Friday, August 31, 2012

How NOT to Write an Easy Reader

I assume most of you know who Jane Yolen is. She's probably one of the most prolific and well-thought-of children's authors around. I've added her website to the sidebar, and you can find writer's helps and such there. But today I thought I'd give you a little humor, courtesy of the marvelous Ms. Yolen.

It's an example of what she calls "the idiocy of limited vocabularies" in children's books. It's a parody of Jane Eyre that she had heard many years before (bear in mind that the book I took it from is nearly 40 years old). I love it, and I thought I'd pass it along:
This is Jane.
Hello Jane.
Jane is poor.
Her dress is poor.
Her shoes are poor.
Her hat is poor.
Poor Jane.

This is Mr. Rochester.
Hello Mr. Rochester.
Mr. Rochester is rich.
He has a big house.
He has a big horse.
He has a big dog.
He has a big secret.
What is Mr. Rochester's secret?
Jane cannot guess the secret.
Can you guess the secret?

This is Mrs. Rochester.
Hello Mrs. Rochester.
Mrs. Rochester is crazy.
She has a candle.
The candle is lighted.
Mrs. Rochester can laugh.
She laughs: ha ha ha.

The lesson? At the very least, some stories aren't good candidates for easy readers. ;-)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Krilt's Secret Weapon in Paperback

The Krilt's Secret Weapon paperback coverI decided to see how my books look as physical books so I've just released the first Captain Nexus book, The Krilt's Secret Weapon, as a paperback.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. As you can see from the Amazon image, it's skinnier than the electronic versions. The actual size of the book is 5.5x8.5 inches, which is the standard size of the easy readers I had here at home.

The one thing I'm disappointed about is that the interior pictures are grayscale rather than full color. On-demand color printing for small and self-publishers like me hasn't progressed as quickly as black-and-white has. I would have had to set the price far too high to do the book in color. However, some of my younger friends looked at my proof copy of the book and they pronounced it satisfactory. ;-)

Right now it's only available through Amazon. You can find the book on this page. It costs $ 5.99 (the electronic versions are still just $ 2.99). Since this one turned out OK, I intend to put Prince Jonathan's War in paper as well.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Line Breaks in Easy Reader Verse

While I'm done with the specifics of Dr. Suess, there is certainly much more to be said about writing verse for easy reader books.

One thing I mentioned in an earlier post – though only in passing – has to do with breaking the verse lines in unexpected places. This isn't just a trick to break up the monotony of similar-length lines, although that's a side effect. It's primarily about making the verse easier to read, and secondarily about eliminating some of the singsonginess that verse can create.

Forgive me for using some of my own verse as examples in this post. It's not children's verse, but excerpts from the stuff I put up at my Will Shakespeare for Hire blog. I'm using it because it's easier for me to find examples quickly.

Most of us, when we think about verse, think about every line ending right "on beat." In reality, that doesn't happen all the time and we often unconsciously change the line endings to match. For example, in a poem called Commercial you'll see:
But either way, you know it’s something
You can’t live without!
This poem is in ballad meter, which means alternating lines of 8 and 6 syllables. Count these out and you'll find there are 9 and 5. The strict way to divide it, "on the beat," is:
But either way, you know it’s some-
Thing you can’t live without!
But that's hard for the reader because it splits a word mid-line. Breaking the line where it reads more easily, rather than at the "correct" spot, actually improves the poem and makes reading it a more enjoyable experience.

It's important to note that the rhythm and phrasing of this line is strong enough that you continue to read it so it sounds right, even though the division isn't technically correct. The "some" in something naturally gets the proper stress, as does the "you" in the next line. You naturally read "thing" as an unstressed syllable between them, so you read both lines with the proper rhythm.

