It's time once again for WRITERLY WISDOM where every Wednesday we will sneak a peek into the world of writing and publication. I first "met" Kristi Holl when I decided one day to buy her book, Writer's First Aid, and I have been a fan ever since! You can find Kristi at her website, http://www.kristiholl.com. Take it away, Kristi Holl...
Writing the Middle-Grade Novel
By Kristi Holl
Middle graders (ages 8 to 12) belong to the “Golden Age of Reading.” They devour books on a wide variety of subjects. For writers, middle-grade readers represent a large market eager for our work.
Know Your Audience
You can’t hit a bull’s-eye with your target audience until you study that audience well, so take time to know this age group before writing for them. This knowledge can come from a variety of places. When I sold my first middle-grade novel, my children were babies so I relied heavily on my own childhood memories and issues. When my children were in grades 3-6, I observed them (and their middle-grade friends) in a variety of settings. Now, with my children grown and married, I observe kids in malls, libraries and movie theaters. If I rely solely on my memory now, my heroes and heroines sound dated.
In addition to direct observation, research web sites like Girls’ Life at www.girlslife.com, where you can check out fashion and music trends for middle-grade girls. The Nickelodeon site at www.nick.com also shows current middle-grade music, games, sports and slang.
Middle-grade girls may be as much as two years ahead of the boys in physical maturity. Both boys and girls are bigger and stronger, growing rapidly at the end of this age period. They like to join clubs and are more interested in competitive sports. They may develop an interest in special collections or hobbies. They like rituals, rules, secret codes, and made-up languages. They may play musical instruments. Activities such as camping, biking, building models, skating, and playing board games are popular.
Middle-graders are beginning to realize that parents and authority figures can make mistakes; some kids will defy parents at this age. They are often “black and white” thinkers, seeing things as right or wrong, with no room for differences of opinion. Upper middle-graders prefer spending time with friends rather than parents, and they show interest in the opposite sex by teasing, joking, and showing off. They may sometimes be verbally cruel to classmates, with name-calling and nasty put-downs.
Inside a Middle-Grader
During the middle grades, friends and school become more important than home and family as kids try to figure out their place in the social structure. Parents disappear from many middle-grade novels, or (as in the Nancy Drew books) they play a minor role and are barely needed. Children of this age feel more capable and like to see self-sufficient heroes venture out and conquer new territory. While I don’t get rid of parents altogether, I have novels (e.g. No Strings Attached, Mystery by Mail) where the parents work long hours, are gone due to a divorce, or in jail, letting the kids operate independently. Upper middle-grade readers (grades 5 and 6) especially like books where the protagonists manage just as well as adults.
Readers this age daydream about their future and enjoy planning and organizing tasks and events. Middle-graders have great imaginations and creative ideas, but can have difficulty following through. They like games with more complex rules. Their language abilities have grown to the point where they appreciate jokes, riddles and tongue twisters.
Common childhood fears for this age include being late for school, finding out you’re adopted, someone in the family becoming ill or dying, the house burning down, someone close having an accident, being followed by a stranger, and being kidnapped.
The Middle-Grade Novel
What actually goes into a middle-grade novel? First of all, a riveting main character. Kids read books because they identify closely with a character that they care about and want to know better. They root for the character to succeed and overcome whatever problem you’ve created. Middle-grade protagonists are doers, not passive watchers. They don’t wait for some adult to rescue them and resolve the conflict. They get involved and have believable motives for why they take action. They care deeply for things and people, and they’re not afraid to take a risk. (That doesn’t necessarily mean jumping off a cliff or confronting a burglar. A risk might be standing up to a bully, defending an unpopular friend, or daring to trust a new step-parent.)
Middle-grade heroes and heroines are also thinkers; they have strong opinions and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. They also speak, and they sound like real kids. One of the best books on developing captivating characters is Elaine Marie Alphin’s Creating Characters Kids Will Love, published by Writer’s Digest Books.
Learning the Market
When it’s time to market your novel, first decide which type it is. Did you write a chapter book for grades 3 and 4, or a book for a reader in grades 5 or 6? A chapter book for lower middle-graders has a format that looks adult, with a longer text, often a lot of illustrations, and with medium-large print. The plots of these books are often in episodes, where each chapter can almost stand on its own. Chapter books usually have chapters of five to seven manuscript pages, and the overall manuscript may run from thirty to a hundred pages. The cast of characters is generally small and covers a short time span. There isn’t time or room for complicated plots and subplots.
Middle-grade novels for grades 5 and 6 are standard adult dimensions, although usually shorter word counts than adult titles. They may have a few pictures. The plots are more complicated and include subplots, and there are more complex themes and figurative language for these older readers. Fiction for upper middle-grade students can be school stories, mysteries, fantasy, sports, humor, and historical novels. Most chapters for this age group run ten to twelve manuscript pages, and the overall manuscript runs from about a hundred to a hundred fifty pages.
Nuts and Bolts
When you’re finished with your novel—after it’s been critiqued and revised many times—it’s time to market it. Study publishers’ catalogues; write for them, study them online, or ask to study your children’s librarian’s copies. When you have chosen the publishers you want to submit to, find the names of their editors in a market book. Many guides are available: Writer’s Market published by Writer’s Digest Books, the publications by The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org), Literary Market Place (usually available at your library’s reference desk,) or The Writer’s Handbook. Some writers prefer to study the market books first, then study the catalogues. There are also several good market guides just for juvenile writing.
Check market listings for the format in which to submit your novel. Some publishers still ask for the whole manuscript, some want three chapters and an outline, some just a query. A few will take only agented submissions now. Be careful to submit exactly what they ask for, and include an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope). If you want to send multiple submissions, and the listing says the publisher accepts them, note it in your cover letter.
Then be patient while you wait for a response. That can be hard if you don’t have another project in the works. A quote I found recently said, “The real secret of patience is to find something to do in the meantime.” What you, the writer, need to do in the meantime is to focus on your next middle-grade idea—and keep writing.
Kristi Holl is an award-winning author of 42 books for children, two nonfiction books for writers (Writer's First Aid and More Writer's First Aid), and over 150 stories and articles for children and adults, as well as conference speaker and web editor. Her stories and articles have appeared in Jack and Jill, Child Life, Hi-Call, Your Life & Health, Touch, The Writer, Children's Writer, and the SCBWI Bulletin, among others. She also wrote a mystery column and self-coaching column for the magazine Once Upon a Time.
Kristi Holl was born in Iowa, graduated from Marshalltown High School and has lived in Mason City, Cedar Falls, Red Oak, Knoxville, Conrad, and Story City (all in Iowa). In July 2003, she moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she and her husband live near their grandchildren.
Kristi started as an elementary teacher after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa in l974, and began writing as a hobby when staying home with her children. She has taught writing for children for the Institute of Children's Literature since l983. In l998 she created and became Web Editor for the Institute's web site at www.institutechildrenslit.com where she monitored Open Forums, wrote articles for the Writer's Support Rooms and Writing Tips, and moderated online interviews with editors and writers. In 2000 she added web editing for the Long Ridge Writers Group web site at www.longridgewritersgroup.com. She retired as web editor in 2002. From 2008 to 2012 she blogged for the Institute. She now spends the majority of her time writing books, doing manuscript critiques and speaking at writers' conferences.
Her books are on many recommended reading lists and have been nominated for numerous Children's Choice Awards. Kristi's latest publication is Finding God in Tough Times, due out in 2014 from Zonderkidz.