Recently I attended an Oregon SCBWI conference, and enjoyed listening to Lin Oliver, co-founder and executive director of the SCBWI—and a writer herself. She’s a funny personality with tons of good information. One of her talks was on the making of great middle grade fiction; I’ll touch on some highlights here. The book cover shown here is Lin Oliver's middle grade novel, WHO SHRUNK DANIEL FUNK, first in the series about a boy who gets shrunk to the size of his fourth toe.
Some of these concepts apply to writing novels in general, not just middle grade.
1. The journey. Middle grade often involves leaving home, setting out into the world, having experiences, and then going back home wiser and experienced. (In contrast to YA where the character often does NOT return home, and the goal is independence or separation.)
2. Middle grade, for kids ages 8-12, is the MOST SOUGHT AFTER books. It’s the “bread and butter” of publishing. I didn’t know that, with the focus on YA in recent years.
3. Your “canon.” Make a list of books you like and study it to find out WHY these are your faves. What themes are repeated? Do certain subjects crop up repeatedly? Are they linked by humor, adventure, quirky characters? This will teach you about your OWN voice—because it’s reflected in what you love to read.
4. Common MG themes: adventure, a secret that must be kept, interacting with friends, making sacrifices, rising to a challenge, exploring one’s bravery.
5. Act 1 is the beginning third of a novel. The character’s flaws and vulnerabilities are exposed. Get those characters out of their comfort zone!
6. Act 2 is roughly the middle third of a novel. This involves a testing, which results in failure—there’s no growth if the problems are solved too easily. Problems need to BUILD, with a period of learning before things can be solved.
7. Act 3 is the ending third of a novel. It’s the resolution of the plot as well as the character development. How is he or she different by the end of the book? There doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but a satisfying one…moving forward with hope.
8. Plot. In middle grade, the plot doesn’t have to be complex. It can be linear and simple; kids don’t necessarily care about subplots; they just want to know “what happens next.”
9. BIG excitement and adventures: Kids love to have these!
10. Humor. Kids love it, so include that if you can do it well.
11. Pacing is crucial. New things must be happening on every page—fun things, adventuresome things!
12. Climax. You need a scene that is SO dominant that everything builds toward it. Put all your emotional chips there. The hinging scene where things have to change or else can’t go on. The point of no return. This happens roughly around the end of the second act or the beginning of the third.
Do you have a dominant scene, a point-of-no-return climax, in your novel?
Did you know that middle grade is the “bread and butter” books of publishing?
Do you feel like you can do humor well? Is yours more of a middle grade or young adult or adult flavor of humor?