What makes a great verse novel?

creechThe first verse novel I ever read and loved was Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. The second (four years later, in 2003) was Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. But in between those two, I read a lot I hated. And I’ve read more since then that I thought were just banal, chopped-up prose. It was hard to complain about them, though, because I didn’t really know what a verse novel was “supposed to be”. However, in the past 6 months I’ve had to tackle this question in considerable depth, because I chose it as the topic for my critical thesis at Hamline University.

I also wanted to know for my own benefit. I’ve written four verse novels (the fourth, Runaways, is coming out in 2013) but along the way, I’ve often felt I was flying blind. I have on my bookshelves more than a dozen how-to guides on writing for children and young adults, and a lot more on writing poetry. Not one talks about verse novels. Nobody talks about how to write a verse novel! So along with the critical analysis I did for my thesis, I decided I needed to work this out, if only for myself.

What did I come up with? A wishlist that developed from all the reading I did (of verse novels and literary commentary), one that gives me something more tangible to aim for than just “writing a story in poems”.

  • Crafted language
  • Keen attention to line breaks and stanzas
  • Authentic voice and cadence
  • Memorable storytelling
  • Venturesome creativity
  • The promise of more in re-readings
  • Lyricism, power and originality

 

I had to read a lot of bad verse novels first, and then some terrific ones, to work out where the problems lie for writers. One of the most obvious to me is when someone who neither reads poetry nor writes much of it (if at all) decides they want to write a verse novel. I’m not sure why you would do this if you don’t know anything much about poetry. As a teacher, reading mountains of student writing over the past 20 years, I know that this kind of writer will have no understanding of figurative language and imagery, or how to use line breaks and stanzas. These are the basic, vital tools of a poet, and yet I see published verse novels without a single metaphor, let alone good imagery, and line breaks that destroy cadence and music.

An easy test is to type out a page from a verse novel and see how it reads. If it reads like prose, to me it fails as poetry. Line breaks create anticipation, double meanings, pauses, visual and auditory links and echoes. You ignore their power at your peril. Another key element of poetry is the use of white space – it’s where the reader dreams and imagines. If you describe everything, you are writing prose. I probably sound harsh, but I try to apply the same rigour to my own work. How else am I going to grow as a verse novelist unless I do? Of course, you also have to balance the elements of story and character, the challenge of keeping the plot moving forward, and creating an authentic, distinctive voice.

If you want to see what is possible in a verse novel, when a writer uses their poetic skills in “venturesome creativity”, look at Helen Frost’s work. She writes in sestinas and sonnets, and even creates her own forms. Try Diamond Willow, Keesha’s House and Crossing Stones. For a heftier read, try The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allan Wolf.

As for that how-to guide (e-book) on writing verse novels, yes, it’s on the way. Can’t let all that reading and research go to waste, can I?

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(This article first published on monthofpoetry.)

 

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Comments

  1. Hi Sherryl, I’m Eli. Happened upon your article and do agree with every bit of the criteria you outlined as essential for a contemporary verse novel. If this message ever reaches the intended audience, I invite you to read The Surveyor. The first book is on sale online now and there is a free chapter available for readers to test the waters.
    I have to get back to work too.
    Holla

  2. This is somewhat belated, but thanks for this article!

    I read it a while back when I was developing my own children’s verse novel. It really helped. Although I had always written more prose than poetry, I found the verse novel fell somewhere in between, and I loved it.

    I’ll take this chance to say I love your verse novels, Sherryl. Just reading them was enough inspiration to keep me going!

    • Thanks, Ann – I’m really pleased it was useful to you!

      • Hi Sheryl,
        Thank you for creating this post. I recently finished writing a novel in verse but I was wondering, how do you pitch such a novel to an editor. Would it be appropritate to submit this book as a work of fiction or do most publihers tend to relegate this genre strictly to poetry. I want to submit the finished copy but I was unsure of how to go about this.

        Thank you

        • I think you would simply say up front that it’s a verse novel. Any editor interested in the form/genre would know what you have. You would need to research though – look at a range of verse novels published in the past few years and see who published them. I know Greenwillow does. The problem is whether they accept unsolicited manuscripts! But I wouldn’t recommend sending your manuscript to anyone who clearly doesn’t publish verse novels or poetry. You’d be wasting your time and theirs.

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