Verla Kay is the award-winning author of eight historical children’s books, with three more in the works. Verla’s work is unique, as she’s pioneered a phrase called “cryptic rhyme” and set herself apart from others who write in rhyme. Verla’s also founder of a huge resource for children’s writers, called the Children’s Writing & Illustrating Message Board, which averages between 600-800,000 hits monthly. We’re thrilled she took time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about her work. Enjoy!
Interview with Verla Kay: Part 1
Q: You coined the phrase “cryptic rhyme.” What is it and how did the idea of it evolve for you?
VK: Cryptic rhyme will not be found in rhyming textbooks. You won’t find it listed in the dictionary or in poetry books. Why? Because it’s my own term for my own style of writing. I’ve never taken a poetry course or read a book on how to write poetry, so I didn’t know there was a name for the kind of writing I was doing, and when I first started writing verses like this, I didn’t have any way to describe it to people — so I coined my own term for it — cryptic rhyme.
I call it cryptic rhyme because I write short, clipped, descriptive verses that paint vivid, concise pictures using almost no full sentences. Much is left up to the imagination of the reader, who has to “fill in the gaps.” Hence the term, cryptic — verses with hidden meanings.
Here are a couple of verses written in cryptic rhyme from some of my currently published books.
From Iron Horses: Black clouds scuttle,/Billow high./Lightning crackles,/Splitting sky.
From Tattered Sails: Tainted water,/Slimy vats./Wormy biscuits,/Lice and rats.
From Rough, Tough Charley: Bandit! Hold up!/Bullets shoot!/Bad man buried,/”Saved the loot.”
I first got the idea to write like this because of a wonderful picture book I saw by Dayle Ann Dodds called, On Our Way to Market. She had one page in that book that I absolutely fell in love with. It went something like this, “Stuck duck. Bad luck. How will we get to market?” After hearing that phrase in my head for several days, I thought, “Hmmm. What if you wrote a whole story like that? In just short, clipped phrases?” And cryptic rhyme was born. At first, I thought I’d “invented” a new style of writing a book. I have since discovered that many others have also written in a style similar to mine — they just didn’t “name” their style “cryptic rhyme.”
Hopefully, this will clarify cryptic rhyme and will save someone hours of research…looking for information on cryptic rhyme in poetry books…which won’t be there.
Q: How important do you think it was to have both a unique style and label as you marketed your work?
VK: The label wasn’t at all important. The unique style was. But even my style wasn’t enough until I revised over and over again and got the words within the style to “sing” to readers. For example when I first wrote my book, Gold Fever, the beginning verse was like this:
Moving westward,/Many miners./People call them,/Forty-niners.
That was good. It just didn’t “sing” to readers. It didn’t have the flavor of the old gold rush days. It didn’t let readers experience the urgency miners felt to “get to the gold before it’s gone!” And it didn’t tell readers that people laughed at the miners for going out west to “make their fortunes.” And I wanted all of that in that first verse! It took me two years to find the right words, but once I’d found them, it read like this:
Dashing westward,/Many miners./Townsfolk snicker,/Forty-niners.
And now… it says exactly what I wanted it to say, in just seven words. So while the style you write in is important, ultimately it comes down to the story and the words used to tell the story that make all the difference.
Q: Tell us about your road to publication. What were your struggles and what helped you along?
VK: Struggles? Lots of struggles! People told me I was writing for the wrong age group. I was writing subjects that were used in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in school, and was told I was “missing a bet” by writing for younger kids because I would miss out on the school markets unless I wrote longer books. I was also told (over and over) that I should not be writing my stories in rhyme, because no one was going to be interested in those subjects in rhyme.
The first book that I sold, Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails, has been picked up by Harcourt to be put into a second grade social studies program for the next seven years. I guess all those people who told me not to do what I was doing were wrong. Moral: If you truly believe in what you are doing, even if it’s different from what you’ve seen others do, don’t give up. Writing that is different can be harder to sell (and often IS!) but it’s also the people who break out of the mold and do something different that eventually get noticed.
The two things that helped me the most were taking the Institute of Children’s Literature basic writing-for-children course (I’m an instructor for them now and teach others to learn to do what I learned from them) and I joined SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. I credit those two organizations for helping me to become what I am today.
Q: Your award-winning stories—e.g. Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails; Orphan Train; Rough, Tough Charley; Iron Horses—are steeped in historical facts. Though the words themselves are minimal, the imagery is vivid. How much research does each of your stories require, on average? What is your research process?
