Because verse can accomplish things prose cannot?
Because experimenting with new methods and styles is the best way to stay fresh in the midst of a long career?
Simply for the challenge?
Because, beyond the hard work of it, writing a story in verse is great fun?
For me it was all of the above.
Little Dog, Lost, published by Atheneum last spring, was my first novel in verse. I am currently working on my second, Patches. I made the initial leap for the most mundane of reasons. Writing in verse creates lots of attractive white space on the page.
That alone, all that white space, is a huge asset for developing readers. It makes the page look accessible, thus encouraging them to wade in, and delivers the lines in bite-sized chunks for easier deciphering. For a few years before beginning Little Dog, Lost, I had been writing young novellas, and I had grown tired of the necessary restrictions on sentence length that limited my style. I like writing for younger readers. I like the kinds of stories that work for them. But I longed to go back to writing with the stylistic flow of my older work. I also wanted to create a story that wasn’t age-specific, one that, by being easy to read and offering a captivating story, would appeal to a wide audience.
But simply breaking up prose lines to make them more readable doesn’t make a verse novel. I pulled up a copy of Little Dog, Lost recently and spread the words across the page just to see if making it look like prose would turn it into prose. The effect was … weird. Clearly when I write this way I am doing something different with language and even with my story. By striving toward poetry, I’m writing as I do for a picture book, every word weighed, the rhythm of every line tasted.
Something more is involved, though, and that something is harder to name.
The most important concept to understand in writing picture books is resonance. We are often told that picture book texts should be like an iceberg, ten percent above the surface, ninety percent below. Every word and phrase of a good picture books stands in for more, much more. The text allows us to feel what lies beneath the words. That’s resonance. And that’s exactly what a verse novel must have.
But is it possible to write a novel that way, relying on mostly unspoken meaning?
That is the key question. I used to resist reading novels in verse, let alone writing one. I found most of them thin. They rarely gave me what I most seek when I enter the world of story, a deep connection with a character. If I’m going to inhabit a story—as writer or reader—I want to enter it through a character, to become that character and have the story happen to me.
If a verse novel is written in a first-person stream of consciousness—as is often done in YA verse novels—then the reader can live richly inside the main character’s psyche and experience little loss. (Or the loss, if there is one, is apt to come from losing out on the energy of direct action.) If, however, the story is being told in a more traditional third-person perspective (or through a narrator’s voice, as I’m doing in both of my verse novels) with the presentation being more dramatic than internal, then resonance is the key.
And how is resonance achieved when you’re writing thousands of words instead of the few hundred of a picture book? Through the same painstaking effort a picture book text requires. Each line scanned, again and again, each word examined. Each scene weighed for its emotional impact. Each character encapsulated, presented in as few words as possible, but made as whole as possible in those few words.
And after doing all that, do we get the same results we would get writing a story in prose? No. There is much that is rather routinely played out writing in prose that will be left to the underwater part of a story in verse.
But when we make resonance work, our verse novels have the kind of impact the best picture books do.
If they really work, they may even do what picture books are most famous for, call their readers back again and again and again.