Amy sent me this message in 2010:
I was wondering something. Would you ever consider writing a blog post with tips for people writing novels in free verse? I know the best teacher is *reading* novels in verse (and I’m SO enjoying doing that — I’m reading Hugging the Rock that you recommended right now), but I wonder if you have any tips that you picked up along the way. I’m not writing a strictly verse novel, but every chapter starts with prose and ends in free verse (like The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson). From everything I’ve read, free verse is free, so there aren’t any rules, but I worry a lot that I’m doing it badly. If you have any tips, I’d appreciate hearing them, and if you feel like turning it into a blog post, I know it would benefit all of us wanna-bes. 🙂
Before I launch into what’s worked for me, remember the things I’ve mentioned before:
- I read a grand total of two verse novels before writing my own and still have a lot of reading and learning to do
- I’m no expert, but I know what has worked for me
- remember poetry basics when attacking a verse novel
Here are some things to consider when writing verse novels:
Is the subject matter right for poetry?
Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose (this is how I stumbled into a verse novel). While many stories can and will work as poetry, ask yourself if this medium is the best way to tell your story. If not, I’d advise you to take another approach.
Is the protagonist right for poetry?
Often (though not always) verse novels are told from a very close first-person point of view. This can be really tricky, as such writing calls for a lot of introspection on the protagonist’s part and possibly a skewed vision of how the world works. If this isn’t your character, it’s best, in my opinion, to avoid verse.
Can you sustain the intensity required to write a novel this way?
Sometimes writing in verse feels really natural. Other times the close-to-the-bone nature of poetry is hard to sustain. I remember while writing MAY B. my critique group would often ask, “How are you able to keep this up? It would drive me crazy to write that way!”
If you are someone who can knock off thousands of words at one sitting, verse novels are going to hurt. Daily word counts will more realistically be in the hundreds. Entire novels usually top out at 25,000 words (MAY B. is 15,000).
Can each poem stand alone?
Each poem in a verse novel must capture one moment, scene, idea, mark of change in your character’s life. Poems should also be able to function separately from the rest of the story.
Does each poem contribute to the whole?
As I’ve mentioned before, I worked through MAY B. with 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 contribute to the whole. I trusted that if certain patterns and shades in my story quilt were repeated (think themes or story strands), eventually the interconnectedness would surface.
This approach is much more organic than sequential, which for some might feel intimidating. It doesn’t have to be! There’s a lot of freedom in this approach. Give yourself room to experiment and play.