by Colby Cedar Smith
When you think of novels in verse, you may have flashbacks to sludging through the dense text of The Iliad in high school. But fear not, most verse novels are fast paced, accessible for reluctant readers, and filled with gorgeous language that packs an emotional punch. Often containing themes such as identity, body image, gender roles, violence, racism, isolation, and grief, novels in verse distill individual and societal woes into precise, visceral lines. This use of lyrical language and creative syntax often enhances the close, personal narrative. For these reasons, librarians, teachers, and students are reaching for more novels in verse, like recent best-sellers by Kwame Alexander and Elizabeth Acevedo.
What really is a novel in verse?
Novels in verse are a hybrid genre. A marriage between the brevity of a singular poem; and the narrative arc of a novel.
A poem can encapsulate a vast concept, a scene, or a feeling in a few crafted words. Line breaks produce pauses, rhythm, and music. Carefully crafted language and line structure create a scene filled with images and meaning.
A novel takes time to develop plot, setting, and the character’s desires, their backstories, their communities, their failures, their ghosts.
The novel in verse contains all these elements. Each poem encapsulates a pivotal moment, that advances the plot from the initial hook, toward the unspooling conflict, the moan of loss, the soft tones of resolution. It reads like a novel but carries the emotional resonance of a collection of poems.
Is it difficult to publish a novel in verse?
2021 was a booming year for novels in verse, with many titles released from Big 4 publishers as well as independents: Alone; Chlorine Sky; Everywhere Blue; Reckless, Glorious, Girl; The Magical Imperfect; Unsettled; Your Heart, My Sky; and my own debut Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit.
The most recent Mock Newbery has novels in verse as the top three contenders: Starfish by Lisa Fipps; Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca; and Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz. The National Book Award Young Adult Longlist contains two stunning novels in verse: Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo and Me (Moth) by Amber McBride.
With a growing demand in the market, and novels in verse as viable contenders for the coveted prizes, many agents and publishers are open to growing their lists.
Why write a novel in poetry?
In The Making of Poetry, Adam Nicholson states, “The goal of poetry is to exfoliate consciousness.”
With each cavernous image, poetry asks us to slow down and pay attention, and to say lines out loud and wonder what they mean.
Layered and lyrical, poetry teaches us that we can’t understand everything with our logical brain. It challenges us to understand things through feeling, intuition, empathy, and connection. Occasionally a line will hit, so sweet and hollow and heartbreaking, that it’s difficult to understand why we love it so much. But those images, those lines, can live in the imagination for years, even a lifetime.
How do I become a poet-novelist? Do I need a degree?
Authors of novels in verse come from varied backgrounds. Many have MFAs, some have been teachers and librarians, a few started as editors and journalist, or worked as scientists. Many started writing for children while raising their own, or like myself, started writing for adults, but then shifted to writing for young people. No matter their background, each published author used their keen sense of language, timing, and music to craft their novels, and worked to get them published.
How do I market myself to agents and publishers?
Put an emphasis on the storyline, and why the themes in your narrative are amplified by poetry (e.g., grief, trauma, forbidden love).
It’s helpful to draw from personal history, writing background, experience, and your individual talents. Always think about what makes you unique––why are you the only writer that can tell this story, in this specific form.
Then practice your pitch.
How do I know poetry is the right medium for my story?
If you have tried to write your manuscript in every way possible, but the poems keep coming, perhaps it’s time to give in to the muse.
If that’s the case, pick up your feather pen, and stay open. Listen, breathe, and record the music – the poetry that exists all around us.
Colby Cedar Smith is an award-winning poet and novelist. Her debut YA historical novel in verse, Call Me Athena: Girl from Detroit (Andrew McMeel, 2021) is an American Booksellers Association Sept/Oct Kid’s Indie Next Pick, and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. You can follow her on Twitter @ColbyCedar.