Friday, September 28, 2012

Using Children's Reference Books

This may sound like a strange topic, but it's an insiders' trick that I -- as well as many other writers -- use to make researching new topics easier. And I don't mean just for researching children's books; I use it when writing books aimed at adults as well.

The trick is doing your initial research in children's reference books. And yes, you read that correctly.

I certainly understand if you wonder why. It's not the first idea that comes to many writers. (HINT: That's why it's an "insiders' trick.")

When you first begin researching a new subject, the amount of info you have to sift through can be mind-numbing. For example, I'm working on a humorous adult fantasy story with an Oriental flair. Have you ever looked at any of the standard reference books on ancient China? They're HUGE! Each one cover different material, and it's possible that none of them will give me what I'm looking for. Some of them sound promising but end up focusing on topics more suitable for academics than fantasy readers.

The Ancient Chinese book coverSo.... I ignored the adult reference section in the library. Instead, I wandered over to the children's section to see what they have on Chinese history. I ended up with a couple of titles -- The Ancient Chinese by Virginia Schomp and The Han Dynasty by Myra Immell. Neither of these books is more than 100 pages, yet both cover their topics fairly well and are easy to digest quickly.

Now don't get me wrong. There's a good chance that neither of these books will give me all the info I need. (Then again, they might. I just need some Oriental flavor, as my story is fantasy and not intended to be historically accurate.) But even if they don't, they give me a quick overview of the topic. I can identify things that interest me, then use that info to navigate my way through those thick adult reference materials. That way, I find the useful info much more quickly so I can get back to writing.

In addition, sometimes I uncover little facts that really add to a story. For example, I quickly learned that rice was the main crop in southern China, not the entire country. (In northern China, farmers tended to grow wheat and millet because of the weather differences.) Those are the kind of details that make a story interesting -- that's why it's in the children's book -- yet I might have gone through several large adult tomes and never found it.

Furthermore, these children's books provide suggestions of other potential references, both in books and online. And because these are children's books, and children aren't interested in things like the psychological impact of imperial rule on the downtrodden peasants, they don't bore me with musings about things that won't make a good story.

You won't always find a children's book that can get you started, but you will find one often enough to make it worth your while. So don't ignore this "shortcut" when you need some quick research. Children's writers tend to be fairly intelligent and helpful people, you know. ;-)

The book cover image came from this page at Scholastic.com.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Some Basic Cartooning Books I Use

Let's say you don't think you can draw worth a darn but you want to learn enough to illustrate your own easy readers. That's not as difficult a task as you might think. All you need is a little guidance about basic drawing techniques.

But if you go to your local Barnes & Noble (or whatever bookstore happens to be surviving near you), you'll find a lot of very impressive -- and intimidating -- drawing books. And if you check one of the major online bookstores, you'll be OVERWHELMED by the number of books available. I'll be honest with you -- unless you already have considerable drawing skill, most of them probably won't help you at all. No matter what they say on the cover, most art books are for artists, not for beginners.

But today's your lucky day! I'm going to help you eliminate about 99.44% of the books that won't help you. (Isn't that how pure Ivory Soap is supposed to be?) Today I'm going to tell you a few titles that don't require any previous drawing knowledge in order to learn from them. I"m going to focus on cartooning books because they're the easiest to learn from. I know because I have a fairly large library of art books, and these are the ones that helped me most.

And because we have to worry about such things nowadays, let me say this upfront: If you buy any of these books, I make no money on them. And none of these books were given to me in hopes that I would promote them -- I bought all of these books myself with my own money. In other words, these really are MY picks. Now, let's get on with it!