Of course, with easy readers we have another consideration. We'd like to keep the number of words per line down around 5 to 7 because the kids typically read only one word at a time. Longer lines will just confuse them. But when we write poems it's not unusual for sentences to span 2, 3, or more lines. That's called enjambment. You just saw one version of it, as the sentence spanned 2 lines. Depending on the age level you were writing for – and assuming this poem was written for children in the first place! – you might have chosen to divide the lines in different ways other than the way I did. For example, you might try:
But either way,
You know it’s something you can’t live without!
That works – it breaks the line into understandable phrases, which helps the kids grasp it better – but for some age groups that last line is just too long. But this one:
But either way,
You know it’s something
You can’t live without!
might be a better choice. Each line is only 4 words long and it's easy to keep the rhythm when you read it. In addition, each phrase makes sense.

However, there's a trick to this. (You knew there would be, didn't you?) You have to be careful not to destroy the verse. Here's a couple of stanzas from a poem I did called The Murder at Muffet's Place (where Little Miss Muffet is on trial for killing the spider):
The prosecutor's eyebrow raised.
"You thought you were alone?"
Ms. Muffet nodded. "I would not
Have stayed if I had known

That horrid creature waited there.
He stalked me. It's a curse
That women such as I must face.
Each day's a little worse."
You need to keep the basic structure of the poem when you make such changes. For example, I could change it this way:
The prosecutor's eyebrow raised.
"You thought you were alone?"

Ms. Muffet nodded.
"I would not have stayed
If I had known
That horrid creature waited there.
He stalked me.
It's a curse that women such as I must face.
Each day's a little worse."
Forget for a moment that the vocabulary is too advanced for a child. With the exception of the line that starts "It's a curse…" (it's too long), this is pretty good easy reader phrasing.

However, it's no longer verse because:
  • The stanzas are gone. The first stanza is split in half, then the other half is combined with the second stanza. That makes the second stanza much too long. As a result, the child would no longer be able to recognize the form of a poem.
  • The rhymes are hidden. Alone and known are still at the end of lines, but the break I mentioned before puts them in separate "stanzas." Then the curse and worse rhyme is hidden because curse is buried near the beginning of a line. Again, the standard form of a poem that the child recognizes – stanzas and rhymes – is no longer visible.
However, this little activity does prove one thing: If it's not important to have verse, you can still write your easy reader in verse, divide the lines up, and create reasonably good easy reader prose from it! That's because poetry is a very condensed, very concentrated form of writing… and it is therefore very similar to the approach you must use to write good easy reader sentences. And that makes it a useful technique to file away for further use.

Now obviously I'm talking about traditional verse here, not free verse. Free verse isn't structured the same way, so the process is entirely different. But if you're working with standard rhyming verse, this is the basic principle:
  • As long as the rhythm is strong enough and
  • as long as you keep the general stanza divisions and
  • as long as you keep the rhyming words at the ends of your new lines,
you can divide your lines almost any way you like, as long as they make good sense to your young readers. However, the less you change them, the easier it will be for your young readers to read them as verse.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dr. Suess and Short Meters

The bulk of verse that Dr. Suess wrote was in triple meters. That simply means that each foot has 3 syllables. (If you've forgotten what those terms mean, just zip back to the Easy Reader Poetry Basics post.) However, he has also done some notable work in duple meter – that is, feet with 2 syllables.

The two duple meters you'll come across most frequently (in many kinds of poetry, not just Suess) are iambic tetrameter and trochaic tetrameter, based on iambs and trochees, respectively. An iamb, which I've mentioned before, is a foot with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, like guiTAR. A trochee, as you might guess, is just the opposite -- a foot with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, like TARget.

Therefore a line of iambic tetrameter bumps along like this:
da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM
and a line of trochaic tetrameter does just the opposite:
DUM da / DUM da / DUM da / DUM da
Simple enough, right?

