Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone – And ‘On Track’ With Kathryn Apel

Kathryn ApelMy dear writing friend, Kathryn Apel’s second verse novel for children, On Track has just been released by UQP.

On Track is the story of two brothers trying to find their place in the world and within their own family.

Toby struggles at school, has a stumbly, fumbly, bumbly body and thinks that Sports Day is the worst day of the year. No matter how hard he tries, he’s not good at anything … except running away from his ‘big, better brother’.

Shaun is top of his class in every subject and he can’t wait for Sports Day so he can beat the record in discus. But when his ‘joke of a brother’ is around, nobody notices the things Shaun can do.

Kathryn says it was important for her to write this book because kids are all different. She has found from her experiences in the classroom, as a mum, and in her own life, that kids are often misunderstood, that people don’t always ‘get’ that every kid has a backstory, they are the way they are for reasons that are often beyond their control.

Why a verse novel?

Although she says that writing verse novels makes her feel vulnerable, Kathryn says that they allow her to really step into characters, step into their shoes and be them.

The journey to publication

bullycoverI started my ‘verse novel about training’ (as it was called for many years!) 6yrs ago, but it was only 140 words when I put it aside the first time… and then had my epiphany with Bully on the Bus…

In April 2010 On Track grew to 650words… so of course I got a bit intimidated and had to walk away again. By September 2011 it was 5639words. And so you get the picture. (I write slowly…)

The way I write is to mull things over and polish, polish, polish as I go.

The shape of a story in verse lends itself to this, although I know many would say that you should write… and then edit… separately. (I’m curious to try this one day – if I can put my perfectionism aside.)

The finished book is more than 17,000words – with about 5000 of those words written in three months during the editorial process, as a result of restructure, and subsequent character development.

final-on-track-cover-smallWhat was the hardest thing about writing On Track?

The whole plot structure. There were things I knew I needed to put in there, but I didn’t always know where or how best to sequence them. My editor helped with restructure and that’s when the extra 5,000 words came in. It felt like they were big shifts at the time, but they weren’t really. Though they definitely improved the story.

The hardest thing was that point when it was all in pieces – when I knew my manuscript could never go back to the way it was, but I wondered if I would ever be able to pull it all together again!

What was the most rewarding thing about your writing journey with On Track?

When my editor read the final manuscript and was sobbing at the end. Even though she had worked on the manuscript for so long and knew it so well, she was still swept along, and moved by the ending.

When you start to hear the feedback and people have ‘got’ the story and are more into it than you thought they could be, that’s pretty amazing.

Initially a picture book writer, Kathryn says that at first, writing novels was extremely daunting.

She shares her experiences and tips for getting writers out of their comfort zone.


  1. Read a lot in the genre you plan to write. I immersed myself in verse novels. I loved reading them. It was such a rich experience. Reading verse novels really made me want to try writing one.
  2. Have a go. Pick up the pen and put something on paper.
  3. Actually play with the words.  Takes some risks with words and placement. Make them say more than what the word actually represents.
  4. It’s okay to freak out. Panic and walking away is okay. You still have those words to come back to. Sometimes when you pull it out again you surprise yourself with what you have done and you know it for what it is, not what you thought it was when you panicked.
  5. Share things. I tweet a lot when I’m writing. I find it helps a lot to share my word count, and how and when I have pushed through barriers and things are finally falling into place.


Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.02.18 amToday, I’m very excited to welcome writerly friend and award winning verse novelist, Sally Murphy. I’m going to be talking about Sally’s latest wonderful book, Roses Are Blue, and Sally will share some great writing tips.


Roses Are Blue by award winning, Sally Murphy is another deeply moving verse novel about a real life family dilemma that a young child, in this case Amber Rose, must face.

Amber Rose and her family are dealing with tragedy and change. But sometimes hope blooms suddenly.

I have not got used to my new mum.

Even though I love her

(I absolutely love her),

I miss my happy,




smiling mum.

Something terrible has happened to Amber’s mum. After a serious car accident, she looks different and she can’t do many of the things she used to.

She’s still the same person inside, but will the kids at Amber’s new school understand that when they meet her at the Mother’s Day High Tea?

Amber is a beautiful, sensitive, and totally believable character learning to cope with massive changes in her life.  Her emotions of fear, embarrassment and love are so authentic.

She is vulnerable and flawed and  Sally Murphy skillfully draws the reader into Amber’s world and heart.

I love the way Amber changes and grows through the story with the truths she learns about families and friendship, and the things that are really important. She also learns a lot about herself.