There are basically two approaches to cartooning, 2D and 3D. 2D cartoons look flat, like in a newspaper comic strip. 3D cartoons look like they have some depth to them. Superhero comic books often use a very sophisticated 3D approach these days, but you don't have to be nearly that fancy. Here's an example from a book by Mark Kistler (I'll introduce him in a minute):

2d vs 3d

The drawing on the left is a very simple and very crude 2D drawing. It's flat. The drawing on the right is 3D. It still looks like a simple cartoon, but it has depth. The point here is that you don't need a lot of "talent" to draw that house on the right -- it's not that complicated. But you do need a little knowledge about how you get that look. You only need a few very simple techniques that aren't hard to learn.

Mark Kistler teaches school children how to draw. I first saw him on a PBS show called The Secret City back in the 1980s, which was a drawing show built around sci-fi. He taught 3D techniques by drawing moon craters and space ships and little alien teddy bears and Twinkies. (I kid you not. Twinkie people are cool.) The drawing above came from a recent book of his called You Can Draw in 30 Days. I don't have that book and, to be honest, it looks as if it's more advanced than the books I'm going to recommend. But this picture tells me that his new book still teaches the same basics as the others.

Mark uses what he calls "drawing words" which are simply words that remind you of a simple technique for getting a 3D effect. He has a page up with what he calls "the 12 Renaissance words of Drawing in 3D" that he allows you to print out. (Just right-click on the image and choose "View Image," then print it from your browser.) It comes from a book called Drawing in 3D with Mark Kistler, which I do have. Personally, my favorite book is Mark Kistler's Draw Squad (his original book), and he also has another book called Mark Kistler's Imagination Station. The number of drawing words varies somewhat from book to book -- the original only has 10 drawing words -- but they all cover the same techniques.

Mark's approach is more like doodling than "art." Perhaps that's why I like it so much.

If you want to focus more on comic strip art -- and there's nothing wrong with that! -- one guy I recommend is Christopher Hart. (He used to draw the Blondie comic strip. Yes, that Blondie.) But be forewarned: Hart has a zillion cartooning books, on all sorts of cartooning, and some of them are probably more than you need. (Do you really want to learn how to draw crime noir comics? I didn't think so.) So I'll make it simple for you -- choose one of these 4 books:
  • How to Draw Cartoons for Comic Strips (this may be the first one he did on the subject)
  • Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cartooning But Were Afraid to Draw (this is one of his bestsellers)
  • Drawing on the Funny Side of the Brain (this one also covers things like creating comic book jokes and doing comic strip layouts
  • Cartoon Cool (If you really like the look of 1960s characters like the Jetsons, this is the book you want)
You can't go wrong with any of those.

Finally, there's Bruce Blitz. His The Big Book of Cartooning dips into a little bit of everything (chalk talks or caricatures, anyone?) but is very thorough. His approach to cartooning is very... lively.

These are all teachers whose books have stood the test of time and whose instructions are extremely simple to follow. If you want to learn how to illustrate your own easy readers, any one of them is a good place to start!

The picture came from this Kistler book review at curledup.com.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Doing Your Own Drawings

When you write easy readers, it's hard not to think about art. Part of the reason that easy readers are easy to read is that pictures do some of the work for you. If you happen to get a book published through a big publisher, they generally take care of choosing an artist for your book.

If you self-publish, you're on your own. You may have a friend who can do the art for you, or you may have to do it yourself. I thought it was about time to talk about that "do-it-yourself" route.

I'll be the first to say that the drawings can be a problem. I have an easy reader that's been written for months but I can't get the art to look the way I want. (The lead character is a Japanese girl, and I want her to look Japanese. I can get the male characters to look right, but not her. It's extremely frustrating!) But there's a world of difference between trying to make the art look a certain way and just being able to draw. If my character just needed to be a girl, I could do that.

CathyThe fact is, most of you could too. Many of you say you can't draw, but think about comic strip characters. Are you sure you couldn't draw something that looked like Cathy Guisewite's character Cathy? You can look at some of the Cathy comic strips at gocomics.com. Most of her characters are pretty simple to draw.