Although Suess didn't use these meters a lot, I suspect most children's writers do. The reasons are pretty simple:
  • The lines sound natural to us. Perhaps it's because we're so used to music. The vast majority of songs we learn as children are based on quarter and eighth notes, which bounce along in a similar way to duple meters. Of course, we learn songs that are written in waltz time as well, like Happy Birthday, but most of us instinctively default to that 1-2-3-4 rhythm.
  • The lines are shorter. Children find it easier to read shorter lines because they still tend to read one word at a time. (As you get better at reading, you learn to read groups of words at a time.) While the longer meters can be split into two lines – Suess does it frequently – an entire line in duple meter is usually short enough that a child can read it easily. Because of this, sometimes it's easier to get a complete thought in a duple meter line than in half of a triple meter line.
  • The lines mimic normal speech. Have you ever wondered how Shakespeare managed to write so many plays in blank verse, aka iambic pentameter? It's because most natural English speech tends to fall in pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, here's part of the beginning of this paragraph, divided into feet (and no, I didn't write it specifically for this purpose):
    HAVE you / EVer / WONdered / HOW SHAKE- / speare MAN- / aged to / WRITE so / MANy / PLAYS in / BLANK VERSE
    Although not every foot is an iamb or a trochee (and yes, those other feet have names, but I'm not going to list them all here!), most of them are.
As for variations, you can drop or add an unstressed syllable to the beginning or end of a line, just like any of the triple meters. That means you can create lines with 7, 8 or 9 syllables.

And although I don't recall Suess himself using it, these short meters are very similar to ballad meter. That's a common form that alternates a tetrameter line (one of these short meters) with a trimeter line – that's 3 feet or 6 syllables. Add the variations and that trimeter line can have 5, 6 or 7 syllables. That gives you a lot of flexibility in your verse!

You can even use these two short meters together. A trochaic line with the last unstressed syllable dropped is exactly the same as an iambic line with the first unstressed syllable dropped! So you can use that variation to switch between the two if you feel that it works.

Right offhand I can only think of one example of each style in a Suess book… but they're definitely classics that you'll recognize.

Trochaic tetrameter is used in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

Iambic tetrameter is used in the ever-popular Green Eggs and Ham.

Why Bother?

Now you may wonder why I've spent so much time on the mechanics of verse in Suess books. Here's the payoff… and it would make no sense without understanding how meter is manipulated when writing children's verse.

Part of what makes Green Eggs and Ham so much fun is the interplay between Sam-I-am and his reluctant partner. No doubt you suppose it's the constant repetition of questions and answers between the two that makes the book so memorable.

You're only half-right. It works because of how Suess uses the meter in the repetition. I'm going to show you a brief part of the exchange (I've eliminated some of the repetition to save space) but with the stresses shown. The first block is what Sam-I-am says, the second block is his partner's reply:
WOULD / you LIKE / them HERE /or THERE?
WOULD / you LIKE / them IN / a HOUSE?
WOULD / you LIKE / them WITH / a MOUSE?
I DO / not LIKE / them IN / a HOUSE.
I DO / not LIKE / them WITH / a MOUSE.
I DO / not LIKE / them HERE /or THERE.
I DO / not LIKE / them AN- / yWHERE.
I DO / not LIKE / green EGGS / and HAM.
I DO / not LIKE / them, SAM- / I-AM.
Do you see? Sam-I-am ALWAYS questions with the 7-syllable variation while his partner ALWAYS answers with the standard 8-syllable iambic tetrameter line! I only found 2 places where Sam-I-am uses the standard line… and they aren't his normal questions!
  • At one point he says, "A train!" 4 times before he asks "Would you eat them on a train?"
  • And later he says, "Say! In the dark? Here in the dark!" before he asks "Would you, could you, in the dark?"
It's hard to get these kind of results without a knowledge of how meter works.

