Tuesday 29 July 2014

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 children’s verse-novel, Out of the Dust. A score of verse-novels have since 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 sub-titles. The writing style is very personal, straight-forward and often told in first-person. The chapters are commonly short vignettes, at times related 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 fairly 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 verse novelists for young people is Steven Herrick, author of By the River (A&U), The Simple Gift (UQP) and others. Herrick says that by far the most poetic verse novel he’s read is Frenchtown Summer by Robert Cormier.

Herrick says that while he’s writing a verse novel all he wants ‘is to 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.’ 

The late Dorothy Porter, an award-winning Australia poet and author who wrote for adults, said that a good verse novel is an ‘impossible’ juggling act of narrative and poetry; both have to work. ‘You can’t have a successful verse novel,’ she said, ‘where the story drags and the characters are tepidly drawn.

 ‘The same rule of narrative enchantment applies to verse novels as it also applies to prose novels. It’s the quality of the poetry that gives the verse novel its true distinction and luminous intensity.’

Award-winning Australian children’s author, Catherine Bateson started writing for young adults as a verse novelist. She had, she says, already written poetry sequences and, when the prose version of a story she was thinking about didn’t work, she scrapped the five chapters she’d completed and began it again in free verse. What she discovered in the writing of that verse first novel, A Dangerous Girl, was that the form gave her a lot of freedom. She could write from the viewpoints of all four of her characters, directly exploring their emotional lives.

When I began writing Nobody’s Boy , I knew that the story would be about a young boy and his experiences through the fostering system. The boy would not be unlike nine year old Paul whom my husband (Bill Condon) and I had fostered for some years. Paul had been living with his mother on the streets for a year, we were told, when, at the age of six he rang emergency services when his mother took an overdose. For a short while he lived with his father, but his wife gave an ultimatum: her or the boy. The father chose to send Paul into the fostering system. Paul then lived with a number of foster carers before being taken in by his maternal aunt. Here, the eldest of four boys, he was very unhappy until his aunt appealed to the authorities for respite care. It was then that Bill and I took Paul on. After a while, Paul rejected his aunt and demanded to live permanently with Bill and me.

The first challenge in writing Nobody’s Boy was, as it is with all novels, deciding whose voice the novel should be written in. It seemed natural to me that the novel should be narrated by the fostered son, Ron, and so it was. Recording dialogue is an issue in verse novels, so, instead of littering the free verse of the story with all direct speech in quotation marks, I solved the problem by putting it in italics, and by using far less speech than in a prose novel.

As with most verse novels, I broke the story into small narrative chunks, with a sub-title for each section.

It seems that 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.

© Dianne Bates
Dianne (Di) Bates is the author of over 120 books for young people. Her latest book is a junior verse novel, Nobody’s Boy (Celapene Press, 2012) about two years in the life of a foster child. The book was awarded a CBCA Notable Award in 2013. Di’s website is www.enterprisingwords.com



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