Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rhyme As Linguistic Evolution

Have you ever wondered how rhyme came to pass? In the history of language and linguistic development, there must have been a certain point when the first rhyme was uttered. But when did it happen? I'll be digging into that question on my web site: as I research the history of one of our most frequently maligned literary forms. For now, this entry will just scratch the surface to pique your curiosity.

Suffice it to say, we will probably never know exactly when rhyming began. But let's consider its possible roots. Just think of it. As questions go, we are no where close to nailing down our own humanoid ancestry, much less the point when gutteral utterances became fraught with meaning, however simple it may have been. Perhaps as people gained a certain facility with the spoken word and communication became less of a struggle, some bright soul simply decided to play.

After all, without radio, TV, the printing press, the microphone or any phone, people had to do something for entertainment besides going to war. And even for that, you pretty much had to be within shouting distance to have any effect. Once people discovered how to have fun with phonics, rhyme couldn't have been far behind.

But how about this for a question to ponder: Instead of being so much doggerel, could rhyme indeed be a higher form of intellectual expression? Same-sounding words are sometimes elusive, especially if the rhyme is to be considered good. And more than that, the lines of words must also carry a virtual tune as measured in meter, cadence and rhythm.

And as long as we are pondering, in a certain way, could the unique linguistic quality of rhyme have parallels in puns? Could the rhymer and the "punner" (or might we say pundit?) actually be cut from the same linguistic weave? If these are the things that make you go, "hmmm?" then you may have all the makings of a rhymer, whose words are waiting to run free.

So, grab your pen or keyboard and let your mind wander in search of the very best kind of story-telling device: the all-purpose, unbridled, multi-faceted rhyme. If you want to share a few of your line endings, drop me a comment here or to my e-mail address:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Holiday Rush

I don't have to tell you this. But it's busy this time of year.

On the one hand, it's busier than it ought to be--you know, just enough to make complaining seem to be the natural order of things: if only the mall wasn't so crowded and there were more parking spaces available and where is all this traffic coming from any way? Don't people have to work any more?

On the other hand, aren't we all just a little glad everything is so hectic? It means people have a little money (or a little plastic) in the pockets for a change. It means store inventory is moving--maybe not as fast or as much as shop-keepers would like, but still.

Spirits are lifted and people seemed a bit lighter on their feet as they move from one spot to the next. Maybe it's the weather. Cool and crisp isn't so casual. It's button up, pay attention, get what you need and move on. The livin' ain't easy in winter.

Then, again, maybe it's the coffee that's putting the spring in our step. Ah, kaffe! What would we do without it? Why, it's almost critical enough to want to say a little prayer for just the right amount of corporate wisdom at Starbuck's to keep any more stores from closing--unless your preference these days has shifted to Mickey D's, that is.

Well if it is the coffee, here's a little something to linger over as you savor your morning mug. Enjoy....

Ahhh! Café, Kaffe, Coffee
By Bill Kirk

To paraphrase the bard,
Would coffee by any other name
Taste, you know, like coffee?
Why, how could the question even be asked?
From the devout, there can be only one reply:
“Yes, a thousand times, yes!”

For proof, just consider the choices
In origins, types, flavors and roasts,
Not to mention all the little extras on the side—
And the methods of preparation.

Why, there’s café, café au lait, café latte,
Capucino, espresso, java and joe.
Get it for “here” or get it to go.
As for types, what’s you pleasure?
“High test”, half-caf, or de-caf?
Columbian, Kona, Mountain Grown (isn’t it all?),
Roasted dark, medium or light?
Then there’s Irish Cream, Vanilla Nut,
Macadamia and Chocolate.

As for additives, don’t get me started.
Well, OK. You don’t have to get me started.
I’m already there.
I mean, what’s not to like about all those sprinkles
From chocolate to cinnamon to nutmeg.

Not to mention the milk.
You got your non-fat, half and half, whole
And even whipped cream
For the decadent souls among us.
And did someone ask for non-dairy creamers?
What flavor would you like?
Sweeteners alone will boggle the mind,
From real to fake, from raw to refined.

Of course, it goes without saying
Coffee is actually meant to be experienced—
Not just consumed.
And there’s no more need to confirm (as in olden times)
That the last drop is as good as the first.

As a sign of largesse, I’ve even heard said
It’s polite to leave a tad in the bottom of one’s
Heat shield protected carry out cup,
That is, unless one is a "somebody" who has
Invested in a designer mug
From one’s favorite coffee emporium.
To demonstrate one’s oneness with the earth.

By the way, I saw Black Pearl Coffee the other day—
Thought it was tea at first but it was coffee all right.
There it was, a bit exotic and aloof, if you ask me,
Just sitting right there on the counter
Next to an urn of brazen Amaretto.

It took me aback for a moment
Until I got my bearings and found my usual.
Mind you, I ain’t sayin’ what that is--

Don’t want to be labeled, you know....

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.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Writing Life-Cycle

As a new author still awaiting publication, I've been thinking about my own writing experience and what becoming a writer has meant for me over the last few years. I must admit seeing all the work my fellow authors and illustrators are doing has been an eye-opener.

In the beginning, my thinking was if only I could get a rhyme published in a children's magazine, I will have arrived. The first time that happened, I was excited, both about publication and about the small check that came in the mail. Looking back on that experience and each one after that, there was still excitement but I realized there must certainly be more to do and much more aspire to. The magazine credits were only stepping stones to getting a book published. Along the way, the submissions and rejections were growing pains.

After five years of trying, one of my rhymes struck a resonant chord with the publisher at Guardian Angel Publishing, a small publishing house in St. Louis, MO. OK, I thought, just shoot me now. I have arrived at last. But after the initial euphoria, I realized most of the work was still ahead of me. I mean, I didn't even have a web site up. So, I struggled, fortunately with lots of help from a good friend who knows his way around the cyber world, and finally checked that off my list of things to do. You can check out my web site at

Thinking I would be overrun with visitors to my site, I was amazed that the world wasn't beating down my door. Granted, my web site hasn't been up very long. But what’s up with almost no visitors? Well, I soon figured out that most of the relatively few hits on my site, particularly during the first couple weeks, were ME. The giant lump in the boa constrictor was my checking and tweaking and checking and tweaking to get the site fixed like I wanted it to look.

Then the whole blog thing popped up on the horizon. Intellectually, I understand the term "blog" evolved from "web log" which started as kind of an on-line journaling thing. Beyond that, I still don't quite get it. However, I can see the advantages of having a blog as a means to an end. So, by golly, I got me one of those, too.

For each step along the way, I thought, this is it. Magazine credits, book contracts, web sites, blogs. Then a friend pinched me awake by explaining if I am not doing anything with my blog, it might as well be parked in a storage shed.

So, I burned my feeds, pinged my blog and, be still my heart, I signed up for Facebook. I'm even beginning to get into adding blog entries from time to time. Whether anyone will read them is another thing but at least the blog is out there—if you are reading this, thank you and come back again.

Yet after all this, somehow, I had the feeling there was still more to be done. Having a book, a web site, a blog and all the rest is still not enough. Each piece on its own, although good, is insufficient unless it is leveraged. I'm still not quite sure how to do that very well. But I can see it is something that needs to and can be done.

Your turn.