Could you doodle out a girl who looked something like Lucy from Peanuts? Charles Schultz did a lot with circles and dots. Or you could check out Cute Chick and Fat Broad from Johnny Hart's classic caveman comic BC. Both men drew extremely simple men and women.

DilbertYou need a more contemporary guy? Take a look at Scott Adams's strip Dilbert. Could you doodle out something like that?

If you need animals, you could look at Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. Those animals are not just simple to draw, but they're hilarious-looking!

Comic strips are loaded with simply-drawn characters that are extremely popular with most everybody. It's hard to believe you couldn't do something similar to the cartoonists I've mentioned -- the cartoons may look childishly simple, but that's because their artists intend them to be simple. When you know you're going to be drawing a character several times in a strip, in every strip, every day for the next couple of decades, you go out of your way to make them simple to draw!

Occasionally I'll be looking at some of the simple things we can do to make drawing our own art easier. In the meantime, you might want to look at some popular children's characters like Captain Underpants. This isn't rocket science, people. Doodlers are welcome to join in!

Just one word of advice: At least for a while, avoid characters that need to look a certain way... like Japanese heroines. Unless you already know how to draw them, that is.

The cartoons came from this Hubpage and this page at Cracked.com.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Asking the Right Questions

A rather morbid story from the Middle Ages tells of a village that was particularly hard-hit by the Black Plague. After yet another round of burials, it was discovered that one of those who had been interred wasn't dead at all! (How this was discovered -- since they were underground -- is beyond me, but so goes the story.)

Needless to say, the villagers were horrified. The elders called a meeting, in hopes of finding some way to make sure it didn't happen again. The group pondered the question "How can we make sure we don't bury anybody alive?" and came up with a number of inventive but impractical solutions:
  • Bury food and water with the body.
  • Run an air tube from the casket to the surface.
  • Delay all burials by a week until the stench of death was unmistakable.
Finally one of the older members simply asked, "Why don't we just drive a stake through their hearts before we seal the casket?"

I don't know what solution the villagers decided on -- if any -- but it's clear that the last villager was asking a different question. Instead of asking "How can we make sure we don't bury anybody alive?" he asked "How can we make sure everybody we bury is dead?"

Yes, the questions you ask have a huge impact on the answers you get!

Often, when developing story ideas, characters, worlds, plots, or any other idea-oriented part of your writing, you end up stuck. Sometimes the way out of this problem is to change the questions you're asking. The villager did that by rephrasing their question so that he asked an opposite question. There are other options as well.

The idea is to play with your problem. Turn it sideways, backwards, upside-down, and inside-out. How you do that is up to you.

KumquatsIs your main character a boy? Replace him with a girl... or a dog... or a robot... or a purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5. (The photo shows standard Earth kumquats.)

Move his home from a modern apartment to a farm... or a museum... or a school bus... or a tightrope strung across the Grand Canyon... or a large triangular rock with slick purple fungus that smells like burnt rubber.

Change history. (Doesn't have to be a big change... what if zippers were never invented?) Create new ways to travel. (Suppose the newest economy car hops like a rabbit?) Use new building materials. (How about building entire cities from giant Legos made of recycled plastic?)

How would those changes affect the way people dress? The way they talk? (New slang phrases are created everyday.) The way they socialize? The way they eat? (That purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5 might have more problems with people who eat plants than people who eat meat.)

You may not ultimately use the answers you get -- at least, not unless that purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5 is a more attractive main character after all. But those answers should trigger new ways of thinking about the story...

And those new ideas might be the very thing you're looking for.

The photo came from this page at WikiMedia Commons.

Friday, September 14, 2012

First Lines, Fresh Lines

Last Friday I posted an article about ways to generate a story idea when you're facing a blank page. Apparently it's a common problem as of late, because I found a similar article at the Writer's Digest site from earlier this week on the same topic! However, this article takes a different approach and.... well, you can never have enough weapons for attacking blank pages. I don't know about you, but there are too many blank pages around my house. They're everywhere!

