* Someone wrote a first novel that sold well and made them famous. But after that success, none of his other books did well.
* Someone wrote for 25 years, completing several manuscripts and getting better each time–but never getting an agent or a publishing deal. She turned her time to other pursuits.
* A writer started publishing in college, had several very successful books, and even wrote a couple of lower-quality novels that still sold amazingly well.
* A writer became well-known posthumously, but never realized success in life.
What does this have to do with you? Unless you are a writer with the constitution of an ancient statue, you’ve probably let your mind wallow in scenarios like these:
I read that book; can’t believe it’s selling so well.
He has all the luck!
Am I going to have to work that hard to get anywhere as a writer?
Why does it seem like my peers are starting to have success, and I’m going nowhere?
It’s okay. It’s human, especially when the journey is long.
Seldom do I blog to encourage. It seems so many others do it so well. But with two years of pandemic, and perhaps because this North Carolina winter is snowier and drearier than usual, the time feels right.
When you hit these walls of seeing the astounding success a few authors have, or see your peers from conferences or the query group start to get agents or deals, draw up your strength instead of going down dark alleys of why not me.
You have a truth within you want to express.
You have imagination and drive to work at this.
External success happens randomly, but for the most part, one thing is true: from internal success comes every good thing.
YOU DO NOT NEED TO IMPORT POWER. YOU ARE BORN WITH IT.
Do not despair when you can’t “feel” it inside. It’s there.
When you envy the outward success of others, you are building lack within. Stay away. There is nothing about you that’s small. You are trying, you are working, and sure, maybe there are pauses, but you have the same power within as the richest and most famous writers in the world.
I know it’s hard at times. I’ve been there too. Don’t give up. Remember your power within. It’s there and it will stay there. When doubt dwells, turn your mind to your truth within, and the stories you want to tell. Dwell there.
My friend called me after the writing seminar, on the verge of tears: “You won’t believe what happened at Words in the Woods!”
“What?” I gasped. I dunno–when I hear “the woods” I automatically think of I Know What You Did Last Summer or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
“She suggested I use GoFundMe to get money, and self-publish!” she cried.
That was horror enough for me. But I didn’t get it.
“Wait,” I said, “this was that agent you targeted?”
Yes. There were two agents at this particular conference that year, and she didn’t think she could get the younger one because she herself was “older” (50s) and was not an established children’s author–despite years of trying. I knew she didn’t want self-publishing, busking on GoFundMe or such. She was doing the work, writing writing writing, attending workshops and conferences, and truly had some talent.
Her story of What Happened in the Woods unraveled: they had “story tables” where one of each of the speakers headed a table filled with writers at the conference. She landed at her targeted agent’s table. She read her “first page.” It fell flat.
No surprise. Her type of writing unravels, winding itself into your heart by the end of the first chapter–but not on the first page.
I told her not to let it get to her. But it hurt me, too. She couldn’t “hear” me, despite my many iterations of her past positive comments and near-misses with agents. She was crushed anyway.
I was reminded of that event from a couple of years ago when I got an email recently from a friend. He’d written a novel set in the 70s. He had a strong social media presence, so there’s no hiding his age. “She suggested that if I want to wax nostalgic, I might consider a first-person nonfiction narrative of the 1970s, ‘your own story,’ rather than this,” he lamented. He was hurt because his previous YA manuscript, set in the hippie era of the 1960s, was soundly rejected–with remarks about “that era is overdone,” and “kids want only contemporary stories.” He couldn’t make the novel contemporary; the theme called for the motif he chose. And I thought his manuscript was excellent.
When you get remarks like that, you have gotten an agent’s attention. Most rejection letters from agents don’t make pointed comments. They are too busy. If they write details in a way that let you know it’s a personal reply, that alone should be astonishing.
But he didn’t take it that way.
“That’s it?” he said. “I have to write a contemporary novel or else, I guess,” he said.
