Saturday, April 30, 2011

Demystifying novels in verse! (Guest Post!)

Quite frankly, novels in verse are a mystery to me, one I find fascinating. I haven't read many verse novels, and I can't even begin to conceive of crafting a whole book from poems. (Probably because my high school poetry was horrendous, in the way that only 16-year-old-girl poetry can be.)

Here to satisfy my (and your!) curiosity about novels in verse is Cathy Ostlere, debut YA author of Karma (Razorbill, March 2011).


What is a verse novel?  For me, a verse novel is a series of linked poems that together create a narrative.  I believe that the poems should be able to stand alone, each one expanding on an image, emotion, idea yet building to an overall theme.  But, saying that, occasionally Karma does not achieve this.  Some of the poems are more prose-like and a few are so short they are often just flashes of thought.  In these instances, I consider the poems to serve as either necessary narrative exposition, links to other poems, or simply places for the reader to breathe.

Gorgeous cover!
Why is Karma written in verse?  Partly accident: the original, raw material was stream-of-consciousness writing and when I lifted sections from the first draft they resembled lines of poetry.  Partly language: when I realized that the story would be a dramatic journey for Maya I thought that her emotion could be contained in short tight phrases and strong imagery.  Partly structure: sometimes diaries are filled with random thoughts, glimpses, brief confessions, outbursts, so I hoped verse might accurately convey the sense of urgency and tension that I wanted.

How do you know if it’s the best format for your story?   Though it is sometimes impossible for a writer to evaluate their own work (Will others like it?  Will the book sell?), there is a definite thing an author can determine for oneself: Does the act of writing your story excite you?   Because I decided to keep this unusually-crafted story to myself and not invite any readers or comments, I found myself in a thrilling place.   There were no niggling voices AND there were no rules: no punctuation, no capitals, just free-floating thoughts and images, playful language, and white space that conveyed dramatic silence.  I have never before felt so free in my writing and so risky.  It was exactly those feelings that made me believe this was the only way to tell my story – a crazy conviction that if I was exhilarated, my reader would be too.  Verse novels are leaps of faith.  And the writer has to get to the end to know what works.

What are the special challenges of the YA verse novel?   I believe a writer is wise to remember that a verse novel is about the poetic form and is not just a storytelling device that uses fewer words.  The danger is that in a moment of weakness (What happens next?) a writer may want to fall back on using prose with line breaks, giving the impression but not the power of poetry.  I confess, I did do this, but I tried to be aware of it and at least suffuse the poem with strong imagery and descriptive or playful language.

How to begin a verse novel?  Here is the first line that I wrote in a journal over four years ago: India was as noisy as a hundred black crows screaming/screeching/wailing like a hundred pinched babies.  I liked the line.  I was curious as to what might come after it.  And so, Jiva clung to the sound.  And then I just kept on going.  Being curious.  What else did Jiva cling to?  I kept on writing.  Short bursts.  Fifteen minutes.  Half an hour.  I just kept putting words down and allowing the images to fill the page – sounds, colours, texture, smells, emotions.  And I kept asking, Who is this girl?  Other questions that might drive a novel –
Why did it happen? 
I remember that day. 
Things could have been different if only.
It was his/her fault.
I don’t understand.  Am I the stupid one?
By the way, those first lines I wrote never made it into the book.

Final thoughts.  Karma was indeed edited by Penguin editors but only for narrative arc and character.  They never touched a word, line, or image.  It was a remarkable experience: to have one’s writing accepted so wholeheartedly.  I’d like to wish good luck to any writer desiring to experience the verse novel.  I highly recommend the exercise; its gifts are enormous.


Thank you so much, Cathy! Karma sounds fabulous!

About Cathy Ostlere:
Cathy Ostlere holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from the University of Manitoba.  Her first book, Lost: A Memoir (2008), began as a series of poems but grew into creative non-fiction essays. Essays excerpted from Lost have been short-listed for the National Magazine Awards, Western Magazine Awards, and the CBC Literary Awards.  Lost: A Memoir was a finalist for the 2009 Edna Staebler Creative Non-fiction Award.  In 2010, she co-wrote the play, Lost: A Memoir, presented by Theatre Calgary.  The production will tour Canada over the next two years.  Her first novel, Karma, a verse novel written for young adults, was released in March 2011 by Penguin Group Canada/USA.  She lives in Calgary, Canada.

Go buy yourself some good Karma. (Ok, I couldn't resist the pun.)
Check out Cathy's webite


  1. Hooray for verse novels! I stumbled into verse after realizing my prose wasn't close enough to the character, the story, and the terse women's writing of the era.

    There's a layer of honesty I found there that I wasn't able to access in prose.

    Looking forward to finding Karma.

  2. A terrific post. And very much agree that, as a verse novelist, you must watch carefully to avoid sliding into the split-line-prose trap. Can't wait to read Karma!

  3. @Caroline - Emailed response!

    @Stasia - I loved this post too! I read an excerpt of Karma, and it was awesome. I can't wait to read the rest!

  4. I haven't read very many verse novels, but Karma was one that completely blew me away. Every second I spent reading it, I felt like I was in India, experiencing every single thing that Maya experienced. I'm not sure if the story really could have been told in any other form, so I'm happy Cathy was able to do it her way; and that Penguin wholeheartedly accepted her work for what it was.

    Because it truly is an astounding book that I'd recommend to anyone and everyone.

  5. I read it last week and thought it was excellent!


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