brilliant agent – got back to me, I already had the offer from Strident. I had a lovely meeting with Clare, and signed with the agency. She then helped me with the whole process of contracts and negotiations.
After that, several months of edits, rewrites, and the surprising realisation that I was also going to do the illustrations.
You are an actor and also a zoologist. Is writing something you’ve always wanted to do as well? What made you decide on writing a children’s book rather than a film script or play?
I have a background in natural history, including a degree in zoology, but it isn’t really a job. More of a life-long passion. It’s all just fascinating to me. Acting is my main thing, but as any actor will tell you, there’s often plenty of time for writing. I mostly work in film and television, so even when I am actually doing that, there’s lots of waiting around, which can be a good time to write. I have always enjoyed writing, and I have a trail of many books in various stages of completion stretching back to when I was in my early teens. It was always something I wanted to do some day, but was somehow always in the future. I guess I’ve caught up with myself in that respect. Is that a form of maturity? Almost certainly not, but I’ll take it.
My current project notwithstanding, The Almost Animals is the only children’s book I’ve written. It was just an idea I had, and decided to explore it. I have ideas for screen and stage, and will hopefully develop them at some point. In fact, I am keen to create a screenplay of the book I want to work on after this current one. ‘A film by Hugh Holman, based on the novel by Hugh Holman, starring Hugh Holman’. Yes, that’ll do nicely.
It’s really just about ideas, and how best to present them, whether as words on a page, or through actors on a stage.
As a zoologist you have obviously been drawn to write about animals. What made you decide to mix them up with each other? And which is your favourite?
I suppose it was a way of creating weird and wonderful beasts in a way that is more grounded than just inventing creatures. Even though they are just as impossible, they seem more real. At least, I think they do. I found it very interesting deciding which traits from each species they should have. I do actually have a rule for them, which, at least to me, stops them being too fanciful. The aminals can’t just be random hybrids. Mammals are crossed with mammals, birds with birds, reptiles with reptiles. I break my rule with only one group of aminals. The frogmeleons.
Creating these mixed up animals gave me a bizarre background in which to set my story. Or rather Angle’s story. She came into my imagination fully formed. Crocodiles and alligators are very similar, in some ways. They fill the same ecological niche, they have the same dorso-ventrally flattened bodies, lots of teeth etc. But we are actually more closely related to chimpanzees than alligators are to crocodiles.
The world would, surely, be a better place if everyone focused on our similarities. We are all just animals.
My favourite aminal is probably Spriget the snug. I’m not sure I ever actually refer to her as a snug, but that’s what she is. A bright blue snug.
The world of the aminals is so well-imagined and believable. Any plans to return to it in the future?
Hurrah, thank you for saying that! I have a second book planned out quite thoroughly, and vague ideas for a third one. I’m not working on them yet though, I have other things I want to write first. The stories will only loosely be connected. I will return to Nowhere, but not necessarily to the aminals we have already met. Though, of course, as in any village, familiar characters will crop up here and there.
Book Two, when it happens, will focus on a small pengkiwin. He originally had a slight mention in the first book, but was lost in the rewrites. Now what do you suppose a pengkiwin is?
Have you enjoyed working with Strident? What do you think the advantages are of working with a smaller publisher?
It’s been a wonderful introduction to the publishing world. I’ve been in close contact with Keith, at Strident, since the beginning, so I’ve felt very much part of the process the whole way. Also, I think I have retained more creative control than I would have with a larger publishing house. Being able to illustrate the book was great, and not something for which I had really planned. I just sent some sample drawings when Strident were looking for a suitable illustrator. Just so they could see roughly what I was picturing. The cover, too, which my brother and I designed. Well, I came up with a vague design and Michael actually created it. He is much more of an artist than I am.
As this is my first experience with a publisher, I can’t really compare it with anything or anyone else, but I have certainly enjoyed the process. I imagine that with the bigger publishers, the author has less control over the aspects other than the text. I might be wrong.
Do you think being an actor has helped your writing in terms of portraying character and action?
Yes, I would say it has. I certainly develop the character onto the page the same way I would build a character from a script. In my head at least. And I picture every scene as though it’s part of a film, and when I play through it in my mind, I know exactly what the characters are feeling and how they move. It’s then a case of translating the cinematic view into some descriptive text. Well, that’s sort of what my brain does anyway. I’m sure it’s similar to other authors who aren’t actors, though.
There is definitely an overlap between the acting and writing. It would be hard to separate two such complementary creative paths.
Any words of advice for writers who are submitting manuscripts?
You can never go over the manuscript enough. Edit, edit and edit some more, until it’s as polished as you think it can possibly get. Then ignore it for a couple of weeks. Then polish it some more. Then, if you’re lucky enough to be offered a deal, be prepared to find out over the following months that it wasn’t that polished after all.
Confidence is something that every unpublished writer has trouble with. There are days when you think ‘Hey, I’m pretty damn good at this!’ but they are invariably followed by crushing doubts about your own abilities. Once a publisher or agent has shown interest, the confidence boost is palpable. When I was offered my publishing deal, it suddenly seemed to validate everything I had written for the last ten years. Which is silly, because most of it is almost certainly dreadful. But still, at least one thing I’ve written has promise. Hurrah!
And finally… what’s next for Hugh Holman? Acting, zoology, writing, illustrating… or something new?
I’m currently working on another children’s book. This one is also of a zoological nature, but will involve real-world animals. Not aminals. After that, I want to dive into writing another book, which I have been planning for ages. It won’t be for children.
In terms of acting, I am shooting some great stuff at the moment, very exciting. I can’t really talk about that though.
In February, I am going travelling around South East Asia for three and a half months. Expect to see many photos of orang-utans and Komodo Dragons.
Hugh, thank you so much for your time. Readers, I think we can agree that the Hugh is indeed an amazingly versatile creature who proves that, with hard work and determination, you can achieve anything you put your mind to. Let’s hope that, if spotted in the wild, he remembers to put some clothes on.