That was sad. I’d worked with him on several revisions to really hit the voice, get pivot points in, and draw out emotion. He’d done a masterful job. It was hard for me to see all the rejections he got. I didn’t want to agree with him, that all editors had a big poster in their offices that said, “No 1960s!” or “No 1970s!”
In 2000, I worked for a literary agent. She knew I was a writer but she didn’t do kidlit. That’s why it worked. I was shocked, though, at the number of queries she received. Even the number of manuscripts she agreed to see was mountainous. As the front person, I was startled at the calls–and the desperation. One woman called me crying and screaming after her rejection, which was personal, gentle, and attempted to redirect her to a different genre. I did my best to calm her down but never knew what became of her.
The desperation eventually made me so sad, I left the job. I’ve had rejections, too, but like any position that relates to possible widespread attention, I knew that it’s a rocky road, and to learn to listen and to whom. And to bolster your spirit along the way. If you love it, you’ll stick with it. If you don’t make it, you tried like hell. But if you do give up, you cancelled yourself.
After the agent, I got a job leasing apartments in the big city, no kidding, because it was easy for me to get a real estate license (I’m a good student) and the work was so away from writing.
I’ve called my friend who went to Words in the Woods and informed her that she need not worry about that agent–that particular agent is considered a has-been in the kidlit industry and leeches on writers’ conferences to stay relevant. (I would not say this lightly unless I heard it from a good source. Hey, my blog isn’t the National Enquirer.)
Assuming you’re a person trying the right way, through writing steadily, studying, heavily reading your genre, belonging to SCBWI, doing the work: never worry about those impersonal rejection letters. If I were an agent, I would give one every time for rejections.
Hopes are so fragile–and even a few well-meaning words from a person in a position of power (even if the “power” is not really that much in New York) can be like a road paver going over a butterfly.
So don’t blame the agent. They have to take a step back and self-protect. Self-protection is not just okay–it’s necessary.
Sometimes I think the universe put me in a rural place and made a pandemic just so this could happen. Then I think how narcissistic and inherently dumb that thought truly is.
Then I think one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
Then I think there is no great loss without some small gain. Then I think: is writing 1000 pages just “a small gain”? That’s screwed up.
Now you can tell I’m confused, along with being exhausted and crabby.
In the spring I got laid off from a full-time job. Then the government gave free $1200 checks and an extra $600 a week of unemployment pay.
I thought: I’m supposed to stay home, I’m provided with enough money to live on, and I’ve always wanted a very long stretch of time to write fiction.
Two years earlier, I’d moved to rural North Carolina. We got the only wireless internet available, but it wasn’t great. Downloading a movie took hours. Streaming the greatest new shows was out of the question. And I dislike almost all of “regular” TV that is widely available on our only TV choice: overpriced satellite TV. It’s turned into talent and reality shows and the occasion tries-too-hard sitcom.
There it was, all handed to me like the perfect lyric in a song: stay home and write.
So I stayed home. I made two early trips to the grocery store, spending $750. I stayed home so much it took me three months to go through one tank of gas.
And I wrote. First I decided to revise a novel about a girl who traces her family tree and discovers unusual twists and secrets. The revision went badly, so I rewrote the entire thing from scratch. I let it rest, as I always do before sending something around to agents.
Then I started on my “prairie novel” as I call it—based on a real person, but not Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was so rough I panicked. I still had time before me. Was the writing going to go this slow? I’d never get it done.
I attended SCBWI online webinars with great teachers. I stepped back and instead of pounding the keyboard daily, I thought. A lot.
One key question I always work with is: why am I the person to write this story? It doesn’t mean you’ve had the exact experience you’re writing about. It doesn’t just mean #ownvoices. It means, as its core, what is in your heart that can become a story? Something from the deepest part of you? Something you could defend writing about even if faced with your harshest critic.
