Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#24 January Secret Agent

GENRE: YA Verse Novel

Silent all these years
from the amplifier
of the stereo,
into a soundproof
(shhh shhh shhh)
There’s a thin
I wash the 14th slice
of bread
with the remaining diet coke.
My swollen stomach,
a cement mixer,
turns around and around.
I smear the cement of soda-soaked bread
over the crack,
not a sound
or a sigh
is allowed
to get in
go out.
Out of the white lines
of the basketball court
I stand,
legs crossed,
in PE shorts,
stretchy navy blue,
shaped like a lantern
for Mid-autumn.
Above the shorts
hangs a PE shirt,
yellowed around armpits,
tree rings of family:
2 years of sister 1,
1 year of sister 2.
Over the shirt
wraps a sweater,
90 degrees Fahrenheit summer,
so much to hide:
the passage
of family,
of my body,
 and of my life.
Arms crossed,
I stand
by the teacher.
By the teacher
I stare
at the players inside the court,
I, the not-chosen-one,
outside the court.
weight( crossed)
 height (crossed)
 shape (crossed)
 agility (crossed)
every part of me (crossed)
including the to-be-growing parts (crossed)
Take that sweater off.
Don’t you have a brain?
 One more cross
from the teacher.
Between the shadows
of moving players,
I slide the sweater off
in sweltering heat.
The heat
my way
to No. 48 bus,
reek of subtropical perspiration.
I can hardly breathe
in my sweater.


  1. The idea of a YA verse novel is certainly cool. I think it's Ellen Hopkins (Fallout) who had recent success with her YA novels in verse. However, I'm not 100% sure what my final take on this is. I say that mainly because I don't know what's happened in this scene that's exciting. All I can interpret is that this girl eats bread, drinks soda, has anxiety over PE class and then gets on a sweaty bus. And she hasn't hit puberty yet. This is all pretty ordinary stuff. Your hook can't be just that this is written in verse. The hook still has to be the interesting premise, interesting/unique character that will drive readers to turn the page. Maybe this is just my lack of poetry interpretation skills showing, but I didn't see anything other than your typical pre-pubescent teen in here. Your talent for verse is clear, but the mix of typical teen with jumpy poetry (this isn't rhyming, metered verse, after all) isn't quite hooking this reader. If you could use that poetic talent to sneak in a hint of something out of the ordinary (action, character trait, etc.), then this could be really cool.

  2. I agree with Cooper. Your talent is clear, but there's no sense of character or narrative in this. I couldn't imagine reading an entire novel like this.

  3. Wow! I like this a lot. I saw your character so clearly, with the sweater on, not participating in gym. I bet there is someone like that in every school. (And, at least the ones that I know would be much more excited to read a novel in verse than a regular novel.)

    My favorite part was the tree-rings of family sweat stains.

    A couple of suggestions: I would say "outside the white lines" rather than "Out of the white lines" because it wasn't clear at first.

    Also the sweater comes off but then is back on when she's going to the bus. Maybe add one line to transition from the gym to the bus scene, like: "Not for long"

    And, just so you know I'm assuming that she is pregnant with her to-be-growing parts, but I could be completely wrong.

  4. What the heck is a verse novel?

    Ah, not hooked. Sorry. But maybe I'm just not a verse-novel kind of gal.

  5. I also assumed the girl was pregnant from the narrative, which is a worthwhile subject to tackle for a YA verse novel. I thought the writing itself was fine, though I do wonder how large a market there is for this sort of thing. Since most agents don't handle poetry I'm not sure whether they'd handle verse novels either (unless they're Ellen Hopkins' agent--that's Andrea Brown Literary Agency, I think).

  6. I like this. And I usually don't like reading stuff structured like this, but your phrases and repition and style was absolutely delicious to read.

    You showed us the character is an outcast in a totally unique way.
    Yeah, I'll keep reading. More because of I love reading it and not the story, though the story will hopefully pick up later on.

  7. Coming at this from a poetry perspective, the first thing I would say is that what you've written has to stand as poetry first, and I don't think this does.

    Granted, the particular style you've chosen isn't the type of poetry I generally prefer reading (short lines, lacking in images, attention more to plot than to language), but I still feel that so much more could be happening here. For example, when describing the players inside the court, the only word to stand out is "glowing". The rest are expected and, frankly, unoriginal. You don't need them.

    I would also rethink your line breaks. Putting a word on a line by itself doesn't necessarily make it stronger. Through limiting yourself to short lines, you cut off the option available to you in terms of word emphasis both at the beginning and the end of the line.

    I suggest reading Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red. It's not a YA novel (though it certainly could be), but it masterfully mixes both the poetic and the narrative.

    I have seen a lot of verse novels released over the past few years, and I think that, as with most things YA, the genre doesn't so much matter as much as the YA label. Agent-wise, I think a verse novel is fine.

    The main problem I see here is that I don't see how what you've written as a verse novel will stand out from any other YA novel. The plot seems standard, and dressing it up as poetry isn't enough to make up for that standardness.

