Writing a Novel in Verse

Listen to these lines from the first page of Caminar, Skila Brown’s debut novel in verse:

Our village sat in the folded-between,
in that spot where you pinch something sacred,

to keep it still.

Our mountain stood guard at our backs.
We slept at night in its bed.

This book mesmerized me. Its lyrical beauty quickly transported me to the jungles of Guatemala with its owls and soccer-playing children and military men looking for older brothers, old enough for signing papers, and one day…

Soldiers Set Up Camp
That year before the rains began, they came
in jeeps, with tents for sleep,
set up camp outside our village.

I couldn’t put it down. I loved Carlos, the young protagonist of this story, and I just had to get inside Skila Brown’s head to hear about her process in writing a novel in verse. I wanted to glean tips for tackling this art form.

A.B. Westrick: Skila, thank you so much for doing this blog interview. Carlos’s story captivated me from page one, and stayed with me long after I finished reading. I find the idea of writing a novel in verse to be daunting. Can you tell me which of the poems you wrote first? What part of Carlos’s story became your starting point, and how did the story evolve during the course of writing?

Skila Brown: Anne, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! The first poem that came to me was “Guerilla Rain.” The poems that ended up following that one in the book came next. Often I would write 3-5 poems in a spurt, and on the next day, I’d write verses that would appear in an entirely different section of the book. Writing out of order is fun and frustrating—in equal parts. But Carlos’s story, for me, started with the arrival of the guerillas. I knew this was about a boy whose village got targeted simply because the rebels had passed through.

ABW: There’s a lot of white space in Caminar, and each poem packs a punch, encouraging readers to imagine villages and villagers, paths through jungles and cornfields, wide-eyed owls, a boy translating between Spanish and the local dialect, etc. You left a lot to the imagination of the reader (which is great). I wondered about the process of choosing what images to put into the book and what images to leave out. Would you reflect a little on that, and especially on what you left out and why?

SB: There were many images I wrote about and later removed from the story, because I just felt they were too violent. For example, I had a conversation where Miguel described to Carlos a scene where a woman came to kiss the feet of her dead husband when a nearby soldier slashed a machete against her back. She lived. But the baby strapped to her back did not.

When I first started writing the story, I wasn’t sure of the age range of the reader. Once I realized that Carlos’s story was really a coming of age story, I wanted the novel to be accessible to younger readers. I felt like it was really an upper middle grade story, and I wanted to make sure that nothing in its pages would be too hard for an eleven year old to digest.

I think poetry is a great tool for talking about hard topics exactly because it leaves the reader some space to interpret as s/he will. We can linger over a poem and insert our own images into the white space that surrounds it, calling upon the emotional experience we have to connect us to the story. Or we can read it quickly, get the facts of what happened, and move on. And that, I think, opens up the story to a broader audience.

ABW: Tell me about your revision process. How many times did you write these poems?

SB: This varied from poem to poem. My process for this book (and the novel in verse that I just finished) was to write a draft of a poem in a notebook by hand. Usually I’d concentrate on content only in that draft, although sometimes the poem would come to me as a poem—maybe a particular sound element I wanted to play with or the form I wanted it to have on the page. Days later, or whenever I felt like it, I’d give it another read and see what I thought. Sometimes I wasn’t ready to act on it, but other times I’d read it a few times and begin to see where the poem was, rewriting it into another draft. Sometimes that only took one step. Other times I’d play with a poem 3 or 4 or 5 more times before I’d settle on something that felt concrete. When I got to that point, I’d type it into the computer.

I kept doing that until I had about 60% of the poems finished and I could start to see the shape of the story. Then I printed them off and spread them out on the floor and saw what was missing, what holes I needed to fill. Once I had a complete draft, I began the story revision, but even in that stage, I was still revising and tweaking poems line by line, word by word. Some poems seemed to scream out Done at a certain point and others always felt like I could keep playing with them to make things better—or at least different. It’s hard to know when to stop!

ABW: I think the ending of Caminar is great, and I don’t want this interview to be a spoiler, but could you talk a bit about that ending? When you started writing the book, did you know that you wanted to end it that way?

SB: I knew early on that Carlos was going to have a choice to make at the end of the book, and I knew what I wanted his choice to be. But I didn’t plan on the soldiers making another appearance in the book. A friend and early reader said to me, “Skila. You are protecting him. This ending needs more action. You need to bring the soldiers back.” And she was right.

ABW: I love your blog post about Carlos’s mama making tortillas, so I’m including the video you linked to. This is great!

ABW: Novels in verse are really popular right now. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for writers who want to tackle this form? How much of a background in poetry does a writer need in order to feel confident writing a novel in verse? Before you wrote Caminar would you have used the word “poet” to describe yourself?

SB: I’ve been writing poems since I was seven, but I’ve never been brave enough to call myself a poet. Even now, it makes me squirm to do so. But I think that’s part of the problem that you’re hinting at here. Most of us are a little afraid of poetry. It feels intimidating—like we need a license to do it.

My advice for anyone thinking about writing a verse novel is to go read a giant stack of them. Then jump in and give it a try. I don’t think verse is the best tool for telling every story. But for some stories, it can be a powerful narration.

ABW: I love the cover design! I know that authors often don’t get much say in their books’ covers, and I was wondering how that process went for you. Did Candlewick offer you a choice of cover designs (and if yes, what sorts of design(s) did you turn down in favor of this one)?

SB: No one loves this cover more than I do. I honestly want to blow this up to giant-size and hang it over my mantel. It’s truly stunning and like nothing I had envisioned for the cover. Matt Roeser is the creative genius at Candlewick who gets credit for that. Early on I saw two possible covers—this one and a completely different one that used a photograph of a mountain. Honestly the second one was just as I had pictured it in my mind and there were things I liked about both covers when I was asked to weigh in.

Everyone at Candlewick wants to involve authors as much as possible on every part of the process. (It’s such a great house!) I offered up my thoughts about each, but said I had complete faith in whichever they chose, because they are the experts on that and not me. Initially I think they went with the other cover. And I tried to forget about those beautiful greens and leaves. But a month later they were back to the current cover. (I was secretly very, very pleased.)

ABW: Thank you so much for taking time to reflect on your process in writing Caminar.

SB: I love thinking about my writing process, so this chat was loads of fun!

For more information about Skila Brown, and to read an Educator’s Guide to Caminar, check out her website.

Exquisitely crafted poems are the basis of an unusually fine verse novel…”
–Horn Book, starred review

“…a much-needed addition to Latin American-themed middle grade fiction.”
–School Library Journal, starred review

Skila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana. Caminar is her first novel.

2 thoughts on “Writing a Novel in Verse”

  1. It’s a fast read, Pen. And it’s also one for reading out loud. One for slowing down and savoring. Your son might like it,too. You can read CAMINAR on many different levels.

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