Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Feedback: If I Can't Go In Reverse, I'll Settle for Verse

okay, fine, that's really me swooning in winter
so what?
Meh. Groan all you want at the title of this post, I like it ;)


<------ This is me.


Lamenting the almost-end of summer.

I should really stop whining, but I can't.

Waaaaaah. I want my whole summer back.

But if it has to slip away, no one better to edge us gracefully toward fall and Back-to-School than the lovely, adorable, talented Caroline Starr Rose.

Trust me.

This is Caroline:

See what I mean?
Her first novel in verse, May B., was released to starred Kirkus and PW reviews:

I've known it since last night:
It's been too long to expect them to return.
Something's happened.

May is helping out on a neighbor's Kansas prairie homestead—just until Christmas, says Pa. She wants to contribute, but it's hard to be separated from her family by 15 long, unfamiliar miles. Then the unthinkable happens: May is abandoned. Trapped in a tiny snow-covered sod house, isolated from family and neighbors, May must prepare for the oncoming winter. While fighting to survive, May's memories of her struggles with reading at school come back to haunt her. But she's determined to find her way home again.

"If May is a brave, stubborn fighter, the short, free-verse lines are one-two punches
in this Laura Ingalls Wilder–inspired ode to the human spirit."  - Kirkus Reviews

I confess: My first writer-self was a poet. I didn't attempt stories or novels till adulthood.

My childhood, adolescence, and college years were spent writing poetry. I've even started two novels in verse -- well, one in verse, one with a verse component.

Yet, somehow, I'm scared of it now.

How does one turn a story from a bunch of poems to plot?

a poetic little spot in my father's gardens. . .

Well, here's the awesome thing for you (me). We've got Caroline here today, sharing just that. How she takes her stories from Poem to Plot. Here she is:

The more I write, the more I firmly believe there is no one way to write a book. I have yet to approach any of my manuscripts the same way. Here, though, are some things I’ve learned from both reading and writing verse novels:

Subject matter must be right for poetry

Some topics lend themselves more easily to poetry than others. Some subjects refuse to be written as prose. Many times an author will use verse to mimic the rhythm of the story. Here are a few books that come to mind:

Sharon Creech’s HEARTBEAT, about a girl who loves to run

Karen Hesse’s OUT OF THE DUST, where the spare language reflects the stark Dust Bowl setting

Lisa Schroeder’s FAR FROM YOU, about a girl who sings and and writes songs

Protagonists must be right for poetry

Often (though not always) verse novels are told from a very close first-person point of view. Such writing calls for a lot of introspection on the protagonist's part.  Other times verse is used as a way for multiple voices to be heard, almost like a Greek chorus. Here are some examples:

Thanhha Lai’s INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, about a Vietnamese girl’s efforts to understand her new American home

Karen Hesse’s WITNESS, where the Ku Klux Klan moves into a quiet Vermont town, and citizens reflect on the change they bring

Poems should be able stand alone

Each poem in a verse novel must capture one moment, scene, idea, mark of change in your character's life. Poems should also be able to function separately from the rest of the story.

Poems must contribute to the whole

When I worked through my own verse novel, MAY B., I kept a quilt in mind, treating each poem like its own square of fabric. Each patch had to be able to function separately while at the same time move the story forward. I trusted that if certain patterns and shades in my story quilt were repeated (think themes or story strands), eventually the interconnectedness would surface -- a much more organic approach than is normally taken with prose. 

Varied poem lengths

Some scenes flow, some end abruptly. Some thoughts wander, some jab. Without the structure of chapters, verse novels are simultaneously abrupt and fluid -- poem lengths can be jagged yet aide the plot in moving through scenes swiftly. It is often difficult to find a place to stop reading, as one poem often bleeds into the next.

Varied line lengths

Verse novelists play with key phrases or words they want to bring to their reader’s attention by the way they arrange words on the page. Line breaks can be used to slow down reading, to draw the eye to important phrases, and to best "speak" the poem.

