Ned the Knitting Pirate
by Diana Murray
Illustrated by Leslie Lammle
2016 Best in Rhyme Award Honor Book
By Diana Murray
Illustrated by Heather Ross
2016 Best in Rhyme Award Top 10
See the Top 20 Best in Rhyme Books for 2016
Revise Like a Pirate!
By Diana Murray
So you’ve finished your rhyming picture book manuscript. The words seemed to pour out onto the page straight from your heart. Ah, what a magnificent draft. How you admire it. Tis’ a thing of beauty. Now…stop being a lilly-livered landlubber and get yer cutlass ready! Time to revise like a pirate!
Remember the Arrrrrr’s of a good story:
Rhythm: Picture books are usually meant to be read out loud. One reason I like writing in meter is that it gives the text a song-like quality. When you set the meter, it gives the reader a nudge to read with a certain rhythm. Reading your own story out loud can help ensure your rhythm is smooth. As a second step, have someone else read your story out loud and see if anything trips him/her up. Rework problem spots until your story can set sail smoothly. For example, a couplet in NED THE KNITTING PIRATE originally read: “The pirates were a rugged lot—as fierce as they were strong./And one day, as they swabbed the deck, they sang this pirate song:”
My editor thought that sounded bumpy. When I read it myself, I put a lot of stress on “one”, so it sounded OK to me. But a few crit partners mentioned the issue as well and I didn’t want any pesky barnacles slowing down the story. So I simply changed it to: “The pirates were a rugged lot—as fierce as they were strong./And as they swabbed the deck one day, they sang this pirate song:” It was a small tweak, but it established the rhythm more clearly, keeping things moving along regardless of individual pronunciation.
Just because you want the meter to scan clearly doesn’t mean you should let things get monotonous. Does every line end with a period in the same place? Are you using any enjambment? Are you varying the way you break up your lines? Using substitutions can also help. For example, even though NED is written in iambic meter (ba/DUM), I sometimes eliminate the first unstressed syllable, like this: “The whole crew turned and stared at Ned. The ship was deadly quiet./“Yarrrh,” said Ned. “I likes to knit. Ye might too if ye try it.”
One reason I think it works in this case is that the first line has a feminine ending. That is, it has an unstressed syllable at the end (“QUI/et”). So omitting an unstressed syllable before “Yarrrh” doesn’t feel jarring.
Having variation like this is a bit more of an advanced technique. You can just go with your gut and see what feels right. If you want to read more about the technicalities, here is a good article (I personally found it extremely helpful): http://learn.lexiconic.net/meter.html
Another way to vary the rhythm (although less common) is to include poems within poems. For example, in NED, the pirates sing sea shanties. I set these off in a different meter (anapestic, ba/ba/DUM) from the rest of the writing: “We’re pirates, we’re pirates, out sailing the sea./We do what we likes, and we likes to be free.”
On a side note, these lines are also “headless”. That is, I omitted the first unstressed syllable at the start of the line, so that the rhythm is, ba/DUM ba/ba/DUM ba/ba/DUM. When I began writing many years ago, I always wondered why I was driven to eliminate the first unstressed syllable in anapestic meter. After some research, I discovered that it’s commonly done because it better mimics natural spoken language.
Rhyme scheme: Pick a rhyme scheme and stick with it. But never let the rhymes commandeer your story! Story always comes first. You don’t want your rhymes to sound twisted or unnatural or to scream “mutiny”. Also, be aware of using only obvious rhymes. It’s fine to rhyme house with mouse and bee with tree, but including some surprising rhymes (or simply multi-syllabic rhymes) can add interest and punch to the story.
Repetition and Refrain: It’s sometimes useful in a story to have an event/action happening over and over again. In NED THE KNITTING PIRATE, Ned keeps trying to change the words to the pirates’ sea shanty and is met with disapproval from the Captain each time–thus building tension. You can also consider using a refrain, a repeated phrase that children can join in on, thus enhancing potential for a fun read aloud. And just like rhythm, the refrain can have a bit of variation to keep things from getting boring. In my story the pirates keep singing a song but the lyrics change slightly.
Rest: Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break from your manuscript. Why not throw down anchor for a while? Write something else, take a walk, drink some grog. I wrote a first draft of NED in 2010. I liked the concept, but the story didn’t feel quite right. There wasn’t enough conflict and the ending wasn’t satisfying. I couldn’t make it work. After some initial crits and attempts to revise, I finally set it aside. I didn’t look at that manuscript again for close to two years! With fresh eyes, suddenly everything was clear to me. It was almost like reading a manuscript that wasn’t my own. I started relentlessly revising without hesitation, making filler words, story tangents, and so-called “darlings” walk the plank!
I hope this helps you revise like a pirate. Oh, and don’t forget to give your story a nice, strong hook! Yarrrrrrh!
Diana Murray grew up in New York City and still lives nearby with her husband, two very messy children, and a motley crew of pets. Diana’s poems have appeared in children’s magazines such as Highlights, High Five, Spider, and Ladybug. Diana is the author of children’s books including CITY SHAPES, NED THE KNITTING PIRATE, GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH, GROGGLE’S MONSTER VALENTINE, DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS, and many more. http://www.dianamurray.com