This time the technique is called freewriting. The method is even simpler than the flash fiction techniques in last week's post. Here's how you do it:
  1. Get a timer and decide on a set number of minutes for your freewriting. There really are no guidelines on how long this should be. Five minutes is a commonly recommended time limit, but if you do it a few times you may find that more -- or less -- time gives you better results.
  2. Get something to write on and something to write with, then find a comfortable spot to write. You can use notebook paper and a pencil, a journal and a favorite fountain pen, a laptop, or even crayons and a blank wall if that's your thing! Just find some comfortable method of recording the words that come out.
  3. Start writing. And here's where it gets interesting...
See, I know what you're thinking. "I'm doing this because I don't have any idea what to write! How do you expect me to just 'start writing'?"

That's what is so cool about freewriting. You don't have to start with something original. You just need to start putting words on paper and continue doing so until your time is up. The first words on your paper might look something like this (I added the numbers after I finished, to make it easier to comment afterward about what I wrote):
(1) The TV is two feet wide and 18 inches tall. The lamp is white. (2) Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a nation... (3) What was the rest of that sentence? I remember it was something about our country being "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all men are created equal." (4) Equality is a good thing. In Greek mythology nobody was "created equal." You were either a mere human (even kings might be mere humans, albeit powerful mere humans), a demigod, or a god. Of course, the gods weren't any better than the mere humans. Sometimes they were worse, and with so much power they made it rough on everybody. (5) They made Hercules kill his family and then punished him for it! What kind of gods can get away with that? Didn't even one of the gods stand up and say, "Hey, this ain't right. Hercules didn't do anything except be born, and he didn't get a choice there either. You wanna punish somebody, punish Zeus for fooling around a human. (6) He's a god, for Pete's sake! Can't he figure out how to keep the girl from getting pregnant in the first place?"
And yes, I freewrote that without any preplanning. I didn't time myself either, since I just wanted to give you an idea of how it works. I had no idea how to start, so I just started writing:
  1. I looked around the room and started writing down what I saw. (The TV, the lamp.)
  2. Then, for some crazy reason, the Gettysburg Address came to mind, so I started writing down what I could remember of it. When you freewrite, you mind wanders. Let it. You're trying to find out what's bubbling around underneath the surface.
  3. I couldn't remember the exact phrasing so, when I couldn't remember enough to get it close, I just started summarizing.
  4. Then two things hit me at once -- first, the observation that equality is a good thing (duh!) and second, I saw a copy of Who's Who in Classical Mythology laying nearby. I'd been writing a piece about Hercules, and that started the meanderings about...
  5. How unfair the gods were to Hercules and what they could have done instead. And all of that led to...
  6. BINGO! Here's something I can work with! Why didn't Zeus ever prevent babies from being born? Then Hera would probably never have caught him and guys like Hercules wouldn't get hassled so much.
In case you've missed the point, it's not that I could write about pregnancy. The point I've stumbled upon is that the gods weren't so smart after all, since they couldn't even figure out this little piece of strategy. 

If I had really been searching for something, I would have continued freewriting and exploring the possibilities. What other kinds of silly trouble might the gods get into that even a child could figure out how to avoid? Now I've got something to work with!

Now you might be looking at this and saying, "I'd have never gotten that out of what you wrote." But that's the whole point -- YOUR freewriting would have followed YOUR OWN train of thought. YOU would have come up with something entirely different than I did. Freewriting is a way to discover what's bubbling around under the surface in YOUR mind... and trust me, you'll recognize YOUR OWN train of thought when it comes roaring onto the paper. (Or screen, as the case may be.)

