My young adult novel, Wolfpack, wasn’t working and I was struggling to pinpoint why. For previous projects—including my debut and a number of manuscripts destined to live out their days in my desk drawer—there had been obvious issues: a word count closer to a novella that a novel, glaring plot holes, a complete absence of an ending, or a plot so meager that it wilted under the slightest of scrutiny. For this novel though, there wasn’t anything so obviously fundamental at play. Its word count clocked in at over 70,000; it had a beginning, a clearly defined end, and even some reasonable plot development in between. Yet in reading it, I was reminded of that most awkward of critique situations—when there isn’t anything specifically bad about the writing, yet there’s also no real spark.
This felt like a particular betrayal, since at the beginning, I’d been electrified by this story. It had, in fact, been the idea that had finally pulled me out of a long slump after my option book had been politely but definitively rejected. I had launched into it with great excitement and confidence, trapping a friend on the train on the way back from a writers gathering and yammering at them about it for the entire ride home. I told them about how it was going to be about a group of ten girls living together within a cult, and how one of them was going to disappear, leaving the rest of them to try and find out what happened to her. It was going to have all the things that fascinated me about cults (group think! idealism gone wrong! the terrible pull of charisma!) and none of the ones that caused me to often shy away from reading about them (child abuse, rape). Part of the story would be told from the collective viewpoint of all of the girls, and the rest would be told from their individual perspectives—highlighting how each girl both conformed to the larger will of the group, and also had their own particular needs, agendas, and, of course, secrets. It would be a dark fairy tale about teenage girls who create their own world and rules within a place and community that is equal parts bucolic wonderland and patriarchal fortress. I was blissfully, delusionally confident that it would all but write itself.
Close to two years after that exuberant beginning, I was mystified at how my intriguing and tense story had turned so plodding and tedious. In fairness, this was February 2021, back when I was still getting all my groceries delivered and only leaving the house to walk my dog while wearing a mask and doing large social distancing loops around anyone who came anywhere near me. My agent and I had also parted ways in the fall, and I was starting to worry that the publication of my debut novel had been a lucky accident destined to never be repeated. It was entirely possible that between the isolation, fear, and creative insecurity, my ability to accurately assess the merits of my writing had been somewhat compromised. Still, I felt like both my novel and I needed to take a sharp left turn to avoid disintegrating entirely.
When I read back over my manuscript, I found I still liked the plot, so I wondered if it was perhaps the form that needed to be changed. This had, after all, been the case for me previously—I’d originally thought my debut novel, a young adult mystery, was going to be a graphic novel. That was, until I reluctantly admitted that would not be feasible either in terms of how I wanted to tell the story or in terms of my artistic facility. When I looked over what I had written for this new manuscript, the passages from the collective point of view of the girls had a certain lyrical quality, as first-person plural passages often do, and I found myself wondering if they might work well in verse. That seemed like a fairly reasonable shift that could make them even more distinctive and provide some interesting variation within the manuscript. Except then I looked at the sections from each of the girls’ individual perspectives and it seemed like they might actually also work well in verse—and I started to consider if perhaps the whole thing should perhaps be in verse.
Despite representing a huge shift for the project, the overall idea of writing it as a novel in verse was a less unusual idea than it might initially seem. While novels in verse are a fairly rare occurrence in the adult literary space, young adult novels in verse have become much more common in recent years. Indeed, some of them have achieved both critical and commercial success, such as the prize-winning best sellers The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. Yet, other than being aware that novels in verse existed, I had no real background with them. So I researched verse novels as a form, started reading a number of them, and also took a one-day class on the form. And despite there not being many parallels between the works I’d read and my own project, I became more and more confident that verse was the right approach.
I announced my plan to experiment with this change to my writing accountability group, which was meeting weekly via Zoom. To their infinite credit, they held their expressions just south of completely horrified and they managed to avoid saying anything too concerned or dismissive. I said that I’d experiment with a few chapters, and see how it went.
It went surprisingly well. I found I really enjoyed the intellectual and artistic challenge of trying to pare down the scenes to their fundamental core, making each word count in a way I never had before—paying closer and more deliberate attention to their sound as well as their visual impact on the page. Sometimes the change from prose to verse resulted in dramatic changes, with whole scenes deleted or wildly compressed. Other times, the word length did not even change radically, but the shift forced me to think differently about how to describe what had been on the page.
For example, one passage changed from:
There had been an unexpected sound. That’s what Ivy remembers when she wakes up for the second time. The first time had been hours earlier, and she’d fallen back to sleep almost as abruptly as she’d woken up. She tries to sort through her memories to find out the source of the sound, but it’s gone.
Ivy wakes with the faint echo
of an unexpected sound
still ringing in her head
one that caused her to briefly surface,
She tries to coax it back,
but it has vanished—shy.
While some scenes felt like they could be transformed into verse fairly organically, I struggled with dialogue. I studied other novels in verse to see how they avoided a conversation being either overly clipped or verbose, and also how they visually marked the back and forth between characters. The approach that felt most successful to me involved each of two characters being assigned an alignment to a different side of the page, so I used that technique. When more than two people were talking, I decided to default to keeping to one side of the page but to be very careful to note which character was speaking.
Over the course of several months, I went through the manuscript and changed it all from prose into verse. In the process, I slashed the word count by roughly two-thirds. After cleaning it up, I sent it out to several willing but slightly nervous beta readers, who admitted that novels in verse were not an area of strength for them. Their trepidation rubbed off on me, and as I waited for them to respond, I could not help but start wondering if the change had been a terrible idea rather than a courageous one. When they responded, it was with a palpable sense of relief—they liked it, it made sense, the verse approach worked. My confidence in the project flooded back.
My resolve was tested again though when I began querying for an agent. When deciding on which agents to contact, I realized that while YA novels in verse are not that uncommon, they are still a less typical form that many agents have no experience with or interest in. That meant my logical pool of agents was notably smaller than it had been for previous prose projects, and as the initial rejections began to come in, I became concerned that it might not be long until I would run out of agents that I wanted to query. Fortunately, an agent who I’d long been interested in working with requested the full manuscript, and then not long after offered me representation.
For a while, I wanted to believe that shifting into verse would be the magical solution for all of my half-baked projects. “Do you want to be a novel in verse?” I whispered to them hopefully. “Will that magically conceal all your bizarre leaps in logic? Make your wooden dialogue sing?” I briefly tried it with one or two of them, trying to reshape my polished paragraphs into verse. It went poorly. It turned out that verse simply happened to be an unexpected yet somehow natural fit for this story—one about a tight-knit group of girls, living by rules and loyalties both imposed and constructed. The lesson I’d needed to learn was not that verse was a manuscript panacea, but that sometimes it’s important to invest time in experimenting with a new approach for a story, no matter how far along the manuscript might already be and no matter how many of my lovingly crafted words I might have to sacrifice along the way.
By Amelia Brunskill
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Published June 23, 2023
Amelia Brunskill is a writer and a librarian. Her first novel, The Window, was a young adult mystery that was nominated for the Chicago Review of Books Award for fiction, and her second novel, Wolfpack, is a young adult mystery written in verse. Her short fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Arts & Letters, and Luna Station Quarterly, and has been awarded an Illinois Arts Council Agency Literary Award. She was born under sunny Australian skies, but now lives in Illinois.