Sally MurphyThe writing in this story is beautiful and tender, full of imagery and symbolism that present difficult issues in a way that young children won’t find confronting.

There are so many parallels to be drawn in this story and I love the way Amber expresses herself through her art, and it provides a strong connection to her mother, and to the past and the future.

This is a heartwarming story about compassion, understanding and trust.

I can see Roses are Blue being read by many just for its sheer beauty, but it will also be a valuable classroom book to be read and discussed.


Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.09.11 amMy love of verse novels developed when I discovered those written by Margaret Wild (Jinxed and One Night). I decided then that I wanted to write in the form one day, and that infatuation continued to grow when I discovered works by Steven Herrick, Catherine Bateson, Lorraine Marwood and more. It took a while to find the right story for a verse novel, but when a girl called Pearl started telling me her tale, I wrote my first verse novel, Pearl Verses the World. Later, I met (in my imagination) a boy named John who similarly wanted his tale told that way, in Toppling. Most recently, Amber Rose was intent on sharing her journey to coming to terms with big changes, also in verse.

I love writing in verse, but when I started writing verse novels I did it instinctively. I didn’t know how to do it, I just had a go. Having now written three, I still work largely by instinct, but when I reflect there are some things I do which work well for me, and may help you if you choose to try the form. Here, then, are my five tips for writing a verse novel:

  1. Love the form. Don’t try to write a verse novel unless you love verse novels. This may sound obvious, but lots of writers are tempted to try a new form because it features in awards list, or because another writer is doing it. Be true to yourself as a writer and write what you love. That passion shines through in your writing.
  2. Read lots of verse novels, but don’t try to copy them. I have been influenced by the work of Australian verse novelists like Steven Herrick, Lorraine Marwood and Sherryl Clark and also those from further afield including Sharon Creech. But it is important that my work has its own style, a point of difference. Reading widely assures that I see lots of different techniques and encourages me to try different things. I don’t want to write like any of those writers – though I do wish to be as good as them, one day.
  3. When you decide to write a verse novel, decide whether the story you have in mind is likely to work in this way. Most verse novels are written in first person voice (though they may have multiple voices rather than just one) and the form seems best suited to topics with a high level of emotion or conflict. If you prefer lots of description, lots of narration, or even lots of dialogue, you may find prose is a better fit.
  4. TopplingBe clear on your story arc. Yes, this is a series of poems – or perhaps one very long poem – but it is also a narrative. Is there a clear conflict and resolution? Are there twists and turns? Does the tension build? Other story elements such as character development and dialogue are also really vital.
  5. Consider whether your verse novel works as poetry. Although I write in poetry, I usually do so instinctively at the draft stage, and then during the revision process I focus more on the poetic techniques, looking for layers of meaning, considering line lengths and also reworking my use of techniques such as rhythm, repetition, onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, imagery, and rhyme.

Thanks for these great tips, Sally.

I look forward to reading more of your wonderful verse novels.


P.S. Next week we’re looking at a different form of poetry – Bush Poetry – and resident expert, Stephen Whiteside will be here to share his tips with us.


Tuesday Writing Tips – Verse Novels

My first introduction to verse novels was through the work of bestselling verse novellist Ellen Hopkins. Her novels, Burned, Impact and Crank, just to name a few, hook you right into the story from the first page.

I was lucky to first meet Ellen and hear about her books at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in 2008.

Inspired by Ellen’s work I moved on to devour the wonderful writing of Australian authors, Sherryl Clark, Lorraine Marwood, Sally Murphy, Steven Herrick, Catherine Jinks and Margaret Wild.

There’s something about the rawness of verse novels that gets right to the heart of the emotions – it draws the reader straight into the main character’s world.

Verse writers tell us so much in so few words. They take the reader on an intimate journey, make you feel that you are there by special invitation – that it’s just you and the point of view character taking this path.

Keep it simple

The power of verse is that it doesn’t have time or space for adverbs and adjectives.

The reader has to visualise using his/her own imagination. They come to understand the main character’s world through the way that the main character acts and reacts to what’s happening around them/to them. And through the way they speak…their voice.

A good verse novel is like a well decorated Christmas tree – balanced and striking with no excess baubles – beautifully simple.

A natural form

A verse novel isn’t just a novel with fewer words in an easy to read format. There has to be poetry and power in those words.

For a verse novel to work, it has to be the natural form for that piece of writing.

Breaking a piece of text up into stanzas or verses doesn’t make it a verse novel.

Sensory Detail

As Ellen Hopkins said at her 2011 SCBWI LA workshop,

” A verse novel has sensory detail…not just in a visual sense but as a way to show information about emotions.”

