And today I share Kathryn Apel's creative journey to the publication of her first verse novel, 'Bully on the Bus'.
In Kathryn's own words she shares part of the journey and highlights more links for further insights.
Shaping a Verse Novel
Free verse was not my first love in poetry. When I started writing in earnest, I was writing bush poetry, taking a tongue-in-cheek, laugh-or-you’ll-cry approach to a run of disasters that struck our family. The poems were intended to ‘express-a-stress’, while filling family and friends in on our latest hiccup. When I was encouraged to enter them in bush poetry competitions, I honed the skill of writing precise rhythm and rhyme.
It was my young son who introduced me to free verse. Whenever I sat down to scribe a poem for him, words would drip and gush onto the page, a lovely cadence … with no rhyme! He spoke beautiful bites of poetry that I adored. (I suspect it was inspired by his ‘throw the words on the page so I can get out of here!’ approach.)
I started to play with free verse poetry, trying to capture his stark style that cut to the bones of a poem. The more I played, the more engrossed I became.
And then I read my first verse novel; Sheryl Clark’s Sixth Grade Style Queen NOT! – which I loved. What really inspired me was sharing the story with a class of Year 7 students. Initially I read from the book to introduce the story. When they were engaged, I then shared portions of the text amongst class groups, and had them rehearse, to present it sequentially to the class, and thus progress our ‘whole class read’.
The class as a whole was engaged with the text – but most noticeable was a group of reluctant reader boys, who were like a dog with a bone, wanting to go further and further along and finish that story! The white space and layout of words on the page cut the clutter. They experienced success and were keen to pursue it. What a wonderful gift to give a reluctant reader!
I started to accumulate and read verse novels, (including your Ratswhiskers and Me, Lorraine) and soon knew I had to try and write my own. I’m still finalising my ‘first’ verse novel (7 years later) but meantime I had a lightbulb moment, when I realised that Bully on the Bus wasn’t the chapter book I had written, but rather, the verse novel I’d been wanting to write. (You can read more about that on Dee White’s blog) I set my first attempt aside, and started reworking Bully on the Bus.
At the time I’d been focused on writing picture books. Anyone who’s ever dabbled in picture books knows that every word is measured, and must earn its place. I often write my picture books with line-breaks and lay the words out, as I would envisage them on the page. Looking at Bully on the Bus now, I see that that this play with alignment – with whitespace and silence – has flowed over into my verse novels. As one reader commented after reading Bully on the Bus; ‘the visual layout of the words acted like illustrations for the actions and feelings’ of the book.
I have often thought that a poet is a combination of body-builder, topiary artist, and clumsy clown, and that’s especially true when writing verse novels. Every word is weighted. For each word you commit to paper, a multitude of words have been pruned out. Yet verse novels surprise and delight with their wordplay and poetic twists.
For me, the discipline of writing in rhyme, combined with picture book wordplay, were almost like my apprenticeship for writing a novel in free verse.
With Bully on the Bus launched, I’m now back to polishing my original verse novel, and I have a third on the go. I’m completely in love with the musicality and wordplay; the breathless, haiku-wonder that IS the verse novel.
Kathryn, thanks for the great article and I wish you all the very best with your first verse novel and the exciting writing of new verse novels.
PS I was able to meet Kathryn face to face on a recent trip to Queensland- very special.
Bully on the Bus, published by UQP available here.