A new story, with a male protagonist, sprang forth. Usually I’m a planner. This time I was a pantser. I simply started writing, starting with an 11-year-old boy who loved to arrange the variety of smokes in the “cigarette bowl” as his parents prepared for a 1970s card party. I knew the goal, and even some of the other characters, immediately. But I knew the whole story, and felt “inside” the protagonist.
It poured out at first, then slowed, then slowed even more. I started to feel like I had some weird psychological cramp like “hesitation to complete” or “reluctance to succeed.”
I stepped back and thought. The keyboard went silent again. More details of the story came forth in my head when my fingers were quiet. But more importantly, I better learned how my characters’ actions led to events and how their emotions led to reactions. I outlined the rest, switching from pantser to planner, and wrote it to the finish line.
Then it was back to the prairie novel. In November, the election over and refreshing, and hearing of a nearly-ready vaccine, I pushed to make it a 1000-page year. It seemed that I might go back to a full-time job and not have this chance again, so I thought: if I have three reasonably good manuscripts under my belt, I have a great start.
Keep in mind, I’m not new at this. I’ve written 11 (yes, ELEVEN) middle-grade and young-adult manuscripts. One was published, though an oddball type: a short story collection. I’ve read hundreds of middle-grade books: 50-plus just in 2020.
You could say I’m either stupid for going so long without more publishing success, or intelligently determined for pushing so hard forward. But only recently did I somehow turn myself inside out and stop thinking of story structure and plot progression and character development—and all the other craft-oriented techniques—and work from an origin of something deep in my heart, core to my past, and deeply knowledgeable to me on an emotional level.
That’s harder. I daren’t even tell others how to get to that place. After all, look how long it took me!
In 2021 surely I will go out to eat a lot, see friends in states throughout the U.S., and vacation in Florida when it’s cold here, and go to in-person groups again, have large holiday gatherings, and have “regular life.”
Right now I’m crabby and exhausted. But I made my goal. This is what I must remember about 2020. I lived. And I wrote.
First, a list. After the list, why it’s included. Most important: I saved this list for you.
Yes, I realize the ones at the bottom aren’t #MG books. I just grabbed a stack. My books are everywhere, all over the house.
Kira-Kira – Cynthia Kadohata (2004)
The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane – Kate O’Shaughnessy (2020)
Holes – Louis Sachar (1998)
Hello from Renn Lake – Michelle Hurwitz (2020)
Ban this Book! – Alan Gratz (2019)
Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big Fat Quitter – Carmella Van Vleet (2015)
You Go First – Erin Entrada Kelly (2018)
Small Medium at Large – Joanne Levy (2015)
The Best at It – Maulik Pancholy (2019)
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata (2019)
Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera (2014)
The List of Things That Will Not Change – Rebecca Stead (2020)
Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim (2020)
Pie in the Sky – Remi Lai (2019)
The Honest Truth – Dan Gemeinhart (2015)
Shouting at the Rain – Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2020)
Ruby Holler – Sharon Creech (2012)
She Loves You – Ann Hood (2019)
See You in the Cosmos – Jack Cheng (2018)
Just Under the Clouds – Melissa Sarno (2019)
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl – Stacy McAnulty (2019)
Front Desk – Kelly Yang (2019)
Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World – Ashley Herring Blake (2019)
One for the Murphys – Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2013)
Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life – Shelley Tougas (2017)
A Handful of Stars – Cynthia Lord (2015)
For me, the “close down” portion of the pandemic happened Friday, March 13. I began working at home and a week later was laid off. I knew at that moment two things had to happen: (1) I had to stay home; (2) I had always wanted to write middle-grade fiction full-time and now was my chance.
I checked my list of purchased books I hadn’t read and ordered a bunch of Kindle because I was afraid to go to a bookstore. I made a detailed list, got my mask (I already had some from my work), went to the grocery store and spent $400. It took almost three months to go through a tank of gas, I stayed home so much.
