Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Question of Verse

I don't like fads very much. I don't like following the flock of lemmings to their inevitable cliff edge, and then descent to their deaths.

Which is why I reluctantly chose free verse for Purple Holly

Purple being the novel I'm working on.

Verse being a form of novel-writing that, over the past decade, is gaining popularity.

I chose it, however, because the form felt comfortable in my hands. The way it forces the writer to be very sharp in his writing and the way it evokes emotion with an economy of words.

The verse novel hit it big time with Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse's story about the Dust Bowl of the mid 30s.

It came out in 1998 and I bought it back then. That was my introduction to the verse novel. I was intrigued. I liked the story. I was at first put off by the verse.

But I got used to it. And came to appreciate its power.

Fast forward to 2009. And here I am, doing initial character work for Purple Holly when it dawns on me just how much verse fits the style and tenor of the story.

Here's an excerpt.

A woman in a black suit

Sits in a chair at the foot of my


Smiling the smile of a compassionate aunt

A vague relation at a funeral

Head slightly tilted

Dull eyes. The eyes of a woman who has seen

too much sad


I nod.

I think I nod anyway. A haze

of unreality makes my

head swim

There's the hint of pain in my

side. A searing stitch

And then there are the tubes in my arm

My name is Hester Lynne.

I'm with Child Protective Services, Andrew

Hester? Did she say


The police want to talk to you

But I told them I needed to


I'm a psychiatrist, Andrew

I have to establish that you

are stable

Hester the Psychiatrist is

here to make sure my

head is not going to roll

off my shoulders


Trauma affects people in different ways


There is a window in my hospital room

through which I can see

the leafless maples and elms

of autumn

down on Fair Street

The brown of the dead

the mirthlessness that

the end of October brings

before the start of snow

I want to talk to you about

what happened so that I can

determine your

state of mind

Fair Street is straight

and bordered by the naked trees

before it intercepts Main Street

with her soldierly brick and historic

wooden buildings

I can see the clock tower of the

Opera House at the end

of Main Street

And beyond it, the ridge of

forest: denuded hardwoods, stoic conifers

Over that ridge somewhere is

Owens Mills, last stop

before the White Mountains of

New Hampshire

It affects our memory

Trauma I mean, Andrew

It can play tricks. When someone has

been through a tragedy

I look back at Hester the Sympathetic


Tragedy ... ?

Suddenly I know what it feels like

to be high on something

There's stomach-tickling levitation

A disconnectedness

A lifting up out of reality, not fully


Just barely

Toes hovering above the ground

A giddy feeling, where words seem spoken through

a gauze

Yes. A tragedy

Andrew, maybe we should start with your story?

Story ... ?

A blink takes me an hour

Hester holds a sheaf of papers in her


Holding it up

You write very well, Andrew

Yes. I know

I'm getting higher, it seems, and the stitch

in my side is slip-sliding away

Tell me about Purple Holly

That's the first chapter. So far. It could very well end up not in it at all, or greatly altered. The point is, that's verse. A free-flowing, non-rhyming, chunky narrative. When it's well done, it's evocative and direct and powerful.

In some recent verse novels (written primarily for the preteen and teen groups) the verse floats all over the page, and in others, dialogue is offset to the right while the narrative is on the left.

I'm going to finish it in this form, and delay judgment until then.

We'll see.


  1. I'm not well-versed in... well, verse.

    Yes, I am so very clever.

    Seriously, though. I think I'd have a hard time with that style of writing for an entire novel. Not just writing that way but reading it that way. I'd be more in tune with it if it was specific chapters or just the parts from a specific POV.

  2. Interesting. Alex is reading his fourth or fifth book in this style. I'm surprised you chose it, and curious to see how it turns out. How progressive of you.

  3. Out of the Dust is one of my favorite books and just for its verse. I love that the language is so poignant and precise. I can't imagine writing an entire novel, but then I can't imagine NOT writing it in this fashion once resolved to do so...good luck with your endeavor. We had a cat named Purple once. Damned cat changed me into a dog person.

  4. Darn it! I read the comments before I posted my thoughts. I lost them when I read Joni's comment about a cat changing her into a dog person....

    Is this like switching gay to hetrosexual?

    Too funny!!

    I have never heard of verse. Very interesting. It seemed like reading a stream of twitter or text messages?? Don't get disappointed - I am a math teacher!! I am definitely not fluent in litery pose styles. And the automatic spell check doesn't work on this PC - so sorry for typos.

  5. Wow. I really like it. I'm not really familiar with this style, but I thought your example was very strong. I'm an avid reader, but I have no one genre or style that appeals to me...and now you have intrigued me to find more examples of this!

  6. I'm really liking this excerpt! I have some hesitations about verse, some of them expressed here, wondering if it will get fatiguing for readers.

    However, in this excerpt, it works to strengthen and focus the narrative. you probably need a decidedly quick plot for this to work, so that you're covering your ground quickly in few words.

    I'm so intrigued to see the entire novel!!!