And that's why you often hear that editors don't want verse. Many would-be authors write verse just because they think it's cute. But the choice between prose and verse has to take your purpose into account. There are things you can do in prose that you can't do in verse, and there are things you can do in verse that you can't do in prose. You should choose the one that lets you accomplish your purpose in the best way. Suess would have found it difficult to create the bouncy exchanges in Green Eggs and Ham with prose... but it wasn't enough to just put the tale in verse. He had to use the mechanics of meter properly in order to get that bounciness.

That's why you should bother to learn the mechanics of meter. You can't properly choose between prose and verse if you don't have some idea about what you can do -- or NOT do -- in each.

I have a bit more to say about verse although this is the last post that deals specifically with Dr. Suess. But if you want to write children's verse, by all means take some time to study how Suess does things. You'll find it's well worth the effort.

Monday, August 20, 2012

More Seuss: Amphibrachic Tetrameter

The names get worse as we go along, don't they? But the irony is that different meters can shade into one another, so the names only seem to muddy the waters. Such is the case for amphibrachic tetrameter, another popular meter Dr. Seuss often used.

In the last post we started with anapestic tetrameter, the most common Seuss form:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
We varied it by subtracting an unaccented syllable from the beginning of the line:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
and also by adding an unaccented syllable to the end of the line:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da
But now… suppose we did BOTH? Suppose we subtracted an unaccented syllable from the beginning:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
then we added an unaccented syllable to the end:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da
and then we redefined the feet so they all look alike, like this:
da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da
This new foot, made up of 2 unstressed syllables with a stressed one in the middle, is called an amphibrach. And when you put 4 amphibrachs in a line of poetry, you get amphibrachic tetrameter. The line has 12 total syllables and 4 total stresses, just like Seuss's more common anapestic tetrameter… but it has a different feel to it.

Try this rhyme from If I Ran the Zoo (as in past posts, the stressed syllables are in italic caps):
And, SPEAKing of BIRDS, there's the RUSSian PaLOOski,
Whose HEADski is REDski and BELly is BLUEski.
I'm actually surprised that Seuss used this meter less often. As I wrote in the last post, one of the most common feet used in English poetry is the iamb, a 2-syllable foot with an unstressed foot followed by a stressed one (da DUM). The first 2 syllables in an amphibrach sound like an iamb, so it would seem to be more natural. For whatever reason, Dr. Suess used this meter less frequently.

But just like anapestic tetrameter, amphibrachic tetrameter can be altered to vary the sound. You can add unstressed syllables; in fact, Suess sometimes substitutes one of his more common anapestic tetrameter lines. That both adds an unstressed syllable in front of the line AND subtracts one at the end.

More often, though, he simply drops unstressed syllables in this meter. He usually drops the last one:
da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM
This one's especially common in If I Ran the Zoo. Of course, you can drop the first unstressed syllable instead:
DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da
And every now and then he drops both of the unstressed syllables at the ends of the line:
DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM
That reduces the line to only 10 syllables. Short lines like this give the reader time to catch their breath. In fact, Seuss often opens one of these lines with a single word sentence, like "Stop?" or "WOW!"

Remember that feminine and masculine ending thing I mentioned in the last post? I think the ability to drop an unstressed syllable from each end of the line makes amphibrachic tetrameter a more versatile meter than anapestic tetrameter. Adding a syllable often sounds more awkward than dropping one.

Remember this: A large part of writing good verse is making sure the stresses fall in the correct place. Most words in the English language don't sound right unless the stress falls on a certain syllable. That's not a problem with 1-syllable words, of course. But once you get to 2 syllables or more… well, nothing ruins a verse like this faster than bad stress placement.

Here's an example of what I mean. The word "horses" is pronounced HORses, not horSES. Here's our little nonsense rhythm with "horses" inserted. Which one sounds right… and which one sounds just plain stupid?
  1. da DUM da / da HORses / da DUM da / da DUM da
  2. da DUM da / da DUM da / horSES da / da DUM da
I'm guessing that you picked the first one as the best one, the one with the proper word stress. But I'll go even further and guess you had trouble even saying the second one. When the stress is in the wrong place, it makes the verse harder to read. In the first line, even with all the nonsense sounds, "horses" fits smoothly into the rhythm.

