When I finally got to point in my life where my children were reading on their own and I realized how incredibly cool it’d be to have them read (and hopefully like!) a book their daddy had written, I didn’t know quite how to proceed. More out of ignorance than any kind of plan, I wrote a YA novel in verse. Why? Simply because I knew poetry. I taught it at college. I’d written a number of my own poetry collections. I’d edited a half dozen poetry anthologies. And I’d written a creative writing textbook on the subject.
So writing a YA novel in verse seemed like the easy option. After all, fewer words + younger audience = easier time, right? Oh boy. Did I have a few surprises. Here’s some of what I learned the hard way through the long process of writing Unlocked (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2011).
#1—The poems aren’t any easier to write than adult poems. In fact, they may be tougher to write than anything by Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, or Robert Frost. Kids don’t like poems that feel too “poem-y,” so the poems have to effectively appear different than the stuff they’re forced to read in school. And there’s a certain obligation to narrative that has to be there, as well, though you also have to embrace the language innovations adult poetry requires or else editors (and critics) will consider your poems as “too slight” or “ephemeral.” And they’d be correct. Yes, these are poems, but yes, they need to convey character, emotion, location, voice, and meaning.
It’s a difficult dance to perform and it takes many, many tries to get it right. Sometimes it feels like trying to hit a fast-moving target!
#2—Kids don’t hold back. When I test drove sections of my book in manuscript form at local schools, churches, and community centers, the kids were brutally honest.
“That’s stupid. No one would say that.”
“Andy is a total dork.”
"Why would you write THAT?”
While writers are supposed to want criticism on their work, these unvarnished responses can be tough to absorb. Of course, you can skip the reader feedback process if you want, but if you want to land a book contract in the incredibly competitive YA book world, do you really want to start submitting without any sense of audience reaction? (Plus would you rather address those issues now or see those comments in your Amazon reviews?)
#3—YA novels in verse give you a LOT of options. Since a verse novel typically includes dozens and dozens of individual poems, a writer has dozens and dozens of potentially different forms, styles, and voices. That can be incredibly freeing or incredibly frustrating. Helen Frost’s Keesha’s House uses traditional poetic forms and contemporary voices. Steven Herrick’s Love, Ghosts, and Nose Hair uses multiple first-person narrators, while his By the River uses only one. My own Unlocked sticks to a single narrator, too, but at times leaves him behind and has a kind of anonymous voice in the sky approach. Still other verse novels have a slew of poems that seem by and large to be stand alone pieces, just like the poetry collections of Shel Silverstein worked. Unlike YA prose, there are so many variations of how a book works that it can be hard to figure out how to put one together by using those as models.
#4—You’re not Ellen Hopkins. If you’re been living under a rock, you might not know who Ellen Hopkins is. She’s the most successful YA novel in verse writer there is. I ran into grief about this too because I had the same literary agency as she had, which meant every editor who got the manuscript of Unlocked was probably expecting it to be another Hopkins book. In size, style, or structure, it wasn’t. And the bar for many editors is Ellen Hopkins high. To give you one example, an editor at one of the big NY houses wrote that she “loved, loved, loved” my new YA book. Did she buy it? Nope. Because she “didn’t quite LOVE it enough.” Oh my.
What’s the final verdict on writing YA novels in verse? For me, it’s something I ultimately enjoyed and will do again. I think young readers are better readers than adult readers. They’re more passionate. They’re far more open to being profoundly affected by your writing. And once you have them, they stick with you for life.
Sure, it might feel easier to write a YA novel in verse than a prose YA novel. All that white space, right? And the books are shorter. As long as you understand what you’re getting into, you read good models of the form extensively (Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, Lisa Schroeder, Ron Koertge, and Sarah Tregay, to name a few), and you’re committed to doing the legwork necessary to edit and revise until it’s dynamite, you’ll be fine.
About Ryan G. Van Cleave
1) Ryan detests long walks on the beach.
2) He enjoys napping with a small dog dozing in the crook of his arm.
3) He squeezes toothpaste from the top of the tube. Always.
For those who want a bit more of the nuts and bolts stuff—Ryan is the author of Unlocked (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2011), a YA novel in verse. He’s also authored another dozen books or more, ranging from adult poetry to memoir to textbooks to self-help books to illustrated humor (in his defense, he has a LOT of different interests fueling his writing). Finally, he teaches at the Ringling College of Art + Design and also works as a writing coach and keynote speaker.
For information on Ryan’s YA novel in verse:
For more about Ryan:
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
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