Almost all my reading is middle-grade fiction. In 26 weeks I read 26 #MG books. The only reason this reading list isn’t heroic is because I live in rural mountains now and wifi is at early 2000s level. I can’t stream a thing. Ask me what I’ve watched from Netflix, HBOGo, Amazon Prime and Hulu. Nothing. Nada. That list is blank. I almost feel like I should still have the Prodigy software.
The list is here to share this important lesson: when you really read your writing genre, you rapidly advance your education. These are traditionally-published books: big houses, highly-literate agents, deep-knowledge editors. As you read, you see all the things a writer must do: sharpen a character arc; view a relationship in a fisheye lens to deepen it; condense time or stretch it further; build scenes not with what you wrote, but with what you thought.
In the end what you publish with traditional publishers is something that is you. You will sell when you’ve honed your craft, plunged your mind for every last way to portray the characters and scenes, and can honestly answer, “THIS is why I am the best person to tell THIS story.”
You’re already writing. Let the enjoyable act of reading teach you too. Look for the good books in your genre that interest you. Buy them and read them. LOTS of them.
After I read a middle-grade novel, I take time to reflect, to “read” it on a deeper level. If it’s been a particularly good book, I think about the main character’s motivations, actions and emotions throughout the book and reflect on what was captured from the writer’s own childhood.
Seldom do I really know the answer to this, of course, but I can guess. The confirmation comes back every time: those who write good middle-grade books know their own childhood. They remember what it felt like to be bullied, popular, left out, friendless, feeling stupid, resisting or clinging to parents. What it was like having younger or older siblings and relationships with them.
This kind of inside job—digging mentally into one’s own childhood—is endemic for writers of children’s lit. It’s not easy. I think back to fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grades, the terrain of my own writing.
I remember the “little” events, like Mom’s regular chili on Friday night–a tradition of delicious food and when we all gathered (us siblings are spread out in age over a 17-year span). Then I go deeper, recalling the my Friday satisfaction of another school week done, two free days ahead, the fun family conversations on Friday nights and togetherness we felt.
Sometimes I think I’ve remembered everything there is to remember.
Sometimes I look through my old photos to try to eke out new memories, things I’d forgotten all this time.
Sometimes I simply imagine within the context of memory. What this means is focusing on one particular item and trying to figure out what was going on at a level I couldn’t see at the time. I can look at a photo and think, “Yes, that girl did come to school dirty every day.” Then I picture the inside of her house, where I’d never been, and developed a scenario. Her parents didn’t value personal hygiene. They were poor. There were serious troubles at home, perhaps an alcoholic father or negligent mother.
I’ll do this with my own family’s common events. I can think, “What did my oldest brother think when Mom gave me money to buy candy and records, knowing he didn’t get that at my age?” (my dad made more money when we younger sibs grew up). Or, “When that happened, I know how I felt, but how did my little sister feel, or my older siblings? What was going through their minds?” Then I imagine the answer.
In a way you are creating another fiction, but a fitting one. You can ask your family, or even childhood friends if you think they would remember or care. The important process is to pull yourself back into time and toy with people, places, circumstances, and actions that you have not fully remembered, and might be only retrofitting the emotions of that time.
Your own past is a rich mine of knowledge when it comes to understanding that emotional terrain. It builds your children’s writing and serves you well. There might be fruits you gather but do not use. They are not wasted, though, because your mind is circling those years, sniffing out the motivations, actions and emotions that fertilize your own story.
This is not an easy process. Sometimes it’s not even cathartic. After all, you’re not trying to give yourself therapy. You’re doing research, the deep inner study that can’t be had by a class, advisor, or anyone else.
Original music of all kinds and a script for the TV show “Maude” – jeesh!
I am going to publicly embarrass myself.
I decided to be a writer in elementary school, and by the time I was in high school, I was prolific. There was no emotion or reality in my fiction, though. Being a loner, it was easy to spend lots of time writing. I created worlds far from my own. As a teenager, I wrote about teenagers. But not teenagers like me. My characters were wild, drove fast cars, drank booze, and took drugs.