Emotion and structure

The structure of a poem often communicates to readers a character’s emotional state.

How might fear look structurally?  A verse novelist might use little punctuation or words tightly packed together. Maybe the language of the poem will unfold in short bursts, reminiscent of a child peeking into a darkened room and quickly slamming the door.

Poetic form

Some verse novelists use specific types of poetry (sonnets, for example), as Pat Brisson did with her book, THE BEST AND HARDEST THING. In writing about Sylvia Plath in YOUR OWN, SLYVIA, author Stephanie Hemphill chose to mirror the format of several of Plath's poems, giving her readers a sense of the poet's style, subject matter, intensity, and character.

The visual and the aural

When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students that poetry should be seen and heard. There is something special that happens when a reader experiences seeing, hearing, and saying a poem all at once -- the fullness of the poem is discovered this way.

*If you ever feel stuck with a verse novel, find a private corner and try reading it aloud.*

Verse novels aren’t books with strange line breaks. They are stories best communicated through the language, rhythm, imagery and structure of poetry. I hope you’ve found something here that sparks your imagination and helps you move from individual poems to a complete novel in verse.

Okay, seriously, I barely want to finish this post. I want to go work on my verse novels instead. :)

Anyway, because she is not only lovely, talented and adorable, but also awesome, Caroline's Friday Feedback excerpt is, yep, a poem from one of her WIP's. A historical novel in verse. So, here we go! Friday Feedback. You know the RULES (if you've got a poem today and want to share it, go ahead! Otherwise, feel free to post 3-5 paragraphs of your WIP).


It’s just a pigeon, Uncle said,
his big hands folding the bit of wood into mine.
What he carved is graceful in the way
its wings rest so daintily,
its neck gently curves.
This Uncle Samuel promised me:
pigeons return to their homes
no matter how far they fly.

A bird set free might wander
but will rejoin his flock.

At first,
I believed this was Uncle’s pledge to come back to me,
but when Father said we too
would make our way to Virginia,
I thought of something else:
What if a flight of pigeons followed the wandering one,
joining him on a journey entirely new?
Returning would not mean going back
but traveling onward;
reuniting with the missing one
would make them whole again.

Home isn’t only where you live,
it is also whom you love,
like they that call across an ocean
for your return.

- Caroline (& gae)


  1. Caroline,
    I think I am in love! I am a huge fan of verse novels. I am starting the school year with Heartbeat. I loved Out of the Dust. I have yours tucked away in my wish list, but now I think I need to proceed to check out. I love your writing!
    The last stanza is the gripper, "Home isn’t only where you live,
    it is also whom you love,
    like they that call across an ocean
    for your return." Ah, so true, so simple, so wonderful. I am a poet first. I only recently wrote and published a middle grade novel. Now to imagine that I could combine the two! Wow! I think you are calling me. Here I come!
    I pulled up an old manuscript that I was writing as Dear God letters about a girl whose friend has cancer. Maybe it could be a verse novel. Here's an excerpt changed to verse.

    Dear God,
    Simone’s hair,
    soft and thick,
    wavy blond curls I envy,
    started falling today,
    in handfuls she handed to me.
    We looked in the mirror, side
    by side, my hair
    short and bobbed looked
    shiny and healthy
    next to her, balding spots
    showing, frightening.
    At the wig store, we had laughed
    at the large lady drawling out
    r-e-e-e-a-a-l hair, “The wigs are made with REAL hair!”
    I chose a wig, too,
    long hair. I’ve always wanted long hair.
    Simone handed me a long lock.
    It fell over my fingers. I held it to my face,
    so soft, so long,
    so sad.

    1. Margaret,

      This is so visual and so powerful. I was standing right there with her feeling the hair in my fingers. This probably wasn't the way she wanted to get long hair, huh?

    2. Margaret, this is beautiful! I think you have something here! One thing I love about verse is the intentional way you are forced to slow down and savor. You have done just that with this poem.

