Rhyme Revolution 2017 Day 10 ~ Anika Denise ~ Scanners vs. Scribblers

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Monster Trucks

by Anika Denise

Illustrated by Nate Wragg

2016 Best in Rhyme Award Top 20

Congratulations Anika!

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See the Top 20 Best in Rhyme Books for 2016

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Scanners vs. Scribblers

by Anika Denise

Do you love writing in rhyme, but don’t know your iamb from your elbow?

Guess what? You’re not alone. Plenty of writers approach rhyming texts instinctually — without being fluent in the fundamentals of metrical structure or systems of scansion.

Just as there are “plotters” and “pantsers” in novel writing, we rhyming picture book folks may be similarly sorted out to scanners vs. scribblers. Scanners can identify poetic meter in seconds flat, dashing off slash-and-breve notation with dizzying precision. Scribblers rely on their ear to “hear” the beats of a line, and go with what sounds right.

I’m more of the latter. I studied poetry in college, but am woefully out of practice when it comes to analyzing metrical structure. I don’t open up a file on my computer and say, “I think I’ll try this one in dactyl hexameter.”

But after my rhyming story is roughed out on the page, an essential step in my revision process is to go back and scour the manuscript, line by line, to make sure every word scans perfectly.

So what the heck is scansion, anyway?

Scansion is the process of identifying stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of verse. When a trusted critique partner or editor says a line isn’t scanning correctly, it means that a word has been forced into an unnatural role, with the stress (or accent) on the wrong syllable. Or, there isn’t a consistent pattern of word stress within the sentences of a stanza to guide the reader.

If you ask someone to read your text aloud and they stumble, it signals a scansion problem. Here’s where a little slash-and-breve work can be helpful. Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables in each line as they would be in the dictionary, and compare it to where you are putting the stresses when you read it. Where the two don’t match up, revise.

A brush-up on the basics (for the scribblers among us)

Meter: An arrangement of words in patterned units

Foot: A unit of meter with one stressed syllable, and one or more unstressed syllables. Lines are named according to their number of feet.

Monometer: one foot

Dimeter: two feet

Trimeter: three feet

Tetrameter: four feet

Pentameter: five feet

Hexameter: six feet

Some common poetic patterns of syllabic stress:  

Anapest: two short or unstressed syllable followed by one long or stressed syllable (unstressed/unstressed/stressed )

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!

            There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

 

Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (stressed/unstressed/unstressed)

One berry, two berry, pick me a Blueberry.

 

Iamb: a short syllable followed by a long syllable (unstressed/stressed)

 

            A Fool might once himself alone expose,

            Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

 

Spondee: two accented syllables (stressed/stressed)

 

            Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.

 

Trochee: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (stressed/unstressed)

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Combining syllabic stress patterns and number of feet in a line is what gives us metrical structure.

The good news is, you don’t have to be able to recite these definitions to write rhyme that scans properly. But like my grandma always said, “It helps to know what you don’t know.”

Mapping meter and scansion encourages us to approach revisions to rhyming text methodically. When you can identify metrical patterns — the established rhythms and beats of your text — then you can also identify when you stray from those patterns. If breaking from the established pattern is intentional (and effective), then stick with it. Otherwise, revise.

Say you are writing a rhyming picture book about a young girl collecting ingredients from her garden to make a savory pie for her family.

Here’s a sample stanza:

Crispy carrots, onions, peas.

            Fresh produce is plucked with ease.

            No need to tug, or yank or pull.

            Just dig and SNIP!

            Now my basket’s full.

So, apart from being, well… all around pretty bad, there are big problems with word stress and scansion in this stanza. The most glaring being the word “produce” would be pronounced “pro-DUCE” in the current meter. Produce is a homograph (a pair of words spelled the same way, but with different meanings) rendering the line nonsensical, or at the very least, confusing.

Taking it line by line, the first line of the stanza is trochaic; then we have the word stress issue in the second line, then it switches to iambic at the third line… and the result is a bit of a muddled meter mess.

Looking at the stanza holistically, there are other issues beyond scansion. “With ease” is a weak rhyme. (Let’s make a promise to each other: if we find ourselves having to throw in “with” anything — ease, glee, delight, fright — to make a line work, we’ll revise it, okay? Good. I’m glad we had that chat.)

Also: “tug,” “yank” and “pull” all mean the same thing, which makes the line feel forced, and doesn’t serve the narrative. And to get really nitpicky (see what I did there?) peas are “plucked” from a low growing vine, while carrots and onions are dug up from the ground. Any vegetable gardener worth his or her salt knows this. It’s important to be precise and credible. Kids are especially good at sniffing out discrepancies like this in picture books. So are editors.

Okay, so evidently I’m a little more of a scanner than I thought. But in truth, I think anyone dedicated to writing successful rhyming picture books is both a scanner and a scribbler. We rely partly on metrical study, and partly on cultivating a well-tuned ear.

Either way, with practice, you will begin to wield meter to do all sorts of wonderful things in your stories—to add humor, build tension, capture a mood, and otherwise DAZZLE with your daring (but disciplined) verse.

Write on!

