Ellen Hopkins at Western Washington 2009 SCBWI

The 2009 Western Washington Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference just wrapped up May 16-17 at the Marriott Hotel in Redmond, WA. In addition to dipping into the incredible wealth of programming, I had the privilege of introducing Ellen Hopkins, who offered a session to attendees entitled “Poetry: The Art of Fiction.”

Ellen is an award-winning author and poet with twenty nonfiction and fiction books for children and five young adult novels in verse. Earlier that day, Ellen had delivered a keynote speech to all conference attendees and the audience listened in rapt attention as she described her difficult personal journey to publishing her first young adult novel in verse, CRANK in 2004. The story loosely based on the events of Hopkins’ own daughter, who began to use drugs and became pregnant as a teen. An editor at a book festival read the first few pages and liked them enough to take a chance on them. CRANK rose to the top 10 lists within six weeks of publication and quickly touched lives across the country and around the world.

CRANK may have began as a personal exploration of the “why’s” behind her daughter’s decisions, and what part she might have played in them, but in the five years since, Hopkins has moved far beyond that initial impulse. She shared with us that writing the story from her daughter’s perspective, she learned an incredible amount, both about her daughter and herself. But she also learned about the nature of addiction, and the physiology of substance abuse. Her mission and voice as an author now has moved far beyond what she ever had anticipated.

In her breakout session, “Poetry: The Art of Fiction,” Ellen Hopkins began by telling us that the five worst reasons to attempt the increasingly popular form of a novel in verse. Number 1 on the list is “you think it’s easier than writing in prose.” Trust her, she said, it’s not. A verse novel is not just about breaking prose into short line. Rather, it’s about paying close attention to the beauty of the language which is “as important as the message,” and choosing your words through sound, denotation, and connotation to lend weight and heft to your stories.

To prove it, Ellen offered a primer of sorts on the conventions and techniques of writing in verse, coming full circle to demonstrate what she feels is its primary value, whether as an exercise or as a new form. Poetry, she told us, is the “heart” as well as the “art” of fiction, and every writer’s work would benefit by bringing poetic devices into their fiction. We looked at examples of various poetic devices in works by a wide range of young adult authors, including Ellen’s work as well as Emily Dickenson, Beverly McLaughlin, Sonya Somes, and Kim Addonizio among others, and had each of us work on an exercise in imagery.

To her mind, teen fiction is the perfect medium for writing in verse. Teens want to read without being self-conscious of their own feelings within the story. Verse allows just enough distance, while lending itself well to first person storytelling, and its imagery depends on appealing to the senses. She writes novels in verse, she said, because she “likes to get into her characters’ heads and take a good look around.” Poetry helps her do that.

Ellen described for us a bit of her own process. She writes “problem novels” because they’re “more interesting to write,” and starts out by developing her characters and each of their individual voices, which may each take different poetic forms within one novel. In fact, she spends so much time on character, that by the time she begins actually writing, she knows them so well they “wake her up at night to chat.” She never revises, instead preferring to write scene by scene until she feels each is perfect.

Ultimately, Ellen encouraged us all, whether we choose to write in verse or in prose, to take a long, hard look at how we match our stories to a particular form, for that’s where she feels the heart of the story will blossom.

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