by Miranda Paul
Illustrated by Shane McG
2016 Best in Rhyme Award Top 20
See the Top 20 Best in Rhyme Books for 2016
Spot the Plot! An Exercise for Revising your Rhyming Picture Book
By Miranda Paul
Poetry is oodles of fun. Writing in rhyme takes creative problem solving skills—like puzzles or brain games. Therefore, it’s easy to get engrossed in the process of selecting a perfect pair of like-sounding words or a wacky character description.
When I’m drafting a story in rhyme, I sometimes turn my attention to the words rather than the bigger picture. This misdirected focus can lead to nice details but a fuzzy plot. After days or weeks of crafting clever lines, I must find ways to objectively self-edit or I could end up with six hilarious stanzas describing a single character action or scene. While that scene might be fun to listen to, it might not be right for a picture book that should deliver a full story.
Before I wrote Trainbots, I wrote two other train manuscripts. Both of these fell mostly into the “concept” book category—they focused on informing the reader about parts of a train, through loosely-told stories. Several nice rejections on the first story–a couple of which pointed out the lack of action—led to rewrites. But I wrestled with the same problem as I wrote the second story. By the time I drafted the third train manuscript, which became Trainbots, I had a system in place to spot the plot (and strengthen it).
Trainbots by Miranda Paul illustrated by Shane McG. Published by little bee books, a division of Bonnier Publishing.
Here’s a method to check where your rhyming picture book manuscript is chugging forward or stalling out.
Format your picture book into stanzas. Generally, I break each line at the rhyming word. Depending on your style of poetry, these might be 2-6 lines each.
Print your story, double spaced, with plenty of room on the right side of the page.
Next to each stanza, write one prose sentence that describes only what happens in the text of those lines. (Leave it blank if nothing is happening in terms of action.)
Text for the first ~50 words (4 spreads / 8 pp.) of Trainbots, by Miranda Paul illustrated by Shane McG. Published by little bee books, a division of Bonnier Publishing.
Fold the manuscript so you can only see your prose sentences. Read your story in prose!
Using your prose, draw some sort of visual representation of your plot (e.g. story arc/story mountain or chart/graph).
Reflect on your drawing or graph. Questions to ask: How many stanzas are introduction or exposition, describing character or setting? Where does the conflict or action really begin? Is the conflict only internal, or is there external conflict? How many attempts are there to solve that problem, and how many stanzas do those scenes comprise? Are there new and interesting characters, actions, or settings to illustrate as the story moves along? Does the action rise to a climax? Are some stanzas redundant? Does the story reach a resolution?
Unfold the paper and revise the original! Cut or tighten redundant parts, add lines where there are gaps. Ideally, you’ll want between 12-15 “scenes” or spreads for a 32-page picture book. Don’t be afraid to rewrite an entire stanza and pick an entirely different rhyming word for the end.
This method won’t work with every rhyming picture book, but I hope it helps you learn to see your work with fresh eyes. Finding ways to approach our own work with an outsider lens
Miranda Paul is an award-winning children’s author of One Plastic Bag and Water is Water, both named Junior Library Guild selections. Her titles have received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly and have been named to several award and state reading lists. Her three most recent releases—Whose Hands Are These?, 10 Little Ninjas, and Trainbots—are all written in rhyme. Miranda makes regular appearances at schools, serves as Mentorship chair for We Need Diverse Books™, and is a regional advisor for the SCBWI (Wisconsin). She believes in working hard, having fun, and being kind. Learn more at www.mirandapaul.com.