November 14, 2018

Thoughts on Novels-in-Verse

I'm writing a novel(la)-in-verse, but when I tell people that, many of them wonder what I'm talking about. This isn't too surprising, given that the vast majority of novels-in-verse are written only for children and teens, and are a fairly new phenomenon, but I think they might be a little more common that most people believe.

Essentially, a novel-in-verse is what it says on the tin: a novel, but... in verse. Usually, to my dismay, free verse, but there's no hard and fast rule that they must be this way. The one's I've read have had multiple short poems, around a page or two in length, concerning happenings in a place or in a character’s life. Some of them have one POV character, like Inside Out and Back Again, while others have multiple POV characters, like Wicked Girls and my own novella. The one's I've read are all first person, but again, there's no rule that this must be so.

Because there is no rule that novels-in-verse must be this way or that way, I submit that they are actually not a new art form but, in fact, one of the oldest ways of storytelling... at least if we're a little loosey-goosey with what we consider "a novel". Let's be honest, when we say "a novel", we usually mean "a book", by which we mean "a long, continuous story that isn't visual in nature." Thus, I submit that the old epics were the first novels-in-verse. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and so forth are all examples of long, book-length stories... in verse.

Well, then, even if storytelling in verse is nothing new, what’s the point of it now? Older epics were meant to be repeated aloud, but not so newer novels. So then why would anyone want to write a novel in verse instead of in prose? I think one reason is that not every story needs to be as fully fleshed out as a prose novel, but also might not need to be as short as a short story. Take Inside Out and Back Again, which is a semi-autobiographical story about a girl leaving Vietnam during the war and moving to America. It is told through small incidents, each a poem—her planting a fruit tree, her seeing a curly-haired red-head for the first time, her meeting neighbors, her getting bullied. Honestly, not a lot happens in that book. Honestly, not a lot needs to happen in that book. It’s about culture shock and moving to a new place… and that’s all it needs to be about. If it were the same length, but written in prose, it would be slow and plodding; if it were as short as it would need to be to tell the story, I don’t think as much meaning could be packed in. Poetry is unique in that a single poem about something mundane can have as much feeling as several pages of prose.

I also think novels-in-verse can be used to conceptually explore characters, because there is a natural artificiality to them. People expect all characters in all genres to be life-like and fleshed out, but sometimes, as a writer, you want to do a quick sketch of a character to get at something deeper, quicker. Conversely, maybe a writer just wants to play with character types. Would this person use metaphors? Would they rhyme or think in free verse? Why? How can I show more about my character by writing less? How can I crystalize their personality into a poem?

I, personally, really like to play around with form, as you know if you’ve read my poems. I devoted an entire month to matching certain forms of poetry to certain video games. They weren’t all winners (I’m still not a villanelle fan), but it was fun, and challenging, and made me really think about how poetry can be used. Thus we come to my novella-in-verse. I love free verse, but I think it’s a crying shame that most modern writers choose to eschew other forms. It’s especially tragic that novel-in-verse authors fall in this category. That’s why I decided to go this route for this story, when years ago I actually had the idea to do it as a prose book instead: I have ten distinct characters, in not just a whodunit, but in an And Then There Were None style whodunit, where the cast is picked off one-by-one. Each character seems equally likely as a suspect, but also might become a victim at any moment. I want to explore these ten characters by giving each one a distinct poetic style. There's a rich widow (who will speak, think, and act in In Memorium stanza’s), the befuddled groundskeeper (Villanelles), a writer mourning his lost love (various types of sonnets), his new girlfriend (blank verse), a ghost-hunter and skeptic who are always at odds (tricubes and nonets), a nature photographer (haiku and waka), and so on. There will be a “Cast of Characters” list written as clerihews, because why not? Why not play around with writing? So many people focus on the rules of what you "should" or "should not" do with storytelling, as if writing is entirely a science and not at all an art, but it should be both. And in art, as in science, sometimes you have to experiment to see what will work. Novels-in-verse are means of doing that, if people only give them a chance.

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