Here’s what is even more embarrassing, though: as I grew older and moved from place to place, I kept a couple of boxes of my “early writings,” dragging them with me. I didn’t go back to read them. They were my origin story. I kept thinking, once I become very popular, these will be a “valuable contribution” to some university’s collection.
I should have read the pieces. They are misshapen, badly flawed, wrong lengths (a 24-page novel, a 30-page screenplay) and straight-up stupid. A character does not run wildly down the street, screaming, “Somebody shoot me up with some dope! I need my dope!” A 13-year-old in school does not shout at the teacher, “Give me some booze! I need my booze!” It was like I was writing while on an acid trip about teenagers having acid trips. It was like a new show called ABC Afterschool Special Gone Wild. Of course I was influenced by Linda Blair’s TV movies, Born Innocent and Sarah T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. I dreamed of writing such dreck! (You won’t find those titles among Golden Globe or Emmy winners.)
There is a sadness to these youthful writings. They are not all stories. Some are poems, plays, and even songs, because I could read music and composed it. I started a full orchestra arrangement of the song “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. I drew some of my characters. I drafted the layout of their houses. I drew maps of the towns where they lived. I made “newspapers” on notebook paper reporting on their happenings.
There is a solitude to these pieces, though. When I think of the accoutrement of the stories I wrote–the maps, portraits, home architectural designs–I remember living in these dream worlds where I was G-d, creating people, their actions and futures. It was so different than my own pitiful life at the time: being a misfit, being mistreated, stuck in a rural town with a lot of small minds. No wonder I wanted to escape.
Later, I actually did. And I am grateful I had the chance to “escape” to my mind during those tough years. I’m thankful I had the inventiveness to write, to live in other “worlds” of my own making for comfort.
But I no longer needed them.
It’s hard to admit I was saving these writings because I thought someday, people would want to read every word I’ve written–unpublished pieces, horrible first drafts, stupid childhood stuff. Who wants that? No one.
This week I burned all the whole pile: drug stories, half-baked tunes, never-gonna-make-it teenage screenplays, and all the other crap from those early years. I do not need those boxes and burdens. I feel lighter.
Thank you, early writing, for being my escape when I needed it.
Thank you, self, for finding your path.
And I thank myself now, for having the maturity to understand I write not only for me, but for you. That is what makes true success.
P.S. I did save my story, The Tragedy of Anthony Mastona (the tragedy was drug use, of course; he went, in a week’s time, from trying a joint at a party to daily multi-heroin doses). I still need to have something to laugh at.
To a non-writer, writing a novel seems a daunting task. Most fiction writers consider it sooner or later, even if they prefer short form.
Having written several, I now believe the best way is to THINK a novel through, then start writing. A caveat, though: sometimes a character’s voice comes so strongly you feel like starting to write. You have a general idea of the goal and motivations. The main character’s voice comes to you like dictation. In such a case, that’s the best time to start. You can pause and do the heavy thinking when you hit a snag. But only for a short while.
You will have to revise: face it and embrace it. Most people have to revise heavily. This was one of my faults early on. I fell in love with some of the lines and actions and couldn’t cut them, in a novel about two rivaling sisters. Because I wanted to publish it, and quickly.
The first years of writing all I did was think about selling. I had been told I was a good writer and thought I’d find big success young. At in high school and college, I was a far superior writer to those my age.
The problem was, they caught up.
My best work came out on the rivaling sisters manuscript when I decided to take the whole thing and actually rewrite it. I’d already made notes in the margins but I didn’t edit. I began writing it over.
It was a game-changer. New ideas and directions blossomed organically and were truer. On occasion I would see how my character did not follow through a situation in her own natural way. The process made me write in a way that the characters’ actions and motivations were much more grounded in their psychological makeup. It was fast and fluid.