Seuss used this meter in If I Ran the Zoo, If I Ran the Circus, Dr. Suess's Sleep Book, and The Lorax. Just remember that Seuss makes a lot of substitutions and alterations when he uses this meter.

Next time I'll look at Seuss's "short meters."

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Basics of Seussian Verse

You've got a little basic poetry theory under your belt (courtesy of my last post). Now it's time to get a handle on children's verse – at least, as it was written by Dr. Seuss.

Before we start, let me make one thing clear. The poetry forms Dr. Seuss used are not the only acceptable forms for children's poetry. However, Seuss chose the forms he used because most children already have some familiarity with them. That makes sense; he was writing easy reader material, and the more familiar the form, the easier it was for the kids to learn how to read. So bear that in mind.

Anapestic Tetrameter

Horton Hears a Who! coverVirtually every verse Seuss wrote was in some kind of tetrameter, which means that each line of poetry has four feet. (Tetra = four.) I suspect he chose this because it's the most common meter for nursery rhymes and a majority of popular English poetry. Even most greeting card verse is tetrameter! So he could be pretty sure most of his young readers would be able to follow it as well.

Where he varied things was in the type of feet he used in each line. By far the most common lines he wrote were in anapestic tetrameter, which means each line has four anapests. An anapest has three syllables – two unstressed followed by one stressed. That means each line had a rhythm like this:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
For example, Horton Hears a Who! opens like this (the stressed syllables are in italic caps):
On the FIFteenth of MAY, in the JUNgle of NOOL,
In the HEAT of the DAY, in the COOL of the POOL,
He was SPLASHing… enJOYing the JUNgle's great JOYS
When HORton the ELephant HEARD a small NOISE.
The problem with such a regular rhythm is that it can start to sound singsongy. Part of the genius of Dr. Seuss is how he avoids that. Take a good look at the fourth line. See how he left off the first unstressed syllable? All four lines have four stresses – if they didn't, they wouldn't be tetrameter anymore – but the first three lines have 12 syllables and the last line only has 11. The rhythm now looks like this:
da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
It's a small change but it helps "mix things up" a bit so it doesn't put you to sleep.

This is something Seuss uses quite often, as in this 11-syllable line from McElligot's Pool:
I MIGHT catch a FISH
With a TERrible GROUCH
Yes, that's just one line of verse although it's two printed lines on the page. Suess sometimes uses odd line breaks like this to help "mix things up" as well. I'll come back to that in a later post. For now I'll just say that the breaks happen where they make sense. There's a good example in the next verse.

Here's another common alteration Seuss makes when using this meter.

Later in McElligot's Pool you'll find this verse:
Or I MIGHT catch a FISH
From a STRANger place YET!
From the WORLD'S highest RIVer
In FAR-off TiBET,
Where the FALLS are so STEEP
That it's DANgerous to RIDE 'em,
So the FISH put up CHUTES
And they FLOAT down beSIDE 'em.
Eight printed line breaks but only four lines of verse. But look closely; there's more here.

First, look at the line break between the third and fourth lines. If Seuss broke them evenly – according to the anapests, as he typically does – he'd have to hyphenate the word "river." That wouldn't make much sense to his young readers. So he puts the entire word on the third line, although that means the lines look uneven. It doesn't affect the rhyme when you read it, though.

Second, note that the 3-syllable word "dangerous" is pronounced as only 2 syllables – dang'rous. Occasionally you find words that you can contract that way to get a bit of variation.

But most importantly, the last two lines each have 13 syllables! Seuss has added an extra syllable at the end of those lines.
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da
In case you're interested, the poetry term for this extra unstressed syllable at the end is a feminine ending. When the line ends on a stressed syllable, that's a masculine ending.