The results of freewriting can be unpredictable. That's what makes it so useful! You may get an idea, the way I did... or you may get a few opening sentences... or a rough plot outline... or it's possible that an entire story comes flowing out. If any of those things start happening, I'd ignore the timer and just keep writing until everything comes out. Don't stop to check spellings or correct bad grammar or do any of those "editorial" things that you do in a final draft; all it will do is stop the flow. NOBODY IS GOING TO SEE THIS EXCEPT YOU, SO IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW BAD IT LOOKS OR SOUNDS. AS LONG AS IT MAKES SENSE TO YOU, IT'S GOOD. JUST GET IT ALL OUT.

If you don't get anything useful, that's ok. Go do something else for a while -- do some laundry, run some errands, take a walk, eat some ice cream (hey, writing's hard work!) -- and forget about writing for an hour or so. Then come back and try again. Eventually you'll get something you can use.

Then, when you finally get something out, do you know what you have? Clay. God can create things out of nothing, but humans need raw material to start with. And now you have something you can shape into a story.

Best of all, your paper is no longer blank. Ah, bliss!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pesky Accents

I decided to add another post on verse -- poetry in general, not just easy reader verse -- because of a comment Roxy left on the Some Final Thoughts on Verse post. (I guess they weren't final after all!) Roxy had some good observations and I think I cleared up some things I may not have been clear on, but the comment raised an important concern when it comes to verse.

Some of you, maybe a lot of you, think you can't read or write poetry simply because accents drive you crazy. By that, I mean that you have trouble making poems sound right because you put stressed and unstressed syllables in the wrong places. You need to know that it's not entirely your fault. Most of us are never taught how the whole "feet and meter" thing works, and it doesn't always make sense.

I'm going to give you a quick lesson on how to read verse in meter. It'll help you, not only with easy reader verse, but so you can enjoy reading poetry on your own. And since I wasn't taught how to read poetry either -- what I know has been learned by hunting for a lot of help -- I think this will make pretty good sense to most of you.

In the Suess posts I talked a lot about feet, which are just patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and about meter, which is basically just how many feet there are in a single line of poetry. (In free verse poetry, there are no standard feet or meters, which is probably why it became so popular in the first place.) Once you get the feet and meter right, the words almost skip along on their own and pull you with them. In fact, you can probably follow some pretty complex meters just from knowing old nursery rhymes. Many of them focus on the stressed syllables, the way Old English poetry (like Beowulf) does. Try Little Miss Muffet:
LITtle Miss MUFfet
SAT on a TUFfet,
EATing her CURDS and WHEY.
aLONG came a SPIder
and SAT down beSIDE her
and FRIGHTened miss MUFfet aWAY.
Basically this is groups of two lines of dimeter (two feet) followed by one line of trimeter (three feet). As in the Suess posts, I've shown the stressed syllables in ITALIC CAPS and the unstressed syllables in small letters. The feet are complicated, what with a different number of unstressed syllables in each one. But you can probably recite this with no problem because the stresses drive the the verse and just pull you along.

But modern poetry tends to use fairly strict patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and place them in a fairly strict meter. The feet will be varied occasionally for the very purpose of preventing the verse from becoming singsong and pulling you along. But although that sounds really difficult to deal with, it's not. After all, if you can handle Little Miss Muffet, you can handle variations!

No, the problem is understanding how modern patterns are used in the first place. And that's complicated because, unlike Little Miss Muffet, you have to deal with more than just stressed and unstressed syllables. As I mentioned in my comment to Roxy, you have to deal with secondary stresses -- stressed syllables that you might stress in some patterns (feet) but not in others. Most of us say stressed syllables louder than unstressed ones. When we try to say stressed syllables on unstressed "beats" in a poem, or unstressed syllables on stressed "beats," it just doesn't sound right.

That's what makes some of you think you can't read or write poetry. You want to use TWO levels of accent -- stressed and unstressed -- when in fact you're dealing with THREE -- a primary stress, a secondary stress, and then unaccented stresses. And to make matters more complicated, depending on the feet and meter used in the poem, those secondary stresses may sound like a middle level of stress... or they may sound just like the primary stresses... or they may be unstressed.

