A Balancing Act . . . Writing a Picture Book in Verse

Sometimes we need a little imbalance in our lives to make us think about how to get centered again. Writing a picture book in verse is like that, too.

 When writing in poetical stanzas (With all those good things that any picture book needs—characterization, setting, and a plot, for goodness sake!)the writer has an additional concern. That is, a sense of balance. Oftentimes we can sense imbalance but we are not quite sure why something doesn’t work.

For example, the magical number in most western literature is three. Tasks, bad luck, good luck, etc. come in threes. If this is violated, somewhere down deep we readers feel a bit uneasy. Things are not quite what they should be.

Most picture books are thirty-two pages in length. (Some are forty, or twenty-four; all are a number of pages that can be divided by 8.) Working with thirty-two pages, a writer of picture books has to be able to envision action for approximately 13 double spreads (26 pages), and two single pages (first right page and final left page). The remaining four pages are front and back matter.

The job for the verse writer of picture books is partly realizing how the stanzas, with or without a chorus, play across these pages in a balanced way so the reader feels, yes! This is right. Early in my writing career I wrote a book from which my editor wanted me to remove one stanza to get it into a 24 page format. But which one should I remove?

This manuscript also contained a repeated chorus at precise points in the story. In my mind it was designed like one might a beaded necklace. There was an opening, three strands (stanzas) of a certain rhyme pattern and rhythm, a chorus strand with a different rhyme and rhythm, three more of the basic strand, another chorus, three more of the basic, and then a closing. So the original pattern went: Opening, 3 stanzas, chorus, 3 stanzas, chorus, 3 stanzas, closing.

How could I remove just one and keep the whole thing working in a balanced way? Well . . . obviously, I had to remove the center stanza so the central strand of the basic pattern contained only two stanzas. Now my pattern was Open, 3, C., 2, C., 3, Close.

You might think at this point that I am being just too fussy. But am I? Certainly a reader sometimes is not aware of all the work a writer does behind the scenes to make a story flow as though it were effortless. However, if we jarred the reader rudely at a point in the flow—he/she would certainly feel it, even though the reader might not be exactly sure why it didn’t work for him/her.

For example, lets look closely at a title from a friend of mine’s manuscript (Hope Vestergaard) that recently sold to Candlewick: Digger, Dozer, Dumper. Obviously, this is a book of large machines for little readers. And the title is perfect. Why is that?

First, we have the very descriptive words that tell exactly what each machine does. Second, we have the wonderful alliteration so beloved in children’s books that helps the title just roll off our tongues. But there is more . . . a third thing. This is something an author would think about and deliberately design, something that just feels right.

Notice the vowels? Each one progresses down in tone and where they said in the mouth. The “i” is higher, said using the tongue up near the roof of the mouth. The “o” is said in the round chamber of the middle of one’s mouth, while the “u” is said more in the lower back of the mouth near the throat. It feels good in our mouths to say it. It’s memorable, it’s musical. It’s perfect!

Now you know a little about why I fume when someone comments, “Oh it must be so easy to write those books. They’re so short.” When this happens I grit my teeth and remark that often the things we love most in the world are short, but they are not easily written. Think of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods,” Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” or the 23rd Psalm.

The best writing is precise and balanced.

Here’s to the beginning of a new writing year! Happy Holidays, all!


The Lure of the Challenge

Today I watched a Nature special on Death Valley. One thread of the story involved a group of runners who ran the 120+ miles across the valley. They were accompanied by a support team that doused the runners with water and spritzed them with sun block as they ran in temperatures well above 100 degrees. It was grueling on their bodies. I wondered, what would possess an otherwise sane person to do such a thing?

Then I remembered that, oh yes, I’d run a similar marathon (of sorts) in April by participating in the 30 days/30 poems challenge to celebrate National Poetry Month. The idea was to write 30 poems over the course of the 30 days after getting a new prompt each day from Robert Lee Brewer, the Writer’s Digest blogger at Poetics Aside. However, at the time, this did not seem like that much of a challenge to me in that any old lines thrown together could count . . . whether those lines were any good, or not. And so, I upped the ante.

