So you want to write a poetic and/or rhyming nonfiction book. How do you balance a factual, compelling story, with lyricism and/or poetry? It can be done!
Sometimes it feels like throwing all the poetic devices in a pot, stirring it up, letting it simmer, not knowing what kind of soup it will make. That’s the beauty of poetry—you can change the recipe AFTER your soup is made.
But there are a few techniques to make the process a bit easier:
1. Let the story drive the writing. Research is paramount. Do your basic reading, watching, and listening first.
For my upcoming picture book, OUTDOOR FARM, INDOOR FARM,
illustrated by Xin Li (Astra Young Readers, April 2024), I started with a few
ingredients for my soup but didn’t know how to combine them for a delicious
meal. I had my inspiration—huge, indoor vertical farms like this one. The idea of
converting a sunless warehouse into a plant factory differed greatly from my
experience growing up on a traditional wheat, corn, soybean, and milo farm in
Kansas. I wanted to compare the two types of farms. I decided that I would
challenge myself and do it in sparse, rhyming verse.
Not terrible. But I realized that comparing “old” and “new” would pit them against each other. When really, both kinds of agriculture are based on foundations of innovation.
Changing “old” to “outdoor” and “new” to “indoor” helped me set the frame and guide my research. This was about similarities and differences. Here’s the final version of that stanza, which is no longer the book’s opening:
From there, I had to do a lot more research before I could come up with a solid draft.
I saw myself writing an expository compare-contrast book in verse. I wanted young picture book readers to understand how much science and innovation goes into food production, and why. I wanted all the facts to be correct, so I attended conferences with hydro- and aeroponic growers online, connected with experts, and asked questions to fill in the gaps of my understanding.
Beyond a frame for the verse, I needed a scaffold on which to hang the story. I needed a clear opening and satisfying closing. One of the main differences between outdoor farms and indoor is growing seasons: Outdoors, especially in colder climates, growing fields lay dormant for part of the year. Not so with hydroponic and aeroponic farms. If I organized the text around seasons, I could show the progression of growth outdoors while also contrasting it with what happens indoors. I could talk about planting, growing, harvesting, and enjoying the fruits of that harvest. I had my recipe!
2. Make a dummy. Now that I knew the structure and the facts, I could start to puzzle out how the individual page spreads would look. Where’s the poetry, you ask? Nowhere—yet!
Writing nonfiction poetry—especially rhyming verse—can be painstaking. First creating a dummy, or outline, will save you a lot of headaches as you revise and keep the focus on your subject rather than the wordplay.
When I say dummy, I’m not talking about making sketches,
although you can. I’m talking about envisioning how the story will unfold. Try Tara
Lazar’s method of pagination, and lay out the scenes to make sure your book
will be well-paced.
Practically speaking, I created digital notecards for each page spread in Scrivener, a program that allows you to move chunks of text around easily and visualize the work as a whole. I jotted down as many compare/contrast ideas as possible, and dropped in some of my research and sources. I reordered the concepts by season. Then it was time to make them rhyme.
3. Write. (Finally!)
This, my friends, is the agonizing part. My final manuscript for OUTDOOR FARM,
INDOOR FARM clocks in at 162 words, but my “overflow” file with draft stanzas
is 1,800 words long. Once I sold my book, it took me almost a year of revising
with my editor before the manuscript moved on to copyediting. Sometimes I spent
days puzzling out a single stanza—like this one:
Rhyme is tricky! But if you know what you want to say, you can look for similes and words that rhyme within a small family of words and concepts. If you haven’t planned what you want to say, the manuscript can careen off the tracks pretty quickly.
Some tips for writing rhyme:
- Beware of forced rhyme. If the writing doesn’t read as you would naturally speak, it’s bad rhyme.
- Rhyme and stressed beats must be perfect to be publishable. (Here’s my plug for Renee LaTulippe’s excellent Lyrical Language Lab course, where you’ll learn all things rhyme and meter.)
- Rhymezone is your best friend. You can search for synonyms, filter by the number of syllables, stressed beats, parts of speech, and even the starting letter. An “advanced rhyme” filter allows you to see only perfect rhymes.
4. Be honest: Is it fiction or nonfiction? Rhyme and poetry can absolutely be nonfiction. But be honest with your readers if you stray from the facts. In poetry and verse, nonfiction still means not-fiction. Any shred of made-up information means your book pushes it into informational fiction territory. Attributing unverified emotions or actions to a character, writing about someone other than yourself in first person, making up quotes… that’s fiction, even in poetry.
Is this OK? Yes, if the story calls for it! I wrote OUTDOOR FARM, INDOOR FARM as nonfiction, but when illustrator Xin Li brought her vision to the book, she created two characters who live on separate farms and have a pen-pal relationship. And you know what? Now I can’t imagine our book any other way. The point is, feel free to write the story that needs to be written. Just be honest and upfront with your readers about what is fact and what is fiction.
Rhyme and poetry can feel intimidating, but once all the ingredients come together, they blend for the heartiest, most delicious stew—the kind your readers will want to taste again and again.
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