Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Making of Great Books

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?


  1. My process is very boring. I simply follow my character...eliminating those drab scenes that don't add to the story. Simple. Huh?

  2. I had no idea the MG books are the most sought after.

  3. I think more elementary and middle school kids buy MG books and read that those in high school. Those who are smart and motivated in high school sadly have little time to read, my daughter included. I think YA is driven more by adults reading these books.

  4. I had no idea that MG is the "bread and butter" of publishing. That's good news. (I write MG). Like you, with all the emphasis on YA in recent years, I thought that was the most read genre. But what Natalie says makes sense. High school keeps kids pretty busy.

  5. I'm more aware of my canon these days. I read all types of books, but I realize that books with gritty subject matters attract me the most. I have a plot chart--which I found on a blog--that I adapted into Excel that looks very much like what's pointed out here in the acts. Thank you for sharing this list.

  6. I think MG is the stage at which readers become readers, and thus the most important part.

  7. #3 is great advice! It's interesting to truly search why other stories work for us personally. It's like free lessons by other writers in conjunction with some personal self-examination. I honestly didn't realize that MG is the 'bread and butter' to publishers. Hmm... I better finish editing mine and start subbing. Gives me hope!

  8. Hi, Carol,

    Glad you enjoyed the conference! Some terrific tips here! Yes, Lin is lots of fun and very infectious. I had met her a few times at the SCBWI conference in NYC. Can't wait to attend the Summer conference in LA!

  9. I definitely don't have an MG appropriate sense of humor, which is why I don't write for that age range.

    As for the climax of my story... Yeah I generally have everything hinging on them. Book 1 in my series is more of an emotional climax of stuff that leads to Book 2. Book 2's climax basically causes the rest of the series to happen.


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