Dr. Suess And Kid Rock Are Friends
Ok, not really. Just thought I’d get your attention. What I’m getting at is that writing pop songs and children’s books are more related than you may think. My new children’s book about a kitty that won’t take a bath Pippin No Lickin’ comes out November 20th this year and I’m really excited about it. I’ve written several manuscripts and this is the first of many being published, I hope. But before that, I’ve been a pop rock songwriter in Nashville for more than twenty years. I’ve published many songs and have spent decades honing my craft. I’m currently in a rock band for kids and co-write for that as well.
Several years ago when I realized I wasn’t going to be a rock star, I switched tacts, branched out may be a better way to say it. I had always wanted to write a children’s book, but didn’t know how. Through the kids band and other channels, I met and befriended some established authors that mentored me. I highly suggest that by the way. Find an author that has “done it” and contact them. Pick their brain. You’d be surprised, most writers are generally down to earth because they don’t get treated like rock stars. Many just appreciate someone that learns something beneficial from them. Anyway, I learned so much about form, format, specs, illustrations, narrative arch, perspective, even query letters, from those conversations.
I don’t know exactly where in the book writing process it hit me, but I had an “Aha!” moment of thinking,”Wow, this is really similar to writing a song.” Now, the two are not exact, but they’re more alike than not. Let’s look at some things:
Brevity - The average pop song is about three and a half minutes long, the average children’s book around 4-500 words. That’s not a lot of time to say what you need to say and get out, wrapping it all up in a bow. Being able to whittle down a larger idea, cutting the fat and keeping the meat (if you’re vegetarian I apologize for the analogy), is a vital skill to both disciplines. It takes much practice. So write, write, write.
Establishing Character(s) - You have to do this quickly and make people care about the subject within the first few lines. In a song it’s usually accomplished with actions by or to the protagonist that establish empathy. In a picture book the illustrations are vital for this because that’s what draws in the reader. I learned early on you don’t waste words describing, the pictures do it for you.
Plot - Whether song or book, what’s going on has to matter to the listener/reader, have a direction things are heading and pull them along, otherwise you’ve lost them.
The Problem - Every story has to have one. It’s what creates tension, angst, turmoil. In a song it can be serious or funny, it’s often about love. In a kids book it’s most always humorous. Regardless, it makes one stick around to see what happens.
Resolution - It’s really just Part B to the Problem’s A, but it’s the payoff, wrapping things up, the tension being released or at least understood. In a children’s book things need to be resolved positively.
Conclusion - Where do things go now? In a song, maybe it’s the Protagonist resolved to move forward even if everything’s not ok, maybe they are ok. What do we look toward tomorrow? In a book, maybe a lesson is learned, a door opened to a new chapter. Undoubtedly, the listener/reader’s feet need to be firmly planted back on the ground after being in mid air from the problem. They need to be sent off, satisfied.
Rhyme, Rhythm and Pulse - Rhyme is often used in songs and children’s books and we all know what it means. It’s Rhythm and Pulse I really want to hit. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a children’s author rhyme the ends of lines thinking they’ve now emulated Dr. Suess but are so far from it. The rhythm and pulse of the actual lines themselves have so much to do with it. I debated how far down the rabbit hole to go on this, but it’s vital to make the music connection so here we go…
The syllables and stress points(feet) in lines make all the difference. Writers such as Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein often employed what are called Iambic Tetrameter (2 syllables per foot, 4 feet per line) and Anapestic Tetrameter (3 syllables per foot, 4 feet per line), with the last words of each line rhyming. Before your eyes glaze over, hear me out! If you know it, or have a copy, run through some lines of Green Eggs and Ham in your head. That’s Iambic Tetrameter. Now think of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas. That’s Anapestic Tetrameter. Got it? Musicians would call this meter 12/8 time, a triplet feel, and it’s a lot harder to write than it looks and why I get frustrated when I get a comment like,”Oh, you rhymed (how cute, implied),” even from other authors.
Now, not all songs and books rhyme, I included this because I love writing in Anapestic Tetrameter, though not exclusively, and it’s how Pippin… is written. You’ll hear me say this often, but I feel rhythm and rhyme pull readers along like a drummer in a band. I really think it helps reinforce literacy in young ones as well. I have a tab for that on my website if you want to go into more detail.
BUT, even if lines don’t rhyme, they need to have a flow, a cadence, that moves the reader along. Sometimes this is performed using consonant laden adjectives that are fun to say. It can be achieved with alliteration, it can be employed with mini pulses within smaller phrases. Whatever you can do to the writing that establishes a pulse, that’s it. Writers have to figure out their style for themselves.
I thought about taking some lines from well-known songs as well as excerpts from my children’s book to use as examples for each of the points, but you know what? I think the object of the exercise should be for you to do it. Find a song that you know well and also a favorite children’s book. Go through them, really think about them. I’m pretty sure you’ll see that most if not all of these elements play a huge part in establishing a successful narrative arc and crafting a cohesive composition whether it be song or children’s book.
And feel free to leave comments below or contact me at the email in my bio. I don’t know everything, I’m still learning. But I’ve learned much from the wisdom of others and want to pass that on where I can.