A lot of what people consider "serious poetry" is hard for us to read simply because the language has changed. Shakespeare's plays were written 400 years ago; trust me, things have changed! I personally fell in love with Robert Frost, considered by some to be America's greatest poet, simply because he "writes in English." Here's the first 4 lines from his poem Mending Wall, which is written in blank verse -- the same as Shakespeare's plays. Just try reading it and see how it sounds:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Here's my "stressed" version. See how you did:
SOMEthing there IS that DOESn't LOVE a WALL,
That SENDS the FROzen-GROUND-swell UNder IT,
And SPILLS the UPper BOULders IN the SUN;
And MAKES GAPS even TWO can PASS aBREAST.
I bet you were pretty close, and a lot of you probably read it exactly the way I've accented it in the second version.

The difference between Shakespeare and Frost is about 400 years. Frost is writing the way we speak now, and your natural instinct is to read it correctly -- even though it's got some weird "feet" in it. For example:
  • The first line begins with a variation -- SOMEthing instead of someTHING. Bet you got that right without even thinking about it!
  • Lines 2 and 3 are both "regular" -- that is, they follow the metrical pattern exactly -- but the rhythms don't sound exactly alike. That's because...
  • At the end of the second line, you probably wouldn't have thought IT would be stressed, but I bet you read it that way anyhow. This is an example of those secondary stresses I mentioned. A word like "it" is usually unstressed, but this is unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse is the short name for it) and if you say that last foot by itself -- der IT -- you'll realize that you really do say IT a bit louder than der in this particular usage. In the third line, SUN is a primary stress word that you would say louder almost anywhere you used it.
  • And in the same vein, that last line seems weird because of how the feet fall. Here's how it divides into feet:
    And MAKES / GAPS ev / en TWO / can PASS / aBREAST.
    You would think "even" would be pronounced EVen, but the feet (notice that the second foot is reversed, just like the first foot in the first line) cause neither syllable to be stressed. And if you say each foot by itself, you'll realize that you do say GAPS louder than ev, and you say TWO louder than en.
The reason you read them properly -- even though it doesn't seem right when you first think about it -- is because Frost is writing the way people talk, not just to fit a metrical pattern. He makes variations to fit the way the words should be said, not the other way around.

And once you start thinking about poetry that way -- not "How do I make these words fit this pattern?" but "What kind of pattern fits these words?" -- poetry becomes a lot easier to read and write. You still need time in order to get the words and meter to match, but it becomes a lot less frustrating because most speech has a basic rhythm of its own. I've been amazed at times -- I would just write what I wanted to say and then read it out loud, and suddenly I'd hear a natural meter that only needed a little shaping. (That doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough for me to look for it.)

The best way to start developing an ear for poetry is to read good poetry that you can understand. I usually recommend Frost because I find him very natural-sounding, but you never know who you'll find that you like. Just search the Web for poetry sites -- over at my Will Shakespeare for Hire site I've got links to several poetry sites in the blogroll, if you need help to get started -- and just start reading. You'll be surprised how quickly you can develop an ear for good verse.

Don't stress out over accented syllables. Just focus on smooth rhythmic speech. It's amazing how far you can go with it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The First Line

They say "the longest journey begins with a single step." Unfortunately, when that first step is the opening of your story, it often appears to be a leap across a huge chasm.

As I've said before, I think children's writers can learn a lot from flash fiction techniques because flash fiction stories have to do so much in so few words. And since finding a starting place is a problem for all kinds of writers, I found this article with 5 ways to start flash fiction stories. I'm going to focus on just two of them.

Remember that the opening of your story is called a hook. It's called that because it serves the same purpose as a fish hook -- it lets you pull the reader into your story, just as you pull a fish into your boat.

