A Sacrificial Act
Lois Foster reflects on writing poetry for middle-grade
Writing Anomaly Island was full of sacrifices. Weaving poetry through its middle-grade roots was a precarious balancing act, no matter how naturally words flowed (or didn’t). Because writing middle-grade poetry isn’t just about poetry. It’s about rhythm, it’s about sound, it’s about shape, as well as the hundred-and-one other things a writer must balance in a story to entice children – and not just children – adults: both as gatekeepers and readers!
So, what hurdle came first in my balancing act?
Rhythm is a liberating loosen-the-leash, there-are-no-rules sort of thing sometimes. It can flow so freely, you wonder how you had trouble putting pen to paper in the first place. It’s a writer’s ecstasy.
But rhythm isn’t enough. For your story to sing, you must add other things to texturize it: world details, backstory, what Mrs Peanuts ate for breakfast that morning to make her breath smell disgusting, and where the penguins’ pen is situated in relation to the lions’ headquarters (readers must know why the penguins escape and the lions don’t). Sometimes, adding these bits disrupts the bounding lilt which secured your words tight. You must decide what to keep and what not.
Sacrificing rhythm was one of the most difficult things for me while writing Anomaly Island. It seemed absolutely everything had an effect on its fluency. I often found rhythm changed depending on the pace I had in my head. It also changed if I removed one line, or one word, or five words, or a paragraph; God forbid if I tweaked anything towards the end of a chapter, which coincidentally is where most of my protagonist, Fin’s, ‘poetic reflection’ happens, and where the dust of rhythm liked to settle. Sometimes, I sacrificed rhythm for plot, grammar, or scene-setting. Other times, it won and syllables conquered: I lost imagery I wish I hadn’t given up, actions that texturized characters, and whole chunks of dialogue. I did (and still do) writerly things I’ve been taught not to, because rhythm told me.
But rhythm isn’t perfect.
We know because we hear it all the time. We’ve got a voice in our heads: a character, a narrator, ourselves, babbling thought-streams on tap. It’s in conversations with friends. It’s in films and songs. It’s in the way we’ve communicated since we began. Not only do we talk with pitch and texture, but with pauses and breaths and capitals and full stops. These things are synonymous with story. Some words come in threes, and others in fours. Some want to be said quick! and others s – l – o – w. Our rhythms change constantly.
As I prioritised rhythm again and again, I had questions. Why are syllables sometimes favoured over the words themselves? Does rhythm entice us more than a pretty word, a flourished sentence, or a line that conjures pictures of mountains and deserts and skies? What about a sentence drenched in sadness? I wish I knew the answers, but I don’t. Of course, sometimes you find words possessing all of these qualities, but we must make compromises. Not all writers will make the same decisions because we’re different. Perhaps each writer’s priority-list order is different too.
Which leads me to the next discipline in my balancing act.
The Sound of Words
Writing lyrically, I agonised over not just the rhythm of words, but how they sounded, which meant balancing noise with function. I filled sections with assonance, sibilance, loose rhyme – all the things that sound good – only to delete them because, aside from pleasing the ear, they did nothing else. Perfect rhyme sounded especially strange in places: it’s not how Fin speaks.
Sacrificing words’ function in favour of their sound is a decision I made often, though sound has a function itself. I softened and slowed words to fit rhythm instead of writing the quicker, more active forms that had often been encouraged (eg ‘sitting’ versus ‘sits’). On the flip-side, I squished shorter, more active words within snaps of a beat when I knew it might be ‘more correct’ to use the present participle, even when it changed the meaning of a sentence: for example, ‘sitting’ implies someone has been doing so before we reach them, but ‘sits’ is an immediate action. The meaning changes with four letters and one syllable, and in poetry, can mean the difference between what you write in the sentence before, and after.
In The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr discusses an experiment that tested how human brains remodel story worlds. Glasses tracked participants’ eye movements, which found their eyes corresponded with sentences they read. Storr says, “When they heard stories in which lots of events happened above the line of the horizon, their eyes kept making micro-movements upwards… When they heard ‘downward’ stories, that’s where their eyes went too.” He also references another study, which found that describing three specific details of an object makes scenes more vivid, one example being “an orange striped pencil” (2019, pp 27, 29).
