Since I was a poet before I started writing novels, several of my writer friends have asked me, “How do I add more poetry to my prose?”
That’s a complex question, and while I’ve done my best to give my friends some suggestions, I thought I’d enlist help from awesomely poetic author Lisa Schroeder. Here she offers up some advice for all those writers who might want to take a spin on the poetic side.
Lisa is a native Oregonian who has written a slew of YA and middle grade books including I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, THE DAY BEFORE, CHASING BROOKLYN, FAR FROM YOU, IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES and SPRINKLES AND SECRETS. Much of Lisa’s award-winning young adult work is in verse and has been honored by YA/teen reader awards and by the
as Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers. And her accolades only start there! Most recently, THE DAY BEFORE was named an Oregon Book Award Finalist. YA Fusion is honored to have Lisa featured on our site! ALA
Thank you so much for talking with us, Lisa. First, my writing critique group begged me to ask, how do you define poetry?
Oh boy. I guess, to me, it's a way of writing, where special care is given to how words are placed together for effect, that might help us see something in a new way.
You don’t write every novel in verse. How do you make the choice to put one novel in verse and another in prose?
When I start writing, the character's voice will let me know how he/she wants the story to be told. When I sat down to write I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, Ava seemed to want to tell the story in a sparse, poetic way. I was scared to death, because I'd never tried to write anything like that before. But I liked what I had and so I kept going. Novels that are more introspective are going to do much better in verse than novels with lots of dialogue. Dialogue, if it's realistic, isn't going to be poetic, most of the time. I also find a larger cast of characters will work better in prose than in verse.
Mostly, I go with my gut, I suppose. I usually know within five pages or so if the book is going to work in verse. If I can find the character's voice and write some poems that show what's happening in those opening scenes, I feel good about continuing on that way.
In what ways do you create rhythm in your verse without rhyming?
I read my words over and over, and to me it's kind of like sanding a piece of wood. At first there are lots of sharp edges, and places where it hurts as you run your hand across the wood. But with each sanding, it gets smoother and smoother. The first draft is about getting the story down, and then revision is about making the clunky work smooth. Rearranging words, replacing words, deleting words - it's all done in an effort to make the words flow, nice and easy.
While crafting a novel, some writers like to work from an outline and some like to free-write. When writing an entire novel in verse, do you think there is more of a need to outline beforehand to keep you on track?
I am very much a discovery writer. That is, I discover things about my characters, about the story, about the plot, as I write. I have a few seeds of ideas to start, but each of my verse novels were written with just a few scribbles in a notebook. No outline was involved at all. I often ask myself questions as I go along. Is this getting boring, and if so, does something need to happen to up the tension here? Have I revealed enough about my character to make him/her real? What mysterious element can I use that will keep the reader turning the pages? Is there a unique way I can show how the character is feeling right now, comparing it to something in the world around her? I tend to believe there is an intrinsic nature at work when writing in verse. It has to "feel" right. I can't explain exactly what that means, I just know it when I feel it.
What do you think is the most challenging thing about writing a novel in verse?
We are trying to write a story in a sparse, poetic way. It is a constant balancing act - is the story strong enough and is the poetry strong enough? I'm constantly worried I'm going to be criticized for not being poetic enough. But if I'm going to make a mistake, I'd rather make the mistake on the side of poetry than story. Story must be the number one priority, in my mind. Without a good story, there is no reason to keep reading. I'm also very aware now that many reluctant readers are drawn to verse novels. I don't want to write pages that are laden with deep similes and metaphors and other things, so they can't follow what's happening in the story.
How about the most fun/exciting thing?
I suppose it's like any project - when you know you've nailed a passage and given the story exactly what it needs at that moment. I knew when I wrote THE DAY BEFORE, and wrote the poem "Tell Me Your Story," (page 114) to describe how Amber felt about the special day in that moment, it was exactly right. Readers would be able to relate to what she was talking about and understand how she felt in that moment, because you are often conflicted while reading a book - you want to hurry up and see how it ends but you also want to slow down and savor each word. When I was done writing it, it felt like I'd done something magical. Interestingly enough, that was the only page that didn't have one mark from my editor when it was time to do revisions. It only had a heart drawn on it.
