Wednesday, September 5, 2018

3 Using Free Verse to Deliver Passion by Linda Vigen Phillips

Today's post is by multi-award-winning author Linda Vigen Phillips, who writes in beautiful, sensitive verse about the harrowing and often ugly results of mental illness. She's here to explain that although verse can be a tough-sell format, both to readers and to literary agents, there are benefits both to reading and writing in verse. And there can be fantastic pay-offs. Linda's brilliant, so she can say it better herself than any introduction can! Enjoy!

Using Free Verse to Deliver Passion

by Linda Vigen Phillips

Verse novels. From librarians, to agents, to students, to polite friends— these two words invariably evoke crinkled noses, shrugged shoulders, sheepish looks, or definite opinions. And more often than not, the responses are tentative or less than positive.

The most frequent question I get asked is “Why verse?” and the best answer I can give is “That’s the way I think.” But with the birth of my second YA verse novel, Behind These Hands, I have gained new insight into my own application of this format as well as a clearer picture of the pros and cons.

The Subject Matter Matters

I am passionate about advocating for better mental health due to family issues growing up; hence my first book, Crazy, was about a teen girl dealing with her mother’s bipolar disorder. In my own life, poetry was the mechanism that helped me process the craziness around me enough to stay afloat.

I stopped by the canal,
swarming with hungry pelicans
and screeching gulls,
and I wondered
what it would feel like
not to sit and dangle my feet through the slats
but instead to climb up on the railing
and let myself just slip off and down
and down
and down.

I decided against it because,
of course,
I’m not the crazy one
in our family.

During my teaching career, I knew three students who were diagnosed with Batten disease, a rare, incurable neurodegenerative disorder that is usually fatal by the late teens. Witnessing the effects of this horrible disease fueled the fire that drove me to write my second book, Behind These Hands. Once again, verse form opened a door that enabled me to explore a deeply devastating story with stark realism and quiet aplomb.

Mom lets some papers she’s holding
slide to the floor
as she stands
and moves to embrace me.
Dad joins the hug
and then the tears
and no one needs to say a word

            because the beast,
            the monster,
is loose in the room,
in our family
not once,

            but twice
                        and a half.

Of course, all writers are motivated by varying degrees of passion for their subject matter. My theory is that verse format has a way of enhancing this passion much like the secret ingredient that turns a recipe from good to gourmet. Subjects that evoke deep emotion lend themselves best to verse format. For me, (and I recognize this is personal choice) writing about such delicate and deep subjects as mental illness and an incurable, rare, childhood disease seemed most easily addressed in verse. I have often asked myself “why is this so?

Economy of Words

Writing in verse can feel like standing in the town square naked. You are totally exposed without the protection of fluffy verbiage. One word can stand out like a flashing neon light, and if it’s not the best word, you are left standing, well—naked. But if you are right on, the meaning will leap off the page, unfettered by the clutter of unnecessary verbal baggage.


and all I know is
you don’t have to live to be one hundred

to have them.

In verse novels, metaphors and similes particularly enjoy the benefits of breathing room in extra white space, and if done well, can give the readers pause to reflect a bit more than they might in regular prose. Visual imagery can dance off the page, or allow the reader to relate or ruminate.

Batten has rearranged our family
like pieces of familiar furniture
placed awkwardly in a new setting.


The sky is the limit when it comes to both conventional punctuation and layout in verse novels. If you can get a foot in the door with young writers and readers, this is the part that can turn the tide in favor of verse writing. It doesn’t mean everyone should become another e.e. cummings, but there is wiggle room, i.e., you can take poetic license in the use of commas, periods, dashes, semi-colons, etc.

From quatrains (usually unrhymed) to shape poems and everything in between—it is the author’s prerogative to lay the words out in the most conducive format. That may be uniform throughout, or it may vary from poem to poem in both size and shape. Format is the frosting on the cake, the part that frames the words with unique visual appeal while allowing the message to pop out, much like the colors on a painting.

A room too smalltoo warm
too congested with
too many wheelchairs, strollers, walkers
holding too many young children


The Cons

Without apology, I’m biased. Verse novels have worked for me in spite of the cons, and there area few of those. I have encountered hosts of librarians, teachers, students, agents and editors who have an immediate negative knee-jerk reaction to anything in verse. The first three in this list have, on more than one occasion, warmed up to the idea once they dipped in and experienced the easy ebb and flow of the text. I often hear something like “after the first few pages it felt like any other book.”

Agents and editors, though, are in a whole different league, so read their submission requirements carefully. There will simply be fewer opportunities for verse submissions, and in my experience, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an appeal like “looking for writers of verse novels.”

We can’t all be edgy Ellen Hopkins, movin’ and groovin’ Kwame Alexander, psychologically deep Neal Shusterman, lyrical Jacqueline Woodson, straightforward Thanhha Lai, or as skilled as countless others listed here or here. But if you’re passionate about a highly emotional subject that you feel benefits from a verse format, be aggressive, relentless, and patient when taking it to market.

If you are among the averse to verse, I hope this post arouses enough curiosity to circle back for a second look.

About the Author

Linda Vigen PhillipsLinda Vigen Phillips finds passion in creating realistic fiction told in verse, to offer hope to teens and their families who face mental or physical health challenges. Her debut novel, Crazy, depicts the struggles of a teenage girl in the1960’s coming to terms with her mother’s bipolar disorder. It earned numerous accolades, including Foreword Reviews lndieFab Book of the Year Finalist, the short-list for SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, and an Honor book for the Paterson Prize for Books. Linda’s writing has been praised as “beautiful” and “emotionally impactful” (School Library Journal); her brave storylines “resonate with teens” (Booklist) and “speak to many, many readers” (San Francisco Book Review).

Linda enjoys conducting writing workshops, spending time with her grandkids, and advocating for better mental health through her involvement with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She lives in Charlotte, NC, where she and her husband love to sit on the screened porch to watch the grass grow.

About the Book

Behind These Hands
By Linda Vigen Phillips
Published by Light Messages
ISBN: 9781611532593

Fourteen-year-old Claire Fairchild has always known music would be her life. She enters a prestigious contest pitted against Juan, a close childhood friend. It doesn’t help that her thoughts about him have turned romantic. But nothing compares to the devastating news that both younger brothers have Batten disease.

While attending a conference about this rare neurodegenerative disorder, Claire receives word that she has won the contest. Her musical goals no longer seem relevant. She can’t reconcile the joy and prestige that a classical music career would bring to her life while her brothers are succumbing to an early and ugly death.

When Claire accompanies a friend on a school newspaper assignment, she meets a centenarian with a unique musical past and only one regret in life. Claire knows something in her life has to change before she, too, has regrets. With newfound courage and determination, she finds a new way to express herself musically while celebrating the lives of her dying brothers.

Get Your Copy Now

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound | Goodreads


  1. Happy to see my critique buddy featured here!

  2. What a wonderful interview. Thanks for this. Sometimes when I read a verse novel, I feel like it's just a novella with lots of white space. That is not the case with Linda's terrific books. She knows how to write powerful verse, and she is a great storyteller.

  3. I loved her first book! It's been a long time since I read Crazy but I remember the impact the free verse format had on my emotional connection to the story.


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