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.