I understood my main character better. The weak parts of the first write-through evaporated away as my character’s thoughts and movements were much more linear with her self.
Photo by Tim Gouw. Used with permission.
The biggest issue I used to have in writing novels is taking too long to get it done. I’ve been working full-time all my adult life, until recently. Even setting aside time to write chunks of the work, or let it simmer and go back to it, too much time dragged on. In a couple of instances I was on my third year of still working on getting the 130-page manuscript together to be good enough to send to agents.
If you totaled the time writing and editing over the three years, it would be about three months total. After three years of still trying to cobble together a unified story ready for an agent’s eye, I would get sick of it. I wanted to start a new novel instead. The time drag gave me a love/hate relationship with the characters and plot. A three-month project taking three years is painful. I wish I’d saved money, rented an isolated cabin, and written the thing in a season.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about my early success and how it waned. I sold my first piece to an anthology at age 16. I sold nonfiction pieces to magazines my senior year in college, and published features in two big-city newspapers the year after. Freelance writing supercharged my low, new-worker income. My first nonfiction book was accepted when I was 30. I read Writer’s Digest voraciously and tried all kinds of different genres, seeing what would hit. Playwriting, poetry, essays, and all other manner of writing were touched—but never really well-developed.
The selling slowed. As my public relations job paid well, brought quick success (but not for my name or writing) and other life things were more fun, the fiction writing got slower.
But the desire didn’t.
While I was getting comfortable, the hungry, sacrificing, and more honest-with-themselves writers passed me. I got so discouraged and distracted I quit writing fiction for 10 years.
When you stop thinking about selling, about writing in all kinds of formats you rarely read but think you know—you wind your way back home. And for me, that was novels. I got back into writing fiction again when I decided this was the work I loved and wanted to do. No matter what.
Think about the story you want to tell. Ask why you are an ideal person to tell this story. Set a schedule if it helps you and doesn’t stress you. Never hate your work, even when rough waters try to sink you. Work on another type of writing or artistry if you need a break.
But only for a short while.
Keep going. Be patient and learn the craft. Listen. You will get adept at sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Don’t worry about selling or publishing. The fact that you’re writing a novel is gigantic accomplishment, no matter what the outcome.
True story: over the years I’ve been at gatherings and parties and have personally met at least 50 (yes, FIFTY) people who said these exact words:
“I always wanted to write a novel.”
You passed those 50, and hundreds to thousands more, when you wrote the first sentence of your novel.
Imbue your work with love. You will love yourself more, feel calmer, write more, and write better.
Oddball entry: my reviews are on Amazon and Goodreads, but this one deserves a place in my space.
Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
I’m a bit late to the game on reading this 2014 MG novel, but with current era I have much reading time and am clearing up my “Wish List” on Amazon (many of the books I buy from indies, using Amazon for the online list!).
This story of fifth-grader Star Mackie was fresh and important, mastering a theme I follow: sibling relationships. This is an inside and outside perspective, as we learn about Star’s relationship with her older sister and with two other kids at school, brother and sister. One is Star’s friend and another’s her enemy. There is also an undertheme, as her mother’s best friend and neighbor, appearing in many scenes, show a sister-like relationship. A refreshing change from single parent or Dad-and-Mom-said stories.
The environment in this story was built carefully and is authentic, as Star lives in a trailer park. She’s teased at school (called “Star Trashy”) but doesn’t wallow in self-pity. It’s more an indictment of the other kids who don’t understand family life for lower-class Americans.
As Star navigates her new school, she strives for friends and gains a handful of oddball ones. Meanwhile, her teen sister vascillates between helpful and moody, more mysterious than ever until Star finds out the real problem. And it’s a big one.
I was especially impressed with her portrayals of three other characters: Eddie, Langston, and Denny (especially Denny). This near-even mix of boys and girls in a story, without them being a “type” (the musical one, the oddball one, the pretty one, etc.) is one of the best portrayals of a mixed-gender group I’ve seen in MG.