So Dr. Seuss usually started with anapestic tetrameter:
da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
and prevented it from getting too regular by:
  • subtracting an unaccented syllable from the beginning of a line –
    da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM
    – or
  • adding an unaccented syllable to the end of a line –
    da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM /da da DUM / da.
Although – technically speaking, that is – anapestic tetrameter has a 12-syllable line as its primary line length, many writers will use the 11-syllable variation as the primary line length. That 2-syllable (unstressed – stressed) first foot also has a name – it's called an iamb – and it may be the most frequently-used foot in English poetry. For example, most of Shakespeare's work is in iambic pentameter – five iambs per line:
da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM
Because of that, starting the line with an iamb instead of an anapest sounds more natural to many people. If you want to do that, it's ok as long as you know that you're doing it! You can still use the 12-syllable and 13-syllable lines as your variations.

Suess uses this meter in The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Yertle the Turtle, Happy Birthday to You! , and The Sneeches, among other books. It's also the basis of the popular Clement Clarke Moore poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas. You remember that one, don't you? "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house…"

The important thing to remember here is that you don't make these alterations in any sort of pattern. You have to make them by ear. The big question is "Does this sound good?" Reading your verse out loud will help you write better verse. After all, if it doesn't sound good when you read it out loud, why would it "sound" good when read silently?

Besides, if your verse sounds good, the kids will probably read it over and over until they memorize some of it… and then they will recite it out loud!
That's Seuss 101…
But it's only the start.
In the next post I'll help you
Learn more of his art!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Easy Reader Poetry Basics

In my last post I brought up the whole idea of writing easy readers in verse. Since some of you might be interested in trying it, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give you some idea how to get started. ;-)

You might think poetry would be super simple to write, simply because some of the earliest stories we learn are nursery rhymes. But there's a reason we outgrow nursery rhymes. In fact, many poets are adamant that they write poetry and not verse – the former, according to them, being "the serious stuff" while the latter is neither serious nor particularly good. There isn't a hard and fast line between "poetry" and "verse." For some people, the difference amounts to whether the lines rhyme or not. ("Serious poetry" being the kind that doesn't rhyme, of course.)

But the fact is that a lot of "verse" – think Dr. Seuss – is known and loved by more people than a lot of "serious poetry." (I doubt that most people can quote any lines from Beowulf, but almost everybody can quote lines from Green Eggs and Ham. Right, Sam-I-Am?) So don't let that elitist attitude make you feel bad about writing things you enjoy. The trick is learning how to get the effect you want… and get it on purpose, not by accident.

Types of Poetry

There are many different ways to structure a poem. While you don't have to know all of them in order to write poetry, it's easier to find examples to learn from when you know what you're looking for. You'll even find some of these differences between various nursery rhymes.

Many people think that free verse has no structure, but that's not true. Free verse is structured largely with repetition – repeated sounds, words, or phrases. But the lines are usually all different lengths, while "standard" poetry tends to have lines that are all the same length… or, in some cases, verses or stanzas (a group of several lines) that have the same pattern of lengths.

Some languages simply count the number of syllables in each line of poetry. Those are called syllabic poems. That's more common when the poetry is written in languages other than English – French, for example. It can be done in English, but the effect isn't the same. A classic example of this is the Japanese form we call haiku. Most people are taught that haiku are poems of 17 syllables – 3 lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. Actually, Japanese haiku typically have 17 onji, which are sounds rather than syllables. It might take 2 or 3 onji to make one English syllable. The 17-syllable English haiku is still a valid form for a poem; it just isn't the same thing as a Japanese haiku.

In some languages syllables aren't all the same length, so those languages often use patterns of long and short syllables. These poems are sometimes called quantitative syllabic poems. The original Greek and Latin epic poems – like the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid – are good examples.

