Tag Archives: rewriting

“Sea Horse, run!” versus “Sea Horse, swim!”

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Several people (both students and adults) have asked me why I chose to call my new book “Sea Horse, run!” instead of “Sea Horse, swim!”especially since the later seems more grammatically correct. I considered “Sea Horse, swim!” for my book title. I even changed all of the text accordingly, but in the end I chose “Sea Horse, run!” as the book’s catch-phase and title for one reason: poetic license. It sounds like a pitiful excuse, but poetic license is defined as “the freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect.”

Consider that poetry and picture books have a lot in common.

1) Both are generally short.

2) Both are usually read aloud.

3) Most importantly, word choice is paramount.

Let’s consider each in depth.

1) Picture books are generally under a thousand words, and new or early readers require many one syllable words. Both ‘run’ and ‘swim’ are one syllable, so the length of the words did not help me choose between them. But…

2) Poetry and picture books are usually read aloud. When I wrote the version entitled, “Sea Horse, swim!”, it was awkward to read, especially aloud. The words ‘sea’ and ‘swim’ slur together, and since the phrase is often repeated, I grew tired of stumbling over the words. I knew if I had a hard time reading it out loud then a child would have trouble, too.

3) So ‘run’ sounds better, but why? Word choice. It comes down to a battle of consonants: hard versus soft. Consonants create hard or soft sounds. Hard consonants stop the flow of air by blocking it with the tongue or lips, whereas soft consonants only partially block air flow. In “Sea Horse, swim!” both ‘sea and ‘swim’ begin with soft consonants. This is a problem because the sentence as a whole is a command and using a soft consonant for the verb is not very commanding. By contrast, the ‘r’ in ‘run’ is a hard consonant which stops the flow of air, a nice compliment to the soft ‘s’ in ‘sea’. Using a hard consonant for the verb ‘run’ also gives the statement a more authoritative ring.

Poetry uses words in new, unconventional, or even playful ways. That’s what makes poetry fun. Picture books do likewise. I play with words in “Sea Horse, run!”. For example, Coral is choral in my story, and using ‘run’ instead of ‘swim’ is just another playful use of words.

Coral and Choral

But before I considered poetic license, I researched the word ‘run’ with respect to fish. If you google ‘fish’ and ‘run’ you’ll find lots of associations and sentences using the two words. For example:

Why do fish run when hooked?

Why do fish run away when you tap the fish bowl?

When are the salmon running?

Water runs.

Rivers run.

Why not let Sea Horse run?

Octopus Swimming AwayBut I liked “Sea Horse, swim!”, too, so I kept it on one page. Octopus exclaims, “Sea Horse, swim!”, on page 13. Octopi are clever, so I thought his sentence structure should be beyond reproach.

Finally ‘swim’ does not communicate a sense of urgency or direction, whereas ‘run’ does. But did you know that some fish can even walk?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walking_fish

Walking Catfish

Will my next book be, “Catfish, walk!”? Probably not, but I will add that title to my ever-increasing list of potential books.

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Rewriting the End in “Sea Horse, run!”

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Someone asked me today, “How do you know when you are finished rewriting?” A great question! I’ve found that just when I think my story can’t possibly be any better, someone will give me a nudge in a different direction and, “Voilà!” A better book is born.

The key to knowing whether or not you are finished rewriting is to test your story with your audience. Of course a picture book should be tested on children, but usually every child will like your story. In addition to kids, seek out a dozen or more teachers, librarians, and parents. Ask your adult readers to give you feedback. Granted, sometimes it’s hard to get an honest response. Most readers want to say, “That’s great! I love your story,” or “Good job!”  That isn’t necessarily what you want to hear. You want readers to be as critical as possible. If there are major flaws with your story, you have to know BEFORE you publish it. That’s why you test it with so many people. Out of a dozen readers, one or two will be brutally honest, but their feedback could mean the difference between an “okay” book or a “great” book.

I speak from experience. My new picture book, “Sea Horse, run!”, went through eighteen rewrites over the course of a year. I thought the story was finished, but when I was looking for feedback on the art (only weeks before the book went to press), one librarian spoke up and said,

“I don’t like the end of your story.”

Ribbon

In that version (the 18th draft), Sea Horse, Coral and Sea Dragon laugh at the Shark, Eel and Octopus for not realizing the “Sea Dragon” was only a harmless, Leafy Dragon. This concerned parent/librarian pointed out how inappropriate my ending was for children. I listened and realized that I needed another revision. I was mortified. At least a dozen other people had told me they liked the book. Should I really rewrite it AGAIN based on the feedback of one person? The answer is, “Absolutely!” Why not write it one more time? After all, as a writer, you can always go back to the old version. It never hurts to write your story from a different angle or with an alternate ending. You may like the new version better. That’s exactly what happened for “Sea Horse, run!”.  With only a few weeks left before the book went to the printer, I took the story apart, piece by piece, desperately seeking the perfect finale.


The ending came to me as I studied the art. Since the book takes place on a coral reef, I drew a variety of fish for the background. One fish was the ribboned sea dragon. I asked myself, “Why is Leafy Dragon coming to the reef in the first place?” Answer: “To visit his cousin, Ribbon.” I not only revised the story, I revised ALL of the art by hiding Ribbon in every picture so that in the end, Sea Horse realizes that a sea dragon lived on the reef all along. The new ending increased the story to 849 words, a real drawback since I was committed to keeping it under 800, but the story improved so much, I decided not to worry about the length.

The revelation that there were three sea dragons instead of one made for a better ending, and it was far more appropriate for children. The new ending also allowed me to put three sets of “three” in the book, a nice touch since the number three is so important in children’s literature. (Read my previous blog post, “The Power of Three in Children’s Books.”) Although it was an enormous challenge to revise my “final” draft,” the extra effort was well worth it. When I tested the book on readers again, they were more enthusiastic than ever. I knew the 19th version would be the last, and a character that began as just another fish in the background took on a much larger role. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that final revision helped transform “Sea Horse, run!” into an award-winning book.

Want to know more about ribboned sea dragons? Read my blog post entitled, “Ribbon,” or watch the video below. Remember: Don’t be afraid to REVISE!!!