One more big discovery for Star near the end of the story–a real shocker–BEGS for a sequel. I don’t see one yet, though, and maybe the author did not intend it. But I’d love a sequel. I didn’t want to let these characters go.
If you’ve been studying writing awhile, you’re well-versed on how to create a character, how to structure a plot, and how to find the novel’s “voice” (by far the hardest thing). But did you know these three extras that really give your story that extra oomph? Here they are:
Use pivot points. This is a place in the plot where the action is spun 180 degrees. As a non-child-oriented example, in the movie Tommy Boy, a young-looking older woman and her 20-something son integrate into Tommy’s dad’s life. In one scene, at a carnival, the woman and her son are walking behind the tents talking about inheriting Tom Sr.’s money when they suddenly embrace and kiss–in a way no mother and son ever would. It’s then we discover that they are really husband and wife, running a scam.
Think of movies you like: almost all modern movies have these “pivot points” in the story. There aren’t too many, though: I’ve counted about five at the most in books and movies, and three is enough.
If you’re writing a mystery, every little discovery is not a pivot point. A pivot point is a complete turnabout in a different direction.
Your protagonist should be a marblecake character–not one way or one flavor. The poor little saintly girl who loves and understands everyone, without any negative behavior, won’t work. If you find a book for children from the 1950s or earlier, you might see that, but today’s audience is much different and more sophisticated.
Besides knowing the plot of what you’re writing, dig deep into yourself and ask: what is the biggest thing that happened to my main character before this story began? How did she react? Another good exercise I’ve used is to make a list of random situations that could face any child this age (a bully mistreats her enemy at school; a teacher unfairly accuses her of cheating; her mother begins heavy drinking) and write how my main character would respond to each situation. Some children are sweet and some are not; mix a bit of both for depth.
Don’t Muddle the Middle
It’s easier to write a strong beginning, and to draw up the conclusion toward the end. What’s much harder is not letting the middle sag. You don’t need to worry about this as much on your first draft. Once done, though, take a hard look at each chapter in the middle. Do the characters seem to be “going through the motions”? This is where you’ll have to strengthen your plot or do serious rewriting.
For each chapter in the middle of the book, ask yourself:
1. Does this naturally flow from what happened at the beginning?
2. Does this help or hinder what happens at the end?
3. If this chapter stood alone, what would you say is the point of it?
If your chapters as a whole are okay after that, then go through each scene in those chapters and ask the same questions. This is what professionals do before they submit to an agent. Writing for children is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not even a get-rich scheme!*
*Don‘t bring up J.K. Rowling. You are not her. She had magic on her side.
Write Well, Learn the Genre, and Learn Advanced Techniques
I can’t tell whether I’m writing a middle-grade book, a chapter book, or a YA.
Have you ever thought about this? I’ve heard it at writers conferences and critique groups for a long time. Sometimes when you’re writing you just have to pour it out and see what shape it takes. If it’s not working, it might be an older or younger children’s book.
There are some clear signposts on what makes middle-grade fiction. If you’re starting a new novel and want a middle-grade book, this is the place to start.
Fiction for the Ages
Generally, middle-grade books are for ages 8-12, though if you’ve had kids you realize that a book an 8-year-old enjoys is unlikely to be the fav of a 12-year-old. That’s why you hear of “young” middle-grade novels and “older” middle-grade novels. Plus, “middle-grade” is not the same as “middle school.” In my middle school (only two grades), all the kids were 12 and 13.
Since the middle-grade reader could be in grades 3-7, we are talking a wide range. My own material is likely to appeal to the core, kids from 9-11, grades 4-6.
Caveats for Newer Writers
Any honest writer who has had any success should level with you, if you’re new to the genre: middle-grade books are written by people who love middle-grade books. If the last book of the genre was one you read in your middle-grade years, you have a lot more reading to do. You must love and read this genre, no exceptions. There is simply too much competition to be any other way.
