Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books
There are three critical factors that must be addressed when writing a rhyming picture book. In order of importance, they are:
Story (and characters, plot, arc, etc)
Rhythm (sometimes referred to as Meter)
Story is most important. Rhyme, frankly, is least. More important, but sometimes less emphasized (pun intended), is Rhythm.
Rhyming Is All About Rhythm
You may be able to find the most amazing pair of rhyming words in the world. But if the meter doesn’t work, then the entire picture book will fall apart.
What is rhythm (or meter)? I’m not going to go into a scientific description of Iambic Pentameter (or Anapestic Heptameter and so on), but on a high level rhythm is the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. Think of a famous limerick about Nantucket. Once, Man, and tuck all have the same stressed emphasis on them, while the rest of the syllables aren’t stressed.
But I’m not going to teach you rhythm. That would take more than a single lesson (and there are already great resources out there … I personally like Rhyme Weaver if you really want to learn the nuts and bolts). I am going to stress (what's with all the puns?) the importance of rhythm. Just know that getting the meter right is much harder and takes significantly more time and effort than putting together a single pair of words that rhyme.
Although it’s hard to do, I find that the best rhyming picture books force the reader to speak with the correct rhythm. They’re carefully crafted with words that must be pronounced with the correct emphasis and stress. Rhythm can be subjective and the intended meter can easily be misinterpreted. And this is something writers don't often think about. When you write a rhyming picture book, you know which words to emphasize – but when someone else reads it, they won’t. And books are ALWAYS intended to be read by someone else.
How many syllables are in the word family? Two or three? Different people may pronounce it different, so use family carefully (or not at all). I might say the word fire with 2 syllables. You might say it with 1 syllable. Put that fire in the middle of a line in your manuscript, and the whole text might go up in smoke.
There’s no easy road to writing quality rhyming picture books. It can take years of practice, study, failed attempts, hard work, and maybe a little natural talent.