      Here's my confession: I only read two verse novels before writing May B. (which I never planned to write as verse). Those two books? The two you're starting your year with!

    3. Thanks, Mary and Caroline. After I posted, I converted 8 more sections of letters to God to verse. I think I've found the answer to this book. Now I am committed to getting it done. Thanks for your inspiration. If I ever publish, I'll have to acknowledge you. Tee hee!

    4. Margaret, having read a bit of this in the prose version (i think, right?), let me just say I LOVE this so very much in verse. LOVE. *jumps up and down for emphasis*

      A few lines gave me chills.

    5. I'm hooked on this, Gae. I have renewed interest in this book. I hope I don't stay up all night. Already, my shoulders hurt. I'm obsessed. Thanks so much for having Caroline visit today!

    6. I hope you DID stay up all night! Report back. :)

  2. Gae- I am also bemoaning the end of self-directed days. I wish I was in June again so I could experience the thrill I felt at discovering Teachers Write! again. But, ready or not school and students are a'oomin'.

    Caroline- Your book is on my TBR list which has grown exponentially as a result of camp this summer. I appreciate your insight and suggestions. They will be a source of information and mentoring as I write. I use Sharon Creech's Love that Dog and Hate that Cat as read alouds and mentor texts with my students each year. They become favorites accessible by everyone for reading and writing. I even used Love that Dog to convince a parent of one of my students that poetry enriches everyone. She stopped in one day long after I shared and started telling me how much she loved reading poetry. Does a teacher's heart some good.

    As those who may have followed my comments and work this summer know (lordy, where did that ego come from?), I write poetry for children-usually the students in my class. So, here is a poem from a WIP, one I am hoping will be completed by the deadline...

    The rind of watermelon,
    Peppers, thick and thin,
    Fourth in the rainbow's palette,
    The still iguana's skin;
    The limes we used for cookies,
    The cool of summer shade,
    Bananas picked for market,
    A carving made of jade;
    A horn that's not yet tested,
    Traffic's bottom light,
    Ideas to help our planet,
    Springtime's welcome sight.

    A little green to keep us in summer a bit longer.

    Again my thanks!


    1. Mary, this is gorgeous! I used to have my kiddos write color poetry while reading The Phantom Tollbooth. I'd use Hailstones and Halibut Bones as an example. I love how greenhorn made it into your poem.

      I love Love That Dog so much, I've written a poem about it myself. :)

    2. Mary, it is always such a pleasure to see you here. And I love your color poem. Clever, thoughtful, descriptive.

      Why is it so hard to savor and hold on?

      Caroline, we wanna see your Love that Dog poem NOW! :)

    3. I wrote it for something that might eventually air on the radio...don't think I can share it yet. If it never comes through, you'll be the first to see. xo

    4. This serves as a binding contract. :D

    5. Caroline-I agree with Gae. I'd love to see the tribute to Love that Dog.

      Gae- Thanks again for continuing feedback. It is ever so helpful and interesting!

      Thanks to everyone for the comments. Always good to see/hear from other perspectives.

      It is a GLORIOUS summer day here. Hope yours is the same. Am off to enjoy, well after I finish work. Cheers!

  3. Mary,
    Rhyming is so hard that I usually avoid it myself. One wise teacher once told me that if you use rhyme, the rhythm must be right, too. So when I look at your rhythm and rhyme (try to spell those so close together,like a tongue twister), the two lines that don't quite beat the same are "Fourth in the rainbow's palette" and "Traffic's bottom light." Just a thought. Not sure how to fix them, though. I like "the rind of watermelon," and "The still iguana's skin" the best.

  4. Caroline,
    Thank you for the mini-lesson in verse novels. I, like Margaret, start my school year with Heartbeat. It is important to start the school year with a good read aloud novel and this one always hooks the kids. Love That Dog (I was so pleased when I saw that you enjoyed it - it was reassuring to me that I am using solid literature in my own classroom) is another favorite because I love the concept of the boy, who dislikes poetry, writing poems and falling in love with poetry. It usually hits home for many of the reluctant boy writers.

