Prose vs. Rhyme: Writing Picture Books

A member of my critique group was thinking about writing a rhyming picture book for a particular publisher.  She had never written a rhyming picture book and was curious about what method poets use to write poetry.  She asked whether we think of rhymes first, or the story, or both?   

I found this question difficult to answer because it involves style and technique.  That really varies from person to person and what works for me wouldn’t necessarily work for someone else.  So, I can only talk from personal experience and describe how the process works for me.  Hopefully, there’s enough generic advice here for this to be useful to you. 

I tend to have the story idea in my head before I write either prose or rhyme.  Then I see what would compliment the story best.  Some stories just won’t work in rhyme.  I’ve written a few stories that started out in rhyme, but I realized early on that there was no way that I could make them work as one.

What I’m working on now is a good example.  It’s a story that involved ducks as a main part of the story.  Ducks are cute and appeal to a younger audience, so I thought that rhyme would really compliment this story.  As I got a few stanzas in, I saw how wrong I was.  What finally convinced me were the limited rhyming choices for “ducks”-clucks/trucks/bucks.  The choices just seemed to degrade from there, even with the help of my handy, dandy rhyming dictionary.

That’s why I would proceed with caution, especially if the only reason you want to write a book in rhyme, is for a particular publisher.  If you can tell the same story well in prose, you may want to do that first, and see if rewriting it in rhyme improves or detracts from it.  This method may be particularly helpful if writing in rhyme is new challenge for you.  If you want to write in rhyme because you wish to learn that aspect of the craft, then by all means, go for it!

Also, please understand that you are adding a new layer of difficulty onto the storytelling process.  Along with plot, character, pacing etc., you also need to pay attention to rhyme and meter.  My first attempt at a rhyming picture book yielded poor results, with plenty of forced rhyme, and no plot to speak of.  It still remains one of those broken stories that I don’t know how to fix.  Fortunately, over time, I got better at it. 

There are plenty of editors who say that they don’t like rhyme.  But based on the sheer volume of rhyming books out there, I think what they mean is that they don’t like “bad” rhyme.  Unfortunately, there is plenty of bad rhyme being submitted and I have written some of it.  Dare to learn all that you can and be better than that! 

Rhyming done well can bring a picture book to a level it could never achieve if written in prose.  But I do know writers who won’t bother with rhyme because they realize it’s not where their strengths lie, and that they wouldn’t be able to tell their story as well.  It’s not what calls them.  However, it does call me.

I wrote my first poem in first grade and have always been drawn to rhyme, even over all other types of poetry.  But with either prose or rhyme, I tend to write what I write first.  Then I try to figure out what method works best.  Sometime my muse speaks in prose, sometimes in rhyme.  I just have to dance to the music that I hear.