In English we don't necessarily have long and short syllables, but we do use strong and weak stresses on words. For example, we say LAtin and japaNESE, not laTIN or jaPAnese. We call poetry that uses stresses for structure accentual poetry. It might help to think of it like music, with a steady one-two-three-four strong stress rhythm per line, but you can put as many or as few weak-stressed syllables between them as will fit. This is common in Old English poetry, like Beowulf, and in some nursery rhymes and jump rope rhymes.

Imagine jumping rope to this line:
"i WENT to the STORE but then i CAME back HOME."
The four words in all caps are "on the beat," equally spaced apart in a steady one-two-three-four rhythm like I mentioned. But look at the unstressed syllables: There's one in front of WENT, then two between WENT and STORE, three between STORE and CAME, then one between CAME and HOME. Still, I bet you had no problem keeping the rhythm, did you? That's accentual poetry at work.

But by far the most common kind of English poetry is what we call accentual-syllabic poetry. That means the number of unstressed syllables between the stressed ones stay pretty much the same all the time. (In practice, we do change them occasionally to keep our poems from becoming singsong, but most the time they stay the same.)

The Terms You Need to Know

And this is where it gets complicated for many would-be poets. There are a lot of terms we use to describe how accentual-syllabic poetry is structured. Let me make it really simple for you.

We create patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that we call feet. A foot usually has two or three syllables. One of those syllables is stressed; the remaining ones are unstressed. And yes, most of these combinations have names, which is why people get so confused. One of the most commonly-used feet is the iamb, which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, like this: da-DUM.

Each line of poetry has a certain number of these feet in it. The number of feet is called the meter, and the most common meters are tetrameter (four feet) and pentameter (five feet).

So when we describe the basic form of a poem using accentual-syllabic poetry, we usually give the meter and the most common foot used in that meter. For example, most of Shakespeare's plays, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Milton's Paradise Lost, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and a lot of other classic poems are written in iambic pentameter. That means each line of poetry has 5 feet, and the most common foot is an iamb. The basic rhythm of a line sounds like:
da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM
(BTW, those particular poems I just mentioned are sometimes called blank verse, which just means that the iambic pentameter lines don't rhyme… at least, not on purpose. Apparently poets didn't get so upset when people called their poetry "verse" back then.)

One last thing: When we say a poem is written in a specific meter, we mean that most of the lines in the poem fit that rhythm. Most poets vary the lines a little, just to keep their poems from turning into droning singsong that puts you to sleep.

Those are the basics for understanding the structure of poetry. In the next post I'll look specifically at the types of verse that work best for easy readers… at least, according to Dr. Seuss.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

And Then There's Dr. Seuss...

I've been reading a book simply called Dr. Seuss by Ruth MacDonald. It's an older book, written back in 1988 when Dr. Seuss was still alive, and it's "the first full-length critical examination of this acclaimed author/illustrator's work." (Well, that's what it says.) Which means there are definitely some boring parts, but overall it's quite interesting.

Cubbins book coverI've been particularly interested in some of the material concerning Seuss's verse. (You can also read about it at the Dr. Seuss page at Wikipedia; just scroll down to the section called Poetic Meters.) I've been a fan of Dr. Seuss since I was first learned to read -- which, I'm afraid, wasn't that long after he started writing! One of my favorites was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. (Ironically, that book is in prose, not verse.)

You often hear it said that publishers don't want stories in verse. That's not exactly true. They just don't want bad stories in verse. Of course, there are some publishers who won't look at any kind of verse... but since it's extremely easy to self-publish your own work, that's not really a problem anymore.

Still, writing good verse can be a problem. I have a poetry blog called Will Shakespeare for Hire where I'm an out-of-work Will Shakespeare trying to recreate himself as a web poet. Poor Will will write anything, from serious pieces to parodies of nursery rhymes to Viagra ads, as long as they're in verse. And sometimes Will deliberately writes bad verse, just for fun. So I guess that makes me, if not an expert, at least experienced in writing verse... both bad and otherwise.