Do you think the YA market is receptive to novels in verse? Do you think it’s a trend that’s here to stay?
Yes and no. I recently saw an editor ask on twitter, "What do you think of verse novels?" So many professionals in publishing replied negatively. Things like - "Unless you're Ellen Hopkins, you shouldn't be doing it," "It's more of a gimmick than anything," "I don't like them, it seems like lazy writing to me," and on and on.
But there are new verse authors emerging all the time, so obviously, there are some publishing professionals who like them. Still, I feel like as soon as you decide to try and publish one, it's going to be an uphill battle - even more so than usual in getting a book published and then trying to sell it to the masses. I especially feel like some judge me and think I shouldn't be writing in verse for my more "commercial" stories. Like it's only appropriate when you're writing a more literary novel, like the National Book Award winner, INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN.
THE DAY BEFORE and I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME have been chosen as
Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers (Feel free to take a much-deserved bow!). What do you think is the attraction of novels in verse for teens who normally shy away from reading? ALA
Instead of bowing, I'll thank YALSA for including my books on that list! I'm truly honored.
I get more notes from teens that start out, "I usually hate to read, but I love your books..." than any other kind of note. I have had multiple kids tell me they'd never *finished* a novel by themselves until they read one of my books.
And may I just add that THIS is why we need more commercial novels-in-verse on the shelves.
Reluctant readers need an interesting story to draw them in. They don't want a lot of beautiful, descriptive prose to wade through. They don't want long, intimidating chapters that make them feel impatient and stupid. Verse novels cut to the emotional core of the story. There isn't a lot of "extra fluff." There's lots of white space on the pages, and so, they can read a few pages in a minute, and as they flip the pages quickly, they *feel* successful. Hey, I'm reading, and reading quickly, look at that!
CHASING BROOKLYN was a 2011 Romance Writer’s of
RITA award finalist. (And yes, absolutely bow again!), and romance is laced beautifully through all your YA novels. What elements do you think create a strong, can’t-put-down romance? America
Thanks! I think there needs to be a reason the two characters connect. Either they see a quality in the other person they wish they had, or they have something in common that draws them together. If it's a relationship that is based on looks alone, it's going to be harder to buy into it, and to care about it. Sure, physical attraction might be what starts it, but what happens after that? I think Nico and
Brooklyn's relationship develops in a natural way, as they help each other train for a triathlon. They start out as friends, and I believe that happens a lot in real life.
For those writers who are looking to add poetic elements to their prose writing or even to try to write a novel in verse, what advice would you give? Aside from your own books (J), are there any resources you would suggest they use or read to guide them?
Back in 2009, Kelly Bingham did a week's worth of posts on writing verse novels at the blog titled "Through The Tollbooth." It's a blog co-authored by a bunch of VCFA graduates. Here is the first entry, and then you can scroll down and click "Next" to read the others.
Caroline Starr Rose, author of MAY B, gives some advice on Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, which you can find here:
And obviously, the more you read verse novels, the more familiar you will become with writing in that format.
You’ve got a couple books already out in a great middle grade series about cupcakes…and who doesn’t love cupcakes! Was it difficult to switch gears and go from emotionally heavy YA to lighter middle grade?
In fall of 2013, Aladdin will be publishing another companion to IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES and SPRINKLES AND SECRETS, this time from Lily's point of view, a character readers meet in SPRINKLES AND SECRETS. It's called FROSTING AND FRIENDSHIP and has a mother-daughter book club, a girl who is a disaster in the kitchen, and a surprise birthday party.
Thanks so much!
Thank you again, Lisa, for taking the time to share your insights with us!
And for YA Fusion readers, have any of you ever considered writing a novel in verse? Let us know your thoughts on writing and reading verse novels by posting below. Be sure to include your email address in the post. One lucky reader will win a copy of Lisa’s book, THE DAY BEFORE. The winner will be chosen by a random drawing on May 19. Good luck!