I was asked, by the Lincolnshire group of the FCBG, to give a seminar on rhyming picture books at their annual conference which this year was held in Grantham. The theme was INSPIRE.
I remember thinking 'Oh' and 'my and 'goodness' in quick succession after I accepted the invitation. This meant talking to adults about picture books, not my usual audience of children, and adults in the know, not to put too fine a point on it.
I don't know what I was worried about. A friendly welcome awaited me on my arrival and nobody could have done more for me if they'd tried. I had a fantastic time.
My room was full to the brim come the time for me to launch in to my talk.......a spacious hotel bedroom transformed into a seminar space complete with rows of chairs, table and screen.
I explained I may well start to treat the assembled delegates as if they were five year olds. They said they didn't mind, so I set off and discovered I actually really enjoy doing this sort of thing.
Having introduced myself with a bit of background as to what had inspired me to write for children and then chatted about some of my personal favourites, I thought it would be a good idea to try and inspire some of them to try writing a rhyming story for themselves. With this in mind we had a look at the 'correct' way of doing so....referencing Ann Whitford Paul's 'Writing Picture Books' chapter on rhyme a fair amount.
We looked at the four elements of good rhyming poetry -
The need for brevity - making every word count.
Keeping focus - not enjoying the act of rhyming so much we forget exactly what the theme of our story is and wander off plot.
Rhyme - being consistent, but not too predictable.
And, of course, rhythm. I knew about the four basic rhythmic feet before preparing my talk, but had not realised that two of them (iamb & anapest) were known as 'upbeat' rhythms and that the others (trochee & dactyl) were falling and, as such, used mainly for sad or serious poetry and rhyme.
Then I set my task. Handing out a selection of picture books I've gathered over the years (and a pile loaned me by the wonderful Tracy Gunaratnam for the duration!) I asked that everyone read through and then analyse the text to see if it stuck to the 'best practice' we'd just learned about. If not, was there a good reason not to or did it just create a problem in either the ease of reading or sense of the story.
There were some interesting results and I have to say, when I tried this task, I was mightily relieved to find most other writers find it almost impossible to stick to one rhythm exactly throughout a book. The problem is, if a rhythm is broken it can cause the reader to stumble over the changed line. It can be done for effect - a change of speed to suit the change of mood in a story or to signal the end of a tale - but even this needs to be done with a great deal of care and thought. We found that a few altered their rhythmic metre only the once, without any apparent reason, and it made the reader stumble over the words. (Note to self - make sure I keep getting as many people as possible to read through my rhyming texts to check them out!)
I'm not sure I actually did inspire anyone to give writing their own rhyming story a go!
After my seminar I had the opportunity to stay and enjoy the afternoon's lectures - and they were brilliant. I particularly enjoyed Kjartan Poskitt's presentation of some of his work. He is SO entertaining! I learnt more about maths and Sir Isaac Newton listening to him for an hour than I think I ever did at school. I now love 'dragon curves' and will definitely go about naming characters in my stories the way he does........York pub crawl here I come. (That will only make sense to anyone who has heard Kjartan talk - sorry!)
Then I experienced one of Philip Ardagh's talks - hilarious. To begin with, he was introduced by the shortest person at the conference (her words) and he is NOT short (his)......
.....and he sent us home with THE BEST tip for freeing up time to write......
Apparently we spend more than half our lives sleeping, a large amount eating and a fair few hours getting rid of the waste product from the aforementioned activity. He suggests that, if we were to sleep whilst on the toilet with a bowl of cheerios in milk held to the side of our head so we can rest it in the bowl, we would inhale the food whilst our mouths opened to snore (though a stray one may enter through a nostril) and thus free up six and a half years worth of time for writing!
If I liked cheerios I would give it a go.
The conference continued through the weekend, but I had to leave before the gala dinner on the Saturday night as our allotment was calling for attention and the weather was, for once, reasonably good over a weekend that we could be available to work on it. I'm sure it carried on in the same vein of fun, learning and passion for getting children and books together.