Saturday, 11 August 2018

Writing Verse Novels


The verse-novel is not really a new writing form. Yevgeny Onegin by Aleksander Pushkin, a famous verse-novel, was first published in 1833. Some verse-novels became popular during the Victorian era, as well. But the contemporary verse-novel truly gained literary attention in 1998 when Karen Hesse won a Newbery Medal for her verse-novel, Out of the Dust. A score of verse-novels have made their way into the hearts of readers – especially young readers – all over the world.

This contemporary genre combines the power of narrative with the rich, evocative language of verse. Of course, some verse novels contain ordinary verse and little plot, but the best free verse novels are beautifully crafted, convincing reading experiences with a strong sense of voice.

Although the narrative structure of a verse novel is similar to a prose novel, the organisation of story is usually in a series of short sections, often with changing perspectives. The writing style is very personal, straight-forward and often told in first-person. The chapters are commonly short vignettes, at times told from multiple perspectives. The use of multiple narrators provides readers with a cinematic view into the inner workings of characters’ minds. Most verse novels employ an informal, colloquial register. Tackling subjects for today’s young adults, these books are easy to read, yet often strike to the heart of difficult topics.

There are many advantages to writing your story in verse. The very nature of writing in verse allows for more condensed language. Every word is needed and important. This type of form forces the author to think deeply on what is necessary and what is not. You also leave more “space” for the reader to participate in the story-telling. This “space” draws the reader’s imagination into the story filling in their own details where the story leaves it open to do so.

If you are drawn to the idea of writing a story in verse but don’t know how to get started, try reading some contemporary verse-novels to familiarise yourself with the tone and style of the form. Whether you prefer structured verse as in The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, or free-verse, as in Crank by US YA author Ellen Hopkins, read as much as you can get your hands on. With regular doses of the verse-novel in your daily diet, you will begin to hear the subtle undertones of rhythm and lyrical style evident in the various authors’ voices.  Once you’ve found the style that appeals to you most as a reader and while that wonderful feeling you get from reading that style is fresh in your psyche, try writing your first line of verse-story. Then stop. Read it aloud. How does it sound? Is it smooth or awkward? Refine your first line until you love it. Then, move on to the next line. You’re on your way to writing your first verse-novel.

If you have a YA story just waiting to unfold and find that you enjoy reading this form of story writing then this may be the springboard you’ve needed to turn that white page, once again, into literary art.

One of Australia’s best known and prize-winning verse novelists for young people is Steven Herrick who spoke to Di Bates about his writings:

Steven, how would you define a verse novel?
A narrative written in verse! Is that a bit too glib? But really, that's it. My favourite verse-novels tell a story in the first-person through multiple perspectives. "Cold Skin" has eight narrators, for example.

What verse novel do you wish you'd written, and why?
Frenchtown summer by Robert Cormier – is probably the shortest, but definitely most poetic verse-novel I've ever read. It’s about a boy and his father - a subject I've written thousands of pages on - and Robert Cormier does it all in 105 pages.

Which are you most conscious of while writing a verse novel - voice, language or storyline?
I'm conscious of all those things, but really all I want to do is write characters that the reader would like to spend some time with. I don't focus that much on the storyline when I'm writing - I just want to get close to the characters. The story (such as it is) comes later. 

How much editing do you need to do?
I have found it easy to write verse novels, I must say, although, I'm trying to wean myself off them at present. My latest book is a prose fiction called Rhyming Boy for children (UQP) and I’ll probably follow this with a book of short stories. I'm keeping black painted fingernails in reserve for a year or two. Some books are heavily edited (or rewritten, or more precisely, have lots of poems added) - By the River and Naked Bunyip Dancing were both much shorter when first sent to my editor: she just loved the characters and encouraged me to write more - which in both cases I willingly did! Some other books didn't need as much editing. I'm a lazy writer, I reckon: I send a manuscript off before it's ready and do the extra work afterwards.

Dorothy Porter, the award-winning Australia poet and author who writes for adults, has the following to say about verse novels:
“A good verse novel is an impossible juggling act of narrative and poetry. They both must work. They both must pull together. You can’t have a successful verse novel where the story drags, and the characters are tepidly drawn. The same rule of narrative enchantment applies to verse novels as applies to prose novels. There are plenty of boring, unreadable novels around. I have no desire to add to their number. But there is no point in writing a verse novel at all if the poetry is dead doggerel or suffocating obscurity.

The quality of the poetry gives the verse novel its true distinction and luminous intensity. Poetry burns for longer than prose. There is nothing hotter than a terrific verse novel. There is no better read. A wonderful and enduring example is Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” which changed the course of Russian prose fiction. Pushkin’s verse novel set a very high bar indeed. And it continues to do so.

The verse novel is a highly unpredictable literary form. Unlike prose novels, where most read in terms of their structure and language pretty much the same, every verse novel is different.

Whether good or bad each one is a unique reflection of the poet who wrote it and the struggles the poet had in trying to weld poetry and narrative together. Even though a verse novel claims to be fictional no literary form is more revealing of the thrashing cries of the author behind it.

I am never more myself than when creating the characters of my verse novels. To give them authentic voice is like writing intensely personal operatic arias. I have to find a new pitch and a greater stretch and courage in myself.”

© Dianne Bates

Dianne (Di) Bates is the author of over 130 books for young people including the verse novel, Nobody's Boy (Celapene Press). She produces the fortnightly online magazine, Buzz Words (www.buzzwordsmagazine.com) for people in the children’s book industry.

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