April is National Poetry Month -- the perfect time to examine if your manuscript might be right for verse.
The more I write, the more I firmly believe there is no one way to write a book. I have yet to approach any of my manuscripts the same way. Here, though, are some things I’ve learned from both reading and writing verse novels:
Subject matter must be right for poetry
Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose. Many times an author will use verse to mimic the rhythm of the story. Here are a few books that come to mind:
- Sharon Creech’s HEARTBEAT, about a girl who loves to run
- Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST, where the spare language reflects the stark Dust Bowl setting
- Lisa Schroeder’s FAR FROM YOU, about a girl who sings and and writes songs
- Kwame Alexander's THE CROSSOVER and BOOKED -- two sports-focused verse novels that move and weave like a kid in motion
|I read this dedication and then I died|
Protagonists must be right for poetry
Often verse novels are told from a very close first-person point of view. Such writing calls for a lot of introspection on the protagonist's part. Other times verse is used as a way for multiple voices to be heard, almost like a Greek chorus. Here are some examples:
- Thanhha Lai’s INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, about a Vietnamese girl’s efforts to understand her new American home
- Karen Hesse’s WITNESS, where the Ku Klux Klan moves into a quiet Vermont town, and citizens reflect on the change they bring
- My BLUE BIRDS, where two girls meant to be enemies instead become secret friends
Poems should be able stand alone
Each poem in a verse novel must capture one moment, scene, idea, mark of change in your character's life. Ideally poems should be able to function separately from the rest of the book.
Poems must contribute to the whole
When I worked through my verse novel, MAY B., I kept a quilt in mind, treating each poem like its own square of fabric. Each patch had to be able to function separately while at the same time move the story forward. I trusted that if certain patterns and shades in my story quilt were repeated (think themes or story strands), eventually the interconnectedness would surface -- a much more organic approach than is normally taken with prose.
I also like to think of verse novels as a photo album, with each poem telling its own story as an individual picture would. When the photos are viewed together, an even bigger story is revealed.
Varied poem lengths
Without the structure of chapters, verse novels are simultaneously abrupt and fluid -- poem lengths can be jagged yet aide the plot in moving through scenes swiftly. It is often difficult to find a place to stop reading, as one poem often bleeds into the next.
Varied line lengths
Verse novelists play with key phrases or words they want to bring to their reader’s attention by the way they arrange words on the page. Stanza and line breaks can be used to slow or speed up reading, to draw the eye to important phrases, and to show readers how to best "speak" the poem.
Emotion and structure
The structure of a poem often communicates to readers a character’s emotional state.
How might fear look structurally? A verse novelist might use little punctuation or words tightly packed together. Maybe the language of the poem will unfold in short bursts, reminiscent of a child peeking into a darkened room and quickly slamming the door.
Some verse novelists use specific types of poetry (sonnets, for example), as Pat Brisson did with her book, THE BEST AND HARDEST THING. In writing about Sylvia Plath in YOUR OWN, SYLVIA, author Stephanie Hemphill chose to mirror the format of several of Plath's poems, giving her readers a sense of the poet's style, subject matter, intensity, and character.
The visual and the aural
When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students that poetry should be seen and heard. There is something special that happens when a reader experiences seeing, hearing, and saying a poem all at once -- the fullness of the poem is discovered this way.
If you ever feel stuck understanding a verse novel, find a private corner and try reading it aloud.
Verse novels are stories best communicated through the language, rhythm, imagery and structure of poetry. Is verse right for your story? Listen to your story. It will lead the way.