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Anika Denise is the author of several critically acclaimed books for young readers, including three illustrated by her husband, Christopher Denise: Baking Day at Grandma’sBella and Stella Come Home, and Pigs Love Potatoes (Philomel). Publishers Weekly pronounced her latest picture book, Monster Trucks, “a mash up made in heaven,” in a recent starred review. Coming soon is Starring Carmen (Abrams 2017); The Best Part of Middle (Henry Holt, 2018), and a few more she can’t mention yet — but is super excited about. Anika lives in Rhode Island with her husband, three daughters, overgrown vegetable gardens, pesky squirrels, and a slew of imaginary friends. Visit her online at anikadenise.com and on Twitter @AnikaDenise.

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56 thoughts on “Rhyme Revolution 2017 Day 10 ~ Anika Denise ~ Scanners vs. Scribblers

  1. THANK YOU for this awesome post! I’ve always been a rhyming “scribbler” and have always relied solely on my ear for rhythm and rhyme. But lately I’ve realized the need to scan my stories to just double check myself and make sure others are reading it the way I am. This is a great little primer and some helpful tips!

  2. Thank you Anika for your great examples of meter. I’m also a scribbler first and scanner second, but the scanning takes several rounds to get it right!

  3. How fun! A great post that covered a lot. I’m more of a scribbler than a scanner. I wish I could keep the names of all the meters in my head. Thanks, Anika!

  4. This is my favorite post so far. Lots of info here.
    And I can relate to your writing method because I also write “by ear” and then go back and check it thoroughly.

  5. I’m also glad we had this chat, as I sure did learn a lot! I feel like I went beyond rhyming PB text 101, so thanks for sharing the basics as well as some helpful examples. I’m sure your grandmother would be proud you’ve shared wisdom in a similar way!

  6. Anika, thank you for your informative post. I’m going to save this one for future reference. I, too, am a scribbler at heart, and I can usually hear when a rhyme is off. Still, I get tripped up when it comes to scanning. Your post will go a long way toward helping me boost my skills.

  7. I can honestly say that every so often I have to read through my notes again on scansion. It doesn’t come second nature to me. I can hear the problem but it takes real study to fix the error. Thanks so much for your post. Best of luck with your books.

  8. Thanks, Anika. Reviewing the meter, even if it’s after the manuscript is written, is a great way to check if I’ve strayed from my pattern. I tend to be a “scribbler” but am slowly learning to simultaneously “scan” as I write. Great tips!

  9. Terrific lesson for those of us still studying the mystery of rhyme. I appreciate the examples of what is good and what is bad. This post is a keeper! Thank you, Anika. I’m looking forward to your new releases 🙂

  10. I just started learning (or trying to learn) rhyme this week. I was happy to read and post knowing what Iambs, anapests, trochees and pentameters are. I had no idea what scansion was, now I do. I really appreciated your example and I was happy to recognize some of the problems in it. Thanks!

  11. Anika,
    I met you in Vermont when my son and my granddaughter and I came to hear you read Baking Day at Grandma’s. I enjoyed the review of all the types of rhyme and the reminder that i can’t have them all in one stanza! How exciting that you have more books coming out. I hope we meet again at The Flying Pig in Shelburne.

  12. ANIKA: THANK YOU for this WONDERFUL primer on rhyme. I appreciate you sharing your wisdom, and your grandmother’s; I agree wholeheartedly with her: ““It helps to know what you don’t know.” As to “what I don’t know,” I now know more of after reading your post. I am not a rhymer writer for the most part, but there are a few manuscripts that are INSISTING I write them in rhyme. I guess I would be more of a scribbler, but to know the ins-and-outs of meter is SO HELPFUL! I will be placing this post close by as I attempt to scribble and scan. THANK YOU!!! Also, THANK YOU and your hubbie for the WONDERFUL books you are putting out there for young — and not so young! — readers; they’re TRULY LOVELY!!!!

  13. Thanks, this is encouraging as a scribbler. It told me I’m not crazy in my approach … and there’s still hope for me!

  14. Thanks, Anika, for your great rhyming tips. I love writing in rhyme, though I can never remember the names of meters. Thanks for the reminders. I now look forward to looking through my rhyming manuscripts and eliminating the no-no “with + anything.” And I look forward to reading your books!

  15. Interesting, informative, and intelligent post! Thank you Anika, for presenting examples in layman’s terms. Your words will provide an excellent resource tool for future writing. I look forward to reading more of your wonderful books!

  16. I enjoyed this post, because I originally began writing as a scribbler, then made a detailed study of meter and scansion, and now I’m a scribbler who scans, and a scanner who scribbles! You put it nicely when you said:

    “Mapping meter and scansion encourages us to approach revisions to rhyming text methodically. When you can identify metrical patterns — the established rhythms and beats of your text — then you can also identify when you stray from those patterns.”

    It’s very satisfying to be able to analyze the how/why of what makes a good rhyme. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge with peers and critique partners! I can’t say I know it all, but I understand a lot, and I love learning more! Thanks for sharing this post with us. 🙂

  17. Thanks for this through review on meter and scanning. I find it extremely helpful. The steps you suggest and the examples you give are also clear and informative. I’m looking forward to reading your books. They look delightful1

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