How long should a verse novel be?

This really varies depending on the age of the readers and the story.

YA verse novels can range from around 14,000 words (Psyche in a Dress by Francesca Lia Block ) to more than 65,000 words (Identical by Ellen Hopkins). Junior novels might be even shorter.

Like any book, a verse novel should be as long as it needs to be to tell that particular story.

Steven Herrick and Pookie Aleera

Steven Herrick is an Australian verse novellist who has been a full-time writer for twenty-five years. The Sydney Morning Herald has described him as “The king of poetry for children”.

His latest verse novel, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is a typical example of how Steven weaves reality and strong imagery into his powerful verse.

One of the appeals of his writing is that he takes everyday situations and places like swimming in the creek and turns them into something much more.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is set in a country town and brings together the lives and stories of the Kids in Class 6A.

There’s Mick, school captain and sometime trouble-maker, who wants to make the school a better place, while his younger brother Jacob just wants to fly. There’s shy and lonely Laura who hopes to finally fit in with a circle of friends, while Pete struggles to deal with his grandpa’s sudden death. Popular Selina obsesses over class comedian Cameron, while Cameron obsesses over Anzac biscuits and finding out the true identity of Pookie Aleera.

These characters and their lives are woven together in a rich tapestry that draws the reader into the story…and sparks their curiosity about who is Pookie Aleera?

According to Steven Herrick, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is the book “he’d been wanting to write for a long time.” Steven’s strong vision for this book is apparent in the telling detail, and the sensitivity and gentle humour. It’s a story about life and friendship and the differences and similarities in us and the things that make us happy and sad.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend has a large cast of characters, but strong characterisation makes each one distinctly different.We see each character’s vulnerability as they walk the line between childhood and adolescence.

Like all Steven Herrick’s works, this book is full of beautiful imagery. For example, Rachel’s response to “Night Sky” written on the board is “It’s like a blanket for the earth to sleep under.”

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is charming, funny, and evocative.

It would be a great book for classroom discussion, dealing with life issues in a gentle and non confronting way. Being so accessible in its content and form, Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend would also be a great tool for introducing  kids to verse novels.

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend is published by UQP for ages 9+

This book is a true example of how verse novels have the power to get to the heart of the emotions, and take the reader deep into the point of view character’s world.


My close writer friends and those who may have read previous posts on this blog will know the sort of dilemmas I have been going through over the last few years with my YA novel, Street Racer.

After hearing Ellen Hopkins talk at the  SCBWI NSW conference in 2008 I decided I wanted to write a verse novel. And not too many months later, Street Racer arrived in my head. I won’t go into detail but it’s about a guy who is street racing for the first time and one split second mistake changes his life forever.

It’s a fast paced story with lots of internal reflection by the main characters as they deal with the consequences of the accident.

It was one of those books that just flowed right from the start. I knew who my characters were and I knew their story.

After a number of drafts I submitted it to my publisher who decided not to publish it for a number of reasons – one being that it was a verse novel.

I love the story so much that I decided to try and rewrite it in prose. Five drafts and a number of years later and it still didn’t seem right.

When I attended the SCBWI LA conference recently I decided to attend Ellen Hopkins‘ intensive workshop on Writing Novels in Verse (which by the way was fantastic). Apart from loving her books, I was drawn to the fact that the intensive was designed to  help you decide if your novel should be written in verse, and how best to rise to that challenge.”

It seemed as if this intensive was designed just for me – and I think it was:)

I have come back from LA totally inspired. In fact every spare moment has been spent reworking my novel.

Thanks to Ellen’s encouragement and support and my own soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that I just have to follow my heart and if the character came to me telling his story in verse then I have to be guided by that.

I have to tell this story in my own way, from my heart, in verse – whether it’s a format that publishers find appealing or not.

I’d love to hear your stories about writing the story that’s true to you.

Happy writing:)


P.S. If you want to know more about Street Racer, the lovely and creative Svetlana from Moondog Design has made me an amazing book trailer featuring music by my talented friend, Michael Langley .  I’d love to know what you think so feel free to leave your comments here or on Youtube.


This month, talented author, Sally Murphy is celebrating the release of her beautiful new verse novel, Toppling. Readers who loved Pearl Verses the World won’t be able to put this one down.

To celebrate the release of Sally’s new book, I’m off to visit her today out west to talk about what I love about Children’s Poetry.

Hope you can drop into Sally’s place and say, “Hi”. She’s at http://sallymurphy.blogspot.com

See you there.