Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cart Horse

Week of May 29, 2011—Lessons from My Mentors
Wednesday, June 1—Cart Horse

Today is the second of three posts from Jamie Morris. Jamie is a writing coach, writing workshop leader, and developmental editor living in Central Florida. Co-presenter--with award-winning author Joyce Sweeney--of The Next Level Craft Intensives, Jamie also specializes in working with first-time authors, using what some call her "literary sixth sense." She shares her digs with two amazing feline pals, black-as-night Jake and his wild-and-crazy brother, Bertie Botts. Visit Jamie (and Jake and Bert) at, or contact her directly at

Down in the vall-ey, the vaaaaalley so lo-oh-ow, hang your head o-o-ver, hear the wind blow. Hear the wind bl-o-o-ow, dear. Hear the wind bl-o-ow. Hang your head o-ver . . .

My mother crooned these words at my bedside all the nights of my earliest memory. Except, of course, for those bedtimes when my grandmother tucked me in and rasped out, in her Eastern-Europe-meets-Brooklyn accent, stories about both my mother's childhood and her own. Or, the occasions when my father took me on his lap and rumbled forth a poem or two from Old Possum's Practical Cats.

These—the croon, the rasp, the rumble—were the most intimate voices of my early childhood. Each revealed something so specific about the world I had emerged into that the messages and the tones with which they were delivered became indistinguishable.

Who but my father, with his deep, chesty voice, could have let me know that, yes, this was a big and dangerous place, but I was safe, at least, in the boat of his arms?

Who but my grandmother could have revealed, with her Yiddish-punctuated English, that there had been other times, other ways, before mine—and that all I rested on was built upon what had come before?

Who but my mother, could have taught me, with a longing that seeped through every drawn-out vowel of my evening lullaby, that our life choices might ultimately leave us unmoored and adrift?

Each real-life character from my childhood had a different outlook on our shared experience, and their distinct voices reflected their distinctly different attitudes. 

So it is with our stories.

As writers, our attitude towards one story might be anticipatory or exploratory. Towards another, somber and thoughtful. And, while we all know how to express our attitudes (What-ever!) with physical gesture and vocal inflection, when we write, we have only the written word to deliver our feelings about our content.

Picture book writers, in particular, are reminded to use rhythm and repetition, solid end-consonants, and lots of alliteration to create the bright, strong voices children enjoy. But before you leap to alliteration for its own sake, ask yourself, what do you truly feel about your subject?

Like the proverbial horse/cart conundrum, even the best advice about how to make your PB text shine can't provide the power to move your story—or your reader—convincingly. Your own attitude towards your story, that's the horse that pulls the cart of craft in its wake. 

Once you've got that pony in the traces, though, go ahead: Pop those verbs. Make color-words your newest, best-est friends. Soothe your readers with assonance. Perk your pages with consonance.

When you know for sure that your smartest voice is just a glove on the hand that holds the reins that guide the horse that pulls the cart down the road you want your reader travel, then, Dear PB Writer, drive on!

It’s Your Turn! (according to Rob)
1. Ok, how many times have I had the picture book cart before the story horse? Time for me to reflect on some manuscripts. How about you?


Leslie Gorin said...

Hi Rob,

Inspiring stuff this week,as always. I must say,"solid end-consonants" is new to me. Is there an easy way to explain that? (When I google it, the only thing that seems to come up is your blog!)


Rob Sanders said...

Leslie, this link gives a bit of info about "hard consonants at the end of sentences." I see it all the time, but never had a word/term for it.

Leslie Gorin said...

Thanks, Rob, for the link--and for making me aware of another great website!