writing a verse novel
10 August, 2014 | By Goldie Alexander
On the writing of “In Hades”: a verse novel for Young Adults.
ISBN 978-0-9750742-6-8 (pbk)
ISBN 978-0-9750742-5-1 (ebook)
We live in an age where more people are publishing but fewer have time to read. It’s not helped by increasing length. Woody Allen once insisted that all his films last ninety minutes. If I could only say that about novels!
I should add that I truly admire those authors who are able to stick to one theme, subject, style, genre or narrative. How do they do it? Almost everything I want to say lasts little more than one book. Maybe two. But only at a stretch. Consequently, and having a high boredom threshold, I will have a go at almost any genre. Providing I don’t have to illustrate. Can’t draw for nuts!
When the idea of writing a verse novel first began to intrigue me I mentioned this to several friends who also write for young readers. The unanimous opinion was that this was entirely stupid and not to even think of it. But I have a perverse personality. Soon as I am told I shouldn’t do something, inevitably I do.
At this point I had no idea of how to go about it so I read a lot of wonderful verse novels. Then ran into trouble. Should the verse be in iambic rhythm? Should lines rhyme? Most contemporary verse novels do neither. Should there be chapters? And if so, how many and how long?
What I had in mind was to find a new way to write about life after death. Buddhists believe in an afterlife. So do Catholics. I’m not sure about Protestants and agnostics. Atheists definitely don’t. But I didn’t want my verse novel to end up in a semi religious/philosophical argument. Rather I wanted to tackle the idea as a fantasy for young adults.
Because I live in an inner city suburb that includes both ends of the financial and social spectrum, I often glimpse street kids. My research included talking both to them and to a mate who deals with these kids on an intimate basis. These young lives are often cut brutally short because of an excess of drugs and alcohol. What a contrast to the wealthy young girls who also love close by but slowly killing themselves through anorexia and bulimia.
Successful novels depend on creating convincing characters and placing unexpected or unusual elements together. I had already published a novel aimed at middle graders called “Neptunia” that uses some of the magical/fairytale elements to be found in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. At one point Ulysses, beloved by the goddess Athena has incurred the wrath of Poseidon and must visit the Underworld or Hades to find out how to get back to his long suffering wife. Using this concept, I created two youngsters – street kid Kai and anorexic Bilby G. Both have died leaving major issues unresolved. Like Ulysses, both need to find a spiritual home. The couple meet in Hades and the story carries on from there.
I showed my first draft to a friend who said, ‘This isn’t poetry.’ Then to a poet who told me to make the writing more immediate. Rather than divide the narrative into chapters, and always mindful of the short attention span of many young readers, I created 47 ongoing poems each clearly labelled.
Because we live in a visual age, I decided to format each poem so it would follow the story line and make each poem look different from the poem preceding and following it. For example, when Kai descends into Hades searching for his lost brother, the lines twist as they run down the page. Bilby’s thoughts use different lettering from Kai’s. When Kai and Bilby G talk, these poems appear as libretto.
I had originally ignored punctuation except for dialogue. But when I showed it to yet another friend, she found it too hard to read. Punctuation went back in. This short novel (only fifteen thousand words) took me longer to write than any of my prose novels. Rather than fleshing out its contents, every poem needed to be condensed. If an idea or an incident took ten words of prose, in verse it had to be cut down to five. I shortly lost count of the number of drafts and redrafts I did before deciding maybe this was as far as I could go.
But finding a publisher! A few didn’t bother to even respond. One said, ‘Verse novels don’t sell’. Another, ‘We love it but we don’t know how to handle it.’ Then Celapene Press, who already had success with Di Bates verse novel, ‘Nobody’s Boy’, was brave enough to take it on. The illustrator Adam Pocock created a wonderful cover and the internal drawings. Because of high demands on design, in the end the publisher and I did an enormous number of drafts.
Because I felt very insecure about this short book, far more than what I usually feel about my books (which I might add is also pretty insecure) I asked various friends to read it, assuring them that ‘it won’t take long.’ Everyone I spoke to was busy. Only my publisher and my husband kept assuring me the work was okay. But now I worry that it will get lost in the mass of books presently emerging. So I guess that what happens now sits very much in the lap of the gods who live ‘In Hades’.
Fascinating, Goldie! I look forward to reading this novel. You are amazing: the variety in your plots and styles.
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