Writing a Verse Novel: An Interview with Laura Shovan

Back in October of last year, I began drafting a verse novel. It was really scary at first because there isn’t much out there about how to write a verse novel. There seem to be rules and no rules at the same time. Freedom but tools and techniques I should know. For the past year, I’ve stumbled along and learned a lot. Now I want to start a blog series to talk about “how” to write a verse novel.

Laura-Shovan1-209x300  last fifth grade

For my first post, I was able to interview the amazing Laura Shovan, author of the MG verse novel The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. I asked A LOT  of questions, so I’ll be splitting her interview up into two posts. Today we’ll be focusing on the idea of writing in verse and how it differs from writing in prose. Tomorrow we’ll focus on verse tools and techniques.

I hope you find Laura’s answers as helpful and insightful as I did.

Do you only write in verse?

I write in a variety of forms. When there’s something I feel compelled to write about, often the subject itself defines the form. A reaction to a news item might fill the small space of a poem, instead of developing into a short story (an example is my poem “Rattlesnake Bites Man in Walmart Garden Center” here: https://qarrtsiluni.com/2013/05/13/rattlesnake-bites-man-in-walmart-garden-center/). My current work-in-progress began as a series of poems and sketches. It has developed into a middle grade novel written in prose.

What makes you decide to write a story in verse rather than prose?

I don’t think I could have written THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY in prose. Poetry allowed me to differentiate the voices of the 18 characters. I used line breaks and white space in the poems to help readers hear the cadence and rhythm of each character’s style of speaking. Kwame Alexander’s book THE CROSSOVER, is a great example of this technique. He creates his main character’s voice not only in the words used, but also in the way they flow across the page.

What are the differences in drafting a verse novel rather than a prose novel?

In THE LAST FIFTH GRADE, developing a plot through the voices of Ms. Hill’s class was like putting together a jig-saw puzzle with moving pieces. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Each character has many poems that didn’t make it into the book. Once I put everything together, I found holes in the story and character arcs, went back and filled them in with more poems. My CPs and my editor gave me wonderful guidance in this process.

My struggle with writing a prose novel is training myself to write from beginning to end. I want to focus on important scenes and set-pieces, put them in a loose order, and fill in the holes. I’m learning that this isn’t an efficient way to write fiction.

There aren’t any real “rules” for free verse. But do you have any personal rules or way of doing things when you write in verse?

When I visit students as a poet-in-the-schools, we talk about form poems and free verse. Children like playing with traditional forms, but they also like the idea that, in a free verse poem, it is the individual poet who makes the rules. Free verse poems do have structure and can use rhyme (often internal). That’s up to the poet.

One of my revision techniques for poetry is to rewrite a free verse poem in a traditional form, such as a triolet. Sometimes this helps me see extraneous phrases, or opportunities for rhythm that I’d missed.

Do you have a verse style? What is it?

I’m still uncovering my style as a poet an author. One of my favorite forms is the persona poem, where a character speaks in a poetic monologue. THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is a book of persona poems.

What sort of stories do you think are best served by verse?

My favorite novels in verse are voice-driven. LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech, THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander, and THE LANGUAGE INSIDE by Holly Thompson each take us inside the experiences and emotions of the main character. The model for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is a 1915 verse novel, SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, by Edgar Lee Masters.


Where did the idea for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE come from?

When my son was in fifth grade, I was struck by all of the in-jokes, traditions, and shared interests of his class. With their teacher, Jason Schoenhut, the children built a true community. One of my favorite books about how communities function is SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, which is a series of persona poems spoken by the people who live in small town outside of Chicago. My inspiration came from the intersection of these two things.


Do you want to get your hands on a copy of Laura’s fabulous book? (It’s amazing!) She’s giving away a signed copy to a reader of this blog. Leave a comment with a haiku about writing in the comments to enter the drawing. You’ll get another chance to enter tomorrow with part 2 of the interview. Comment on both posts and double your chances!

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