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Words of wisdom from Carolyn Meyer: everyone needs a couple of flying pigs. (Or at least small flying pig figurines.)

On to the recap of her very first appearance for her latest book in the Young Royals series, The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Carolyn treated us to a brief look at her early career as a writer for The New Yorker. The only trouble, she said, was that The New Yorker didn’t realize she was in fact writing for them: everything kept coming back and never seemed to end up in the magazine. Eventually she found her way to children’s books, and The Wild Queen is the seventh in her series on the turbulent early years of characters like Elizabeth I and Cleopatra.

A few brief questions from the audience:

Why historical fiction? Because research is easier than writing. Also because Carolyn is fascinated by the constricted lives these girls led, and how they managed to make their mark on history under trying circumstances.

Where does she do her research? Entirely on Google. (Another joke.) Okay, some Google. But also the local university and public libraries, and by traveling to the place she writes about. She didn’t travel to Britain for this book, but previous visits supplied plenty of scenery and facts.

How does she decide who to write about next? Often, one book will lead to another. Many of the figures in the Young Royals series are linked in some way: Queen Elizabeth and her sister (Bloody) Mary Tudor; Catherine de Medici and her mother-in-law Mary, Queen of Scots, who was also Elizabeth’s cousin.  But people like Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra just beg to be written about, without any connection to other books.

All this, and homemade scones from Alamosa Books.

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Carolee Dean (Take Me There; Simon Pulse 2010) and Caroline Starr Rose (May B., Schwartz & Wade, 2012) gave a talk on writing novels in verse at Alamosa Books in Albuquerque on April14. May B. is a middle-grade historical novel in verse (1); Carolee’s newest book, Forget Me Not, is a YA paranormal verse novel and  comes out in October from Simon Pulse (2).

This event was part of the monthlong celebration of National Poetry Month, and it very fittingly began with the winners of Alamosa Books’ kids’ poetry contest. I won’t reveal any kids’ names here, but two of the winning poems were read by their authors: “The Way of the World” and “Daisy in the Wind,” and if you were hoping to see a bunch of adults tear up on a Saturday afternoon, it was the place to be. Winners were awarded books and class visits from Caroline and Carolee.

Some thoughts from Caroline on why a writer might use verse to tell a story (in extreme paraphrase):

Poetry speaks to our emotions, which makes it an ideal way to tell an

"As spare as the life it reflects"

emotional story. Caroline was reading the writings of prairie women and realized that their spare, plain language was a reflection of their spare, plain lives; it was also a perfect way to tell May’s story.

Because every word comes at a high cost, it forces a writer to cut to the marrow of a story. Poetry asks a lot of the writer in terms of rhyme schemes, effective imagery, and general ruthlessness towards one’s words. It’s not for every writer, and it’s not for every story. A good writing day might produce 300 words.

Narration of a verse novel is very close, which is why it conveys emotion so well. Verse captures images well, as if the narrator were a still camera; think of prose as a video camera. A verse novel is a series of single poems that work together to form a coherent and meaningful whole.

If you want to write a verse novel, consider the following:

Can each poem stand alone? Does each poem also contribute to the story?

Think of a quilt: each square adds to the whole. As you add squares, a picture or pattern emerges.

Vary the length of lines & poems. Match your words to your scene (good advice for all kinds of writing). For example: when May is running, the lines are short and fast.

Consider the white space: form is as important in poetry as meaning.

A high school full of ghosts

Carolee talked about the history of verse stories (not as new as you’d think!) and techniques for writing in verse.

Early stories were often told in verse: think of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and the Beowulf poet. Groundbreaking verse novels in our own time include Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade trilogy and Karen Hesse’s Newbery winner, Out of the Dust.

What does a verse novelist need? Some of the same things a prose novelist needs. A good story is essential. (John Gardner would agree with that one–no hiding behind pretty words (3)).

A verse novelist might use a traditional form like terza rima but arrange the lines in such a way that the rhyme scheme isn’t obvious; this changes the way a poem appears and sounds.

Alliteration and assonace: these are some of the basic tools of verse, and prose writers can make use of them, too. Alliteration: words that start with the same letter sounds. Assonance: words with the same vowel sounds.

Thanks, Carolee and Caroline, for an informative and fun afternoon!

Other novels in verse, for research purposes and plain enjoyment:

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

Exposed by Kimberley Marcus

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials by Stephanie Hemphill

All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg

T4 by Ann Clare LeZotte

Other authors:

Ellen Hopkins

Jen Bryant

Sonya Sones

Ron Koertge

Carol Lynch Williams

1. Caroline’s web site.

2. Carolee’s web site.

3. That John Gardner quote again.

Cynthia Leitich Smith (1) visited Alamosa Books in Albuquerque in early March on her tour for Diabolical (Candlewick, 2012). Cynthia is the author of the YA Tantalize series (Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Diabolical),  the Tantalize graphic novels, and several books for younger readers. She also has a story (co-authored with Joseph Bruchac) in the recent collection Girl Meets Boy: Because There Are Two Sides to Every Story (Chronicle, 2012), edited by Kelly Milner Halls.

If you’re an aspiring children’s writer and you haven’t visited Cynthia’s website or Cynsations, the blog that one might refer to as kindness itself for writers, well, you have a lot to look forward to.

I had seen Cynthia speak before, but this event was an opportunity to be part of a conversation on books and writing with a group of writers, many of whom have been part of my NM Centennial interview series (2). Here’s some of what came out of that discussion:

Early performance is not necessarily a predictor of eventual success: Cynthia mentioned getting a lot of ribbons for participation in poetry as a child.

Playing to trends is a crapshoot: she received rejection letters for early fantasy works that said children weren’t interested in reading fantasy anymore. And they still aren’t, right? What, who’s Harry Potter?

Don’t let others define you: when Cynthia wanted to write something other than contemporary fiction with Native American characters (Cynthia is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation), she was told by an industry professional that her new fantasy writing “is not who Cynthia Leitich Smith is.” 

The Kill Draft: Cynthia has seen a lot of people cringe, gasp, and possibly burst into tears when she tells them that she throws away her first drafts and writes the entire manuscript over. No one else seems to want to do this! Cynthia says that  you can do “bigger, riskier things” if you get rid of that first draft, and you can begin again writing “in a looser way.”

We are always learning our craft: Cynthia mentioned Paula Danziger as a writer who showed improvement in every book throughout her career. Through the process of writing and learning, we can “earn courage.”

You will achieve everything you want in life if you watch Star Wars 384 times in the theatre.* Sadly, this option is not available for those of us who can’t travel backward through time.

*This may not be an exact quote. I can’t promise you everything. But this is the number of times Cynthia saw Star Wars in the theatre, and things have worked out very well for her.

Thanks to Cynthia for a thought-provoking afternoon, and to the staff at Alamosa Books for being wonderful hosts!

1. Visit Cyn’s website and blog.

2. To read the series so far, go here.