Starting with a question is a great way to start a mystery story, of course. But you don't have to use an actual question to start the story -- you can hint at one. If your lead character begins the story by doing something that will make your young reader wonder "Why is he doing that?" then you've effectively started the story with a question. If your main character just drew a picture on the wall in red crayon... then picked up a blue crayon and drew an entirely different picture on top of the first one... and then picked up a black crayon and drew yet another picture right on top of both of them... your reader is going to wonder what's going on. Now you've got him hooked!

Or, to use the "drawing on the wall" example again, perhaps your character is drawing on the wall but NOT with crayons. Perhaps he will only draw with a toothbrush that's been dipped in mud that he carefully brings in from outdoors... and then only after he dumps the mud right in the middle of the floor. If it makes your reader ask why, you're starting with a question.

Twisting a cliche is also an effective way to start a story. A cliche is more than just a saying that you've heard until you know it by heart. It's also a situation that you've seen until you know it by heart. The key is to take something basic to the cliche and replace it with something that... well, something that's unexpected. This often turns into a parody of the original.

For me, one of the classic examples is the opening to the cult movie classic UHF, where the lead character George (played by Weird Al Yankovic) imagines himself in the opening sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark -- except he's not after a gold idol, but an Oscar. This sequence is loaded with many examples of twisting a cliche. Just watch and see if it doesn't give you some ideas...



However, here's an important point to remember when creating an opening. Your opening creates certain expectations in your reader. That "hook" needs to pull the reader into a story where the opening was important! If all those crayon drawings, one on top of each other, have nothing to do with your story, it's not a good opening for that story. The UHF opening works because that George is after a career in TV; obtaining an Oscar against all odds is the perfect hook for this movie.

Openings -- hooks -- are vital to a successful story. A well-chosen one can make writing the rest of your story much easier. Like the giant boulder in UHF, it just starts rolling and rolling and rolling until you reach the inevitable ending.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Some Final Thoughts on Verse

I mean, of course, the final thoughts I'm going to write about verse for a while. There's certainly a lot more that can be said about writing in verse -- probably more that should be said -- but this is all I have to say for the time being.

And these thoughts apply equally well to writing easy readers in prose. It's just that some problems pop up more frequently in verse than in prose.

For example, it's more tempting to write filler words in verse than in prose. The driving rhythm of the verse can distract you from writing simple sentences, mainly because you get too caught up in "How can I make this sentence fit this rhythm?" You start writing bad sentences to keep the rhythm.

Instead, you need to rethink your sentences so that they sound more like normal speech while keeping the proper rhythm. Sometimes that takes a lot of time and effort, but you need to put it in if you want to write good verse. You shouldn't write "I think I would like to go" just because it fits the verse rhythm if you simply mean "I'm going."

Likewise, your characters should not like Yoda talk if Yoda they are not. Just because such phrasing was acceptable 200 years ago doesn't make it acceptable now. In an easy reader, you need to make the sentences sound as normal as you can. Don't write awkward sentences just to fit rhythms or make an easier rhyme.

And make sure your verse can be illustrated. Yeah, I know that isn't always possible. But often you just need to put a bit more thought into your verse (or prose) to make it more visual. Young children are limited in their ability to think abstractly. (I'm not saying that they can't, just that they can't do it as well -- or for as long -- as adults.) You need to make your sentences as direct and easy to understand as you can if you want children to enjoy your stories.

Finally, realize that good verse is harder to write than good prose. This should be common sense, but verse often sounds simpler because of the way good verse rolls off your tongue. If you want to write good verse, it's going to take you longer to finish a story than it would if you simply wrote it in good prose. That's because you have to juggle more balls to make simple verse that sounds better than simple prose. If you aren't willing to put in the time necessary to create good verse, then stick with prose. There's no shame in admitting that you don't want to put extra time in on your work just to get a rhyme. It's all about the story, not the form that the story takes. Write in the form that you most enjoy writing.

After all, if you don't enjoy writing it, the kids won't enjoy reading it. So whether you decide to write in verse or prose, have fun doing it!