    Over the years, I have found that I am not attracted to stories about birds, but once I get past my reluctancy, I usually adore these stories (example: Wringer). Well, the same thing happened when I read your excerpt. I am plotting along and wondering where the story is going and then, "What if a flight of pigeons followed the wandering one, joining him on a journey entirely new?" - you had my full attention. I was curious and truly enjoyed the final stanza. A beautiful finish, and also very true, to a beautiful poem. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Oops! I forgot to post my excerpt. This is a poem that I am working on that comes from my family writing folder (writing inspired by my family). This is a total WIP (I play with the wording and structure every time I need a break from revising my MG manuscript). Here goes:

    Love of a mother is not the same as,
    The toddler’s love of a stuffed animal,
    The ten-year-olds love of Legos,
    Or a teenager’s first love.

    Love of a mother is unique and elegant,
    A one-of-a-kind love that is supported by a child,
    The sophisticated love that is as graceful as a mother herself,
    A love that lasts forever.

    Love of a mother is not the same as,
    The college student’s love of independence,
    The twenty-four-year-olds love of a first car,
    The new adults love of the childhood memories from long ago.

    Love of a mother is kind and eternal,
    A generous love that is shared with a hug,
    The everlasting love that is as endless as the care a mother gives,
    A love that lasts forever.

    Thank you for reading!

  6. Andy, this is a lovely poem. I like the alternating type of verses (I don't know technical poetry terms) and some of the word choices like elegant and eternal.

    Man, you are quietly working on lots of types of books. . . I know you have your plate full, so look at you go! It's awesome! :)

  7. Also a Caroline here!
    I have not yet read May B. but it is on my to-read list. I have found that I really like verse poems, but don't really get how writing one would go. I like what you have just posted, it reminds me of some of my cousins. They have moved out of state and I always try to either make a trip out to see them, or them to me every year. Never a permanent thing, but if it could be.... I would definitely read more of this story!

    Random writing I have lying around.
    (Er, a piece of it)
    I had expected more of her. After all she was my idol. The one I looked up to, the one who pulled me out of the worst part of my life. She had always listened to what I had to say and helped me see it in a different light. She always tried to understand, looked at it how I do, and tried her best to sympathize. Today, she failed me. I had never been so angry. Maybe its a compilation of all the stress lately. Maybe I over-reacted. I'd snapped.
    As I looked at her in utter disappointment all I could say was, "I wish you saw what I saw. Not so you could suffer, but so you could guide me in my darkness. Walk me through the rights and wrongs, help me to stay strong. The problem with that is everyone has different rights and wrongs, everyone suffers different, and everyone heals different. You can't expect to wake up and have everything right. You need to find your own light. You've always helped me look at things differently so that it's not so damp and dark in my head. What makes me so angry, is through everything you've always been there, and now? Now what?"
    "I just," she started to interrupt. I put my hand up to stop her.
    "I don't want to hear it, I thought you'd be the one to help me with, with this. But here we are with you telling me no. I thought you were better than that." I said sternly as I stormed out the door.

    1. so that it's not so damp and dark in my head.

      I love this line. I know that feeling. I'm angry and hurt and disappointed right along with your character! Makes me want to know more.

    2. This was the line that grabbed me, too.

    3. Ah, little Caroline. So much darkness, it serves the writing, doesn't it? ;) a lovely piece. I would read on. I want to know why the friend (?) disappointed her. Sigh. :)

      Btw, on a writing level, this: "I don't want to hear it, I thought you'd be the one to help me with, with this. But here we are with you telling me no. I thought you were better than that." I said sternly as I stormed out the door." would be stronger like this:

      "I don't want to hear it, I thought you'd be the one to help me with, with this. But here we are with you telling me no. I thought you were better than that." I stormed out the door."

