Friday, July 27, 2012

Trying Too Hard

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Friday, July 27—Trying Too Hard 

Have you seen the Youtube video where a mom is asking her less-than-two-year-old what she wants for dinner? Mom says, “How about mac and cheese?” The little girl responds with glee, “How about . . . cupcakes!” Mom says, “How about a hotdog?” The little girl replies, “How about . . . cupcakes!” Who doesn’t love cupcakes, especially cupcakes with those little sprinkles on top?!

Cupcakes and picture books? I know you think I’ve lost track of today’s topic. Actually, today’s topic isn’t cupcakes. It’s sprinkles! Any time I introduce a new literary device to a room full of writing students, I use my sprinkles example. “Who loves cupcakes with sprinkles?” I’ll ask. “What if I took a handful of sprinkles and smashed them on top of my cupcake like this . . .” and I demonstrate by mashing my hands together and drowning the imaginary cupcake with sprinkles. Then I grind my hands together to make the point. “No, Mr. Sanders!” someone will scream. “Not that many sprinkles!” That leads me to reply, “Well, that’s what happens when you use to many ______ (fill in the blank). I want you to sprinkle them throughout your writing.”

Overdosing with sprinkles is what I see lots of picture book writers do in their manuscripts, too—especially when it comes to literary devices, punctuation, and style. Too the reader, it seems like the writer is trying a little too hard. Often writers over do the one thing that could have made their writing unique and special. For instance . . .

NToo many onomatopoeias
NToo many idioms
NToo many exclamation points
NToo much alliteration
NToo much personification
NToo many similes
NToo many metaphors
NToo much hyperbole
NToo much word play
NToo many jokes
NToo many ellipses
NToo much dialogue (as we mentioned yesterday)

Let me say again, any time there’s too much of one thing in your writing, it can ruin the positive effect of that “thing.” Too much of one thing can make everything else around it seem weak and ineffective as well. You don't need to try that hard.

Another place I see picture books writers trying to do too much is with rhyme. Of the paid critiques I do (mostly by new writers), three-fourths are written in rhyme. I like to try to rhyme, too, and I write in rhyme sometimes. But I’m no good at it. The reason I know that is because rhyming doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to work HARD to make solid, unique rhymes and getting meter accurate is even more difficult. (I also know I’m not a rhyming pro because my agent has never accepted one of my rhyming pieces!)

If we’re not natural-born rhymers (of the Lisa Wheeler and Sherri Duskey Rinker quality), then we either need to take graduate courses in rhyme, or we need to consider giving it up all together. We probably should leave rhyme and meter to those who do it well, and develop our prose skills to the fullest extent possible.

Sprinkles. You want to carefully shake the sprinkles onto your cupcakes, and you want to carefully add literary devices (and other devices) into your writing. No more drowning our cupcakes with sprinkles, or our writing with literary devices.

It’s Your Turn:
u Sprinkle Check! Look through your latest manuscript. Is there a literary, punctuation, or other device you use frequently? Are you smashing or sprinkling it into your manuscript? Revise and de-sprinkle all but the sweetest sprinkles in your manuscript. In the end, I think you’ll end up with a more delectable cupcake . . . I mean . . . manuscript.


Jean Reidy said...

Great post! I can tell almost immediately, from critique group comments, when I'm trying too hard in my manuscript. It's often when I haven't let the muse direct me and I've forced form onto content rather than vice verse.

Cathy Mealey said...

I love using as a quick visual check tool to reveal if I am using a word or a 'sprinkle' too often!

Tina Cho said...

Yummy post! Actually, a great analogy to remember to sprinkle our ms! Thanks, Rob!

Rob Sanders said...

Tina and Jean, thanks for the great comments. Cathy the wordle idea is terrific. Do you just paste in your entire manuscript>

Unknown said...

Terrific post, Rob, and Cathy, thanks for the Wordle tip. I just used it, and wow!

Leslie Z. said...

Love the sprinkle concept, Rob - but I must disagree with you on rhyme. Very, very few folks are naturally talented at rhyme BUT that does;t mean one can't work hard and become talented! I attended a wonderful workshop at NJSCBWi on rhyme with Corey Rosen Schwartz and Tiffany Strelitz Haber. Amazing! Those interested in rhyme might want to check out their new blog, The Meter Maids ( Happy rhyming!