Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Writing Middle Grade

Greetings, fellow Earthlings! I hope you are doing great with life and your writing.

My agent and I developed a better plan for my writing a few weeks ago. Instead of me writing entire novels and then having her decide some weren't marketable (due to being dystopian, not fresh enough, etc.), we decided to have me write sample chapters and run the premises by her FIRST. Seems a no-brainer, but hey. We're on track now.

This strategy also forced me to write a one-sentence pitch line before I started writing the novel—which is very focusing. I have to boil down the essence and ask the crucial question: "What's this story about?" 

My agent also suggested I try my hand at writing a Middle Grade to supplement my usual Young Adult. At first I was like… "Whaaat?" but I was definitely intrigued. She gave me a reading list of MG novels, most of them fantasy, since that's the genre I like to write. I read their first pages on Amazon; that's a great way to do quick research, by the way. I'll read further later.

1. Middle Grade is for kids who are pre-high school. The SCBWI describes MG as a whole as books for 8-12 year olds. My agent suggested I write Upper MG, targeting 7th and 8th graders.
2. MG manuscript lengths are shorter, roughly 30,000-60,000 words—in contrast to 55,000-90,000 for YA. 
3. Chapters for MG novels are also shorter. 5-8 pages vs. 8-12.
4. White space is the MG reader's friend. When some kids open a book, if they see solid blocks of paragraphs instead of friendly white space (around dialogue or shorter paragraphs), they often put the book back down. It's intimidating.
5. Chapters are more often titled in MG. But chapter titles shouldn't give too much away. Be vague but intriguing.  
6. Most MG books are written in third person, past tense. At least for fantasy, because this allows for multiple points of view to reveal everything going on in the story. I checked out 12 novels; 8 were written in third/past. The remaining 4 were first person, with 2 of those past tense and 2 present tense. The choice of which to use depends on what works for each story. I ended up settling on first person, past tense, for mine. It's the minority, but it felt "right."
7. Most MG readers don't like long-winded passages of description. Descriptions need to be spare, or trickled throughout the narrative. Upper MG is more lenient, though.
8. There are more vocabulary restraints with MG. With YA, anything goes (as long as it doesn't sound stilted or overly intellectual). I'm constantly having to weigh my words and decide if it's the right vocabulary for the MG reader as well as for my main character.
9. MG books often start right off with action. This catches a young reader's interest. The pace is also brisk throughout, to keep that interest. Adventure tales work well. 
10. The MG focus is more on friendships rather than romance. If there is romance, it's light, and at the most involve a kiss. No sex; that's a topic reserved for Young Adult.

I'm now 6 chapters (12K words) into my new MG novel. My agent approved my first chapter and pitch line, and said to keep going. I'm having fun! Isn't that what writing is all about?  

Have you ever tried your hand at writing a Middle Grade novel?
Have you read many Middle Grade books, or do your children read them?
Any additional tips or comments you'd like to share about writing MG?


  1. I was curious about listing MG as for readers IN middle school. I think SCBWI has it right: MG's for 8-to-12-year olds: Middle school is grades 7 and 8, (ages 12 and 13 year-olds, maybe 14, depending on when birthdays fall); 8-to-12 year-olds are in intermediate grades in elementary school (4th-5th-6th grades). Everything else though, fits what I've read about MG. And yes, I read a lot of MG's. It's a great body of literature, whether realistic or fantasy. I write for that age group, too.

  2. Yes, I'd always thought it was for readers 8-12; my agent said it was for readers IN middle school--she could've been talking about Upper MG (thus 7th-8th grade or 12-13 year olds). As long as it's not high school, it's MG. I've tweaked the post to reflect that more clearly.

  3. Carol, I had no idea you were switching to middle grade. As you know, I love writing for readers in this age group. The term "upper middle grade" and even "tween" was thrown around a bit at the SCBWI L.A. conference a few days ago. One agent actually said, "Middle grade is the broadest category in children's books." There were also a few quotes listed on the big screens throughout the event reminding writers that it's okay to challenge a reader with a more complex word, as long as it's the right word.

    All the best to you as you enter this new chapter of your career, Carol!

    1. No worries, I'll still be also writing YA; I'm just trying out a dual track now. :)

  4. There's a real treasure in MG books. I love them and have started reading more of them. Maybe that means I'm just a big kid at heart ;)
    Awesome to hear you're charging along with your new story.

  5. As soon as I started writing middle grade, it felt natural to write in past tense 3rd person, when my YA tends to be present tense 1st person. I love reading and writing MG. Enjoy exploring this age level.

  6. That's such an awesome strategy. I love MG books, I wrote a few in my early days and they are really fun to write! :)

  7. YAY, CAROL!!!!

    I LOVE THIS! What great suggestions! I never would have thought to read the first few pages on Amazon... I SOOOO need to do that.

    VERY happy to hear all is well with you new works. It is your year!!!!! KEEP ON GOING!

    It's so nice to seem your dream coming alive.

  8. That's so awesome that you're writing MG! I've never tried, don't read much of it, don't have much advice...or none at all. Sounds like you've got it down to me. It's great to hear about your current writing adventures!

  9. This is a good description of what a Middle Grade novel is. I haven't tried my hand at writing one, yet. Right now I'm working on chapter books - a step below the middle grade novel.

  10. When you write sample chapters for your agent, how many are you going to send? I'm thinking this might be a good idea for me, as well. I wrote an entire YA while waiting to hear back on my next MG and a chapter book we're pitching and I sent it to my agent, but just a month ago, she sent a newsletter that said that type of YA is not selling right now. Oh well!

    1. I ended up sending just one chapter, since I wasn't sure I had the voice right. Otherwise, I might've sent 2 or 3 chapters. Agents and editors both are skilled at judging a book's worth and potential by just a handful of pages! Good luck. :)


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