Tomorrow I am off to the Mundaring Arts Centre and then on to the KSP Writers Centre to present two workshops to young writers. As a result, I have spent the last hour or so thinking about what I might be asked about my choice to use the verse novel form.
I must admit that I didn’t so much choose the form as it chose me. From the time I read my firs tverse novel (It was Jinx, by Margaret Wild), I had been fascinated with the form, and knew that eventually I would try my hand at writing one. However, Pearl Verses the World (my first verse novel) came like a bolt from the blue, insisting it be written, and be written in verse. There was no conscious decision to try to write a verse novel – rather a story came to me, as a series of poems, and I sat down and wrote it down. Along the way I did a lot of thinking about what would happen to this very insistent character, but there was never any question that her story would be told in verse. And I think it works.
My second verse novel, Toppling, was similar. This time there was a wee bit more intention. I’d finished writing Pearl, and when the idea for a story about a boy who topples dominoes came, I hoped that it was story which would lend itself to the verse form. Fortunately for me, it did.
It is a form I love to read, and a form I love to write, and I hope I shall write many more verse novels. However, I won’t write exclusively in verse form, simply because it is not a form which lends itself to every story.
For me, a story will work well in verse if:
1. 1. It is a character-driven story, rather than plot-driven. Yes, of course a verse noel needs a plot, too, but it is the characters of Pearl and John which drive my own verse novels. For this reason both are told in first person, a voice which works well for verse noels.
2. 2. It is high on emotion. The verse form is wonderful for exploring emotions in a way which takes the reader close into the emotional vortex of the character. It is also excellent in allowing the reader to imagine the emotion for themselves rather than needing to be told how the character feels.
3. 3. Setting can be simply defined. For me (and remember every writer is different) I cannot imagine being able to write detailed descriptions of setting in the verse form. My poetry is about emotion, and so the feel of Pearl’s home, or John’s school is far more important than its physicality.
4. 4. The plot is not overly complicated. Lack of complication does not mean lack of depth. What I do mean is that the story in a verse novel tends to be fairly linear – with subplots kept to a minimum or forming part of the main plot. Both Pearl and Toppling have subplots – the friendship between Pearl and Mitchell, for example, and the uncovering of Ky’s story in Toppling, but these happen against the backdrop of the main plotline.
5. 5. Lastly, the key consideration when choosing to write a verse novel is whether the story can be better told any other way. If a story can be told in prose, it probably should be. Why? Because the verse novel is hard to write and hard to sell. I confess to having unsuccessfully tried to rewrite one of my prose novels as a verse novel following the success of Pearl – and failing. The story needed to be told in prose, because it could be. Could Pearl’s story – or John and Dom’s – have been told in prose? I don’t think so. But that of Garth (the hero of the unsuccessful attempt) needed a level of dialogue and of description which the verse novel couldn’t lend. I’ve since worked on that story back in its prose form – which is where it started out. But two other stories have been written since Toppling which began their lives as verse novels – and will stay that way. Hopefully one day they’ll even be published.
If you are interested in the verse novel form, you might like to see what some other verse novel enthusiasts have to say, at the following blog posts: