Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Writing In Rhyme: Tips and Traps

It's been a few days. But I'm back with a short process piece on rhyme to give you something to think about. If you have ever thought about writing in rhyme... OK, who hasn't thought about it... give this entry a shot. If you want a bit more, you can visit my web site's formative "Rhyming Resource Center". If any of this stimulates a reaction, shoot me a response, good or not.

Writing In Rhyme: Tips and Traps
By Bill Kirk

If you have ever tried to write something to rhyme, you may have hit a wall on the road to rhyming self-discovery. Let's face it, being a rhymer is not easy. Rhyme can be relatively unforgiving in its structural requirements.

To do rhyme well, the rhyming sets have to be right on the mark. If you find yourself stretching just to make two words rhyme for no reason, you'll get a thumbs down from most editors. And "near rhymes" can be just as bad. It may work in song writing but in children's rhyme in particular, near rhymes come across as being too casual and inattentive to detail. Many editors won't give rhyme the time of day because they may have seen more than their share of bad rhyme and simply don't have the time to see if a particular submission, no matter how good it may be, in fact has potential.

As for the rhythm thing, failure to establish a clear cadence can be a rhyme killer. For example, whichever rhythmic pattern (the beats and cadence) you choose, needs to be consistent and engaging to capture and hold a reader's attention. Generally, if the beat is off (unless deliberately done for emphasis), your rhyming ship may be sunk before ever weighing anchor.

So let's pick a rhyme apart for a moment so you can get an idea of what you are getting yourself into. "What Happened To My Hotdog?", which was published by 'Wee Ones Magazine' a few years ago, seems like an OK place to start. Try reading it through out loud to see how easy or difficult it is to pick up the rhythm. Can you find the beat? Do you stumble at any point? Does the cadence move the rhyme smoothly along?

If all that works OK for you, keep your eyes on the rhyming sets while you are reading. They fall at the end of the second and fourth lines in each verse. Does everything rhyme as it should? Are any of the rhyming sets "off" in some way? Are there any distractions that slow down your reading? After you're done, I'll meet you at the end of the rhyme.

"What Happened To My Hotdog?"
(Wee Ones Magazine, July/August 2005)
By Bill Kirk

What happened to my hotdog?
Dad cooked it just for me.
And while it popped and sizzled,
I waited patiently.

When it was done, I fixed it,
So it would taste just right.
I set it on the table,
But now it's out of sight.

I'm looking for my hotdog,
All plump inside its bun.
With ketchup and some mustard,
It glistened in the sun.

So, where's my missing hotdog?
It's nowhere to be found.
Is that a splat of ketchup,
I see there on the ground?

Now, something looks suspicious--
I think I see a trail.
Oh no! There goes my doggie.
He's wagging his short tail.

"Hey, doggie, is that ketchup
And mustard on your nose?
I wonder how it got there--
By hotdog, you suppose?"

What happened to my hotdog?
I guess we know by now.
My doggie found my hotdog.
And made it doggie chow.

So far, so good? Let's take a look at how this little ditty got built.

The first step in any story is to figure out the story line. What is your topic? And what are the boundaries of the story (beginning, middle and end)?

In this case, it is a snapshot of a picnic scene where the hotdogs are coming off the grill and onto plates and buns, awaiting the final trimmings. As usual, kids waiting for their plates are distracted by all the activity. After all a kid can only keep track of so many things with so much fun going on.

Enter the protagonist, a hungry dog (aren't they all) at a picnic, with grub pretty much everywhere. He spots an unattended plate. What's any self-respecting dog to do? The decision is easy.

In no time, the child returns. What is this, a magic show? The hot dog was just here a minute ago! Hey, that dog looks suspicious. Upon investigation, the evidence is clear.

The next step is choosing the format. A short narrative prose piece would work or maybe even a free verse poem. But it seems perfect for a rhyme, doesn't it? Probably needs to be written in simple, short lines which follow the action just as it happened. How should the story begin? It's a mystery so starting with a question fits perfectly.

What about the rhythm? Should it be complex and lengthy or kind of short and punchy? How old is the target audience and what rhythm might grab their attention? If fairly young, a simple sing-song rhythm is effective. Do we start with a hard or a soft leading beat in each line? How do we best use the rhythm to help capture the plaintive feel of what the child is thinking? Will each line have the same rhythmic structure or will the rhythm vary in the first-third/second-fourth lines? Those decisions will determine the word choice to a certain extent.

Now that all the pieces are on the table, it's time to put them together. We'll start with the question and try to make the story fit a simple sing-song cadence pattern as follows (with - being a soft beat and / being a hard beat):

(Line 1) - / - / - / -
(Line 2) - / - / - /
(Line 3) - / - / - / -
(Line 4) - / - / - /

The rest of the process can be slow and tedious. If you are lucky, it may move along quickly and the rhyme will fall into place right off the bat. The key is finding the right words with the right syllable count to fit the cadence.

You already know the rhyming sets will be in the second and fourth lines of each verse. To find the rhyming words in each rhyming set, is essentially a mental exercise of going through the alphabet from A to Z, repeating the rhyming sound with each letter until a series of possible words becomes apparent. An alternative is to use a rhyming dictionary to help speed the process up. Personally, I prefer the mental gymnastics to using a rhyming dictionary. But either way, the challenge is to select the rhyming words which support the rhythm pattern, in turn moving the story along.

The author's last essential writing step is to read the rhyme out loud several times, listening for the beats. If it feels right and sounds right, the rhyme is almost ready to submit. But first, find a guinea pig... er, volunteer... to read it---a critique group is best. If the story is engaging and easy for other readers to follow; if they pick up the same cadence as intended and find no forced rhymes, near rhymes or non-rhymes; you may have a hit on your hands.

Congratulations! Time to let this puppy run and hope it will find an editor who will be similarly impressed.

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