      Why? Because your writing is so good and evocative we know the way she says it is stern, and that it's her -- your MC -- saying it. xox

  8. Gae, Caroline,everyone, I am chiming in so late! I checked this morning before work and nothing was up then, but I'm back! May B. made me cry more than once... I just feel that I know kids just like that, who feel that down-trodden and then still lift themselves and soldier on. I loved it. I was there with the fear and the lonely places. So powerful. If it's on your TBR list read it first.

    I'm deep in a WIP,a historical fiction, though I'm like Gae and wrote almost exclusively poetry my younger writing days.The only recent poem I've got is one I wrote from a Teachers Write prompt, so I'll not re-post that. Here's a piece of my WIP, though you've surely all gone to bed already! MC Kate is on the train on her way to Washington DC during WWI. This particular scene is written all in letters. Long story, it just is.

    Dearest Mother,

    The train is hot, it’s noisy, and it’s certainly bumpy. We do all right, though there is hardly room to swing a cat in here. There is so much baggage that some of it has to travel here in the car. To get around, we’ve got to step over all the bags which won’t fit under the seats. One must have very good balance!
    I’ve been working on my tatting and have written several letters. Sometimes I read. It’s easy to drop off now and then, but sleeping through the night is another thing all together! It’s close and airless in the car, and there are always noises that intrude on sleep. At night, we clean our teeth and try to make a semblance of going to bed, but it’s not as if we can wear our night things.
    I have wanted to thank you these weeks past for standing up for me and my decision to enlist. Papa doesn’t truly understand - of course, he doesn’t agree with my views on the subject at all, but that doesn’t worry me any. He’s not angry or anything, just baffled, I think. He doesn’t feature why anyone would go and serve the War effort at all, but that is simply where we differ. I just know I can make some sort of a difference, and that’s what is most important to me. It’s also exciting to know that we’re doing something no other women have done before to serve our country. This is what I feel I should be doing with my life. I hope you can understand this, dearest Mother, with your own views of the world.
    I do treasure the strength of your support and feel it from your letters and cards, which I look forward to receiving when I am so far from home. I shall close now, and see about getting some dinner, which involves waiting for some time whilst standing about in the aisles. It’s the most exercise we get, I’m bound to say. That is, unless you count the pacing up and down the aisles I seem to find myself so often doing at midmorning, when I go a little crazy.
    I must sign off now and get this sealed up for the next stop, where I can mail it.
    I remain ever your daughter,

    1. What a brave, strong young lady! I love epistolary books (probably because I'm nosey).

    2. It feels extremely authentic, Valerie. I'm loving tying this to some other excerpts you've shared. :) The one word that popped me out was feature? Is that an older usage?

      As for Caroline's post being up late, yes, forgive me! I usually put it up first thing... but got up to swim, forgot, then did 2.5 miles instead of the usual weekday 1 - 1.6. Was gone a long time, but my mood benefited from it. ;)

      I also shared your enthusiastic tweets with Caroline. ;) She may not have made the connection. xox

  9. Caroline, thanks!! Kate really is showing herself to be brave and strong. One of my biggest fears in beginning the book was that I would try to portray that, and it would come out trite. It's good to know it's not reading that way. Nosy? Me too. It has been fun to develop some epistolary scenes. DEAR ENEMY by Jean Webster is a favorite book, all written as letters by the MC.

    Well, Gae, I was up verrrry early! And the benefits of exercise to mood are essential aspects of my life, too. Thanks for the comments, especially the question about the use of "feature." I have seen it in older correspondence,and in older literature, though I will now check to be sure of its usage in that time period since it popped for you. There have been others I've questioned after I used them. Going for accuracy of period so must do my homework.

    1. Yes! I almost mentioned DADDY LONG LEGS above. And DEAR ENEMY! That Jean Webster can write!

  10. Feature: older usage, informal. to imagine or conceive of, to fancy from both and Webster's Unabridged. That's what I was going for.