Part of the craft of writing easy reader verse -- and it's the easy reader aspect that this blog is interested in -- is making the verse both easy to read and fun to read. When Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat, he expected to take a few weeks. Instead, it took him nearly an entire year!

Of course, Seuss was writing from a strict word list, which isn't as important these days. But readability is still important. You don't want to fill your lines with strings of connector words like of, or, and, etc., even though those words have a use in your verses. And since most easy reader verse will rhyme -- it helps the kids read the verse more easily, since the rhymes give them a clue to the sounds of the words -- you need to choose good rhymes. Try reading Horton Hears a Who! and look at some of the rhymes. Although you'll find lots of simple rhymes, you'll also find rhymes like:
  • air and Mayor
  • working and shirking
  • roar, more, and floor
  • nowhere and despair
  • chirp and twerp (I particularly like this one!)
And I got all of those from just a couple of pages! Dr. Seuss became so popular in large part because he wasn't boring. In fact, MacDonald suggests that the girl in The Cat in the Hat was named Sally as a joke about the little sister of that notorious duo of first-grade reader fame, Dick and Jane.

I'll probably come back to "the verse question" in the future but if you really want to write stories in rhyme, go right ahead. Just make sure you put the time into it and do it right. The Wikipedia article can give you some help about how to structure humorous verse.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Inspiration is Where You Find It

We have a bad tendency to think that every book we write has to be earth-shattering in some way. It has to have a larger-than-life character, or an intricate plot, or a bizarrely unusual world. But sometimes it's the simplest things that make a book memorable.

You may have already seen this commercial, but it's a perfect example of what I'm saying. When I first saw it, it simply blew me away:

This is a 12-year-old from London named Nathan. You can't get much simpler or commonplace than this, and yet it's hard not to be reached on a whole lot of different levels by this.

Remember that next time you're afraid your story isn't special enough.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Another Way to "Find" Stories

Here's a fairly common problem. You're in the mood to write a story, but you have no idea what to write -- no idea where to start and, if you do manage to find a starting place, no idea where to go with it.

Sometimes I have trouble too. I'm always looking for new ways to help me get a story started. After all, once you get something on paper, you've got "clay" you can form into something good. The trick is finding that clay.

Here's one of the methods I use to help me get past that blank page.

You probably have something in mind, whether it seems promising or not. Maybe you like to write a certain kind of story, or you saw a movie that gave you an idea, or whatever. It doesn't have to be earthshaking.

In an earlier post I talked about a basic plot framework. Essentially I said you take a situation and look for a decision that has to be made; that decision changes the character's day, and your story is about how the change worked out. That works great when I already have an idea to start with.

If I don't have a clear idea when I start, I turn it into a game. I start with a plain old boring plot idea that's been used a million times. Then I try to mess it up in a crazy way.

A classic example is Harry the Dirty Dog. Harry doesn't want to take a bath so he runs away and gets dirty while he plays. Let's face it, that's not such a fascinating plot, is it? But author Gene Zion turned it into something new by playing with it. When Harry comes home, his owners will give him a bath anyway -- so Zion asked how he could disrupt the normal process. His answer was to let Harry get so dirty that his owners wouldn't recognize him! And if you read the story, that's the real crisis at its heart -- how will Harry get his owners to recognize him?

The cool part is that Harry is desperate to solve this problem, even though that will result in him getting a bath. In the end, Harry is so relieved to be home that he doesn't really care that he had to take a bath!

That's the game. Ask yourself how your plot would normally work out, then figure out what kind of things will keep it from working out so smoothly. Be aware that the best answers to this game will provide a new problem -- Oh my gosh, how can I figure out a way to solve this? The answer probably won't be so easy for you to figure out, let alone your characters!

But now you'll have an interesting story idea to work with. Play this game often, and you'll soon have a list of story plots to write when you aren't particularly "inspired."