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.
Elle Strauss says
Writing a novel in free verse, to me, sounds like the scariest thing in the world to do!
Lydia Kang says
I like writing poetry and novels, but I don’t think I’m talented enough to combine the two!
Shannon O'Donnell says
Love this! Bookmarking right now! 🙂
Lisa Schroeder says
Great, great post.
I might add that if a story needs a LOT of dialogue to work, it probably isn’t going to be best served by verse. Because realistic dialogue, by its very nature, isn’t going to be poetic.
One of my writer friends is working on a verse novel project and I’m definitely going refer him to your blog because I think these posts are so helpful. Can’t wait to read more.
Caroline Starr Rose says
Lisa, yes! Thanks for mentioning dialogue. You’re absolutely right.
I can’t imagine writing a novel-in-verse. I guess my mind just doesn’t work that way, but it strikes me as so difficult. Thank goodness for writers like you who are brave and talented to tackle it! 🙂
Margaret Simon says
I am taking a Highlights class with Cordelia Jensen who has published three verse novels. She presented to us two poems from a novel in verse that worked very differently. While one was poetic and could stand alone as a poem, the other was not, but it served a purpose in the story line. So I don’t think every poem has to be a stand alone poem.
I think, like all genres , verse novels can be very different from each other, but the strength of a verse novel is how close the reader feels to the character.
Actually, I agree! I have poems that can’t stand alone in my verse novels, but they serve to move the story forward. Evidence my thoughts have changed over the years (or I finally noticed how my writing worked?)
Two of my critique partners are taking that class, too.
Joanne R Fritz says
Well, my upcoming novel in verse, EVERYWHERE BLUE (June 2021, Holiday House) as you know, Caroline (since you helped me so much with it — thank you!), is mostly free verse, but with some formal poetry added — my agent’s suggestion! I had previously written four (unpublished) novels in prose before realizing this latest idea cried out to be in verse. You need a highly-emotional subject, plus nearly every verse novel is told in first person present tense. It felt right and natural to me, as I know it must have to you. And I agree that not every poem has to stand alone.
I forgot about the present-tense part. You’re right! I look forward to your book meeting the world — and getting to share it here.
Sandra Stiles says
Your comment about working on May B. with a quilt in mind made complete sense to me. I love reading novels in verse to my students and getting them hooked on them. This is something I have wanted to try for a long time and I feel like I stand a chance with the advice from everyone here.
I love hearing this and wish you every success!