You have to love writing in the genre (okay, well, it’s a love-hate relationship, because the best thing about writing is having written). You must realize you will do a lot of writing before that book is published. Don’t even worry about publishing. Learn to tell a good story with heart.
That said, let’s move onto definition.
What Makes It Middle-Grade
If you have a great memory and can recall events and emotions you felt when you were that age, you are fortunate. But it’s not mandatory. I know several successful people who like me have large slots of blank time from those years and only remember the quirky things like when Mom allowed you to take Pop-Tarts in your sack lunch.
Like any good story, a middle-grade novel must have a strong central character who has a goal to achieve. There is nothing that works outside of that, unless you’ve already published and had some success. Two equal main characters or a slice-of-life novel with no goal won’t work.
Generally, your character wants something desperately, or must avoid something in a major way. This is not the time for lukewarm intentions. The desire can be tangible, such as getting on Jeopardy: Kids Edition, or can be nonmaterial, such as wanting a best friend.
Whether you plot or not is up to you. After years of doing this, I tend to simply start writing when a character has developed him- or herself fully in my mind. There is no plot but a general idea of the endgame. Then at a certain point–which I can only say is the “it’s worth pursuing” turning point–I make a general plot and begin fitting the writing into that.
Just remember these key actions, and you’re on the right track:
Everything revolves around the main character’s motivation and goal. The other characters must help or hinder that drive. In the end, the protagonist must solve the problem, not others.
The story cannot be bigger than the child’s immediate world. In other words, a theme about the world at large will not work on an MG book unless you microscope it down to the child’s immediate world. Say that you want your main character to turn from selfish to sharing during the course of the story, but you want to put forth the message of “socialism is good.”
The wrong approach: the class studies socialism and your protagonist decides it’s right for her after the class activities and her paying attention to world events on the news. Better approach: a kid from a poorer neighborhood is bussed into your protagonist’s school, and your main character gets first-hand experience of both the warmth of sharing, but also the shame of patronization. You can’t push the “big” concept as it exists in your adult mind; it has to occur organically from the microcosm of the protagonist’s day-to-day experience.
Remember that the MG person lives in a much smaller world than a protagonist in a YA or grown-up novel. Explore how a common theme would be reflected in three types of novel:
Novel for adults, female protagonist: Will I meet someone to love again? Will I have enough money, even with child support? What other life choices am I wrong about?
YA novel: Did Mom and Dad ever love each other? What about my boyfriend: could I be fooled that we’re in love? Will it fade the same way?
MG novel: Will I have to go to a different school? Will I have my own bedroom at Dad’s apartment? Will Mom be too sad to take me to dance lessons?
In the middle-grade story, there is actually a very selfish streak in how a larger event is portrayed. This is not because middle-grade kids are all selfish; it’s because they are in the process of defining how they fit into the world at large. Construction of self-identity is happening at a rapid pace in those years.
For middle readers…and adults who never grew up: The Owl Motel
Climbing the Crazy Family Tree, work-in-progress
Lena: Wild Girl on the Prairie, the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's cousin, work-in-progress
Author of middle-grade fiction. Former writer for men's fitness magazines. Author of Middle-Grade short story collection, The Owl Motel: And Other Places Where You Are Not Welcome. Avid cook and gardener who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Amazon author page: Chuck Mall on Amazon
1970s and earlier: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White The Son of Someone Famous by M.E. Kerr The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder Then Again, Maybe I Won’t by Judy Blume Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
1980s: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Me Me Me Me Me by M.E. Kerr Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
1990s: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant Journey by Patricia MacLachlan Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
2000+: Runt by Marion Dane Bauer A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng Wonder by R. J. Palachio
The Queen (2006)
The King’s Speech (2010)
Big Eyes (2014)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Green Book (2018)
You will notice I have a fondness for biopics, especially on entertainment figures from the 1950s and 1960s.