I challenged myself to writing 30 poems in 30 days using 30 different forms/styles for each one. Ok . . . so I wasn’t writing in 100+ degree temperatures here in Michigan in April, but I really sweated this challenge.

And I did have a “team.” My hubby would periodically grouse at me, “Aren’t you supposed to be writing a poem?” Occasionally he had to douse me with water when I fell asleep in front of the television in the evening, my pen and paper sliding from my slack hands. “You can do it!” he’d yell to my startled face. Then I’d whip my wet hair from my face and realign my thoughts on yet another poem before midnight.

Long before the 30 days were over—as I clenched my pen and struggled to create a villanelle, a sijo, a roundel, an ode—I knew I’d discovered yet another way to lose my reason. Why was I doing this to myself?

Why do we challenge ourselves? What do we get out of it? A sense of accomplishment? Bragging rights? Or just the pleasure of releasing cooped-up energy?

As far as energy goes . . . I’m not one of those kinds of people who have to be constantly active. Believe me; stretched out on the sofa, I can easily take several short naps all day long.

I am not at all like my sister whose hands shake if she isn’t busy doing at least four things at one time—like crocheting, planting dahlia tubers, playing cards, and changing the oil filter in her car. Really. (True story: Once, she decided to make everyone in the family a quilt for Christmas; her siblings, her kids, her nieces and nephews. These quilts would be either twin-sized or full-sized, depending upon whether the person was married. She made twenty-one quilts that year! A fully-accomplished challenge in itself. But here’s the kicker—when she sat down to wrap them, she discovered that she’d made one too many. One too many! How does one “accidently” make an extra quilt?)  Believe me; I don’t have that kind of energy. No.

As far as a sense of accomplishment goes, sure. I’m proud that I did it. And I do feel like I have some ownership of the bragging rights. (I did invite others to join me in this heightened challenge. None did.)

But now, at a distance of more than a month, I truly see why I did it . . . I needed to make myself learn more about certain poetic techniques and forms. These were aspects of poetry I might not have otherwise found the time to study. In other words, it was some sort of writer’s survival mechanism that made me yank myself up off the couch and get cracking. I obviously was not going to do it on my own. (I’m not my sister.) I had to publicly declare myself, and I had to allow myself to be open to public defeat. The stakes had to be high.

That meant that I declared myself on my website, on Facebook, on Twitter. That meant posting my poems (even the bad ones written late at night with no revision—wince!), and blogging about my progress up until the bitter end.

It was truly mentally and physically taxing. Ok. I admit, maybe not to the degree of the long distance runner crossing Death Valley. Still . . . how many of them would face a sonnet at eleven o’clock at night with only an hour remaining? (And the theme that day was never–never doing something again.)

Why bring this up now as my first post for Big Universe? By accepting this blogging assignment again (I used to blog for B.U. before its latest incarnation.), I am once more publicly declaring myself. It will be a challenge to post regularly. And I am sure to learn a great deal about how to do this correctly.

And, I suppose, to do that I should have started off this first post with a quick introduction. About me: I am a children’s book author. My tenth book (THUNDER-BOOMER! Published by Clarion. Illustrated by Carol Thompson) is just out and has garnered three starred reviews thus far. Almost all my books have graced state award lists or the Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year lists. I’m a retired children’s librarian and was awarded the Michigan Library Association’s Award of Merit as Michigan’s youth librarian of the year for 2002.

As you can imagine, the love of children’s books runs like blood through my veins. Therefore, I am so pleased to have been invited back to blog for Big Universe. I am proud of all it has done to promote the joy of reading and writing.

Until next time, remember to challenge yourself!

Shutta Crum

(BTW: Shutta Crum is my real name, not a pseudonym. Geesh! If I’d been thinking along the lines of pseudonyms, I’d have thought of a better one than Shutta. Nope. It was my Dad’s nickname, and my real name. If you want more information on me, or my books, check out my profile or my webpage at http://www.shutta.com.)