VK: Ah… I do a LOT of research on my stories. Whenever possible, I travel to the location of the story and visit museums, libraries, and walk around looking at the scenery. This hasn’t always been possible, and when it’s not, I do my research through books and the internet. I check everything in my stories, from the kind of dialogue of the time period of the story, to the clothing, what animals lived in the area at the time and even what flowers would be found growing wild and/or planted by the people in their yards. Most of what I learn never gets near my stories, but by having all the facts in my head about the time and place, the picture I paint with my words for readers is as accurate as I can get it.
It all takes time. A lot of time. It took me 3 years to write Iron Horses. I worked on Rough, Tough Charley for 12 years. Much of that time was spent “getting the words to sing.” I’d guess I normally spend between 6 months and a year or so doing actual research on each book. (And the research usually continues the entire time I’m writing — it’s just not as concentrated an effort as it is at the beginning.
Q: Tell us how you found your agent.
VK: Well, I certainly didn’t get my agent by looking up information on her and then submitting like normal people do. Uh, uh. I had to be different. (Of course!) It was while I was working as a desk clerk in a local motel one night that I found myself checking in a very special couple. While chatting with the people, I was trying to write down a phone number they had requested, and my fingers wouldn’t form the numbers correctly. I had to scratch them out and rewrite them on the paper. As I did, I said, “Good grief. You’d never know I’m a writer from this!”
The gentleman immediately said, “Oh, you write?”
“Yep,” I said. “I write historical picture books in a special kind of rhyme I call, ‘cryptic rhyme.'”
“Oh,” he said. “Who’s your agent?”
“I don’t have one,” I replied.
“You don’t?” he exclaimed.
Turned out he was the father-in-law of the chairman of the board of Curtis Brown literary agency in New York, and he played golf regularly with his son-in-law’s sister — who happened to be one of the best and most respected agents in New York. He asked to see some of my work, and since they were staying at the motel for a couple of nights, I brought some of my stories with me the next night. He and his wife sat in the lobby and read them (remember, I write picture books and the texts are very short.) When they got done, he said, “You need to call Ginger,” and he gave me her phone number. I did. And after taking time to consider my work, she took me on as a client.
And before we leave this subject, I have to tell you when I KNEW she was the right agent for me. It was when I called her back after receiving the agency agreement. I had a question about it and wanted an answer. She answered the phone and I said, “Hi, Ginger. I have one question about the agreement. It says here that I pay for any extra expenses. I’d like to know what those extra expenses are.”
She immediately replied, “Oh. That’s when my husband and I go to the Bahamas, you pay.” My mouth and the phone both hit the floor with loud crash! When I picked the phone back up, Ginger was laughing her head off on the other end of the line. She said, “I’m just kidding, Verla. That’s for manuscript copy costs, and if we send your book to foreign agents for the postage and things like that.”
I knew then that I had found the perfect agent for me. Anyone with a sense of humor like that is a perfect match for me.
Oh, yes, there’s one other thing, too. In the 13 years she’s been my agent, there have been a total of $6 in those “other” charges added to my account. It would have been more if I’d been writing novels, but since I write picture books that are in rhyme, making them not so desirable to foreign countries that aren’t English speaking, there have been almost no extra charges for postage or for copying the manuscripts.
Q: Some believe children’s writers don’t need an agent at all. How do you feel about this? What criterion would you use to help an author decide whether or not they need an agent?
VK: It’s not necessary to have an agent to sell a children’s book. I recommend doing what I did — sell the first book or two on your own, and then get an agent when you need one to negotiate better terms than you can get on your own.
Q: Do you think authors who embrace risk may be more successful than others? Why?
VK: Definitely. Think of all the “greats” in history. They were mostly all people who didn’t fit into the established mold. A perfect example of this is Elvis Presley who became a great due partly to his (at the time) very controversial pelvis moves. They were so radical and unconventional, they brought him to the attention of everyone. His singing is what sustained his popularity, but his pelvis was what first captured people’s attention. To be great, you have to first be noticed — you have to stand out in some way from everyone else. Then, to sustain that greatness, there has to be something substantial and very, very good about what you are doing.
Click below for part two of my interview with children’s author Verla Kay, when we’ll talk about publicity all authors can benefit from and some of the great misconceptions about writing for children.