But how – in poetry, when pages often need to be sparse and time-kept, yet filled to spilling with imagery – is this gate to sensory immersion guarded?
And how – when you know ‘he looks at’ versus ‘he looks up at’ – do you decide to open and close this gate when you can shave hundreds and thousands of words off your total, omitting what other writers might deem as nothing more than ‘fillers’? (This is an estimate based on counting words in my manuscript and my own experience of editing.)
For me, it boiled down to balance: whether these cinematic gatekeepers did enough for imagery and rhythm and voice and sound and whether having one in the line above was better than one in the line below. Did I think something so small in one sentence would evoke an image powerful enough to hook readers, when totalled together they took up so much space?
I cut other words too, which felt ‘wrong’ – grammatically incorrect – but the sentences became smoother without: they acquired a different sound in the mind and mouth and became less ‘busy’, and, therefore – I hoped – easier for younger readers to understand, perhaps similarly to how popular songs are made simpler so people will listen.
The Order of Words
According to Professor Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive science researcher at the University of Southern California, humans remodel the world as soon as we start a sentence, so for imagery fluency, the presentation of words and the order they appear in action – or the protagonist’s sight – matters (Bergen, 2012, quoted in Storr 2019). An example of effective ordering is ‘transitive’ versus ‘ditransitive construction’: ‘Jane gave a kitten to her dad’ versus ‘Jane gave her dad a kitten’. Storr argues writers should “privilege word order that’s filmic… Picturing Jane, then the kitten then her dad mimics the real-world action that… [readers] should be modelling” (2019, p28).
I found myself constantly switching words around, deciding between which images came first, how words sounded, how rhythm felt, what packed an emotional punch, and what Fin would prioritise himself. This felt like breaking all sorts of important writerly rules, but what can I say? Poetry made me do it!
Repetition is encouraging, persuasive. It worms its way into the brain, like song. When poetry’s repetitive sibling, music, is such an integral language of young people, it seems all the more important to take influence. In Understanding the UK Children’s Book Consumer 2019, Nielsen found music to be the highest-scoring daily activity for 0–17-year-olds to participate in, at forty-two per cent. They also found “reluctant readers” to prefer activities such as YouTube and gaming, both of which rely heavily on music. (A side note: I think it’s important to remember these entertainment forms are also vessels of storytelling.)
Though I like to think my poetry is sparse, I encountered plenty of repetition! Some unintentional, some purposeful; sometimes I added it despite knowing I was meant to be omitting words. I deleted repetition I felt had power. Repetition I felt had a reason. Similarly, there were lots in my manuscript that didn’t need to be there at all. But repetition has a hook, and in some sections, that hook was sharper than others. Sometimes, I wanted it to bring a tear to the eye, or a pounding to the chest, or a shiver behind the ears, but other times repetition wasn’t there for that, but simply for poetry: for rhythm, for sound, for space, for encouraging and persuading and reeling readers in as song would. There’s a reason popular music repeats itself, and it’s so it sticks to us.
But, of course, word count prevails, and I’ve deleted lots. I have a whole page in my manuscript that repeats two words over and over, but maybe I’ll have to delete that page too, even if I’ve written it for a reason. Sometimes there’s nothing for it but…
No matter how much I didn’t want to, I sacrificed poetry itself to make Anomaly Island middle-grade friendly. Everything from writing a passage in standard prose, to changing the order of a sentence which sounded better the ‘wrong way round’, to adding descriptions where they ‘don’t fit’ because they’re needed and there’s nowhere else for them to go. It’s part of the balance, because after all, in the end, I wasn’t actually writing poetry. I was writing a middle-grade novel, and it was – and will be again – filled with sacrifices.
Bergen, B. (2012) Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. New York: Basic Books.
Storr, W. (2019) The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better. London: William Collins.