    I've ranted a bit, and I apologize for that. I'm mostly a poet. I do appreciate the time you've spent constructing this -- poetry of any kind is difficult -- but I think there's more work that needs to be done here.

    Thank you for sharing.

  8. Hello!

    I'm not a I'm just going to give you a reader's perspective. It sounds like, from previous comments, that this ia a love-it-or-hate-it sort of style.

    I frankly love it. Teens are busy...and they're minds are moving at one million miles per hour. I think this would grab a teen's attention without bogging them down. : )

  9. I loved the tree rings of family sweat. Great image.

    I didn't get that she was pregnant. I read it as she was overweight, or because of the bread and coke diet, anorexic.

    The thing is, I should know, not guess what it's about, especially 250 words in, especially 250 words into a poem, and I don't know. It's all conjecture on my part. I wouldn't read more.

    I can't offer any suggestions because I don't know the genre well enough.

  10. I know I've already commented, but I wanted to mention that I'm also primarily a poet and that, in contrast to another poster, I thought the writer's verse did indeed stand up well as poetry. Prose poems in particular are difficult to write and that is exactly what verse novels are. From the example you have shown, I have no reason to believe you have not done well. The style is very spare, but there is an elegance to it and there are some very nice images in the narrative. I feel it may more be a matter of taste than anything else.

  11. Well, I have no knowledge (or real interest in) poetry or novels in verse, so I can't comment on the writing. I did feel drawn in by the character's predicament - I could really sense her embarrassment. I got the impression that she was overweight, but after reading the comments, I see that maybe that's not right. I'm a little confused about the sweater. She slides it off near the end but then at the very end she says she can hardly breathe.

  12. I'm usually content to be a learning lurker but I'm popping in to offer some help with this entry because i really like where you're trying to go with it!

    I get everything you're going for but I think the main problem with this is way too many breaks. I know that with verse, breaks offer the reader that dramatic pause, however when they're over used it slows the reader's comprehension and actually distracts from the emphasis you're going for. You could still keep the effect by either starting or ending the stanza with 1 word. Such as...

    all these years leaks
    from the amplifier
    of the stereo seeps
    into a soundproof
    soul (shhhh shhh shhh)

    I would use 4 or 6 line stanzas with at least 4 words a piece.

    Plus you need to remember that breaks like these would lead to a high page count and that means more $ for the publishers to put out. Just a thought.

    Also I would use a different word for "crossed"...only because I take this to mean the teacher is giving her fail, "F" or errors in those categories but for some reason "crossed" to me doesn't evoke that clearly enough.

    And since there's some confusion with readers thinking she's pregnant maybe instead of..."to-be-growing parts" use ever-growing or ever-widening body parts.

    Plus the last 2 sentences confuse me because I thought she already took off the sweater. Did she put it back on? and maybe reword the phrasing so it would be less awkward with consistent verb tense such as...The heat propels me to bus #48 reeking of subtropical perspiration...

    Again I really like this and I feel her anguish & embarrassment and you could create a plot by alluding to what her goal lose weight? To feel better about herself?

    I think you def have a concept that many girls will be able to relate to and on a side note(good thing there's not a 250 word count for comments;p)I was a social worker for a 9th grade girl who was obese and she always used to do this.

    Sold by Patricia McCormick is an excellent YA using narrative prose.

    Hope this helped! Good Luck! :)

  13. The writing is great here, but I couldn't imagine reading a whole YA novel in verse (and I love poetry and poetry books). I don't feel a connection to the MC and I had a hard time figuring out what exactly was going on--I think reading this would take more focus and work than I'm willing to put into pleasure reading. I don't think I'd read more, but it's more the format than the writing.

  14. Like several others have mentioned, I don't really feel qualified to critique novels-in-verse, but I'll throw my thoughts out there just to give you more to chew on.

    I've read a few novels-in-verse, and the first thing I always ask myself is, "Why does this story have to be told in verse?" If there's a compelling answer to that question, then I'm all for the format. A lot of times, though, it just comes across as gimmicky, and I think a lot of teenagers see right through that. I'm not saying you don't have a compelling reason to write this story in verse, because it's hard to tell from 250 words - I'm just saying I hope there is one.

    I also assumed the MC is pregnant. That would explain why she's not participating. However, I don't think that's the only interpretation, so if you want her pregnancy (or lack thereof) to be a non-issue, you might want to make it clearer from the get-go.

    Also, someone mentioned stanzas a few comments up, and I think those would help. Your formatting might have gotten all messed up going from word processor to e-mail to blog post, in which case feel free to disregard this comment, but it's a lot easier to read novels-in-verse when lines are grouped together in a way that's meaningful and also facilitates the read.

    Good luck with this. I have a lot of respect for writers of verse novels. When there are so few words, every single one counts, so it's a million times harder than normal novel writing.

  15. Hey, Secret Agent here! Love the stomach/cement mixer image! Fresh. Don’t get the scene change, though. They’re eating…on the basketball court? Or was there a transition in there? I also was fixated on the first line, thinking “silence” would’ve been a better choice. There’s some strong imagery here, but I’m not sure whether the character is pregnant or has an eating disorder or is just ashamed of their body or what.