In the deep recesses of my closet, buried underneath a stack of old tax returns is the unpublished manuscript for my first attempt at writing a middle grade time travel adventure. Clipped to the manuscript is a letter from an agent in New York City. It has been a few years now since I read the letter but one sentence is seared into my brain for eternity: “I stopped reading at page 71”.
I remember thinking at the time: how could anyone stop reading at page 71? Especially when things really get rolling on page 72! After equal amounts of soul searching and chocolate, I came to the realization that maybe the agent was right. Maybe there wasn’t enough to hold a reader’s interest.So I made a secret vow (secret ones are the best kind – if you break them no one will ever know). My vow was to write another middle grade time travel adventure novel; one so compelling that no one would be able to put it down before the end.
Here are my four keys to writing the un-put-down-able middle grade adventure novel:
Guest column by Richard Ungar, whose latest book is TIME SNATCHERS
(March 2012, Putnam), a futuristic adventure that received a starred review
in Booklist. He also has four picture books published. Some writing awards
he has won include a 2009 Storytellers World Resource Award, a 2007
National Jewish Book Award, and a 2007 and 2004 Canadian Children’s
Book Centre Our Choice Selections. Find his author website here.
1. Hook Them In: Don’t begin your novel by telling all about the town that your protagonist lives in or how he is dressed. Sure, setting and description are both important but they can be woven into the story. Instead, start with an action scene with your main character thick in the middle. If you can come up with a killer first sentence even better but don’t dwell on it. In fact, don’t dwell on anything very long… Keep things moving!
2. Use Humor: Humor not only keeps your readers engaged but also helps relieve some of the tension after a particularly intense scene. Humor doesn’t have to be spoken. In fact, it’s mostly not. For instance, it can be situational – in Time Snatchers, the evil boss has a bodyguard who is obsessed with doing crossword puzzles. In one scene he applies a chokehold to the protagonist, Caleb, demanding that he help him come up with a ‘four letter word for a Chinese sailing vessel or food with zero nutritional value’. Caleb knows the answer (it’s ‘junk’) and really wants to help, but because he’s being choked he can’t get the word out. Okay, so maybe I’m the only one who finds that funny.
3. Keep Things Moving: the obvious way to do this is to keep your characters jumping from one exciting situation to another. But not every scene can or should be a rip-roaring action sequence. There will be quieter scenes and there’s the real challenge – i.e. how to keep your readers engaged during the quiet moments as well. That’s when I zero in on what’s going through the protagonist’s head – what is he feeling? How is he reacting to what has just happened? What is he worried about for the future?
4. Raise the Stakes: if things come too easily to your protagonist, if he doesn’t have to struggle, then a reader is less likely to care about whether he succeeds. But if your character faces and overcomes some tough challenges, then a reader is more likely to connect with him and there will also be a greater emotional payoff at the end when the protagonist ultimately succeeds. In Time Snatchers, Caleb travels back in time to steal a flag for his evil boss. He only has thirty minutes to complete the snatch. If he stays in the past much longer than that, his body functions will start to fail. On the other hand, if he comes back empty-handed, he faces punishment. To up the ante even more, just as Caleb’s allotted time begins to run out, a fellow time traveler appears and tries to steal the flag from him and soldiers race towards him with guns drawn…see what I mean?
There you have it – my four keys to writing the un-put-down-able middle grade adventure novel. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a strong plot with unexpected twists and turns, an original setting, great characters and a strong narrative voice. Oh, and don’t forget to throw in a pastrami sandwich. No middle grade adventure is complete without one!
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